Midnight eyes stared at me from behind the curtains. I could feel them watching me every time I turned. My movements were under scrutiny by those eyes, making my limbs feel heavy, my toes go numb. I lost my balance during a series of Fouette en tournant, allowing myself to spin and spin until I successfully toppled three of the girls next to me and nearly ripped a nearby curtain from its rings. That never happens. In the Ballet de l'Opéra de Paris you do not allow it to happen.
My instructor was yelling something indistinct when the man with the midnight eyes offered his hand. He was smiling. I couldn't understand how he could find something so humiliating amusing. Still, I accepted his hand graciously and stood with all the grace I could muster. The first thing I saw was his gray German uniform.
“Are you alright?” he asked in perfect French––my first hint that he was not a German soldier. If there were one thing I'd learned about the occupation, it's that foreign soldiers didn't usually bother learning our language.
I stared at him, not daring to respond. He was taller than me, but not by much, and as I looked up I saw a sincerity in his face. His dark eyes watched me with an uncanny steadiness that made me feel woozy. Hair every bit as black as mine fell in short curls around his sharply angled face. Dazzlingly white teeth smiled at me from behind soft lips. He was beautiful. That frightened me.
My mind went to something my older sister used to say, "Beautiful people can not be trusted". As far as I knew it was true. Every beautiful person I knew had a secret motive to remain beautiful at any cost, even if it was just how they saw themselves. Those words were no more true than they were at the opera house.
“Your hands are shaking.” The words were barely loud enough for me to hear, but they startled me out of my reverie so violently that I jumped. I had to run over what he said several times for it to register. Once they finally did I stared at my hands, still in his. He was right. They were shaking visibly. I pulled them away and tucked them under my arms.
“I'm sorry if I scared you––”
“What is the meaning of this?” My instructor's voice was suddenly right next to me at the volume of a freight train. I jumped. My foot slipped and I fell forwards. The blue-eyed not-German caught me, pulling me into him.
“Forgive me madam,” the not-german said while patting my back reassuringly. “But, it seems this young girl is suffering from some sort of fatigue. If you don't mind, I'll take her into my care.”
“What? Are you a doctor or something?” my instructor snapped in her sharp and authoritative way.
“Dristan Fortier, madam. Chief Medical Officer of the unit in Nice. I'm visiting Paris on holiday.”
But I didn't buy it. Nice was occupied by Italy and he couldn't have been Italian, not with a French name. But, my instructor took this at face value, turned on her heel and left to tend to the rest of the girls.
Without another word Dristan scooped me up and carried me away. Immediately I felt exposed. Please stop by the dressing room so I can at least grab a skirt. He didn't. He didn't even put me down until we were outside and he was sliding me into a car.
The door closed with a soft click and I was left to look around for a few brief moments. Leather interior, tinted glass, I couldn't see the driver, and there was a pile of clothes on the seat next to me. Has he been following me? Those clothes look like they're my...
“They're for you.” Dristan was suddenly sitting next to me. I hadn't heard him get in.
What was wrong with me? I'm usually more observant than this. And for that matter, where are they taking me? I was about to confront him when Dristan started talking again.
“Don't be alarmed. They're yours. I took the liberty of having one of my men fetch them from your room. I hope you don't mind.”
Don't be alarmed? Is he serious?
“I've been watching you for some time. You're just the person I've been waiting for.”
What is he talking about? My mind was racing. My heartbeat quickened. My arm muscles tensed as I prepared to leave. Fatigued or not I wasn't about to spend another minute alone with this crazy lying imposter! But the car lurched forward and I was left with no choice but to stay.
“I bet you're wondering what on Earth I'm talking about.”
Wow, mind-reader this one, I thought sarcastically. Real clever.
“Put your clothes on, Maria. I want you looking presentable when we arrive.”
I finally decided to speak. “How do you know my name?”
Dristan looked over at me as though noticing me for the first time. I was willing to bet that he wasn't expecting me to speak during the whole ride, but the look on his face told me that he didn't think I was capable of speaking at all.
“What?” The single word told me that he was confused about more than just what I said.
“I asked you, Dristan Fortier: how do you know my name?”
If possible he looked more puzzled. “I don't understand––”
“Well, you seem to speak French fluently, so language doesn't seem to be your problem,” I snapped. “And, though you certainly have their self-diluted charisma, you're not Italian, you don't have the build of an Italian. I'm going to guess you're Czechoslovakian. I've dated enough of them to know. There's something about the way you say your R's that gives it away. But you're not native, your skin tone is off. English born?” I was getting a head rush. And, though I could still feel his eyes on me, I no longer felt the weight of them. It felt as though something cool was running through my veins, giving me new life. All my dizziness was gone.
