You'd been working with Vincent for four months when she arrived. A Pink Usul, around the same age as you, repelled completely by work of any kind, rude and loud-mouthed and not worth the money she was paid. If anything, she should have been the one paying – both Vincent, for sneaking pastries and taking breaks that were too long too frequently, and you, for merely putting up with her all her talking.
It cannot be said that you are not a patient soul; if you were one to brag, patience would be one of your most boasted virtues. But in those first few weeks that Marie worked at Augustin's, you came closer to screaming than you ever had in your life.
To this day, you don't know why Vincent hired her. Well, to this day, you hardly know Vincent at all, no matter how close you fancied the both of you to be. Vincent was an enigma, cast in shadow and sadness and introversion: there was so little you knew about his personal life, you realised, some time after he had left. You knew how many layers he preferred in his croissants, what sort of patterns he liked arranged in his display case, which customers he wished would come more often and which ones he made faces at after they left. You knew that the smell of fresh vanilla cake put the silliest grin on his face. But his friends outside the bakery, his family, his life – nothing. Perhaps, then, you believed the bakery was his life. And perhaps it was.
You'll never know now, of course, but this fact does not end your wondering, and it often bothers you more than you'd care to admit. In the middle of the night, staring at your ceiling, the one that's blank page white but could be any colour in the dark – sometimes you think it might near kill you, being unable to know what caused Vincent Augustin to hire Marie.
He quite openly detested her, or at least her attitude. It was thus apparent she hadn't told him her story – if she had, there would have been some sympathy after he reprimanded her, a little more forgiveness when he found a hundred neopoints missing from the register. Yet there was none.
So how, then, had Marie been able worm her way into the bakery? There had been dozens of applications submitted (you should know, you had to sort through them), and all of them were assuredly better candidates for the position than she was.
After she'd been at her job for about a month – an insufferable, agonizing month during which Vincent nearly sent both of you out onto the curb – you found that she was talking less. It should have been a relief, but instead it worried you, and you found yourself staring at the silent Usul more and more often, questions at the tip of your tongue and none of them willing to spill out in their waterfall torrents.
Finally, one morning, when Vincent had left the kitchen after giving her another aggravated "are you serious did you actually do this how old are you fifteen or something" speech, she burst into tears.
You rushed to her side and asked her what was wrong, and sat her down at the stool in the corner, and gave her a tissue, waiting for her sobs to subside. She cried for a solid five minutes.
When she managed to calm down, she said nothing for another ten minutes, and then told you her story in its life-threatening entirety.
It was not a moment of emotional impulse. She had thought about whether or not to tell you. For all of those ten minutes she was staring at the wall across from her, struggling with the pros and cons of each decision, and at long last she figured that explaining herself was the best path to take, even if it was by a very small margin.
What she told you could have very well resulted in your death. For all you know, it still might: this is why you have never told Castor, why you don't reveal the truth to him and why you never will.
Sometimes you are grateful she told you. At others, you hate her for it.
She was born in Brightvale to a duke and a duchess, under the name Eloin, the last of eight children and the least desired. She grew up in a home where nobody cared about anybody else; the only associates she had were the servants and her teachers. She had no sisters, and her brothers were unfailingly selfish. They did not give her the benefit of a glance unless it was to tease, relentlessly. She had no friends – she was not allowed to befriend other nobles out of rivalry, and not allowed to speak to peasants out of class. To survive in such a drastic environment her personality adapted; she became harsh and sarcastic and stubborn and strong-willed and all of the things that thus made up Marie.
She stayed at home only because there was a roof. Still, most of her time was not spent under it – as long as she could remember she'd been lying, thieving, running from soldiers not competent enough to catch a child. From the time she was twelve she'd been pretending to be people she wasn't. It came naturally to her: she did not want to be Eloin, did not want to be the unwanted daughter, the aloof Usul who never spoke to a soul. Instead she would be noticed, by everybody, even if it meant shaming the rest of her family.
(I messed up, she told you, her voice nothing but a whisper, a shadow of what it once used to be.
I don't know this girl at all, you realised.
I messed up.)
