Continuing Tales

Prelude, Renascence and Denouement

A Phantom of the Opera Story
by Christine Reynolds

Part 2 of 4

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Prelude, Chapter Two

That day he played his best, knowing it was the last time he would ever play so, knowing that freedom was within his grasp. The staring people did not bother him so much, for they would soon be gone. When he saw the black-clad woman on the edge of the crowd, he deliberately turned his back to her and continued to play. She came no closer. He waited for night.

Marielle came to him just after dark, looking nervously over her shoulder before she moved her arm forward so that he could see the rope she had concealed in the folds of her skirt.

"Dumas and Georges are gone into the city," she whispered. "Jacques has been drinking in his tent for the past half-hour." She hesitated. "Erik, are you sure?"

"I'm sure." He stretched out his hand commandingly and she lay the coil of rope upon it. A cold, grim satisfaction swept through him. "Thank you." His fingers began to fashion a special noose--a trick he had learned during his stay in Persia, during the happiest days of his life. He thought it ironic that he would use it now, for this purpose. He felt no regret at what he was about to do. No one would care--no one ever had.

"You're so calm."

"Why shouldn't I be?" He slid the loose end of the rope through the top bars of the cage, adjusting the length and knotting it securely. "I don't want to fight any longer. I want it to be over."


"Go away, Marielle. This will be an ugly sight. There's no need for you to stay here and watch it."

She whirled and ran. He was almost certain that she was crying, and it puzzled him. He let the thought go. There was no more room for thought. It was time to let the Punjab Lasso do its work. With a sigh, he pushed himself onto his knees and slid the noose over his head, feeling it tighten about his throat immediately. He closed his eyes and shifted his body into position. One quick movement and...

"Damn you!" The cage door clanged open, startling him from his self-absorption. "You bastard!" Before he could react, Clavell had seized him and was holding him tightly. Erik struggled, fighting desperately to jerk his body forward so that the noose would snap his neck, but Clavell was bigger and so much stronger that it was child's play for him to pin Erik against the bars with one hand while the other found his boot-knife and severed the rope. Erik groaned with despair as he felt the loop go slack.

"So, Monsieur Gargoyle." Clavell's voice was dangerously soft. The face pressed close to Erik's was twisted with fury. "You want to escape me, eh? Haven't you learned yet that you belong to me?" He brought the knife up again to lay the blade against Erik's left cheek. Erik hissed.

"I'm the one who decides if you live or die." Abruptly, Clavell shifted position, shoving Erik to the floor of the cage and straddling his chest to immobilize him. "Have you forgotten that?" Clavell leaned closer and Erik recoiled from the stench of whiskey on the man's breath. The point of the knife began to trace a slow pattern across Erik's face, pressing lightly, moving toward his eye. Erik's breathing went shallow with terror.


"Who's to stop me? I can scar this side worse than the other. I can blind you. I can do anything I want to. Anything." The knife slid downward, scraping across Erik's throat. "Be thankful that your usefulness isn't over yet."

With a snarl, Clavell reversed his grip upon the knife and slammed the hilt against Erik's jaw. Erik grunted and his head jerked with the force of the blow. He was dimly aware that Clavell was dragging him from the cage, flinging him out to sprawl helplessly on the ground.

"I'll show you who's master here." Clavell bent forward to knot his fingers in the front of Erik's shirt and drew back a fist. "You bastard."

This beating made the previous day's fade to nothing. It seemed an eternity before Clavell straightened. "You bastard." Snarling, he gave one more kick, then reached down to seize Erik's wrists. Panting from his exertions, he dragged Erik's limp body away from the cage and the fair, across the rough ground to the quieter area where he had pitched his tent. He threw Erik inside and closed the flap behind them.

Erik lay motionless where he had fallen, his breath sobbing in and out in moans and whimpers that he could not hold back. His vision blurring, he watched Clavell uncork a bottle and drink deeply, pacing about the small area, working himself into another rage. Erik could do nothing but wait and pray that Clavell would become angry enough--and drunk enough--to beat him to death this time.

All too soon Clavell set the bottle down and turned his attention back to Erik, seizing him roughly and hauling him upright. Erik dangled bonelessly in Clavell's grip, trying to brace himself for what was to come. "You bastard. When I'm finished with you..."

With a roar, Clavell flung Erik backward. Erik fell against Clavell's small desk, overturning it as he went down, and, to his horror, he saw his violin tumble from the top of the desk toward the floor. He reached out in a futile effort to catch it.

"You needn't worry about your violin." Clavell stepped over him, staggering with the amount of alcohol he had consumed. There was something evil in the man's voice. "You don't want to play it for me? Then you won't ever play it again." Clavell grabbed the instrument, raised it high above his head, and brought it down with all his strength upon Erik's outflung hand. The neck of the violin snapped with the force of the blow and Clavell tossed it casually aside.

Someone began to scream--a high-pitched sound of almost inhuman agony. The noise hurt Erik's ears. He found himself on his feet somehow, mindless, insane with his pain and with rage at Clavell's wanton destruction of Arani's violin. He saw the fear in Clavell's face, felt his knee jam satisfyingly upward into the man's crotch, heard the grunt of pain and surprise. Everything went blank...

"Oh my God!"

Erik blinked and came to himself. He was standing above a man who lay motionless on the floor of the tent, a man with wide staring eyes. He thought he knew the man. He drew in a shuddering breath as Marielle brushed past him to kneel by the figure at his feet. He couldn't move. He could only stand there as she whispered, "He's dead."

He watched her rise and felt her touch upon his arm. "Erik?" He was unable to respond. She caught his shoulders and shook him, forcing him to look at her at last. "Erik, he's dead. Jacques is dead. We're rid of him."

He stared at her stupidly, his mind as numb as his body. The joy in her voice confused him. "We're free," she said urgently. "We have to run before the others come."

Run? How? Where? He tried to form the words, but his lips refused to part and the words would not come out. He stood and watched her as she moved about the tent, but he could not understand what she was doing, not even when she shoved some of Clavell's clothing at him and told him to change into it. His fingers would not close around the material and it dropped to the floor.

"For God's sake, Erik," she snapped. He watched her face change as she looked down and saw his hand, as she placed her fingers beneath his chin to lift it and realized just how badly he had been hurt. "Oh God. How will you be able to run like this?" She seemed to be speaking more to herself than to him.

"I killed him." He forced the words out.

"You've made the world a better place by ridding it of him." She bent and snatched up the fallen clothes. "Here. Let me help you."

He was only vaguely aware that she was stripping away his clothing and helping him dress in Clavell's dark suit. It was much too large for him. The numbness in his body was beginning to fade and, with its passing, the pain returned, much worse than before. He swallowed hard, trying to contain it.

"Sit." Marielle gently pushed him backward. His legs struck the edge of the cot and he sat down heavily on it. She went to her knees before him.

"We have so little time." There was distress in her voice as she carefully lifted his right hand in both of hers. "Oh God. You must see a doctor, Erik. As soon as we're away from here and safe."

"I don't know a doctor," he whispered dully. "I don't even know where we are." He felt himself fading again, felt his eyes beginning to slide shut, but she would not permit it.

"Don't faint!" Her voice was sharp.

"I...I'll try. It hurts..."

"Erik, who is Arani?"

The question was soft, but it brought him fully alert and his body went rigid. "What do you know of her?" he asked, more harshly than he had intended.

"When you were hurt, you called for her in your sleep. Over and over. Is she someone you can go to? Someone who'll help you?"

He shook his head, then whispered, "Arani is dead. She died years ago. Her violin..." He looked over at the shattered instrument and his throat closed. "It was hers," he managed to gasp. "It was all I had left of her. I loved her..." Without warning, he began to cry, doubling forward as he finally lost control of his emotions. The tears came slowly at first, then more rapidly, flowing down his cheeks and almost choking him.

"Oh Erik. I'm so sorry." He felt Marielle's arms go around his shoulders, felt himself drawn to her, felt the softness of her breast beneath his cheek. She held him close, gently stroking his head and back, and suddenly he did not care whether she saw him as an animal or as a man. All that mattered was the comfort her touch gave him. He remained in her arms even after his tears had ceased, even though the position was agony to his battered body, remained there until she said gently but firmly, "Erik, we must go now."

