Continuing Tales

Prelude, Renascence and Denouement

A Phantom of the Opera Story
by Christine Reynolds

Part 1 of 4

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Prelude, Chapter One

"It was years ago. There was a travelling fair in the city. Tumblers, conjurers, human oddities... And there was... I shall never forget him: a man... locked in a cage... A prodigy, monsieur! Scholar, architect, musician... And an inventor, too, monsieur. They boasted he had once built for the Shah of Persia a maze of mirrors..."

"Who was this man?"

"A freak of nature...more monster than man..."


"From birth, it seemed... And then...he went missing. He escaped. They never found him--it was said he had died. The world forgot him, but I never can... For in this darkness I have seen him again..."

"Phantom of the Opera"
Act 2, Scene 2

He woke to find himself in a cage. He lay very still, trying to ignore the pounding ache in the back of his skull, staring at the row of bars before him as they wavered, multiplied, and settled again. He blinked, then closed his eyes. He was dreaming. He had consumed more wine than he had thought and... He carefully opened one eye. Nothing had changed. The bars were still there. The cage was still there. It was undeniably real.

He took a deep breath, trying to orient himself and ascertain where he was. There seemed little doubt that he was a prisoner; obviously someone wanted to hold him, but he had no idea who or why. He tried to sit up, to ease the discomfort of the rough wood under his cheek, but the pain in his head sent him down again. He lay still for a long moment, struggling to control his confusion and growing anger, then slowly and carefully lifted his head and tried to look around.

The cage was in a wagon of some sort, more than half filling it. Light was filtering through the canvas sides, and he frowned at the sight. It had been dark--almost midnight--when he had left the little cafe where he had been playing the violin for the students gathered there. Playing anonymously in cafes was one of the few pleasures he had found in life; the patrons appreciated his talent and almost accepted him as one of them. Without exception, they believed he was some nobleman's son, wearing a mask and concealing his identity in order to enjoy stolen moments of forbidden music. It was a belief he did nothing to discourage, knowing what would happen if they discovered the truth, but even so the mask set him apart from them. Even the few women who came to sit by him, attracted by the music and the mystery, quickly became uneasy and moved away. He had left earlier than usual, tucking the violin case under his arm and going out into the streets.

Three men had followed him from the cafe. His mind occupied with the chords of a new composition, he had thought little of it until one had spoken to him, calling him "Vicomte" and commenting on his skill. He remembered laughing shortly...

"Thank you, but I am no Vicomte, monsieur."

"Son of a Marquis, perhaps? Your clothing is very fine."

Theirs was not; it was shabby and ill-kept. He felt a faint stirring of unease, but he was not frightened, even though he was outnumbered. "Any man may purchase fine clothing if he has the price. I did for a time."

"Who are you? Really?"

They stopped beneath a street lamp, casually moving to surround him. "I am no one, good messieurs," he said softly. "If you plan to kidnap me and hold me for ransom, you've chosen unwisely. I have no family, no friends, and no money."

He saw the looks they exchanged and knew he had guessed correctly. He smiled to himself. "I'm sorry to have wasted your time. Now if you'll excuse me..." He moved to pass them, but an arm shot out, blocking his path.

"Why the mask then?"

"I have my reasons."

"We'll see."

A hand reached toward his face. He jerked away, but the man behind him blocked his retreat. Hampered by the violin case under his arm, he was unable to fight or escape, and the cool night air struck his skin as the concealing cloth was torn away. Then he forced himself to stand still, allowing them to look at him. The flickering light from the lamp above their heads was faint, but it revealed enough. It showed them his face--the right side horribly disfigured, twisted, scarred--and it showed him their expressions of horror and repulsion.

He snatched the mask back from the other man's fingers and said coldly, "I told you I had my reasons. I bid you good evening, messieurs."

They made no move to detain him further as he stalked away, and he could hear the low, shocked rumble of their voices behind him. He waited until he had rounded a corner and was out of their sight before he paused and, laying the violin down, lifted the mask to replace it. His hands were shaking with anger and humiliation and he chided himself. Surely after almost thirty years he should be used to such reaction to the sight of his face. Lost in his thoughts, he did not hear the sound of running footsteps until they were upon him. Before he could even turn...

He let his head fall back. He had been struck from behind. He remembered the force of the blow, the flash of light behind his eyes, and falling into darkness. It seemed that they had come after him and knocked him senseless, but why?

He lifted a hand to his face, then slid it gently over his scalp, verifying that they had taken his wig as well as his mask. He shivered, feeling naked without their protective concealment, and wondered again why they had done this. It was not the first time his appearance had incited men to violence--throughout his life he had encountered far too many men who wished to harm him simply because of the way he looked. The blow he could almost have understood, but the cage--this was incomprehensible.

The floor beneath him creaked, and he realized someone was climbing into the wagon. A form bent over his prison. Without surprise, he recognized one of the men who had accosted him the previous evening, a heavyset man with thick, curly brown hair. The man stared down at him, then leaned out of the back to call, "It's awake!"

Making another effort, he managed to sit up and glared at the man outside the bars, his pride stung by the casual insult. "I am not an 'it,'" he said from between clenched teeth.

The other man did not respond, merely knelt, waiting, until his companions joined him. One, a tall man with a wide black moustache who was obviously the leader, raised the canvas flap of the wagon to let more light in, and the man in the cage blinked as his vision adjusted. He wanted to shrink back into the shadows to hide--to bring his hand up over his face--but he knew it would be a pointless admission of his vulnerability.

"He looks just as bad in the daylight," the first man muttered. "Worse. What a monster!"

"Be quiet!" The leader pushed them aside and sat down, studying the face before him. "I'm Jacques Clavell," he said at last. He motioned toward the others. "These are my friends--Dumas--Georges. Do you have a name?"

He took a deep, calming breath before he answered. "My name is Erik Duquesne." He looked around him, then back at Clavell. "I'm sure there is some explanation for this."

"I have a proposition for you. A business deal."

"I am at your service, Monsieur Clavell, but I suspect that I will be unable to give your proposition adequate consideration." He looked pointedly at the bars separating them.

"Let him out."


"I said let him out."

The man called Dumas unlocked the cage door and pulled it open. Warily, Erik crawled out and moved as far away from it and from the three men as the limited space in the wagon would allow.

"Thank you." He wanted to press his hand against the throbbing place on the back of his head to ease it, but all his instincts warned him to display no sign of weakness before these men. "My mask?"

"It's in my tent. I'll get it for you later, after we talk."

"I would prefer to have it now."

"Later." Clavell's tone left no room for discussion.

Erik inclined his head slightly. "As you wish."

"We heard you play last night. You're very good."

"Thank you," he said dryly. "It is a joy to meet those who appreciate fine music."

"It started us thinking. You see, my friends and I own a travelling fair. We have tumblers, a conjurer, a trained bear..."

"No," Erik interrupted.


"No. I have no desire to join you."

"You don't understand."

"I understand too well."

"Hear me out. Listen to what I have to say before you refuse." There was a hint of a threat in Clavell's voice.

Erik glanced briefly toward Clavell's friends. "Monsieur, I seem to have little choice in the matter."

"Someone with your talent and your face--you'd be our star attraction. You'd draw the crowds. We'd all make money. A lot of money. We'd share with you, of course. All you'd have to do is sit in that cage and play the violin. It would be an easy life for you. What do you say?"

Erik shook his head, regretting the action almost immediately. He waited until the wave of nausea had passed then said quietly, "My appearance is a curse that I must live with. It is not something I care to exploit--or to have exploited. I do not choose to exhibit this face to the idle and the curious. That is why I wear a mask."


