Dahlia cannot remember how this started; a lament of regret, perhaps, that Alphonse had gone, had left not a note, nor paid his bills at his lodgings, had abandoned her with not a word. Favourite had listened in her impatient way, offered stinging remarks as to the shape of his nose, his name at the bank and the cut of his trousers, and that like the perfect number, perfect men were very rare, had then given her tea brewed in the English way which was perfectly disgusting, followed by a little glass of the sticky sweet wine she preferred, strong enough that Dahlia had ceased her tears, mopped her face with her handkerchief and reflected that after all, though Zephine was more sympathetic, Favourite had the ineffable charm of making men seem fools. It was the wine perhaps, or the thrill of washing away a second love affair with fewer tears than the first had elicited, but she had let herself be drawn into conversation about what it was men desired, anyway.
Favourite, who leant on the windowsill with the elegant detachment that she liked to assume at odd moments, had passed a hand through Dahlia's hair, tugged on a loose curl and smiled maddeningly, and insisted that it was not so very hard. When she had deposited herself on Dahlia's knee, a warm weight and a crooked smile, and kissed her, a hint of wine on her clever tongue, Dahlia had been too shocked to resist, and then disinclined to do so - Favourite's mouth was soft and tempting, a tease and a fulfilment in one, and her fingers wound into Dahlia's, a subtle pressure. If Favourite could maintain Vincennes in such ardour, Dahlia was curious how.
When they broke apart, Favourite ran her finger down Dahlia's arm. "You have to take it," she said, "you cannot just wait for them to secure you, nor to give you pleasure, nor even to look at you as they should. You ought to take a leaf from Euler. You exist in the same moment as Alphonse and his like, but you need not intersect, however you might be encompassed in the excitement of your love. He should not affect you so."
Dahlia did not understand, and said so. "I want to know how you keep them, Favourite, not that I should not bother." Favourite sighed and stood, betook herself to the mirror that was her pride, and ran her fingers restlessly through her hair and stared at herself as though the answer would become apparent. Then, as though she had made up her mind, she undid the sash of the flimsy silken robe that she wore, and extended it to Dahlia before throwing herself on the bed.
Dahlia passed the length of pink sash through her hand, endlessly looping it around her fingers, taking comfort in the feel against her skin. "I do not understand," she said, in tones that implored elucidation.
Favourite lounged upon the bed, her rosy wrists clasped above her head in the attitude of some careless faun mistress of Caravaggio, and resplendent now on the coverlet that required a shocking wash once a week. Her eyes were half closed and lazy and she moved a little to display those slender wrists more prominently. "Dahlia," she said, half impatient, half amused. "Loop it around and secure me to the headboard. Honestly, darling, it is not nearly so difficult as you make out. Now, not so tight," for Dahlia had, spurred on by Favourite, twisted the sash around the outstretched arms and secured it to the headboard.
It was not the first time that she had seen Favourite so shamelessly displayed; the other woman disdained dressing for no occasion. Still, it was one thing to see Favourite in her robe with her hair held back, curls drooping and forgotten, with heavy cream on her face, and quite another for Favourite to be in one of the countless fragile raspberry silks that she seemed to produce from nowhere, that hid her only enough that the eye was drawn to the tender curve of her bosom, and then the closeness of the silk to her skin, her hair in shining ringlets drawn down around her face, an innocence to their casual fall which was belied by the carmine of her lips. "I'm sorry," Dahlia said belatedly, caught in her survey, missing Favourite's words.
"You see," Favourite said with a murmur, her voice deeper, a little slower, thickened honey, Dahlia thought. She gave a little shake and her hair lay softer on her shoulders, "I want you to come closer." There was a certain imperious quality to the words that Dahlia was helpless to resist, and though she was nervous still, she advanced a little, until her hands were merely inches away from the smooth length of Favourite's leg. She could smell the scent Favourite wore, thick and cloying and rich, like dying flowers, that she applied from a little glass bottle that she never shared. Dahlia could almost taste it in the air, licked drying lips as she waited for further instruction.
Favourite obliged, crossed her slender legs and wriggled a little, enough that the material displayed one of the firm shoulders that she was rightfully proud of. "Dahlia," she said, and the word hung there for a long moment, and Dahlia forgot that she had planned to isolate what made Favourite so fascinating, did not believe she could imitate that languid roll of words and put it to one side, helpless before an allure she was ashamed of (for Favourite was not a kind mistress, she knew that already.) "Kiss me," and it was a simple request, Favourite was bound, she could not take it, she must wait, and yet Dahlia was helpless but to give it to her, leaned forward and kissed her, sweet and long, bit at her lips until the carmine was gone, and the redness was from their natural state, until Favourite turned a little away, enough that Dahlia's lips touched her cheek now, powdered and scented. "Show me yourself," was the next request, though request was perhaps the wrong word, demand did not fit either. She merely expected.