He sat up slowly, reluctantly, withdrawing into himself again. Marielle was on her feet immediately, searching through the tent. She gave a cry of satisfaction and turned back to him, holding out a thick pile of banknotes.

"He owes us this. It isn't enough to begin to pay for what he's done to us, but..."

"Us?" Her words registered at last.

"I'm going with you. This is my chance to be free too. I may never have another if I stay here." She shoved the money into the pocket of his coat. "Wait here. I need to get a few things. And I'll bring a horse for you. You won't be able to walk."


She was gone, being careful to close the tent flap behind her. Erik shook his head to clear it. Things were happening too quickly. He seemed unable to understand, to think coherently. He wanted to lie down and sleep for a very long time; he wanted to go to sleep and never wake again.

He forced himself to stand, and the dizziness and disorientation grew worse. Looking around him, he saw the all-too-familiar bottle of laudanum among Clavell's scattered belongings. The part of his mind that was still functional told him to take it, that it would ease his pain. He carefully lifted his right hand and tucked it into the front of his shirt, to protect it if he fell. Then, sinking his teeth into his lower lip, he took a step forward. The exercises he had done with his leg had not been in vain. It held, and the pain of it was lost among the other pains that assaulted him. He took the necessary few steps and bent to retrieve the bottle.

He realized instantly that leaning forward had been a mistake. It took all his meager strength to straighten again. He swayed, drawing in huge gulps of air, fighting off the darkness that threatened to overtake him. When it receded at last, he fumbled one-handed until he was able to awkwardly uncap the bottle. He drank as deeply as he dared, then slipped it into a coat pocket.

He did not spare a glance for Clavell's body but moved around it to stare down at the remains of his violin. Something tightened painfully in his chest...


He sprang to his feet at the sound of the Shah's voice in the doorway, darting into the shadows and flinging his hand up to cover the right half of his face. "Your highness."

"I'm sorry." The Shah turned his head, looking away. "I should not have come in unannounced."

"This is your home. You have every right."

"But these are your rooms. Forgive me. I am...not myself."

Even in the dim candlelight, Erik could see the tears that streaked the man's face. "What is it? Is something wrong?"

"Arani. My daughter..."

A hand closed around Erik's heart. "Is she ill?"

"She had a fever. I didn't think it was serious, but she grew worse..."

Erik stood silently, praying, unable to speak, too terrified of the answer to ask the inevitable question.

"She seemed to have no will to live. She died barely an hour ago."

"No," Erik whispered. He shook his head in denial. "No. She can't be..."

"She died with your name on her lips. I didn't know--I had no idea she cared for you so much."

Erik turned away, his fingers hooking into the ornate velvet drapery. The pain was unbearable. He could not seem to draw breath into his lungs. He buried his face in the folds of cloth, fighting back a shriek of anguish and denial. His body shook with the effort.

"I...I grieve with you," he said at last, surprised at how calm his voice sounded when his soul was so torn.

"You loved her." It was a statement, not a question.

"Yes," Erik whispered. He managed to turn to look at Arani's father. The Shah's expression was sympathetic. "But I knew I could not...we could not...because I am..." He gestured, somehow not caring that the other man was staring at his face.

"So this is why your visits to her--your music--stopped."


"You were right, of course. I could never have agreed to a union between you and my daughter."

"I know." The knowledge made the loss no easier. Even though he was denied a life with her, at least he had been able to weave impossible fantasies of what might have been, but now... She could not be dead...

"Erik." The touch of a hand on his arm roused him and he forced his gaze away from the violin. Marielle was wrapped in a hooded cape, her face taut with anxiety. She gestured behind her. "I have a horse. I know where we can go. Can you ride?"

"I can do anything if it will get me away from here. I would even ride to hell." He turned his back on the man he had murdered and on the memory of Arani. Leaning heavily on Marielle and painfully forcing his right leg to support him, he plunged out into the night.

Erik considered himself an adequate horseman, but he had never attempted to ride with a broken hand or with ribs which were at best badly bruised. The simple act of mounting the horse was almost too much for him and he quickly realized that the only thing keeping him in the saddle was Marielle's arm about his waist. She rode astride behind him, supporting him and directing him through the unfamiliar streets until her strength gave out. He felt her grip relax and tried to remain upright, but it was hopeless. He toppled sideways without a sound, too far gone to even feel the impact as his body struck the ground.

As if from a great distance, he could hear Marielle urging him to get up, feel her pulling ineffectually at his shoulders, hear her telling him that he couldn't stop yet. He tried, but the effort was too much. He was dismayed, but not surprised, to realize she had mounted the horse again and was preparing to leave him. He called out weakly after her, begging her to stay, but either she couldn't hear him or she chose to ignore him. Then he was alone, shivering with pain and fear, wondering how long it would be before Dumas and Georges found him--and what they would do to him when they did.

The next hours were blurred as he drifted in and out of consciousness. Incredibly, he heard Marielle returning and heard the sound of a male voice laughing with her. He felt himself lifted and thrown belly-down across the horse and he whimpered with the jarring pain that came with each step the animal took. Some time later, he woke to find Marielle and the stranger putting him to bed. The man's exclamation of repulsion did not upset him, for he was hurting far too much to feel anything else. He thought he felt a gentle hand stroking his forehead and heard murmured words of encouragement. Then everything faded.

"What has happened to this man?"

Erik came awake with a start. There was a fourth person in the room, an older man with a gruff voice. Erik was embarrassed to realize that he was lying naked upon a bed and that they were staring impersonally at him. He wanted to lift his hand and move it to cover himself, but his body refused to obey his brain's command.

"He was born that way, Monsieur le Doctor." Marielle's voice.

The doctor was examining him, turning him onto his side and then back. "No man is born with marks like this upon his back and leg. Is he an escaped convict?"

"He was with a travelling fair. The owner...disciplined him."

The doctor's voice was angry. "Any man who would do this to another should be throttled."

The image of Clavell's face as he had last seen it flashed before Erik's eyes and he began to laugh weakly, uncontrollably, drawing in huge gulps of air to feed his mirth. He realized that the sound was hideous, heard the madness there, saw the doctor recoil from it, but he was powerless to stop. He heard Marielle explain that he was hysterical and wondered that they did not see the joke.

His laughter turned abruptly to tears when the doctor began to treat his injuries. The pain left him limp, able only to moan helplessly as he felt the doctor pull the bones of his hand back into place. Marielle murmured again and he heard the word "laudanum." He parted his swollen lips gratefully when she slid her hand beneath his head, lifting it to allow him to drink. With a sigh, he slipped into a welcome oblivion.

Bright sunlight pouring through the window of the room woke him. He blinked and cautiously turned his head from side to side. He was lying in a narrow bed, still naked but now covered with a sheet and thick blanket. The room was small and sparsely furnished--the bed, a washstand, and a chair.

He tried to sit up but fell back, crying out involuntarily at the agony which assaulted him with the movement. He closed his eyes until the worst of it had passed, then began to assess his injuries--hand, ribs, face...

He heard the door open and a soft, "Erik?" and opened his eyes again. Marielle was standing hesitantly in the doorway. When she saw his movement, she entered the room to bend over the bed. "I thought I heard you. How do you feel?"

He considered and realized that only one thing really mattered. "Free," he whispered.

"Here. I brought you a cup of water." Supporting his head, she held the cup to his lips until he had emptied it, then eased him back onto the pillow.

"Thank you." He looked around again. ""

"We're at a friend's house." To his astonishment, she blushed. "We've been here for two days. You've been in so much pain that I kept giving you laudanum to make you sleep."

Erik's stomach churned with a jarring sense of deja vu. He had woken before, from a days-long drugged sleep, to find Marielle caring for him, giving him water. He sank his teeth into his lip, forcing the memory away. It was over--done.


He focused on her. There was something in her face that he realized he had never seen there before--it took a moment for him to recognize it as happiness. "Is this friend of yours a man?" he whispered, remembering the male voice he had heard.

"It's not what you think," she said quickly.

"Marielle, at this moment I am too weary and too sick to think anything."

"Jean is...he's been good to me--to us." She blushed again. Erik noted this without commenting on it, but it told him all he needed to know about the mysterious Jean. Marielle drew the chair over to his bedside--she moved it to his left side, he noticed wryly--and sat. "Do you remember anything about the night we ran?"