"Tell me, Monsieur Clavell, if you were blessed with a face such as this, would you want to put it on display?" Clavell looked away, toward his silent friends. "I think not. You aren't the first to make me an offer of this sort--and I know there are those in my position who would accept your offer gladly. Fortunately, I have other means of earning my livelihood. I am an architect. In fact," he drew his legs up beneath him and prepared to rise, "I am expected in Paris in four days to assist in the final design for the new opera house. So if our discussion is finished..."

Clavell sighed. "I was afraid you might feel that way. Are you sure you won't reconsider?"

"No, monsieur."

"So be it."

Even though he had been more than half-expecting an attack, Erik was startled when it came. As he turned, an arm closed around his throat, cutting off his air. He struggled helplessly as a hand grabbed his sparse hair and dragged his head roughly back. The neck of a flask was shoved between his lips. He fought it, jerking his head from side to side in an attempt to escape. Some of the contents of the flask spilled over his mouth and chin, and he recognized the taste of laudanum.

"Hold him, damn you!"

They shoved him to the floor, pinning him with their combined weight. A hand clamped over his face, pinching his nostrils together until he couldn't breathe, but still he resisted. Clavell caught his jaw and forced it open, and Erik cried out in pain; then he began to choke as the liquid poured down his throat. They were merciless, upending the flask to empty it into him. He felt his limbs begin to grow heavy and useless as the drug took effect. Long before he was shoved back into the cage, he was unconscious.

He regained his senses slowly and became aware of his surroundings again. He raised his head with an effort; it felt impossibly heavy. He was sitting on the ground, his legs sprawled out in front of him, his arms pulled into an awkward position above and behind his head and tied to the spokes of the wagon wheel he leaned against. Despite the confusion in his mind, he could clearly remember what had happened to him. There were other vague shadows of memory too--half-dreams of swimming towards the surface of awareness only to have the rough hands with the flask return to push him cruelly down again.

"Are you finally awake?"

Someone was kneeling in front of him, reaching toward him. He flinched away before his befuddled brain recognized that the voice belonged to a woman and that this touch was gentle, holding a cool, wet cloth to his face.

"Where am I?" He barely recognized his own voice.

"Be still." The cloth went away. He heard a splash, then it came back. He licked at the moisture on his lips, aware of how parched his throat was. "I'll get you a cup of water. I know you must be thirsty."

With an effort, he focused on the woman, and she smiled at him. It was a novel experience--having an attractive young woman smile at him--and he was startled. Before he could react, she was gone.

"Wait." His lips formed the word, but no sound emerged. He moved his head carefully to look around and discovered that he was bound to a wagon on what seemed to be the outskirts of a camp. They were no longer in the city; there were trees all around and he could hear the sound of a stream off to one side. He took a deep breath, trying to quell the stab of fear that ran through him.

He drank deeply when the woman returned with water, feeling it clear his head somewhat, then tested his ability to speak again. "Where are we?" His voice was little better than a croak.

"Twenty miles outside of Dijon." She set the cup on a rock. "Jacques decided to stop here for a few days. He said there were some things that needed to be taken care of."

"How long have I been..."

"You've been asleep for the past three days, if that's what you're trying to ask."

"Three days!" He pulled futilely at the ropes holding his wrists. "I'm due in Paris tomorrow. They...they've kept me drugged for three days? Why?"

She shrugged. "They had to keep you quiet. You said you had no family or friends, but they couldn't be sure. They didn't want anyone to find you."

The fear was now very real. "Cut me loose," he ordered, hoping she wouldn't notice the tremor in his voice.

"I can't do that. They'd kill me if I..."

"Ah, Marielle. I see you're having a chat with the newest member of our troupe."

There was an unmistakable note of dismissal in his voice. The woman rose gracefully and stepped aside. Erik glared up at the man looming over him. "Monsieur Clavell, I told you that I have no interest in..."

Dropping to one knee, Clavell casually backhanded him. Erik's vision winked off and on, and he tasted blood.

"Let me explain your situation. I gave you the chance to come with us on your own. You refused. I'm not letting a prize like you get away. You belong to me now."

"I belong to no one." A harder blow cut off any further protest.

"You're mine, to do with as I please. Who do you think you are? A man? Bah--you're a monster, masquerading as a man. You're an animal, a freak. I made the mistake of trying to deal with you as if you were a man. No more. You'll obey me or you'll die."

For a moment, Erik's anger overrode all other emotion. "Kill me then," he snapped. "Kill me and be done with it. Do you think I'm afraid to die?" He surged against his bonds, then fell back, panting from the exertion.

Clavell stood and began to pace slowly back and forth in front of his prisoner. "This is foolishness, Monsieur Clavell," Erik went on, trying to speak in a reasonable tone. "Release me now and I'll go away and we shall both forget that this..."

Clavell spun, his boot thudding into Erik's ribs. The force of the kick lifted Erik's body from the ground and left him without breath to even cry out. "So, Monsieur Gargoyle," he growled, "you do not fear death. Do you fear pain then?"

"You're mad," Erik whispered. His senses reeled from the fury of the assault.

"You belong to me and you'll do anything I ask--or I'll see that you live in agony and pray for death. Think on that." Clavell stalked away. Wide-eyed with disbelief, Erik watched him go.

"You would do well to listen to him."

Erik turned his attention to the woman--Marielle?--who stood to one side, her brow furrowed. "He is insane. You cannot force a man to..." He gasped as he tried to move. His ribs ached where he had been kicked and his face hurt from the blows. There was no feeling at all in his arms, but, looking up, he could see blood on his wrists where they were held by the ropes.

"You're wrong. He can force you. He will force you. Sooner or later, you'll do anything he asks. Anything." She came closer, lowering her voice. "You can't begin to imagine what he's capable of doing. He'll break you--one way or another."

Erik shuddered involuntarily. "Cut me free. Help me get away from him."

"I can't do that." She began to back away.

"Don't leave me here like this."

She shook her head and was gone. Erik tugged once more at his bonds, then leaned back and closed his eyes. He tried to force himself to be calm, to push away his fear and anger. His head was spinning from the aftereffects of the drug and from the abuse he had taken, making it difficult to think clearly. This could not be happening to him. He had to get away from this madman.

The remnants of the laudanum in his body overcame him and, impossibly, he dozed. He was awakened by the sound of voices and opened his eyes to find Clavell and the other two men standing over him, staring at him, speaking as if he could not hear--as if he did not exist.

"We mustn't keep him tied like that," Clavell was saying. "Look at his hands. His hands have to be protected. If we hurt them, he won't be able to play."

"But if we untie him, how can we keep him from running away?" Georges protested.

"There's a way to make sure that he won't escape." Clavell smiled. "If he can't walk, he can't run." He knelt, still smiling. "Give me your knife."

Erik's stomach knotted with terror. He began to jerk frantically against the ropes that held him. Clavell started to laugh.

"So, Monsieur Gargoyle. Perhaps you aren't quite as brave as you'd like us to think." He gestured to Dumas. "Hold his leg. The right one. Pull it straight and keep it that way until I'm finished."

"No!" He fought, kicking and thrashing. They immobilized him easily and laughed at his struggles. "You can't do this! You can't..."

He shrieked with agony as the knife tore into his flesh, ripping brutally down and across. Through a roaring in his ears, he heard Clavell's satisfied murmur, "There. Now let's see him run."

The world went black, then exploded into light as someone slapped him, forcing him back to consciousness. He cried out as he saw Clavell raise the knife again and saw the crimson dripping from the blade, but this time Clavell only sliced through the ropes binding his wrists. He slid bonelessly to one side, lightheaded, staring. There seemed to be blood everywhere. He could feel it pouring from his leg, soaking his trousers and pooling beneath him. The smell of it was overpowering. He retched weakly, bringing up the water he had drunk earlier, and began to shake with the sudden cold spreading through his body.

"My God! What have you done? He's going to bleed to death." The words came from a great distance away.