Dahlia was already unlaced from her corset, Favourite's nimble fingers had taken care of that earlier, and she flushed at the thought that even then Favourite must have known how this evening would end, and it was no effort at all to abandon natural modesty and appear in her chemise, to return to Favourite and savour her mouth again, trace the length of her arms, the smooth whiteness of skin that rarely saw day, the extension of her limbs as graceful as that of any chorus ballet dancer. The robe had slipped open and she could see the gentle curve of Favourite's breast; filled with sudden desire, she lowered her mouth to the flesh, kissed the tip, fondled the flesh with the same fervour that Alphonse had once touched her with, until Favourite's breath was harsh and ragged under her ministrations, and Dahlia did not need to look to know that Favourite's white teeth were denting the soft flesh of her lower lip, clasped shut around her cries, and an urge boiled up within her to break that composure, to insist that Favourite break her cool mocking mask and admit that she was as foolish as any man, as wild as any woman.
When she raised her head from Favourite's breasts, she was aware of the ache between her own legs, wished she could satisfy herself here and now, but was spurred on by the look Favourite gave her from darkened eyes, a challenge and a question in one. "More," Favourite said and her voice was a little hoarse as though she had stifled back sounds, choked them in her throat before they could ever be heard, Dahlia sank instantly though she was not even sure why, traced her fingers down Favourite's stomach, watched her body contract and her wrists tug restlessly at their bindings, silk rubbing at her skin, a gentle confinement, and then as though she had done this before, as though this was not something that had never occurred in her darkest and wildest dreams, she followed her fingers with kisses, down the tensed muscle of Favourite's skin, over the sweet indents of her hipbones, where the skin was soft and fragile and sensitive, down the descent of her thighs, a teasing trail laid by lips and tongue and instinct that drove her on, when she would have faltered. She hesitated there, unsure, daunted by the impossibility of what she contemplated the obscenity of her actions until she reflected, Favourite could have no room to judge her.
It was a shock at first, she was unsure as she traced fingers where her mouth had so recently been, dared the softness of hair- lighter where Favourite's mane of hair was dark and dramatic, let her fingers do what she had only done in the dark to herself since the first time Alphonse had left her wanting and unsatisfied. She could not claim skill or understanding, but Favourite, it seemed, demanded neither, arched up under her, raised her hips a little from the bed and though she didn't ask with her mouth, her body demanded more. With greater confidence, Dahlia continued, allowed her fingers to find an entrance, watched with fascination as Favourite squirmed, control wisping away, a shred at a time, as though the silk that bound her hands had for the moment bound her tongue as well.
Dahlia had come so far she could not retreat, nor did she wish to. The only thing she could compare this to was as a child wading out into the sea and being compelled by a vicious current to stumble forward, to resign herself to the water. She felt the same relentless tug now, an urge that overtook her limbs and filled her mind and left her hollowed out and empty, a vessel for Favourite's pleasure, and she realised dimly that she had allowed her other hand to ruck up her chemise, to enact a symmetry upon herself, a convergence of movements that brought them together. Favourite was wet under her fingers, and greedy, she did not loose Dahlia, nor care about her pleasure except as it contributed to her own, could not even see her as she closed her eyes, and clenched around Dahlia's fingers and came, mouth wide, at last a sound allowed to leave as she shuddered and shook, and ripped the silk right off her hands.
There was no sound in the room bar Favourite's harsh breaths, and the slick sound of Dahlia's fingers attempting to find her own pleasure, until, when the blood had rushed back into Favourite's fingers and rendered them rosy, with little ceremony she pulled Dahlia down, and with no shame joined her tongue to Dahlia's fingers, immodestly and shamefully, an impossible thing that made Dahlia come in moments, more, she thought from the hot rush of shame, than from the feeling. Afterwards, they lay there curled upon the bed, a parody of modest maidenhood, and Favourite shook out her hair once more.
"Do you see?" she said sleepily. "I was bound and you were free, yet you were my idolator, my suitor. You must do the same with them, let them chase you as though you were a fawn in a forest, let them conceive that it is their idea to give you what you want. There are numbers, you know, that stand alone, that cannot be divided by anything else but themselves, and by one, which is another way of saying yourself. To be such a number is to be desirable to the men who will seek to divide you and yet fail."
“English mannerisms,” murmured Dahlia, close to sleep and not attending as she should.
“English vices,” Favourite corrected, but Dahlia was asleep.