A young man moved quickly through the darkness. The streets of this district were sparsely lit at best. Perfect for his work.
The man was breathtakingly beautiful. A fop, to be certain, but no weak little pretty boy. Though tall and slender, he was armed to the teeth and fast and strong. No matter how impeccably groomed he might be, there would always remain blood on his hands.
He was a bit behind the times. His dark hair curled in a fashion of late, his clothes fine but wearing out, most likely stolen from some bourgeois or another, some time back. His dark eyes were cold, hard steel, like the knife in his pocket.
His name was Montparnasse. He'd picked it up here or there, like bread, shelter, and clothes in his youth. At thirteen, he'd had enough of that, and joined with a band of petty crimimals. Now, he was among the best.
Montparnasse had no particular errand in this street. He was merely sniffing about this quiet neighborhood, full of retired scholars and magistrates. As he strolled, a gentleman approached from the other end of the street. In this narrow passage, an alley really, you couldn't help but brush up against someone. His hands began to itch in anticipation.
As he was dipping his sly hand into the old man's back pocket, he was suddenly knocked off his feet. He landed sprawled on his back on the grimy pavement, and there was a great weight upon his chest.
"Uhhg," he grunted. The old man did not let up. He proceeded to speak to Montparnasse of crime and idleness, and of the chain gang and labor. He had the tone of a learned bourgeois, but the words of a man who'd been there.
Montparnasse watched this old face in scorn. But, those words couldn't escape his ears. "It's not so hard to be an honest man." When the man had finally finished, he helped Montparnasse to stand back up and presented him with his purse.
"Is this what you're after? Go then, and think of what I told you."
Montparnasse stood and watched the man go. Then, he slowly walked out of the little street and to his tiny flat. Only then did he count the money. Five hundred francs, and change. What a pile! He counted it again. Yes, that was correct.
Suddenly, his door was opened, and in stepped a thin young girl. Azelma. He'd forgotten she was staying with him. He quickly stashed the money.
"It is to be tonight," she said simply, with no greeting. "Ponine cannot be found, so you're to find a gamin. They don't want my hand in it, which is fine with me. I'd rather leave him in there." She sat wearily onto the wooden chair.
It was then that Montparnasse remembered the mission. To break Azelma's father out of prison. "Zelma! This is your Papa! Do you really want him to die?" Montparnasse exclaimed, shocked.
"Better he than I," she retorted acidly. "I hate him, 'Parnasse, I do. Wish that I had a trade, and could leave this life."
Montparnasse slapped his palm down onto the table. "That's it! Zelma, you wait here! I've got a plan. You just hang on," he rushed out the door, not giving the bewildered creature a chance to answer.
He'd been thinking about what to do with this money. Azelma's words had given him an idea.
As he was hurrying on his way, he spotted a familiar gamin. "Gavroche," he called. "Just the person I was looking for. Listen, take a friend or two, and high-tail it to the jail. You're skills are needed there. Also, convey that I won't be there, would you?" After receiving an assent from the young lad, Montparnasse continued on his way.
He came upon a little hut near the Seine. He knocked soundly, and was admitted rapidly despite the hour. This was an all-hours establishment, and for good reason.
He was met in the parlor by a wizened old man. "If it isn't my favorite dandy! Well, then, good fellow, who'd you like to be tonight?"
"Respectable. For the little lady."
"Oh, there's a lady now, hmmm? What kind of respectable?"
"Petit-bourgeois. And, this would be permanent."
"Permanent? You going straight?" the proprietor exclaimed.
"My friend, how straight could I go? Let's just leave it that the clothes are a permanent purchase."
The man nodded, accustomed to not asking questions, and went into another room. He produced a nice morning dress, once belonging to a banker's wife. It was pale blue-gray, plain skirted, but with a frothy spill of lace from the throat down the bodice. The sleeves were the fashionable gigot style, the cuffs and collar white eyelet. It was, thankfully, for a short, slim woman. Designed for a corseted woman, but poor Azelma would need no corset. There was a full set of undergarments, and slightly worn brown leather boots.