"She's right. Here. This will stop it."

Something looped about his leg and tightened. He screamed again at the new pain and felt himself slipping back into the darkness.

The nightmare had only begun.

There was a part of his mind that knew who he was, where he was, and why this was happening to him. That was the rational part, which shook its head, called him a stubborn fool, urged him to capitulate, and told him that it was insane to suffer so much just for the sake of his pride and his self-respect. Then there was another part that refused to think or to reason, that simply existed, telling him to eat when they gave him food, to sleep when they left him alone, and to endure because there was no alternative. This was the part of him which continued to defy Clavell in spite of everything.

He lay in the cage, only half conscious, wondering numbly how long he had been their prisoner and how much more he would have to endure before he died. Clavell and his friends knew too many different ways to hurt without killing. They were skilled in a variety of methods to torment and humiliate, methods that broke the spirit as well as the body. He fought them--he always fought them when they came for him--but it had become progressively easier for them to club him into submission before they began their abuse. There had been several periods of respite, when the troupe had gone into towns to perform and he had been kept drugged and hidden. But as soon as they were on the road, where it did not matter if his screams were heard, it had always begun again.

He wondered about the others in the fair. He had seen them moving about the camp, heard their talk and their laughter, but none of them had come near his cage. He wondered what kind of people they were, how they could sit by and listen to his cries and know that he was being tortured and do nothing to stop it. Perhaps they, like Clavell and his friends, considered him no more than a dumb animal to be broken and trained. The only person to come near him was the woman, Marielle, who brought him food and tended his injuries. She rarely spoke to him, working in silence to see that he did not die at their hands. Of course, he reminded himself, by the time she appeared, his power of speech usually had been reduced to inarticulate moans.

With an effort, he rolled onto his back so that he could look up at the sky. The movement--the sudden pressure upon his newly lacerated back--brought a wave of pain that took his breath and filmed his vision with red haze. He heard himself whimper, and the sound disgusted him.

He had no idea how much damage Clavell had done to his leg. He had not yet been able to force himself to look when Marielle changed the bandage, to see the extent of the injury. He thought he might never be able to walk again, should the impossible happen and he somehow survive this ordeal. The limb was totally useless, good for nothing but one more focus for their torment.


He didn't bother to try to turn his head. Even though the voice came from his blind side, he knew it was Marielle, knew she was kneeling beside the bars and staring anxiously at him. He felt her hand on his shoulder and heard her murmur, "Monsieur Gargoyle?"

It was what Clavell and the others called him--it was all that they called him--but he shuddered at hearing it from her lips. He jerked away from her touch, despite the pain the movement caused.

"I have a name, damn you!" He meant the words to be harsh, but they came out as little more than a whisper. "My name is Erik."

She moved around the cage to his left, so that he could see her. He thought he saw tears in her eyes as her gaze swept across him, then darted away. "I'm sorry, Erik. I didn't know your name, only..." She gestured.

It was the most she had said to him since that first day an eternity ago, but he found he had little strength to respond. He shifted slightly, trying to find a slightly more comfortable position and failing.

"Why are you so stubborn? I know what they've done to you. I've heard them. I've seen the results."

His soul flinched. He had hoped that no one knew--would ever know--of certain of their forms of torment, of the things that had reduced him to the shrieking, mindless animal they believed him to be. "If you know what they're doing to me," he said tiredly, "then end it."

"I can't free you," she protested. "You must realize that."

He tried to laugh, but the sound was closer to a sob. "What good would that do? I can't even sit up. No. Kill me."

"I can't do that either. Give in to them, Erik. It's such a little thing."

His temper flared. "I will not prostitute myself for them! I will not sell myself--my music."

She made a soft, wordless sound, and he looked at her--really looked at her for the first time. "I'm sorry," he whispered. "I didn't realize. I thought...I assumed you of the tumblers perhaps."

"I learned very quickly that there are other--easier--ways to make money, if you're a woman and if you aren't too proud." She looked away for a moment, then back at him. "I came here because I thought I loved Jacques. I thought he'd marry me. But he and his friends had other plans for me. They wanted to use me to make money. And once they were through with me, I had no pride left."

"How can you stand it?"

"You can stand anything if you have to. And I have to. I don't have anyplace else to go. Do you think my family--my good and decent family--would want to take me back now, after all I've been forced to do--after all the men I've slept with?"

"Marielle..." He closed his eyes.

"Give in. Don't suffer needlessly any more. Please."

He heard footsteps and the rustle of skirts as Marielle departed. He slitted his left eye open and was not surprised to see Clavell and his friends approaching, talking in low voices.

"Good morning, Monsieur Gargoyle," Dumas called cheerfully. "A surprise for you today."

Their surprises were invariably ugly and painful. He lay still, his breathing shallow, trying not to speculate on what might be in store for him.

"We're coming to a village today," Clavell announced. He looked pleased with himself. "We should be there early this afternoon. It's time for you to start earning your keep."

That brought his eyes fully open. "Monsieur..."

"Maybe you won't play, but you can still be seen. Your face should be enough to bring customers in, even without your music."

"No. I won't let you..."

"You have no choice."

The cage door clanged open and he was dragged out. His head lolled forward as they propped him up against the wagon and pulled his arms up to once more bind his hands to the spokes of the wheel. He hung there, dizzy, panting, scarcely aware of the movement going on around him. Then he felt something wet and soapy upon his cheek and looked up. Georges was kneeling in front of him, a straight razor in his hand. Erik flinched as the razor approached his face and Georges caught his chin, roughly pushing his head back and immobilizing him. He caught his breath, expecting the worst, but Georges wielded the razor carefully, drawing it across the left side of his face without leaving even the tiniest cut. This caution was so unlike the man's usual behavior towards him that Erik was surprised. Then he realized...

"You're making me presentable."

Georges laughed. "That's beyond my powers, Monsieur Gargoyle. All I can do is clean you up. Our customers can't see what your face looks like if it's covered with whiskers." He lay the razor against the scarred cheek. "Hold still now. This won't be easy."

"And how will you explain the bruises--the marks on my back?"

"An animal must be trained somehow, Monsieur."

"I'm no animal. People will realize that."

"They might think that if they heard you speak. But we'll see that you don't do any talking." Erik shrank from the implied threat in the words.

Georges leaned back on his heels. "You know, Monsieur Gargoyle, you're a fool. None of this is necessary. We don't enjoy hurting you."

"Don't you?" Erik asked dryly, without thinking, then cried out at the retaliatory blow.

"Not in the face!" Clavell called from somewhere beyond his vision. "We don't want to damage his face any further."

"No need, eh, Monsieur?" Georges murmured to Erik. "There are enough other places to...damage you." He lowered his hand and proceeded to demonstrate, and Erik's consciousness went away in a rush.

Erik was roused by the sound of voices--voices gasping, crying out in alarm, exclaiming in horror. He lay stunned, only half-aware, until, overriding all the other sounds, he heard Clavell's harsh, exultant call.

"Come! See him! Monsieur Gargoyle--a monster, deformed from birth!"

Erik opened his eyes. His gaze swept from side to side and his muscles tensed as he realized how much time had passed. While he had lain senseless, they had come to the town and he had been put on display. There was a crowd surrounding the cage, staring at him and pointing. He cried out in shame, jerking his hands up to hide...

His body was pulled violently backwards, his head slamming against the bars. He blinked with surprise...and found he could not draw a breath. He clawed at his throat and instantly understood what was happening. There was a leather strap around his neck--one of the leashes they used on the bear, to allow them to choke the animal into submission. The analogy was not lost on him. He managed to turn his head to confirm that the other end of the leash was in Clavell's grasp. The man smiled lazily at him and gave one more quick twist before he allowed the strap to loosen slightly. Erik wheezed, pulling air into his lungs. Someone laughed.

