December 31, 1893
It is a peculiar sort of madness to be here now, surrounded by the pageantry and spectacle of my formative years. I am a woman grown, a wife, a mother, and yet I can close my eyes and become that seventeen year old girl once again, firmly bound in silk and lace, and decorating the arm of an overprotective gentleman. Tonight, at least, the bindings are of my own choosing, as is the gentleman.
Oh, that isn't entirely right, is it? I did choose the gentleman on that long ago evening, but with my mind, not my heart—not my soul. The gown, however, had been completely out of my control. Raoul always did have extravagant taste.
Tonight, I have shed all vestiges of the vulnerable ingénue. There are no pink frills and flowers upon me. I am instead draped in deep, vivid cobalt from décolletage to underskirt, a willing participant in this folly. More than one set of appreciative eyes lingers on my person, much to my husband's chagrin. His possessive grip on my arm is all that keeps me from succumbing to the surreal nature of this moment.
A quick glance to my right assures me that I have not, in fact, crossed some mysterious threshold into the past. Erik stands proudly at my side, dressed elegantly in formal evening attire; the single red rose tacked onto his lapel is the only homage to his past as the Phantom. His profile hides the mask from my view, but I know it to be there, black tonight for the masquerade and molded into a neutral expression. He will not remove it at midnight.
The years have been kind to him, and the faint lines on his face add character in place of age. Apart from the silver threaded into his hair, he has barely changed from the ghostly image that first appeared behind my mirror more than twenty years ago. I am beginning to think that I will soon appear older than he does! He turns his beloved face toward me, smiling softly and squeezing my hand before he begins our emersion into the gala.
Moving farther into the room, we are engulfed by a myriad of bodies, some clinging to civilization, others having joyfully surrendered to the bacchanal. I inhale the fragrance of a dozen clashing perfumes with each breath, bringing an unwelcome heaviness to my lungs and lightness to my head—and the room is already spinning with a kaleidoscope of colors. Thankfully, the Red Death is not among them.
Erik did threaten several times to adopt that old persona for the event, mostly, I suspect, to work Élise into a state of panic. Nothing must mar her perceived triumph at finally persuading the Comte de Chagny into a tentative Parisian debut. I wonder if she chose the Bal Masque out of some morbid sense of irony, one that she surely must share with my husband, or if she is simply oblivious to the potential for disaster. She and Lucien are certainly in their element, he with his witty banter and she with her catty compliments and false smiles.
Somewhere in this sea of masks are Raoul and his vicomtesse, Céleste, no doubt playing at happiness. They are very good at the game, but it makes me ill to watch them pretend. I wonder if he is costumed in his old regimentals, recalling his glory days, or if she is locked in a prison of organdy trim, wishing me a million miles away from her husband.
A well timed word creates a ripple in the conversations around us, and I watch the wave of curiosity flow through the room. It's really nothing new. La Daaé once evoked the same response amidst the artistic sect, and the innovative Erik Villon still causes a stir amongst the Italian elite. Yet tonight has my stomach dancing with butterflies.
It's this building, I know—this place where everything began.
Erik and I have been back here, of course, but blanketed by shadows; our faces turned away from the crowds. Safe in our obscurity. There is nothing safe about tonight. We are center stage and beneath a thousand brilliant lights. The De Chagny name may carry a great deal of weight in Paris, but it certainly cannot erase the whisper of a ghost story that has never completely faded.
The introduction to the first waltz erupts from the orchestra, and the assembly dutifully parts to allow eager couples passage. I am mildly surprised when Erik begins to pull me in the direction of the dance floor, but the playful grin on his face compels me to follow. He gathers me into his embrace and we are swept away by the pulse of the music. I feel the smile bloom on my own lips as I gaze up into his sparkling ocean eyes, and for a few blissful moments, only we two exist.
"Raoul, have you been listening to anything that I've said?"
The Vicomte de Chagny startled out of his reverie, dragging his gaze away from Christine, happily twirling through the room in his brother's arms, and focusing on his own wife. Her imperturbable façade had slipped, and he suppressed a guilty sigh. She truly was a beautiful woman, ginger hair piled atop her head and slender body wrapped in a gown of gold and green. The goddess Demeter, she claimed, complete with a mask overlaid in gilded leaves. He knew that his attention should be consumed solely by her, but the night had clouded his mind with memory.
"Forgive me, Céleste. I was admiring the grandeur."
Her green eyes flickered over the waltzing couples, landing unerringly upon the object of her husband's admiration. She wilted, shoulders drooping and sparkle dimming. "Yes, I can see how that would distract you," and then, forcing an over bright smile to her face, she tucked her arm into his. "Shall we join the spectacle?"
