Porte de Pantin

 5

It was Christmas Eve, and Elaine was not having fun.

First, her favourite toyshop down in the Rue de Turenne had sold out of the puzzle she had wanted to get her niece for Christmas, and she had been forced to buy the doll instead. Her niece was ten, and had her heart set on this doll, which would normally have made for a very easy gift, but this particular doll just made her skin creep. Its smile was more of a smirk, and its gaze could only be described as malevolent. She had tried three separate shops before giving up and buying it, and she could still feel the thing staring up at her from its box in the bottom of her shopping bag.

Then she had lost her gloves on the Métro, and it was cold outside today.

And finally, and worst of all, her self-defense instructor had dumped her.

“I think you would be better off with a different teacher,” he had said, at the end of their class today. “Marianne is very good, and if you were in her class–“

But Elaine had not stayed to learn what would happen if she were in Marianne’s class. The truth was all too evident, and entirely humiliating. Obviously, Jean-Luc had noticed that she had a crush on him, and equally obviously, her feelings were not returned.

She had sort of suspected it. When she had arrived at her first class a few months ago, she had been delighted to recognise her instructor as the attractive man who had helped her in the Métro when she had fallen after a frightening confrontation with Nathair. It had seemed like a good omen.  Her confrontations with Nathair had been what had inspired her self-defense classes in the first place. Elaine was beginning to feel that she did not have the tools she needed at her disposal, if she was going to continue being dragged through doors in the Paris Métro into dangerous adventures.

She had thought at the time that Jean-Luc was pleased to see her, too. He had certainly been flirting with her in the Métro, and a self-defense class should provide endless opportunities for hands-on contact.

Alas, Jean-Luc had been friendly but entirely professional in all their classes, which was, Elaine admitted to herself, entirely as it should be, at least outside one’s personal fantasies. But she had clearly done a poor job of hiding her own interest, and now she would have to find another studio, because there was no way she was going back to that one, Marianne or no Marianne.

In short, it had been a horrible day, and if she’d thought about it at all, she should have been expecting the door in the Métro.

It was a particularly colourful door, she thought at first, and then realised that no, it wasn’t colourful at all. It was made of clear glass, like a drawing-room window, and the colour she could see was a Christmas tree, with piles of toys and presents surrounding it, their colours almost luminous. Behind the tree was a fireplace, the fire crackling warmly in the hearth, and she could see people dancing in the room beyond.

The scene was warm and inviting, and Elaine did not trust it for a moment.

She stepped through the door anyway.

How much worse could her day truly get, after all?

*****

The room was bright and loud with voices and music, and the instant Elaine’s foot crossed the threshold she found herself whirling and stepping and leaping in the arms of a man in a Pierrot costume, with a white face and a single black tear painted on his left cheek. She did not stumble – she could not stumble – nor could she stop dancing. Instead, her feet danced on without her permission, her left hand resting gracefully and immovably on her partner’s shoulder, and the smile on her face feeling painted on as the room spun dizzyingly around her.

The music stopped, and Elaine curtseyed to the Pierrot. He bowed, equally mechanically, and the crowd around them applauded.

“Again, Uncle Drosselmeyer, again!”

Elaine, still in a deep curtsey, could not lift her head to see who had spoken, but the voice that answered was far too familiar.

“Very well, Clara,” said Nathair – no, Ankou, Elaine reminded herself. He was a man of many names, and had been calling himself Nathair when she first encountered him, but his true name had been presented to her as a gift. She would be unwise to forget it.

There was laughter in his voice now. “I shall make the automatons dance again. But this time, we shall join them, you and I. See, your partner is bowing to you already. And mine is waiting for me.”

He took Elaine’s hand, and she felt her head lifting, her smile still wide, as she looked into his eyes.

He touched her back, and she found herself dancing again, unable to stop. “Welcome back, Elaine,” he whispered in her ear.

She glared at him, despite her smile, and he laughed softly, the sound covered by Clara’s shriek of glee as the other automaton lifted her into the air.

“Do you like my Christmas party?” he asked, and suddenly Elaine’s lips could move again.

“Not very much,” she answered, honestly. “Could you not afford proper marionettes for your dance? Or automatons, perhaps?”

Ankou lifted her, and her arms went up in a graceful arc as she spun. “Of course I could, but automatons have very limited conversation. They are quite dull, in fact. Nowhere near as interesting as you.”

Elaine considered that as she skipped and stepped around Ankou. “But you are making an automaton of me now,” she pointed out, clapping the beat as Ankou skipped and stepped around her in his turn. “Surely that makes me no more interesting than your other puppets.”

Ankou took her hand and twirled her again. “You are infinitely interesting, my dear,” he said, his voice syrupy. Elaine wished she could roll her eyes. He laughed again at her irritation.

“You cannot intend to keep me here entirely as your puppet,” she said, eventually.  Hopefully.

“Can I not?” Ankou lifted her again, his hands at her waist. She had not realised her back could bend like that.

“If you could win so easily, you would have done so already.”

His smile was charming, and chilling. “Perhaps. Perhaps not. Winning too easily can get tedious, in time. The game is so much more interesting when one’s toys still believe that they can escape.”

Her feet touched the ground again, and he gave her his hand. She took it, rising on her toes in a pirouette, then curtseying low as the music ended.

“You are right in one thing, however,” he murmured, bowing in return. “I cannot keep you as my puppet forever. Not until you choose. But for now…”

He stepped back, and Elaine rose from her curtsey, to stand, as still as a doll and as helpless, under the tree.

Her fellow dancing doll stood equally motionless beside her. Elaine could see him out of the corner of her eyes, though she could not look at him directly. Was he like her, she wondered? Another victim, trapped, conscious, in a lifeless mannequin?

A huge cart was wheeled into the room at Ankou’s command. The children gathered around him excitedly, standing on tiptoe or jumping up and down, trying to see into the cart, and begging ‘Uncle Drosselmeyer’ for their presents.

Ankou laughed again, and Elaine wished her doll’s body could shudder. He was handing out toys to the children now, puppets, mostly, and dolls, and mechanical animals, all beautifully wrought and moving with a naturalness that made Elaine’s skin crawl.

“And now, my dear Clara and Franz, what do I have for you?” Ankou spoke in a showman’s voice and the two children pressed forward, eagerly. “First you, Franz. Your mother tells me you like to play at soldiers…” He snapped his fingers, and six clockwork soldiers marched into the room, stopping to stand at attention in front of Franz.