Erik began to shiver. He clenched his fists and ground his teeth together, trying to force himself to be still. These people staring at him was the ultimate humiliation, worse than the beatings, the tortures, or the abuse. He could not tolerate it. He felt a scream rising from somewhere deep inside him and feared he lacked the strength to contain it.

One of the women leaned close to take a long look at him, then swooned into the arms of her escort. He tried to turn away from her and the pressure about his neck increased. His mind seized upon that, recognizing his only avenue of escape. He began to struggle, throwing himself from side to side, raging against the restraint as best he could with his hurt and weakened body, forcing Clavell to tighten the collar more and more. He fought until the lack of oxygen dropped him back into the merciful darkness, feeling a surge of elation as the noise of the crowd faded and he slumped to the floor of the cage...

The little boy yawned and stretched and rubbed his eyes, then lay for a moment watching the patterns the afternoon sunlight made upon the wall. The apartment was strangely silent. He yawned again, then sat up and whispered, "Mama?" There was no response.

He crawled from his trundle bed, being careful to cover his face with the silk mask his mother had made for him before he went in search of her. Usually when he napped she either read or rested in the big bed beside his so that she would be refreshed in the evening when she went to her job at the cabaret down the street. But this day she was neither asleep nor in her normal chair by the window.

He pushed the bedroom door open and peered into the other room, his mouth going round with surprise. His mother was lying on the floor, fully clothed, her glorious auburn hair spread loose about her, sound asleep. If he had been a child given to laughter, he would have giggled at the strange sight. Instead, he merely blinked in confusion and wonder.


She didn't move. He crossed the room, knelt, and hesitantly, knowing how much she hated for him to touch her, lay a hand on her shoulder. "Mama?" He shook her gently, but still she slept on. He sat down beside her and stared into her face, drinking in the sight of her. She was so beautiful, and he yearned so for her love. All his short life he had watched other children with their mothers--had seen the easy hugs and kisses and smiles that passed between them. Even young as he was, he understood why his mother could not give him that kind of love--that he was horrible and repulsive and hideous--but his soul still craved those things that the other children took for granted. His mother had never held him close, never kissed him, never even spoken kindly to him.


The depth of her sleep made him bold. He leaned forward and pressed his silk-covered lips to her cheek, then jerked away, bracing himself for the retaliation that was sure to come. When she still did not move, he became even more daring, lifting the mask and kissing her again, quickly. He had never felt the softness of her skin before and he was overcome with the desire to press his face against hers. Trembling, he carefully lay his left cheek--the unscarred cheek--against hers. His eyes filled with tears and, just for a moment, he pretended that she loved him, dreamt that she would wake and wrap her arms around him and call him her darling son. He snuggled close to her and wrapped his small arms around her and whispered, "Mama, mama. I love you, mama."

He wasn't sure how much time passed before he realized that something was wrong. She was so still--so motionless. She didn't even seem to be breathing. He lifted his head and looked more closely at her, noticing the unnatural pallor of her face. He began to tremble again. "Mama? Mama?"

He was screaming when the lady who lived next door--the widow who kept him when his mother was at work--arrived and began to pound on the door. He struggled with the bolt, his fear and desperation giving him strength, and managed to throw it open.

"Madame Larouche! Mama! Mama!" He seized her by the hand and dragged her to the immobile figure on the floor.

Madame Larouche freed herself and bent to touch the pale brow. She felt for a pulse, then straightened, shaking her head. "Poor Nicole," she murmured.

"What's wrong with mama?" The little boy was nearly hysterical now.

"She's dead," the woman said bluntly. "An overdose of laudanum--or poison. Who knows. I'm surprised she didn't do this long ago."

"No! My mama isn't dead!" He began to cry and, forgetting himself, threw himself at the older woman, trying to force himself into her arms. "My mama isn't dead!"

She pushed him away and slapped him. The pain stopped his tears for a moment and he stared up at her with wide eyes. "Control yourself," she said firmly. "Tears will not bring her back."


"I must summon the officials. Stay here. And cover your face before I return."

He stood there, hurting, bewildered, as she hurried away, then turned back to the lifeless figure on the floor. He sat down beside her again and forced back the sobs as he replaced his mask. She was dead. She was gone forever. She would never hold him now, never kiss him, never love him...

He would not cry, although his lips quivered with hurt and indignation. He had not allowed himself the luxury of tears since the day his mother had died. His schoolmates had not been able to make him cry with their taunts--or with the beating--and he would not cry now.

"You've been fighting again." Madame Larouche's expression was one of stern disapproval.

"It wasn't my fault!" he protested. "The older boys caught me on the way home and..."

She silenced him with a frown. "Erik, you are almost twelve. Surely by now you've learned to deal with your schoolmates."

He refused to allow his shoulders to slump with defeat--with the utter hopelessness of it all. Yes, he knew how to deal with them: hide; avoid them; shut himself away emotionally. From his earliest days in school he had taken the mask his mother had forced upon him and had used it to conceal his face and his feelings from the world. Once the other children had satisfied their curiosity, they had left him alone, except for the occasional attack like the one today.

"I took you in because it was the Christian thing to do," Madame Larouche reminded him. "If I had let them take you to the orphanage..." She shook her head. "You would have died there. I've tried to give you everything you need."

It was true. Madame Larouche was a good woman. She had given him food, clothing, shelter, and, when she realized that he was a brilliant scholar, the promise of a university education--all the material things he needed. But she had never given him love. He would have traded everything else for one kiss or one embrace, but he already knew that he was not someone who could be loved, no matter how hard he tried to be worthy of someone's--anyone's--affection.

"I'm sorry, Madame. I'll try to avoid them in the future."

"Very well. Now go clean yourself up and then play the violin for me."

"Of course, Madame."

"God, what a monster!"

The young man was motionless, frozen with helpless rage and humiliation, his hands tightly clasping his textbooks. He glared at the classmates who had come up behind him as he sat alone, studying, and ripped away the piece of material that he used to conceal his features from them. He should have expected it, he thought furiously, although he had somehow hoped for better treatment at the university. He had never dreamt of being accepted, but he had thought these men would be mature enough to leave him alone. He lay down his books and slowly rose, trying to ignore the way they involuntarily drew back from him.

"My mask," he said quietly, holding out a hand that trembled in spite of his efforts. They continued to stare at him and he returned their look, narrowing his eyes coldly. One of them seized the scrap of cloth from his companion and threw it at Erik. Then they fled.

He waited until they were gone before he sat back down, replaced the silk covering, and opened his book as if he were returning to his studies. It was no use, of course. He could pretend to be unfeeling--pretend to be immune to the hurts and the endless rejections--but there was still that part of him which yearned for love and acceptance, no matter how he strove to crush those feelings.

He stared blindly at his textbook. His mind had proved as keen as his face was hideous, and he had more than excelled in his schoolwork, easily bypassing his classmates. Since there had been no friends to distract him, he had thrown himself into his studies with a passion. He had discovered his artistic abilities early, and he was dividing his time between the study of architecture and the study of music. He had learned that, although unlovely himself, he had the power to create things of great beauty. Even though he was still a student, he had begun to earn money with his architectural designs, and his music had helped him to fill the lonely evenings, but there was an aching void in his life--in his heart...

"Do not let this destroy you, my Erik. You must not give in. You must not let them drive you to madness."

Arani. Impossibly, she was there with him, sliding her arms around his waist, pressing her cheek against his chest, whispering to him in her low, gentle voice. He clung to her, almost crushing her, and moaned, "You don't understand. They're staring at me!"

"How can I understand your horror of being looked upon--I, who never saw your face?" She shook her head. "Give in to them. Do as they wish."


"You must learn to accept what cannot be changed."

