What Kind of Life Have You Known

From his chair in the front row, Lucien did not respond at first to the slight creak of the sanctuary door, preferring to continue his meditation on the crucifix above the altar and on the sacrifice of Our Lord on the Cross. Try as he might, he could not go on, with other matters weighing on his conscience and the added annoyance of remembering to inform the sacristain to oil the hinges.

So much had occurred since that morning nearly a year ago, when a lost soul had sought the refuge of God's House. At that time, he was able to offer His Grace and Forgiveness. Now, he would offer His Judgment and demand for Obedience. Lucien's theology had taught him they were to be held equal. But would Erik be able to submit, or risk eternal damnation?

The black leather glove on his shoulder provoked his own not inconsiderable intellect into action. Erik would resist him, using that extraordinary mind to gainsay him. It would never surrender, but his heart…

"Lucien, you wish to speak to me?" Erik glanced about him, not surprised at the emptiness. Afternoons for the priest consisted of either paroisse visitations or study in his library at the presbytère. Choosing to meet here was a bit unusual but he supposed that Lucien wanted no interruption from Mme. Camier or any paroissiens.

"Yes," the curé replied hesitantly. Erik seemed distracted and perhaps a bit paler. His lady's return to Paris after such a joyous holiday was proving manageable, though Lucien suspected that Erik, for the first time, was allowing the genuine emotion of loneliness to seep in through his pores. What had been painful in the abstract of his previous life was now aching in reality.

Drawing a long breath, he decided that Erik's intelligence would demand no less than a straightforward approach.

"You never told Christine of Persia. I cannot perform your marriage until she knows all."

A stiffening posture and swift icy cast in his eyes belied Erik's civil response. "Lucien, why do you assume that I have not told her all of my past?"

Lucien shifted in his chair under that uncomfortable gaze but would not be forestalled.

"Because she betrayed her ignorance to me whilst I dined with the Giry women in Paris. A jovial recital of her travels with her father drew the offhand comment that she knew from Mme. Giry that you also had traveled for a period of time but where and to what extent neither she nor Mme. Giry knew. Not knowing what to say, I covered the moment with a quip that you were a fortunate man indeed to not be burdened with an overly inquisitive wife. She gave me such a startled look that I thought she was going to ask me if I knew of your activities only to drop her eyes and change the subject."

Meeting Erik look for look he continue, "She has never asked you, I suspect, out of a sense of wishing to trust you. Erik, you must not betray her or that trust. She must know."

At that, Erik bolted up and paced around the nave, furiously turning on his heel to face his accuser. "She was never to know. I have laid enough on that dear girl's soul. It is not enough that my baronne will risk slights and jeers for this," angrily pointing to the mask on the right side of his face. "Do you have any doubt she is attempting to pray my soul out of Purgatory for my behavior at the Populaire? Would you have her tormented with being shackled to an assassin of the Shah of Persia for the rest of her life? I will ask our Lord Jesus to hold my sins but, by the Holy Virgin, not her."

Lucien countered in his most jurisprudent fashion, "You know the culpability of assassins under authority other than their own is a gray area in civil codes, much less ecclesiastical ones. The extenuating circumstances of your role further clouds the issue. The Church is still arguing the relative merits of the positions of the Dominican, St. Thomas Aquinas versus De Lugo, the Jesuit, on the subject of self-defense."

Snorting in something like amusement, Erik contradicted, "An argument worthy of a lawyer and a Jesuit, Lucien, but a bit sophistical. My hand held the lasso. Even so, Christine will not know. Brides and bridegrooms have hidden secrets from each other for centuries for the good of the marriage. If an impediment was declared in every case, there would be no marriages and a noticeable absence of numbers from the altar rail. It will be no different in this instance."

Lucien pushed his fingers through his hair in frustration. "It is one thing for the Church to absolve your sin thought confession, repentance, and restitution, particularly as civil authorities have not sought to compound the issue. For her not to know and still wed you is a defect of consent given to what was not intended. You know Church Law as well as or better than I; it is redundans in personam, in this case, the defect of consent through deceit or dissimulation. Under such circumstances, her consent to wed you cannot be free. Tell her, and I will marry you anywhere de Bonnechose allows."

Erik stood as a dark looming presence before the curé, his arms crossed in defiance.

"Tell her and it will crush her. You argument is not as strong as you think. De Bonnechose can overrule you at any point; I am not such a fool to believe that the Church wishes to undermine my plans as it would certainly undermine theirs."

Lucien bolted up, allowing his temper greater rein. Erik needed a sharp reminder of the Church's authority.

"If you think de Bonnechose will blithely ignore the truth being withheld from Christine then you are being a fool. De Bonnechose certainly has a political side but he began his career as a district attorney, sworn to uphold justice and protect the innocent. He will not forget for one second that she is the innocent party and will impose a Vetitum Ecclesiae on the marriage until you have fulfilled the condition of laying out the entire truth to her."

Moving closer in, the younger man snarled threateningly, "And that little piece of work will destroy every shred of faith she ever built up in me, in addition to burdening her with even more of my hideous past."

"Erik, you have to make your choice."

"You're right; I do and I have."

As Erik slammed out the doors he look back, almost envisioning Dante's words from the Divine Comedy, this time engraved on the lintel instead of the Gates of Hell, seeking to mock him for daring to reach for Heaven.

