Night Child(2)

By: Ann Major


"She was only on top for six years."

"Which underscores the problem." Dawn sat down and pulled on her leg warmers. "A dancer's life is short. I'm running out of time."

"You're a child. Twenty-five. You have years and years—"

"I have nothing except ballet." She stood up once more. "Do you understand? Nothing. You go home to a wife. I go home to a cat that doesn't even come when I call him. When I can no longer dance everything will be over for me. I will have nothing. You will have some new, younger ballerina. Marguerite, perhaps. You're wasting my time. Lincoln, unless you give me the role of Beauty, I'm leaving the company."

He was thunderstruck. "What?"

"Just for a while. To dance abroad. Then I want to go to Ali Naid and dance for that goodwill troupe to raise money for those people starving in—"

"Hell no!"

"You've given me your last order, Lincoln."

"Damn it! Why don't you take a lover like the other girls? That's what's wrong with you!"

Her eyes darkened. "You would think that!"

She turned and walked out of the room.



* * *





One


From the highest box in the domed theater a lone sharpshooter in black robes and a flowing dark kaffiyeh watched the glittering ballerina through the cross hairs of his scope.

The girl swirled, leapt, seemed to hang suspended in the air, only to land light as gossamer on the brilliantly lit stage. Aslam Nouri squinted over his rifle as he struggled to follow her flight downstage. His cold black eyes gleaming with the predatory thrill of a fanatic, he zeroed in on Aurora's sparkling tiara, her pink satin, pink tulle and gold glitter. On the medallion at her throat. There! If he squeezed the trigger, his bullet would find her heart.

His finger twitched, vibrating with his impatience. It was not time. Not yet. And the girl with the golden coronet was not his target.

She was dancing the finale to the trombones in Act One of The Sleeping Beauty, Tchaikovsky's decadent Russian work, which would have no place in the new world Aslam and his followers envisioned. Having just pricked her finger on the spindle, she was spinning wilder and wilder with the pain to the mad presto of Carabosse's theme.

The girl began a dazzling feat of seemingly endless fouetti turns. Five thousand Arabs sprang to their feet, and the thunder of their applause swept the theater. The assassin grimaced, set down his rifle and stole a swift impatient glance at his watch. Then his eyes flicked to the darkest regions of the balcony where he thought he detected the shadowy forms of his men and the faint glint of light off a gun barrel.

The constant bursts of applause were throwing all his careful calculations off, but it was almost time. The music began to build. His finger tightened as he waited for the cymbals.

He lifted his rifle again, but this time it was not the fragile girl, but Prince Ali and his cabinet in the royal box that he studied.

Despite his lavish uniform, Prince Ali was a coarse, arrogant man with coal-black hair and a thick curving mustache who'd begun life as a peasant. His dark eyes were deep-set and slightly bulging.

Aslam would have known that cold face anywhere, even if it weren't emblazoned in every public square. It was the face that had haunted his nightmares for more than a decade. It was the face of the man who had ridden into Aslam's village, a small peaceful place on a barren slope dotted with mud huts. It was the face of the one who had obliterated his boyhood, who had rounded up every man, woman and child and shot them in the back of the head—Aslam's mother, his sisters, his only little brother.

Hatred washed over Aslam in a thick, blinding red wave. The cymbals crashed. Now! He rubbed his eyes, but it didn't help. He couldn't see through the scarlet haze of his fury.

He pulled the trigger anyway.

On stage the hag Carabosse threw back her hood and cackled with evil laughter. In the prince's box, the bullet slammed a man in uniform backward. Aslam screamed with agony and frustration. The wrong man! He had shot the wrong man!

In the royal box, blood was everywhere. A chair was overturned as a man in a resplendent uniform leapt to the stage. Other men in uniforms were running, shouting. Panicked, Aslam dashed from his box. The prince was escaping.

On stage, four costumed princes unsheathed their swords and fell upon the evil witch, but in a burst of flame and smoke, she suddenly vanished. Aurora was placed on a litter as the real prince ran past them. There was a tremendous crash on the tam-tam and ffff chords from the brass. A rising mist seeped upward, veiling everything.


On her litter, above the fog of swirling vapors, as she was borne solemnly aloft offstage, Dawn's heart pounded from the exertion of her recent dancing. Her body and costume were drenched with sweat. Her tightly wound black hair felt loose, as if she'd lost half her pins during those dizzying turns and it was about to come down. A prong of her tiara cut into her scalp, and her right ankle cramped with the old pain. She needed an ice pack and a drink of water. Only she couldn't drink the water here because Lincoln had warned her not to until she got back to New York. He hadn't wanted her to come here at all. Lincoln always thought he was an authority on everything, and he had said this tiny Arab kingdom was too unstable. It had been delicious fun to thwart him for once and promise to dance the benefit. What did Lincoln know of Arabs? They had loved her.

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