Ariadne awoke in the later part of the morning to her mother's hurried rapping on the door.
"Aria! You will be late! Wake up!" Without a warning, Simone burst through the door and grabbed the groggy young woman by the arm. "Now, Aria, this is no time to be sleeping."
Aria blinked several times. "Today is a day off, isn't it?"
“Yes, but it's your debut! It's always different for a debut. Hurry and get dressed. We have work to do."
Of course, Aria thought. How could there not be work to do in a brothel?
Life within the Moulin Rouge had always been one of struggle and indulgence; passion and despair. So many children conceived, but so few born. Aria was one of only a handful of children to grow up in the busiest brothel in all of Paris. It is a monument to the lust and gluttony in the hearts of men. They present two options to the women here: work or get out.
The plain girls have an easier life, depending upon ones' interpretation. They‘re only expected to deliver meals, clean rooms, do laundry, run errands, or whatever things the women-of-the-night need. But they seldom make enough money to survive. Many of them live within the Moulin Rouge.
They groom pretty girls for presentation from an early age; they learn to sing, to dance, to pretend. Pretty, obedient, girls follow in the footsteps of their elders, shedding their clothing to lie with strangers. And if a girl can't keep company she has no place here. The owner of the Moulin Rouge, Monsieur Zidler, plays the part of the doting, caring friend who empathizes with these girls well, but he is always looking for new flowers to sell.
There are no secrets here.
Aria dressed herself in a rather plain dress considering the garb her mother wore. Aria had yet to lie with a man and receive all the benefits of such an association. She hoped and prayed they would spare her that life. But she is beautiful.
Work or get out.
Aria brushed her golden locks through and pinned them away from her face. Sapphire eyes sparkled despite the charcoal around her eyes and the rouge she dabbed upon her pale cheeks. A doll, Zidler had said once.
"Beautiful," Simone whispered. "Now, we must go to the stage. You will only practice going on the lift a few times. After that, we'll do a final fitting and then I believe Monsieur Zidler wanted to see you. Come along now."
The corridors within the Moulin Rouge were like a maze one could wander. It comprised three sections: the ballroom where all the performances were; the service rooms where the courtesans lived; and the backdrop—a name the residents referred to as all the other areas. It included the rafters above the stage, the corridors leading to and from the kitchen, the outside grounds, and others.
Aria moved into her new quarters in the service section just the night before and she would be there until she left or died. Zidler prepared it for her, but she could change it once she earned her own money; a scant allowance depending upon how satisfied her clients were.
They had designed the ballroom as wealthy clients had become accustomed: an opera house. There was a large stage, ample seating, and even boxes on the second floor for those who desired it.
It was unnerving.
"Good morning," Simone said to a stagehand with dark hair, "Aria needs more lift practice for tonight. Can you help her?" Simone's voice was rather unpleasant when she spoke to the stagehands. Aria hated it.
“Certainly," the man said. When Philip's hazel eyes met her own, Aria smiled and dropped her eyes to the floor. "Right this way." He gestured behind the stage to a set of stairs leading beneath. Aria's smile widened when her mother's heels clicked across the stage.
"Don't forget your fitting, Aria," Simone called before her steps grew more distant until they were silent.
"I'm sorry for her tone, Philip," Aria told the man. "She's nervous, I guess."
"She's nervous?" Philip scoffed. "What about—Sorry." He shook his head. "Let's practice so you won't have to be nervous." Philip held her hand helping her step onto the small platform large enough only to fit a child. He then moved to a lever that controlled the rise and fall of the platform. "Make sure your weight is even on both your feet and then you won't fall."
Aria shifted her weight and nodded. “I‘m ready.”
Philip lifted the lever and the platform moved, one inch at a time. Her stomach churned and her heart pounded from the sensation; she hated it. When she ascended and stood on the stage, she admitted, to her disgust, that the view of all the seats could be rather spectacular with the lights. How many men would fill these seats? How many men would bargain with Zidler for her innocence?
Thump, thump, thump. She stomped her heel three times on the platform and it lowered. When it stopped she stepped off, taking several deep breaths to calm her heart.
"You must only do it a couple times if you're lucky," Philip said. Perhaps trying to make her feel better?
Ever since Aria learned her fate a year ago, almost to the day, things had been awkward around Philip. He was the child of a courtesan though his mother had passed years ago. They played together. They spent a lot of time together as children and during the start of their young adult lives. But they were diverging. He was becoming a carpenter of stage sets. She was becoming a courtesan.
Those days seemed so long ago now.
A few years ago, when she was a foolish child, she told him she liked him. And, for a year, they dabbled in their foolishness believing they could just run away together and have a happy life. When reality set in last year it all stopped. They stopped talking as much. They stopped seeing each other as much. She stopped daydreaming about a future with him. What else had stopped?
"I should get going to my fitting," Aria said after a moment of silence. "Thank you again for the practice."
"You're welcome." As she turned to leave, he stopped her. "After your fitting, can you get away for an hour? I wanted to take you to the bakery today if you wanted to go. My treat."
Aria did not turn to face him for fear he would see her blush. "Zidler wanted to talk, too, but I will try." She shot a glance over her shoulder with a sheepish smile before leaving the ballroom.