Excerpt: Duende

The curtain rose as the music died away. Pale light spilled over the stage from the new stage lamps designed by Professor Sushil Mukherjee, twin brother to Badri. Aimé had heard that Professor Mukherjee was one of the inner circle of the new science. The mechanical animation and the lights were his greatest contributions. They were still too costly to be widely used, but they were installed in both the Royal Theatre and the Royal Opera House.

Badri himself entered the stage almost immediately, as he played the lead. He was dressed in dancing shoes, stockings, and breeches: the shirt, waistcoat, and jacket were all made from some soft, supple material that clung to every inch of him, tight like a second skin. His fashionably long, dark curls were pulled back from his face as he spun across the stage.

He was the pride and joy of the Royal Ballet Company, and one of their two lead men. He did not falter even once, Aimé thought with amazement, not in all the productions he had seen him in and most certainly not now. Everything Badri did on stage looked light and effortless, although Aimé knew full well that it was not. More than that, Badri could act and dance at the same time, which in Aimé’s opinion, set him head and shoulders above Désiré, who was the company’s other male lead. Badri acted with his entire body: more than just performing the ballet moves, he danced the emotions.

There was no part of him that was not lovely, Aimé thought from where he sat in his box, glasses pressed to his face.

The story was a sad one. Badri embodied grief with every line of his being in the final scene in such a way that it made the hairs on Aimé arms stand on end.

The curtains fell and the audience rose as one, applauding and calling encouragement. Aimé applauded as hard as he could, ignoring Collette smirking beside him. How she remained unmoved by something so beautiful was beyond him.

“I will see you back at the carriage?” he asked, as he picked up the bouquet again.

“Or the apartment, if you’d rather.” She threw him a teasing smile, and he rolled his eyes before making his way down from the balcony and towards backstage.

Aimé had never performed here, but the building was originally constructed under the same reign as the Royal Opera House, so the layout was almost eerily familiar.

He saw the crowd of admirers as soon as he was close to Badri’s room, his heart sinking, although he had expected it. In his dreams his and Badri’s first meeting took place in private, away from prying eyes and culminated in passionate love-making, but that was hardly realistic and most certainly would not happen tonight.

“Excuse me, excuse me.” He pushed his way between a group of women in long, flowing, jewel-colored dresses, with panels of lace up the front, each with her hair piled on her head and held in place by gold and silver pins.

“Oh! Aimé De Verley,” one of them said, voice gone high with excitement.

“Really?” her companion asked.

“Yes! I saw him perform at the opera just last week; isn’t he adorable? I could just steal him away now.”

Aimé ignored them and kept pushing through the crowd towards Badri’s dressing room.

“Aimé. Aimé De Verley’s here.” The news went through the crowd in a slow murmur that made Aimé want to put his head down and retreat as fast as possible.

The people in front of him parted as if by magic. Everyone turned to stare at Aimé, and even Badri turned from the young woman he’d been speaking with. In the crowd, Aimé caught a glimpse of Lady de la Valois, who always treated him like a little girl, no matter how many times he asked her not to. There was also Lord de la Falaise, who had once referred to him as an “exotic attraction” at one of his dinner parties right along with the peacocks he’d had in the garden. He’d then expressed outrage when Aimé declined to have anything more to do with him.

Aimé took a deep breath and started forward.

“Monsieur Mukherjee.” Aimé bowed when he was close enough, actually inside the room and standing in front of Badri. “My compliments on a superb performance, I am a great admirer of your work.” And the rest of you, Aimé thought, suppressing a sigh. No, this was not how he’d imagined their meeting at all, surrounded by a full audience of most of the cultured elite of the empire.

He held out his bouquet of delicate, wild roses in a dark pink and heard a titter go through the crowd behind him. Probably because the flowers meant something he did not know or care to know in that idiot secret flower language that was popular now.

Badri took the flowers with a small incline of his head. “Thank you,” he said, his voice deep with a hint of an accent behind each word. “I feel greatly honored to receive such a compliment from you, since I, too, am a great fan of your work.”

Aimé thanked God his skin was dark enough to hide the blush.

This close, Aimé could see how muscular Badri was: his body built solidly, every muscle beautifully sculpted and taut. He was also sweating, curls sticking to his neck and face. Aimé felt a pang of sympathy at that. The new lamps might light the stage to perfection, but they were almost unbearably hot to work under. Aimé found them so, and he was never as active on stage as Badri was.

“I look forward to attending more of your performances,” he said, not sure what else to do when watched by so many.

“I hope you enjoy all of them.” Badri bowed to him, and Aimé bowed again as well and began backing away.

As soon as he was back into the crowd, several ladies swooped in with large bouquets of their own, heading for Badri. Aimé felt someone tug at his sleeve but ignored it, pushing back through the throng and heading towards the closest exit as fast as possible.

At least, he thought, stepping out into the cool night air, he’d been able to give Badri the flowers and exchange a few words.

That was enough.

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