Lasciate ogne speranza, voi ch'intrate

Abandon Hope, all ye who enter here

§

Raoul sighed at the enormous list in front of him. Who would have thought that his decision to leave France would involve so many details? The trip to America involved packing clothing, documents of identification and acquiring passage in Le Harve. This time his travel accommodations would be quite different.

Stubbing his cigarette out in the porcelain dish on the desk, he massaged his temples, wondering for the thousandth time whether he was making the right decision. The scratch on the library door blessedly relieved him of one more round of internal arguments.

The first footman entered warily, nervous at the news he was to impart. It was rampant gossip below the stairs that the Comtesse's masked friend had not only usurped the Vicomte's rights to succeed as Comte de Chagny but had boldly made off the young master's affianced bride. Moreover, that the Vicomte seemed more disturbed by the latter than the former. Now the gentleman, Baron de Carpentier, wished to speak to him alone.

Raoul waved the footman away to fetch the newly minted Baron with an disinterest he was not feeling. What could the man possibly want now that he did not already have? Conscious of his slightly disheveled state, he pulled on his coat and smoothed back his hair with his hand.

As the footman held the door, his cousin entered, his eyes glittering in a pale, set face. Raoul motioned the servant to set a chair in front of the desk, and a quick flick of the wrist to dismiss him. He would give the downstairs no reason to gossip over this unexpected visit.

Erik stood rooted in place, measuring Raoul, wondering if he had lost his mind for what he was about to say after all that had been said between them. Words that now lodged tightly in his throat along with a lifetime of tears.

Aware of his fingers drumming on the silver cigarette case, Raoul grew weary of the silence and broke it with, "Cousin, please be seated. What an unexpected… surprise. May I offer you a cigarette?"

Looking in dazed fascination as youthful fingers expertly extracted the hand-rolled cigarette, Erik, taking the seat, shook his head in refusal, adding, "Tobacco is a filthy habit. Do you have any cigars?"

Raoul almost smiled at the incongruity of the statements and relaxed a bit. Rapier wit was far easier to tolerate when it was not aimed at one's head.

"I do not but my father keeps an exceptional Habanos in that humidor on corner of the desk." Striking a match to light his own, he watched in amusement as Erik expertly cut the cigar's head with Michel's guillotine cutter, lighting it twice in the approved fashion—once horizontally in his hand, rotating in the flame to evenly warm the end and placing it in his lips to draw as he continued to rotate it in the flame. Michel used the same series of movements and gestures.

Satisfied that his cigar was properly lit, Erik crossed his legs and returned his focus to the younger man.

"De Chagny, do whatever you have to do, say whatever you have to say but take Christine away from the Populaire as soon as possible. Don't haggle with those fool managers; I will cover the cost of breaking her contract and any other expenses you incur on her behalf. Just get her away. I suggest Sweden as she knows the language well and has relatives there but England will do since I assume you know English."

Several moments passed, as Erik studied the lit cigar in his fingertips.

"She will put up an awful struggle, of course; just wear down her stubbornness with your gifts of persuasion."

Raoul shook off his sense of astonishment with a bark of laughter. "Cousin, if I needed any further verification of your madness, I have ample proof today. You fought me at every turn for her." Except once…"Your faith in my gifts of persuasion is gratifying but are you not concerned that I would used those same gifts to persuade her into matrimony?"

"I not only expect it but also am counting on it."

The impassivity in Erik's face was in sharp contrast to Raoul's evident dumbfoundment. He felt as if he had been kicked in the belly. Striving for recovery, he allowed some righteously pent-up anger to vent.

"Sir, I do not dance to your tune. And I no longer do that which I do not understand."

"You do not need to understand. I am offering her to your protection."

"Then, in spite of these flattering conditions, I must decline."

"So in order to understand you would be my confessor."

"So it would seem."

"But as my confessor you are sworn to secrecy."

"Yes, I know."

Hazy clouds of smoke dance around Erik's head as he contemplated his next words.

"Then I must tell you of Persia."

§

It had all been arranged. De Tourtier had agreed, with handsome recompense, to take up residence at the chateau in order to settle his affairs and deflect Christine when she arrived. It was not a matter of if…he knew her too well. The servants were told that M. le Baron was going on travels of an undetermined, though quite lengthy period, and that all questions were to be addressed to the steward. De Tourtier, in turn, was to subtly direct Mlle. Daaé to the de Chagny chateau and her future. As soon as the boy had her out of the country, he would come back to put the last of his affairs in order and disappear into his new life.

Daaé's violin rested in its open case, mocking him for his useless attempt to live as normal a life as possible for a man in his circumstance—to flourish in the love of a wife, to guard and nurture his children, to see his immortality in his grandchildren.

Lèon had brought in the crate, intending to complete its final packing for its journey in the brougham to the train depot but Erik stayed him, wishing to finish this task alone. Running his hand along the silkily varnished belly, he gently hugged it against his chest, unable to stop the tears that were now flowing down his cheeks.

"Dear friend, you cannot come where I am going and you are better served with the one who treasures you more than I, if such a thing is possible."

Placing the rest under his chin, he took up the bow and held it lightly above the strings, his eyes closed tightly as he poured his suffering into the raspy harshness of the opening notes of the allegro movement from Vivaldi's L'hiver.

§

Meg tried to ignore the rumble in her stomach as she began a methodical search of the opera house. It was not like Christine to forget her appointments and not meet her as the Café de l'Opera for lunch as they had agreed. So as her midsection continued its protest, she explored her dressing room, the rehearsal rooms, the business offices, anywhere the jeunne fille might be.

