Viola MacFarlane huddled in the doorway silently, trying to maker herself as invisible as possible. She grimaced distastefully at the feel of her matted, greasy hair on her face. She regretted the need for the disguise, but there was very little she could do. The oft-patched clothing of a French peasant hung shapelessly on her. That was all for the better.
Voices from inside the door wrenched her attention back to the matter at hand. Viola strained to hear. Something about avoiding Calais and the Chat Gris÷but, that voice! Surely that was Lord Antony Dewhurst!
She swore internally. Viola hadn't known that her uncle would be on the mission! Her heart began beating rapidly. What if she was seen? Even from a distance in her unusual garb, her uncle would surely recognize her!
Calming herself slightly, Viola returned to listening. Footsteps were approaching the door. She rose and began to flee, hiking her skirt up above her knees for more freedom. In disguise, Lord Tony stepped out of the door carefully just as Viola was rounding a corner.
Something caught his eye÷a familiar flash of blonde ringlets÷but no. Lord Tony shook his head. After all, what would *Viola* be doing in France?
Viola ducked into an alley, breathing hard. That had been close.
She waited about two minutes, then emerged. And practically walked into Citizen Chauvelin. Viola saw impatient fury ignite a frigid pair of steely gray eyes.
"Pardon me, Citoyen," she murmured in perfect French, dropping her gaze from his and lowering her voice to a deep contralto.
There was something disturbingly familiar about those glacial, fox-like eyes.
Chauvelin brushed her off. With dread certainty, Viola knew where he was leading those six soldiers. It was the reason she had been sent to France, after all. Lady Hastings' voice sounded in her mind.
"Citizen Chauvelin has discovered the location of the Pimpernel's hideout."
That was the destination of that French bird of prey, and it was possible that not all of the Leaguers were out of the building yet.
As soon as she had slipped past the soldiers, she broke into a flat-out sprint into a crowd in the Place de la Greve. A crowd that was waiting hungrily for an execution that would never take place, thanks to the Scarlet Pimpernel. With a brief glance around to ensure that no one was watching, she tore off the French flag that she had tied like a sash around her waist and pulled a match from a small bag concealed in her clothing. She hid the match under the flag and lit it with her fingernail. The very instant that the flag caught fire, Viola dropped it to the ground and gave a very well feigned, shocked cry.
Several people turned to stare at what was going on. Viola spotted a little boy nearby and grabbed him by the arm.
"I saw some soldiers down that street, child. Go!"
She propelled him slightly toward the street where the League had been hiding. Her mind raced frantically. Would the plan work? Dozens of lives rested solely on her actions now. Viola said a brief prayer as she moved to the edge of the crowd, now noisily accusing each other of setting the fire.
There were even, she noticed with some amusement, cries of "Scarlet Pimpernel!" from some citizens.
She pressed against the wall of a building, trying to be invisible and find out Chauvelin's next move. She was soon rewarded. Citizen Chauvelin appeared with the little boy, followed by one÷two, three÷five soldiers. Only five? Viola's heart pounded violently in her chest. There was one missing. Taking a deep breath, she tried to calm herself. One shouldn't be a problem, especially if she had the element of surprise.
Viola slowly edged her way around the corner, carefully avoiding being seen. A single soldier guarded the door of the building where the League had been hiding. She spared a moment to revel in Chauvelin's carelessness at leaving but one, then she prayed once more, this time that her uncle and the others had already gotten out safely. Her eyes scanned the ground for a loose rock. She soon found one, picked it up, and crept as close as she dared to the soldier. Saying her third prayer in less than three minutes, now for luck and good aim - Viola realized wryly that she had nearly met her usual monthly number of prayers - and threw the rock.
It struck the soldier at the base of his skull with a noise that sickened the well-bred British girl. He collapsed and Viola rushed over to him. He was breathing, but unconscious. A small smile fleetingly touched her lips as she sighed in relief. Not wasting any more time, the young blonde slipped into the hideout of the Pimpernel.
Viola gave the room a quick glance, knowing immediately that the League and their rescued noble had escaped before Chauvelin's arrival.
She grinned again at the realization that the unconscious soldier outside would help her purpose immensely. From the small bag hidden in her shirt, Viola pulled out a message, supposedly from the Pimpernel, a pen, and a very small vial of ink. She sat down at a table in the center of the room and carefully forged "Calais" into the message. It was a set of fake instructions, now informing the Leaguers who would never see it to bring the rescued aristo to Calais.
