Act I: The Kingdom of the Broken Fan
This story begins at the end. The orphan is found by her new family adoptif.
Look: she is here, asleep in a row of plush seats in the Grande Salle, her bare brown feet tucked under the tattered hem of her skirts. Above her soars the painted ceiling and the many chandeliers of the Opéra le Peletier, which is, in the brief time of this story, the national opera of France. Around her stand the members of the production company—the angular Costume Mistress, the rotund Directeur de Théâtre, the seamstresses and the members of the orchestra and the many brawny stagehands—all peering at her intently and holding their breath, as if she is a princess in a tale. There is some debate about turning her out into the streets—for in the time of this story, an extra mouth to feed in Paris could mean hunger for all.
Look: she awakes. She sits up and blinks at the company with her great dark eyes, saying nothing, unafraid of the many faces surrounding her. She is dark, for a Parisian, with slim tawny limbs and thick brown hair that falls around her thin shoulders. There is dust and grime and dirt on her face.
The Head Soprano sails into the scene in full crinolines, late for her rehearsal, and elbows her way to the front of the crowd. When she sees the silent child, she twitters, discomfited, “We can always eat her, if she doesn’t work out,” and flutters her fan at her face.
So the child stays.
She becomes a kind of assistant to the Costume Mistress and the other, more experienced seamstresses—her nimble fingers, as she helps piece together the sopranos’ elaborate gowns, sewing stitches so fine they can scarcely be seen.
During the opera’s productions she climbs about in the wooden and paste-board town of backstage like a lithe little cat, peeping out at the audience from a perch in the rafters, her face alight with that circle of chandeliers that hangs like a glittering universe from the domed ceiling.
At night, she makes her bed amongst the tombstones on top of the rolling platform of a graveyard set-piece once used in the production of Don Giovanni.
They call her la Orpheline.
The scene: the little costuming room in the warren of backstage, three years after la Orpheline’s mysterious arrival at the Opéra le Peletier. The Head Soprano stands in front center position, pinned into the gown for her upcoming role as the Countess in The Marriage of Figaro.
La Orpheline and a group of her fellow seamstresses kneel around her as they work on the gown. The room is entirely taken up by its long train. Bolts of silk and taffeta and chiffon, fake jewels and ostrich feathers, tumble from an open closet at the back of the room, as if the characters inhabit a shabby wooden Aladdin’s cave. The Soprano is speaking, as she often does, of her new benefactor, who has promised to be in the most expensive box in the theater on opening night.
“He is not handsome,” the Soprano admits. “But he is something else. Magnetic.” She raises her clear blue eyes and white arms towards the low wooden ceiling, as if on stage. “And terribly rich!”
The pinned gown shifts around her as she moves, the black silk rustling. It’s high-necked, the skirt covered in tragic black rosettes, severe and beautiful against the Soprano’s pale hair and skin. The role of the Countess is that of an aggrieved wife, in competition with her own maid for the attentions of the Count.
The Soprano is no longer as young as she once was.
The Soprano cries out and smacks la Orpheline across the face with her fan as she is pricked by the gown’s loose pins, the delicate silk ripping at her waist, the fan’s wooden skeleton cracking against the sharp bones of la Orpheline’s cheek.
“You clumsy little slut! Now you’ve ruined my fan as well!”
La Orpeline puts her hand to her face, stung.
“But he has another woman,” the Soprano continues as if nothing has happened. La Orpheline and her fellow seamstresses begin unpinning the gown, the silk drifting to the floor in dark waves around the Soprano’s legs. “The one woman,” the Soprano turns away from their lowered faces, gazing dramatically and a tad wistfully into the middle distance, “for whom even I may be no match.”
The Marriage of Figaro. Opening night. Silk and jewels wink in the light of the chandeliers as the crowd passes in and out of their boxes and peers unashamedly at their neighbors through raised opera glasses. The red velvet and mahogany wood of the plush seats glow under the brilliant house lights. The velvet stage curtains are closed for the brief intermission between the first two acts.
Look up, at the gilded carvings from which they hang. Look: do you see that little brown face?