Erik closed his eyes briefly, unwilling to remember, but she waited patiently for his response. At last he said shortly, "Too much." He lifted his hand to stare at the bandages immobilizing it.

She followed his gaze. "You were lucky. Your hand wasn't as badly hurt as I thought it was--only three of your fingers were broken."

"Three was a sufficient number." He let his arm fall back upon his chest.

"Monsieur le Doctor said there shouldn't be any permanent damage."

Not to the hand, perhaps, he thought, but he kept the observation to himself. "Tell me about your friend Jean," he murmured.

"Jean was at the fair the first night we came to Paris. He was...we had..."

"I understand," Erik interrupted her. She smiled gratefully.

"He...liked me and he came back. Several times. He even brought me here once to... So when I found you and Jacques and realized we could get away, I thought of Jean. But then you fell off the horse and I couldn't get you back up. I didn't want to leave you there--I was afraid someone would find you--but I didn't know what else to do."

"Why did you come back for me?" he asked softly.

"I had to. You'd freed me, Erik. I couldn't just abandon you." She shook her head, then went on. "Jean was happy to see me. When I told him what had happened, he said he'd help us. He went back with me to bring you here and went for the doctor for you. I offered to pay him." She looked away. "He said he didn't want money."

"Oh God, Marielle. No." Erik's face twisted with a pain that was not physical. "You didn't..."

"It's not like that! Yes, I'm sleeping with Jean, but he cares for me. He wants me to stay with him, in spite of...everything."

The tiny part of him which was able to feel anything at all was relieved that she had not traded her body for his safety. "I'm glad for you," he whispered. "Go on."

"Jean went back to the fair the next day to see what they were saying."


"They were packing up to leave. He waited and talked to some of the people and asked a few questions. They didn't mention Jacques's death at all, but they did tell him that Monsieur Gargoyle had disappeared--that you'd escaped."

"An odd word for them to use, since I was allegedly there of my own choice," Erik commented.

"They told him they'd spent the whole night looking for you. They said you'd probably died."

"Died?" He frowned, wondering why they would think this, then realized that the entire camp must have heard his scream that night and thought... Once again, he shoved a memory away. It didn't matter. Only one thing mattered. "So they're gone?"


"All of them? Dumas? Georges?"

"All of them."

He closed his eyes, feeling the relief wash over him. He truly was free again--physically, at least. He looked back at Marielle. In two short days she had found a new life, a home, and someone to care for her. He suppressed a brief pang of envy. His own life, such as it had been, had been destroyed too, but it would not be as easy for him to start over. There was no one to love him and help him heal...

"Where is Monsieur Jean?" he asked. "I'd like to thank him for all he's done."

"He had to go away for a few days. He left this morning." She wouldn't meet his eyes, staring down at the hands clasped in her lap. "Erik, he said..." She couldn't go on.

Erik's throat tightened as he understood her unspoken words. "Don't worry, Marielle," he said gently. "I won't intrude on your lives. I'll be gone before he returns."

"I'm sorry."

"Don't you think I understand how he feels?" He fought against the surge of bitterness and self-pity. "I have a lifetime of understanding to draw upon."

"I've found a place for you." She began to speak rapidly, trying to explain--trying to soothe her conscience, he suspected. "It's a little inn. It isn't expensive, and half of Jacques' money belongs to you anyway. There's someone to bring you your meals and you can stay inside and..."

"Hide," he interrupted her. It was what he wanted--needed--but he knew he couldn't hide forever. "Eventually, I'll have to go out into the world again," he said, more to himself than to her.

"I thought of that." She rose quickly, hurrying to the other room and returning with something in her hand. "Jean made this for you." She held it out.

He lifted his hand and took Jean's gift, staring at it curiously. It was a mask, made of smooth papier-mache that had been molded to the shape of a human face and painted white. But it was not complete. It was only half a mask--half a mask for half a face, he thought...for half a man.

Awkwardly, he lifted it and fitted it over the right side of his face. There were wires that curved across his skull to hold the mask in place. It fit perfectly, uncomfortable only where it pressed against the hurts from his final encounter with Clavell. He felt his spirits rise when it was in place. He had forgotten the sense of security that came with a mask--the delightful sensation of having his deformities concealed.

"It's beautiful," he said sincerely. "Thank you."

"Jean took measurements of your face so that it would fit properly."

The idea of a someone touching his face as he lay unconscious and helpless made Erik's muscles tense, but he forced himself to relax. Jean had done him no harm.

"Could you buy me a wig?" He gestured. "My hair is..."

"Of course. And clothes. You'll need clothes. Something dark and elegant."

He nodded tiredly. The pain and the intensity of his emotions was rapidly exhausting him. He brushed the mask once more with his fingertips, then let his hand drop back to the bed. "I need sleep now," he murmured. "Tomorrow. I'll leave tomorrow."

As he drifted away, he realized that he had not removed the mask before he prepared to sleep--nor had Marielle suggested that he do so.

Marielle had done all she could to make the room comfortable. The bed was soft and had extra blankets; their warmth was a pleasant sensation after all the time he had spent shivering in the cage, barely protected from the cold. There was a worn but serviceable chair for him to sit on. There was food, simple fare but hot and nourishing. Best of all, he had been supplied with huge stacks of books, magazines, and newspapers, and he spent his days reading, eager to know what had transpired in the outside world during his absence. This room was a much more pleasant prison than the one he had fled six weeks before.

Marielle had visited since she had brought him here--every day at first, then every other day, then every third day. It seemed to him that, as he grew stronger, she withdrew more and more from him. He suspected he knew the reason for this, but he was afraid to broach the subject, afraid the visits would stop altogether. He had little other human contact. The man who came three times a day with his meals never spoke, merely handed him the food and left, and the doctor who came to examine him periodically was similarly abrupt. After the sort of contact with others that Erik had endured for so long, he welcomed the solitude, but he enjoyed Marielle's visits--he hungered for her companionship.

Gradually he had begun to feel slightly hopeful about the future. The hours he had spent slowly pacing the length of the room, ignoring the stabbing pain that each step cost him, had begun to strengthen his crippled right leg. The wig, the mask, and the new clothing had aided his appearance immensely and, as his other injuries had healed, he had felt more himself. Himself--but changed somehow. He knew he would never again be the man he was before Jacques Clavell had entered his life. He feared that something inside him had been irreparably damaged.

His hands shook as he awkwardly knotted his tie. He had tried to draw again--but only once. Marielle had brought him supplies from a stationer's, and he had spent hours bending over the paper with pen and ink, tracing and retracing with steadily increasing frustration at his lack of success. He had finally flung the pen across the room and resumed his pacing, walking back and forth until he was numb with pain and exhaustion and could do no more than fall onto the bed to sleep. He did not want to examine his inability to draw--or even attempt to compose again. Not now. Not yet.

He finished with the tie and stood in front of the small mirror, carefully examining his reflection. This was the day he would attempt to reclaim the life which had been shattered so many months before. He had written a necessarily vague letter to Monsieur Giroux, the architect who had hired him to work on the design of the Opera Populaire an eternity ago, begging the man's forgiveness and asking for an interview. He had scarcely dared hope for a response, but he had received one the day before. The older man had expressed surprise at Erik's reappearance after such a long and unexplained absence, but he had agreed to see Erik. Erik straightened the tie, praying that the interview would be a success and that he would be given a position of some sort.

His thoughts returned to the present at the sound of a knock at the door. He turned as the door opened, surprised and delighted to see Marielle. Smiling in welcome, he spread his arms to show off the fit of the suit she had bought for him.


"It's...very nice." She hovered by the door uneasily, not really looking at him.

"It's perfect. But I'll be glad when my fingers are totally healed. Trying to position the wig with only one hand was..." He finally acknowledged the expression on her face and shook his head to silence himself. "What is it, Marielle?"

She bit her lip, and suddenly he knew, as clearly as he had known that day weeks before that he had to leave her lover's house immediately. He smiled ruefully.

"Your pet has become a monster," he said quietly, giving voice to his knowledge at last.

"I never thought of you as..." Her protest died in her throat. "I never meant to."