The boy’s eyes widened, and his mouth formed an O. Ankou smiled, snapping his fingers again, and the soldiers presented arms to Franz, who found his voice at last. “Oh Uncle Drosselmeyer, they are wonderful. Thank you so much!”

He snapped his fingers in his turn, and the soldiers saluted him. Franz laughed in delight and began to drill them, marching them around the room.

There was only one parcel left in Ankou’s cart, and he smiled down at Clara as he lifted it out. “For you, my little one, I have something very special indeed.” His eyes met Elaine’s over her head, his smile sharpening. Clara was standing directly in front of her, now, and Elaine realised that the girl was the same age as her niece.

“This is a toy, but it’s also a tool. Tell me, do you like nuts?”

Clara nodded, her eyes wide as the parcel was placed in her arms.

Ankou smiled. “Open it, and tell me what you think.”

The parcel was wrapped in paper and string, and Clara’s fingers had trouble with the knot. At last, she opened it to reveal… “A doll?” she asked, doubtfully.

It was the ugliest doll Elaine has ever seen, with a head that was nearly rectangular, large, square teeth and wide, malicious eyes. It bore no obvious resemblance to the doll she had bought for her own niece, but there was something about it that brought it to mind, regardless.

“A nutcracker.” Ankou was still talking to Elaine. He pulled a bag of walnuts from his pocket, and placed one between the doll’s jaws. “See, how cunningly he can crack the nut from its shell?”

“Oh,” said Clara, a little uncertainly, then curtseyed. “Thank you, Uncle Drosselmeyer, she added, evidently trying to be polite.

Ankou laughed again. “I know he is not beautiful to look at, my child, but I promise you, he is the most special toy you will ever own.” He met Elaine’s eyes over the child’s head. “Indeed, he is a very prince among nutcrackers, as you will surely find.”

There was something terrible about the nutcracker.   The malicious expression on its face would have been alarming enough, but Ankou’s words, and his look, made it clear to Elaine that there was more going on. Clara, however, was oblivious to the danger, and cradled the nutcracker carefully, despite her evident disappointment in the present. A polite child, Elaine thought.

Elaine strained to move, to warn her, but her face and feet were still frozen in place. The room became full of heat and noise, as the children played with their new toys around the tree. Franz galloped past, with his clockwork soldiers in pursuit, and Clara barely escaped being run down by them. The leader of the soldiers met Elaine’s eyes in passing, and she was suddenly certain – the other toys were alive, never mind that they were things of wood and clockwork and porcelain. A doll cannot shudder, but Elaine felt something of the sort, nonetheless.

The soldiers marched back, even faster than before, and Elaine strained with all her might to move. She felt her left hand twitch slightly and focused as hard as she could on that. If she could just move her hand…

The soldiers galloped past a third time, with Franz, shouting, at their head, and Elaine felt something snap and loosen about her. She snapped her fingers and the leader of the soldiers veered wildly, colliding with Clara and the nutcracker and knocking them to the ground. There was a crunching sound, and Clara screamed.

Elaine had one brief glimpse of the nutcracker, broken, its head cracked and off-kilter, before it was blocked from view by the crowd. She was frozen in place again, as still as if she had never moved her hand, but her eyes were shut now. Ankou’s work, presumably. She could hear his voice, calm and kind, scolding Franz, comforting Clara, and promising to repair what was broken.

The children were sent to bed, Clara sobbing as she climbed the stairs. Clara’s parents were quietly scolding M. Drosselmeyer, who was making noises of apology and regret. The nutcracker, with its broken neck, was placed behind the tree. Elaine fended off a feeling of guilt – poor Clara, first to get such an ugly toy, and then none at all. But better no Christmas present than whatever Ankou had in store for her. Elaine was certain of that much.

The room emptied and became silent, and Elaine, alone and motionless in the darkness, once more had leisure to worry about her own fate.

Approaching footsteps made the worry more immediate.

“I suppose you think you’ve rescued the dear little thing.” Ankou’s voice was far too close, and Elaine, still encased in her doll’s body, could not recoil. “I should do to you what you did to my nutcracker. It would be only just.”

His fingers went around her neck, and if she had been breathing before, her breath would have caught now.

Ankou laughed again, soft in the darkness. “But no. Not this time. I shall be merciful. Or perhaps I shall be cruel. You see, you haven’t saved anything, Elaine, and I think you should get to see what happens next. Though perhaps I shall do something about your capacity to meddle, first…”

A finger touched her forehead, and she knew no more.

*****

It was dark and silent when Elaine awoke. A single candle burned on the mantlepiece, and the fire was banked, only a few coals glowing in the dimness. There was no moment of disorientation – she knew immediately where she was. Her body was still stiff, and her feet were beginning to hurt from standing. It was very like Ankou, she thought, to make her a doll but give her all the sensations of a human.

She could feel the other dancing doll, the Pierrot, as a presence beside her. She remembered her conviction earlier that he and the other toys were alive. Was he human, then? For his sake, she hoped not.

“Kind of you. Alas, I’m as human as you are.” The voice in her head hardly sounded human – it had something of wood in it, and something of porcelain. The voice of a doll. “Drosselmeyer turned me years ago. He turned all of us.”

Elaine blinked. How could he be speaking to her? More to the point, how could he hear her? And what else might he have heard…?

“You were thinking a question at me, so I heard you, just as you hear me now. And I heard you speak to Drosselmeyer, of course. You are brave to fight him, though it will do you no good. But as for the rest – no, I can’t hear your other thoughts. It’s a little like facial expressions, I suppose – I can get a sense of the emotions, but not what is causing them.”

This was something of a relief. Elaine focused her thoughts on the doll, deliberately this time. “So you can hear me now?”

“Oh yes. Very clearly.”

“And you say that Drosselmeyer transformed you – all of you?”

“Yes. All at different times, of course, but we were all children at this party, once, playing with Drosselmeyer’s toys. We all had our favourite toy broken, and crept downstairs after midnight to hold it and play with it anyway. And each of us found ourselves faced with a Christmas tree that was under attack by rats – Drosselmeyer’s rats, though we did not know that at the time. Each of us, on Christmas Eve, fought the rats, and was bitten, and infected with a terrible fever that would have killed us before the new year began. And then Drosselmeyer came to visit us – so very kind and sad he seemed then – and offered us a choice: we could become the toy we so loved, and live – or we could stay ourselves, and die.”

Elaine felt ill. That sounded like a choice between two deaths, to her.

“Oh, it was,” agreed the doll. “He never told us that as toys we would be enslaved, made part of the trap to transform the other children. I was the very first, you know.”

The tear painted onto his porcelain face gleamed in the candlelight, as if it were about to fall.