"Christine, where are you?" Meg whispered as she contemplated that her foster sister may have left the premises in a cab. Really, she hadn't had so much trouble locating her since…

She found her kneeling on the floor of the chapel, her head bent down with her father's violin clutched against her bodice. As Meg lightly place her hand on her shoulder, Christine stirred, as if awakened from a light nap, looking up at her with huge dark eyes that reflected something beyond suffering.

"Christine, what does this mean?" Meg rasped, afraid that she did know. Erik would never part with Daaé's violin without cause.

"I know what this means. Now, I must find out why this means." Christine's hollow voice was totally devoid of any emotion, of any music.

"Is there no note, no explanation?"

Christine shook her head and lifted up the violin in both hands for her inspection. "This is his note," she replied dully.

Some minutes later, she reverently placed the violin in her lap, her eyes darkening with purpose compelled by despair.

"Meg, I need your cooperation. I am leaving for Bezancourt tomorrow morning by train. I will leave a letter for the managers that… that I received a telegram stating that the Comtesse de Chagny is gravely ill and I must attend to her at Fleury-sur-Andelle—they need not know that I am traveling the north spur from Gizors to Gouray-en-Bray rather than further west on the Rouen route. Even with La Fille set to debut in two weeks, they will be hard pressed to protest, as professionally zealous they are of guarding the de Chagny patronage, and as personally afraid they are of Madame la Comtesse."

"But, Christine, you are going alone? What will Maman say?..."

One of the musicians entered the chapel, startled at sight of Mlle. Daae holding a very fine violin. Prodded to action, she grabbed Meg's hand and rushed her back to her dressing room for some much-needed privacy.

Upon locking the door, Christine turned to her and said, "Meg, you are to tell her after my departure. There is no time to waste. It is not that unusual for a woman my age to travel alone; I can cover more ground faster. Something else has complicated the issue."

"Christine, you are not…" Meg blushed at what she was to say but in 1872 France it was more the rule than the exception for a betrothed woman.

"I am not what?" Christine questioning look finally dissolved into understanding and bitter self-mockery. "No, I am not," she replied, her mind crowded with an overwhelming why, now joined by the awareness that a disclosure that she was carrying his child might have stayed his actions, whatever his reasons.

"No, it is this. Someone in the opera house saw fit to leave this morning's edition of the Epoch's gossip page in my dressing room."

Meg read the article, her eyebrows raised nearly to the top of her forehead.

Dear Readers, an interesting dollop of information from the Court (and supposedly Her Majesty's own lips) has come to your Author's attention involving one well-connected noble family and a certain young opera diva who shall remain nameless. It would seem that said diva has transferred her affections from the scion of the family to the recently discovered heir to the family title.

My sources reveal that said lawful heir was abducted as an infant and disfigured on his face while enslaved by nefarious types. Upon his escape, he is reported to have embarked upon a checkered, though lucrative career outside the confines of Europe. One might question of the timing of his reappearance on his native soil but as our Sovereign upholds his proofs and claims a debt of honor to this man's father, the government has been tasked to expedite the matter through the Conseil du Sceau, tout de suite.

Our lovely diva, however, remains a puzzle. Events of the past year and a half would lead you, Dear Readers, to suspect that she has consistent, though decidedly odd taste in gentlemen. Moreover, the presence of a single rather costly ring on her right hand, when it is well known at her venue of employment that she has refused countless other expensive baubles from various interested parties, surely indicates her serious attachment as well as my Court sources confirming France's newest nobleman's most honorable intentions. Dear Readers, your Author will keep you apprised of any further interesting developments, such as the posting of banns.

"Christine, no one in Paris but Maman and I know of your betrothal at present. Now, everyone will know before tonight's performance."

Her foster sister shrugged in resignation. "I had hoped to make that announcement public when my contract came up for renegotiation but it would seem Their Majesties have forced my hand for whatever reason. I am off to my bank for a cash withdrawal and to purchase my ticket. If anyone looks for me, say that I have gone home with a sore throat. I cannot deal with the gossip, now. This matter must remain personal."

"Christine Daaé, I know you; nothing will change your mind once you have set it. At least promise you will eat," Meg chided bigheartedly.

Christine's lower lip trembled at this artless reminder of concern borne out of family love. Hugging Meg tightly, she finally allowed herself the luxury of tears to express the fear and pain that her mind had held in check since opening a crate containing a violin that was more than just that.

§

The sway of Erik's brougham was one seemingly endless extension of the cadence that had started that morning at the Saint-Lazare station. It continued from her train trip to Gourney-en-Bray, through the hired conveyance to Bezancourt, and now to Fleury-sur-Andelle with Jean-Louis in adamant attendance.

Fortunately, the train trip had been mercifully undisturbed, with her fellow passengers perhaps realizing that the sad-eyed young mademoiselle in her dark blue traveling toilette did not wish to be disturbed. One bearded balding gentleman of perhaps forty did glance at her often as he worked feverously over a sketchpad. She did not raise any objection. The package of bread and cheese, pressed into her hands by a worried Meg at the Saint-Lazare, remained undisturbed on her red velvet seat as she stepped off the car to negotiate the hire of suitable transportation.

