The Great Herrmann stood at the bottom of the gangway of the Berengaria. It had taken some time for the giant ship to dock, but he hadn’t minded the wait. It had been thrilling to watch the little tugboats push and pull the great vessel into place. Periodically, supporters approached to report how much they enjoyed his work and asked him to sign their ticket books or passport pages.
Adelaide Scarcez had enjoyed the time, too. The trip down from London had been an unexpected pleasure, uninterrupted as it was by the officious interventions of Seamus Dowie or the unnerving unpredictability of Princess Noor. Liberated from performances or rehearsal, Adelaide had her first chance to observe Alexander in ordinary circumstances, released from the grandeur and conceit required of his role as World’s Greatest Magician. She had felt unexpected warmth for him as he gazed through their compartment’s window, pointing out a species of tree or a particularly quaint farmhouse. After they had enjoyed a lovely breakfast in the parlor car, Alex had amused some children, cranky and exhausted with travel, with some of his finest sleight-of-hand. He produced shillings from their ears, made sugar cubes disappear, turned salt into pepper and water into wine. Adelaide found herself as charmed as the small ones by his performance, a little show presented with a patience and modesty she had never before seen.
“I suppose it will not be difficult to spot your cousin.”
“I think not. Just look for the little Jew dressed in buckskin and beads leading a retinue of red Indians similarly attired. I imagine there won’t be more than four or five other parties like that on this ship.”
As Adelaide grinned at the joke, the passengers began to disembark, first-class leading. Their travel clothes were of the finest: rich velvet suits and dresses on the women, bespoke gabardines on the men. The children who accompanied them were no less turned out: the girls in creamy bonnets and summer crinolines, the boys in dark knickers with wide straw hats or white sailor suits trimmed in gold. Experienced seafarers, many had escaped the ocean’s misery and smiled and waved to the family or servants who had come to collect them.
The passenger behind them could not have been more different.
Instead of the stark solids and clean whites of his predecessors, his costume vibrated with color – blue and yellow beads and tawny skins adorned with the art and history of the plains. When the small mustachioed man finally gained the foot of the long bridge, he took the hands of Alexander in his and kissed him on both cheeks.
“So, what should I call you?” Alex said. “Surely a warrior of your standing can no longer be addressed simply as Julius. So, what is it? Big Yiddish? Chief Makes Much Matzoh?”
Julius laughed. “Witty as ever. My friends have a different name for me, but you couldn’t pronounce it; not that you would when you can make up your own. Alex, you look fine.”
“As do you, oh, Mighty Morning Minyan. But please allow me to introduce my secretary, without whom I would surely have forgotten what day you were arriving. Miss Adelaide Scarcez, my cousin, Medicine Man Eats On Yom Kippur, better known as Mr. Julius Meyer.”
Adelaide held out her hand. “How do you do, Mr. Meyer. The Professor has told me so much about you.”
“It’s my great pleasure, Miss. Scarcez. You are as bright and pretty as my cousin’s letters have painted you – actually, more so. He also informs me that without you, he would disappear into one of his own hats.”
Adelaide flushed and smiled. “You are most kind.”
“But professor? Really Alex, I believe you become more like Compars every day. What’s next? Herr Docktor?”
“No, cousin, I think I’ll leave that one to dear brother. He’ll need it in retirement. One gets so many ailments at his age. Is his lordship here?”
“I’m afraid not. Lacking the Meyer-Herrmann blood, Standing Bear thinks it is beneath him to earn his keep as a performing seal. Still, he assures me that he will happily spend any funds we might raise through the perversion of our dignity. Where’s our Red Rose?”
