“Come one, come all! Try a free show at the Crystal Theatre and we guarantee you’ll be in for a treat!” The man was dressed in feathers and gears. Ali looked in wonder. The man smiled at her and handed her two tickets.
“F-for me?” She stammered.
The man nodded. “The show starts in an hour, lad.”
“B-but I’m no gent, sir. Surely, only the members of the ton can watch,” she pushed the ticket back to the man.
He shook his head good-naturedly. “No, lad, the Crystal Theatre is for general public. The Marquee declared it so. You may watch and take a companion with you,” he pushed back the tickets to her. “Good day!” He walked around the street announcing the show and giving tickets to other passersby.
Absently, she caressed the tickets. Can she enter the premises? She did have tickets. But how will she act inside? If she ran inside, then what? She knew seeing this show would change her life forever.
While she was deep in thought, she walked straight into a broad chest. Ali looked up to apologize to the man. It was a familiar face. “Oh, your grace! I’m terribly sorry.”
Lord Weller smiled. “Well hello, my little butterfly. What brings you to Battersea Park?”
“I wandered a little too far. I guess I was distracted,” she shrugged.
“Would you like me to give you a ride back?” He was clearly worried about her.
She shook her head. “I’ll just walk a bit more to clear my head.”
He sighed. “I'm not going to judge where you live. You have my word. It's getting dark. Let me drive you home.”
“I was thinking of seeing a show.” She showed him her tickets.
“What have you got there?”
“Free tickets. The show is about to start.”
He frowned. “The Steam Theatre does not give anything for free.”
She nodded but looked to the imposing structure beyond. “I've never seen a show before,” she admitted. “I wonder... what does it look like inside? What are the shows like?”
“I have. The shows in the theatre are wonderful, like nothing you've ever seen before. The theatre interiors are a world apart. I have seen other theatres and this is by far the grandest.”
“Really?” She looked down at the tickets in her hand.
He saw the longing in her eyes. She really wanted to see the show. “Get in the carriage. Nobody goes to the theatre on foot.”
Her face lit up. “Oh, thank you! Thank you!”
“Welcome, Monsieur and um...” The man behind the ticket counter wasn't quite sure how to address Ali. She had dressed as a boy again today. He stared at her for a long time before the Duke intervened.
The Duke handed her tickets to the ticket teller. “The lady and I will upgrade to a private box.”
“Oh, no your grace!” Ali tried to protest but he waved her off.
“A Duke does not sit down in the general seating area. We sit in a box,” he insisted and paid the man.
They were led to a private box that had only two seats. The view was center and high up from the rows of seats. Velvet Curtains lined the walls. The balustrades were gilded. Crystals and pearls dripped from the chandeliers. The Stage was large, bordered with gilded carvings and had layers of red curtains.
“It is like a dream,” she breathed.
“It is. I felt the same when I first came here.” He remembered his own innocent moment. The theatre had beguiled him, lured him until he sold himself to the Phantom. Even as he enters the theatre again, he still felt the same awe when he first entered the geared halls.
“Yes, my sweet. I was once young and my first time in the theatres had overwhelmed me.”
Alison smiled. “I’m glad I’m not making a fool of myself. I was afraid to go inside.”
“We are private here. Nobody will see us,” he said. “You may act however you wish.”
“Um,” she said. “Your grace, am I not dressed for the theatre? People seem so formally dress.” She twisted the playbill on her lap.
“Well, attending the theatres is a formal affair,” he pointed to the general crowd below them. They were wearing formal gowns and black coattails. “We are underdressed for the occasion but do not worry yourself, my butterfly. We do not know them so their talks will not affect us,” he admonished. “As I said, I was once a green lad and had lost myself in the theatre. I too was underdressed during my first visit.” In more ways than one, he was bare and stripped of garment, status, and shame.
“One day, I shall come back and see more of this theatre,” she promised more to herself than anything.
“One day, we shall see a show at the Red Hall. Perhaps a concerto at the Octagon Theatre as well. Those shows boast a far more extravagant spectacle than this.”
She nodded but not expecting anything. Lord Weller noted that she must have been disillusioned so many times that she didn’t want to believe his promises. He decided not to press her. One day, he promised he will bring her.
The stage dimmed and the curtains parted. The show was about to start. The first performance was a ballet. The man in white feathers was graceful and elegant. The second performer was a singer. He sang one long and haunting ballad. His costume consisted of a gilded doublet and a gossamer cape that billowed around him. The final performer was a violinist with a mechanical arm. When the curtain closed, the show had ended. Ali and Lord Weller went out to the main lobby.
People were milling about, some were entering the drinks room for cocktails. As they went through, gents he knew came to talk to the Duke. He turned to talk to them. Soon, he was pulled from one conversation to another.