In the faces of the Erik's servants was the reflection of her own distress and disbelief. Only M. de Tourtier remained impassive, informing her that M. le Baron had departed three days earlier without revealing his destination but expressing a wish that she present herself to the Vicomte de Chagny for any assistance. Père Maillard? He had departed the following day for Rouen.

For the next two hours, gentle caring hands undressed her, drew her bath, changed her into a carriage dress, and gently coaxed a few morsels of food into her. M. de Tourtier had argued against her attempting the 25-kilometer drive to Fleury-sur-Andelle that afternoon but she would not be dissuaded. His mention of Raoul had startled her to her core as she realized its meaning—that entrusting her care to the Vicomte could never be construed as an act of expediency on Erik's part. Judging from his past decisions, it was always an act of love.

§

Ever since his conversation with his Erik, Raoul had methodically prepared his train of arguments for Christine's inveiglement. It would take an enormous quantity of guile to break through her stubbornness but his cousin had expressed great faith in what did he call it—his gifts of persuasion? Everyone's future depended on his ability lead her to the right decision for her happiness.

She sat before him in the salon, alone this time, without the dark brooding presence beside her. Her extraordinary stillness gave lie to what he suspected she was experiencing internally. This was not the girl in the lair who shook with terror as his life hung in the balance but a young woman whose calm demeanor masked a fear that was every bit as real.

Christine did not mince words. "Raoul, you know where he is and why he left."

"Christine, I do not know where he is," he replied truthfully, "and I do not know why he has left," he lied dispassionately. "But I have spoken to him and he did entrust you to my care. He wishes me to remove you from France to Sweden or, perhaps, England."

"That can only mean that he never wishes to see me again."

Raoul brushed his fingers over the top of a small dome-shaped glass music box on the ornate mantel. He absently open and closed it, airing snippets of a tinkling melody. She watched in limp stupefaction his treatment of the delicate ornament, unable to tear her eyes away…

"Christine, has it occurred to you that there is much you do not know about this man with whom you would entrust the rest of your life?" Raoul continued with his maddening actions as she struggled with a need to howl at him to put the music box away before her head exploded. Its chaotic plinks dissonantly twisted with another tune that still invaded her dreams, both waking and sleeping…

A music box in the shape of a monkey.

A monkey in Persian robes.

A horse with a Persian name that understood his master's Persian words.

As she dragged her eyes away to stare intently into his, she felt a fleeting spark of connectedness pass between them that she had never experienced in all their time together. Just as fleetingly, it disappeared. But it was enough to tell her what she needed to do next.

Raoul schooled his emotions behind a mask of civility at what he, too, felt. She would never know the joy and pain that moment cost him and the further expense of his next words.

"In any case, I, once more, have discovered an autocratic streak in my cousin which brooks no argument. He assumed that I would bow to his will without considering I might have prior claims upon my person. Even he must bow to the Emperor who has graciously reactivated my naval commission to the Royale. I am to report in several weeks to Cherbourg to assist in the recommisioning of the corvette Montcalm for departure to China. I daresay I shall be away for any number of years."

"So you see Little Lotte, I will always think of you and our childhood times fondly but I cannot be expected to compete with a ghost. Each of us must find our own way in this life and I think it is not fated that you and I travel that road together." He laughed ingenuously at his own wordplay and added, "And mine shall not even be a road but a sea-lane."

Again, she felt the connectedness before he dropped his eyes to scrutinize at the music box still in his hands. It was enough. Touching his smooth handsome cheek, she gave it a swift kiss, adding, "God bless you, Raoul de Chagny, for every kindness you have shown your Little Lotte. I will never forget."

Raoul smiled bittersweetly in understanding and asked, "What will you do?"

"I am returning to the Populaire. There is an introduction there that is long overdue."

"You must be tired," he remonstrated. "Should you not stay the night? I am sure Mother can arrange…" Christine put her index finger to his lips and embraced him quickly before exiting the room.

Some ten minutes later, the crunch of carriage wheels echoed on the road he would not travel. Tossing the music box from hand to hand, he thought of Erik's trust in his powers of persuasion, amused that his cousin, and not he, had underestimated her stubbornness. As he held the music box in his cupped hand, he suddenly realized the aching permanency of his decisions. With that, the music box met its fate, shattered into countless pieces at the back of a fireplace.

§

For the first time in his memory, Nadir avoided the pockets of gossip that imbued the opera house. Hearsay only interested him if a kernel of truth could be plucked from its hyperbole. The rumors that the little Daaé was betrothed to Erik had become its latest exaggeration if Erik's most recent correspondence was trustworthy. Why he had broken with her was not forthcoming but he had asked that Nadir watch over her as long as she remained at the Populaire which Erik assured him would not be for any extended length of time.

Comfortably situated at the back of the theater in his favorite seat, his chin resting on the tiger's eye head of his malacca cane, the Persian started at the rustle of skirts that abruptly occupied the place beside him. The shadows under her eyes made the little Daaé seem older but there was a militant defiance in those dark eyes that would brook no argument.

"Monsieur, you have me have a disadvantage. You know who I am but I only know you as the Persian. I would like to remedy that situation as I am certain we have a mutual friend in common."

Nadir wrestled against a decided uneasiness as he studied her pale face. For years he had wandered among the denizens of this great edifice, tolerated but never included, allowed to keep his anonymity and mystery. By the martial light in her eyes, this slip of a girl was preparing to run roughshod over his comfortable existence if he was not mistaken. Damn Erik. Why did he cut and run? The fat is in the fire now.