“Her highness has remained at our apartments today. The press, which follows her every move, has been told that she has a touch of the neuralgia. But between you, me and about a dozen deeply offended Egyptian gods, I’m keeping her under tighter wraps these days. It’s getting more and more difficult to take her for an airing without she starts yapping and not in Arabic. Last week an Iranian or an Iraqi or some such filthy wog ran up to her and started jabbering in god – knows – what. Our Lady-Jane told him to, and I quote, “go fuck yourself.” Luckily he didn’t understand English any better than he spoke it, and so she remains unexposed except onstage, but that’s hardly a matter of language.”
“So, I’ve heard,” Julius said. “I was glad to receive your wire. Apparently our appointments are all arranged.”
“The best venues holding the best people with only the best of intentions.” Alex said. “I have told them that yours is a worthy cause. I have also scared most of them shitless by intimating most subtly that should they decline to donate, the forces of darkness both white and Indian would be most displeased – and you know how they get when they’re mad.”
Their laughter was interrupted by a commotion at the top of the gangway. Looking toward its guardrail Adelaide could see two men in white carrying some sort of long object. As they made their way down, she saw it was a hospital gurney. Strapped to it was a man, his long gray beard resting upon the blanket that covered him. Directly behind them followed a ramrod straight officer she assumed to be the ship’s surgeon and behind him a young Indian. He was thin but with the kind of muscle that reminds one of bridge cables. When the gurney finally reached the dock, the man lying on it gestured for the Indians to halt; he lowered his hand slightly and then pointed it at Julius.
“I warned you,” the man said, his voice the very sound of misery. “I told you this here trip would come to no good.”
“Well, it would help if next time you got one of those tingles up your spine you got it before we left America instead of at mid-ocean.” Julius said, gesturing toward his companions. “My cousin Alexander. I believe you have met.”
“Ahoy, Prophet,” Alex said.
“And this is his charming secretary and indispensible factotum, Miss Adelaide Scarcez. Miss Scarcez, Mr. John Nathan McGarrigle and our young friend, Mr. Wind Whistler.”
The young Indian nodded shyly in the lady’s direction; Prophet John ignored her completely. “Young Jules, tell ‘em to let me out of this thing. We’re on dry land now.”
Julius chuckled. “John, this is England. Nothing here can be described as dry; and I’m not about to overrule the doctor.”
“What did he do this time?” Alex asked. “Take the wheel from the captain because his bones told him you were headed for an iceberg?”
“No,” Julius said. “His crime was more an affront to common sense. We were all of us sick as dogs, but the Prophet here somehow decided that straight bourbon whiskey was the best cure for motion sickness. It wasn’t. Two hours later, it took me and Wind Whistler here to keep him from hurling himself over the side. By this morning, when everyone else had recovered, he was still so sick I nearly took a pistol to him myself.”
“That’s right, whippersnapper,” Prophet John said, his lips twisted in disgust, “tell everyone. Shout my humiliation to the world. None of that changes the fact that I still say comin’ here was a fool’s errand.”
Julius shook his head. “What say you, doctor? Will it be all right to release this young man or will he try to steal the Crown Jewels?”
A minute later John McGarrigle was released and on his feet. He glared at Julius, tipped his hat to Adelaide and stomped off across the pier towards a sign picturing a large tankard.
“Perhaps he’ll get lost,” Alexander said.
Julius smiled. “I shouldn’t worry. Prophet John can track a black cat through a coal mine. He should have no trouble finding us.”
Alexander turned and whistled loudly through his teeth. At the sound, four matched grays headed in their direction drawing a large and elegant black landau. As it came to a stop, the magician invited the little party to board.
“You know, Adelaide,” Alex said, “Southampton is where Julius and I left Europe for America when we were only boys. I fear much has changed since that day.”
“I can well imagine,” Adelaide said. “But then it seems natural that such a great port should alter over time. Don’t you think so, Mr. Meyer?”
Julius was silent for a moment. The horse’s hooves filled the silence in the coach.