"You could tolerate this face upon a hurt and helpless animal, but not upon a man." He heard the bitterness in his voice and forced himself to speak more gently. "It's all right, Marielle. It's not your fault. I understand." He tried to laugh. "I suppose I should be pleased that you think of me as a man now."

"I'm sorry, Erik. I came to tell you goodbye."

Even though he had been expecting this, her words brought a wrench of anguish. "I'll miss you," he managed. When she didn't respond, he went on, "I can never thank you enough for what you've done--you and Jean."

"No--I should thank you. If it hadn't been for you, I'd still be..."

They stared at each other awkwardly for a long moment, then she said, "You have enough money? You'll be all right?"

"Yes. I'll be all right. Don't worry. I won't ever trouble you again."

"Goodbye, Erik." Her hand was on the latch.

"Marielle, before you go..." He faltered.


"Would you...I would like to..." The words caught in his throat. "You've good to me. May I kiss you goodbye?"

She tried to hide her reaction, but he saw and his heart went cold. She took a step forward and leaned toward him, then jerked away as his hand came up to touch her shoulder.

"I'm sorry, Erik. I'm sorry. I just can't. Goodbye." She spun and was gone.

He stood staring at the door, awash in the hurt of loss and rejection. "It's all right," he whispered to her--to himself. His face contorted with a soundless cry. "I understand." His shoulders hunched forward and he folded his arms tightly across his abdomen as if it would help him bear the pain. He shook his head; he would not give in--would not weep. He had an appointment with Monsieur Giroux in an hour and he could not afford to waste time on pointless grief.

At last he straightened, dry-eyed, and moved back across the room for his hat and coat and the polished black cane that Marielle had found for him, to help him walk. Leaning heavily upon it, he set out in search of a cab, so full of misery that he was barely aware of the stares from the people he passed.

Erik had met Monsieur Giroux before, when he had been offered a position with the architects designing the opera house. The man should not have been surprised by the mask that hid his repulsiveness, but Erik could sense the barely restrained shock--could see it in the other man's face as he rose in greeting. Erik wondered fleetingly if the reaction were to his face or to his obviously depleted physical condition. Giroux recovered quickly and gestured toward a chair beside the huge oak desk. Erik sat gratefully. He had been forced to walk farther than he had anticipated in search of the office, and his leg ached damnably.

"I must admit I was surprised to hear from you after all this time," Giroux began. "When you didn't show up, I thought..." He shrugged. "I didn't know what to think. I tried to contact you, but you had vanished."

It was obviously a question, but Erik found he could not bring himself to tell of the things that had happened to him in the past two years--to explain why he had not reported for work. He was silent for a long moment, as Giroux waited, then whispered, "Fate interfered with my plans."

"You've been ill." This was not a question. It was all too evident. Erik was still far too thin from the months of near-starvation, and the weakness of his leg and bandages on his hand betrayed him further. He nodded briefly, wondering what the man would say if he could see the hidden reminders of other, more serious, injuries.

"Are you able to work?"

"My hand is still mending, but it won't be a problem for long. The leg is merely an annoyance." Even though it burned from his exertions, he dismissed it with a casual gesture.

"And the rest?" Giroux's eyes were too sharp, too knowing.

"I'm able to work," Erik said firmly. "I want to work. I need to work."

"You realize that the plans--the designs that you were to aid with--are long since finished?"

Erik nodded. "I'll take any type of work."

"Very well then. We need workers; we always need workers. It seems a shame to waste your talents on common labor, though."

"Monsieur..." Erik hesitated. He wanted to speak of his growing fear that his talent--his creativity--had been destroyed by the long period of slavery and abuse, to say that he feared he would never be more than a common laborer now, but he was unable to find the words. At last he whispered, "When I wrote to you, I understood that the only jobs left were menial ones. I am...perhaps...capable of nothing more for now." It was the best he could manage. He looked down, away from the man's eyes.

"I see." Giroux leaned forward. "What's happened to you, Duquesne?" There was concern in the man's voice, but Erik was forced to reject it. He could not answer, could not speak of the horrors he had endured. He suspected that he would never be able to tell anyone what had happened to him.

"It was...nothing."

"But..." For an instant, Giroux looked as if he would pursue the matter; then he fell silent. At last he said, "Very well. You may begin as soon as your hand is fully mended."

"I am able..."

"No." He stifled Erik's protest with a stern glance. "Whatever has happened to you goes deeper than a broken hand, but I won't question you any further. That's your concern. My concern is for your safety here. I won't allow you or any man to endanger himself needlessly. You need both hands to be able to climb and do the work properly."

Erik took a deep breath and yielded. "You're right, of course. I'm sorry."

"Do you need money? I can arrange an advance on your salary."

"No. Thank you, but I have enough for my needs." He hoped it was true; he had no idea how much money Marielle had taken that night or how much of his share was left, but his pride would not allow him to accept charity.

"Then, monsieur, I will speak to my foreman and tell him to expect you in a few weeks. I look forward to seeing you again."

The interview was concluded. Unable to shake the other man's hand, Erik rose, bowed formally, and left.

Back in his room again, Erik carefully hung away his new clothing, then fell upon the bed, exhausted. Monsieur Giroux had been correct--he was in no condition to undertake any sort of physical labor now. He was still too weak.

He pulled the blankets over him and closed his eyes. Almost against his will, his thoughts turned to his music. One of the songs he had composed for Arani began to run through his mind, and the fingers of his left hand moved involuntarily upon an imaginary keyboard. He would find access to a piano, he decided. He felt he would never be able even to look at a violin again, much less play one, but a piano... Perhaps he would even be able to compose.

Heartened by the thought, he slept.

As usual, Erik settled alone in a secluded corner to eat his lunch. The sandwich was cold and the beer was warm, but it was more than adequate--and a feast when compared to the meals he had consumed during his captivity.

He shook his head ruefully as he began to eat, wondering if he would ever be able to spend a day--or even a few hours-- without some memory of that time intruding. He reminded himself that it had only been six months since his escape and that this healing would take longer than the physical, but he longed to be rid of the nightmares that came to torment him and the random, unbidden memories which could disrupt even the most peaceful moments. He wondered if he would ever be completely free. It seemed that Clavell and the others had left deeper scars than the ones upon his body--scars that did not show--scars upon his soul and in his mind.

He leaned back against a pillar and let his gaze wander upward, over the blocks and beams above. If he had found any peace at all in the past months, it had been here, amid the towering beauty of the opera house. Even though he had been prevented from helping with its design, he was pleased to think he had been able to have a part in the construction of this magnificent place. And he had found that he enjoyed the work, even though the physical labor had been a terrible strain for him at first--and was still more difficult than it should be. It was painful, but it was healing too, strengthening his body and building up the wasted muscles. Even his leg had improved. The pain became unbearable only when he was very tired, and he was able to walk with only a slight limp, which he suspected he would always have. He was thankful that he was able to walk at all.

He heard the other workers laughing over some joke and sighed. In the beginning, he had thought that at least some of them would be friendly to him. Now he wondered how he could still be so naive after all he had been through. They did speak to him--to issue orders and to ask or answer questions--and they were not openly hostile, but they shunned him and let him know in subtle ways that he was not welcome to join them for meals or in their after-work forays. All his tentative overtures had been rejected, until he had ceased to make them. His days had fallen into a routine: he arrived; he did his assigned work; and then he returned to his room. It was a lonely life, but at least he was his own master.


Roused from his thoughts, he looked back down. Several of the workmen had come over to his corner to gather about him. It was the first time any of them had sought him out, and his spirits lifted with the hope that things were improving at last.

"Yes?" He attempted a friendly smile; it had been so long since he had had reason to smile that his face was unaccustomed to the expression.

"We've been wondering--what are you hiding under that mask?"

Erik blinked, his hand clenching about the remains of his lunch. For a moment he was too stunned to respond. Then his mind began to function again, telling him that their curiosity was natural, that it was to be expected, that he was being far too sensitive about this, that honesty would satisfy them and, perhaps, generate some good will toward him. He took a deep breath, exhaled, and forced himself to answer quietly, "I have a severe deformity. It's only the one side--that's why my mask was designed to cover only that half of my face."

They were silent; then their spokesman said, "Let's see."

