Revenant Eve by Sherwood Smith


  “We seek the demons’ garden,” Jaska said.

  “It is here.” Uriel extended a long hand, indicating the Place de Grève on the other side of the river. We could see a series of tall maples in full summer leaf. There must have been hundreds of them.

  We stared, for none of us had seen a forest of maple in that spot. Moving among the trees, almost invisible in the slanting ochre rays of the sinking sun, uglies hopped, slithered, lumbered, as they carried little pails to the trees, inserted taps, and let clear liquid drain.

  “It is going to take time to determine which is the person you seek, and then to accomplish the transformation,” Raguel said kindly, indicating the glorious late-afternoon light, lurid with high clouds against which thousands of tiny birds flew in streams.

  An ugly sidling along nearby raised a weapon and charged. We put hands to weapons, but Jeremiel lifted a hand, palm toward the ugly, whose face corrugated in fear a second before the thing went pop. “The demons fear us,” Jeremiel said. “We can walk among them without harm, and find your companion.”

  Mord held the amulet tightly. “I think we can find her.”

  “Will you know how to transform her?” Uriel asked.

  Mord looked our way. No one answered.

  Raguel murmured, “It would be our delight to restore her to you. Give us a few hours, and then you will be free to regain your world.”

  Jeremiel said, “Once you go through the portal to your world, you cannot return here. Or to be more correct, you could, but nothing is ever the same.” And to Mord, “Is there not something dear to your heart that you could do while you wait?”

  Uriel said, “I expect we shall find her by the time the bells ring at None. If not before.”

  Mord looked down at his hands, then at the trees. He was taut with uncertainty—responsibility—and a new love of three days, against music, the passion of his life, and a musician he admired.

  “Go,” Uriel urged with infinite kindness. “Be back by nightfall. Surely it will take no longer than that.”

  “Listen for the bells.”

  “It is so short a distance.”

  Mord dipped his head in a nod, said to us, “I’ll be back at nightfall. Come for me. You know where, if she’s found sooner.”

  “I promise,” Jaska said.

  “You have the entirety of Paris before you, and a short time to enjoy its attractions,” Uriel said to Jaska and Aurélie. And to me: “Tonight is the premier of the ballet Cyrano de Bergerac.”

  “Ballet?” I repeated, startled. Wasn’t that ballet mounted just a few years before I first visited Europe?

  “A new ballet, by Jean-Georges Noverre,” Jeremiel said, smiling. “Very innovative. He has forbidden the traditional mask. The new ballet is based upon the life of the famous duelist and writer. If you leave at once, you should be able to arrive in time.”

  A ballet! And one I’d never heard of.

  “Shall we walk together?” Jaska asked. And to the three, “Thank you for your help.”

  “It is our pleasure,” Raguel said.

  “We will return at nightfall,” I said, trying to establish a firm boundary. I knew as soon as the words were out that I sounded officious, but I was uneasy. On the surface, everything made as much sense as one could get in the Nasdrafus, but I walked with that shoulder-blade sense that I was missing something. The solution seemed too easy, but maybe that was because I didn’t trust those seraphs. Was that because the solution really was too easy, or because I was a skeptic about the existence of angels, with that heavy theological overlay?

  I glanced back a couple of times, but all I saw was the cathedral glowing in the slanting rays of late afternoon, the seraphs silhouetted against the golden sun sinking toward the horizon.

  We started over the bridge. Little boats floated along the Seine, people talking and laughing as they floated along, gold-lit by pretty paper lanterns. Nowhere was there any sign of war. The buildings were in good repair, the air was warm, the streets even clean. Set in the trees along the quay against nightfall were more of those delicate lanterns, each with a tiny candle inside its oiled paper shape.

  One last glance at that weird forest of maples, now a distant mat of green, and we were out of sight. Jaska and Aurélie walked together, talking softly. I wondered if this sense that something was missing had to do with not bobbing along behind her for the first time. I noticed Aurélie glancing back once or twice, her lower lip caught in her teeth, but her fingers gripped Jaska’s. She looked up, and they both smiled.

