Regret Like Tears
It was always the same when the lock clicked shut in her cramped cell in Madame Sophia d'Avrigny's brothel. Christine curled into a ball on her cot, dragged the scratchy blanket around her, and fought down the choking, staticky feeling of absolute terror. There were no tears. No, she had long spent her life's quota of distilled grief when her Papa had breathed his last on the day before her sixteenth birthday, when days and weeks passed without the promised arrival of Madame Giry, her Papa's friend.
Madame Sophia had found her skulking the streets of that crumbling seaside ruin of a village where her Papa had died: starved, feverish, and very recently raped. Christine whimpered, the memories of the same facet and luster as a diamond within her mind. Hard hands, stinking breath, burning pain! It was always the same when the floral wallpaper closed in, and the sounds of the Madame's business bled through the walls. Despair rose to coat her tongue in its metallic fug. Fate had consigned her to this prison where monsters took the form of men.
Erik de Chagny watched the play of light in the cut crystal tumbler in his hand, filled with a generous finger's breadth of cognac. That delicious amber hue, its potent scent holding the lingering notes of strawberries and vanilla steeped in the soil where it had been grown. The drink held his interest as his father's rant did not. He had heard every permutation of this argument since he came of age ad infinitum.
Erik threw back the cognac, enjoying the harsh burn of it on the back of his throat. Restless for stimulation, Erik unfurled his lithe form from the plush chair before the fire and wandered over to the pianoforte. Music beckoned him like a beloved lover. A tender melody had come to him in a dream and held some faint wistful savor, like regret, like tears. Michel de Chagny's strident voice intruded upon his bliss.
"Erik, you cannot continue to shirk your responsibilities in such a manner! It is a disgrace! The Vicomte de Chagny does not refer to the emperor's beloved cousin as a . . . as a-" Erik rose to his feet in one fluid motion, glaring down his father. As ever, there was the faint pang upon seeing the mirror image of his own face—well, half of it. The right side of Erik's face was a mess of twisted flesh and exposed bone. Thus, the white mask covering that side from forehead to jaw. Whatever physical resemblance they bore, any love that could have existed between them had died with Hélène, Erik's mother.
"I believe my phrase was both accurate and conservative. Madeline Toulouse is an insipid cow who would not know true art if it bit her in her exceptionally large arse! Had I been inclined to use vulgarity, I could have called her an inbred cunt, which is also accurate." His voice, Erik's one beauty, could imbue words with colors, shapes and textures. Profanity on his lips, spoken with that sort of dry precision, somehow made the words sound more perverse.
Mottled red color filled Michel's cadaverous cheeks, erasing the bloodless pallor of illness. There was a time when a single cold glance had the power to reduce Erik to tears. Now, he just seemed pathetic. The Comte de Chagny seized a handful of Erik's sleeve, yanking him close with surprising strength.
"Careful, you hideous little wretch," he spat. Erik shook off the older man's grip, anger beginning to make his vision pulse red. He laughed coldly.
"Is that the best you can do, Father? Surely you can muster a more insulting epithet. Why, on your tongue, the words 'son' and 'heir' are the vilest curses."
Erik saw the backhanded slap coming and caught it before it connected. A flicker of disgusted fear rose in the older man's sharp blue eyes, seeing Erik's intelligence, talents and skills as a threat or worse, proof that he was not his son at all, but some manner of demonic changeling.
"Careful, Father. I am no longer a chip to be used as currency to imprison my mother. And seeing as your newest wife cannot so much as conceive where the previous two gave you only girls, it seems that you are stuck with me as your son and heir."
Michel de Chagny's once-handsome features twisted, in frustrated grief and the ashes of disappointment. Leaning heavily on his cane, obstinately rooted before the fire, the immaculately dressed Comte was visibly groping for more words to fling. His ire would be in vain, however. Erik had outstripped his father's intelligence by the age of eight. Erik sloppily poured another drink of cognac.
"There is Raoul. You mustn't forget your little brother, Erik."
The smile that touched Erik's lips was cruel. Since the old man's mood was so willfully truculent tonight, Erik would obligingly rub his nose in brutal truth. He turned and faced his father, lovingly outlined by the firelight. Michel's hair had long faded from black and now shone like silver wire. Both he and his son were tall and slender, with a hard, whipcord musculature. No fool had ever cast any doubt that Erik was his father's son. Erik advanced upon the Comte, with his slow, panther's prowl. The older man wore the expression of frigid dignity that Erik's hotter passions would never allow.
"Ah, yes. The precious, golden-haired boy. Before you grow prostrate in your desire to show fatherly affection to this prodigal, need I remind you that he is a bastard? Troublesome little beasts amongst the aristocracy, are they not? I can think of several who could benefit from a father's attention. But back to Raoul. Even if the emperor would upset the law of primogeniture for your sake, there is the tiny problem that your precious Raoul is the son of a whore."
Erik paused to wipe the flecks of spittle from his lower lip. He watched the words sink into his father's skin like drops of acid. While by no means unintelligent or without guile, Michel de Chagny did have the talent of self-deception, stubbornly repeating lies to himself until they became truth. But the despair that etched itself into those hard, careworn features spoke of the death of a long-cherished dream. Raoul would never be a de Chagny. A bastard, and an acknowledged one, entitled to a modicum of respect. But he could never be accepted at Court, or one of the peerages. Something that was Erik's by right of his birth. Michel sank slowly into his deep chair, his emerald signet ring glittering on his little finger.