La Orpheline gazes down at the crowd, her bare legs wrapped tightly around a wooden beam in the backstage scaffolding, her arms resting on the gilded carvings. She can smell the varnish used on the wood, talcum, a dozen different perfumes. At such a distance she would, to anyone else, seem to be nothing but another carving– a cherub, perhaps, or more likely a lovely sort of demon.
At least to anyone but the inhabitants of the nearest box, the one in which the Soprano’s benefactor has promised to appear.
It has been empty through the entire first act.
But look—someone is entering that box now, just in time for the Soprano’s first solo.
A tall, thin man in impeccable black tails, a silk top hat tucked under one arm, is backing into the alcove, his face turned away from la Orpheline. He extends a white hand to help someone into the box behind him, and a woman steps into view.
La Orpheline’s breath catches in her throat.
The woman has a perfect heart-shaped face and enormous eyes of a deep blue that in the light of the chandeliers is almost violet. She wears a black velvet gown cut shockingly low, the antithesis of the Soprano’s own, her chestnut curls resting in her décolletage. A priceless collar of diamonds circles her white neck, producing a blinding flash that must be seen across the theater as she emerges into the light.
La Orpheline has never seen her before, and yet she knows her at once.
She is Paris’s most famous courtesan, the one they call la Reine des Fées, and gossip about in voices hushed with awe. She is said to be so beautiful that all the kings of Europe wish to have her, and that—more shocking still—she has turned them all down, one by one.
As she looks at her now, la Orpheline can almost believe it.
La Reine des Fées folds her hands demurely and sinks into her seat, as if unaware of the staring crowd, her gown pooling around her like ink.
The benefactor turns, one hand on the small of her back as he joins her, and for the first time in three years la Orpheline sees his face.
A tremor comes over la Orpheline’s body, her legs shaking where they grip the beam, her torso swaying as she fights to keep her balance.
She gasped audibly as he turned, and now he looks up, like a hound sighting a scent, his cold eyes narrowing and then widening as he catches sight of la Orpheline’s face. La Reine des Fées follows his eyes, her coral lips open in surprise.
La Orpheline’s heart pounds once, twice, three times. She hears the snap of a wire cage closing, feels the prick of the bone knife twisting beneath her trembling ribcage, the horrible agony as her catskin is peeled back, forcing the change.
The house lights go down.
She never imagined what he might have done with the power he stole from her, how different his circumstances might have become in three years.
The stage lights come up.
The curtains open.
The Soprano steps onto the stage beneath this frozen tableau, her arms spread wide, her long train moving across the floor like water. Applause ripples through the crowd. The Soprano looks up to the box where her benefactor has promised to be, and her face freezes into a mask when she sees who accompanies him.
La Orpheline watches the Soprano’s eyes dart from side to side, taking in her benefactor’s shocked face and upturned eyes, and then the Soprano turns her own head, so slowly, so slightly, that it might be only the continuation of her opening pose. Her eyes climb up, up to la Orpheline’s own. Fury twists her features.
La Orpheline’s hands, sweating now in fright, slip from the carved arch, and she falls.
Act II: The Republic of the Broken Leg
A flashback to a miserable set of rooms on the Rue de la Lune, in the Temple district near la Place du Papier. The wooden and stone floors are carpeted in a thick layer of dust. The damp kitchen is covered in mold and ooze and unspeakable grime. The furniture is fine but sparse and from another century.
This lateral maze of rooms makes up the back half of a crumbling row home with few windows. By night, the neighbors can hear strange voices and inhuman shrieks through the walls, can smell blood and sulfur creeping through the cracks in the stones.
They are too afraid to complain. The rooms are home to a magician, and who knows what arcane arts he may have at his disposal, perfect for ferreting out neighbors with loose tongues?
And besides, in a time when it is never certain who holds the city, and for whom, to whom does one complain?
Each morning, the Magician emerges into the sun, dressed in the same well-made, perfectly pressed black suit and tall silk top hat, which shadows his piercing dark eyes and the white knife of his face.
The Rue de la Lune is a hidden twist in a snarl of cobblestone streets covered in the stalls of booksellers—a world of wood, stone, canvas, and paper where dappled cats slink through the shadows and bask in the sun. By day, the Magician peruses the stalls of the booksellers or sits in the shabby café in la Place de Papier, where he watches the secretive cats and the bands of roving child thieves who pick the scholars’ pockets.