  We headed into the city, avoiding by mutual and unspoken consent the entire Tuileries area, then turned toward the rue de la Loi. Everybody seemed to be out enjoying the summer weather. We walked at a brisk pace, no one tired. Jaska did not limp at all, as he and Aurélie talked softly. No one paid the least attention to them in their Dobreni ball dress.

  When we reached the huge square on which the theater stood, we saw a young guy with a shock of blond hair; he ran about accosting people. He soon came to us, desperate, repeating the same words, “Anyone know ballet? Anyone know ballet?”

  “I do,” I said, taken by surprise. Then blushed.

  But the guy turned my way with relief. “You do? Oh, I am so grateful. Come! We will pay anything—we are desperate for a substitute!”

  I found myself drawn away.

  “We will meet you back at the cathedral at nine,” Jaska called, smiling.

  They could hardly wait to get rid of me. And who could blame them? Intrigued by the impossible situation, I followed the young man as he gave me a disjointed explanation: Their premier danseuse slipped and fell—being tended to, but cannot go on—the understudy is away in the country, out of reach, and a full house—

  It was like dreams I’d had back when I performed, except that there was no sense of worry or anxiety that I did not know the choreography, had never set foot on the stage, knew no one in the company. The dance I’d done at the Heuriger had energized me, so I thought, why not follow this as far as it goes? I can always say no, and I have time to kill until the bells ring at nine.

  The guy turned earnest blue eyes my way as we rushed to a side door and into a narrow backstage. Oh, being backstage again! Flats being shifted this way and that, actors all over—in this case the comedians who would mime some of the story—dancers warming up in a cleared space.

  They crowded around when we appeared. “I found someone for Roxane!”

  Roxane? But she’s the lead!

  “What can you do?” asked a stern older man. Was it possibly Noverre? He rattled off a string of ballet terms. All familiar, even elementary. Ballet had developed a great deal since he revamped the stultified seventeenth century forms.

  Adrenaline spiked as I kicked off my sandals, moved out into the center of the floor, and whipped out the combination he’d asked for. Because I was barefoot I danced half-toe, but at the end I stiffened my toes and lifted en pointe in an attitude, holding it for a few seconds. My toes seemed, if anything, to have been strengthened by my long separation from my body.

  Gratified by the gasps of the watchers, I came down in a dancer’s bow.

  A young girl watched intently from the side; she shimmered, unnoticed by the others. I wondered if she could possibly be one of the Gosselin sisters—who had done so much for the female in ballet—here in ghost form. As I watched her, the other dancers marveled and clapped for me, their admiration gratifying.

  “Will you dance for us?” the ballet master asked.

  “I’d love to,” I admitted. “However I don’t know your steps.”

  “But you are magnificent!” His hands lifted expressively. “If you know the story…”

  “I do.”

  “Then you must interpret freely. Embellish! Fly!”

  “What about pas de deux?” I asked, trying to remember when the formal structure of the duet was instituted.

  “Balthazar will talk you through it,” he said, motioning forward a man in musketeer costume. ??
?He dances Cyrano.”

  “Hurry, hurry,” the dancers said, taking their places on the stage. Beyond the curtain, the orchestra had already begun the overture.

  I took my place where Noverre indicated, heart beating fast, nerves controlled down to fingertips and toes. As the curtain rose, revealing the enormous sea of faces below the magnificent chandeliers, I thought, wait, wait, costume?

  But it was too late. The music had begun and an expectant hush fell over the crowd.

  And so I danced on the stage of the principal theater of Paris, in the Nasdrafus, two hundred years before my birth.

  I can’t begin to describe the exhilaration, especially as my body responded as it never had before. My leaps soared, but I came down as light as ash. My pirouettes never wobbled, and as for choreography, muscle memory provided the well-drilled dances of my past, which I strung together as befitted the story. The more I remembered, the better I danced, exhilaration streaming off me in sparks.