“I believe Alexander doesn’t speak only of Southampton, Miss Scarcez, but of our whole world. When I disembarked in Philadelphia all those years ago, I was only little Julius and he young Sasha. Today, I am Mr. Julius Meyer, Indian expert and Speaker of the Ponca whom the Indians call the Boxkareshahashtaka – the Curly Head, the Chief with One Tongue. And he? He is Herr Professor, Mr. Alexander Herrmann, the Great Herrmann, known everywhere as Master of the Mysterious and the World’s Greatest Magician.”
Julius paused and looked out the window to see the huge hulk of the Berengaria receding into the water.
“Yes, Miss. Scarcez: for us, the world has certainly changed – if for no other reason than this promiscuous accumulation of names.”
The little plainsman spurred his horse across the wet grassland. Its hooves made a sound almost like crashing cymbals as they pummeled the ground and water.
Screaming, the big palomino flew over a green hedgerow and landed. The rider bent low to its mane, relieved that the horse did not slip and fall onto the soaked field. It had been only an hour since the rain had gone; and while he worried about a firm footing, at least he didn’t have to think about whether the sun was at his back and or in his eyes. It was high noon.
The Indian, younger even than his adversary, rode a horse so red that from a few feet it looked composed of Jefferson County clay. He could feel the pony’s feet slide beneath him as he made straight for his adversary. He reached back into his quiver and produced an eagle shaft painted in rings of blue and black. Holding the red tight with his legs, he notched the arrow into its bowstring, pulled back and released. It missed the plainsman by inches.
The white man whipped the palomino into a zigzag pattern, hoping to avoid the next bolt. Putting his spurs to the red, he reached down and pulled a Sharps buffalo gun from its saddle scabbard. Now it was the Indian’s turn to weave, knowing that at this range, one shot from the fifty – caliber rifle would explode his body. The plainsman cocked and shot. The report sounded like a cannon. The bullet whizzed past the pony’s flank, close enough to split its tail.
Now the men were too close for shooting. The Indian rode straight for his enemy and leaped from the saddle. As he grabbed the white around the shoulders, his momentum sent both men tumbling from the palomino’s back onto the sopping ground. In a moment, they were up, the Indian raising his tomahawk, the plainsman, a Bowie knife. They circled each other, breathing heavily, hatred glaring from their eyes.
The white attacked first, tackling the Indian by the legs. The brave fell to the ground with a splash, but managed to raise his tomahawk, striking his enemy twice in the head. The plainsman stabbed down once, deep into the belly of the savage. The pair made feeble attempts to rise but it was no use. In a moment, their weapons lay useless on the ground and they were as still as the live oaks on the hillside.
Lady Caroline Carstairs screamed in panic, which gave permission to her female guests to give voice to their own horror. Directly beside her, the Baroness D’rochambeau fainted and was luckily caught by her husband before she could fall to the damp pavilion floor.
The Duchess of Cornwall, known throughout Britain as its greatest lover of horses, had to be restrained in her effort to comfort the two now-riderless animals. Captain Richard Wilkinson-Barre, the Seventh Earl Carroll, whom everyone assumed was made of harder stuff, fell into a nearby chair and put his hands to his mouth, the better to contain his nausea.
Flushed and panting, Lady Caroline brought her fan to her face. She was used to scandal, yes: but what was a bit of financial chicanery or illicit sex compared to a double murder on her polo ground?
Just as the alarm threatened to engulph the entire gathering, the plainsman, dressed in a magnificent fringed jacket and trousers, scrambled to his feet and motioned for calm.
“My lords, ladies and gentlemen, what you have just witnessed symbolizes what for eighty years has been the state of relations between the white American and the Plains Indian. Conflict has been our milk and meat, death our father and mother. The result, as you have seen today, is tragedy on both sides: two once vital men lying dead by the hundreds and thousands, food for buzzards and fodder for further hatred and rage.”
Julius Meyer turned on his heel and called to the young Indian in Ponca. He rose, standing tall and straight.The audience burst into relieved laughter and loud applause.
Julius once again held up his hands for silence.
