Short Story #5: The Masquerade
The fifth of my short story vignettes. I write these in one-go, no revisions, no rewrites. I hope you enjoy.
The heavy door swings open, the inlaid crystal windows scattering the bright light bursting from inside as it turns. My breath catches and my chest tightens as the ballroom is laid before me, bursting at the seams with majesty and opulence. The dance floor was composed of beautifully stained and lacquered wood, with an even pattern of miniscule glass mirrors laid within. The dance floor itself seemed to glimmer and flash with the movement of the many nobles sweeping across it. It was like stumbling upon a fae ground in the forest. Enchanting, beautiful, exotic…
A servant approaches me and gestures mutely towards my coat and hat. He says nothing of the mask, of course. Nobody ever seems to notice the mask. Maybe they just expect it of me at this point; I do wear it every day. Even in private. Without so much a glance in his direction, lest it betray the trepidation in my eyes, I hand over my coat and hat. I’m not a fan of giving up my coat, but it would only draw attention to me if I kept it. I take comfort in the soft, warm touch of the fur lining as it leaves my grasp. That fur was that of my best friend until he passed away into that endless night. I spent a great deal of time and money finding a way to preserve this small part of him, so I’d never be alone. Shaving him was hard, but I could never make a proper pelt out of him. It would make me no better than these noble animals on the dance floor. Magically grafting the fur onto the cloth was expensive, but we all have our quirky investments.
With my friend and vestment gone, I am faced with the horde of feral creatures dancing and flitting about the room. From the sparkling dance floor to the clean white tiled dining floor beyond, the room is beautiful. The walls, lined with rich, thick tapestries depicting the deeds of the noble families, seemed both impossibly large and distant, and distractingly constricting. At the far end of the room is a large door, flanked by guards bearing chain mail vests and side swords. Their tabards are of a contrasting white background and deep ruby fox. I don’t know what they are protecting, but it isn’t why I’m here. Above them, accessed by secret stairs, was a platform upon which a group of musicians played. I recognize a few instruments by their strings, but there are some that are still foreign to me. I step forward, embracing the violent smells of roasted pig, spiced wine, and concocted fragrances worn by men and women alike. The combination gives me a headache.
I stride purposefully towards the refreshments table. I am obligated to be here, yes, but I am not obligated to attend sober. I see the looks being thrown my way; I see you, with your chin as strong as the alcohol on your breath; you, with the dress that tries very hard to accentuate what doesn’t exist; you, whose eyes are blank and dead to the world, two drinks away from oblivion; and you especially, watching me with that calm gaze and slight smile. You, the person who holds a glass of wine that has barely been touched all night. You, the woman that watches me at every ball I’m forced to attend. You, the person who waits to see what kind of behavior the savage outsider will demonstrate this time. I reach out and grasp a glass of wine, my hand shaking slightly. I accidentally bump into another glass, causing a small amount of clattering — thank the Spirits nothing actually spilled. The quickly muffled laughter, barely audible above the musicians, stung my back like nettles in the forest. My neck and face burned. I had to reaffix my mask before I straightened up, but when I turned to gaze silently at those who laughed, they could only see the mask. These animals will never be able to see my face, but I can see theirs. Their masks are feeble indeed, for their every expression is visible to me.
I travel across the bright tiled flooring, polished to a brightness that hurt my eyes, searching for my usual alcove from which to observe the ball. I took a drink from my glass as I do so, the revolting fluid within filling my nose and mouth with its essence. I have no idea how these people enjoy drinking this, but it help numb me on nights like tonight. I’m not one of these people, so I guess it’s not for me. At least it does its job fairly quickly, when I need it to. Ah, there it is. My little den away from the oppressive brightness of the main floor. Nobody notices me there, nobody bothers me there.
There’s someone in it.
“Isn’t the point of attending a ball to dance with people?” she asks, that calm smile still carving its way across her face. The wine glass is still almost entirely full on the table in front of her. When did she get here? Why did she come here?
“I’m not one for dancing,” I reply, smiling through the mask. “I was never taught quite how to dance for grand events like this.”
She seemed amused, the smile taking on a sardonic cast. “Grand? House Chevail’s balls are of high quality, yes, but ‘grand’ may be too generous.”
“There is much grandeur in the details, in the little things,” I say, taking a seat opposite her. I place my wineglass opposite hers. As it stands, hers is slightly fuller.