  I had never been ballerina grade; I’d had the right body and could move well, but I hadn’t the dedication it takes to turn good into great. And it takes dedication, except in very rare instances. Ballet can eat your entire life, rehearsals and lessons and warm-ups and practice every single day, for long hours. When I got to college and discovered many of my fellow dancers ignorant of anything outside of dance, I’d lost the desire to dance professionally. I loved my books and languages too much. So dance was relegated to recreational, and I took my place back in the chorus.

  Well, today I was a star. As I floated and twirled across the stage, the audience gasped—cheered—oohed. Balthazar, who partnered me, whispered a few commands, but pas de deux were in their infancy at that time, so it was easy to follow and to embellish.

  Too soon it was over, and to thunderous applause. I stood alone, glorying in the powerful thrill of audience love, my entire body humming with energy. Until now, my dancing had been for fun, the applause nothing more than the expected polite acknowledgement of the group’s effort. Standing ovations were always for someone else.

  This time it was for me. As the volume of sound shook the air, the glory of popular adulation battered me, more powerful and sweet than any magic. I understood for the first time why dancers gave themselves to their art ten, twelve, eighteen hours a day. Why commanders raised their banners, why people reached for crowns.

  I knew through bone and muscle and nerve what Napoleon craved.

  I could never get enough of it.

  We took many bows, and then the triumphant dancers bore me off through the back exits into the street, under an indigo sky still purple in the west. We sailed into a café with a cleared floor where they shed the after-performance excitement by dancing for one another, as musicians from the orchestra played.

  No one was more eager than I for a reprise of our brilliant success. The dancers crowded around, begging me to dance for them, so I moved out to perform another solo. They hailed it with delight, even more fervor than the theater audience, the accolade of artists. They pressed me to stay, to join them. “We are talking of remounting Children of Prometheus—will you dance the premier role?”

  I was poised to shout YES! I can’t describe how much I longed to say it, to surrender to that life, but poised as I was to surrender to the joy of art, I was aware of myself still listening for the bells of None, and with that, the memory of Elisheva. Aurélie. Alec, and my own time.

  Though it hurt worse than the uglies’ swords, I said, “I have another life that I need to get to.”

  “An artiste must follow her heart.” Noverre threw up his hands. “Then celebrate while we may! Come!”

  And so we moved from place to place, different music, all kinds of dance. Everywhere I went, I danced to great admiration and applause, and I was good. I never tired, my balance was impeccable, which drove me to greater efforts. I sought to test my limits, leaping higher, tighter turns, complicated steps that had defeated me in the world I’d grown up in.

  The old sense of competition woke up, squashed years ago when I discovered that ensemble work was fun, that competition made me anxious and took all the joy out of dance. I was like a sixteen-year-old again, I craved more applause, to be the best ever. My training was better than anything the dancers of 1800 had. Women were not yet on toe. This was the era just before the romantic, when male dancers would reach the peak of balletic development, and the men demonstrated it by the strength and skill of their aerials, their turns, their kicks. But I could leap and turn nearly as high.

  Gradually my intent altered as I sought a partner who was as good as I was—who could give me the challenge I wanted—who I could defeat, all in dance. When I walked out of a café (I checked, but the sun was still a finger above the horizon) and craved the duel of tango, I was not surprised to find a bistro across the street.

  I walked into the hazy air of cigarette smoke. Sloe-eyed women in cloche hats and peek-a-boo marcelled haircuts moved languidly about in flapper dresses, fringes swinging.

  The shift in time was a jolt, but I dismissed it, intent on my challenge. If time had a curious pocket here, well, this was the Nasdrafus, right?

  On a small stage, as jazz musicians wailed in a lightless corner, a man and woman prowled around one another, the man shirtless, wearing only trousers and low boots, the woman in a thin shift cut up to the hip, fishnet stockings, high heels.