There is one cat and one child who the Magician watches more than all the others.
She is a girl child, a thief with tiny nimble fingers, and a small cat, dappled brown and black with a little swirl of white above its pink nose, as if marked there by an artist’s brush. They have the same liquid dark eyes.
By day he sips at his weak greasy tea and thinks of how to take her, his long fingers with their bitten nails tapping against the dirty porcelain of the cup.
By night he constructs the tools he will need—a cage of glinting wires whose little door springs closed with a touch, a wicked knife with a bone blade over which he speaks a litany of forgotten spells from one of his books.
And he waits.
La Orpheline hobbles around backstage on a set of little wooden crutches from le Peletier’s prop department, swinging her broken leg. See her now, raising her pointed chin to gaze wistfully into the rafters, her little hand brushing her hair out of her face? For the remainder of the run of The Marriage of Figaro she is confined to the ground, and the Costume Mistress tells her she is lucky to be alive, lucky that the tenor playing Figaro was there to help break her fall.
She may never climb again.
She stays out of the Soprano’s way as much as possible, slipping away whenever the Soprano needs help with her costume. By day she sews mechanically through the performances, thinking of nothing but where she could go to hide from the Magician, of what she could become, her broken leg dragging behind her like an animal with its foot caught in a trap.
At night, her head rests beneath the fake plaster of a little marble tombstone like a headboard to her bed—Repose en paix—and she dreams of her catskin.
She dreams of the night wind in her whiskers and the moon in her eyes, of the balance that comes with her tail, the freedom of three good legs, until the face of the Magician swims into her dreams, his white hands reaching for her like the hands of a skeleton clawing up from its grave.
She fights him, at first.
Close your eyes if you must.
We’re in those miserable rooms again.
She fights him with the kind of ferocity that the Magician should have expected from a little stray cat. But there is no escape from his maze of rooms, he made sure of this—spells and guards placed on even the smallest possible exits. Eventually, hungry and exhausted—No!—she is giving in.
The Magician has hidden the catskin—hidden it somewhere, he claims, it will never be found, no matter how she searches.
And she does search.
When he goes out by day, she looks; she opens dust-filled drawers and cupboards, claws beneath dirty floorboards and behind bricks, peers behind greasy pictures and furniture and mirrors, but no, no, it is not there.
He brings it out from its hiding place only when he wishes for her to teach him.
“Show me how it works.”
And she helps him squeeze in, his longer bones buckling and then showing through in odd places when he’s completed the change. Wearing her skin.
Sometimes she retches.
Sometimes he does.
And then he disappears into the Paris night, leaving her alone with the stub of a candle and the shrieks of his servants and the whispering of his books.
And no catskin.
Every time he uses the skin he becomes a little more powerful, a little wealthier, his spells and his alchemy working a little too well. And yet the change—so much worse for him—takes a toll on his body, so that he soon learns he must use it only sparingly.
But for all that he learns, there are still things about which he is apparently ignorant, and so he returns home one morning, shrugging the catskin off in his damp front hall, to find that she has escaped.
He must not have noticed that while he was learning from her, she was also learning from him.
He must not know that sometimes a girl’s will to survive is strong enough she is willing to leave a piece of herself behind.
Act III: The Empire of Broken Hearts
The curtain opens on a scene from la Maison des Rêves, on the Rue de Louis, and a very different girl. Look at her raise her arms as she sings in the velvet parlor, the rapture on her exquisite young face! What you can’t see: her heart, full to the brim with yearning, and the cracks on its surface which have already begun to form.
La Maison des Rêves is a jewel box of a house, fake bedroom after fake bedroom of silks and satins opening onto a curved balcony over which men in evening wear hang to look down upon the salon. The Madame of the house accompanies the girl on the piano while the other women laugh and pretend to toss back drinks with their suitors.
The girl considers the bedrooms fake for no one sleeps there, the women instead sharing simple dormitories on the uppermost floor. She shares these dormitories as well, and calls the Madame “Madame,” despite the fact that the Madame is her mother.
If the house is a jewel box, then the girls are its jewels—closely guarded, and priceless, at least until the markets fall and they are worth nothing more than a loaf of bread. The Madam, its owner, keeps the jewels crushed tightly in her hungry fist.