Elaine did not know what to say. “What was your name, then, before you changed?” she tried, at last.

A doll cannot sigh, but Elaine felt the sense of one. “It has been so long, I hardly remember. I am Pantin now. Pierrot Pantin.”

Pierrot the marionette.

Elaine was still digesting the horror of this when she heard the creak on the stairs.

Beside her, she felt again that sense of a sigh. “And here we go again.”

Little Clara was in her nightgown now. With her round face and large eyes, her dark hair in long plaits, she reminded Elaine even more strongly of her niece, and she felt a pang of fear. Clara walked straight to the tree, and knelt down by the box that contained her broken nutcracker. “Poor little thing,” she whispered, and lifted it out of the box.

Elaine watched in disbelief as she cradled it in her arms, stroking its face with a gentle hand.

“But she didn’t even like the nutcracker!”

“She does now.” Pierrot’s voice was sad.  “She loves it with all her heart.  They always do.  It’s a part of Drosselmeyer’s magic.”

Of course it was.  If Elaine had had a stomach, it would have turned.  “There must be something we can do.”

Elaine felt sadness again from the Pierrot. “There is not.”

“But I was able to move before, without Drosselmeyer permitting it. It must be possible. We just need to work out how.”

“Do you think we haven’t tried? No, we can only watch, and despair.”

Elaine tried very hard not to think sarcastic thoughts about positive attitudes and how pleasing it was to encounter them in Pierrot puppets, but some of it must have leaked out, because she felt a renewed sense of misery from the doll beside her.

And then she heard the squeaking.

It was just one rat at first, scurrying out from under the tree, but within moments there were a dozen of them, and a few mice as well, almost swarming towards the toys. Elaine did not mind rodents, in the general scheme of things, but she definitely did not like the idea of having them crawl all over her when she could not move.

“You get used to it,” her morose companion opined.

Clara had not noticed the rats yet. She was hugging the nutcracker close and crooning to it. “Oh, how I wish you were real. Uncle Drosselmeyer said you were a prince among nutcrackers. What if you were a real prince, in disguise?” She looked around at the other toys under the tree. “What if you were all real? Oh, I wish you were real, all of you! Imagine, if the toys could play with us, too, not just us playing with them.”

And suddenly, as if the girl’s words had broken a spell, Elaine could move, not just as a doll but as herself. She took a step, and stumbled as her feet suddenly tingled with pins and needles. “Oh, ouch!” she cried, involuntarily.

Clara turned to stare at her. “You are real!” Her eyes were wide, and growing wider as all around her, toys came slowly to life. “You are all real! Oh, I hope this isn’t a dream!”

Something brushed past Elaine’s foot and she remembered herself. “Clara, be careful! There are rats!”

She half expected to be stifled before she could finish the sentence, but Ankou, wherever he was, evidently had his mind on other things. Clara gave a little shriek, and jumped up onto a chair, but the other toys took up the cry.

“Rats! Destroy the rats!”

“Soldiers! To me!”

“Quick, Pierrot – behind you!”

Elaine looked about her for a weapon with which to fight the rats. She was barefoot again – of course she was – and she did not want to be bitten. Nothing on the tree looked useful. The toy soldiers were leading a charge, and all around her, dolls and jumping jacks fought the mice and rats with surprising viciousness. She tiptoed carefully among them – she did not want to tread on any of the smaller toys – and grabbed a silver candlestick from the mantelpiece.

Behind her, there was a cry from Clara – the Nutcracker was fighting the leader of the rats, who Elaine now saw wore a paper crown on his head. The ridiculous crown was not stopping him, however, and he had the Nutcracker at his mercy. Elaine looked at the candlestick in her hand, and wondered if she could throw it accurately enough, but there were too many toys in her way. Clara, on the other hand, was much closer, and was wringing her hands, clearly not sure how to help. The Nutcracker had been defending her from the rat attack.

“Clara! Your slippers! Throw them!” Elaine cried.

Clara started as if Elaine’s words had galvanised her. Quickly, she pulled off her slippers, and threw them at the rat king’s head.

The rat king fell, and the nutcracker stepped forward immediately to administer the conclusive blow. In the moment he did so, the other rodents all fell back with squeaks of despair. The nutcracker himself was transforming, growing, the ugly painted wood sloughing off him like an old snakeskin, until he stood before Clara, a handsome prince, holding out his hand.

“You have saved me from a terrible fate,” he told her. “Come, let me take you with me to the Land of Sweets, so that I may reward you as you deserve.”

Elaine’s eyes widened. This was not part of what Pierrot had told her, and she wasn’t at all sure that it was a good idea. “Wait,” she said, but the other toys were all cheering, and before Elaine could do more than blink, they had carried Clara away.

“That was well done.”

Clara turned, and saw the Pierrot doll behind her. He held out his hand for the candlestick, and she gave it to him, automatically. “A good idea about the slippers. Thank you. The rats were quite determined this time. We might not have got her without your help.”

“Got her?”

The Pierrot smiled, tossing the candlestick in the air and catching it again. “Yes, you’re very good at interfering, aren’t you? Drosselmeyer was right. We do need to do something about that.”

He lifted the candlestick again.

Elaine did not see it come down.

*****

She woke to a splitting headache, and the sound of squeaking.

The squeaking seemed to have voices.

“Who is she?”

“Not a proper toy.”

“No, but she fought with them.”

“She helped them kill Pirlipat.”

“Pirlipat isn’t dead.”

“But she’s not likely to live, with wounds like that.”

“Is this one going to live?”

“That Pierrot hit her pretty hard.”

“I thought she was on his side.”

“Maybe she thought so too? They were together all evening. Who knows what he told her?”

Elaine groaned and opened her eyes. The squeaking stopped, abruptly. At least two dozen pairs of eyes stared back at her. It was an uncomfortable sensation.

“Who is Pirlipat?” she asked, finally.

“Our Queen. The first of us,” said one rat.

“The one the little girl threw her shoe at,” added another rat, grimly.

Elaine blinked. “The rat who was trying to attack Clara?” The rats glared at her, and she realised, belatedly, that this might not have been a diplomatic thing to say.

“The rat who was trying to save Clara,” corrected the second rat. “The rat who you encouraged Clara to kill, so that Clara is now in the hands of Drosselmeyer and his puppets.”

Elaine saw again the disturbingly friendly smile on the face of Pierrot shortly before he – what? – clocked her with a candlestick, presumably, though she was a bit hazy on that. She put her hand up to her head and winced. It was decidedly sore. And what had he said directly before? There was an unpleasant sensation in her stomach.   “Oh no…”

The rat snorted. “Oh no, she says. A fine help that is.”