“And now that you know a little about me, you expect me to tell you how I know your name. Is that it?”
“Right, English then,” I continued, completely ignoring his question despite how true it was. “So, the question is: why is a English born Czechoslovakian disguised as an Italian medical officer in German occupied France seeking the company of a dazed ballerina?” I paused briefly and turned to look at him. His face had “total shock” written all over it. I had the upper hand here––I could feel it as surely as if he were suddenly three feet shorter.
In the silence that hung between us a thought occurred to me. “You don't want me because I'm a ballerina,” I said quietly, the words coming out slowly, deliberately. “You want me for my medical training.” My father had been a doctor, he'd taught me everything he could before being called off to serve his country. “Just in case,” he had said. “You never know when you may find yourself in a dire situation.”
A dry, wan smile spread across Dristan's face. It was my turn to be frightened. Sane people do not smile like that.
“You're good, I'll give you that,” he said as he turned to look out the darkened window. “And you're strong willed. We can use that. Get dressed. We'll be there shortly.”
“Where?” I demanded.
He wheeled on me, his face turning from maniacal to mischievous in the blink of an eye. “If I told you, it wouldn't be a surprise.”
I glared at him. Oh, goody. I just love surprises.
“I'm serious. Clothes. The putting on of them. Kind of important.”
“Cover your eyes.”
Dristan raised his hands in surrender and turned away. I got dressed and undressed in front of people every day. It was part of my job, but this was different. I wasn't about to expose myself to this psychopath.
In silence I shook the clothes so I could see them. It was a dress I hadn't worn in ages. I never really had the occasion to. Midnight blue, sleeveless, and floor-length, it met every definition of “evening gown” I could think of. I never went out so it was almost always at the bottom of my clothing chest buried under years of costumes. Why would he want me to wear this one? I wondered. If he wants me for my limited medical expertise, why would he want me to present myself in an evening gown?
“Quickly, girl.” He was being short now. “We're almost there.”
“So, it's girl now, is it?” I snapped back as I pulled the dress over my leotard. Without much thought I adjusted the leotard's straps so that they didn't show before I pulled the dress's length down to my feet. “You can turn around, I suppose,” I said with a sigh realizing that it had been pointless for him to turn away. “Do I get shoes with this?”
“Garcon!” Dristan snapped his fingers and the driver passed back a light-weight black box.
Dristan took the box as though he were picking up a small child and handed it to me. Accepting it with mild curiosity, I placed it on my lap and opened it. Inside were a pair of elegant red shoes with straps going every which way. I tossed the box aside and put them on.
“Perfect fit,” I said in only mild surprise. I was getting used to it.
“And these.” Dristan handed me a pair of long black velvet gloves. I pulled them on just as the car careened to a halt.
“These are––” I looked up and he was gone. “Dristan?” My door opened letting in dull gray moonlight.
“This way.” He offered me his hand. I obliged him.
Stepping out of the car I had no idea where I was. Fog sat heavily in the trees which I could see over his shoulder. I couldn't see the Seine from where we were parked but I assumed it was close because fog got thicker further into the trees. It could have been one of any number of parks along the river, but given Dristan's actions and overall crazed ambiance I'd say that we were well out of town if I had to venture a guess. Why did I have to dress up for this place? It's a wreck. And it's not like there will be anyone here to impr... My thoughts trailed off as Dristan grabbed my elbow and led me through the grass into the fog-bound trees.
My heels dug into the moist earth making it difficult to walk. “Where are you taking me?” I demanded for what felt like the millionth time even though I knew most of those times had only been in my head.
“I'm taking you to meet...” He paused, moving closer to me. “A few friends of mine.”
Stupidly I blurted out, “And are these friends as demented as you?” without giving myself a chance to think.
“What?” He stopped. In an instant he spun me to face him and locked both my elbows to my sides. His face, only inches from mine, looked at me with in intense expression that I could only describe as curiosity mixed with anxiety and the slightest bit of pain. “What do you mean by that?” His voice was controlled as he spat out the words.
Chewing on my lip bought me a moment to ponder how to respond. It came to me with little warning. Slowly I released my lip and looked at him with false confidence. “Only that it would be fun if they were.”
Dristan smiled again. Sane people don't smile like that. “Well well well. It looks like I picked correctly after all.”
Pick me for what?
In a sudden change of character he looked me over, seriousness written on his pursed lips. “Yeah, we'd better let it down.” He shook me once, instructing me to stand still. His hands moved rapidly, removing the pins from my hair. It fell with a bounce. I no longer felt in control. My mouth slipped open. For that split second not being in control felt good. Then it was gone. Dristan grabbed my elbow again and in two long strides he turned me away from him and pushed me into a clearing.