This girl, perhaps she is not so different from the other after all.
If this girl is to be a jewel, then she will at least be a jewel taken from the box, one which can be seen and admired by all. So she uses a few of her precious coins to buy herself a book of voice exercises, and she flatters her richest suitors, and she sings each night in the salon as if she sings upon the stage of the national opera.
Each night the salon rings with applause—and if applause is not love, then what is?
Ten years later—blink and you will miss it—that girl finds la Orpheline asleep in the costuming room and snaps the child’s wooden crutches under the heel of her boot. She imagines the applause of the crowd as she watches la Orpheline limp through the cavern of backstage, dragging her once-broken leg behind her, the roar pushing out the image of her benefactor embracing the perfect form of her rival, which is like a spelled knife in her heart. I mean, the tender piece of her heart that is left.
In the costuming room, la Orpheline and her fellow seamstresses crowd around a bolt of silk velvet held in the Costume Mistress’s veined hands. How to describe such a color—the color of night? A blue that is nearly black, or a deep purple that is nearly blue.
Le Peletier’s next production is to be Mozart’s The Magic Flute.
Though the Soprano’s performance as the Countess in Figaro was applauded, it was the new girl in the role of Susanna whom the newspapers praised and about whom les patrons de l’opéra are still gossiping. In next season’s production, this new soprano will play the lead role of Pamina, while the Head Soprano—soon, she fears, to be head no more—has been pushed into the role of Pamina’s mother, the mysterious Queen of the Night.
The base of the gown for the Queen of the Night will be made from that stunning velvet.
Black net will cover the full skirt and form the fitted sleeves of the gown, net which will be studded with flashing glass diamonds in silver settings shaped like stars. A long velvet cape, lined in the feathers of a thousand birds, each dyed a raven black, will be pinned to each shoulder with more faux white gems. And to crown the costume, a headdress of hammered silver and gold fashioned into silver stars climbing towards a golden half moon.
La Orpheline’s hand trembles as the seamstresses stroke that new bolt of velvet, the other girls’ exclamations of delight fading away to nothing behind the roaring in her ears. Something about the night-colored velvet reminds her of the soft fur of her catskin, and she still expects, as she has since Figaro’s opening night, that any day there will be a knock on the stage door, and the Costume Mistress will come find her, the Magician looming behind her like a god of death.
When someone does finally come for her, it is not who she expects.
There’s no need to change the set. Look, we’re in the costuming room with la Orpheline again.
“Your mistress thinks I have come to see that you are well,” la Reine des Fées says.
Did you expect her to be there?
“I told her that I saw you fall, on opening night, and was wracked with worry for your health.”
Her gloved hands are folded in front of her dove-grey skirts, the feathers of her hat nodding towards la Orpheline as she gazes down with those astonishing eyes. The two of them stand alone on the bare floorboards in the center of the room, floorboards that are still scattered with snippings of cloth and clipped threads. La Reine des Fées has just confidently ushered the Costume Mistress and the other seamstresses out of the room and closed the door in their astonished faces.
“She thinks me eccentric. We must be quick, or she will wonder.”
La Orpheline stares up at her, wondering what new sort of trap this is.
La Reine des Fées draws in a breath. “I have come to make a bargain with you. You know that your head soprano is my rival for my patron’s affections, yes? I hear that she is to play the Queen of the Night in your next production. A role I know well.” La Reine des Fées quirks her lips. Look how she can still laugh!
“I have received voice training, but unlike her, I am too well known in my current role to ever take the stage. Such has long been my dream,” la Reine des Fées shrugs her thin shoulders, “but it seems such a thing is not to be. Not without your help.”
La Orpheline is surprised but still wary.
“I have come to ask you to help me take her place on opening night.”
Listen closely: la Reine des Fées’ speech is a touch too fast, and serious, now.
“You must restrain her somehow—I do not care how—and let me in through the stage door. It’s a full costume, I know, with makeup and a wig—you’ll help me dress in it, and do what tucks and pinnings might be needed before I go on.”
La Orpheline studies la Reine des Fées’ figure, comparing it to that of the Soprano, her face carefully blank to hide the fast rhythm of her heart. She nods.