“Leave her be, Masha,” said the first rat. “She obviously didn’t know.”

“That’s not going to help Pirlipat, now, is it? Or Clara, for that matter.”

Elaine didn’t want to interrupt, but she sort of needed to. Concussion and guilt were a nauseating combination. “Please, I’m going to be sick.”

There were a lot of squeaky grumbles, but Masha-rat shoved a bowl in her direction with surprising efficiency.

“I am sorry about Pirlipat,” she said, a few minutes later when things had settled somewhat. “Is there anything I can do?”

Masha shook her head. “Not unless you are a veterinarian.”

Elaine blinked. The idea of a veterinarian in conjunction with magic – or with talking animals – was disconcerting. “Ah, no, I’m not.”

“Then you’re pretty much useless to us, aren’t you?”

“Masha!” The other rat shook her head. “Look. I don’t know who you are, or why you are here, but there isn’t a lot you can do. Can you just leave us be?”

It was the same message, but more kindly put.

Elaine frowned. “I’m not sure I can, actually. I don’t know how to leave this place, and… if Clara has been kidnapped because of me, then I have to get her back. I can’t let her be turned into a puppet just because I was stupid.”

“Into a puppet?” The rat looked confused. “What do you mean, a puppet? Drosselmeyer doesn’t turn people into puppets. He turns them into rats.”

Elaine tried to make sense of that. Her aching head wasn’t helping. “I thought he gave them the choice of becoming toys, after they had been bitten?”

“Is that what Pierrot Pantin told you? No. The puppets are Drosselmeyer’s. We are the children who went to his parties and were transformed. We each shed the blood of a rat in our time, and so when we made the wrong choice, we were transformed into rats ourselves, doomed forever to try to save the next child and be killed for our efforts.”

Elaine put a hand over her mouth. She felt as though she might be sick again. “That’s horrific.”

The rat nodded. “Yes.”

“Is there no way to transform you back?”

“Not that we know of. Once a child has gone to the Land of the Sweets, and chosen to stay in this world, then stay they must, but transformed as you see us. And if our families come looking for us, they are transformed, too – into Drosselmeyer’s toys, who are compelled to kill us if they can.”

Elaine drew in a breath. She had known that Ankou was cruel, but this was worse than she had imagined.

“We have to stop him,” she said. Not that she had any idea how, but the principle was clear.

The rat looked at her rather skeptically. “Really, I think you have done enough damage.”

Elaine felt herself flush. “I assume… do you know first aid, at least? For Pirlipat?” If they were children before they became rats, they might not.

Masha shrugged. “Marie was a cadet with the Ambulance Saint-Jean.”

The rat – Marie, evidently – nodded. “We’ve done what we can. If we can keep Pirlipat quiet and safe, she might recover.”

That was something. “If you have a place to take her, I can help you carry her there, if you like.”

“Already done.”

It was not reasonable to feel upset that her overtures of help were so rejected, Elaine reminded herself, firmly.

“Alright. In that case, I’m going to try to go after Clara. Can you tell me where this Land of the Sweets may be?”

Masha and Marie looked at each other. “I don’t think that’s a good idea,” said Marie, finally. “Clara may still make the right choice. You could make things worse by following her.”

Elaine bit her lip.

“No child has ever made the right choice, in the Land of the Sweets,” retorted Masha. She glared at Elaine for a long moment. “We normally get there through the sugar bowl in the pantry. But you aren’t going to fit.”

“Oh, that won’t be a problem.”

The voice that spoke out of the dimness was as familiar as it was unwelcome. The rats squeaked and scattered, hiding under furniture or freezing in place under the tree, as if hoping to be rendered invisible.

Ankou smiled at Elaine. “Since you are in such sympathy with the rats, you won’t mind becoming one, I’m sure. Then you can follow Clara to the land of the sweets and try to win her back.”

His smile grew sharper, and he gestured towards the fireplace, where a door suddenly appeared. “Or you could go back to your own world, right now, safe and sound. The choice is yours.”

Elaine felt her brows go up. “You are offering to let me go free, without any penalty?”

“Why not? It is Christmas, after all.” He laughed, and Elaine felt herself shudder.

“Come, then. Which will it be? Transformation and a quest doomed to failure, or Christmas Eve safely home with your family?”

Elaine had a sudden vision of the doll in her shopping bag, and shivered. “And Clara?”

“You are getting perilously close to asking questions, my sweet Elaine. But just this once, I shall answer you for free. If you choose to leave, then Clara will be mine. And all these little rats will live to regret the day when they thought to protect her.” He laughed. “But then, they have so many days to regret. What’s one more?”

Elaine closed her eyes. Her head still throbbed, and she had no particular desire to be a hero. But worse than her head was her sense of humiliation at being so tricked – humiliation that was, in part, a cover for the guilt she felt, both for Pirlipat, whoever she was, and for Clara. When it came down to it, the child’s plight was at least partly her fault. And if she left without at least trying to fix things, she would find it hard to forgive herself. Her hands clenched into fists, and she felt Aphrodite’s ring. She did have one resource that Ankou did not know about, and could not control. And… she had beaten Ankou before. Perhaps there was a chance after all. She took a deep breath.

“I will go after Clara.” She opened her mouth to say more, then shut it again. No good ever came of giving Ankou ammunition.

He seemed pleased. “So be it,” he said, and the world twisted and grew as Elaine fell to her knees.

*****

Walking on all fours was easier than Elaine had expected – her rat-body clearly knew what to do. Better, her rat-body had not been concussed, so her headache was gone. This was unexpected generosity on the part of Ankou, and Elaine felt rather suspicious about it.

With Marie and Masha to lead her, she found the door in the sugar bowl easily enough. To her surprise, the rest of the rats insisted on following her, eager to do battle with the Nutcracker.

“And perhaps we will have the chance to choose again,” Elaine heard Masha say to Marie. Marie simply shook her head in response.

It was snowing on the other side of the sugarbowl, silent and beautiful. Elaine tipped up her face to the sky, and a snowflake fell onto her nose – no, not a snowflake, but a flake of sugar. Her tongue went up instinctively to lick it off.

Masha was beside her. “Best not to eat anything here,” she murmured, and Elaine nodded at the reminder.

Though now her nose was sticky.

“Look!” Marie gestured ahead. “There they are!”