"Will this please the girl?" asked the proprietor, displaying the garments. Montparnasse looked indifferently.
"Who knows, with women? It'd better, it's all she'd getting."
"Will you be bringing the lady's current clothes for credit?"
Montparnasse laughed ruefully at the suggestion, picturing Azelma's stained and tattered chemise, and equally ragged petticoat, which became shorter and shorter by the week. Soon there'd be just a belt there.
"No, her current clothes are for the ragpickers." Montparnasse went on his way, the clothing bundled in a paper package. He went home, stopping at the concierge's lodge to leave a message, that he wanted a tub and lots of hot water in the morning.
He climbed the stairs and went into his room. Azelma was curled up on his bed, sleeping peacefully. She had the covers tucked up to her chin, and her ragged clothes were tossed on the floor. Montparnasse stared at them in shock, until he realized his extra shirt was missing.
He hung her new dress up carefully, that it wouldn't wrinkle, then hung his own clothes. Then he walked over to his bed.
These last few weeks, Azelma had slept in his bed, and he'd spread blankets on the floor for himself. But, she was sleeping on the blankets that had been his bedding, and covered with the one he'd covered with. He couldn't bring himself to either wake her, or move her to the floor. He gently slid her over, then laid down beside her.
Montparnasse, who'd had dozens of girls in this very bed, was rather uncomfortable with this little girl sleeping beside him. Though nearly sixteen, she hardly looked twelve. At times, she was a sweet little girl, and at others, a street-wise little gamine. Still, she didn't have the survival instinct her sister Ponine did, so he'd taken her in. She'd been with him for four months, and they were fast friends now.
He slept solidly that night. At one point, he awoke briefly, and found a skinny arm across his chest, her little face cuddled next to his. He gently nudged himself away, and laid closer to the edge of the bed. He slept again.
He awoke to find Azelma preparing their breakfast, still in his nightshirt. Sadly, it covered more of her legs than her own skirt did. The new clothes were hiding behind the screen.
She sang as she worked, not the gamin street songs her sister sang, but a beautiful operatic song her mother had doubtless taught her, when they'd been innkeepers. Montparnasse got out of bed slowly.
"Monty, you're up!" she cried. She was setting the table with his cracked dishes. What was left of yesterday's bread was sliced there, and potatoes fried with salt and butter. There were even eggs.
"Everything needed to be used up," she apologised. Usually, they ate only one dish for breakfast. "I suppose the bread will keep, but the others won't."
Montparnasse slipped behind the screen to dress hurriedly, then came back out. "Zelma, don't worry about it. My luck has changed. You shall eat like this all the time, and soon be fat as a bourgeois."
Azelma smiled weakly. Even at this young age, she didn't believe the promises of men. Her father had seen to that. They ate in silence.
They washed the dishes in silence together. Azelma still hadn't grown accustomed to a man washing dishes. Even in the worst days at the inn, after The Lark had gone, Papa had never done a dish. Ponine, Azelma and tiny Gavroche had done them.
There was a knock at the door, and Azelma jumped. "It's the concierge." said Montparnasse. "I ordered a bath for you."
Azelma looked confused. "Why? I just have to put those dirty things on." Montparnasse just smiled.
He admitted the old woman, and directed her to set the tub in front of the still-hot stove. She eyed the young girl suspiciously.
"My sister is finding a job today, and so she must clean up." he explained. The old crone dumped the bucket of hot water, and then left.
"Now, before I leave you to your bath, let me show you something, Zelma." said Montparnasse. He took her behind the screen where the new clothes hung.
Azelma shrieked in delight. "Oh! Oh, for me?" she fingered the folds of the gown. "Oh, I couldn't possibly... you shouldn't..... oh!" She turned her rapturous face toward him. For a brief moment, he saw the delighted expression on the face of another young Thenardier. But he extinguished this memory quickly. He must remember that they were different.