Erik shook his head, more in denial that this could be happening again than in refusal. The man stretched out a hand and Erik was on his feet in a quick, supple movement, his heart pounding as the all-too-recent memories of staring faces and beatings and abuse crowded in on him. "No," he whispered. "Leave me alone." When the man reached toward him again, Erik struck out blindly, feeling his fist connect with flesh and bone. And then the others attacked him.

The fight was mercifully brief, quickly ended by the arrival of the foreman, who easily separated and quietened the men. Erik was the last to stand. Trembling violently, his stomach heaving, he dragged himself to his feet and turned away to lean against the pillar.

"Are you hurt? Erik?"

Erik shook his head. "No, Monsieur."

"Anyone else? Paul? Your nose is bleeding."

"I think the bastard broke it," the group's leader muttered.

"What started this?"

The question was directed to Erik, but one of the others answered, muttering sullenly, "We just wanted to see what his face looks like."

"And when he didn't want to show you, you attacked him." The foreman sounded angry.

"We asked him to show us his face. He wouldn't even answer us. He just..."

"That's enough! If he wanted you to look at his face, he wouldn't wear a mask."


"If you don't have anything better to do with your time, maybe you need some extra work."

Erik felt a surge of gratitude toward the foreman, even as he realized that he would have to make an attempt to smooth things over and make some sort of peace. He still had to work beside these men and could not afford to incur their ill will. He forced himself to turn toward them. "Monsieur..." He was not surprised to hear how badly his voice shook. "It was not totally their fault. They only wanted to satisfy their curiosity."

"Then either show them your face or tell them to go to hell, but let's be done with this business for good."

Erik could feel the hostility from the other men and knew there was only one way to diffuse it. Shrinking inwardly, he raised a hand to the edge of the mask. "As you wish, messieurs," he said quietly. Then he closed his eyes and bared his face.

He couldn't move, couldn't breathe--wouldn't think. He could only stand there for a moment that seemed endless, listening to the gasps and the low murmur of their voices and, finally, the sound of footsteps fading away. When he felt a hand touch his arm, he instinctively cowered, jerking away before he realized that it was only the foreman.

"I'm sorry this happened. They're fools."

"No. They're no different from anyone else." He replaced the mask carefully, thinking how much deeper their repulsion would have been if he had removed the wig as well and revealed the hideous scar upon his skull. "No different." He bent, fumbling for the uneaten portion of his lunch.

"Erik, take the rest of the day off. Go home."

"I have work to do."

"I'll finish it for you. Go on. After what happened, I think it would be best if you had a little time away from here."

The concern in the man's voice made Erik's throat tighten with emotion. "Thank you," he managed.

He waited until he sensed that the foreman was gone, then straightened and looked around quickly. He felt sure that he would never be able to make it back to his room in time to save himself from further embarrassment. This latest humiliation, calling up memories of countless other humiliations--two years worth of memories; the physical pain of skinned knuckles and a dozen or more bruises about his body; the grief of the certain knowledge that life would never be any better, no matter how hard he tried. He was overwhelmed, drowning, desperate to escape before he lost control of his emotions and gave way to the unmanly tears which burned behind his eyes--tears which would only reinforce their contempt for him.

He darted across the open space toward the stairs leading down to the area below the stage. Out of sight, he snatched up a lantern and fled--down the steps, down one sharply sloping ramp, then another, down farther and deeper until the faint illumination he carried was all but powerless against the darkness.

When he paused to catch his breath, he imagined he heard laughter--heard Clavell whisper, "You're an animal after all--an animal running to ground, seeking your lair." He whirled, eyes staring through the gloom, and began to shake with terror. Something brushed against his ankle and, with a cry, he bolted. He was only vaguely aware of more stairs, more rooms, more doors. He ran with an increasingly awkward gait, his leg buckling, his breath rasping painfully in and out, not knowing where he was going--not caring.

His flight ended when he suddenly slammed into a metal gate. The force of the collision threw him backward to the ground. Miraculously, the lantern did not go out, and he huddled in its dim glow as the tears came. Shrieking with a lifetime of anger and hurt, he pounded his fists against the rock floor until the pain forced him to stop. He curled into a ball and rocked mindlessly back and forth, moaning, weeping, until he had no more tears and could only lie there, exhausted from the violent release of emotion.

At last he drew in a deep breath and straightened his body, stretching out full length upon the floor and shivering as the cold bit through his clothing. Slowly he removed his mask and drew a hand across his aching, swollen eyes. He promised himself that he would never cry again, no matter how badly he was hurt. He would die first. Calmer, he sat up and began to take stock of his situation. In his need to escape, he had paid no attention to direction. The knowledge that he was lost sobered him and brought him to his feet. He lifted the lantern and looked around.

The gate which had halted him was revealed as a wide iron portcullis. He pressed against the bars, trying to see beyond them, and inhaled. There was water somewhere ahead; he could smell it. He smiled to himself, his brief anxiety fading. He had seen the plans to the opera house; Monsieur Giroux took no great pains to keep them locked away, and any man who was interested could look at them. Erik had spent many lunch breaks studying the blueprints and sketches, memorizing, marvelling at the grandeur. He knew where he was--in the lowest cellar of the opera house, five stories and more below the basement. He even remembered seeing a sketch of the wide ledge he now stood upon, with its portcullis as a safeguard to prevent the unwary from tumbling to their death in the lake.

He shook his head and laughed without humor. There were only two paths down to this place, the one he had found and one on the other side of the lake. It was the one spot in the entire opera house where there was no chance that he would be discovered. It was a place of perfect safety, a place...

The hand holding the lantern shook as he looked around him again. It was a place where a man could hide from a world which had rejected him. Unwillingly, he took a step forward, then another, and suddenly he found himself examining the ledge, learning its width and depth, seeking out the entrance, finding the mechanism to raise the portcullis so that he could walk over to the water's edge. He knelt to stare out over the misty lake.

No one ever came down here now; the work had moved on to the upper levels months ago. Since this basement was merely a support for the massive structure above, most likely it wouldn't even be used for storage. It would be child's play to brick up the stairs and seal this area off; it would be easier still to alter the blueprints to erase all evidence of its existence. A man could make a home here, could live here forever, could even die here, and no one would ever know.

There were other possibilities as well. If one section of the plans could be altered, others could too. Any competent draftsman could draw a second set of plans--surely he was still a competent draftsman at least. He could add secret passages and hidden doors, then return the original plans when the work was done. There were so many laborers that the actual work would be distributed among them and then forgotten.

He closed his eyes, weighing the possibilities. This wouldn't be a large place, but it would be better than the cage which had been his home for two years. It would be cold here, even in summer, but he could find a way to install a stove. It was dark, but banks of candelabra would...

He shook himself out of his twisted fantasy, stood, and began the climb up the steps and ramps leading back to the construction above. He sighed as he set the lantern down and extinguished it. The sunlight streaming down from the open space in the roof made the folly of his thoughts all too clear. Only a madman would choose to go live in the eternal night of the place he had just left.

"What are you doing here? I thought we were rid of you!"

There was no need to turn his head; he easily recognized the voice--the spokesman of the group which had accosted him earlier. Stiffening his spine, he answered quietly, "I work here, monsieur."

"Why don't you go someplace else--someplace where you're wanted?"

Erik repressed a shudder. "I doubt that there is such a place," he said shortly. "And I need this job."

"Then just stay out of my way from now on." The man shouldered past Erik, pushing him roughly against the wall. Erik's fists clenched, but he forced himself to let his anger go. He could not afford any more anger today.

He started toward the door, looking around him as he went. Everywhere he looked he saw the same thing--men hastily averting their eyes, turning away in repulsion, drawing back if he passed too close. He could hear the whispers, the low murmur of their voices, the sound of their contempt.

On his way back to his room, he stopped at a stationer's to buy a supply of paper--the sort of paper that he would need to copy blueprints.

Iron hands pinned him to the ground. He struggled helplessly, whimpering, begging for mercy, as his leg was seized and pulled straight and immobilized. The air was filled with their laughter. And then they were silent and he saw the glint of sunlight on the knife blade as it slashed downward into his flesh...

His own scream woke him, jerking him upright. Totally disoriented, he flung himself from the bed, but the muscles of his right leg knotted in a sudden, violent cramp as his weight bore down upon it. He stumbled, falling backwards, grabbing at his leg as if holding it tightly could somehow ease the pain. He lay there, panting, rocking back and forth until the spasms had passed, then took a deep breath and sat up.

