"Once upon a time…" Eponine began, and then realized she did not remember what the next words were.
" Well?" whispered Azelma, when the pause had grown conspicuous.
" I don't want to tell the story any more." Eponine admitted, pulling her shawl closer around her.
" Why not?"
" I don't remember the next part."
" So make it up."
" Azelma, you've heard this story at least a hundred times—can't you tell it?"
" You've told it a hundred times—can't you r-r-r-emember it?" Azelma was stuttering again. That was a bad sign. Eponine blew a long breath of air through her lips. She was momentarily mesmerized by the way her breath turned into a cloud and went floating up to join the other clouds.
" I can't remember it because it is cold. And I am cold. And I cannot feel my legs below my knees, and I want to be anywhere but here."
" F-f-father said we have to w-w-wait here for M-mont-montparnasse." Azelma looked out of breath. Stuttering seemed difficult. Eponine was glad she had never stuttered.
" Maybe we could leave, and say Montparnasse didn't show." Eponine suggested. Azelma nodded.
" Good idea. I'm cold, too." Eponine sighed. She'd get no help from her. Azelma did what she was told. She had no loyalty to anyone, really and would simply follow anyone willing to lead her. The perfect yes-girl. Eponine had often amused herself watching Azelma trot off trying to follow Father's orders, only to change her plans when someone else gave her new instructions, no matter how contradictory. Her latest orders always seemed to push the previous ones out of her head.
So Azelma was no help at making decisions.
" If we leave," Eponine said, arguing the other side with herself, " And Montparnasse does show up, and he sees Father later, we'll be beaten something awful. Best to stay." Azelma nodded.
" You're right. Tell the story again. If you talk, you'll warm up."
" How do you know that?"
" Because if you talk, you're moving your lips, and moving makes you warm. And when you talk air comes out of your mouth, and if you hold your hands in front of your mouth, you can get the hot air on them." That was quite a long sentence without a single stutter, Eponine thought to herself. She had to reward that.
" All right. Come here, I'll wrap my shawl around our shoulders, and you wrap yours around our feet, and we'll be a little warmer."
Azelma scooted herself down the curb they were sitting on to sit almost in her older sister's lap. Eponine smiled. Azelma was like a cat.
" Once upon a time, there was a great queen who lived in a palace. She was very beautiful and very rich, and everyone loved her. Her husband was the king of France, and he was very fat and very silly, but he meant well." Eponine paused. " I think I see Montparnasse." The sisters sat in silence, but the figure Eponine thought was Montparnasse just turned out to be another bourgeois dandy. Eponine smiled reflexively, and held out her hand for a sous, but he pretended not to notice them.
" Go on." Azelma prompted.
" So, anyway." Eponine continued, the words forming into their familiar rhythm. God, how many times had she told this story? Why did Azelma like it so much? She would have to be even stupider than everyone thought she was if she did not know it by heart by now! She just must like to hear Eponine tell it. " Anyway, the queen spent all her time buying pretty dresses and jewelry, and eating pastries and sweets, and gambling. She never had to do anything she did not want to do, and no one ever told her no.
" But one day," Eponine continued, " The people of Paris got very angry at the king and queen. They marched over to the queen's palace and demanded bread. The king said ' I don't have any bread in my pockets, but you can check the pantry if you like.' The queen didn't say anything
" So the people of Paris got even angrier, and they broke through the gates, and chased the Queen through the palace—and it was a good thing they didn't catch her, or else they would have killed her." Eponine stopped.
" Then what happened?" Azelma prompted.
" You know what happened! I'm cold, Azelma!" Eponine said, losing her control.
" Tell it any way." Azelma said calmly. Eponine sighed. The kid did what she was told all the time—if it got her mind off the cold, well, the least Eponine could do was tell her favorite story.
" So the people forced the king and the queen and their two children—"
" What were the children's names?" Azelma asked. Eponine thought. She couldn't remember their names.
" Louis—" That sounded right, "And-and-Elise."
" No it wasn't! That wasn't her name at all! " Azelma exclaimed, full of indignation that the story had been told wrong. She was so childish about this story! Azelma, who was used to starving in the summer and freezing in the winter, who delivered the begging letters and scouted out plants alongside her sister, who had no reservations about spreading her legs when the occasion called for it. But tell the story wrong, and she was back in Montfermail, eight years old again. " Tell the story right, 'Ponine." Eponine sighed, and dove through her memory banks.
" Marie-Therese Charlotte." Eponine finally remembered. Azelma seemed to calm down.
" So the king and the queen and the prince and the princess all had to go to Paris. They drove through the streets, and everyone mocked them and threw things at them and called the queen terrible names."
" Like what?"
" Madame Deficit. They used to call her that. But the queen didn't really understand what was happening—she didn't know that there was a revolution going on. So she just dealt with it.
