The ball was ostentatious; yards of shining fabric hung in swooping boughs from the towering ceiling and grand columns held dancing couples in a huge square like gyrating pearls in a closed marble container.
Two staircases led away from the floor full of swaying, swishing, undulating figures. Bright lights that illuminated the bottom floor dimmed as the steps ascended. In the darkness, at the peak landing of the stairwell where a huge, plunging curtain attached to the ceiling, stood a trembling young woman.
Barely out of her teens, her dress clung to her with a still-blossoming grace. A corset cinched her middle with cruel intensity. She looked down at her bosom, lifted and pressed and painted in glory they would never experience naturally. Her breath escaped in rattling, uneven quakes.
She stared out from around the corner with wide, frightened eyes. She knew her presence wouldn’t be missed and her disappearance wouldn’t be noticed but her cowardice would be remembered.
Her shoes clicked across the polished floor as she walked towards and down the stairs. Her back straightened as her entrance was observed with slow turns of heads among the idle guests clinging to the edge of the dance floor like sea urchins: older women with scowling, hardened expressions, withered by time and judgment. The men watched her glide across the floor, ignorant of the pounding of her heart and the crippling focus to simply weave through strangers.
Just get to the other side, she thought repeatedly, incessantly, obsessively. Then something touched her; something hot, something burning. She cried out.
“My dear, you are just stunning.” The girl turned to find an aging man with thin hair adhered to each side of his head with little enthusiasm. He looked at her from under a brow too bulging and hairy to see the shape or color of his eyes. She stood still, hand shaking in his clammy grasp.
“Oh, well, u-uh…” He began to slip from his thin, uncomfortable smile into a vexed glower. His hooked nose arced through the air as he lifted his mouth from her dainty fingers. No response formed on her lips.
With a harumph! he released her hand and strode away. Her hand touched her hammering chest and with the contact, realized it hurt. So, she brought it low, cradling one hand with the other to examine it. Mingling with her healthy, ivory skin was distressed, reddened flesh with small blisters dotting the burns. She stared shock and fear. She jerked her head up and searched for his face in a moving crowd. When her eyes found him, he was engaged in a one-sided conversation with another lovely, young woman, more than despondent. He was clueless.
In her concentration, she was startled with the same burning sensation, this time at the back of her arm from a gentle touch. She jumped this time, turning and stepping away. Her breathing writhed in her chest.
A handsome man stood before her, brilliant blue eyes flashing at her alongside his smile. He had swooping, honey brown hair that curled over the corner of his right eyebrow. He watched her with hypnotic charm.
“Are you alright?” he asked her. She gazed thoughtlessly for a moment as she experienced the still-burning sensation on her hand and arm. “Miss?”
“Yes! Yes, sir, I apologize. I’m fine.” She flattened her skirt and smoothed her bodice and his eyes followed her hands’ path.
“That’s wonderful to hear,” he said with a coolness that almost eased her seared skin. She took a deep breath but her stomach still turned when he stepped closer. “Would you care to dance?” he asked, offering a strong, soft hand for her to take. She hesitated and looked up at him and saw a flash of something she didn’t recognize…
“I… I’m very sorry. I need to…” He retracted his hand and stiffened. With practiced grace, he bowed and moved around her to disappear into the crowd. She felt bruised, emotionally and physically, as he left her alone. She looked down at her rose colored tresses and shuddered. She moved through the last layer of people between her and the wall.
As she squeezed through, hands fell on her without origin and tears broke from her eyes, oceans rolling away from lush, green fields. Her skin sizzled quietly as welts grew and skin cracked beneath the hands of strangers as she passed.
The far wall came as a promised land with her hands outstretched and face wet. She breathed through tight, focused lips trembling with emotion. Now, her delicate body below the neck was covered in burns. Her simple movements debilitated her with pain from the soft silk of her dress drifting over her wounds.
She pushed herself down the darkened hallway, a dark curl bobbing in front of her downward cast eyes. Blindly, she led herself away from the party until the music dulled through the stone walls.
She turned around when she reached the edge of a new set of stairs, hidden from the dance floor. Her thoughts seemed to echo off the stone and she looked up into the soaring heights of the dark flights of steps. Behind her, she heard a single tap of a boot.
Her heart hammered in her chest with her hand against the marble wall, her elegant neck extended towards the ceiling. Fear clamped down on her throat without reason or explanation. A persistent aura of a threat hung around her like a paralyzing glow. The air was textured with predation. She was still.
Suddenly, she felt hot breath on the back of her neck and then the familiar sear of her flesh. An unwelcome touch came into contact with her shoulder, pushing aside the fallal of her sleeve.
“My lady,” breathed the voice, as charming and practiced as before but less calm now. The voice was fervent. A confident arousal shook the beginnings and ends of his sentences as his body shifted closer to her own.
“My lady, I’m afraid I must insist you pay me my due respect.” His breath shuddered. Tears flowed fiercely from her eyes with the fear of the anticipated as his right hand shuffled with his complicated dress trousers. Her eyes flowed from the pain of the now scarring scorch mark beneath his hand. The blistering agony and the despair for her robbed virtue overtook her mind. She became the marked flesh. She became the stolen touch. She became the “due respect”.