"I cannot accept this. I will fight them until I die."

"Oh, Erik. My poor Erik. And what will your death prove? You must survive. Your music must live. Be strong. Do as they ask. Please. Your music must live for me." She stepped back, pulling away from him. "For me."

"Arani!" He reached for her, then gasped with pain...and woke.

It was dark and the air was cool. He lay still, trying to reorient himself. His brain was numb and his body was aching and his throat was bruised from the pressure of the collar. The silence was deafening. The crowd was gone. It was over, but only for today.

"Ah, Monsieur Gargoyle, you're awake at last." Erik tensed at the sound of Clavell's voice beside the cage. "What a performance! It was everything I could have hoped for and more." Clavell chuckled unpleasantly. "All the screaming and moaning you did--you certainly gave the crowd their money's worth. I have no doubt that there will be even more people tomorrow, when the news of our hideous madman spreads."

Erik tried to turn away, to block out the sound of Clavell's words, to block out the memory of the faces and the laughter.

"Maybe I've made a mistake asking you to play the violin," Clavell went on in a thoughtful tone, moving around the cage. "This might be much more satisfying." He paused. "There's another advantage to this, too. If we can make use of you even without your music, then there's no longer any need for us to try so hard to protect your hands."

"No." Erik's lips soundlessly formed the word and his chest constricted with fear.

"Georges will be here to help me as soon as he finishes counting the receipts for the evening." Clavell bent to draw a knife from a sheath in the top of his boot. Erik stared in horrified fascination as the man turned it so that the blade caught the light of the torches surrounding the cage. "I wonder where we should cut first. Which hand do you favor, Monsieur Gargoyle?"

Erik's stomach heaved, but he had eaten so little in the preceding days that he could do nothing but retch. He wrapped his arms around himself to try to contain his terror. The man meant to destroy his hands so that he would never again be able to play the violin. This was to be Clavell's revenge for his defiance, for his refusal to perform: he would be left a cripple with a useless leg and useless hands--alive, but at their mercy. Forever.

"No." The protest was audible this time, and Clavell laughed again.

"No? And how do you propose to stop me, eh, Monsieur Gargoyle?" Clavell knelt and casually drew the knife blade across the bars close to Erik's face.

"No...please..." Erik's throat tightened as he realized that there was only one way to stop what was about to happen--that there was, after all, one thing worse than being on display. The idea of a life without the music which was the only thing of beauty he had ever had within him was unthinkable. He made the only decision he could. With an immense effort, he shoved himself upright and croaked, "Bring me my violin."

"Your violin?"

"Bring me my violin." Erik clenched his teeth against the pain and the nausea.

"What are you saying? Will you..."

"I'll do anything you ask...goddamn you." Erik's eyes closed and his body sagged. He felt himself begin to slip sideways.

"Ah, Monsieur Gargoyle, a wise choice." Clavell stood with a chuckle and raised his voice. "Marielle! Marielle!"

"What is it?" He could hear Marielle, breathless with haste.

"Get in there and take care of him."


"I said get in there! We don't want him to die on us--not now. He's going to play for us tomorrow."

Erik heard the clank of the lock and the grating of the hinges, then felt the gentle touch of a hand on his shoulder. "Erik. Poor, poor Erik." Her voice was kind. He wanted to turn his face into her skirts and weep, but he would not allow himself the luxury of useless tears. He forced himself to be still, breathing deeply until he had regained control of his emotions.

"What do you need to fix him up?"


"You don't have that. I need him tomorrow."

"Tomorrow! You must be joking. You can't expect him to play for you tomorrow--not after all you've done to him! You have to give him time to heal."

"Two days then."

"I need a week. Maybe more. And you have to let him out of the cage."


"You have no choice--not if you ever want him to be of any use to you. You can't do the things you've done to him and expect him to recover overnight."

There was a long silence, then Clavell said grudgingly, "All right. I'll give him to you for the rest of the week. But I'm not going to let him out of the cage."

"Do you think he'll get away? Oh, Jacques, look at him! Look at his leg. How could this poor creature escape?"

With a growl, Jacques reached into the cage to seize Erik's huddled form and pull him roughly out. "One week. And at the end of it..." There was a note of dark menace in his voice. "He'll play."

Clavell stood, hoisting Erik's body across his shoulder. "Your tent?"


"Maybe you have other things in mind for our friend." Clavell chuckled. Erik bit back a cry as the man carried him away from the fair, toward the area where most of the tents were pitched. Clavell bent to shoulder beneath the flap and dropped his burden onto the floor.

"Don't leave him there," Marielle protested.

"Of course--you'd want him in your bed, wouldn't you? I never knew your tastes were this strange."

Erik heard her quick intake of breath. "Just go away," she snapped. "I'll take care of him."

"I've no doubt you will, but I'll be back in a few minutes, so don't start with him just yet." Clavell chuckled, then left.

Marielle slid her hands beneath Erik's arms. "I'm going to try to lift you onto the bed. You'll be more comfortable there. Can you help me?"

Erik tried, feeling his face go white when his weight rested momentarily on his right leg. Although he was not heavy, his injuries made him awkward and helpless, and they were both breathless when he was moved the necessary few feet.

"Let's get this shirt off." She caught the shoulder seam and began to tear the material. When he made a sound of protest, she lay a hand on his mouth to silence him. "It's filthy--and it's ruined anyway. I'll get you something better to wear when the time comes."

"Marielle..." He was confused. "This is your tent?"

"Yes." She helped him turn onto his side, easing the material from beneath him. He hissed as she peeled the cloth away from his back.

"They've been at you with the whip again." Her voice was tight. "These are fresh. When did this happen?"

"Last night...late."

"These should have been seen to hours ago. I wish you'd told me about this earlier." He felt the soft touch of a cloth as she began to clean the cuts. "I was...very busy last night. I'm sorry. Did they do anything else?"

He shook his head. "Only that." It had been enough.

"You'll have scars for the rest of your life from some of these. At least it won't happen again."

"Not as long as he obeys me." Erik's muscles tensed at the sound of Clavell's voice. "You work fast, Marielle. Do you need help getting his trousers off?" Laughing, Clavell lay a hand on Erik's shoulder and roughly shoved him flat.

"Leave him alone."

"I will. As soon as I'm finished with this." Erik felt something cold, heavy, and metallic being fastened about his left ankle.


"I don't trust him. Don't worry--it won't interfere with your pleasure." Clavell straightened. "Be sure to enjoy him tonight. It's back to work for you tomorrow."

Clavell's laughter had receded before Marielle reached out to turn Erik again and resume her attentions to his torn back. She was shaking with anger.

"I'm sorry."

"Don't be. It isn't your fault."



"Why are you doing this? You could take care of me just as easily out there--you have--and you wouldn't have to..."

"To listen to Jacques? That's true, but you don't need to be out there where you're exposed to the weather any longer--not in the shape you're in--not if you want to live. Do you want to live?"

"I don't know," he murmured.

"You will, eventually. I know what it's like--how you're feeling. I remember what they did to me." She began to apply the too-familiar salve.

He lay still, gathering his remaining courage, and finally managed to whisper, " leg. What did he do to my leg?"

"It's a slave chain. God knows where he got it. Is it too tight?"

"The other leg."

"Oh." Her hands stopped their movements, and he closed his eyes.

"It's bad, isn't it?"

She hesitated, then finally said, "Yes. I've managed to keep the wound clean and bandaged, in spite of everything. There's been no sign of infection. You won't lose the leg, but... He cut down to the bone." She didn't go on. She didn't have to.

Erik felt the tears threaten again, and it was harder to stop them this time. He gave a sigh of relief when Marielle finished her task, pulled a blanket over him, and patted his shoulder. "Be still now. You need rest. I'll be sleeping over here if you need anything."