“Permit me to introduce my fellow play-actors. To my left is Mr. Wind Whistler, esteemed horseman and decorated warrior of the Ponca Tribe.”
Whistler bowed awkwardly. The crowd clapped and shouted even louder. There were cries of “capital!” and “jolly good!”
“The exciting battle you have seen today,” Julius said, “is not an event that occurs willy-nilly. Weeks of painstaking rehearsal have gone into every move made by my friend and myself and our no less courageous mounts. And while our little drama amply illustrates the terrible waste of life and treasure that
American policies toward the Indian have caused, we also mean it to show you good lords, ladies and gentlemen that hard work and cooperation between the white and red races, such as went into creating our display, can produce a quite astounding result – and that the two peoples can, even in the face of a poisoned history – live together upon the land that God made for all his children.”
“Huzzah!” cried a fat, red haired man, encouraging his fellows to follow with two more, plus several “indeeds,” “hear hear’s” and “quite so’s.”
“It is in this spirit that we have come to England. No people have known the blessings of freedom more fully than the British. There can also be little doubt that there are no people on earth more fair-minded and honorable than the sons and daughters of John Bull. With this in mind, my cousin and your friend, Professor Alexander Herrmann suggested that we journey here and seek your help.
That you, who represent the finest of society, will aid us in our fight for legal redress and support us in our struggle to feed and clothe those tribes our government has cheated and abandoned.”
The two men bowed once again. They entered the wooden platform and were met with hearty handshakes and cries of “well done.” Lady Caroline offered her hand to Julius. He brought his lips within an inch of her glove.
“Mr. Meyer, I suppose I should be very cross with you. You gave me and my guests the most terrible fright.”
“I apologize, Lady Caroline,” Julius said. “But we felt it necessary to make our point in a most dramatic way and deemed that this was exactly the kind of presentation that was needed.”
“Don’t be concerned, Mr. Meyer. Your little pantomime was the most thrilling thing that’s happened around here since Lord Carstairs discovered a new brand of gin. As Alexander may have told you, I welcome anything that will relieve the monotony of this country existence. So I suppose I should be grateful to find that a certain amount of theatricality runs in your family.”
“I am afraid I must plead guilty to that trait, ma’am. I have often been criticized for it in my home country. There are those who say I exploit the Indian, that I have made a fortune off his culture and craft. But I believe that people learn better when they are not bored – and if a bit of showing off can be put to work for a good cause, well, no one is harmed and many may be helped. But I was so hoping to meet Lord Carstairs today. He is well, I hope?”
Lady Caroline sighed. “His Lordship sends his regrets. He was apparently informed this morning that a single grouse still survived somewhere on the property and has taken his gun and gone in search of it. Generally, he isn’t enthused by anything that doesn’t involve the killing of small creatures or insults to butlers and groomsmen.”
Lady Caroline took Julius’s arm and presented him to the various guests. As usual, his tongue amazed. How was it that this wild little ruffian could speak perfect French to the French and textbook German to the Germans? Where did he learn his courtly ways and impeccable manners? And how, by the end of the night, did he manage to walk away from the gathering with pledges totaling more than ten thousand pounds? Perhaps there was something to the rumor that beneath the buckskin and beads beat the heart of a son of Abraham; and after all, weren’t they all like magnets when it came to money?
Seamus Dowie did his best to hold his cup in the proper manner, but tea had never been his drink.
Even back in Ireland, where his mother seemed to brew it by the gallon, he had never taken a shine to the stuff and only drank it when he was sick or when forced to by the presence of company. The tiny sandwiches it came with were even more problematic. Between his huge, thick fingers, they seemed the size of a pencil eraser; and when he bit into one, it was difficult to not wolf what little was there. To him, they didn’t seem like actual food, just fluffy little clouds of vinegar and salt and slices of things thin enough to taste like nothing.
Princess Noor-Al-Haya had a different attitude.