"Mademoiselle, pardon my manners. I am unused to being addressed directly in this setting. My name is Nadir, simply Nadir. In my country surnames are uncommon."

"M. Nadir, you must be inordinately fond of the Populaire. I can recall your presence here nearly as long as that of our mutual friend."

Did he see a flash of humor in those eyes before she demurely lowered them? Really, European women were beyond understanding.

"Mademoiselle, you speak of a mutual friend but I am not sure…"

There was nothing demure in those eyes now. There were sparks of impatience that pinned him to his seat.

"Monsieur, let us not indulge in polite vagaries. You know Erik. I am not supposed to know this. You knew Erik in Persia. I am not supposed to know this, either. The fact that I am not supposed to know any of this is why I am having this conversation with you. Erik's secrets may be more powerful that I know. But it is in the knowing that I intend to break their power."

Nadir looked at her with dawning respect for her intuitive gifts but hesitated. It might be dangerous if Erik's secrets did not remain Erik's secrets. He had no wish to cross a man with such discriminating skills.

Allowing her eyes to soften, she continued, "You are afraid of him. I understand. I will not allow harm to come to you, you must believe me. But right now I am more concerned with the harm he may be doing himself."

The outcome of that night in the lair was not lost upon Nadir. Erik had been perilously close to dispatching the young Vicomte to his Maker had not the little Daaé intervened. What is more, those first few weeks at Bezancourt had revealed Erik's capacity for self-destruction. Did he trust this little one to know what she was about? He remembered his words to Erik regarding her:

"If she is the only one who could tear those demons out of you then, Allah forgive me, perhaps her white Christian God is the only one that can save you now."

Now, it was a matter of if her white Christian God could save her from those demons she held in check if he dared tell her of Persia.

§

Christine felt that Nadir's suggestion of their retiring to her dressing room entirely sensible if privately amusing since so few men had been allowed to cross its threshold. In light of the smirks and sly comments generated by the Epoch column, the discovery of the mysterious Persian in her private quarters would certainly guarantee another round of tongue wagging.

As she guardedly shut and locked the door, Nadir cast a discriminating eye on her renovations. They were a bit subdued to his oriental palate but more consistent than Carlotta's undisciplined tastes. It did not matter, as they would not be staying long. Their business lay behind the mirror.

Christine gasped in dismay as the Persian felt along its left rim, his fingers searching for a firm grip.

"Monsieur, what are you doing?"

"Mademoiselle, if you wish to know the truth, you will not find it in this prettily decorated room. The truth is down there."

Flattering child, you shall know me.

"That is nonsense," she replied firmly. There are only ghosts of memories down there. Truth exists in the light of day."

"Perhaps your truth exists there but what of his?" His look was compassionate, but challenging.

See why in shadows I hide.

Christine walked up to the mirror, gently touching its glossy surface with her fingertips. How often over the past few months it had teased and mocked her lack of courage in confronting that night? What began on the rooftop on a chilly New Year' Eve had never found its denouement.

Look at you face in the mirror.

Standing back, she nodded her assent as he achieved enough leverage to slide the stiff, unyielding mirror on its tracks. He entered first, retrieving a box of matches from his pocket in order to light the torch that she had left in the sconce so many months ago. Beckoning her with a wave of his hand, she crossed over the threshold.

I am there inside.

§

Twice she had walked this passageway in a state of unreality, once in wonder, once in oblivion. Now, circumstances would not afford her the emotional protection of either. As they descended through the five cellars, every wretched detail of his existence became apparent—the dank chill, the scurrying rats, the endless darkness that the torch barely disturbed. The boat was moored as Raoul and she had left it, no longer the beautiful pleasure craft of her dreams but cold and wet with torn and rotting cushions. Nadir carefully guided it to the edge of Erik's lair, or rather what was left of it. Christine nearly wept at the splintered carcass that was his organ, the torn and mildewed volumes, the rich hangings that lay in tatters on the stony floor.

"I see the mob did a rather thorough job, as most mobs are wont to do. It is my theory that the French draw upon their own revolutionary history to become so accomplished in the art of destruction of personal property," Nadir drawled with a hint of irony in his inflection. He set about righting what candles he could find, lighting them from his torch. The effect was sadly lacking but prevented the space from being plunged into total darkness.

"Mademoiselle, I rather suspect that you have not returned here since that night," motioning his torch in a arch around their surroundings. "Your faith freed Erik's soul from some of the more appalling aspects of his spiritual entrapment. But I know this man. He still fears his personal demons, not to the extent that they might harm him but what they might do to you. Something or someone has led him to believe that you are at risk. Since you approached me about Persia, it would seem that you have dismissed other possibilities. Those devils you know but this one you do not."

Holding the torch close to her face, he continued.

"So, Erik didn't tell you. In his circumstances, I am not sure I would, either. Somehow, he has been put in a position of telling you or abandoning you. How he came to this juncture is debatable but my prominent Mohammedan nose tells me that Rome somehow plays in this. Those black robes always did strike me as a bit too involved in everyone's life. Well, I have taken no oath of secrecy though I may rue this day's meddling in Erik's affairs. Perhaps, I'm a fool to trust you but you are the only person I have ever known to have any great degree of influence over him."

After drawing back the torch in order to place it in a bracket, Nadir strolled leisurely around, poking the tip of his cane at anything that interested him.