He smiled in return, grateful for her endless patience with him, and led her into the dance. As they moved around the floor, he recalled days long past when he carried his youthful swagger with pride, imagining that anything he desired would be his with a single command. Proud. Arrogant. Foolish.
He could still see Christine in his arms; the sparkle of the diamond that she had refused to wear upon her finger dimmed by the shadows in her eyes. Passing the grand staircase, he glanced up, conjuring the deathly presence of Erik clad in blood red with bone white mask menacing in the half light. Swinging out past a pillar, his eyes caught sight of Madame Giry, in her signature black, conversing with Nadir Kahn, who was draped in Persian robes and headdress. In his mind's eye, Raoul easily substituted a vision of Meg Giry dressed in white and standing next to her mother, exactly as she had been so many years ago. A sudden misstep had him jostling Céleste, and he snapped himself back into the present, grinning ruefully. "It would seem that I am not as swift of foot as I once was."
"I forgive you," she said quite soberly.
He nodded. It was enough.
"I am rather pleased with the way this evening is progressing."
Lucien Durand looked to his wife in surprise, chuckling at the comment. "The Bal has barely even begun, mon amour. I would not be so hasty in declaring it a success."
Élise raised one perfect brow, leveling her husband a look clearly meant to convey her unquestionable authority in such matters. "Erik is here, is he not? And even Raoul." Her head turned in the direction that she had last seen her younger brother. "The battle is mine."
"Heaven help us poor soldiers if we do not march to your beat."
She smiled slyly, raising her champagne flute in toast and murmuring "Être au garde-à-vous, mon capitaine¹" before taking a delicate sip.
"You do make quite a lovely general, my dear, but I do not think that you can claim victory in your campaign just yet. The Comte may have sworn a truce, but he shows no sign of imminent surrender." He idly swirled the liquid around in his own glass as he scanned the crowd for the gentleman in question, who was oblivious to all else but the beauty in his arms.
"He will," she vowed.
"I do admire your resilience, Élise," he drawled, eyes twinkling with merriment. "By the by, how did you manage to bring Raoul here tonight? I thought that he was hell bent on disappearing to that vineyard of his in Gascony.²"
"He was," she frowned. "I can only guess that Céleste must have convinced him to postpone the trip. He spends far too much time seeing to some business or another with those godforsaken Tannat grapes." Raoul had purchased the small winery just before his marriage, and it had quickly become his favorite investment. "I cannot imagine what draws him there," she finished absently.
"Can you not?"
Her eyes snapped immediately to her husband, feeling an unladylike temptation to smack the knowing smile from his face. He had long contended that the most honest and virtuous of all her brothers was engaged in some adulterous affair that drew him so often from Paris, but she refused to acknowledge the possibility—at least, not aloud. She knew that Raoul had almost certainly enjoyed the pleasures of keeping a mistress or two in the years before taking Céleste as his wife, but he had always been so very discreet in his actions. Élise had never heard his name whispered in any of the gossip thickened salons after the debacle with Christine had faded from interest. Raoul had learned to keep his private affairs quite private...
An adamant "No!" answered her own silent reflection. Of them all, Raoul was surely the least likely to engage in such scandalous behavior.
"Well, in any case, he must find it something of a bittersweet vintage," Lucien concluded gently. He lovingly brushed the back of his fingers across the delicate line of Élise's jaw, tilting her face up just enough to breathe a feather light kiss against her cheek. "Neither you nor I have had a taste for wine since we sampled champagne."
Her lips curved, and she remembered why she had married him.
The predictable fluttering of speculation and supposition that defined such galas eventually trickled into one nattering corner, filled with a triumvirate of refined ladies atwitter. One tall, blond, and quite stunning gentlewoman was the former Monique LeVeque, now the Marquise de Beauvais. She was of an age undisclosed, but not many years removed from the Comtesse de Chagny, and of a mind to recall only those delicious morsels of past gossip that had then been of interest to a young lady of privilege inclined to marry a man of title. "A war injury, I think," she uttered as her eyes helplessly followed the subject of conversation with feminine interest, "in the service of France."
"I thought that he was Italian." This from Colette Dessaix, neé Arceneau, who was neither tall nor blond, though quite happy in her petite stature—thank you very much. She was bourgeoisie to a fault, but a lady could be forgiven for such a grave failing when her husband was an influential member of the Parliament.
"Oh no, he is most definitely a Frenchman," purred with echoes with vive la France.
"I heard that he was injured in a fire."
"You are both wrong," spoke the voice of maturity in the person of Geneviève de Dampierre, Duchess du Loiret. In more than thirty years of moving in such redundant circles, she had come to know far more than she would ever confess, and had forgotten far less than others might hope. "It was some sort of horrendous childhood accident. The family does not speak of it."