There was also one more match in that little bag. Now very conscious of how little time she had left, Viola lit the match and set the Swiss paper aflame. The young woman allowed the paper to burn for a moment, then put it out, ensuring that the "destination" of the Pimpernel was just barely discernable.
Viola dropped the burnt-out match to the floor and allowed the paper to float down after it. To add more realism to the staged scene of a hasty exit, she tipped over her chair, then stood back and studied her work. It was credible, she decided quickly, as she had no time to lose before her own hasty exit.
A sound from the door startled her into realizing the gravity of her situation. Trying very hard to be silent, Viola slipped into an adjoining room, searching for another way out. Frantically, she scanned the room for a window, another door - anything, but there was nothing save a flight of stairs to the second floor. Thoughts flew through Viola's mind in a mad fury as she stepped up the stairs.
'I must be mad! Surely I shall be trapped up there!'
Still, despite her mind, her feet drew her inexorably closer to the second floor.
Citizen Chauvelin was inside the building now, ordering his men to search the entire house. Viola began to hurry, hoping against hope that her footsteps wouldn't betray her. A rush of adrenaline sent her heart racing again, and she quickened her pace, hurrying up the rest of the stairs as fast and as quietly as possible. Sounds of the soldiers entering the room she had just left spurred Viola onward.
Upon reaching the room at the top of the stairs, the terrified woman spied a window. It was the only way out. With a burst of - something, either determination or terror - Viola crossed the room and threw open the window. Vertigo hit her like a tidal wave and she nearly drowned in it. God, how she hated heights. Footsteps began coming up the stairs. She took a deep breath, trying to reassure herself.
'Not all that high, really÷only the second floor.'
Another glance down nearly caused all of her determination to go flying away. The soldiers neared the top of the stairs. Forcing all fear aside, Viola jumped÷.
÷And nearly landed on top of Citizen Chauvelin. Her legs collapsed beneath her and she fell to the ground, in a manner that was neither ladylike nor graceful, with a small cry. Chauvelin stood over her, glaring darkly.
"You again, Citoyenne?" queried the Frenchman with a noticeably dangerous edge to his voice.
Only partially acting, Viola shrank from the imposing figure in black.
"I am sorry, Citoyen!" she said quickly, frantically, barely remembering to pitch her voice lower as she had before. "I was-"
"What were you doing in there?" Chauvelin interrupted tersely. The soldiers began to file out the door empty-handed. Only then did Viola notice the Swiss paper in Chauvelin's hand. By sheer force of will she managed to suppress a grin of triumph.
"I-I live there, Citoyen," Viola stammered convincingly. "I mean - I do not own it, but I - my father threw me out of the house-"
Chauvelin's expression darkened further. "What are you saying? I have no time for such nonsense!"
He took a menacing step towards Viola's cowering figure.
She retreated further.
"Please, Citoyen! I have nowhere to live! I only stay there for shelter -"
"Why did you run?" he demanded, even more sharply than before.
'Oh God, let him believe me!' she thought, terrified, hoping her innocent appearance helped her cause.
"I w-was afraid of the soldiers, Citoyen! I mean no harm to anyone, but I cannot go anywhere else! I thought I was to be arrested for trespassing."
Viola broke down sobbing.
"I am sorry, Citoyen, please!"
Chauvelin looked down at her disdainfully. "There were men in that building before. Where did they go?"
Trying to regain enough control over herself to speak - which was difficult, as her sobs were genuine - Viola thought quickly. "I heard them come in, and I thought they were soldiers, Citoyen. I ran, so I never saw them."
Chauvelin swore and she jumped nervously. Somewhat calmer now, she took on a pensive expression and lied smoothly,
"Well, now that I think about it, I believe I saw some young men in the street, running that way."
Viola extended a trembling hand to point in a direction different from the path that the Pimpernel had taken.
A feral light appeared in the terrifying Frenchman's eyes.
"Calais," he whispered to himself, "then it *is* true."
With a wry near-grin in Viola's direction, he added dryly, "We really must stop meeting like this, Citoyenne."
Viola replied with a trembling, wan smile, "Yes, we must."
Chauvelin led his soldiers away, resuming his pursuit of the Scarlet Pimpernel, without a clue that he was heading in the wrong direction. With a sigh of relief, she released breath that she didn't realize she had been holding. Easing the violent trembling that still racked her body, Viola rose from where she was kneeling, began to walk to another safehouse - this one being a haven for the Guild rather than the League - and tried to concentrate on going home. Home - where, at least for a little while, she wouldn't have to concern herself with the intimidating, familiar, steel-eyed Frenchman who now knew her face. This thought comforted her as she made her way through the streets of Paris in the growing darkness.
†††

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