From the audience, I am fourth from the right, an indeterminate position in a group of a dozen. Our leering manager, whose gambler’s belly and cigar protrude from backstage, bills us as “The Twelve Dancing Princesses”. We dance amidst tarnished gold- and silver-painted trees like would-be wood nymphs. We display shapely calves for the masses at ten; the midnight show is…more select.
Our shoes are danced to pieces every night.
Tonight’s half-empty late-night house includes the usual characters: noblemen feigning ennui, variously legitimate businessmen – and…a soldier. He is obviously a veteran of the last war, shabby, five years past handsome.
He approaches the stage afterward, with the air of a perennially unsuccessful entrepreneur.
“Which do you want?” the manager asks, gesturing.
The soldier frowns. “I want to discuss a partnership. I can double your income.”
The manager takes in his threadbare uniform, snorts, walks away.
The other girls buttonhole more promising-looking prospects; I linger. “How?” I demand.
“Adding another girl.”
“Thirteen is unlucky,” I snipe.
“Twelve is too balanced. You know the formations. One line of twelve. Two lines of six. Three groups of four…There’s no star. Adding another lady would mean the theatre could advertise a new discovery – and you have background dancers at the ready.”
He’s…very nearly right. “I have a better idea,” I say. “Wait here.”
I accost the manager. “We need the soldier.”
“Onstage. Consider the possibilities: A pirate and his hostages. A sailor and sirens. A prince with his harem…”
The cigar drops from the manager’s mouth; sparks spatter my shoes. “Hm,” he says – but dashes over to the soldier. The soldier – Philip – glances toward me. He shakes the manager’s hand.
Philip is a mediocre dancer, but that hardly matters. He has presence onstage, and presence of mind backstage: catching the underfed Marina as she faints; standing guard over a cabinet closeting Helena and her lover; claiming Amelia’s vomit as his own, as she tries to conceal her pregnancy a little longer.
A man for all seasons.
Attendance is skyrocketing.
Philip and I ask the manager for some recognition of our efforts.
He applauds loudly in our faces – then laughs.
“What’s his weakness?” Philip frowns.
“Cigars,” I answer. “And cards.”
The manager counts the night’s take, his stogie dangling dangerously. Philip, with a magician’s grace, produces a box of imported cigars we bought this morning.
The manager eyes it.
“I’ll play you for it,” Philip offers.
The early cards favor the manager. Philip says, “Double or nothing.” I pour more wine. Philip’s long experience of being the fourth in his officers’ games begins to tell. Double or nothing. Over and over.
Finally: The manager puts up the deed to the theatre.
Philip lays down three aces.
The manager dents the table in stubbing out his cigar, threatens violence, calls Philip a cheat. He demands that Philip sell him the theatre back.
He doesn’t pay what it’s worth, but it’s a lot.
More than enough for the two of us to start over.
Linda McMullen is an American diplomat, currently doing a domestic rotation in Washington D.C. She has worked in Asia and Africa and has previously published an article in State Magazine. Her short story “Diplomatic Rupture” has been accepted by Palaver for its May 2018 issue.