The Nutcracker Prince was walking slowly ahead of them, one arm around Clara’s waist. Clara was looking up at him, adoringly. Elaine’s stomach twisted. Surely Clara was too young to have that look on her face? And the Nutcracker was certainly too old to have that expression on his…

“Quickly!” The rats ran towards the couple, but as they did so, the sugar-flakes began to fall more heavily, blizzard-like, falling on their faces and eyes, blinding them. The wind picked up, too, howling, so that they could no longer hear Clara’s voice ahead of them, or the Prince’s. The rats huddled together for warmth.

“Now what?” asked Marie.

“Can we track them by smell?” asked Elaine, tentatively. She hadn’t figured out how to sort out all the smells yet, and mostly what she could smell was sugar.

Masha frowned. “I think… that way?”

And the rats followed her on into the blizzard.

*****

It seemed like hours that the rats scurried through the cold of the sugar-blizzard, their sense of smell the only thing keeping them together, and Masha’s superior nose leading them on through a white, flat world. The scent of sugar seemed to grow stronger as they went, until suddenly Masha stopped with a little cry, and the other rats bumped into her.

The blizzard cleared abruptly around them to reveal a magnificent palace in the Russian style, with towers shaped like great, puffy marshmallows, their tops delicately pointed. The ceilings and many floors of the palace were supported by great swirling pillars in bright colours that looked like sticks of candy. This, Elaine realised as she got closer, was because they were in fact sticks of candy. Her newly sensitive nose could smell it.

She could also smell puppets.

Moving stealthily as a troupe of rodents could, the rats scurried their way into the palace. The floors, Elaine saw, were made from great slabs of chocolate, marbled white and dark, and they smelled heavenly. The throne room was not hard to find – Elaine was the only one of the rats who had not previously been there, after all – and it was of a grandeur to match the rest of the palace. More great candy pillars supported the roof, which was decorated with cherubs and ceiling roses molded from white chocolate and gilded with edible gold leaf. Three great golden thrones had been formed from filigree spun sugar, with fairy floss upholstery in pastel colours.

On the right hand throne sat the Nutcracker Prince, in full court regalia. On the left hand throne, sat Clara, in a ballgown of silk and lace. And on the central throne, the largest of the three, was seated a beautiful woman in a dress decorated with sugar plums. The woman bore a striking resemblance to Ankou. Elaine’s eyes narrowed. Was that, in fact, Ankou in another guise? Or did he have a sister? Neither idea was appealing.

The rats had gone undetected in their progress through the palace, but as they entered the throne room, Elaine felt the Sugar Plum Fairy’s gaze on her. She froze, waiting, but there was no attack. Instead, the Sugar Plum Fairy clapped her hands.

“Music! Music and dancing for our honoured guest!”

And suddenly the room was full of dancers dressed as Turkish coffee, as Spanish chocolate, as gingerbread men and women, and all manner of other sweets, one dance following another in bewildering and rapid succession, each filling the space between the rats and the thrones, blocking their way to Clara without appearing to do so. Elaine and the others tried to dart forward to catch Clara’s attention, anyway, but were driven back by the Spanish chocolate dancers, whose flamenco-like steps seemed to aim unerringly for rodent backs and skulls.

They retreated.

“Was it like this when you were here?” Elaine asked the rats. They nodded.

“Well, more or less,” added Masha. “The style of the dancing has changed a bit.”

“It was music when I visited, not dancing,” said Marie.

“It was a kingdom of dolls when I was here,” said another rat. “And Pirlipat told us this story once about a giant nut, and a princess who had to be transformed by a man who had never been shaved or worn boots since birth, but I’m not sure whether that happened here or somewhere else.”

This didn’t seem very helpful. Elaine watched the candy-cane dancers glumly, then looked up at the candy-cane pillars that supported the ceiling.

“How good are we at climbing?” she asked.

“Quite good,” said Masha, following her gaze, “But do you really think Clara will respond well to rats dropping on her from above?”

She sounded pleased by the idea.

“I thought we would climb down the pillars behind the throne,” Elaine said, repressively.

Masha twitched her nose in a way that suggested a shrug, and the rats began to scale the nearest candy cane. It was surprisingly hard work – the pillar somehow combined stickiness with slipperiness, so that it was hard to grip, even with one’s claws to act as pitons.

Below them, the Sugar Plum Fairy clapped her hands again. “And now for the Waltz of the Flowers. Come, Clara, Nutcracker – you may lead the waltz. Clara gasped in delight, and eagerly gave her hands to the Nutcracker Prince when he bowed to her.

High above, the ceiling began to dissolve, opening to the sky, where a rain of petals began to drift from above. The rats clung desperately to the cherubs and ceiling roses, then scurried for the safety of the walls, then the ground, as the walls, too began to dissolve beneath them. Petals continued to rain down, piling higher and higher, as the throne room became a fantasy of cherry blossom and candied rose petals. The petals were large and sticky with sugar and the rats had to scrabble to stay above them. It was like swimming against a strong current.

This was never going to work.

In the centre of the throne room, the Nutcracker and Clara had stopped waltzing, and were gazing into each other’s eyes.

The Sugar Plum Fairy descended from her throne.

“My dear Clara, you saved my son’s life this evening, and broke the spell under which he had suffered for so long. In return for your service, I would grant you a boon. From now on, if you wish it, you will be a Princess of the Land of the Sweets, honoured by all who live here.”

The crowd of dancers and sweets cheered at this, and Clara clasped her hands together in delight, but the Sugar Plum Fairy had not finished.

“Of course, you may not wish to stay with us. Just because we are grateful to you, just because we love you and want to keep you with us, does not mean that you love us in return and want to stay. I would not keep you here against your will, even if my son’s heart should break in losing you. So if you prefer, you may return to your home and your bed, and remember this night only as a dream.”

The crowd erupted again, this time in cries of denial.

“Don’t go, Clara!”

“Please stay with us!”

“Don’t leave us!”

And the Nutcracker Prince took Clara’s hand in his and smiled down at her. “You must do what you most wish,” he said, his voice soft. “But you would save my life a second time, were you to stay.”

Beside Elaine, Masha shivered. Clara opened her mouth to speak, but was forestalled.

“Clara, no!”

Masha was halfway across the room, running towards Clara, leaping over the piles of rose petals. She dodged around the Turkish Coffee dancers and the Russian Candy Canes, but found her path blocked by one of the Spanish Chocolate dancers, in her high-heeled boots.

“Masha, watch out!” And Elaine found herself running across the floor towards Clara, the rest of the rats behind her.

Clara shrieked too, then turned to stand in front of the Nutcracker Prince. “Don’t worry, Prince! I’ll protect you!” She bent down to take off her shoes.