The candles had burned low, leaving the room in near-darkness, and he limped to the nearest of the candelabra. His hands were shaking so badly that it took several tries before he was even able to strike a match. As soon as there was sufficient light to chase away the last remnants of the nightmare, he turned back to the bed, moving slowly to the figure that stood silently beside it, extending his arms for her embrace.

"My love," he whispered. She did not refuse him, even though he was unmasked; she allowed him to pull her down with him upon the bed and cradle her in his arms and hold her tightly until his trembling had ceased. The feel of her body against his gave him comfort and he rubbed his scarred cheek against her breast. "My love."

He had hoped that living here would rid him of the nightmares, but it seemed they had only grown worse--and more frequent--in the past two years. Far too many nights he had awakened screaming, terrified, and with an almost unbearable pain in his leg. The pain, unfortunately, was real. Within a month of his move into his home beneath the opera, his damaged leg had begun to ache in a way it had not for years, a result of the cold and damp which persisted despite all his efforts. In time, he had found that watching the ballet mistress putting her charges through their paces and copying their exercises had helped him retain his mobility. As for the pain, he had decided that he would suffer any amount rather than go back to the world above.

He rolled onto his side, releasing his lover and shaking his head as he recalled his first encounter with the ballet mistress of the Opera Populaire, soon after the theatre's official opening. He had been searching through one of the storerooms two levels above, looking for blankets to keep out the chill, when she had come in, appearing suddenly and unexpectedly out of the shadows. It would have been difficult to say which of them had been the more startled...

The woman drew back with a scream, her hand going to her throat in shock. Erik's heart began to pound and his mind to race, searching desperately for some way to deal with this--to keep her from revealing his secret.

"You!" she gasped. "I thought... They said you had died."

And then he recognized her: the woman in black--the woman who had come to hear him play in his cage an eternity before. A cold fury seized him, blocking out all his reason. His eyes narrowed and he took a threatening step toward her. When she turned to flee, he caught her arm and held her in an unyielding grip, not caring that he was hurting her.

"I know you," he murmured in a voice harsh with remembered pain.

"Please, monsieur. Let me go. I won't tell anyone I saw you." She struggled, but he prevailed. "Don't hurt me. Please, Erik."

"You have the advantage, madame." His fingers tightened and she trembled with fear. "As you may recall, we were never formally introduced."

"Giry," she stammered. "My name is Maria Giry. I am the ballet mistress."

"Ah yes. I've watched you--you and your petit rats." He smiled at the effect his words had on her. "They are quite beautiful, Madame Giry. Young and...quite beautiful."

"Dear God, monsieur..." Her voice broke. "You wouldn't harm them? They're only innocent young girls. Please. I'll keep your secret. Please."

He laughed shortly. "How do I know I can trust you?"

"You have my word, monsieur."

He snarled at her and drew her closer. "Your word means nothing to me, but I don't feel like killing you--not today. I'll let you go. But remember this: If you tell anyone that you've seen me, I'll come for you--and for your girls." He felt his lips curve upward in another smile even as his soul shrank in horror from his actions. "Do you think they would...enjoy me, madame?" he heard himself whisper. "I would enjoy them." She moaned wordlessly and he released her. "Now go. And remember what I said."

She ran. He waited until she was out of sight, then fled himself. He had brought the boat across this time--the small boat left by long-ago workmen in these depths; the boat which he had confiscated for his own use--and he hurriedly poled it back across the artificial lake to safety.

Shaking with fear, he tied the boat and knelt by the water's edge, sure that he would hear the sound of voices from the other side of the lake at any moment, that she would summon others and they would come to forcibly remove him. Hours passed before he finally accepted the knowledge that he had frightened her so badly that she would not betray him. And then he forced himself to think back upon what he had said to her--what he had done. He was appalled to realize that his words, his tone, his dark threats...he had sounded far more like Jacques Clavell than Erik Duquesne.

He bent forward, over the water, and was violently sick.

Erik stood and moved restlessly to the portcullis, leaning against it for support and staring out into the blackness beyond, a darkness lit only by the faint glow from the candles behind him. He feared that too often in the past years he had sounded like Clavell. He had learned to use fear as a weapon as he had threatened and extorted and bent others to his will, and he had come to understand the fascination that this sort of power could hold.

The passing years had not been totally unkind to him. The work on his secret home in the depths of the opera had proceeded so smoothly that he had sometimes wondered if the sympathetic foreman and Monsieur Giroux had known--or suspected--what he was doing and looked the other way. Constructing the room itself had been easy. Arranging the secret passages and tunnels and doors had been only slightly more difficult. Outfitting his subterranean home had been simplest of all--he had stolen anything he needed or wanted from the opera storerooms. And he had continued to take whatever he needed; when the items were discovered missing, the thefts were accurately attributed to the Opera Ghost. He rarely ventured outside the boundaries of the opera house now, going out only to purchase food and books. The opera had become his home; he knew every inch of its interior from the gilded angel on the roof to the depths of the lake before him, and he loved it deeply.

He turned away from his contemplation of the lake, pausing to lift the mannequin from his bed and stand her upright again. He caressed her cheek, then moved on to seat himself at his organ. He shuddered at the first notes. The music was jarring, discordant, and off-key, and the notes were meaningless, without depth or feeling. It was the sort of music that always came to him after he had woken from one of his nightmares about the fair. He forced his hands to go still upon the keys. He would not play it--not tonight.

He looked toward the small clock. It was still early, but late enough to be dark outside. He decided he would climb to the roof of the opera house, a spot nearly as secluded as his own home, to look out over the city. The fresh air would calm him, and the lights of the city below were always a soothing sight. Rising, he donned his hat and cape, extinguished all but a few of the candles, and started upward, taking the narrow passage that led directly from his lair to the theatre above.

As he went higher, he paused to listen for the sounds of the evening's opera and grimaced with distaste as he recognized the aria being performed. It was not one of his favorites, and he was in no mood to endure the posturing of La Carlotta. Shaking his head, he moved on and up, finally stopping to kneel at a corner and stare down. There was a chill in the air, and he quickly calculated the date--it was November, just over a month before Christmas. He made a mental note to acquire a heavier cloak, then gave himself over to the beauty of Paris by night.

Long after the last carriage had pulled away, he straightened and turned to begin his descent. He needed no lantern; he could easily find his way through the dark here. Even though the evening's entertainment was over and the building almost deserted, he moved cautiously, taking the less used passageways that led past the dancers' dressing rooms.

He hesitated. Despite the lateness of the hour, there were sounds coming from one of the dressing rooms--soft, almost inaudible sounds. Someone was weeping. His curiosity aroused, he took a step closer, listening intently, then cautiously put his eye to the peephole. The interior of the room was dim, but he had long since grown accustomed to lack of light. A young woman, dressed in one of the flimsy white costumes that the petit rats wore, was sitting at the dressing table, her head bowed upon her folded arms and her slender body shaking with the force of her emotion. A thick mass of dark curls covered her back and hid her features, and he wondered which of the ballerinas she was.

"Child, why are you crying?"

His words startled him as much as they did her--he had had no intention of betraying his presence by speaking to her. He drew back to hurry away, cursing himself, but her head lifted, her eyes wide with surprise, and he froze. He had seen this girl dozens of times in the rehearsal hall and on the stage and in the dressing rooms without really noticing her; she was beautiful, but no more so than any of the other chorus girls. What caught him now and held him in place was the desperate sadness in her tear-stained face. He had known such pain, such despair, and her sorrow spoke to him. He told himself that whatever the cause it was nothing to him and that he should go away as quickly as possible, but still he stayed, watching as her gaze darted anxiously about the room.

"Who's there? Where are you?"

He felt he had to give some answer. "I am everywhere and nowhere," he murmured, borrowing a line from one of the company's latest--and most inane--productions. She gave no sign of recognizing the words, only nodded, accepting.

"Are you a...ghost?"


She rose, turning, still looking for him. "May I see you?"

"No." He almost laughed as he imagined her reaction if he showed himself. "I assume you've been abandoned by your lover."