“But there is a second part to my request,” la Reine des Fées warns, her dark eyebrows drawn together. “This gown for the costume, you must put into it everything you have, do you understand? When I stand on that stage, the Magician must see no one but the Queen of the Night, and he must fall blindly, hopelessly, in love.”
La Orpheline starts.
“I know what you are,” la Reine des Fées says. “And I know what he is. I have been where he lives.” She shudders. “I have seen what he keeps there. And I have seen where he keeps it. Do this for me, and I will tell you where.”
La Orpheline’s heart pounds.
Look, on the other side of the door. The Soprano crouches with her ear to the thin wood, her body shaking with rage.
La Orpheline raises her eyes to the ceiling, turns her palms up as if to say: “How do I know you will keep your promise?”
La Reine des Fées opens one of her gloved hands. Inside is a little iron key with three wicked teeth. La Orpheline takes it from her. It is like ice in her hand.
“This will get you inside, and past his spells and wards.” La Reine des Fées smiles a tight-lipped smile, the smile of a soldier. “I have convinced him to trust me.”
A montage—for we are not bound by the traditional laws of physics and the theater, and there is much to see, now.
The seamstresses bent over the dark velvet and black net of the gown for the Queen of the Night, la Orpheline’s lips moving soundlessly as she sews, the soft fabric and the flashing needle slipping through her fingers like dreams. While the other girls are engrossed in their work, la Orpheline pricks her finger with the needle, beads of her blood disappearing into the thick, dark cloth.
La Orpheline working in secret in her hidden bed at night, with fabric scraps she has slipped into her skirts. The stump of a candle stolen from backstage flickers with light.
The Soprano sneering at la Orpheline during a fitting for her gown, twisting this way and that in front of the costuming room’s mirrors.
“No, it’s not right at all,” she says, and she smiles at la Orpheline. “Rip the stitches out and do it again.”
La Orpheline pricking her fingers again and again, until callouses form on their tips, bubbles of blood trapped beneath the hard skin.
Act IV: The Monarchy of Broken Cages
Imagine a courtesan standing alone upon a dark stage. She is called “La Reine des Fées,” the Queen of the Fairies, a queen of dreams and fantasies. They say that every king in Europe is dying to have her, and that she’s turned each of them down.
She laughs—she can still laugh—because that is a stretching the truth a bit.
Still, the courtesan knows a cage when she sees it—she shrugs—or so she thought, and a king would be the smallest and strongest cage of them all.
So she chooses her suitors carefully, and she keeps a hidden cache of money set by, and she flatters herself to think that she might leave any of them at any time.
And then she meets the Magician—a cloaked and masked man steps onstage, spins her around—and realizes that all along she’s been stupid and blind.
The scene changes—black-costumed stagehands push onstage the trappings for a lavish set of rooms—her new apartment off the Rue de Lafayette, of which the exact whereabouts are still unknown. Actresses dressed as maids wheel across racks of furs and elaborate silk gowns. One walks by holding up a priceless collar of diamonds. Look—wearing it must be like choking on ice.
The Magician pays for it all—and leaves her alone for days and sometimes weeks on end, and if she shudders when he touches her with those thin white hands, well, some men mistake that for desire.
And that is the most dangerous cage of all, the only one she’s ever fallen into.
The one that at first looks like freedom.
By the time the scene changes again, to those dank rooms he still calls home—so different from her bright, comfortable apartment!—by the time he lays out his mouldering books in front of her, dangles that gruesome catskin in her face, his eyes alight with the gleam of madness, it’s far too late.
She is caught, as sure as if she’d been thrust into the wire cage that glints under a spotlight in a corner of the stage, a tuft of brown fur still caught in its door.
He tells her of the girl it once belonged to, his voice filling with pride at his brilliance in catching her, with righteous fury at her escape.
And then she’s at the opera, on Figaro’s opening night, and a spotlight catches the girl falling from the rafters like an angel, and the Soprano glares at them as she sings, and the courtesan begins to see a way to free herself from this cage.
If she wanted to secure the Magician’s love for her, she’d not have made plans to dress as the Soprano.
This story ends at the beginning. Opening night.
The magnificent gown for the Queen of the Night rests on a dressmaker’s dummy in the center of the costuming room, finally complete, stitched together with la Orpheline’s dreams.
