The party was dizzying, a whirl of satin and lace and jewels and bare, powdered shoulders. Valmont navigated it easily and calmly, weaving among the dancers with his nimble, slender feet, but Madame de Tourvel, dragged along at his side, felt as though she would trip and fall. "Let me sit down," she asked-begged.
"But I want you to come dance with me, my darling," Valmont insisted, and she never knew how to refuse him. She danced, then, though she had rarely danced even with her husband, and she let the clicking sounds of Valmont's heels against the lacquered floor guide her. The music was wild, not the courtly minuets to which she was accustomed, and quickly she grew out breath, the stays of her tightly laced corset holding her diaphragm into stillness and forcing her to breathe in gasps that made the low cut bodice of her gown (Valmont had given it to her, and she could not dare to imagine that other women had worn it before her) seem even more immodest. She pictured herself fainting onto the ground and hated the image. "You need something to drink," Valmont said upon seeing her so flushed, and he drew her blissfully away from the dance floor, where a perfectly dressed servant offered them white wine. Marianne took a glass, which glimmered in perfectly cut crystal.
She thought Valmont might sit beside her then, but he did not, for a woman with pale curls dangling over her ears and a gown of deep blue came to him to bring him back to the dance. With a whisper of apology in Marianne's ear, he was gone.
She wandered then, awkwardly, around the perimeter of the room, holding her glass of wine and wishing that the rituals of the world she was used to would help her in this frantic place to which Valmont had brought her.
Most of the inhabitants of the room were still dancing, but Marianne came upon a woman merely sitting, with an impassive, indecipherable expression upon her face. Her cream colored skirts were spread out around her like the domain of an empress. Marianne felt certain that she had met her before, but could not imagine where.
The woman looked up at her. For an instant, Marianne thought she saw a twist of recognition cross her face, but it was quickly gone, if it had ever existed, leaving the woman's face again perfectly smooth. "Madame de Tourvel?" she asked. Her voice was cultured, pleasant. "I'm not sure if we've been introduced. I'm the Marquise de Merteuil."
Marianne felt for her skirts and curtsied.
The Marquise smiled. "I am a friend of Valmont's."
Marianne straightened her back and looked into the woman's eyes half defiantly. She had heard the Marquise de Merteuil spoken of as a conscientious, honorable woman, but Marianne could not help but distrust all of Valmont's acquaintances. She believed that he had put aside the vices of his old days, yes, she trusted him in that assurance, but all those women of which he had spoken –
The Marquise stood, and Marianne saw the glimmer of diamonds, or crystal, in her elaborate wig, at her neck, woven into the bodice of her gown. Subtle, so subtle, that only the sudden movement made them visible, but their brief glitter was garish. "He has told me a great deal about you," the Marquise said quietly, her smile still so polite, so reassuring.
Marianne's palms began to itch. She wanted to find Valmont and leave that place, go home to the cool quiet of her sheets where Valmont would kiss her skin and tell her that he loved her till she had no doubts. "He's never mentioned you to me."
The Marquise took Marianne by the arm, so swiftly that Marianne could hardly see the movement. "Then we have much to talk about. Would you mind if we discussed our mutual acquaintance somewhere more private?"
Marianne imagined Valmont finishing his dance and not being able to find her, feeling furious and betrayed. She did not wish to talk to this strange, collected woman of him, and while she had disliked the noise and movement of the party, being in some silent room alone with the Marquise seemed a far less preferable possibility. But she went, because she could not refuse without making a scene of it, and that she would not do.
She did not know how the Marquise knew the building so well, but Marianne was unhesitatingly led down papered corridors to a small chamber that must have been a dressing room of some sort. There was a mirror on one wall, and a divan in one corner. Hairbrushes and face paints lay scattered upon a small table with spindly legs. The Marquise closed the door behind them.
"I wanted to warn you about the Vicomte de Valmont." The Marquise's voice was as pleasant as before. Marianne felt the sudden, uncharacteristic desire to hit the woman across her perfectly powdered face.
But she kept her voice calm. "Thank you for your kind intentions, but I believe I have heard that before," she said, moving towards the door.
The Marquise caught Marianne's wrist, and Marianne was so shocked that she didn't pull away. "You're throwing your life away, Madame de Tourvel, I do hope you realize that."
"I've never met you before, and I hardly think you're in a position to judge –"
The Marquise pulled Marianne in front of the mirror on the wall and, with her hands firm upon Marianne's shoulders, held her there. "Look at yourself."
Marianne looked, and though she knew what she would see, still she winced at the bright red of her lips, the rouge on her cheeks, the snake-green of her dress. Then, the Marquise whispered, "He's making you into a whore."
As though encouraged by that reaction, the Marquise continued speaking. "Once, you were talked of as the most chaste and virtuous wife in all of Paris. These days…have you heard the whispers? In the eyes of the world, you're simply another of the many conquests of the Vicomte de Valmont, more proof that even the best can be corrupted. I do not believe that such a reputation is what you want."
Suddenly finding the necessary strength in herself, Marianne pulled away from the Marquise's grip and looked the other woman full in the face. "You're jealous," she told the Marquise, and was surprised at how calm her own voice was, "he cared for you once, but now that he's found love with me, real love, not the bejeweled lies you fed him, he has no need for you anymore. And so you want to get me out of the way. That's what this is about, isn't it?"
For a moment, Marianne couldn't tell what the Marquise was going to do. Then she threw her head back and laughed, a bright laugh as hard as glass. "My dear," she said in a voice slow with languid amusement, "what makes you think that you have anything to offer him that I do not?"
Marianne felt a certain triumph with the confirmation of her supposition. "Obviously there's something." She was surprised at the hardness in her own voice.
"Well, there's the novelty, of course, for now," the Marquise said, taking a step towards Marianne, "men are like children – I'm sure you must have grown to realize that at some point in your life. If they don't have a new toy, they get bored."
Marianne's hands began, quite of their own accord, curling into fists. "I don't believe that."
"And he says that, once you finally and tearfully capitulated, you were unexpectedly splendid at the act of love itself, which no doubt would allow you to hold his attention longer than you might if –"
Marianne felt her breath catch in her throat. "He told you?"
The Marquise smiled. "We had a bet upon it, in fact. He wrote me an exquisite though somewhat self-aggrandizing letter at the occasion of his triumph, a letter, which, incidentally, I imagine that you might not want generally, circulated.
"I don't believe you."
"Perhaps you'll feel differently once all of society has read Valmont's account of your seduction."
She would not be afraid, not even of this woman with her hidden motives and unwarranted social standing. Marianne gathered together the tendrils of her love for Valmont, buried deep within her skin like thorns, and felt the weight of that emotion in her chest, grounding her against the Marquise's lies and threats. "What do you want?"
"You are making Valmont weak, with your oaths of fidelity and declarations of love. I want you to break things off with him, using your virtue, your love for your husband, and your fear for your reputation as pretense. I want you to show him that you are, in fact, nothing more than prudish, philanthropic wife you appear to be. Then, I shall keep what I know to myself."
As the Marquise waited for an answer, secure in her own power, Marianne found a calm in herself, deep beneath the instinctive panic which the Marquise's threats first instilled. Yes, this woman was as impassive and collected and glittering as cut crystal. But, in that strength, there was a brittleness. And, one day, someone would shatter the Marquise just as Valmont had shattered Marianne, but perhaps without the same intentions afterwards.
Marianne had no reason to fear her.
"No," she said softly, and went back to join Valmont.