"Oh no!" She shook her head vehemently. "I don't have a lover--I've never had a lover. I'm not interested in...those things."

He was surprised and intrigued. "Then why are you crying?"

"Because of my voice." Despite the gloom, he could see her eyes fill with tears again.

"What's wrong with your voice?"

"It's...inadequate." She clasped her hands together in front of her chest, in a gesture which should have been theatrical, but wasn't.

"Inadequate? How?"

"I'm only a dancer..." She paused and he smiled to himself. She was not a particularly good dancer, either, often drawing unwanted attention to herself with her mistakes. "But I had a dream. My father thought...he believed I could become a great singer one day--maybe even a prima donna."

"I see."

"And now I realize that I'll never be more than just a dancer. I'll never be the singer that he thought I could be. I've failed him."

"And yourself too," he commented.

"Yes." She lowered her eyes. "I've failed myself too."

She was so miserable that he felt an uncharacteristic desire to comfort her somehow, to offer her false hope to momentarily ease her pain. "I know something of music," he said. "Sing for me and let me judge your voice."

He had half-thought she would refuse, but she nodded. "As you wish, monsieur. What shall I sing?"

Erik named the aria La Carlotta had performed earlier and, without hesitation, she parted her lips and began to sing it. Erik's hands clenched involuntarily at the first notes. He would not need to lie to her after all. Her voice was untrained--or perhaps poorly trained--but it was beautiful, an angel's voice, a clear, true soprano with an incredible range. It was the loveliest voice he had ever heard, and it touched him deep inside, resurrected feelings he had thought long since buried.


She had finished and was waiting. Erik shook himself, trying to free his soul of the spell her voice had worked. "Do you have a tutor?" he asked.

"No, monsieur. My father taught me music, but he's dead now and so there's no one."

"I'd like to take his place--to teach you." The offer was out before he had time to consider all the implications. "What's your name?"

"Christine Daae, monsieur."

"Daae," he mused. "There was a great violinist by the name of Daae."

"He was my father, monsieur." She sat back down. "Do you...did you know my father?"

"In a way." He remembered hearing the man play once, long ago in another lifetime. He had been moved almost to tears by the power of the music.

She began to smile, and her smile was so radiant that it was almost painful. "Now I know who you are."

"Mademoiselle?" He was startled and prepared to flee, but her next words stopped him.

"My father sent you, didn't he? You're the Angel of Music."

"What?" Erik's alarm turned to bewilderment. "Why do you think that?"

"Because my father spoke of you often, and he promised, just before he died, that when he was in heaven he would send the Angel of Music to me. And now you're here. You've come at last."

She was so young--so innocent--so trusting. He wondered why he did not want to laugh at her foolish fancies--why her words intrigued him. He had been the Opera Ghost for so long; suddenly he realized that he felt a strange longing to become her Angel of Music instead.

"If I tutor you..." He hesitated. "Will you obey me? Will you do exactly what I tell you to do?"

"Yes," she whispered breathlessly. "Anything."

"You'll have to devote yourself to your music. You'll have to put aside all thoughts of young men and romance and..."

"I told you that I'm not interested in those things," she interrupted. "I only want to sing."

"Every night, after the performance, will you come back here--alone--and wait for me to join you?"

"But we can use the hall..."

"No," he said quickly. "No one must know about your lessons--or about me. No one else would understand. You must tell no one. Even you can never see me. I'll teach you from behind your mirror. Do you agree?"

"I do." She spoke the words with all the solemnity of a marriage vow. "Can we begin tonight?"

He took a deep breath. "Stand before the mirror and start with the scales."

After that, Erik's days remained much the same, but his nights changed dramatically. Every evening, Christine waited for him, and every evening, when the theatre had cleared and it was safe, he went to teach her from behind the mirror. He was a strict teacher, and he taught her well, using all the skills he had learned over the years, correcting her when she made mistakes, offering suggestions to improve her tone and phrasing, making demands and becoming firm when she did not do her best. Sometimes he sang with her, and he was pleasantly surprised at the profound effect the sound of his voice had upon her; he had never considered himself a singer. Often, as he stood with only a few feet of space and a pane of glass separating them, he found himself yearning for her as she sang. He could not deny the ever-growing love he felt for her. This young woman, with her innocent eyes and angelic voice, stirred him and roused him and invaded his dreams as no one else ever had.

At times they spent their hours together speaking of things other than music. She told him about her childhood, her father, her fears, her dreams, her fantasies--she talked until he felt he knew her soul intimately. Every night, when she finally left the theatre, he followed her home, skulking behind her in the shadows to protect her should anyone dare try to harm her. The more he knew of her, the more time he spent with her, he more he heard her sing, the greater his love for her grew. He longed to be able to hold her and love her--or at least to be able to touch her--but it was hopelessly impossible...


He forced his attention back to the reality of the moment. Christine had spoken and he had missed her words. "I must beg your forgiveness," he said with a soft laugh. "My mind wandered."

"Am I boring you, Angel?" Her smile was teasing.

"No. Oh no. You never bore me. If I could, I'd spend every moment with you, listening to you speak and sing..." He heard a note of pitiful longing in his voice and sternly silenced himself.

"I was speaking of the Bal Masque tomorrow night."

"The New Year's celebration. I'd forgotten."

"There won't be a performance, of course. And the opera house will be full of revellers, so I won't be able to come here."

"Are you going to the ball?"

Her lips pursed with distaste. "No. It's not something I enjoy."

Erik opened his mouth to speak, then froze as an idea occurred to him. On this one night, when everyone wore costumes and masks, he would be able to move freely about the opera, unnoticed, mingling with the others. It was a chance for him to achieve his fantasy of being with Christine, even if only for a short time.

"I want you to go."

"But, Angel..."

"You must go," he said quickly.

"At last year's ball, I spent the entire evening trying to avoid a man in a Harlequin costume who was determined to lure me into some dark corner and..." She sighed. "As soon as I got away from him, I swore that I'd never go back to another of those affairs."

"But this year will be different." His voice was breathless, urgent. "I'll watch over you. No one will bother you--I promise."

She hesitated, then nodded. "All right. I'll go--but only because you ask me to."

"Wear a white dress--and leave your hair loose. You'll look like an angel. You'll be..." His hand came up to touch the back of the mirror longingly. "You'll be the most beautiful woman there."

She blushed. "Hardly. But thank you."

He wanted to tell her that he thought she was the most beautiful woman he had ever seen--that he loved her--but he did not dare. Instead, he merely said, "If we're to miss tomorrow's lesson, we must work doubly hard tonight," and began her vocal exercises.

When he had seen her safely home, he returned to prowl through the theatre's wardrobes, seeking a suitable costume for himself. After much consideration, he chose a hooded monk's robe, adding a mask which would cover his entire face, deciding he would be safely hidden in this attire. He lay awake that night, unable to sleep for anticipation of the evening to come, composing a sonata for Christine in his head.

For safety's sake, he arrived at the ball well after its start, slipping into the overcrowded hallway, and immediately beginning to search for Christine. At any other time, he would have revelled in the strange sensation of being able to pass unnoticed through a crowd, but tonight it meant nothing. He moved as rapidly as possible, searching for her white dress and dark curls, and at last he saw her. She was standing to one side, a part of the crowd and yet separate somehow, her eyes modestly downcast, a fragile and breathtakingly beautiful angel. Something tightened unbearably in his chest. Now that the moment he had longed for had arrived, he almost fled in panic. He had no idea what to say to her--what to do--how to approach her. He lifted a hand to make sure that the borrowed mask was still securely in place, then forced himself to move forward again.

She looked up at his approach, and his breath caught as, for the first time, her eyes met his. "Mademoiselle," he murmured. He had wondered if he should attempt to disguise his voice; now he found he could barely speak at all.

"Monsieur." She curtsied briefly, impersonally.

"Are you here alone?"

"Yes, monsieur."

"May I join you? Can I bring you a piece of cake or..."

She shook her head, dismissing him, and turned away. "Thank you, but no."

"Don't go. Please," he begged, suddenly terrified that their moment together would be over before it had even begun.

"I am not allowed to converse with strangers, monsieur," she said coldly.

"Christine." She paused and he searched frantically for something to say which would hold her. "Your Angel of Music won't mind if you talk with me."