For her, a private booth in a fine hotel was heaven with food. Here, dressed in one of her newest frocks, the tedious work and everyday death of Nebraska seemed even farther away then it was in miles. The little sandwiches and cakes were delicate and delicious, as subtle as grilled elk was gross. Best of all, with the curtains drawn around the booth, she could speak in a language of which she was supposed to be ignorant, the waiters having been rewarded for their discretion in advance.
“Are ya enjoyin’ that teacake there, yer highness?
Noor raised her eyes from the morsel in her fingers, dabbed her mouth and swallowed.
“We’re alone Seamus.” she said. “When we’re alone, it’s Lady-Jane.”
Lady-Jane. As regal as the name sounded, to him, it was impossible. At the very least, such a name was disrespectful to the efforts of his master.
For months, he had watched as Professor Herrmann worked on her every aspect, transforming her from a harlot and savage into a consort fit for a prince. If she slouched, he made her walk about with a book on her head. If she swore, he replaced her oaths with the proper expressions for a woman of her station so that “shit” became “oh, bother” and “fuck a duck” transformed into “dear me.” Lady-Jane? No. She was a princess to him now, and fit to be addressed only as such.
“I’m sorry, ma’am,” Seamus said. “It’s just that I haven’t been alone with ya often enough to get used to the practice.”
Lady-Jane laughed. “Not enough? More like constantly. Hardly a day goes by these days that Alex doesn’t figure a way to throw us together. Seamus, take the princess for her fitting. Seamus, the princess looks a bit peaked. Tomorrow, you’ll take her riding in the park. You know, Seamus, I can’t make it to dinner on Wednesday so will you accompany her highness to Sherry’s? There’s a good fellow. Well, he doesn’t fool me at all, Irish. If there’s one thing a whore can do, it’s smell pussy.”
Dowie was shocked by her words but also aroused by her earthiness. The refined setting combined with the salt of her tongue excited him perhaps even more than the times he had seen her backstage struggling with a costume or veil, naked and perfect.
“Then ya believe there’s another woman?”
“Probably more than one. Normally, I wouldn’t give a damn. I’ve learned enough about men to know that they’ll go to a lot of corners to find what they’re looking for. Take that stuck-up tart, Caroline Carstairs. I only had to shake her hand to know she was Alex’s tart. But she’s no threat. Her family is broke – what they call ‘land poor’ over here – and her whole clan butters their bread from the tub of that addled old cock she married. She’s not gong anywhere. If she has some fun with Alex, well, that’s all it is. But Miss Adelaide – she’s another story. ”
Seamus’ heart leapt up and he felt a shiver through his limbs.
“Do ya believe the master’s in love wit’ her?”
Her laugh went right through him. “I’m not sure the Great Herrmann can love anyone after he’s done with himself. No, it’s her that’s in love with him. He’s got her bamboozled, hypnotized. Or maybe she just gets hot because he’s mine. Plenty of girls like that in the world.”
Seamus felt an ache in his back teeth. “Well, I imagine he’s got great gratitude to ya, miss. You bein’ in the act has brought in bigger flocks than we’ve ever had. A decent man might think to stay away from another woman in thanks for that.”
Noor laughed again. “That’s the way you would think, good Catholic boy. No, I can smell her all over him: that soft perfume and dancer’s sweat. When he’s talking to reporters, when he’s tinkering with his tricks, even when he takes me at night, I can smell her. And I tell you now – it can’t go on.”
Seamus felt his face go red. It was not only her nearness that tortured him but the casual sensuality with which she spoke of her rival’s scent.
“What will you do?” he asked her.
Princess Noor placed her hands on the table and leaned forward. Her face became soft – soft as it was whenever Alexander entered a room. He was astonished. She was giving that softness to him.
“Whatever it is, I can’t do it alone,” she said. “Alex is far too clever. I must have help. Will you help me?”
