“Thank you, Adele,” the man said dryly, “It was a pleasure, as always.”
The snap of the driver’s door closing was the girl’s only reply. Seconds later, the back seat door opened. Adele stood hipshot, leaning one arm on the frame in a pose of impatience. The man stepped out into the night and Amber scrambled after him.
From what little she could see of the houses that lined the street, they were imposing — baronial even — with pillared entries and turreted second stories. The building they faced was narrower, with a mask of ivy covering its tall façade and shadowing the front entry. Amber followed the two of them through the door and into the dark.
Adele, whose movements when she was not pouting were so quick and smooth that Amber hadn’t sensed her flit forward, switched on a hanging lamp. The soft light illuminated a large, high-ceilinged room. It was lightly furnished with low couches and end tables that managed to look antique and mod at the same time. A thick rug in asymmetrical, geometric patterns was thrown across the polished wood floor and there was a series of abstract paintings on the walls. The effect of it all was luxurious, original, and somehow dated, as if the designer had been at the forefront of a generation long passed.
Amber turned from her examination of the room to find the man watching her closely.
“I hope you like what you see.”
Amber nodded cautiously. “Not everyone can have a house like this.”
He smiled with another flash of teeth. “No, indeed. This is one of the — how shall I say it? — fringe benefits of my position. It comes with getting everything you want.” He let that statement hang in the air between them before turning towards the other girl still standing at the far end of the room.
“Adele, I think a toast is called for. It is appropriate to honor a new era’s beginning, as I think is about to in Amber’s — existence. I’m sure we have something in the back that she could drink.”
Adele gave another of her expressive half-shrugs, but she turned and disappeared into the shadows. Her scornful voice floated back, “I’m not sure what the point is, sir. It’s not going to change anything if she drinks this stuff.”
“Adele,” he was still smiling, but his voice had gone hard again, “you don’t appreciate the finer things in life. Just do as I say, and you will learn, eventually.”
There was a rustle and Adele was back, carrying a bottle in one hand and a single wine glass in the other. The man tsked.
“That is not a very genteel presentation, my girl.”
Adele held them out to him, her posture suddenly diffident. “I’m sorry, but I hurried because I need to go out as well tonight, and we don’t have much time left before first light. I was waiting for you most of the night, and I still have to hunt…”
“As you should.” The man took the wine from her, and set the glass on a lacquered tray, before pouring out a careful measure.
Adele was watching him intently, and in the moment that he was turned away from her, Amber caught sight of the look in the other girl’s eyes. It was a look she recognized.
The other girl’s beautiful, alien face was drawn, all trace of her earlier petulance and sarcasm gone for the moment. She stared at her master with a kind of bitter longing, a constrained and frustrated desire intense enough to be almost indistinguishable from hatred.
It was the same helpless wish for recognition, the abandonment of self in quest of a superior’s approval, that Amber knew her fellow students felt for their teachers and ballet masters; that she had felt herself. She felt icy cold, weak from lack of food and sleep, and suddenly, terribly afraid.
The man turned back, offering her the glass full of dark liquid. He nodded to Adele, although his eyes barely flicked away from Amber’s face. “Time for you to go, then. You shouldn’t waste the darkness, and we are perfectly capable of keeping each other company here.”
“Yes sir.” Adele’s mask had come down again, and her mouth curled slightly, but her tone was obedient. In a moment she had turned and disappeared.
The man barely acknowledged her departure as he proffered the glass again toward Amber. He stepped closer, and his face seemed to swim and fill her vision.
Long ago, when she still had friends who weren’t other dancers, they had dragged her to a Six Flags park one summer, insisting that she would enjoy the roller coasters and other thrill rides. She had discovered almost immediately that nothing was farther from the truth, and that the adrenaline surge as she fell helplessly away from the world without was both bizarre and horrible. She had frozen against the seat restraints, her limbs heavy and shaking. She felt some of that same paralysis now. It was all that prevented her from cringing away from him.
“What, lost your taste?” He was standing close now, his shadow blocking out the light. “Or is it that you do not need to whet your appetite before the main course?” He smiled and the tip of his tongue flicked over a tooth.
Amber tried to speak, tried to recall the reckless nihilism that had powered her actions for most of the night, but all she could think of was the haunted look in Adele’s eyes, like a promise of an endless future, repeating the patterns of the past without relief. There was no escape.
After a moment of silence, he shrugged and stepped back to set down the glass. Amber jerked as if from a recoil, and self-consciously attempted to mask the movement (as if anything would have escaped his attention), by shoving her hands into her pockets. Her right hand closed around the small, ovoid object she had left there, and she felt the flash of a sudden realization.
Click — light. Click — off. Just like that.
His eyes were still on her, speculative and greedy, but now she looked him full in the face and stepped forward herself, lifting her jaw and tilting her head back. As he caught her up tightly, she wrapped her thin arms around him in turn, nestling the lighter in the small of his back before flicking it on with one blind thumb-stroke.