She spun, her face lighting and her eyes widening as she stared more closely at him, straining to see the face beneath the hood. "You know about my Angel? Did he send you?"

Erik nodded with relief. Her nearness made it difficult to think, but he suddenly realized this had been the reason for her coolness--a fear of offending her teacher. "He sent me keep you company over make sure you aren't bothered by any more...harlequins," he managed.

She laughed, and the sound made him shiver with delight. "You're too late. There's already been a devil and a soldier. But I was able to deal with them." She curtsied again. "You seem to know my name already, monsieur. May I know yours?"

"Erik," he whispered. "Erik Duquesne."

"I'm pleased to meet you, Monsieur Duquesne." She inclined her head. "Although I feel I might know you already. You're a dancer, aren't you?"

"A dancer?" He blinked, confused. "No."

"But the way you move--so graceful, so...balletic." She bit her lip. "I hope I haven't offended you. I was watching as you came toward me and... I meant it as a compliment."

"Believe me, nothing you could ever say or do would offend me, Christine." Behind the mask, his lips curved into a disbelieving smile. Until that moment, he hadn't realized that the ballet exercises he had done to strengthen his leg had altered his way of walking.

"You move beautifully."

The quiet sincerity of her words brought tears to his eyes. Only his music and his architecture had ever been called beautiful--never anything about him, about his person. He was unable to speak for a moment, even to thank her. Slowly he stretched out his hand. She took it without hesitation, and he was immobilized by the unimaginable softness of her fingers closing around his. "Would you...may I get you some champagne?" he asked at last.

"Please. It's so very warm in here." She allowed him to lead her to the refreshment table. When they had made their way to a somewhat quieter corner, she murmured, "How do you know my angel?"

"I...just know." When she looked as if she would protest, he added quickly, "I can't tell you."

"I understand." She lowered her eyes to her glass. "I just wish I could know more about him. I've never even seen him."

"Perhaps someday you will."

"I haven't even been able to talk about him. He made me promise..."

"He has his reasons," Erik said quickly. "You must believe that."

"I do, but I wish I could tell someone how much..." She caught her lower lip between her teeth. "It would be all right to talk to you, wouldn't it? Since you know him?"

"I think that would be...acceptable."

"He's taught me so much. And he's been so very good to me. He left roses on my doorstep on Christmas Eve, while I was gone to mass. And he tells me about books that he thinks I'll enjoy and then we discuss them and...he sings with me." Her eyes went soft, unfocussed. "His voice is so gentle and when he sings, it truly is an angel's voice." She looked up quickly, anxiously, as if she could somehow judge his reaction, then looked back down. "Am I saying too much?"

"No. Please..." He was delighted, enchanted by her description of him.

"I think he must be very beautiful. I...dream of him. Often. Every night. I hear his voice in my sleep and I...I..." She blushed. "I love him. Oh, how I love him!"

"Christine." He felt the tears slipping down his cheeks and was grateful that the mask hid his emotion as well as his unbeautiful face from her.

"Do you think he'd mind? That I love him, I mean?"

Erik shook his head. "I think your angel would...thank you for your...your love."

"I'm glad. I was afraid..." She shook herself and smiled. "I really have said too much. Do you think it would be all right if you danced with me?" she asked in a lighter tone.

Still stunned by her admission of love, he could barely stammer, "I don't know how to dance."

"I could teach you," she offered.

"I'm not sure..." He wanted to hold her in his arms more than he had ever wanted anything in his life, but a part of him was afraid without understanding the reason for his fear.

"It's easy." She set her glass aside and caught his hands. He went with her. He had no choice.

The evening passed far too quickly. Erik easily mastered the simple movements and danced with her again and again, grateful that his leg did not give way as they spun wildly to the more lively music. Others came to ask for dances, but she rejected them all. When the music slowed and they danced close together, the feel of her head resting trustingly upon his shoulder and her body pressed against his inflamed him almost beyond bearing. He wanted to take her away, reveal himself, profess his love, kiss her, caress her...

He contented himself with walking by her side, being able to speak with her face to face, touching her hair--her hand--her shoulder, watching as she sipped at her champagne and nibbled daintily at a piece of cake. He ate and drank nothing, unwilling to lift his mask. He drank of her presence and became so intoxicated with love for Christine that, for a time, he forgot who--and what--he was. He had never been so happy.

"I'll learn your true identity soon enough, monsieur," she teased as they left the dance floor. Erik's gaze flew to the huge clock above. It was ten minutes until midnight, the hour of the new year when everyone would be expected to unmask.

"You're right. Time grows short." Inwardly, he rebelled that the evening was over, but he kept his voice steady so that she would suspect nothing. "I'll go for champagne so we can toast the New Year."

"I'd like that." She gave him a radiant smile.

He took her hand and held it tightly between his for a moment, aching with love and longing for her. "Wait here for me. It may take a few minutes."

He had to force himself to turn and walk away from her. He moved slowly at first, then faster when he knew he was out of her sight, shoving the other partygoers out of his way in his haste. In an instant, he was gone. He had planned this carefully. He knew where he could go to hide--where he could see without being seen and keep watch over Christine as he had promised.

He threw off the monk's robe and, clad once again in his customary dark suit, stretched out upon one of the high beams where he could see the crowd below. He spied Christine almost immediately and began to weep as he watched her eager smile fade--saw her grow anxious and, finally, saw her begin to push through the crowd, searching for him. He felt he had betrayed her, and even the knowledge that he had had no other choice did not ease his pain.

He sighed with relief when he saw her greet a slender young woman with blond curls piled high upon her head. He recognized Christine's friend Meg even before Christine embraced the girl and began to speak to her rapidly, gesturing wildly. He slid down from his hiding place. She would be safe now. She wouldn't be alone.

He made his way back down through corridors that now seemed impossibly dark and deserted, dulled by his brief taste of light He recalled her declaration of love for her Angel of music, letting the words repeat over and over in his mind and warm him as he limped down the hidden staircase that led to his home.

He had a small gift for her, something he had gone out to purchase earlier in the day. Imagining her delight when she discovered his present the next day brought a smile to his lips. He decided to take it to her dressing room immediately and leave it for her. And, he admitted to himself, he wanted to be near her possessions for a little while, to feel close to her that way.

To his surprise, as he neared the room he heard voices. Then he realized she was there, with Meg, probably changing from her costume into her normal clothing. He leaned cautiously against the mirror to listen to them, averting his eyes.

"And you didn't see him any more?" Meg's voice was breathless with excitement.

"No. I looked everywhere for him, but he'd just...vanished."

"I wonder who he was."

"He said his name was Erik Duquesne."

"If he ran away before the unmasking, he didn't want you to know who he was. And if he didn't want you to know who he was, he wouldn't have told you his real name."

"No. I suppose not." He heard her sigh.

"Did he try to get you into one of the back rooms?"


"Well, did he?"

"Of course not. If he had, I wouldn't have spent the entire evening with him. No, we only danced and...talked." Her voice went soft.

"Did you fall in love with him?"

Erik held his breath, waiting for her answer. It was so long in coming that he felt a surge of hope, even though her words were negative.

"How could I? He was...very pleasant, but we'd just met." He heard her move across the room. "I'm ready now. Are you sure you don't mind dropping me off on your way?"

"Not at all. Since Pierre has a carriage, it would be silly for you to have to walk home."

Erik leaned back against the wall until their voices faded, then pressed the lever which released the mirror and allowed it to slip to one side. For the first time, he stepped into Christine's dressing room, staring about him as if the room still held her presence somehow. He lifted the folds of the costume she had just removed, pressing the material to his face to inhale the lingering scent of her perfume. He touched her brushes, stared briefly into her mirror, caressed the back of her chair, fancying that it was still warm from her body. She would not accept him now--she would not understand. Not yet. But she did love him. She had said she loved him! He trembled with joy at the memory of her words and the sound of her voice as she had spoken them.

He would teach her to sing. He would make her the star in place of Carlotta. By the next New Year's ball, things would be different, and when he finally let her see his true face, she would look upon it with acceptance and love.

Smiling to himself, he lay a red rose upon her dressing table and turned to make his way back to his lair.

Prelude, Renascence and Denouement

A Phantom of the Opera Story
by Christine Reynolds

Part 2 of 4

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