“Oh?” She asks, curious. She shifts in her chair, crossing one long leg over the other and leaning back. Her deep green dress, patterned with silver embroidery, hugs her figure without crossing the line into obscenity. A frost-lined Dryad, clothed in only leaves and holding a turtleshell bowl full of blood, danced into my mind. She’s laughing, and her silver eyes are dancing. I can’t help but smile at the memory. That was so long ago.
“So you can smile,” the woman muses, leaning forward slightly. “I had been wondering.”
“Yes, I can smile. Just like you and everyone else here do.”
Her smile flickers slightly, like a candle beside an open window. She takes up her wine glass, the fine crystal structure faintly reflecting the side of her soft, faintly feline features. “You never answered my question,” she notes.
Our two glasses are equally full now. I sigh, and turn to face the ballroom outside of the alcove. Despite its violent brightness, it is more restful to gaze upon than the face of this woman. “This ballroom is smaller than some others in the city, it’s true. But look upon the ways House Chevail maximizes the space,” I gesture to the windows high above the floor, fanning outward from the center of the domed ceiling like the marks of a sundial. Exactly like a sundial.
“During the day, or early evening,” I continue, “Those windows direct the sunlight onto the tapestries on the walls, highlighting that particular scene. The highlighted tapestry likely changes based on either the time of day, or the time of year. I wouldn’t be surprised if the chosen tapestry was aligned with that timing in the story.”
The woman’s eyebrows rise, and her eyes widen slightly. “I did not expect you to have an eye for interior decoration,” she says. She takes another sip from her wineglass, placing it directly adjacent to mine. My wineglass was slightly more filled now. When I look back to her face, her eyes are slightly tightened and her mouth is slightly curved upward. I sigh, and take a small sip from my wineglass, before slowly placing it directly adjacent to hers, meeting her gaze the entire time. The glasses are even.
“That was only one thing,” she prompts me, “I’m not sure that’s enough to qualify this as ‘grand’ yet.”
The fact that she says “yet” is telling. She’s just playing the game, not actually interested in who I really am. There isn’t any desire for depth, just like with all of the others. I’m disappointed, but I shouldn’t have expected anything different from this lot. I guess I’ll play along.
“There is more, of course,” I say, adopting the verbal rhythm of a spice merchant. “The colors of House Chevail are reminiscent of the colors of fae beasts of legends — bone white and blood red.”
Her smile inverts as I speak, and her head tilts slightly in confusion. “What does that have to do with the grandeur of this particular ball?”
“With that association with the fae, and with old legends, the dance floor was decorated to evoke that exact imagery,” I gesture to the dance floor itself, “The deep red wood, lacquered and inlaid with dozens of tiny mirrors, catches and reflects the light much like fae dancing grounds do in a full moon. The mirrors themselves seem to form a series of interlocked circles, as if to bind the spirits of those who dance within it forever.”
The woman uncrosses her legs and leans forward, placing her head on one hand and tracing a series of circles on the table with the other hand’s fingers. She looks at me from under her dark eyelashes, trying to ensnare me in her vibrant hazel eyes. Honestly speaking, I must admit it’s working. “’Like fae dancing grounds do in a full moon’?” she asks, her voice purring. “Have you seen such a thing before, Lord Strainséir?”
Damn, I got carried away. I quickly stifle a scowl; if I react to her question, it only proves her suspicions. I keep my face neutral. “Unfortunately no, I’ve never been blessed enough to witness such beauty before,” I pause, as she dances through my head again. She’s too far away now. Far beyond my reach. It’s the best for the both of us. “My life has been bereft of true beauty for some time now.”
She frowns at first, and then her eyes narrow as I finish. She sits up in her chair, and is silent for a moment. She’s just watching me, like a hawk watching a raven. After a moment her expression softens and she graces me with a hint of a rueful smile. She picks up her glass and takes a large sip, nearly a third of what was left. She places it next to mine once again. I have nearly twice as much remaining wine as her. The wine in our glasses is a red, rich in color and presence. In the somewhat obscured alcove, protected from the blinding light, they are so dark as to appear almost black. Despite excellent acoustics in the building, the musicians seem distant, and the dancers feel like objects in a clockwork mechanism behind a carver’s shop window. Only the wine, the table, and the woman feel real to me right now. It’s a peculiar experience that I have not felt since that night in the glade, far from here. There were no masks that night. It was a freer time.
“May I ask something of you?” I’m taking a risk with this, something so direct. It violates the rules of the game these people play, and that might displease the woman. She raises her eyebrows, surprised. She glances down at the wineglasses, her eyes flickering almost faster than I could catch. She tilts her head to the side, causing a single strand of her shining, voluptuous black hair to come free from the elaborate styling on her head. I can feel my breath catch slightly. It’s amazing how just one small imperfection can accentuate the larger beauty. She smiles a little more than before. Damn. I take a swallow of wine. I only have a few sips’ worth more than her now.