He listened to the quiet noises she made as she prepared for bed, then the soft sighs of her breathing. He had never spent the night alone with a woman, but he was too weary, too sick in both body and spirit, to even think of her in that way. There was too much pain from too many places, keeping him from the healing sleep he needed. He tried to avoid thinking about what was to come at the end of the week. Instead, he thought of his violin and wondered what they had done with it. He thought of the day the Shah of Persia had placed it in his hands as they stood at the gate of the golden palace--remembered the Shah's parting words, "Arani would want you to take this back to France with you"--felt the ache of grief and loss as fresh and keen as if it had happened days before instead of years.

He lay there in the dark and let his mind wander back to his months in Persia. It was the only place--the only time--in his life when he had been happy. Although he had been relatively young and still new to his craft, his skill as an architect had reached the attention of the Shah, who had commissioned him to design a new palace. His plans had been so successful that the Shah had hired him to personally supervise the construction of the building, and so, for a time, he had found himself in a foreign country, living a totally different life. Different, yet the same in many ways until he had met Arani.

The workers he had supervised and the servants who had attended him had feared him, and he had tried to keep contact with them to the minimum, issuing orders and then attempting to keep out of their sight. Since he had never entertained hopes that life in Persia would be better than life in France, his solitude had not been a disappointment. The heat had bothered him terribly--his wig and mask seemed to trap the hot air and suffocate him. He had quickly come to enjoy his isolation, taking his meals alone in his rooms where he could remove his disguise and exchange his proper clothing for the cooler, loose-fitting costume of the country. He had spent his evenings reading by the light of a dozen candles or walking through the gardens at night when the darkness would serve as his mask. He had first encountered Arani there, almost a month after his arrival. His lips curved into a faint smile as he allowed himself to remember...

The sound of a violin, played badly, drew him as he wandered through the cool dimness of the garden. He moved silently down the path toward the music, brushing through the alien foliage, scarcely aware that he had entered a different, unexplored area until he saw the slim figure seated in a pool of light spilling from an open window. He froze, quickly drawing back to hide, but the woman stopped her playing and turned toward him.

"Who's there?" When he remained silent, she said, "I know someone's there. I can hear you breathing. Who is it?"

"Erik Duquesne," he said slowly. "The architect."

Her face broke into a smile. "Of course. I've heard my father speak of you. He says the palace you're building is very beautiful."

"Thank you. The work is going well."

"My father is very pleased. Will you come and sit with me for a few moments, Monsieur Duquesne?"

"I can't." He realized belatedly that he should not be alone with a young woman--should not be here at all. "I'm sorry to have disturbed you."

"Please." Her voice caught him. "Don't go." She lay the violin down and held out a hand in his direction.

"I must."

"It would be quite proper if you wish to stay. My maid is just inside where she can chaperon us."

"It's more than that." He struggled with the words. "I face..."

"You are very ugly. You hide behind a mask. My father has told me this. It doesn't matter."

"But tonight I have no mask."

"It makes no difference to me." She rose and took a hesitant step toward him, and he turned to flee. "Monsieur, are you ever lonely?" Her whispered question startled him, stopped him. He kept the right side of his face away from her, in the shadows, feeling the old but ever-new pain of his loneliness wash through him.

"Always." The word came out involuntarily.

"I knew you must be. When father spoke of you, I felt..." She moved slowly forward. "I felt that you would understand loneliness." Her outstretched hand encountered his shoulder; her fingers closed in the loose folds of material, holding him there.

He took a deep breath and turned to face her, braced for her scream, her recoil. She did neither, only stood there staring at him--no, not at him, but beyond him.

"You can't see," he whispered, shocked.

She nodded. "I, too, am always lonely," she said quietly. "Will you come and sit with me for a time?"

"Yes." He was uneasy, uncomfortable, as he followed her and lowered himself to the ground beside her chair. He had little experience in the social graces and even less with women of any sort. He hardly knew what to say to her. "You're sure your father won't..."

She smiled. "My father will not mind if you visit with me. I am his youngest daughter and my mother was his favorite. And then there is my blindness. He indulges me far more than any of his other daughters." She held out her hand. "I believe this is the custom in your country? My name is Arani."

He took her hand briefly but did not kiss it as another Frenchman might have done, afraid that she would be repulsed by the touch of his lips. "I am pleased to meet you, mademoiselle."

"And I am pleased to meet you, Monsieur Duquesne." She settled back. "You speak our language well for someone so new to our country."

"It's a gift I have. I learn quickly."

"How wonderful! You're fortunate. I'm very slow to grasp things. I have been trying to learn to play." She gestured toward the violin. "I love the music, but the notes will not come for me."

There was something in her voice--a sadness, a longing--that Erik could identify with. He heard himself ask, "Would you like me to play for you?"

"You play the violin?" Her face lit with delight. "Oh please."

He took the instrument, recognizing its value at once. He straightened and tucked it beneath his chin, then carefully drew the bow across the strings, sighing at the sweetness of the sound that emerged. He began to play the old folk tunes of his country, his fingers moving without thought, without effort. As he played, he watched the expression on Arani's face--saw it change as the music changed from pensive to happy to sad. He thought that she was very beautiful--this young woman with sleek dark hair and delicate features and a slim yet softly rounded figure. He wondered why she had not married--why she was lonely. As he played for her, he felt an unexpected joy and peace in her quiet acceptance of him.

That night marked the beginning of the only friendship Erik had ever known. After their first meeting, they came together every evening in her garden. At first, he went only to play the violin, but soon she asked him to read to her, and he gladly complied, struggling to translate his French texts into her language as he read. Later, they began to talk to each other of their lives. He told her of France, of the maze of mirrors he was designing for the golden palace, of his days at the university. He never spoke of his pain and loneliness, nor did she speak of her own as she told of her father's overprotectiveness and explained how her blindness had kept her still unmarried even though all of her sisters had been wed at a much younger age. There in the darkness--in her darkness--it became easy for Erik to pretend that he was a normal man and that Arani was...

He broke the train of memory before it could reach its painful conclusion. It had not lasted of course. Nothing so beautiful could last--not for him. Erik put the thought of Arani away and came back to the present, back to the aches in his body and the chain on his leg and the quiet sound of a different woman's breathing. And at last he slept.

"Good morning, Erik."

He turned his head to nod at Marielle and take both his violin and the chunk of bread she slipped through the bars for his breakfast. "Good morning," he whispered. He had learned to speak in a low voice, when he spoke at all. Clavell did not want to admit that he was anything more than a dumb animal, and so Erik had learned to play the role well.

"It's a beautiful day. The crowds have been good here this year. Jacques says we may even stay another week before we move on."

He didn't respond. It mattered little to him. One group of horrified faces was much the same as another. He shifted position to ease the cramp in his right leg and reached down to massage the scar.

"Does it still hurt after all this time?"

"Yes." She should know that, he thought. She had watched him when he was allowed out of the cage to bathe and wash his clothing and attend to his other needs; she had seen him fall time and again when he had tried to stand and put weight upon his crippled leg; she had seen him forced to crawl because he could not walk. She knew--as he did, to his humiliation--that they were so sure of his inability to walk that they no longer even bothered to lock the cage door. What she did not know was that many nights he had lain awake, exercising the leg as best he could, stretching the damaged muscles until he had fainted with the pain, determined that one day he would walk again unaided. He strained to make the leg functional even though he had long since given up on the idea of ever escaping from this cage--or from this life.

"Do you need anything else?"

He shook his head.

"I'll see you tonight then."