Her right hand slipped into his, gripping it gently. Her left reached beneath the table, brushed aside the white damask, and took hold of him. His eyes went wide with shock. How could any woman be so brazen and so beautiful? He felt his mouth slowly open.
“Alex trusts you more than anyone on earth,” she said, her eyes liquid. “But you are also my friend. Ever since I’ve been with Alex you’ve done everything for me. Driven me everywhere, run my errands, made sure I was safe and warm. I’ve never really rewarded you for that. Maybe I’m too hard a slut to be grateful.”
Her gaze held him like a mouse before a cobra. His throat closed and his scalp felt pierced by needles. Under the table her grip tightened and he could feel her begin a gentle slide.
“You know I can never give up Alex. I love him. I need his money and his name. But oh, my lovely Irish, there is no reason I can’t love you, too – if that is what I need to do. Will you help me do what I need to do?”
His eyes closed and his neck bowed. She released her hand from his and brought it to his chin. Gently, she lifted his head and her eyes pierced him.
“Will you help me do what I need to do?”
Seamus sighed. He closed his eyes and nodded. Noor shook him by the chin and made him meet her eyes again.
“Yes,” he said. “Yes.”
The princess released him and returned her hand to the table. Embarrassed, he tried to look away but she gripped his chin hard between finger and thumb and pulled his face back toward her.
“Will you help me do what I need to do?”
She motioned for the waiter and paid the bill. They rose and left the restaurant. When they arrived back at the apartments, they were empty, as she knew they would be. Alex and Adelaide were gone. Not even the servants were present.
His bed was narrow but it served. He didn’t need to tell her he had little experience of women. His clumsiness spoke to that. He even believed her when she told him that kissing was old-fashioned and unnecessary. She was gentle with him, tender. His needs became hers; in the days and weeks ahead, she would transform him from virgin to lover – and from lover to slave.
Her head upon his chest, Adelaide Scarcez inhaled Alexander Herrmann.
As he slept, she pulled the clean, warm sheets up high, enjoying the identity of each scent.
Soap – plain lye and tallow, nothing fancy.
Mustache wax – essence of bees, rose water, the bergamot of Earl Gray tea, thyme, lampblack.
Cologne – flowers, bay laurel, ginger, lemon and an alcohol like fine gin.
Beneath all this lay his own smell: something akin to a fresh piecrust – salt and yeast and then all of the odors of her body so recently melded with his. Her nose read him as male and female, man and animal, mortal and immortal – everything worthy of love.
Given his reputation, Adelaide should not have been surprised to find herself in his bed; Alex was well known to women throughout Britain and the continent. Some were noble like Lady Caroline, slumming in the show business or curious to see if his magic extended beyond the stage. Others were mere members of the chorus or audience or aspiring actresses encouraged by agents or ambitious mothers. As his primary companion, Princess Noor had put a stop to most of these liaisons and Alex seemed less chagrined than relieved. After all, for an artist, time spent with the ladies was time unspent on improving the act; and the Princess seemed more than prepared to meet his romantic needs for both quality and quantity.
Adelaide had never intended to compete with this female throng, nor had she intended to supplant the tough little Indian who had already staked her claim. In the end, it seemed an accident, a coincidence – born not of her need for love, but his for grace and motion. As Alex would later say, he fell in love with her “feet first.”
It was late afternoon at the Egyptian, ten days before opening night. The assistants had all left. The crew had gone to dinner and the Princess had gone back to their apartments to rest. Alexander visited the box office to ask about the previous night’s receipts and then walked back through the house to retrieve his coat from the dressing room.
He walked through the double doors of the auditorium. It was deserted and silent, except for a faint knocking sound from backstage, smooth and rhythmic. Sensing something amiss, he stepped behind a large marble pillar at the end of the parquet circle.