When was nineteen years old, she was caught at last.
(At this point she stopped again and tried, failed, to stop crying. I shouldn't have done it, she said. I shouldn't have but I didn't know what to do and I did. I'm sorry. I'm sorry. Fyora, what am I saying? I deserve all of this.
You don't, you told her.
You don't know what I've done, she said.)
A Scorchio visited her in the dungeon, all dressed up in suit and tie, cane in hand. She clung to the bars of her cell and looked up at him: she'd been there for not quite a week and already she was thinning.
He promised her freedom in exchange for a sum of money so large you had to ask her to repeat it twice. She took the deal. Shook his hand watched him unlock the doors.
She ran. Of course she ran. But he caught her and kept her and promised her death if she didn't keep her end of the bargain. And if she told anyone of his existence, well – her sudden disappearance would not be deeply investigated, after all. So she stayed.
(I was going to rob my own parents to pay him back. Even after my capture, I had no intention of fleeing a life of crime. I thought – I thought it was all I'd ever be able to amount to. A thief.)
But then it was discovered that all her brothers had already been taking from their treasury, bit by bit, year after year. And now it was gone.
She promised again and again and again that she'd find another way to pay him back. But I cannot let you go, he said. So what are you going to do? she asked.
And he sent for a Lupe, his nephew, to watch her. He was still in training then, unpaid. He was to keep her company every hour of every day while she sought for a way to make or steal the money. A prison guard. Eloin, now known as Marie and painted pink to prevent her from being recognised, would be in a perpetual state of arrest until she could pay off her debt. If she tried to play any tricks, the Lupe's claws would introduce themselves to not only her throat but her family's as well, and all and any possessions they still owned that amounted to more than a point would be sold. Her life would be taken, and if she did survive, she would have nothing to her name. Not even the brothers and parents she so desperately hated.
(Then how did you escape? you asked.
Sheer luck, she replied, and fell silent. The bell at the top of the front door rang. Vincent was back.)
The love of Vincent's life arrived at the door accompanied by the nightmare of Marie's.
She became even less bossy after that visit, more subdued. She rarely ever spoke, then.
Sometimes you saw her shaking.
You tried to get her to talk to you, once you realised who that spotted Lupe was. But she would not say a word. She worked unceasingly, never pausing for a moment to look up from her flour-dusted paws. She checked in, she baked, she worked the counter, baked some more, checked out.
Sometimes you still wish that Madeleine had never stepped foot inside Augustin's. Without her, Vincent would still be here. Without her, Marie would not have run. Without her, you would not be keeping secrets – but very few wishes in this world are fulfilled, and you know yours will never be.
You remember thinking it was nice, for a while. Seeing him in love.
A word about Castor.
The Kyrii was your rock at Augustin's. Unchanging. Unfailing. Kind-hearted and gentle and soft-spoken comfort; the frosting to your cake. He was a welcome interruption to the perennial stress that encompassed you that year.
It was only natural, turning to him after the chaos peaked. You always regret not taking notice of him sooner.
Vincent left when spring arrived. You remember. He'd been at the bakery all night, waiting for her, and she wasn't there and he snapped and all of a sudden he was broken and couldn't be fixed. There was a perfect strawberry sponge cake frozen on the counter.
His paw was so cold when it brushed against yours, when he gave you the keys and Augustin's itself became yours. He left and he never came back and you can't bring yourself to try and find him, if only for fear of what he will have become.
She ran. She screamed and she ran and you tried so hard to catch her but you couldn't and there was nothing else to be done. She did not want to be caught. She does not want to be found.
You hope very much that she is all right. You hope that she is safe. But you know that she isn't – she can't be.
She has not paid her debt.
Things are good now. Things are calm. The bakery is doing well; there are new employees, new menus, new customers. You love and work with Castor every day. Yes, things are nearly, almost, not quite the same – but you have secrets to keep now. Lies entwining lies. If you try very hard to forget what you know, sometimes you almost can. It's enough, right? It's for the best.
You can convince yourself of this, once in a while.
At other times you are haunted in dreams by the daughter of a duchess from Brightvale.