If the play had been beauteous pageantry of the upper echelons, the throng descending upon the Palais Garnier bordered on pure opulence. Satin gowns far as the eye could see paled in comparison to the twinkling of the jewelry many women donned, almost as bright as the stars themselves. It was a display of beauty and grandeur Aria wanted both to immerse herself in and save herself from simultaneously.
“Wow,” Aria breathed.
“Beautiful, is it not?” Madeline said softly as if she were afraid of breaking the enchantment the scene held on her companion.
“It is.” Aria found the sense to close her gaping mouth.
The carriages took their turns down the street along the front of the opera house, allowing just enough time for their riders to safely disembark before moving along. Aria hardly noticed the Palais Garnier coming closer into view until they appeared in front of its stone staircase. The walk was hardly noticeable to a young woman completely captivated by its grandeur. A man opened the door and extended his hand. Perhaps those carriage rides with Monsieur Andreu had been training for such an occasion for it was so natural to Aria now to extend her hand and allow him to assist her. Madeline wasn’t far behind.
Gliding toward the entrance in the same cadence the socialites set was, to Aria’s delight, surprisingly easy. The shopping arcade from yesterday’s outing had done well to prepare her. Though she knew herself to be different from her—Pierre’s—esteemed peers, not one man or woman turned away from her. Instead, Aria was greeted as she had been at the parks she’d walked through as though she’d been born into this life.
A tall man with a rather well-kept mustache retrieved their tickets from Madeline’s outstretched hand and gave a small bow from the waist. “Enjoy the opera,” he said as they passed.
“Thank you,” the women said in unison.
The throng of socialites seemed to guide the debutante through the doors to a grand marble staircase dividing to both sides at the landing. Aria could see why Pierre would like such a place; the architecture, the lighting, the elegance of it all was marvelous, and romantic. As they ascended the stairs, an usher appeared with a small bow, “Right this way.” He gestured for them to follow.
As if being guided by the socialites behind her, Aria followed the usher obediently as they passed a very wide corridor with alcoves and what looked like a sitting parlor. There were candelabras chandeliers, beautiful paintings on the walls and ceiling, and a large mirror over a beautiful hearth. The drapes over the windows revealed the stars, but they could not break the hold the Palais Garnier had on Aria. How wonderful it would be to bring Philip here, to show him the most beautiful things she had seen!
The usher guided them along until they were brought to a small booth perfect for two within the amphitheater. They would have a perfect view of the stage once the golden drapes were pulled aside. An orchestra patiently waited for their maestro—for the opera—to begin.
Aria couldn’t help but take careful steps to the edge of the booth to rest her hands on the sill. The craftsmanship was excellent just like everything she’d seen before it. This was Pierre Andreu’s world full of luxury and beauty and social ritual upon social ritual. This was the world he seemed keen on indoctrinating her into. It was the world she never belonged in.
For only a moment, Aria allowed herself to dream of bringing Philip here. He may not enjoy the opera—she didn’t know if she would either—but he would enjoy the craftsmanship of the stage, the balconies, the molding where the walls met the ceiling. He might enjoy the paintings and the statues, but she was sure her best friend would at least enjoy the excitement hanging in the air as the socialites around her settled in for the show that was set to begin so soon.
And then that moment ended.
The hairs on Aria’s arms stood on end as the socialites excited energy gave the very air something she couldn’t quite define; it felt as exhilarating as a fantasy come true with a touch of what she’d only experienced as giddiness. Some of the lights around the amphitheater dimmed as the opera began. They brightened to their original state only when the intermission had been announced.
“How are you enjoying the opera so far, Ariadne?” Madeline asked sweetly with a gleeful edge. “Isn’t it wonderful?”
“It is! It’s simply marvelous! It’s—”
The sound of a man’s voice brought Aria out of her childish excitement. Monsieur Henri Renaud stood at the entrance to her balcony dressed as impeccably as she’d ever seen him. Aria stood and crossed the short distance to him.
“Monsieur Renaud, good evening.”
“Good evening. I thought I saw you earlier, but I couldn’t be sure without Monsieur Andreu by your side.”
Aria nodded still beaming from the Opera. “Unfortunately he’s out of town at the moment. He should return before your dinner party.”
“Ah,” Monsieur Renaud nodded. “Trying to spirit away one of my former shippers, I presume?”
“Former shipper?” Aria echoed.
Monsieur Renaud shifted his weight looking only slightly uncomfortable, as if talking to the escort of a competitor was something to avoid. Aria put the idea out of her mind for now. He sighed. “I had an arrangement with a gentleman in Dieppe to ship wares to England. At first things were fine. But I started receiving letters that some items hadn’t been shipped while others had been damaged. And it didn’t take very long to make the connection since I’d never received such letters before. I tried telling Monsieur Andreu to steer clear, but it seems he didn’t listen.”