"I hate you. I hate your mouth, your face, and those damned cat eyes! Just like your witch of a mother. I should have let them burn her, forty years ago. Get out." Erik's hands balled, shivering in rage at the mention of his mother. He had borne his father's hatred for as long as he could remember, but he could not tolerate words spoken against her, or the clear, pale green of the eyes they shared.
"Gladly, Father. Pleasant dreams," Erik drawled, with a mocking bow. He slammed the door of the study shut behind him.
The de Chagny's Paris townhouse stifled him. He needed air, distance. Any amount of time spent under the same roof as his father had that effect on him. He burst into his suite of rooms and swept on his cape with a graceful ripple of sumptuous cloth. The soft patter of slippers alerted him to approaching feet. He knew the tread of her step as well as he knew that cloying perfume crafted into a horrible simulacrum of freesia. A muscle spasmed in Erik's jaw, stifling a howl of frustration. He slammed his fedora on his head, tucking knife and pistol into his waistcoat.
"E—Erik? Where are you going?" her voice was high and thin, grating. Such a frail, excitable thing.
"Out, Claire," he replied, frost coating the syllables.
"But what did he say? Did he mention-" He whirled around to face her, tall, thin with hair as pale and fine as cornsilk and eyes like blue glass beads.
"I failed to mention your brother's investment plans, my wife. My father was much too busy listing all the reasons why he hates me and why he wants that puling brat Raoul to be his son. He would take the baseborn son of a whore over me. Anyone over me."
"Husband . . ." Claire pleaded, reaching for his sleeve. He jerked away.
"Don't," he said, hating the quaver in his voice.
"Leave me alone." With that, he swept out of the room, trying to ignore the burning knot lodged in his throat.
Madame Sophia considered herself to be an entrepreneur of female flesh. Shrewd business acumen mingled with razor sharp perception matched the customer to the girl with sterling success. Business was brisk as night fell and aristocrats emerged to spend their coin as their wives slept, even though the dismal driving rain usually meant empty coffers. Thus the Madame was in a fine mood. Madame Sophia's establishment catered only to the highest clientele, with sumptuous quarters to thrill the senses and cuisine for the most refined pallet. She sank back into her comfortable chair, surveying the women as they chattered and giggled, touching up their cosmetics and clothing with all the indulgent pride of a beloved aunt.
The sound of the door flying open and slamming into the wall startled her and she hushed and soothed the cooing flock of her soiled doves. Madame Sophia rose and swathed herself in her crimson silk wrapper. If it was that damned stable boy Raoul again . . . her world-weary mien softened into a simpering mask she reserved for customers as she saw the height and breadth of the figure in the doorway.
The white gleam of the mask made Madame Sophia's heart palpitate. Erik de Chagny. Her hands twitched for the fat roll of francs waiting for her. More than his money, he was an intelligent and erudite companion, who often whiled away an evening simply talking—to the Madame herself or one of the girls. Chess, she recalled was a favorite pastime of his, and his infrequent bouts of appetite revealed a special weakness for darkly complexioned filles. Madame Sophia had her regulars' preferences memorized. Such attention to detail meant happy customers.
"Monsieur Erik. How good of you to brave this miserable weather to join us. Come, Angel has been sharpening her skills at chess." A quick snap of her fingers summoned the establishment's resident seamstress, a woman of some education who would prove to be stimulating to Monsieur Erik's particular brand of activity.
"I need a girl," the Vicomte's usually angelic voice was reduced to a savage rasp.
Unholy green eyes glittered from beneath the brim of a dripping fedora and trepidation gripped Madame Sophia. She had seen men in every state of inebriation or arousal, but none had Monsieur Erik's pulsating force of presence. She was surprised the rainwater did not evaporate into steam off of his skin. She was vaguely frightened that any girl she sent with him would return injured.
"Of course, of course, mon cher," she clucked, ushering him into the parlor.
Monsieur Erik removed his hat and smoothed his hair. Customarily, he would exchange pleasant greetings or good-natured ripostes with the wittier girls and solicitous compliments on the shyer ones. Naturally, they all adored him and competed for his attention. Tonight, his powerful charisma was channeled into darker, violent energy that pressed them back, stealing the air from the room. Beads of water dripped from his cape into a puddle on the rug. Madame was not about to chasten him in this mood. A few stuttered greetings were met with stony silence as those hungry green panther's eyes roved over them. Mentally, Madame Sophia discarded this girl and considered another. Louisa would have been perfect, but she was otherwise occupied. Not Juliet, nor Pauline . . .
"Christine," Madame Sophia hissed, snapping her fingers. The slender Swedish waif floated to her side, looking absolutely ravishing in deep emerald green, even if her posture was horrible and her eyes wide and lost.
"Does she suit your fancy, Monsieur?" Madame drawled after her customary selection.
Her instincts were rarely wrong, but Monsieur Erik's mood made her apprehensive. The girl was fresh, but perhaps her innocence would soothe and arouse as another's practiced pleasuring would not . . . she knew she had chosen correctly when Monsieur Erik's eyes grew brighter, sharper, if that was possible. His eyes took in Christine's slender, nubile curves in one hot, lingering glance. He hefted his purse and tossed it to Madame Sophia.
"I'll take her for the night."