"You look beautiful," Felicity says. Her pupils are large as moons.
"So do you," I say. I can't stop smiling.
"What about me?" Ann asks.
"Yes," I say, feeling lighter by the second. "Tom will not be able to resist you. You are a princess, Ann." This makes the maid tending my dress raise her eyes to me for a moment but then she is back to it.
When we enter the ballroom again, it seems transformed, the colors deeper, the lights hazier. The green fairy melts to liquid fire that races through my veins like gossip, like the wings of a thousand angels, like a whisper of the most delicious secret I have ever held. Around me the room has slowed into a beautiful blur of color, sound, and motion; the whisk-whisk of the ladies' stiff skirts melting into the greens and blues, silvers and burgundies of their bejeweled bodies. They bend and sway into the gentlemen like mirror images that kiss and fly apart, kiss and fly apart.
My eyes feel wet and beautiful. My mouth is swollen as summer fruit, and all I can do is smile as if I know all there is to know but I cannot hold on to any of it. Simon finds me. I hear myself accepting a dance with him. We join the swirling throng. I am floating. Simon Middleton is the most beguiling man I have ever known. I want to tell him this, but no words will come. Through my blurry eyes, the ballroom has transformed into a sacred spiral dance of Whirling Dervishes, their white cassocks flying out like the first snow of winter, tall purple hats defying gravity atop their delicately spinning heads. But I know I cannot be seeing this.
With effort, I close my eyes to clear the scene, and when I open them again, there are the ladies and gentlemen, hands joined tentatively in the waltz. Over their downy white shoulders, the ladies communicate to each other with subtle nods and silent looks--"The Thetford girl and Roberts boy, a most suitable match, don't you agree?"--fates sealed, futures decided in three-quarter time under the glittering illusion maker of the chandelier throwing off diamond- hard prisms of light that bathe everything in a reflection of cold beauty.
The dance over, Simon guides me from the floor. Dizzy, I stumble slightly. My hand reaches for purchase in something solid and finds the broad expanse of Simon's chest. My fingers curl around the white petals of the rose on his lapel.
"Steady there. I say, Miss Doyle, are you quite all right?"
I smile. Oh, yes, quite. I cannot speak or feel my body, but I am so absolutely lovely--please leave me here, I smile. Petals fall away, twirling softly to the floor in their own spiral dance. The palm of my glove is stained with the sticky residue of the rose. I cannot seem to figure out how it got there or what to do about it. This strikes me as unbearably humorous, and I find I am laughing.
"Steady there . . . ," Simon says, applying a bit of pressure at my wrist. The pain brings me back to my senses slightly. He walks me past the large potted ferns near the doorway and behind an ornate folding screen. In its creases, I can see fractions of the ballroom whirling past. We are hidden but could be discovered here. I should be alarmed, but I am not. I don't care.
"Gemma," Simon says. His lips graze me just below my earlobe. They trace a moist arc down the hollow of my neck. My head is warm and heavy. Everything in me feels swollen and ripe. The room is still doing its swirling dance of lights, but the sounds of the party are muffled and far away. It's Simon's voice that floats inside me.
"Gemma, Gemma, you are an elixir."
He presses against me. I don't know if it's the absinthe or something deeper, something I can't describe, but I am sinking inside myself with no wish to stop.
"Come with me," he whispers. It echoes in my head. He's got my arm, leading me as if we were ready to dance. Instead, he walks me out of the ballroom and upstairs, away from the party. He brings me into a small attic room, the maid's room, I think. It is mostly dark, lit only by a candle. It's as if I have no will of my own. I sink onto the bed, marveling at how my hands look in the candlelight, as if they are not my own somehow. Simon sees me staring at my hands. He begins to unbutton my glove. At the opening, he kisses the tiny blue veins pulsing there.
I want to tell him to stop. The haze of the absinthe clears a bit. I am alone with Simon. He is kissing my bare wrist. We shouldn't be here. Shouldn't.
"I ... I want to go back."
"Shhh, Gemma." He removes my glove. My naked skin feels so strange. "My mother likes you. We'd make a fine match, don't you think?"
Think? I can't think. He begins to remove the other glove. My body arches, goes tight. Oh, God, it's happening. It's happening. Over the rounded bow of Simon's back, I see the room shimmering, feel my body tensing with the vision I can't keep out. The last thing I hear is Simon's concerned voice saying "Gemma, Gemma!" and then I'm falling, falling into that black hole. The three girls in white. They float just beyond Simon. "We've found it. We've found the Temple. Look and see. . . ."