They set the stage; the musicians were in place, and all the performers were ready to dazzle the horde of gentlemen sitting eagerly around candlelit tables like hungry wolves. Aria would not be performing first. She would be last. The debuts were always that way. The program distributed to each table was like a menu: you watch each performance, decide if you'll have that slice, then order the meal from Zidler.
Ever since their outing in the earlier part of the day, Aria had not seen hide nor hair of Philip. Guilt or anger she couldn't be sure, but she was glad. Preparing her new room for her first companion took its toll. She hoped for the best.
“You'll be fine, love,” her mother said dabbing a little rouge on her cheeks. “Men don't last long and then you'll have the night to yourself. You can come sleep in my room after, okay?”
Aria nodded. "Maybe. I'm more nervous about singing...at least later it'll just be one man, not a whole crowd."
"Oh, don't worry about that. The lights will be so bright you won't be able to see them. Just pretend they're all gone, and the ballroom is empty. Just you practicing."
"You're up next, Aria," a stagehand called around the corner.
Simone looked her daughter over one final time to make sure nothing was out of place before ushering the girl to the lift. Philip was waiting patiently for her to arrive. So this is where he's been this whole time, Aria thought. Philip extended a hand to her to help her on the platform as he did during her practice.
"Just breathe," he reminded her gently.
And then the platform rose, and the lights assaulted Aria’s eyes. She could see nothing but lights. But she knew all eyes were on her now.
A white bodice with lace trim hugged the curves of her slim frame, seamlessly melding into the skirt high on her left leg, a ruffled train draping down her right leg. Her heels were white as were the stockings held by a garter. The only bits of color on her body were the rouge of her lips and cheeks as the charcoal around her eyes. Small sequins sewn into the bodice reflected light making her glow like an angel.
The sound of her heels clacking against the wooden stage reverberated off the walls. With a deep breath she sang the song she had rehearsed a thousand times before. There was no thought; no emotion really. It was automatic. She was a doll, repeating the words of poets and writers long dead in the hopes she'd catch the eye of a wealthy businessman.
When the song drew to a close, the applause was rather deafening. But she had attended other debuts. This was normal. It always seemed to be louder for the debutante than for any other seasoned performer, perhaps out of pity?
Aria returned to the platform and tapped her heel three times, thanking God it ended. At least that was one step down.
One more to go.
"You were lovely, Aria," Simone embraced her daughter and kissed her forehead. Before she could speak with Philip—or anyone else—Simone was pulling Aria along to her room to dress for the next stage. Her mother quickly helped her dress in a very provocative costume to look like a belly dancer, the most recent obsession of the more wealthy gentlemen. May as well capitalize on it.
When she was ready, Simone embraced her daughter one last time. "You'll be fine." Simone left Aria alone with her thoughts.
Aria had never truly been alone in the Moulin Rouge. It always seemed to be alive. Now it was quiet in the halls. It was the tradition for the rooms in the "service area" to empty to give the new courtesan privacy. Not that it would matter after tonight, but it was a nice thought at least.
The silence was strange now. And Aria had nothing better to do except wait. Wait for a man to show up. Wait for him to use her and then wait—and pray—that she wasn't following in her mother's footsteps. And then repeat for the rest of her days.
Knock, knock, knock.
Aria jumped, approaching the door with caution. As it opened, she could only half-think of what her first words should be. But they caught in her throat.
"Philip?" Aria stuttered. "What are you doing here?" She moved aside and allowed him to enter if he chose. He stayed put for a moment, trying not to stare at the revealed flesh of his childhood friend.
"Aria, I'm so sorry about earlier. But...I wanted to give you an out."
"What do you mean?"
"Someone owed me a favor, so I got this," he pulled a small vial out of his pocket. "It's a sleeping tonic. Works wonders and it has no taste. If...if you decide you don't want to go through with this, just give him some in his tea and he'll be out in no time."
"I know. I know it's stupid, but at least now you have a choice."
"Why does this bother you so much?"
Philip's expression softened as he looked away. "You know why."