“Of course, my Lord,” she responds demurely. This is a trap if I’ve ever seen one. My heartbeat quickens, but I try to control my gaze and expression. I have to keep my mask on now. If my mask falls from my face at this moment, I lose. Losing to just one of these feral nobles means losing to all of them. But I’m committed now. She’s expecting a question, and of the many I have, there are two that stand above them. I can only ask one.
“Why are you interested in me, my Lady?” I ask, choking down the question I, at this moment, really want to ask. There will be time later for such pleasantries. “You’ve watched me from a distance before, but this is the first time we’ve ever spoken.”
She laughs lightly; a small, amused laugh that lacks true depth of emotion. “I’m afraid there is no particular reason, my Lord,” she smiles at me from behind dark eyelashes, “At least, none that I can currently think of.” The stray lock of hair and the shadows of the alcove took up opposite sides of her face, framing it in vivid darkness. Her pale skin is luminous in the faint light, and her hazel eyes are piercing, yet warm. I should have known that she wouldn’t answer that question — I guess I haven’t earned that reward. I smile and nod in her direction, taking up my wineglass and taking a large sip.
She casually glances down at the glass as I place it beside her own, and smiles softly at the even level of wine in the two. There is perhaps one more swallow left in each of them. She looks up at me once more, tilting her head again as if asking me a question. Why did you do that?
“Might I ask you something, in return?” She asks. Her expression is soft, and warm, and there is an inquisitive gleam in her eyes. I can’t help but be curious, despite knowing that any real answer would risk losing to this feral, political noble. The last time I’ve played with someone like this was many years ago. Tonight’s event was, for the first time since coming here, worthwhile. I nod.
“You said your life has been bereft of beauty for some time,” she says, slowly. My eyes narrow. What is she going to ask me? That was a musing, hardly relevant. She pauses, before continuing, “Has it also been bereft of happiness?”
I sit still. I don’t know how to answer that. I haven’t given it much thought. Every day for the past several months I’ve just put on my mask and went to battle against the faceless horde of nobles and their political schemes. For the years prior to that I put my head down and studied these people and the history of the city. I absorbed the knowledge of the House I had unexpectedly inherited as much as I absorbed its responsibility. In that time, have I felt happiness? I sigh, and let my mask slide off of my face. Her expression flickers briefly into surprise, and then sadness. Her eyes show sympathy, but also understanding.
She leans forward and grasps my glass of wine, raising it slightly and sitting back in her chair. I smile sadly. “The last time I did something like this,” I hear myself say, “I fell deeply in love with someone special. Then I had to leave forever, alone.”
She leans forward again, and pushed her wineglass towards me. She catches my gaze, and nods toward it. I take up the glass in my own hand. We click our glasses against each other, the fine crystal ringing beautifully, the intonation only slightly violated by the sloshing fluid. We let our masks fall away completely and smile silently at each other. We both drink deeply, downing the remainder of our glasses.
We place our glasses next to each other on the table one final time, and sit in silence for a few moments. My face feels slightly warm, and my palms are sweaty. The musicians are louder now, and the violent smells of the food and perfume in the hall was still appalling. The light seems more blinding and the air feels less clean. But for some reason, right now, I feel strangely satisfied. My companion stands up, and turns to exit the alcove.
“My Lady,” I say, just a little too quickly. She pauses and turns to look at me. She sweeps the stray lock of hair away from her face in a casual, beautiful motion. Her hazel eyes are once again that of a hawk, but behind the carefully-crafted mirror is something genuine.
“Yes, my Lord Strainséir?”
“What is your name? I don’t believe I ever caught it.”
She laughs. It’s a warm, throaty laugh. A real laugh. I can’t help but think it’s wonderful, despite myself. She smiles.
“My name is Leanne, of House Fithich,” she answers. It’s a good name. She turns to leave the alcove, pinning the stray lock of hair back into place — and her mask with it. As she leaves, she calls something to me over her shoulder.
“I expect a dance next time, Lord Strainséir.”
I expect she will have it. I lean back in my chair and gaze upon the twin empty wineglasses. I can’t help but close my eyes and think of a cold, moonlit night in a forest glade. Trading questions and drinks from a turtle shell bowl in a strange game of courtship and supremacy. Trading words with an otherworldly beauty who had changed me forever. As sad as our parting was, perhaps it is time to move on.
Right, my dear Abhainn?