"Persia began not in Persia but at the Nijni-Novgorad Fair in Russia. Word had filtered from the caravans that a great magician was enchanting the crowds with his feats of legerdemain and angelically compelling voice. My liege, the Shah of Shahs was bored, always looking for any manner of entertainment beyond the usual pedestrian fare."

"I was tasked with the duty of persuading Erik to come to Mazenderan, offering inducements of wealth and great power. I am not sure why he accepted but he did. Our journey south was a revelation for me. This young man had abilities beyond what I had ever seen. While still in his teens, he had journeyed across Europe to India to study with the Mantriks. While already an accomplished magician in the European style, it is from them that he learned even greater feats, foremost to use the power of the vibrations in his voice to cast a spell over one's senses, morally unhampered as he was by its religious context. By mischance, he and some fellow disciples were met by a rogue band of professional assassins called Thuggees that had escaped the final purge of the 1830's. As was their fashion, the Thuggees befriended them at first, only to kill each captive one by one. Except Erik. A European who wore a mask that covered his face from his forehead to his lips and who could learn any dialect in short order fascinated them. Sensing he might be useful, they permitted him to live among them, in particular allowing him to watch demonstrations of the yellow scarf, or Rumal, used in strangling victims."

Glancing over his shoulder in the midst of his exploration, Nadir made note of her extraordinary stillness as she focused intently on the glassy surface of the lake.

"Perhaps I should explain about the Thuggees. They considered assassination for gain a religious duty to their goddess Kali, a holy and honorable profession, in which morality did not come into play. Your European Catholic upbringing cannot conceive of the notion of assassins but I assure you that every country in the civilized and uncivilized world uses the services of such men. It's only that some countries, such as France, are more discreet in their judicious application than those in my corner of the world."

Nadir poked at the bust of a man head, broken in pieces on the stone floor and continued his narrative.

"Ah, I had nearly forgotten about the mask. In those days he wore a more concealing mask, which according to him, afforded him an anonymity and mystery that he used to his advantage. Orientals do no fear masks as Westerners do; in fact, he was able to move about quite freely among us. His present mask is a compromise to what I see as overly acute European sensibilities and perhaps out of deference to the feelings of one young mademoiselle."

Hazarding another glance, he noticed a shiver run down her back at his last words, her gaze still upon the waters.

"In any case, the Thuggees learned to their chagrin the masked European could play their game but by his rules. He swiftly adapted the technique of the clumsy though ceremonial Rumal to a lasso, able to eliminate one-on-one rather than the two to three thugs it took to bring down an unsuspecting traveler. The chagrin was that he did not use his skills to improve theirs, but rather to make his escape from their dubious hospitality."

"His travels took him east to China and west to Russia where his unique talents both afforded him all the luxuries of life and protection from some of its baser elements. My tales of Persia intrigued him with its wealth and concentrated power in its ruler. That was one of the rare critical errors in his reasoning. Centralized power was power that could abuse most readily."

"And there was the ruler behind the ruler, the Little Sultana."

"A court magician and advisor was all fine and well but it was Erik's gift with the lasso that intrigued her. The ruling family had enemies that needed elimination and she had found her perfect angel of destruction. Erik, of course, understood killing in self-defense but had no desire to bloody his hands in political assassination with so many others eager to fill the position for personal gain. The Little Sultana was clever. Turning Erik into an assassin would bring him into her spider's web of treachery. Offers of increased wealth did not interest him so she sought other methods. Refusals were met with consequences, though not to his person. She knew better than to be so crude—at least at that point. At first it was the beheading for some trifling offence of a little servant girl who cleaned his suite in the palace. As more died, so did his will to deny the Little Sultana. He became her personal assassin, dispatching family enemies and religious activists at her command for assignments requiring the most finesse. If she felt his reluctance, she would find a new sacrificial lamb that catered to what she mockingly called his European Christian fastidiousness. I sometimes wondered if her use of him was less for political expediency than a need to abuse him in her desire to strike back at the encroaching ways of the West that he symbolized to her."

"The Little Sultana's overweening ego finally ended this chapter of Erik's life. Killing servants had become inefficient. She needed to ensure Erik's obedience for all time, sensing that he was planning his escape in spite of being kept under constant observation. My friendship with the European had not gone unnoticed. As Daroga, or as you would say, chief inspector, of Mazenderan, I had grown accustomed to utilizing Erik's extraordinary ability to garner information and in turn taught him to navigate the uncertain waters of Court life."

"She felt the need to obtain a decisive victory over Erik's will and planned her attack accordingly, not considering that he might counterattack."

The Persian unearthed a relatively undamaged chair from the debris, and rested in it. As he stared at the tiger's eye handle, the lines in his face deepened sorrowfully in memory…

"When I found them, they looked so peaceful, as in a deep sleep. My wife and three children. Erik has dined with us on occasion, showing appropriate respect for her observance of hijib, playful with the children, entertaining them with magic and the like. Erik thought the use of poison feminine in its deceit but knew the Little Sultana to be a mistress of the art. She used my family as her finest canvas."