Azelma threw her bony arms around his neck and kissed his cheek. "You wonderful, wonderful man!"
Montparnasse quickly ended the embrace. "Really, Azelma. I'm doing this for both of us. We both want to go straight, why not together? We'll find a trade together. Now, before your water gets cold..." He picked up the screen with his strong hands and moved it in front of the stove and the tub, then lifted the clothes pole and carried it over there, too.
While Azelma splashed about in the warm tub, Montparnasse busied himself reading a newspaper. He thought about what kind of a business a man and a puny young woman could undertake together. Well, what was selling? A butcher's shop? His stomach heaved at the idea. To slit a man's throat was nothing; to cut up pork chops and sides of beef was unthinkable. Hmm. How about a printer's shop? But, although Azelma could read well, he could just barely stumble though this newspaper. Suddenly, he saw it, the perfect opportunity. A bakery.
He daydreamed about the smell of bread baking, and rolls, and sweet buns. Perhaps even wedding cakes. Azelma had such delicate fingers, she could surely form the tiny frosting rosettes. This was a good idea, he thought to himself. Now, if only he could secure this deal.
Azelma was stepping out of the tub, by the large whoosh of water he heard. She tugged the rough towel off the top of the screen, and began to rub herself dry.
Montparnasse began to wonder if his placement of the screen had been such a good idea. The window was just behind it, and the full morning light silhouetted a slim young body. He picked up his chair abruptly and turned it around. Stupid, stupid, stupid, he thought. I have to find myself a new mistress, to keep my mind off this child, and the other not interested.
Azelma came out at length, all dressed but for her shoes, and the back buttons. Her long, dark locks were damp, and desperately needed a comb. She walked up to him, and turned her back. "Button me up?" she asked sweetly.
He did so, then produced a comb from his back pocket. She combed her hair in front of the glass, then tied it up with a string. The hat would hide it, anyway. She tied the lace-bedecked poke bonnet on her head. "All ready" she sang out.
"Zelma," he said carefully. "You have to wear the shoes."
"Shoes!" she exclaimed. "Oh, yes!" She sat on the bed and tied them on. "Oh, but that feels strange!"
They went out now, looking every bit like well-off, working class people. Montparnasse gave his arm to her, and they strolled almost casually. Azelma had trouble keeping her new long dress off the pavement. She had it held up nearly to her shins. She felt sure he'd murdered someone for this money. Something else was troubling her mind, though. She spoke softly, so that he might not even hear her.
"Do you miss her?"
He sensed, rather than heard her words. "Sometimes," he said. "I'm not really like that, Zelma. I just keep going. It just angers me it's this stupid donkey she's chasing after who couldn't care less about her."
"So you're not in love with her, then?"
The words froze his heart like ice. That night of the attempted robbery, he and Ponine had been so very cold standing on the street. They were supposed to watch for the police, with Azelma. They'd come back to his flat instead, leaving Zelma on her own outside the Gorbeau slum. They'd warmed themselves by the fire, drank wine, and kissed. It was the first, and only time Ponine had let him kiss her. Even then, she had been falling for that buffoon.
But, that had been months ago, and his heart was soothed. "No, silly goose. I'm not in love with your sister." Not anymore, he thought.
"Do you suppose she could get in on this trade with us? I know she'd like to get off the streets. She just doesn't come around your place 'cause she thinks she hurt your feelings." Azelma turned her head so he wouldn't see the luminous hope in her eyes. He didn't love Ponine!
"Well, that would be nice. You'll see her this afternoon, you can ask her then. First, we must make the deal. Perhaps the old goat's sold already." He knew Eponine would never go for it. She was too busy searching for that silly schoolboy.
They came up to a bakery upon the Rue Bametau. "This is the place," he said, checking the folded up newspaper to be sure. "Number 37."