Chapter 29: La Derniere Danse

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The girl screamed and writhed all the way back to the ballroom, but crowd had her firmly in its grasp, keeping her aloft even as she fought and kicked. "No!" she screamed once more as they entered.

"Yes," came a loud voice from the raised stage at the end of the room, where a throne-like chair now sat. The hooded figure seated there had skeletal hands, long and thin and white as bone. His face was still shrouded by the hood. "This is the last dance, after all."

"No!" the girl said. "I will not dance with you!"

The crowd surged into the empty center of the room, and with little care, dropped the girl to the floor. Lucie winced as a loud crack split the air and the girl screamed again. Her voice, when she spoke, was softer than before. "My head," she moaned.

From where they stood at the edge of the crowd, neither Lucie nor Olivier could see. The crowd began to back away from the girl. Since Lucie could not see her, she began to look through the faces of those she could see. No one looked more than vaguely familiar, largely because each person wore a glazed expression, vacant and staring. Lucie pressed herself just a little closer to Olivier.

"My head," the girl moaned again, and now Lucie could see her, alone in a crumpled heap of blood-stained white in the middle of the checkerboard floor. Blood coated half her face, and streaked her light brown hair.

"You will dance with me," the hooded figure stated again.

He rose up from his throne, and the musicians, who had been so still behind him that Lucie had not even noticed their presence, lifted their bows and horns and instruments, prepared to play.

They did not play. An anticipatory silence accompanied the hooded figure as he strode forward in a slow, doleful manner. Lucie strained her eyes looking for the figure's face.

The girl on the floor could see the Reaper approaching. She attempted to crawl away on her hands and knees, slipping on the puddle of blood on the floor. "Help me!" she cried out to the silent onlookers.

Lucie found herself looking at the faces of the crowd again. Where were the foolish aristocrats drunkenly dancing and laughing? What was going on? She wanted to ask Olivier if this was a common occurrence at parties. Perhaps the host might choose someone to dance with, and it was a grave faux-pas to refuse him.

"Please!" the girl cried out again, reaching for the hem of someone's dress. That woman stepped back. There was no pity on her face. There was nothing.

The slow footsteps of the Reaper finally reached the girl, and with a swiftness that made Lucie gasp, he reached out and grabbed her wrist, pulling her up to stand. The girl tried to pull away, but given that she could hardly keep herself upright, she did little more than hang from her wrist and cower.

Immediately, the band began to play. The music had a strange rhythm to it, and Lucie found it oddly familiar. It was not a song that she had learned to play; no, she knew this music, though, and she could not fathom where she might have heard it. She had learned to play many pieces on the piano, and there were favorites of the court that most everyone knew how to play. But this...

The Reaper jerked the girl forward so he could grasp her other wrist in his gnarled hands. Then they were dancing, or the Reaper moved his feet in time to the music while the girl was dragged along. She still tried not to look at his face.

The crowd drew back even farther now, so that the couple might dance at the center. The black cloak swept by her, and Lucie flinched back as it touched her. In that moment she realized where she knew this music.

"It's a funeral dirge," Lucie whispered in horror. "Do you think... would he be so bold as to kill her here, in front of everyone?"

"I cannot tell what is possible anymore," Olivier whispered back. His hand tightened on hers as the Reaper spun back around.

The dancers had made one full rotation of the dance floor, and as if on cue, the audience moved forward. The Reaper twirled to stop, and released the girl's wrists. She fell backwards as he flung off his hood.

Lucie stifled her scream with her fist.

The Reaper's face was a skull.

When the crowd began to applaud, and the Reaper took his bow, Lucie realized her error. The skull protruded out too far; it must be a mask, the ties hidden beneath the gray hair. Or perhaps the mask had been glued on somehow, for Lucie could not see any ribbons at the sides. But then, everyone began to dance, and in the swirling commotion Lucie lost sight of the skull-faced man as well as his dance partner.

"Is she dead?" Lucie asked.

Olivier took up her hands, clumsily avoiding her stiletto. Lucie found herself looking at Olivier's blood-stained cravat. "We must dance," he hissed.

She followed his movements, stepping easily into the minuet. Gazing around, she understood why Olivier had insisted on dancing, when Lucie would have preferred to run out of the room – or to run straight at the Reaper and kill him. Everyone was dancing. Every single person in the room. No one sat on the sides. No servants milled about offering drinks.

Despite the frenzied beginning, everyone began to fall into two lines. As the dancers moved back and forth, came together and then separated back into the lines, Lucie looked for the girl who had fallen to the floor. She did not see her. The blood remained where the girl had hit her head. Several dancers had tracked through it, leaving trails of foot- and shoe-prints across the tiles. She scanned the other dancers, looking for the girl. Several times she believed she saw her, blood on her face and laughing, but she couldn't be sure.

"We need to get out of here," Lucie said, looking back toward Olivier.

"But we must finish the last dance," said her partner, who was not Olivier any longer. Lucie realized it was the man she had spoken to in the hallway, when Jeanne-Bapiste's body had been discovered.

Another half-glimpse of a girl with blood on her face. Lucie's mouth tightened, wishing more than ever to leave this room. Of course all of this was some kind of joke. Perhaps even the bodies in the other room had been there as a joke. Lucie had not seen them move, but they might have been a tableau of some sort.

Two more partners, and Lucie began to look for Olivier once more. It disturbed her how focused everyone was on the dance. Normally, the minuet was a popular dance, and girls would be trying to swap partners to get to the one she longed for, making eyes with him across the room, making faces at her friends if she did not like the partner she had. There would be laughter, and banter as the dancers came together, whispers of what one might do later, in private.

Now, however, the room was silent and solemn. Lucie found herself staring at the musicians, willing them to stop playing. Please, she thought at them. Please.

Her shoeless feet began to hurt. When she glanced down at them, wondering how they could hurt when she had taken off her shoes so long ago, she saw that she was leaving bloody footprints in her wake. The blisters on her toes from the shoes had burst. The movement of her feet on the floor, the spinning and turning on her toes, allowed her to feel the flaps of skin grinding more blood into the tiles.

Was it her imagination, or had the music sped up? She remembered the waltz from earlier, and felt the same dizzying sensation. Would this never end? Olivier was gone. She was alone. Sometimes she saw the Reaper among them, one Reaper, two Reapers, then he would turn and she would see the faces of Bastien and Guillaume among the dancers, coated in blood, before she blinked and they were gone. She had to blink, for sweat dripped down her forehead and into her eyes. Her hair was plastered to her forehead. She daren't push it back, for she needed one hand for the dance and the other on her blade. She would not give up her blade, not now.

"Please stop," she gasped, breathing hard. Her dress was stuck to her skin. Her corset felt like a prison.

When the music did stop, and everyone abruptly stopped dancing, and the sound of squeaking wheels rolling across a hard floor could be heard, Lucie wished they had kept on playing. Let the last dance go on forever, she thought, as a wooden guillotine was wheeled into the center of the room. 

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