"How bad can it really be when the rest of him is so delicious?"
"Really, Monique, how very inappropriate!"
"Oh, Colette, do not act so demur. I have seen you admiring the cut of his tailcoat, and no doubt imagining what lay beneath."
"Both of you hush, before the object of your interest overhears you. Or worse, his wife."
"Can you imagine?" sighed Colette. "The world renowned La Daaé," whom she secretly admired, "married to the mysterious Comte de Chagny." Her dreamy expression betrayed an overly romantic nature.
Here, the Marquise called upon her selective memory. "Why is that so surprising? She nearly married the Vicomte de Chagny, after all. We all thought that she was a dim little thing, but apparently she was quite cunning, to have traded up." And really, that was something to be admired in Monique's estimation.
"Yes, and she is quite cunning enough to have learned discretion. A trait which you all seem to be lacking."
Three horrified ladies jumped nearly out of their skin, turning with wide eyes and pale complexions to face Élise Durand, standing firm upon the arm of her husband and wearing a chilling glare of censure. None dared mention that the lady's own opinions had once been reflected in the conversation that she had just overheard. It hardly mattered.
"My apologies, Madame Durand, Monsieur." The Duchess, at least, was quick to recover her manners. "We certainly meant no disrespect to your brother or his wife," a stern glance to her companions, "Is that not so, Monique?"
The lady had gone scarlet and mute. Colette had taken on a similar hue, though she was of a less taciturn nature. "Oh, n-no, Madame. I think the C-Comtesse is quite l-lovely. And the C-Comte," her blush deepened, "n-not lovely, of course, but handsome…er…d-distinguished…yes, quite distinguished."
"And quite protective of his wife," Élise warned.
"As any gentleman would be," the Duchess nodded in acknowledgment, and an unspoken understanding passed between those two ladies.
Yes, Geneviève de Dampierre knew far more than she would ever confess, and would certainly never forget how enticing the Comte de Chagny had been dressed in red.
"Why so silent, mon ange?"
The silken timbre of Erik's voice caresses me, sending a shiver of awareness through my blood. I doubt that particular reaction will ever fade; God knows that it hasn't in all the years since I first heard him speak.
"Perhaps I am only lost to the magic of being in your arms."
His embrace tightens indiscernibly, his body encroaching further into the tenuous space between us that propriety demands, and his slow smile is filled with unspoken promises. I love that smile as dearly as I love being the woman to inspire it.
"A condition that I will gladly encourage when we are alone. However, at present I would much rather know what troubles you."
I am tempted to offer him empty assurances, but he knows my every mood by now. I am not deaf to the half stifled whispers that have trailed our footsteps from the moment that we arrived at the Masque. "Are you not the least bit uncomfortable with so many eyes upon us?"
"I am quite familiar with being stared at by now, as should you be."
"That isn't what I mean, Erik. I can almost feel them conjuring up the Opera Ghost."
His grin is positively mirthful, and he smothers his laughter. "They've no need to conjure him, my dear," he leans closer; a breathy murmur beside my ear, "he is already standing in their midst."
"That is my point exactly. Are you really so confidant that nothing of that life can touch you now?"
Tell me yes. Make me believe it.
"One thing from that life is touching me now," his thumb is moving in a maddening circle over the pulse point at my wrist, "and I am very glad of it. As for the rest," he shrugs nonchalantly, "I care very little if the whole of Paris comes to know that Christine Daaé has ended up with her Phantom after all."
Exasperating man! "But, Erik," my words are silenced by his lips, the sweet warmth of his mouth so wonderfully intoxicating. I can never drink my fill, nor escape my addiction, and I certainly cannot care that everyone will see. I am suddenly quite calm, willingly under his spell. There are no ghosts here tonight—only Erik.
My angel, my maestro, my love.
In this madness, I have found my reason.
¹Être au garde-à-vous, mon capitaine Stand at attention, my captain.
² Gascony encompasses an area of southwest France that includes the Madiran vineyards, located northeast of Pau and famous for their red Tannat grapes. Madiran wines are bitter when young, but resolve with age into a full bodied flavor.
Author's Note: I think that this will probably be the last look into the life of the Villons. At least, until after all of the holiday madness is over. When I reached the end of this vignette, I found that it had written itself into a neat little conclusion—although I've left a few things unwritten if ever I feel the need to revisit our happy family.
In case this does prove to be the last Moment, I want to thank you all for joining me in these little glimpses into what Erik and Christine's life together might have been.
I am tinkering with another story idea that may or may not be original, but I likely won't be posting anything until sometime in 2008.
Happy holidays to all of you.