Our mock fight over and all of us suffering from uncontrollable fits of giggles, I turned to Emmanuel. "Please tell me that you do not really think I could pass for ten," I said, looking down at myself. True, I was quite short for my age and starvation-thin, but I did not have the figure of a ten-year-old. Nor, I hoped, the face.
"It was only in jest," he said, trying to reassure me. "I am surprised that they fell for it. But do you not see, Clara, that without thinking you were too young and our companions too old, you would have been in grave danger of their bad behaviour extending to you?"
"Of course. You are right. I should have realised." Truth be told, I did know that that was why he had said such a thing, but it was a little offensive even so. After all, looking younger when you are five-and-thirty is one thing, but somebody of fifteen summers never wants to resemble a child.
"Clara, Clara," said Annette, wiping the laughter tears from her eyes. "At least he did not say you were thirty!"
"That is of some consolation," I agreed. "Emmanuel, next time ... please warn us before you say such a thing, or we may lose control when we are still in the hearing of such soldiers." Without even realising I had taken on the air of a fine lady. It must have been the company, for I had never before spoken with such grace and such a smart accent. On the contrary, my words before had been the language of the gutter.
"I hope there will not be a next time," he said soberly. "France is broken enough without such sinful men as those." We all bowed our heads, feeling the seriousness of the moment and taking it to our hearts.
Annette suddenly broke the silence. "Anyway, we've got past them, haven't we?" she said, always one to look on the bright side of life. At least, that was the impression I had had of her until now. I knew that there was sadness in her past, but that was something we all shared. Tragedy was no stranger to la Bande Blanche.
"And we are in the city," I said. "Got there at last, hein?"
"Clara!" Marie sounded scandalised. "Please, don't let me ever catch you using such common language again. You are not a young man, who only needs words for shouts and brawls in pubs!"
"All I said was 'eh'," I objected. "It's not a big deal."
"It's not ladylike." She frowned. "Now that we are in the city, I'd like you to play the part. We may have to pretend to be sisters and so we need to seem to be from the same background. 'Eh' indeed!"
"Yeah, because we so look like we're from the same background," I said, looking at our clothes, and subconsciously lapsing back into the language of other people my age. Short, rebellious and angry. But we could hardly be sisters when I was in a thrice-mended skirt over a rag of a petticoat, with rips in my blouse that the bodice hardly covered and with hair hanging loose without a ribbon.
"Hush, Clara. We would get you some new clothes if we could. You know the Blanche needs our money for other things."
Yes, but a lack of providing for its members might be its downfall, if it meant that we were discovered.