Inside one of the hollow gravestones where la Orpheline sleeps rests a little gown of her own, sewn from the scraps. A long velvet dress, the color of night. A gauzy veil of black. She saved some of her power for this, so that when she leaves the theater she may travel unseen. Under cover of night.
And now it is time.
An hour and a half to final call, the costuming room is a maelstrom of frantic last-minute preparations. La Orpheline passes a note to the other seamstresses, calling for urgent help in the hand of the young soprano who plays Pamina. When they file out of the room, their skirts swinging, La Orpheline stays behind.
The Head Soprano enters the room, already in her makeup and wig, for the final fitting of her gown. She does not seem surprised to find only la Orpheline there.
Look: she has brought the Costume Mistress with her.
“I’m still unsure about the fit of this gown,” the Soprano says, shrugging out of her silk robe. “I thought we might need the Costume Mistress’s help.” She smiles triumphantly at la Orpheline.
La Orpheline begins dressing her in the gown, her heart pounding in fear.
“Where are the other seamstresses?” the Costume Mistress asks, her brow furrowed in confusion, as she moves forward to help.
“Yes, la Orpheline,” the Soprano says, “Where?”
La Orpheline shrugs as she fumbles with the row of jet buttons at the gown’s back.
The Soprano scowls at her reflection in the room’s mirrors. “Part of your plan?” she asks, and her voice is dangerous.
“What?” the Costume Mistress asks in surprise. “What plan is this?”
The Soprano sighs dramatically and turns to face them. “I do not like to say so, ma’am, but this girl has been using lies and subterfuge to steal from the company.”
The Costume Mistress cuts her eyes back and forth between them, as if weighing the worth of the company’s Head Soprano against that of a friendless little girl, and not particularly liking the math. “Our Orpheline?” she says.
La Orpheline looks down at the floor, her heart racing. Look, you can see her plan, slipping away through her empty hands.
“Look at me!” the Soprano shrieks, and she grabs the girl’s chin. La Orpheline meets her eyes, her face set, as the Costume Mistress gasps.
“I have seen her,” the Soprano says. “She has a key to the backstage rooms,” and she loosens her grip on la Orpheline’s chin to grope at her chest, finding the little iron key that hangs there. She tugs at it and the thread it hangs on snaps.
She hands la Reine des Fées’ key to the Costume Mistress. “You see?” she says, and she smirks at la Orpheline, who is rubbing her neck.
The Costume Mistress turns the key over in her hands. “I do not recognize this,” she says, and she glances at la Orpheline. “I will take it to the Theater Director, and see if he knows it.” She speaks sternly to la Orpheline. “You will stay here.”
“Have one of the dressers finish helping you,” she calls over her shoulder to the Soprano as she turns and leaves the room, her face drawn into a confused frown.
La Orpheline watches as her key disappears.
The Soprano turns around, as if to gloat, and la Orpheline reaches behind her to the little toilette table and the porcelain jewel-case there.
She smiles as she breaks the case over the Soprano’s head.
“You’re late,” la Reine des Fées hisses when la Orpheline opens the stage door, her breath coming fast in her chest. “I thought you’d abandoned our plan.”
La Reine des Fées is dressed as an orange seller and swathed in a long cloak, but look at her eyes. Anyone who saw those would know her at once.
La Orpheline mimes singing, pretending to flutter a feathered fan at her face.
“The Soprano?” La Reine des Fées’ eyes flash.
Forty-five minutes to final call, La Orpheline and la Reine des Fées are weaving through the panicked crowd backstage, la Orpheline’s right foot dragging. Between the commotion of opening night and a missing soprano, no one looks at them. They slip into the costuming room, and la Orpheline turns the lock on the door.
“You have done as I asked?” la Reine des Fées says, and begins to hurriedly undress.
A smile flashes across la Orpheline’s face. Her hands had shaken as she stripped the gown and wig from the Soprano’s body, as she gagged her and tied her hands with silk, but now that it is over she feels only triumph. The Soprano is stuffed into the costuming room’s closet, and with luck it will be a while yet before she awakes.
La Orpheline makes shooing motions with her hands, urging la Reine des Fées to hurry. The Costume Mistress and the Theater Director could be back at any time.
La Reine des Fées frowns at her as she steps out of her dress. “Has something gone wrong?”