Elaine stopped in her tracks. “Clara, wait! We aren’t here to hurt you. We just want to make sure you are safe. Eep!” and she jumped aside, avoiding a Spanish boot just in time.

Clara’s eyes widened, and she looked at the Nutcracker Prince, as if for confirmation. He shook his head, firmly. “Don’t believe them, Clara. These are the same rats that would have killed me earlier, and you too, no doubt. Whatever their purpose is in following you here, it is not good.”

Clara nodded, and she turned back to Elaine, shoe in hand. “Go, you!” she said. “Take your lies, and go, or it will be the worse for you!”

Marie spoke beside her. “It’s no lie, Clara. We were like you once. Children at a party, who saved a beloved toy from the rats, and were taken to a magical land. But then we chose to stay, and this was our reward.”

Clara cast her a shocked look, then looked back at the Nutcracker Prince, who shook his head. “Lies, Clara. They want to drive you back to your ordinary life, where they can hurt you more easily. Stay here with me – I won’t let the rats hurt you.”

Clara smiled up at him, then giggled mischievously. “I saved you, remember! Maybe you need to stay with me so that I can make sure the rats don’t hurt you!”

The Prince laughed. Elaine cast a despairing glance at Marie, who twitched her ears unhappily.

The Sugar Plum Fairy stepped forward. “Now, child, it is no laughing matter, the decision you have to make. If you choose to stay here, the whole course of your life will be altered – see, I am being honest with you, am I not?”

Clara sobered, and nodded.

“So, then. Let us allow the rats to have their say – you are a wise child, capable of discerning the truth, I think.” She gestured at Elaine. “You – rat. You seem to be the ringleader. Tell Clara – is it true that you were once a child at a party, as she was, and transformed unwillingly after you made a willing choice? And beware of lying – lies have consequences here, and sometimes if they are wicked enough, they become the truth.”

If the Sugar Plum Fairy was not Ankou, she was certainly his twin. Elaine thought quickly. She had not been a child at the party, nor had she, technically, been transformed unwillingly – she had chosen to follow Clara in rat form, as Ankou knew very well.

“No, I was not. But Masha here –“

But the Sugar Plum Fairy held up a hand, and Elaine found herself unable to speak. “I will have your testimony, please, and not that of another.” Her smile was sweeter than honey. “I do not doubt your honesty, Madam Rat, nor your good intentions, but you have, perhaps, been deceived yourself. I know the rat who stands beside you of old – Masha, is it not? – and she is most regrettably deceitful.”

Elaine felt a sudden pang of doubt. She had been deceived once by Pierrot, after all… She glanced at the rats, wondering… but no, anything that left Clara in the hands of Ankou or his kind could not be to her benefit. And the rats had supported Clara’s rescue.

She took a deep breath. “Very well. My testimony, then, is that I was the doll who first tried to save you from the rats. And I willingly chose to become a rat, in order to follow and to save you.”

Clara frowned. “To save me from what, though? Everyone here is so kind, and so beautiful.” She cast a sideways glance at the Nutcracker Prince.

“To save you from the fate of Masha and the others–“

But once more, the Sugar Plum Fairy halted her. “Which you have only their word that they suffered. And I assure you, my dear, that if they have been transformed to their current form, it was through the choices that they willingly made.”

Which was, Elaine realised, technically no lie – the children had willingly chosen to stay, and the consequence of this was transformation…

The Sugar Plum Fairy smiled at her again. “Indeed. So in fact, you were not transformed unwillingly. You have seen nobody transformed except yourself. All your evidence is circumstantial at best. You may have acted out of concern for Clara – for which I thank you – but you have been misled.”

Elaine tried to reply, but her mouth refused to serve her.

Clara looked from the Sugar Plum Fairy to Elaine and back, frowning uncertainly. “But why would the rats make up a story like this?” she asked. “I don’t understand.”

“Because they want to make you as I am.”

The voice that spoke now was familiar to Elaine. It had something in it of wood, and something in it of porcelain, and everything of deceit.

“Your majesty, may I be permitted to speak?”

The Sugar Plum Fairy inclined her head, and Pierrot stepped forward, and bowed to Clara.

“But you are the dancing Pierrot from Uncle Drosselmeyer’s party!” she exclaimed.

Pierrot smiled sadly, the single black tear sparkling on his cheek. “I am, child. It is hard to imagine, is it not, that I was once a child like you?”

Elaine noticed that he had not actually said that he was such a child.

Clara nodded. “What happened to you?”

He sighed. “Imagine, then, a child at a party – a child with a marvellous new toy that he cannot bear to be parted from. Imagine sneaking downstairs at night to see the new toy again, to carry it back to your room, and finding toy and tree beset by rats. I am not so courageous as you, Clara, nor is my aim so sure…”

His voice trailed off, sadly.

“So… the rats attacked you, and you could not escape?” Clara cast the rats a look of horror, and stepped closer to the prince.

“Rat bites are often fatal, you know – they are such dirty creatures, they often carry infections. A child cannot survive such a bite, but a puppet can.”

Clara shook her head, as if confused. Elaine was not surprised. Pierrot was agile in avoiding outright lies, but his story was suffering as a result. “But… how did you become a puppet, then?”

“Your Uncle Drosselmeyer is a magician of some note. He has the power to turn a person into a puppet, if the circumstances are right.”

“And yours were.” Clara shuddered. “How horrible.”

“I am entirely his creature now, of course,” Pierrot added. “That was the price I paid for the life he gave me.”

Clara shook her head, appalled. “I am very sorry for what happened to you. Thank you for your warning.” She turned to the Sugar Plum Fairy. “I have made my decision, madame. I would like to stay.”

The Sugar Plum Fairy smiled down at her. “You have chosen well, my dear. As for these rats, what would you have me do to them?”

Clara cast Elaine and Masha a look of loathing. “Just… get rid of them, please. That first one might mean well, but the others are such horrible creatures. I don’t want them near me.”

“It will be my pleasure. Nutcracker, take Clara to see her new chambers, while I deal with these rodents.”

The Nutcracker Prince smiled at Clara and led her away. Elaine and the other rats stared after her, helplessly, their voices still silenced.

“And so you have lost to me at last, little rodent.”

Elaine blinked. She had not seen the moment at which Ankou had dropped his Sugar Plum Fairy guise, but he was himself again, and dressed as Drosselmeyer. Pierrot stood at his side, smirking a little.

Elaine opened her mouth, and found that she could. She hesitated – asking a question now seemed hazardous at best.

Masha spoke first. “And how do you plan to dispose of us, since you have promised to do so? Surely you need your tame rodents to fight the toys and drive children into your arms?”