From the left hand wings, he saw a small, lithe figure emerge en pointe. She was in street dress save for her shoes, which she had cast off by the footlights. Barefoot, the woman whirled across the stage in a series of perfect pirouettes. She spun in and out of the shadows like a wraith, seeming to appear and disappear like one of his illusions. During a high leap, her tight chignon came undone, allowing the red hair to trace her motion. At center stage she stopped without so much as a wobble and flew into a textbook arabesque, her right leg firmly planted on the boards, her left extended behind her until she formed a perfect “t.” Slowly she lifted the leg higher until she was bent like a seesaw. Raising her arms in a supple arc, she snapped herself straight and descended into a grande plie.’
Hidden behind the pillar, Alexander watched as she inhabited every part of the stage, her movements quick and precise: an ideal pas de poisson, a flawless Grand rond de jambe and a tours en l’air the like of which he had seen executed only by a man. Then her motion became too swift for him to separate its parts and he simply absorbed her – a ferocious spirit combining both Muse and Fury.
From that afternoon, Alex kept a daily appointment with the pillar.
She didn’t always appear. There were days when he would wait as long as an hour before quitting his post. Sometimes she would only perform a dreamy series of steps lasting a few minutes, other times, she would whirl and lash, stepping high, bending low, whipping her head in ways no proper dancer would condone.
The dances changed him toward her. As she became more alluring to him, more enchanted, he became more tender. He asked her to please call him by his Christian name (and immediately felt a fool as he was not a Christian). He tripped over words in her presence and became more tongue-tied the closer she was. When he sent the Princess her weekly bouquet, he now included an arrangement for Adelaide as well; smaller but always more beautiful.
I will not encourage this, she thought. I will not place myself between Alexander and Princess Noor and Compars. On that path there is no light – and no love between a spy and an infidel will make it brighter. I am the agent of a foreign power.
And so, she contented herself with the watching stranger.
From the beginning, she had sensed his presence in the theatre. Part of her wanted to run to the wings in embarrassment, but another part was overjoyed to be admired. At some moments, above her own breathing, she swore she could hear his, strung out in long sighs or coming short as before climax. She would tease him: moving slowly and sinuously or dying like the swan; then she would unleash the demon: a red and white whirlwind spending itself against a greater storm.
The night before his first performance, Alexander had not expected to see her. Adelaide had not appeared the afternoon before and the stage was now crowded with the apparatus necessary to perform his act: tables and chairs, a mummy case, bottles and small props, and palms for decoration. Still, he felt compelled to revisit the pillar. For five, ten, fifteen minutes he waited, trying to control his breathing.
Then he heard a rustle at stage left – and she appeared from the dark.
Her face was painted like a hieroglyph: the lips a red-orange slash, the eyes lined with strokes of black that shaped them into almonds. The flaming hair was dressed in beads and she wore a short vest of green silk and gold coins. She coiled and uncoiled like a fakir’s cobra and then vanished behind the mummy case. When she reemerged, he could see her bare belly, as white as Noor’s was brown, twisting even as she whirled behind a curtain. Jumping into the light, she leaped to center stage, raised her foot above her head, and caught it in her fist – more brazen in this one action than women whose bodies he had known naked and deep.
She saw him come down the isle but did not stop. It was through a haze of pleasure that she met him amid all that had brought him triumph. When he picked her up, she seemed light even to herself; and when he lay her down on the boards, she appeared to him delicate enough to break. She begged him to do as he wished and asked only that his eyes never leave hers; and they did not – until the moment they closed on their own.
Now as she watched him sleep, she counted again the reasons she should not be here: her betrayal, Princess Noor, the possible exposure of all they had worked for, Compars’ threats of disgrace and prison.
She listened to his breathing awhile, then rose up on her elbow and looked into his face. The right side of the carefully waxed mustache was bent and pointed straight into the air.
Adelaide smiled and gently placed her head back on his chest. From now until they returned to the world, she would be content to breathe him in; and if an end should come to her joy, she would endure it as she had since a girl. Her life had always been different from happiness.