"I do not clearly remember what happened after that point. Erik made all the decisions for me. By some means, he spirited us out of Persia, through bribes and the judicious use of two bodies obtained from grave robbers. Obtaining a suitable European was not as difficult as you might imagine as Persia was becoming overrun with them at the time. It was his cursed height that might have given away the game. He told me he did the best he could but his double might have been slightly undersized. In any event it was not hard to imagine that in the course of escape, the Daroga of Mazenderan and the Little Sultana's personal assassin might have other enemies who also wished them harm—enemies who mutilated their bodies and tossed them in the Caspian for good measure. In the end, Erik had his freedom and his revenge in the form of a king's ransom in jewels that he pilfered from the Royal family. Jewels served as collateral for the huge personal loans the Shah of Shahs contracted with foreign interests—the disappearance of a number of select pieces was not permanently damaging but certainly inconvenient for a cash-strapped monarch. Those jewels were our companions back to Europe, put in the vault of the Schweizerische Kreditanstalt in Zurich, held awaiting sale in discreet increments and invested with skill. Erik appreciated the discretion in the Swiss banking industry but the impracticality of distance forced him to conduct business locally with Crédit Industriel et Commercial and Société Générale."

Forced by restless energy to move again, he sprang up and continued his examination of the lair artifacts with his cane.

"I do not look like a wealthy man, living as I do in a small flat, but inside is everything of the finest. I have ample means to travel and indulge in any kind of entertainment of which Paris has to offer. Erik wanted to divide the profits of the jewels evenly but what need do I have of so much money? Eventually, he came to a better decision—clandestinely directed retributions to the families of his victims in Persia and discreet funds provided over the years to augment the income of a widow with one natural daughter and one foster daughter who was left penniless by an improvident father. I handled most of his contacts and he directed my investments to great purpose—bonds, trains, mining—just recently he caught rumor of De Rothschild Frères sniffing around Spanish copper mines. But surely, this is boring to a young mademoiselle like yourself…"

Nadir turned from his prodding at the tattered hangings to the sight of Christine hunched over the lake, retching violently into its smoky mists.

§

As the Persian held her head, gently wiping her face with his linen handkerchief, it occurred to her that Mohammedans did not touch women who were not closely related to them, groggily wondering if years in Europe had broken down some taboo in him. Yet for all of his religion's exaggerated courtesy to women, he had lived in a country that sanctioned cold-blooded political murder and had transformed Erik into one of their own.

"Mademoiselle, are you able to stand?" he asked with the gentlest of solicitude, guiding her to the chair at her nod. "Curse my undisciplined tongue; I am not used to speaking of such blunt matters to delicate young ladies. There must be a better way to tell you this story but I did not have the refinement to do so."

"Monsieur, my mind prefers the undistorted truth even if my body refuses to cooperate. I fear there was no way it would be otherwise," she replied hoarsely.

"So now you know, mademoiselle, what Erik would have spared you. Buquet deserved to die if ever a man did and Piangi was a victim of his own excesses. But I realize that in your religion this cannot be treated so lightly."

"Erik killed but he was not a murderer. He was caught in a situation beyond his control whose only solution was the forfeiture of his own life. Your Christian religion would say that one life is a small price for the salvation of many but these poor souls would have died anyway in a fit of the Little Sultana's rage if Erik had chosen that path."

"For most of his life, Erik worshipped at the altar of his own survival, such as it was. Your religion meant nothing to him until your actions made it mean everything. In contrast, his newly embraced faith has taught him to forfeit his life to and with you rather than risk something far more precious than your life—to risk your very soul with the evil of his past."

"He would never ask you to bear this; indeed, he would do all possible to prevent such an occurrence. You can walk away from here, knowing that you made something possible in him that was not possible before. You God will honor your sacrifice and, in His Mercy, guard Erik."

Christine looked at him, the pleading in her dark eyes unmistakable. His daughter would be close to her age had she lived. She, too, had such large brown eyes that spoke everything. He could no more help Christine than he could raise up that long dead child. The little Daaé must find her own way in her spiritual wilderness.

She rose slowly, taking measured steps to the shattered mirrors in whose reflection her face posed endless possibilities. Holy Mother, what should I do? She was so confident she could handle the truth only to have it jeer at her, at her weakness, at her conventionality, at her now questionable religiosity. The price of sharing a life with Erik was to endure the oppression of this knowledge for the rest of her life.

A rustle to her right drew her eye to the mannequin now knocked sideways in the alcove, no doubt through the actions of an impatient mob. Probably rats, she surmised, now more curious of this lifeless doppelganger who had shared her wedding dress than fearful of any vermin. The motionless figure looked a bit worse for wear and strangely alone without her finery. Christine set about arranging her into a better semblance of a human being but without success. Frustrated with her efforts she pulled it forward, only to have her hand catch on some piece of fabric snagged on the back of the corset. With a gingerly pull, she felt her hands swimming in lengths of netting and wax orange blossoms. Her wedding veil! Somehow, in the chaos of that night it had slipped protectively behind the mannequin, revealing itself nearly a year later in pristine condition.

How was it possible with the dank decay all around her that this survived intact?

Shaking out its folds, she impulsively attached it to her curls, studying the effect in the broken pieces of glass.

Nadir held his breath as her actions, realizing a meaning in them beyond what was apparent.

Erik was wrong. After all that they had endured, she would not be crushed by this and neither would he. Love was not so easily defeated. Forces seen and unseen in the Communion of Christ's Church would mitigate this threat even if they never knew the whole story. This had been their purpose for nearly two thousand years.

With the veil now removed and folded neatly over her left arm, she gestured towards the boat with renewed strength.

"Come, Monsieur Nadir, we must return. I need remind my errant bridegroom that his bride awaits."