As Monsieur Renaud spoke Aria couldn’t help but smile. The way he sounded so frustrated with Pierre for neglecting his advice sounded as if they were brothers instead of rivals. How many other competitors acted in such a way, she wondered.
“May I ask how many years you have had your business?”
Monsieur Renaud offered a small smile. “I’ve owned the business nearly twenty years, but my father started it before I was born. I’ve had my hands in it since I was a child.”
Aria’s jaw dropped open slightly before she remembered to close it. “That is incredible.”
Monsieur Renaud chuckled. “Someday you’ll be in the same position: you’ll have these incredible experiences, many of which will teach you painful things about life, and you’ll share those with others hoping they’ll avoid the pain. Some will listen; many won’t.” He sighed. “Such is life I suppose.”
“Some lessons are worth learning the hard way.”
Aria was just as surprised by her comment as Monsieur Renaud. He recovered quicker. “Yes. There are many lessons one must learn by their own means.”
They stood in silence for a moment until the socialites began shuffling along the corridors to find their seats.
“Seems we’ve completely missed the intermission,” Monsieur Renaud said. “Enjoy the opera, Mademoiselle Ariadne.” He offered one more smile before he turned away.
Aria liked him in a different way than the way she liked Monsieur Andreu. Pierre was extravagance and experiences and stolen affection; Henri was contentment and simplicity.
“Monsieur Renaud, are you sitting alone again?” Aria asked before she could keep the words from leaving her lips. She could feel Madeline’s burning stare boring into her back.
Monsieur Renaud turned back toward her. “I am indeed.”
“Would you like to join us for the remainder of the opera?”
Monsieur Renaud didn’t say anything for a moment before he slowly nodded. “I would like that very much. But,” his eyes flashed quickly to Madeline behind her, “are you sure Monsieur Andreu would not object?”
“We sat with you at the play; he’s excited we will be attending your evening party in two days’ time. I really believe he would not object to us enjoying the rest of the opera with his maid.”
Monsieur Renaud smiled, nodded, and crossed the threshold of the balcony. He sat on the far left seat. Aria suspected it might be his favorite place to sit. Aria left a seat empty next to Monsieur Renaud as if Pierre might arrive at any moment, sitting at the right.
Madeline sat behind them, sitting far forward to whisper into Aria’s ear. “Mademoiselle, are you absolutely certain Monsieur Andreu would not object? That is his competitor. He is a strange man to you.”
Aria turned as the lights dimmed once again signaling the opera was about to resume. “Madeline, I will take responsibility if Pierre becomes cross with my decision. But I stand by it. Monsieur Renaud is not a strange man; he’s an acquaintance, much like you are,” Aria whispered in a tone that felt completely foreign, but she remembered as a child from the maids and her own mother.
The opera continued in much the way it had began. All eyes were transfixed upon the stage as each performer sang their parts and scenery moved about the stage. The costumes were more gorgeous and resplendent than she’d seen, which wasn’t incredibly difficult to manage. And when they were finished, the applause filled the hall waves of opulent nobles standing to show just how much they adored the performance. Aria was no exception, neither was Henri. Even Madeline had reluctantly joined in the celebration until the performers made their final exit and the lights became bright enough for everyone to safely maneuver back to the exit.
“Such a wonderful performance,” Aria said with a dreamy sigh as she sank back into her seat once more.
“Incredible,” Monsieur Renaud agreed with a nod. “They are undoubtedly the best of the best. I am so grateful you were able to see them. Though, perhaps now your expectations will be too high for future performances,” he laughed. “The double-edged sword.”
“I suppose. But I never would have dreamed that something like this could even have been possible.”
“Mademoiselle Ariadne, we should be off,” Madeline said. Her tone could have been unpleasant but it could also have been nice. It was hard to tell at the moment.
Aria narrowed her eyes just slightly at the woman before standing once again. “Monsieur Renaud, thank you for sitting with us for the second half. I quite enjoyed it.”
Monsieur Renaud smiled and held his hand out. She offered her hand as was customary. “The pleasure was mine.” He kissed the back of her gloved hand. “Have a wonderful evening, Mademoiselle Ariadne. Please send my regards to Monsieur Andreu.
Monsieur Renaud sat back in his chair once Aria and Madeline began moving out of the balcony. Last Aria saw of him he was looking toward the ceiling, perhaps soaking up the beauty around him until most of the attendees had gone. Someday, Aria hoped she could do the same with Philip by her side to see it with her.