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Night birds

Oriente handled an old silk dress carefully in white cotton gloves, the disposable kind that fitted loosely over her fingers. Her heavy round glasses were perched on the end of her nose, her hair carefully wound to the top of her head to prevent escaping strands, though half had fallen hours ago and she had not been at liberty to attend it in the midst of her project.

The silk dress was a shade of peach-pink, the kind of color she could never wear-- she stuck to black, gray and occasionally white-- and she placed it in 1789. The shape, loosely gathered at the sides with a shortened hem meant to display the pointed-toe slippers of the time, was in the pastoral style, and the yellowed and degraded fichu was to drape over decollete. The Brussels lace was fine. It was clearly the gown of a noblewoman, a gown for taking afternoon tea.

The other dress in the trunk was completely destroyed and would not be an appropriate museum piece. She hoped her director would not dispose of it. It clearly had a history attached and for some reason unknown to her pulled at her heart-strings. It looked as though centuries before someone had cast it off wet and thrown it directly into the bottom of the trunk, half-torn and soaking. It was in the empire style and would have been at the very height of fashion, a surprising piece for someone who had lived isolated in a Rheinish castle away from society.

There were other items in the trunk, books and journals which she would not have time to look over tonight. Once she came to a stopping-point on the gown she would lock all of these items up carefully and leave the building, in which she was totally alone.

Oriente was accustomed to spending late nights in the building by herself. She liked quiet time with the artifacts, which she felt spoke to her best this way. Additionally her senses were heightened and her concentration was better. She performed better restoration work on delicate pieces and made fewer costly mistakes.

When finally she was gathering her things to leave, she realized there was a call waiting on her smartphone she had lain close by. She had not noticed it vibrate, but that wasn't surprising. She didn't recognize the number and felt a strange urge to call it, though she never did that. She realized the impulse came from acute loneliness, and instead of going straight home, she stopped at a cafe she sometimes frequented to avoid her cold and not terribly tidy apartment rooms.

It was by this time nearly midnight. Oriente ordered a pot of tea and some madeleines and withdrew one of the books she had collected to help in her research of the gowns. It was a small-press book obtained from the castle museum where the gowns had been collected and detailed the history of the Wolfram family, which had ended in the era of the last Markgraf, Gauvain von Wolfram, who had produced no heirs.

As she opened the crisp, unmarked book she was aware of someone's emotive phone conversation near her. "No, he says he's coming back next week. Adele, I know, I trust him." The dullness of the person's voice was bitter. Despite her impulse, Oriente did not look up. "His, um, no, she's not his girlfriend, per se." The words were British-accented French. Oriente's gaze swept up briefly to take in a fashionable woman, who represented a model on the pages of a magazine. Her hair was burnished brown with the perfect kind of careless fall across her slim shoulders. Her eyes were stone-green, like marbles, beneath a delicate, high and clear forehead.

Oriente averted her gaze quickly when the young woman looked at her. At that moment, her tea came, and she busied herself with its preparation, hoping the stranger would not consider her an eavesdropper. Even as she continued her conversation she continued to stare at Oriente, unnerving her.

Oriente sighed deeply, hoping to concentrate on the dry text of her book, but her attention was hopelessly diverted by the fashionable girl. Normally she found these loud conversations very annoying as they reminded her of the social life she didn't have. "Well, I guess it's a cultural difference. You know, a mistress. It doesn't really mean anything though. I don't think they have that kind of emotional attachment. I deserve... ? Ha ha." These fashionable girls were always sort of hard-bitten, Oriente thought. Life didn't deal well with them, even if they had the world's admiration. She felt glad to be in the shadows, unnoticed, with her dreams and fantasies.

"I thought it was coffee, coffee, coffee for a French woman."

Oriente found herself staring at the young woman, who had completed her conversation, and was addressing her.

She felt a deep flush cover her face. "I... um." This foreigner was leaving herself wide-open for a cut direct but Oriente somehow felt herself at a disadvantage. "Even the French do not drink coffee this late at night. It is unhealthy. Eh. Bad for the complexion." She had answered the young woman in English, not knowing why she bothered to be so friendly and inviting.

"Cream and sugar?" The girl smiled.

Oriente shrugged. "In moderation. Eh, our customs are not so different, perhaps."

The girl was staring at her in open curiosity. "You are so different. Not like anyone I've seen. Normally French women are very..."

Fashionable. Chic. Put-together. Oriente was well-aware of the renowned carelessness with which her countrywomen styled themselves and drew huge amounts of intrigue. She pushed her glasses back up her nose and remembered that she hadn't fixed the half of her hair that had fallen down.

"Um. Thank you. Mademoiselle...?"

"Oh, sorry. Delphinia de Lyon."

"Are you a... eh... recent visitor to France, Mlle. de Lyon?"

"My um, my fiance lives here," Delphinia said, choking a little on her beverage.

"Very good. Um." The barista came to give her another pot of cream. Oriente looked up, curious at the extra attention. She realized the young man was looking for an excuse to give Mlle. de Lyon a closer look.

She wondered why Mlle. de Lyon was settling for a man who would make her so unhappy when she clearly had the world at her feet, but wasn't this the way with fashionable young women. She reminded herself deliberately of how happy she was that she was alone.

"He is um, a Frenchman?"

Delphinia nodded. "We met in England. Through my parents actually." She stopped and her face clouded. Oriente sensed emotions much deeper than those described in her voice's previous callousness. "What brings you here...?"

"Oriente Luly." She inserted. She realized the barista was still standing at her elbow. "Pardon moi, messr." She handed him her empty plates and pot and looked at him directly, feeling a little impatient. His eyes, as they glinted at her, were shockingly deep-blue, and his too-long curly hair, which he had tied back, was blue-black. He was probably a graduate student. What a nuisance.

"Merci, mademoiselle."

Delphinia lifted an eyebrow at the passing barista and smiled at Oriente. Discomforted, Oriente hastened with her subject. "I was working late. I needed something to eat before I get home. I am too tired."

"You were working very late. You were not afraid?"

"No, I'm never afraid." Oriente's smile was slight and unself-conscious. She had never felt that she had anything to lose by putting herself in supposed danger.

"Do you have... a boyfriend?" Delphinia asked.

Suddenly the barista was sweeping near her chair. She wanted to snap at his rudeness. "Pardon moi, messr. Is the cafe about to close?" Her tone was intended to be cold and deliberate, but her mild personality softened it to timidity.

"No, mademoiselle. Excuse me." He left again.

Suddenly Oriente was gathering her things. "I beg your pardon, Mlle. de Lyon. It is very late, as you mentioned. I need to get home. I hope you enjoy your time in Paris with your fiance. I wish you the best." Her heart was paining her, stalling her, calling her back. She realized the blood in her head was pounding. It must be very late, she must be very tired. She must leave immediately.

She left in the midst of Delphinia's softly-murmured words. She felt she was leaving behind the whole world as she exited the coffee shop in pursuit of her cold, untidy apartment.

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