Valeska crouched in the dark under an old packing crate and waited. She could hear the footsteps of the men getting closer. She bit her lip to keep from crying and prayed that they would not see her.
She watched as two pairs of legs in trousers ran by. They cast a glance around this darkened alley, but did not decide to search this rubbish heap. At long last, they were gone, and she slowly began to breath again.
She crawled out from under the packing crate and extracted from the folds of her shawl the source of all this trouble-- a piece of apple cake. She munched on this cake as she walked along. The other street children had taught her that there was no sense in swiping bread when one could just as easily have sweets. Valeska adhered to this principle, though the opportunities to apply it were few. She did not eat every day; the risk was too great.
The cake devoured and the crumbs licked from her fingers, she began to look around for a place to sleep. Last night, she'd been hovered in a seemingly quiet alley when a bunch of loud young men had come by and nearly tripped over her. That would not do at all; she was only seven and needed her rest. She decided to try a quiet, residential area. She discovered a nice little house with a hedge behind it that seemed to conceal a garden. She crawled under this hedge and tried to doze off.
Valeska thought, as she did every night when she said her prayers, of her mother. Maman had been dead for many long weeks now, but sometimes she still cried. She had made a promise to her Maman that she'd been unable to keep so far. Valeska carried two items sewn into her chemise that she was supposed to give to someone, someone she hadn't found yet: her father.
Valeska had almost drifted off to sleep, the picture of her Maman still in her head, when she was startled by a noise. A gentle little "tap tap tap" on the pavement. It was a fat man taking a walk, his cane tapping along in front of him. "What nerve he has," she thought, "disturbing my rest."
She watched this bourgeois amble along, and gasped in horror as a dark wraith sprung from the shadows and fell upon him. She nearly screamed aloud, but her throat was frozen in fright. She slowly began to realize that this was not a demon from the blackest pits of Hell, but was, in fact, another man.
This demon-man brandished a knife and demanded the fat man's purse. This was not the first mugging she'd witnessed, and she observed it with a sort of detached curiosity, and a bit studiously, so she could avoid this thief in the future. The fat man seemed to reach for his purse to give the lad, but he suddenly grabbed for the hand clutching the knife, and squeezed the wrist, in an attempt to make him loose his grip on the knife.
Valeska watched this drama with bated breath. It looked like the gentleman might win, and then suddenly, in such a swift movement that she did not even know what had transpired, the gentleman was lying on the ground, and the wraith's knife was bloody.
He wiped this bloody knife on the man's coat, and rummaged in his pockets. It was this moment that Valeska's nose chose to sneeze.
The wraith jumped up and brandished his shining knife. "Who's there?" he called in a voice that was at once terrible and beautiful. Indeed, his whole appearance was beautiful, he might have been a singer playing the lover in an opera, had he not chosen to play the scoundrel instead.
Valeska wondered desperately what to do. There was no way she could crawl further under the hedge. It was not likely that he'd miss her; he was already beating and kicking at the other end of the hedge. The only sensible thing seemed to be to bolt.
She squirmed quickly out of her niche and ran in the direction of the boulevard, thankful that her shoes were still sturdy. It took the murderer a moment to realize that she was gone, and this bought her the few moments she needed to make up for the length of his legs compared to hers. Still, she was at another disadvantage, not knowing Paris well enough to confuse and lose him. She would have to run for a populated area and hope that would stop him. She ducked down another side street, running for the theatre district.
This side street proved to be advantageous, for it took him a moment to realize she'd gone off the main road. He had to backtrack and hazard a guess at which side street she'd chosen. Unfortunately, he guessed correctly.
She was beginning to see the post-theatre crowd, and she slowed down a bit and cast a glance over her shoulder to see if he was still there. Suddenly, she collided with the legs of a gentleman.
"Whoa!" he exclaimed good-naturedly. She glanced up into a strikingly handsome face. "Where are you going in such a hurry? Shouldn't you be home in bed, Mam'selle?"
"Please! He's going to kill me!" she exclaimed, her brown eyes wild, her shawl slipping off her shoulders. She clutched this unknown man's hand tightly. "Hide me!"
"Who's going to kill you?" he asked, extracting his hand from this grip. He placed it instead on the top of her head gently.
"The demon! I saw him kill -- he's going to kill me 'cause I saw!" she wailed desperately. Her entire body shook with fear. The man seemed to finally notice the genuineness of her plight.
"Hush, it's going to be alright. I'll take you somewhere safe, and we'll sort this out." Noting that she was gasping for breath and covered in sweat, despite the cool September breeze, he picked her up and carried her. They made their way through the crowd and down a side street, just as the murderer entered the square.
"What's your name?" Valeska asked the man who now held her in his arms. She felt warm, and a bit safe, but not safe enough to stop peering anxiously over his shoulder.
"I'm Monsieur Courfeyrac," he replied. "And what about you, ma petite?"
"Valeska Grant-- Stelmacyzk," she replied, cautiously.
"Valeska le Grande?" He laughed. "You don't seem very grande to me, ma petite. Have you little brothers or sisters?"
She shook her head. "I have no one left. Except--" she did not continue, and he did not ask. He realized that perhaps her family situation was not something she wished to discuss.
"Well, Mam'selle Valeska, it is a longish walk back to my place. I suggest that you ride upon my back, and give my arms a bit of a rest. Alright?" He set her down, and crouched down beside her so she could climb on his back.
"Um--" She wrapped her skinny arms around his neck nervously. "What if he's behind us?" she whispered.
"Oh, I really think we've lost him, ma petite. I shouldn't worry too much. What did this cretin do to you, anyway?"
"Nothing, yet," she answered. "Just chased me." 'Cretin' was a new word in her vocabulary. The bits of slang she'd learned from the gamins were generally stronger than that.
The walk was not as long as Courfeyrac made it out to be, and they'd soon arrived at his building. He was thankful that it was late, and he'd not have to face Mother Veuvain. He didn't even want to think about explaining the appearance of this child.
This thought caused him to wonder why he'd done this, in the first place. Why hadn't he just found an officer and turned the girl over to him to explain her story? Sure, they'd most likely take her to the orphanage, but wasn't that where she belonged? He shook his head. He was a law student, practically a lawyer, and he knew the workings of the government. No one belonged in their orphanages. Even the roaches didn't deserve to be there.
He wondered what he was going to do with this child. He decided that he wouldn't think about that tonight, there were no classes tomorrow, and he could sort it out then. He unlocked his door and removed the child from his shoulders and set her down, allowing her to walk in.
Valeska glanced around the little untidy room. There was a large table with books and papers scattered about it, three chairs tucked under the table, a washstand with shaving articles on the shelf underneath, and a large cupboard of the sort one might hang his clothes in. She opened the door to this curiously, peering inside at all the trousers and coats. She picked up a hat from the bottom of it and placed it on her own head. It was a black top hat, a little dented on the brim.
Courfeyrac was pulling his spare mattress off the bed and dividing up the pillows and blankets. He cast a glance at the funny little creature in his old hat, and decided to keep only one blanket for himself. He left the rest of them on the bed, and turned to her.
"Come along now, Mam'selle-- or are you 'Monsieur' in that hat? Here's your bed for tonight. Just mind you don't roll over in your sleep and come tumbling down on top of me." He sat down on the little pallet on the floor and pulled off his boots and coat, and unfastened his collar and cuffs. He then laid down, half-dressed, and covered up with his blanket.
Valeska, meanwhile, had pulled off her shoes, stockings, and dress, and laid down on the soft bed in her underclothes. She snuggled down under the covers and was asleep in seconds.
-- Jeni Baron
Chapter Two! See, I told you I'd get to it. . .