The Persian bowed his assent to that and something more. This dreamy princess was becoming a queen.

Abruptly frowning, he remembered, "Mademoiselle, you can tell him nothing if you do not know where he is."

"Put your mind at ease, Monsieur. I do know where he is."

§

"Raphael, you were gone an unconscionable time. Did one of the other canons waylay you to make a repair? Never mind, I was able to work on other portions of the sketches but I do need those measurements." The man in the white habit continued sketching throughout his exchange, his back turned to the door through which he expected his collaborator to return.

Erik's hand arrested in midair as he realized that Raphael was not known for smelling of violets.

With a bitter grimace at the sketch before him, he continued, "If I were not in the process of dismantling my business affairs, I should see to the termination of a certain steward's appointment as the first order of business."

Smiling faintly at the back of his head, Christine replied, "Your steward did not tell me. Once I understood your reason for leaving then I knew where I would find you."

Erik rose slowly from his chair and turned to face her, his arms folded across his chest as he leaned against the table, his eyes frosty in an unmasked face grim with resolve.

"Then either Lucien or de Chagny told you. Since in his professional capacity, Lucien was under oath, I daresay de Chagny broke his promise. I had hoped better of him."

He was not prepared for this, that she would find him. Willekens should have never let her on the grounds. Her every expression, every movement was a temptation. He would not weaken now.

"Raoul did not tell me. Whatever deal you contrived with him was of your own devising, and not his. It would see that he failed to inform you that he had a prior commitment—his recommission in the Royale. Something he said, however…never mind. I cast my thoughts around for someone who might have a clue as to your actions and came up with the Persian."

Erik laughed bleakly at her cunning. "Christine, all the time I have known you, you have never ceased to amaze me. To my knowledge, you have not had one word of conversation with the man. What could an eccentric Persian reveal to you about me?"

"That which you did not. He did not wish to speak freely; I believe he is a little afraid of you. But his affection for you is greater than his fear." She started forward, halting only when he drew himself up rigidly to his full height, his hands clenched at his sides.

"Events in Persia taught him to be a "little afraid" of me. Moreover, I do not now what affection has to do with anything he told you."

"So now you know the whole disgusting story. Why are you here? Innocent young women do not willingly share the same air with assassins. And I was a very proficient assassin, Christine."

"You speak in the past tense. You are not an assassin now," she replied coolly.

"Neither am I a sophist. It is now an issue that hangs between us," he countered.

"Are you saying that God cannot forgive you? Your presence here gives lie to that. That I cannot forgive you? You did not sin against me."

"No and no. My physical scars are burden enough for you. Yet I also must bear the scars of my sins and these I would not risk inflicting on you in any way."

"My Angel, you own my heart but you do not own my soul. What I choose to incur is between my Creator and me. You have no right to interfere."

He stood before her, flinching at her last remark, but resolute. She had not run when she knew the truth but he had when faced with the choice of telling her. He was afraid. Just as he was afraid when he sent her away after she had kissed a man edging toward the precipice of Hell.

Her voice now shaking with anger, she challenged, "Shall I name your tormentor? Is it that you are afraid that I will come to despise, even fear you?"

Unable to face her accusation, Erik looked down to study the patterns in the stone floor with an agony that threatened to spill over his cheeks. To have won her love, only to have it turn into a mockery of itself was unbearable. He would spend the rest of his life alone rather than endure it.

"Erik, you and I should not be facing each other today," she spoke, regaining some of her composure. "By all rights, you should be dead and I a Vicomtesse whose petted and cosseted life could never hide a nagging despair. There are forces at work here that I do not quite understand, benevolent forces that have cleared obstacles for us to be together. Now, other forces are at work, forces I recognize well from the other time. They would tear us apart by preying on our fears as they did before."

"I will not be afraid. I choose to love. But I cannot make that choice for your soul, Erik; only you can. You fought them once and won. Would you let them win so easily now?"

She walked toward him slowly, taking his face in her hands, and kissing his lips gently, giving him the strength of her love, which defeated him before and now. Wrapping his arms around her tightly, his lips pressed to her forehead while he paused to give silent thanks to St. Michael the Archangel for the miracle of so gentle an earthly protector.

§

Raphael was still a bit dazed as he and Abbé Willekens watched the carriage leave for the train station. The beautiful Mlle. Daaé had shaken his hand warmly in departure, impulsively turning back to kiss his disfigured cheek. No woman outside his immediate family had ever acted so and it was all he could do to keep his tears in check as they waved goodbye. But with the tears came the recognition that Erik would be allowed to walk with the angel the Almighty had set in place for him.

Abbé Willekens gave Raphael another sideways looked, satisfied that the younger canon seemed more at peace with this departure than one that occurred months before.

"Well, Brother Raphael, I believe we have completed a good work today. Erik has accepted that it is his call to be out in that world. I will admit to you now that I was not as confident of my words before, but this time it will different. Difficult, but different. Still, he will not be alone. She will make sure of that."

Willekens returned to the Abbey, leaving Raphael to watch as the carriage drew further away from the Mountain of God. With a sigh of contentment, he withdrew Erik's present to him from the capacious pockets of his tunic. The white leather mask, alternately a symbol of fear and power to Erik, now appeared ineffective and ridiculous to him. He tossed it back and forth between his hands, whistling an old Norman folk tune as he sauntered back to his workshop.