  Thrump! He made a leap, landed behind her, took her arm, and snapped her into him so hard I thought her neck would crack. She leaned out, and with a sharp, deliberate twitch of her hips drove her spiked heel down onto his foot. She kicked high with the other as he recoiled, jaw lifted. He groped, but she evaded his reach and swung her arm down with enough force to bring him to his knees. He leaped up and twisted out of her grip, then took her hand and spun her into him to lock hard, nose to nose, hip to hip.

  And so began what was once called an apache dance, brutally sexy, then just brutal, as he pulled her around by the hair, and she slugged him with a roundhouse that sounded like a butcher’s whack on a hambone. His response was to pull her into a lift, but as she arched her back for a kick, he threw her down and though she twisted lithely like a cat, gravity failed her and she hit the floor with a neck-shattering crack. And lay there, eyes staring emptily as the audience booed and catcalled.

  Those smooth servants oozed out, tenderly carrying her limp form off the stage as the guy cruised around, daring anyone to come forward. The woman in the shift appeared, blinking and wiping her hair back, looking around as if trying to find someone or something.

  I buzzed with energy. I could take that guy. My fencing training—blocks—and no one dies, right?

  I took one step, then another, and stepped up onto the stage.

  The audience clapped mockingly, calling out sarcastic endearments, insults, challenges.

  From the noise came one familiar voice: “Kim?”

  I turned—and stared directly into my own face.

  Only it wasn’t my face. The sulky lower lip, the short hair shingled, dyed platinum blonde…

  “Ruli?”

  FORTY-SEVEN

  “KIM? What are you doing here?”

  “Ruli.” A horrible thought hit me. “This is a time pocket? Right? Did I somehow get shot into modern times?”

  “What?” she responded, and then, “Kim, there is no time in the Nasdrafus. Or rather, time is whatever you—or whoever you are following—wants. What are you doing here?”

  “I’m trying to…where to start?” Questions multiplied so rapidly I didn’t know which to voice first. “Easiest first. How did you find me?”

  “I wasn’t looking for you,” Ruli said, with an uncharacteristic ironic twist to her crooked mouth, reminding me very much of her brother Tony. “But in the Nasdrafus, affinity, connection…” She lifted a shoulder. “One begins to see how everything is connected in some way. I was looking for entertainment, nothing in mind, and so I found you. Apache dancing?” Her sardonic glance definitely brought Tony
to mind.

  “I didn’t start out that way,” I said. “I was just dancing and more dancing, and I wanted to push the limits…” I stopped, aware that the challenge, the lure, the insanity—was gone. Ignoring the hot-eyed guy who’d come right up behind me, the insinuating jazz, the disappointed, scoffing audience, I jumped off the stage.

  A couple of big, menacing guys stepped toward me, led by a cold-eyed woman with long nails. Ruli murmured, “Allow me.”

  She bared her fangs. They backpedaled with less dignity than haste and returned to their shadowy little tables as the jazz band started up again behind us.

  “Whoa,” I croaked, as we walked out into the street. “First time I ever enjoyed seeing the flash of vamp teeth.”

  “I truly enjoy that,” Ruli said, and that was definitely Tony’s smile. “The demons don’t like us stealing their prey, but they can’t do anything about us here.” She didn’t explain what she meant by here, but went right on. “The last time I walked through my old house, you’d not shown up for some meeting with Cerisette, and she was hoping you’d changed your mind and run out on Alec. Someone else said you were ill. What’s happened?”

  “It’s too long to go into,” I said, then what she said hit me with sickening force. “You mean time has passed? Oh no! How long? I’ve got to get back!”

  “Relax. You’d been missing a day or two, and I just told you: Time does what you want here. Talking to me is going to make no difference. What are you doing here?”

  “I came to this Paris with some others to rescue one of us. We were told she’d be fine by the strike of nine…” The anvil finally clonked me on the head. “They said to meet them when the bells ring None. The bells aren’t going to ring, is that it? We’ve been scammed?”

  Ruli took a hit from her cigarette in its long holder. The cherry-red end glowed and faded. She let out a stream of smoke (which I didn’t smell) and said, “I can answer that better if you tell me who they is.”

 
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