“My dear Lord Weller,” an imposing lady called the Duke.
“One moment, my butterfly, I shall be right back.” He looked up and smiled at the lady. “Lady Delia, how are you?”
“Ashton, we simply must get together!” Delia, the lady, was tall, in a beautiful silk green taffeta gown that Ali knew she would never afford. Her face was artfully rouged. Pearls and gems dipped from her ears and neck. Ali could see this lady was wealthy. Delia pouted and clung on to the Duke’s arm. She then pulled the Duke’s arm and led him away from the crowd.
The Duke waved to Ali to wait. She nodded and stayed on the sides. She tried to make herself as inconspicuous as possible.
The Duke was preoccupied. As the crowds thickened, Ali decided to wander the galleries. There were brass statues that seem to move and dance. She watched the human-like brass appendages move and sway. A small automaton chugged its way to her and offered her some sweets. She took some and found the confectionery delicious. She snacked to her heart's content forgetting her worries even for a moment.
“Ali?” Someone called to her. “What are you doing here?”
Ali looked to the man approaching her. She frowned. “Octavius?” It was him. Of course, it was him. He’d have enough money and status to come and go into the theatre as he pleased. She began to panic. “I was… Um, I was accompanying a friend... of my employer,” she lied. Octavius, her former friend and neighbor walked up to her. He was a man with a good physique, not too tall, not too short, had light brown hair and his skin was as smooth as marble. But Ali never was attracted to him. She knew her place in the world. She just thought she shared a friendship with him and Princess. Apparently, she had a rude awakening.
“Well, well, well! I could hardly believe it! It is Ali, a little tomboy Alison! So where do you work?” He pressed. “Do you work here?”
“No, I work for a Duke's household.” It wasn’t quite true but not quite false. She was working for a Duke. “I'm a lowly errand boy,” she added.
He eyed her. She was still wearing her boy outfit. “Does he know what you are?”
“Should it matter? I work. That is all that matters.” She knew what he meant. Her breasts were developing and that meant she could no longer hide what she was.
He laughed and leaned in closer. “Same Ali-cat.”
She shook her head. “I’m not the same, Octavius.”
“No, you’re still the same,” he smirked. “So, where are you staying?”
She shrugged. “Why and what for?” She didn't want to tell him. As far as she knew, their association was over.
He leaned even closer, trying to sniff her or catch a kiss. “I missed you, Ali. It's been weeks since we saw each other.”
“You were the one who closed the door, Octavius,” she reminded him. “You left me out in the rain.”
He frowned. “My father was coming home. I can't have you around the house, now could I?”
“So, you won't. Please, I have to go back to the Duke now.” Ali always hated that he was so condescending. He made her feel like she was a scum who had to be reminded of her place. She left him, walking back to the main lobby.
He trailed after her. “What's the hurry? I thought old friends should catch up.”
“Leave me be, Octavius. We are not friends, not anymore. You wanted to end our association. Why are you trying to talk to me now?”
“I missed you. Maybe we can meet now and again.”
She shook her head. “I don't think so.”
“Don't be in a hurry to throw our friendship away.”
“Again, you were the one in a hurry to throw it away. Now, I don't want Princess to see us together, especially since your engagement party.” With an official engagement party, it was now official that the Baronet Claire’s son was engaged to a wealthy heiress.
“You know about the engagement party?” He sounded surprised.
“At the Cogs and Spoon? Yes, I know about the engagement. So please, for Princess sake, leave me be!” Ali walked away and headed to the Grand Lobby. There were people there so Octavius would have to behave himself.
He made a grab for her, catching her arm in a bruising grip. She tugged away but Octavius was determined to drag her into the shadows. “Let go, Octavius! Princess might see us!”
“No, she won’t,” he sang. “She’s at her house dutifully planning our wedding.”
She struggled, determined to get away. Octavius’ arms were forceful and strong. They were bruising her skin. Ali began to panic. She didn’t want to cause a scene, afraid to draw attention to herself. “Stop! You’re hurting me!” He was dragging her into a shadowy part of the hall. Suddenly, she was being pulled away and thrust into the light. A tall man had Octavius hanging by his neck.
“There will be no trouble in my theatre,” the tall man intoned.
“No trouble here,” Octavius gasped when he recognized the man. “The chit and I were just talking.”
The man eyed Octavius. His glowing red eyes seemed to see the truth in him. “Scram, boy.” He let Octavius go and he scurried away in fright.
Alison breathed in relief. But now she was alone with the tall stranger with red eyes. She shuddered in fright.