He watched her go, then settled back against the bars, tore off a piece of the bread, and began to eat. He knew that they were in Paris, that he had finally completed the journey he had begun an eternity ago, but it meant nothing to him. Few things had meaning for him now. He had survived, but in doing so he had become little more than an automaton--a mechanical figure who performed, endured the taunts of the crowds, ate, and slept. There were occasional beatings when the crowds were small and Clavell blamed him or when Clavell and his friends felt the need to reestablish their dominance of him. He had endured those too. Time had passed without his being aware of it, the days, the weeks, the months, the cities blurring.

Despite all the time that had passed, the other members of the travelling fair still ignored him--everyone but Marielle and, of course, Clavell and his friends. Erik watched the others from his solitary cage, saw their easy camaraderie, heard their shared laughter. For a brief time, at the beginning, he had hoped that they might accept him, but even here he was an outcast. All he could do was observe: the tumblers, with their acrobatics which he once could have duplicated easily but would never be able to now; the magician, with his childishly simple tricks; the trained animals...

He finished the bread and reached for his violin, his fingers caressing the smooth wood as he lifted it. Only his music had meaning now. Music was his refuge and his escape. He thought back to the time countless months before, when, as soon as he had been able to sit upright, Marielle had brought his violin back to him. For a long time, the injuries to his back had made it difficult for him to lift his arms to play properly, but he had played despite the pain--he had no choice--and he had healed with time. Before he had been returned to the cage, Marielle had found a loose-fitting shirt of some soft material for him to wear and she had seen that he was given a mattress to pad the rough floor of his prison. The first day had been a nightmare until he had realized that there was another way to escape the taunts and stares--a less painful way than choking himself into oblivion. He had let the music carry him away, playing for Arani again. Every day since, he had relived the joy of their moments together and the memories, which were all he had, sustained him. He had learned to use the memories as his mask, forcing a cold indifference to the outside world, pretending to ignore the bars of the cage and the crowds and the humiliation of the bear collar around his neck. He knew that Clavell owned his body, but he would not allow the man to own his soul.

The sun was high overhead and he was playing one of the songs he had written for Arani when he noticed the woman at the front of the crowd. She had been here before, he realized; he had noticed her because her severe black dress contrasted so sharply to the brightly-clad folk around her. She had come to look at him and hear him play many times, but she had never come so close to him. He returned her stare, puzzled. There was something about her which was different from the others. With a start, he realized that she was looking at him not with horror, but with pity--and with contempt.

Erik's bow scraped raggedly over the strings in a sour note as her eyes met his and held. There was something in her expression, in her carriage, that suddenly, forcefully, brought up the image of his foster mother, and, for the first time in many months, he was filled with shame at what he was doing. He lowered the violin, ignoring the sounds of disappointment from the crowd and the warning from Clavell.


He shook his head silently and lowered his gaze, unable to meet the woman's penetrating dark eyes.

"I said play!" Clavell poked at him through the bars with a cane, as if he were an animal. Erik moved away, trying to block out the laughter that rose from behind him at his actions.

"So, Monsieur Gargoyle." The cage door opened and Clavell bent to enter. He snatched the violin away from Erik and reached behind him to lay it outside. "So you refuse to play. I thought we had trained you better."

The first blow of Clavell's stick opened a gash in the side of his head and sent droplets of blood flying to dot the floor. Erik hunched his shoulders, raising his hands for protection, and the next blow landed in his ribs. He gasped for breath. He could hear someone--the woman in black, he thought vaguely--protesting, but it did not stop Clavell. The man brutally struck him again and again, until he lay in a crumpled heap, whimpering.

"Now," Clavell growled, "you will play."

Erik nodded. There was no alternative--the alternative was unthinkable. Clavell jerked him upright, shoved him back against the bars, and placed the violin in his hands. Shaking, Erik obediently lifted the instrument. The tune lacked even a portion of his usual skill, but he played, eyes tightly closed to hold back the tears of pain and humiliation, lips pressed together to hold in the sounds. When at last he was able to force himself to look around, the woman in black was gone, but the damage had been done. The long dream of Arani had been shattered and another memory intruded...

Erik played for Arani often--so often that he was not aware that the tone of his music had changed until the night he saw it in her face. When he listened to himself, he was appalled and frightened by what he heard. He broke off in mid-note and lowered the violin.

"Don't stop!" she begged. "That--the last--was so lovely. What was it?"

"Nothing." His hands were shaking and he felt a cold sickness in the pit of his stomach.

"Nothing?" She smiled. "You wrote it, didn't you? It's your music."

"Yes." He put the instrument aside and caressed it one final time. He knew he must never play for her again. "I wrote it years ago."

"You're lying to me." She tilted her head to one side. "I can hear the lie in your voice, but I don't understand. Why?"

He rose and turned away from her. The music--that passionate, romantic music--had made him realize what was happening, and it could not happen. He could not--he would not--allow himself to care for Arani in that way. He lifted his right hand to his face, dragging his fingertips roughly over the deformities. Love was a dream far beyond him, as he was reminded every time he looked into a mirror. But there had been no mirrors in this garden, not even the mirror of Arani's eyes, and those emotions he had thought finally buried had come forward to betray him.

"Erik, what's wrong?"

"I must go. I must never come here again." He forced the words out.

"Why?" The distress in her voice was like a knife in his heart.

"'s wrong for me to be here." He was unable to explain. If she knew--if she understood--she would be as horrified as he was.

"You know that it isn't wrong. Are you suddenly afraid that your presence here will compromise my honor?" She laughed, teasing him.


"And why has this never occurred to you before? You are lying to me again, my Erik. You know that our meetings are very proper. Besides, I have no suitors, so what would it matter if I were compromised?" She hesitated, then suddenly became serious. "In all my life I have never had a suitor or a lover or an offer for my hand. There has been"

Her words--the implication of what she was saying--startled him. "Arani."

"Be silent. Listen to me, my Erik. Let me say this before I lose my courage. Ever since the first night you came here to me, I have dreamed of you. I dream of your kindness and your beautiful music and I wish..." She stood and moved instinctively toward him. "I have grown to love you."

He was frozen by her words, almost unable to speak. "You don't know what you're saying. You can't mean...I am hideous."

"Not to me. I know your music--your soul. I want to know more. Let me touch your face, Erik. Let me see you in my own way."

"No!" For the first time, he took advantage of her blindness, stepping aside to escape her outstretched hand. "Listen to me, Arani." His voice was harsh with pain. "I am nothing but a monstrously deformed man who has no right to even speak to you."

"You aren't monstrous to me," she said softly.

"If you could see my face, you would know differently."

"Then let me. Let me make my own decision."

"Don't you understand? I can't bear for anyone to look at my face, to look at this...this..." The words caught in his throat, but he went on with an effort. "That's the reason I hide behind a mask--so that no one will ever see..."

"My poor Erik." There were tears in her voice and on her cheeks. "You must learn to accept what cannot be changed, as I have had to."

"I can never accept this face that I have been cursed with. How can I--when no one else can?"

"I can. Let me accept it for you. Let me love you."

"You are so young." He was torn, in agony, part of him aching to accept the first--the only--love he had ever been offered and part knowing he could not.

"And you are so foolish," she snapped, going rigid with anger. Then, suddenly, it drained away and was replaced with an expression of heartbreaking confusion. "Forgive me," she whispered. "Perhaps I have presumed too much. I thought..." She folded her arms across her body, holding herself. "Perhaps I am the foolish one. You see, I thought you cared for me, as for you."

"I do care for you, Arani, but only as a friend." He spoke firmly so that she would not hear the lie in his voice this time.

She turned away from him. "I'm so ashamed," she murmured. "Forgive me."

It took all his strength of will to keep from going to her. His hands trembled with the need to touch her, to hold her, to caress her. He was unable even to speak, for he knew she would hear that he was weeping.

"Leave me now." Her tone was regal; she had suddenly become her father's daughter, a princess. As he turned to go, her final words to him halted him. "I will pray that someday you will find someone to love--someone who will return your love. I will pray that, when you find that woman, you will be able to accept the gift of love that she will give you."