" So the king and the queen were imprisoned in the Tuileries—it wasn't very nice back then, not like now—and they were very frightened, because a man named Robspierre wanted to kill them and make France a republic. But the queen was brave. She was sure that everything would be all right.
" But then, one day, the people got sick of the king, and made him abdicate, and that was the Republic. But the people weren't happy with the king just being an ordinary person like you or me, so they put the king on trial. He spoke well, but they condemned him to death, and they executed him on the guillotine." Azelma gasped, as if she had never heard that part before. " Yes, they did. And when the queen heard, she was horribly sad, and frightened, because she was frightened for her children, and for herself, and for France. But she never showed it. She took care of her kids and tried to be brave.
" But sooner or later, they all decided that the Queen had to die too. So they put her on trial, and said more horrible things about her, and took her son and daughter away, and said that she was a traitor to France. And she spoke well, and defended herself, but they condemned her to die too." Eponine stopped.
" Well?" Azelma prompted.
"So they condemned her to death, and took her to the Concergerie, where they kept her in a filthy little cell, with rats and mice and bugs, and there wasn't any sunlight, and all she had of her pretty clothes was one black dress—and her hair had turned white." Eponine's voice was choked with emotion. Why did Azelma like this horrid story so much? It was not like a fairy tale Eponine had made up—but maybe Zelma didn't know that. Oh sure, she probably understood intellectually that it had really happened, but reality was so strange these days, who knew what was real? Maybe Azelma didn't know either.
"So on the day she was to die, they cut off all her hair, and tied her hands behind her back and-Azelma, I hate this part do I have to tell it?" She always got shivers up her spine when she thought of the pretty queen riding through the streets in a tumbrel like the murderers and pickpockets. And then the queen would turn into Eponine herself. Then they were driving her through the streets, laughing and jeering at her—but no one knew her name. She'd die, and no one would remember her name or face after the executioner held her head up.
Sometimes it was Father in the tumbler—sometimes Montparnasse, or another one of Patron-Minette's many members. When it was Montparnasse Eponine always saw herself standing at the front of the crowd, as Parnasse mounts the stairs. She watches as he is lowered into position, and just before the blade comes down, Parnasse catches her eye and winks at her. The wink is always the same. When it was Father, he does nothing but snarl and curse.
Eponine was jolted from her thoughts by her sister pulling nastily on her hair.
" Finish." She commanded. " It's almost over." Eponine closed her eyes and poured out the rest of the story in one breath, trying not to think about raging mobs, or condemned queens, or prisons, or trials or anything like that. She thought about wool coats and warm fires.
" So they drover her through the streets in the cart, and took her to the Place de la Revolution, and made her mount the scaffold. And before she was lowered down, she stepped on the executioner's foot, and said ' Pardon me, sir, I did not mean to do it.' And then she was dead."
Eponine took a deep breath. The worst part was over.
" So for a while there was even more chaos, but that didn't last long, because Napoleon Bonaparte was waiting for his chance to strike, and he knew that France needed a good, strong leader. So he overthrew the scoundrels, and became the Emperor of France."
Eponine always had to stick that little part on to the end. The story was too sad otherwise. She knew Azelma only listened up until the part when the pretty queen died, but if she did not tell the part about the Emperor, she would dream of criminals' carts and ash-blonde queens going to their deaths.
" There. Satisfied?" Eponine said, grateful the horrid story was over.
" Yes." Azelma said.
" Why do you like that story so much?" Eponine asked. " It was a horrible time. Everyone was scared, and father says that madmen ruled everything. And the Queen wasn't such a good lady."
" I just like it." Azelma said, shrugging, " I don't feel so alone."
" How?" Azelma shrugged again.
" I don't know." Azelma tucked her feet under her skirt. " Do you s'pose she was ever cold?"
" The pretty queen."
" Yes, I suppose she was. Everyone's cold sometimes. And I bet there wasn't much heat in the Tuileries."
" You s'pose she was ever this cold?" Azelma asked earnestly.
" I don't know. I don't think anyone's ever been this cold."
" Except for everyone else who's out today." Azelma pointed out. They did not speak for another few minutes, as they continued to keep watch for Montparnasse.
" It's a shame." Azelma mentioned.
" What is?" Eponine asked distractedly.
" She wouldn't fit in our bed." Eponine looked at her sister quizzically. Azelma had that far-off look she would sometimes get. Her thoughts didn't seem to work the same way as other people's—Eponine never quite understood how her mind worked. But Azelma was quiet again, and somehow, the sun was coming out a little bit.
" If he isn't here in an hour, we're going home." Eponine decided.
" All right." Azelma said, and rested her head on Eponine's shoulder. Eponine put her arm around her sister and stared off into the distance. That night she would dream of guillotines.