“Go on,” he urged as I stumbled forward through the fog. “They're very excited to see you.” Why did he put emphasis on that word? “And don't worry, they don't usually bite.”
Usually? I looked back but he was gone. Drifting low through the mist was a maniac laughter that echoed in such an eerie way that I knew it had to be on purpose. It didn't sound like Dristan's voice, it was higher pitched. Feminine. Crazed. Then it was gone.
Something to my right caught my eye. I turned to see the slender form of a woman dressed in white gliding a few yards away from me. With spread arms she stared at the ground moving as though through water. She kept pace with me even though she seemed to be walking in slow motion.
I stopped to watch her. When I did she looked up at me, smiled, backed into the mist and vanished. My first thought was that she was a ghost. I couldn't have been farther from the truth.
Turning around again was difficult for me to do. Shock and fear held me rigid for an indeterminable amount of time. The chill Parisian air seldom affected my bare arms. That night was no different. The cold that filled me wasn't from the fog. It felt more like someone had replaced my blood with glacier water. All my muscles ached, begged me to just collapse. Again. My eyes fluttered shut feeling suddenly heavy.
Wake up! Wake up! I commanded. No response. It was like someone was trying to contain my mind, trap me in a dark place within myself.
No! My eyes snapped open. The ice flushed from my system, replaced by a burning sensation I was all too familiar with––the burn of muscles fighting to stay in motion. I couldn't move. Panic struck me the way it did when I forgot the next step while on stage. Frantically, I scanned the area in front of me.
Three figures standing in the clearing was not on my list of things to expect. They were approaching me with slow relaxed strides. The closer they got the better I could see them through the mist. The one in the center was shorter than me dressed all in flowing black that billowed as she walked. Slender ivory arms flowed gracefully at her sides. A mane of golden hair rolled over her shoulders. The one on the right was a man, copper-skinned and with shoulder length hair. He was built like so many of my dance partners––with strong arms and thick coil-spring legs. And the one on the left––the woman in white...
They stopped only a foot or so away from me standing in a “V” formation. The man swayed like a snake as he analyzed me. The weight of his gaze was so similar to Dristan's that it was unnerving. I focused my attention on him. Our eyes locked. He flinched and turned to the woman in white. She nodded at some unspoken command and approached me.
“Well, you're fatter than I'd expect a ballerina to be.” Her comment didn't bother me. She'd apparently never met any ballerinas. But her voice... her voice drained my blood. So cold. So dry. “Are you sure she's worth it, Dristan? Will she be missed?”
Dristan's voice echoed from somewhere behind me. “She won't. I made sure of that.”
Missed? What is happening?
The woman took slow steps as she circled me anticlockwise. She picked up my arm, examined it. Her touch reminded me of spiders creeping over my skin. I pulled away, finally gaining some sense of control, but she just cocked a sneering smile and pulled my hair aside. A single finger traced a zig-zag pattern down my spine. I arched my back in an effort to distance myself from her despite my inability to move. She snickered in my ear. The spiders crawled down my other arm as she lovingly caressed it.
“Well, I have to say, she'd make a nice addition,” she said coming around to take a closer look at my face. Her cold spideresque hand clutched my chin. She turned my head to different angles, studying me.
“Cassandra!” It could only have been the man speaking.
“She'll do,” the woman in white, Cassandra, said with a sigh. She released me roughly. “I suppose. What do you think, Orpheus?”
The man spoke again. “I think she'll be more trouble than she's worth.”
“And what about you, Nereida?”
The small creature in flowing black stepped closer. She stood on her tip toes to look closer at me. It was the first time I really saw her face. If Cassandra was a ghost, Nereida was a doll. Perfectly centered over her pointed chin was a set of large soft lips. Huge and watery, her eyes were set over a delicate nose. Her skin was like porcelain, smooth and creamy white. I looked her over more than once. She didn't seem real.
I drew myself back to her eyes. I couldn't take myself away from them. It was like looking into the southern sea. So blue. An unnatural light danced in them casting shadows around the edges and drawing me into a calm relaxed state.
“She's not afraid,” she said in a voice every bit as sweet and doll-like as her face.
“I know, isn't it wonderful?” Dristan's face was right next to mine, his chin hovering over my shoulder. I didn't dare move. My heart began pounding. I felt vulnerable again. But Nereida was right. My heart wasn't pounding out of fear. It was excitement. Something was about to happen, I could feel it. Life in the ballet, life in a world at war, none of it could bring the amount of anticipation I felt at that moment.
Soft cool skin pressed against my cheek. The barest amount of stubble dragged against my skin as he turned his face. Warm lips fluttered against my ear. “You're going to be ever so much fun,” Dristan's voice murmured. With a sharp inhale of breath my eyes closed.
Everything went black.