Ankou laughed. “You have your uses, certainly. But I can do without you if I must. And rats in a sugar palace are terribly unsanitary.”

Elaine saw a movement out of the corner of her eye. It was the Spanish dancer again. “Marie, watch out!” she cried.

She was too late.

There was a horrible crunching sound and a squeak.   The rats cried out in shock, and Elaine felt tears come to her eyes.

“Oh, very well done,” said Ankou.

Elaine stared at him, speechless with distress. He smiled at her, and the rats around her all froze. “Let’s keep this simple,” he said and raised his hand.

“You’re going to kill them where they stand?” Elaine felt her gorge rising, and swallowed.   “You cannot do that, Ankou! They are children, and you know it!”

He stilled. “How do you know my name?”

Elaine opened her mouth to tell him, then stopped. Hera had told her his name, and Aphrodite had given her a ring and told her that she could call on the goddesses for help at her time of need. The ring, she realised, had followed her into her rodent form. She worked it off her paw and flung it to the ground.

Time seemed to stop – certainly everyone but Elaine and Ankou was suddenly still.

There was a loud rushing of wings, and an owl swooped into the room. It straightened, grew taller, and resolved into the grey-eyed goddess.

“Oh now, that is cheating,” said Ankou, reproachfully. “You and I have a competition going, Elaine. It isn’t fair of you to bring others into it.”

“You are the one who brought the goddesses into it, when you made me their judge,” Elaine reminded him. “And you brought these children into it. You just killed a child, Ankou. I will bring into this any advantage I have at my disposal.”

“I don’t think arguing with him is wise,” remarked Athena.

As the goddess of wisdom, she probably knew what she was talking about. Elaine turned away from Ankou to face her. “Thank you for coming so promptly,” she said, a little awkwardly.

The goddess smiled a little. “No thanks are needed; we are in your debt.”

Elaine nodded.

“What do you want of me? I should warn you,” Athena added, her gaze coming to rest on Marie’s body, “I cannot raise the dead. But I can help the living, and what I can do, I will.”

Elaine felt her whiskers droop. One child lost for certain, then.  But she could still fight for the rest. “Can you save Clara? Or the other rats? Or me? How many of us can you save?”

Athena raised her brows. “We offered help to you. Not to everyone you befriend in your travels.”

“But they are in danger because of me. Clara followed the Nutcracker Prince because I advised her badly, and these rats came here because they wanted to help me save her. They do not deserve to die for it.”

Athena regarded her thoughtfully. “I cannot save Clara. She had the opportunity to turn back, to listen and to hear the truth, and she chose to believe a lie. There is nothing I can do for her now.”

Elaine closed her eyes. Two lost, then. She took a deep breath. “What about the others?  Can you help them? I would be in your debt, if you did.”

The goddess looked at her coolly. “You speak very easily of debt. Do you understand what you are committing to?”

Elaine sighed. “Not entirely. But I would rather stand in your debt, than in his.”

“So be it, then.”  Athena turned her gaze on Ankou. “Clara is yours, by the rules of this place, and Marie is yours by the law of death. But these others – and their families who you transformed to puppets – were they allowed a free choice? Did you give them any opportunity – even such a poor one as you gave Clara – to hear what might happen to them if they chose wrongly? Or did you seduce them with fine words and half-lies until they could not see clearly? Tell me the truth now, and know that I cannot be deceived.”

Ankou looked as though he would have liked to defy the goddess but did not dare. “I have played within the rules,” he said. “If the children chose foolishly, surely this is no concern of the Goddess of Wisdom.”

“If the children chose foolishly, they should be given a chance to choose wisely.” Athena looked at Elaine. “Is this the boon you want? That the children may choose again, with the wisdom of experience to guide them?”

Elaine swallowed. Her heart ached for Marie and for Clara, but this would save the others. “Yes. Please, let them choose again.”

The goddess smiled. “Consider it done.”

The air around them was suddenly awash with gold, and when Elaine had finished blinking, Masha and the other rats were gone. “Are they…?”

“Home, and human again, and their parents too.”

Elaine sagged with relief. At least something good had come of this night.

“And you – would you choose again?”

Elaine was puzzled. “What do you mean?”

“Ankou gave you a choice, earlier this evening – safe passage home, or the chance to save Clara. Would you have chosen differently, knowing what you know now?”

Elaine thought about it. “If I had not made this choice, would the children be themselves again?”

Athena smiled. “No, they would not.”

“Then no. I have made my choice, and I will abide by it. Though I would prefer not to be a rat any more.”

The goddess smiled a little. “If you can find the gate, you will be human again. And I think you will find the gate. You are a resourceful woman, after all. I will see you again when I come to collect my debt.”

And with a rush of wings, she left.

Elaine looked around her. The throne room was empty now, but for her and Ankou, the petals melted away, and the dancers gone. Ankou was eyeing her with disfavour. “I spent years on this, you realise. And now I will have to start all over again.”

Elaine blinked. “You cannot possibly be expecting sympathy from me.”

He shrugged. “Not particularly. But then, I don’t need your sympathy, do I? I have something much better than that.” He bent down, extending a hand as if to stroke her back, and Elaine flinched back out of reach.

Ankou’s smile grew cruel. “I have the knowledge that you helped me trap Clara. Such a lovely, strong personality, that girl has!  So much courage, and generosity of spirit! I’m sure she will be very useful to me, in time.” He sighed, as if in a pleasant reverie. “I can’t decide which gives me more pleasure – the girl herself, or the fact that you were complicit in her capture.” He sighed again, then made a shooing motion at her. “Well, run along then. The story is over. You might as well go home.”

Elaine eyed him uncertainly. “I still need to find the gate,” she said, slowly.

Ankou laughed, a little mockingly. “My dear, you’re a rodent, and what do rodents do if not chew on things? You don’t need to find a gate, you can make your own.”

Elaine stilled. “Why are you helping me?”

“My dear Elaine, don’t you know that it is Christmas?”

She snorted, amused despite herself, and trudged off to a corner of the throne room to start chewing on the wainscotting.

It tasted like peppermint.

*****

Her hands and knees didn’t sting this time, but it took a while for Elaine to remember where her centre of gravity was, so she stayed kneeling on the Metro platform for a long moment, trying to capture her balance.

A hand was at her elbow, helping her up.

It was a familiar hand.

Jean-Luc smiled down at her. “You seem to have a lot of falls in the Métro,” he said.

Elaine pulled away, embarrassment flooding back as she remembered the events of the evening.

“Thank you, I’m fine now,” she told him, brusquely.