“What a succulent morsel! This little moth has wandered into my parlor. Comment allez-vous, ma petite?” He took her hand and kissed it before helping her up.
She looked up to see the tall man. He was wearing a long billowing cloak and had a mechanical mask. Cogs and other parts were busy at work. She gasped, afraid of him.
“Don't be afraid. It is only my automatic parts. Allow me to introduce myself. I am Exter Bricomman, the manager and caretaker of the Steam Theatre.”
“G-good eve, sir. You have a wonderful theatre,” she gave a lopsided curtsy. “Thank you for getting Octavius off me.”
“Such impeccable manners.” He extended his arm and she put her hand around it. He guided her around the hall. Ali was uncomfortable. She had always tried to act like a boy but she was naturally feminine. As she grew, it was getting more prominent.
“I was a shop boy, sir,” she answered.
“Shop boy?” His monotonous voice sounded confused.
“Um, I um...” She didn't know how to explain it to him.
“So, that is the reason for the strange garb.” He eyed her vest and breeches. “And now you are with Lord Weller. How interesting...”
She fidgeted where she stood, not knowing how to act while being scrutinized by his glowing red eye. The way he intoned interesting sounded ominous but it wasn’t how he said interesting that had her shuddering. It was the way he mentioned Lord Weller’s name. This man was the famed Phantom of the Steam Theatre. It was said he was half mechanical. She couldn’t believe he was talking to her.
“What is mademoiselle's name?” He asked her.
“A-Alison,” she answered.
“Interesting. Did you enjoy the show, Alison?”
She nodded. “Yes, very much, sir.”
He nodded and smiled at her. “Lovely. Do you sing? Your voice is melodious.” She saw his face clearly. It was no mask but small gears ticking on his cheeks. His face and arms were clearly mechanical. She wondered what else?
“Would you like to come work for me? The theatre has many generous patrons and guardians that keep boys like those away.” He showed her a painting of a theatre scene. She looked closely. It seems to be an ordinary painting, except the painting seemed to be moving. Mesmerized, she watched the scene in the painting come to life. It was a stage play of some sort.
“I thank you for entertaining my friend, monsieur, but it is beneath you to poach talents,” Lord Weller interrupted. He came up behind Ali and was scowling at the man. Just like that, the spell seemed broken and she gasped when Lord Weller grabbed her and pulled her to his side.
“Is it?” Monsieur Bricomman dared. “Lovely to see you again, Ashton Weller.”
The Duke frowned. He clearly was not pleased to see Ali in the company of the mechanical man. “Bid your farewells, Ali. We must head home. The hour is quite late.”
“Of course, your grace.” She turned to the mechanical man. “A good evening, sir. It was a pleasure to make your acquaintance.”
The mechanical man smiled. “The pleasure is all mine, Alison.”
The Duke all but pulled Ali away. He marched her down the hall and navigated her around the crowded staircase. They exited the building and waited for his carriage to arrive. It came out promptly and drove them away from the theatre.
“That man! He should not have spoken to you.” He was clearly angry.
“Um, why not? He was being friendly.”
“Decorum, my little butterfly. You are in the company of a Duke. He should wait for me to introduce you.” The laced his gloves tighter, angry at the encounter in the theatre.
“Would you have introduced us?”
“No,” he admitted. “Monsieur Bricomman is called the Phantom of the Steam Theatre for a reason. He is a monster, a dangerous man. Just because he deals in entertainment, people forget he used to and still deal in arms for the Marquee de Chats. He beguiles people, lulls them in the theatre then uses them for his own purpose.”
“I'm sorry, your grace. It was at my insistence that we entered the theatre.” She felt bad for bringing this tension to the Duke.
“No, you did not force me. I was a willing participant. Please be careful, my little Ali. He can take lives when he pleases and it is so much worse than death,” he shuddered.
“I don’t understand.” What could be worse than death?
Lord Weller shook his head. “That man is a creature capable of destroying everything in its path. Never let your guard down if you encounter him again. His red eye can hypnotize you, make you do things you didn’t want to.”
“Yes, my lord,” she frowned but nodded. “It’s just… well, he rescued me from a bloke who was bothering me.”
“Did he now?”
“I didn’t want to seem ungrateful for his help.”
He shook his head. “No, to be rude to the Phantom is equally as dangerous. If you do not hold enough sway, he could take anything and everything from you.”
She frowned. “Did he take something of yours?”
“No,” was all he answered.
The sped through the streets of Neo Industrial London. It was as if they were speeding away from Battersea. He turned away, refusing to answer. The streets of Neo Industrial London were quite a sight at night. Street lamps lit each corner and street sign. Establishments had lit signs of their own.“I do not think I belong in your world or any world,” she admitted.
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