Erik wavered, then spun to stumble blindly back to his rooms. There was nothing else he could do. He had no choice. He could not accept the love she offered--he did not dare. He spent the rest of that night and most of the next day alone in his room, face down upon the bed, crying until he had no more tears.

For the remainder of his stay in Persia, he avoided the garden. The country lost all the peace and beauty he had found there. He began to join the workers during the day, toiling at their side despite the way they shunned him; he threw himself into the manual labor, working until he dropped with exhaustion. He wanted the palace to be finished, wanted to return to France and leave this land forever. He never saw Arani again. All he had left was the music he had composed for her...

Erik was leaning back against the bars, staring blindly ahead and lost in unpleasant memories, when Marielle brought him a plate of food at dusk. Clavell's words to him when the crowd had dispersed had been harsh, but there had been no further punishment--yet. He turned his head as Marielle opened the door to hand him the plate, pressing a hand to his side for support as he moved to take it. She shook her head.

"What came over you today?"

He leaned back and began to eat. It was his first real meal of the day and, despite his physical discomfort, he found he was hungry. She knelt beside him.

"What possessed you to defy Jacques like that? I thought you learned your lesson long ago."

He didn't answer her. He wasn't sure of the answer himself.

"Poor Erik." Marielle reached out to pat his shoulder before she rose and secured the door. "There's dried blood on your face. I'll bring you water to wash up."

He nodded his thanks and returned his attention to his meal.


He looked up and was somehow not surprised to find the lady in black standing by his cage. He turned his face into the shadows, away from her.

"Somehow I do not believe you are the mindless creature they pretend you are."

"Go away," he whispered.

"So. You can speak."

"Yes, I can speak. I can also be hurt. You saw that. Go away."

"Why do you allow them to use you like this? You shouldn't be playing here--in this fair--in a cage. With your talent, you could..."

"I have little choice in the matter," he interrupted her. He set the plate down on the floor beside him, his appetite suddenly gone. Of all the people who had come to gape at him and hear him play, this woman was the first to speak to him. It was almost as if Madame Larouche had returned from the grave to chastise him.

"There are always choices."

He turned on her, his face drawn with anger and pain and shame. "So I once thought, Madame. I learned differently. I was taught differently. It was not an easy lesson."

"So you gave in and allowed them to cage you and..."

"You know nothing of me! Do not judge me." He wrapped his hands around the bars, gripping them. "I am an architect--a scholar--a musician. I built a maze of mirrors for the Shah of Persia. The pieces I played today were my own composition."

"I suspected as much."

He barely heard her. "You don't know what they did to me--what they would have done. You have no idea."

"And what could they do to you that would be worse than this?" she asked scornfully. "You are no architect or scholar. You aren't even a man. You are an animal!"

He flinched away from her words, sinking back. "What does it matter to you?" he murmured.

"It is a sin to misuse a talent such as yours. You should be..."

"Erik!" Marielle came running up, her eyes wide with alarm at the sight of the woman by the cage. "Who are you? What are you doing here?"

"I was merely complementing Monsieur Erik on his skill and telling him that he is wasting his talents."

"Get away from here. If Jacques catches him talking to you, he'll..."

"I have observed what your friend Jacques is capable of." The woman turned to go. "Farewell, Monsieur Erik. Perhaps we shall meet again someday."

He didn't answer her. He sat staring at his hands, watching his fingers tremble, willing them to cease. He did not want to think about the truths which she had made all too clear to him--truths which he had known but had chosen to ignore.

Marielle knelt by him, her face anxious. "What did you say to her?"

"Leave me alone," he whispered. She didn't seem to hear.

"Is there going to be trouble? Will she go to the authorities?"

"Marielle," he interrupted her. "How do you see me?" Suddenly her answer was the most important thing in the world.


"When you look at me, what do you see? A man or an animal?"

She shook her head. "I don't understand."

"Do you think of me as a man?" When she remained silent, he whispered, "Of course not. How could you? In spite of my appearance, I have always thought of myself as a man, But I'm not. She was right. I've become an animal."

"No, Erik," she protested.

"You see me as a well-trained animal. If you thought I was a man, you would have helped me escape long ago. I thought..." His voice broke. "Oh, God, I'm such a fool! I thought you cared for me. You've been kind to me and helped me and..." His head jerked from side to side with his need to release his pain somehow and his inability to do so. "But it's no more than you'd do for any hurt animal."


He didn't allow her to speak. "I let them break me with their torture and abuse and threats. I became an animal to survive and...whether I meant to or not, I've stayed an animal."

"I don't understand what you're saying."

"Look at me and tell me that you think of me as a man." His voice hardened. He knew his next words would hurt her, but he didn't care. "You sell your body to men--to all sorts of men. Tell me that you would sell yourself to me if I had the money. Tell me that you'd let me lie with you and..."

She jerked back, away from him, and he saw the shock and repulsion on her face. It was the final confirmation of what he knew. He turned, drawing his knees up to his chest and wrapping his arms around them. He leaned into the corner of the cage, his body taut with self-loathing. He fought the need to weep--to scream--to be sick. He looked down at himself and was as repulsed by what he saw as Marielle had been. Beneath the cheap and worn clothing, his body was too thin from lack of enough food. And his undernourished body was as scarred as his face now. He couldn't see the marks on his back and shoulders, but he could feel them. And his leg...

"I've let them do this to me. I've done this to myself. It has to end now, one way or another."

"Don't be a fool. They'll kill you. Have you forgotten the things they did to you? Do you want that to start again?"

"No." He shuddered involuntarily at the memory. "No. But I can't go on like this. Not now. Please, Marielle. Help me."

"How? If I help you get away, I'll suffer for it. You know that."

Erik's heart began to pound. He was trapped--at Clavell's mercy. There was no escape for him--no way out of this hell that he was caught in.

He searched inside himself and found that the inner strength which had been his only defense against an uncaring world was all but gone--eroded away over the years by the things he had endured. He clung to the last remnants of it. Something inside him went cold as he realized that there was one way out--perhaps the only way.

"Give me the means to kill myself," he whispered.

"I couldn't."

"You'd do it for a hurt animal. You'd put it out of its misery. Do the same for me." He spoke rapidly, pleading. "Bring me a piece of rope. Something long enough to go around my neck and reach up around the bars of the cage. No one would ever know it came from you. You'd be in no danger."

"You can't mean that. Would you really rather...die?"

"Yes." He felt her hand on his back and pulled away, his muscles tensing. How many times had she touched him, patted his back or shoulder, and he had thought it a gesture of affection. Now he realized she was only stroking him as she would a pet, and he would not allow it--never again. "Will you bring me a rope?"

"I..." She hesitated. "I do care for you, Erik. I don't know. Let me think."

"Marielle..." Helplessly, he watched her go, then closed his eyes, suddenly unbearably weary. He let his body slide to the floor, ignoring the aches from the day's beating. The idea of death did not frighten him; he had never feared death and now he welcomed it, knowing that it would bring a quick end to all this. Living--continuing to exist as the thing he had become--frightened him far more than death ever could.

He closed his eyes and, unbidden, the image of Arani came to him, begging him to live. He pushed thought of her away. Arani was a dream, a memory. She was not real. He pillowed his head on his arm and attempted to sleep. If Marielle did not help him he would find another way--somehow.

Marielle was unable to meet his eyes when she returned the next morning with his breakfast. When he whispered her name, she murmured, "Tonight. I'll bring it tonight," before she hurried away. He leaned back, breathing deeply, filled with a strange peace. It was settled.

Prelude, Renascence and Denouement

A Phantom of the Opera Story
by Christine Reynolds

Part 1 of 4

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