La Orpheline mimes a key turning in a lock, throws her hands in the air and looks around frantically to show the key lost.
La Reine des Fées quirks an eyebrow and looks the girl up and down. “C’est dommage. Then you must hope your leg is strong enough to kick the door in.”
La Orpheline curtsies, somewhat ironically, her face turned towards the ground.
La Reine des Fées gasps when la Orpheline draws out the Queen of the Night gown. The girl helps her into it, deftly pinning the velvet tight at the waist. Look how it fits her perfectly, how the stars flash as she spins. “C’est magnifique!”
La Orpheline drapes the feathered cloak around la Reine des Fées’ shoulders and settles the dark wig over her tell-tale brown curls. The moon-and-stars headpiece shines from the dark strands.
La Reine des Fées draws her own ivory maquillage case from the folds of her cast-off cloak and paints her face herself, applying kohl to her conspicuous eyes.
La Orpheline feels a surge of pride as la Reine des Fées turns in front of the mirror, transformed.
She holds up one finger. Wait.
La Orpheline cuts a piece of black net from the remaining bolt with her shears and spreads it over la Reine des Fées’ wig, removing the headpiece and settling it back over the net to anchor it down. La Reine des Fées’ face is now wrapped in darkness and unrecognizable.
La Reine des Fées finds la Orpheline’s eyes through the net. She holds them for several heartbeats, and then she nods, as if satisfied, and presses a piece of paper into la Orpheline’s hands.
“Do not worry about the Soprano, ma petite amie.” La Reine des Fées smiles grimly through her veil as she turns to leave the room. “All villainesses get their due in the last act.”
Let’s go out into the theater now, before the crowd is seated. The orchestra is finished tuning. The house lights are on. The theater doors will open soon.
Places, everyone. Places.
The show is about to begin.
A stagehand walks through the wings, announcing the final call, and the Queen of the Night sails out to join the other singers, to the production team’s audible relief. Meanwhile, la Orpheline is hobbling past the Costume Mistress and the Theater Director hidden in la Reine des Fées’ cloak, on her way to her graveyard bed.
On the other side of the curtain, the doors open and the audience floods into the theater. The Magician slips into his box, still cold with anger from the brief note he received that morning from la Reine des Fées turning down his invitation to join him. “I’m afraid I do not feel well, monsieur, and so I must decline...”
Look: the house lights are going down.
The orchestra plays the overture as the stage lights come up.
The curtains whisk open.
An hour past final call, the Queen of the Night steps onto the stage, in a gown so lovely that anyone who looks at her must love her, and the Magician is looking. La Reine des Fées’ face is still swathed in her dark veil, and when she opens her mouth to sing, she leaves it down.
An hour and ten minutes past final call, the Soprano spits out her gag and starts to scream, but no one can hear her, not yet.
An hour and twenty minutes past final call, la Orpheline is hurrying through the dark streets of Paris, clothed in night, dragging her right foot a little behind her left.
There is a forgotten door in the Magician’s house: the little door to the cellar, hidden against the house behind the weeds. Her leg is not strong enough to kick the door in, but she won’t have to. When she escaped that way, she left it unlocked.
Of the many things the Magician never imagined, perhaps the most detrimental was that neither she nor anyone else would brave this door. Why place wards on it, why check the locks, when no one would dare enter the cellar, would walk past his ranks of caged and bottled servants, through their shrieks and their staring eyes?
And if they did, would his servants not warn him, would he not hear the noise, even if he was miles from home?
Only the most desperate, only a fellow demon in chains, could do it. Only she would they have watched silently with round eyes and cheered with squawks of joy and admiration when she pushed the door free with her shoulder, inch by grudging inch, dirt and silt streaming through the creeping fingers of sunlight.
A scrap of paper is clutched in la Orpheline’s hand as she runs now, or tries to, through the Paris night: “Front hall, reach deep between the jaws of the stuffed bear head. Look inside the black silk bag, for the plain wooden box which contains a little clay pot which holds an old leather pouch. Ignore the golden jewel chest and the Fabergé egg. He keeps demons and spirits in there.”
She is going back, and she will not ignore the jewel chest or the Fabergé egg. She will not leave the bottles corked and the doors closed.
“Break the cage while you’re at it,” the paper says.