“Are you? What a pity. Personally, I need a drink. The girl I’ve had a crush on for months just ran out of my studio because apparently I did a terrible job of asking her out. I was rather hoping you might be willing to console me.” His smile was definitely flirtatious, and Elaine lost her temper.

“What the hell, Jean-Luc? You’ve just kicked me out of your class, on Christmas Eve, and now you want to flirt with me?”

His smile was a little quizzical. “But of course I want to flirt with you now. I could hardly flirt with you when I was your teacher, could I? That would have been taking advantage. But you aren’t my student any more, Elaine.”

Elaine blinked. “Are you saying that that’s why you kicked me out of your class? Seriously, Jean-Luc, why didn’t you just say so?”

“I did mention that I did a terrible job of asking you out.”

“Oh.” And, Elaine realised, her brain finally catching up with the conversation, that meant that she didn’t have to feel embarrassed about crushing on her teacher, either. Evidently, the interest did run both ways…

“So, would you like to join me for a drink? You don’t have to, of course, and I know it’s Christmas Eve, and you might be busy…”

Was he actually uncertain? That was kind of cute. “Coffee would be good,” Elaine suggested, and Jean-Luc smiled.

“It would indeed,” he agreed, and took her hand.

Elaine’s shopping bag was still on the platform where it had fallen. He reached out for it. “May I?”

Elaine blinked, then remembered what was in the bag. The baleful-looking doll that her niece had requested. She shuddered. “Oh, that’s not mine,” she lied. Technically, it was true – she had no intention of keeping that doll now, or of giving it to anyone she knew. Perhaps her niece would like a voucher for self-defense classes? It was never too soon to learn how to protect oneself, after all. Elaine’s mind drifted to the classes on situational awareness and improvised weapons. She looked down at her shoes, with their chunky heels, and shuddered again, thinking about Clara and her slippers, and poor Marie…

Jean-Luc looked at her with concern. “Are you sure you are alright? You look rather pale. We could always have coffee another time, if tonight is bad for you.”

Tonight had been very bad for her, but at least she had survived it. Elaine’s gaze fell on the train that had just pulled into the station, disgorging a large group of families all dressed up for the theatre. Twenty or so young girls in party dresses clung to their parents’ hands, looking around them as if the station was the most amazing thing they had ever seen.

The train pulled out. There was a dead rat on the metro track, and Elaine swallowed back grief and guilt. “I think… actually, I could really use some distraction this evening.”

“Distraction?” Jean-Luc looked at her thoughtfully, then smiled suddenly. “Well, in that case…” he stepped close, cupped her cheek in one hand, and kissed her. Distracting indeed, and very pleasant. Elaine kissed him back with enthusiasm. Another train pulled in, and Jean-Luc lifted his head, grinning down at her, his face a little flushed. “Was that sufficiently distracting?”

Elaine grinned back at him. She could feel the pink in her own cheeks. “I think we’d have to try it again to be certain. But let’s start with coffee, shall we?”

He laughed, and put an arm around her shoulders. “By all means, let’s find that coffee.”

Together, they turned and walked out of the station.

*****

In the shadows at the end of the platform, the Pierrot doll rose slowly to his feet and looked around him. He was not, perhaps, entirely a free agent yet, but he saw possibilities – in the station, in the theatre crowd that was now dispersing, in the shoppers, in the doll with the cruel face that was waiting, still wrapped, in a shopping bag a little way down the platform.

The tear on Pierrot Pantin’s cheek gleamed, but an astute observer would have noticed that the doll was smiling, just a little. “O brave new world,” he murmured, “that has such people in it.”

Slipping from shadow to shadow, he followed the crowd out of the station.

 

station

Puppets and Nutcrackers

Porte de Pantin is a station in Paris’s 19th arondissement, serving Line 5 of the Paris Métro.  The station opened in 1942, making it one of the newer stations on that line. Like the other ‘Porte’ stations, it is named for the gate in the old Thiers wall, and it gains the name ‘Pantin’ from the neighbouring town of Pantin.

Pantin means marionette or puppet, and let’s face it, pulling people’s strings is right up Ankou’s alley.  The names of the mice are a nod to the many versions of the Nutcracker.  Pirlipat was the heroine of A.E. Hoffman’s original tale, Nußknacker & Mäusekönig, Nutcracker and Mouse King, published in 1816.  Marie is the heroine of Histoire d’un Casse-Noisette, which was Alexandre Dumas père’s 1844 retelling of the story.  It was Dumas’s story which was then made into a ballet by Tchaikovsky in 1892, in which Marie became Masha, the Russian diminutive of Maria.  And then, in English-speaking countries, Masha was replaced by Clara, which was originally the name of Pirlipat’s doll in the Hoffman story.  My first encounter with the Nutcracker had Clara as the heroine, so she became the main child in this story.

Incidentally, everyone I spoke to while I was writing it immediately commented that the Nutcracker was an extremely creepy story, which surprised me, because I’ve always loved it and never found it creepy at all.  But I must admit, it lends itself very easily to disturbing retellings.  Actually, this story got a bit darker than I expected it to, but I think with the Nutcracker you can pretty much have all sweetness and light, or something horrible, and apparently sweetness and light wasn’t on the cards.  I’m sorry about that.

This is the fifth story featuring Elaine, and while I have tried up until now to make the stories stand alone, this one probably will not make a lot of sense if you didn’t read the previous one. Her story started in The Garden Door and continued in The Hair Loom, Between the Seams and The Judgment of (Elaine of) Paris. There are many, many other gates and doors in the Paris Métro, so you may be certain you will be seeing her again.  You will be seeing Ankou again, too, and probably Jean-Luc, and certainly Pantin, though he is unlikely to bother Elaine again directly.  (The rest of Paris should be concerned, however.  He has at least two more Métro stations named after him…)

The images I have used are all in the public domain.  The Christmas tree is an illustration from Godey’s Lady’s Book, December 1860, called Victoria & Albert Decorate the Christmas Tree. The battle of the toys is an illustration by P.C. Geißler from an 1840 edition of Hoffman’s original story “Nußknacker & Mäusekönig”.  The Nutcracker is from the German ‘Nussknacker’ Wikipedia page. The mice (I could not find any good rats in the public domain) is an illustration from The home book for very little people, their brothers and sisters, their mothers and teachers, published by Phillips & Hunt in 1887.  The Pierrot marionette is from Wikimedia Commons, created by Wasily, who has placed it in the public domain.  The picture of the Sugar Plum Fairy’s palace is the original set design for the Nutcracker Ballet, found on Wikipedia.

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