As Romeric wove through the crowd of partygoers on the Palace Bridge, people kept pointing at his painted face with various expressions of delight or disapproval. “Clever!” one person said to him, only to have someone else a moment later declare, “Cheater!” He didn’t care. He met all the comments with the same lazy half-grin. Let them think what they wanted. He’d only come here for Barris’s sake anyway.
He was doing his best not to ruin the revelry for his friends. He knew they thought it odd he wouldn’t join in, and he couldn’t blame them. If there was one thing the stereotypes had right about Jurati it was that they loved a good party.
But he found it impossible to really relax around so many masked faces.
Hands filled with a variety of sweet and savory treats, plus a mug of spice (and hopefully spiked) punch, he found a bench near the bridge railing where he had a good view of the dancing. He could pick Barris out easily; his height plus the bull’s horns made him stand out above the other dancers. Tierce circled into view now and then, hands joined with other dancers in lines that moved around the dance floor in nimble-footed patterns. It didn’t look either of them would be ready to leave any time soon.
At least the food was good enough to alleviate at least a little of his misery. Skewered beef, seared and sizzling. Rings of fried dough glazed with honey. Pockets of bread stuffed with soft cheese and herbs. Fruit tarts, custard tart, tarts filled with seasoned meat. His favorite were tiny little meringues, dusted with sugar and flavored with a tart liqueur that reminded him of home. He had just popped the third one in his mouth, smiling with bliss as it practically melted on his tongue, when someone spoke from behind him.
“I’m glad to see you’re having at least a little fun.”
He turned to find Nedalya, grinning with amusement at the pile of food he was working his way through. Her eyes twinkled behind her mask, and there were flecks of glitter sprinkled through her hair.
“It’s not the worst party I’ve ever been to,” he admitted as he brushed crumbs from his lips. “What about you? Are you having a good time?”
She tilted her head and smiled. There was something secret about her expression, he thought, though perhaps it was just an effect of her mask. “I am.” She waved behind her, where a group of girls with flowers and songbirds over their faces waited for her. “They think you’re not dancing because you don’t know how.”
“Oh, I can dance.”
“Are you going to prove it?”
He hesitated, his pride pricked. True, he didn’t actually know the precise steps of the dances here — they danced with partners in Jurati, not groups — but normally such a small thing wouldn’t bother him. In fact, not knowing the steps would be a great excuse to ask someone to teach him, and before you knew it the two of you were dancing together, and from there…well.
He couldn’t do it, though. Not tonight. Not when every masked face was like a nightmare dredged from the worst corners of his memory.
He shook his head. “Maybe another time.”
“I thought you’d say that.” She pursed her lips together thoughtfully. “I know why don’t like masks,” she said and leaned close to whisper. “It’s because you’re wearing a mask all the time.”
He blinked at her, startled. Tried to come up with some response, but couldn’t. Neda just nodded once then pulled back.
“I really came over to tell you,” she said. “I saw Calette by the maze.”
“Calette?” he said, startled again. “Where?” He narrowed his eyes at Neda. “How do you know about Calette?”
She giggled. “We live in the same house. It’s hard to keep secrets. She was all by herself. If you want to talk to her.”
“Of course I do!” he exclaimed, his heart skipping a beat. “What’s she wearing?”
Neda laughed again. “If you can’t figure that out, then you don’t deserve her.” She wiggled her fingers at him in parting before whisking off to rejoin her friends.
“But…” he called after her, but she was gone too quickly.
Well, all right, he thought to himself as quaffed the rest of his punch (not spiked, unfortunately). The night was about to get a lot more interesting. He left the empty mug along with the remains of his self-indulgent feast behind and headed towards the maze.
The maze, which had been built just for the event, was hard to miss, rising up from the square on the far side of the dancing pavilion, a multilevel scaffold made out of wood, with billowy lengths of fabric hung throughout, making walls and partitions. It was only dimly lit, adding to the mystery of the whole thing. Partygoers — mostly the younger ones — ran in and out, screaming with laughter and excitement.
Romeric scanned the people standing in the vicinity, picking out the girls who looked about the right height. A rabbit, several birds, two more girls in the same antique blue livery that Nedalya was wearing. None of them felt right for Calette, though. Had she gone into the maze? There was only one way to find out. He ducked in through the nearest entrance to go looking for her.
It was darker inside the maze than he expected, which was fine with him. No one paid him any attention as he navigated the twisting walkways with their rippling walls of fabric. He didn’t really pay attention to which way he was going, trusting to Aratanne that she’d lead him where his heart desired. All the same, he had to turn back often when he reached a dead end, or when a cluster of partygoers made a blockade he didn’t feel like trying to wade through. Every time someone raced by overhead, their thudding footfalls made the whole structure shudder and waves of light and shadow turned the narrow space into a dreamscape.
Nedalya’s words played on his mind while he went. Had she really known what she was saying when she accused him of wearing a mask all the time? Or had it just been a lucky guess? He didn’t like to think it was so obvious that he’d been hiding anything about himself. He settled on just being thankful that she hadn’t pushed the issue, forcing him to cover up the truth with more half-truths and diversions. He didn’t like to think of them as lies. He didn’t want to think of himself as a liar.
Another turn, another dead end — this one occupied. The two girls were too wrapped up in their kiss to notice him, and though he told himself he was only pausing to make sure neither of them was Calette, his gaze lingered a little longer than needed. Now that was love, he thought to himself. An inexorable yearning for another that could only ever be satisfied through touch. A bittersweet sigh escaped him. It had been far to long since he’d had a chance to indulge that longing himself.
He left without drawing the girls’ attention, and with the sinking sensation that his search was all in vain. If Calette was here, he’d never find her in this tangled labyrinth. And if she’d already left, as he was beginning to suspect, this whole thing was a complete waste of time. He needed to get back and check on his friends.
Of course, the moment he made up his mind to give up, that’s when he found her.
He knew her instantly, even with the costume she wore. She was dressed all in gold, an ornate confection covered with lace and beads, with ribbons woven through her hair and a mask like a star over her face. It was the way she was staring up at a panel of filmy white fabric that caught his attention. A light behind her cast her shadow up in stark relief, and as he watched, she raised her arms in undulating movements, observing the play of light and dark with apparent fascination. For a moment, he watched her with the same fascination, admiring the slow grace of her movements, the curve of her figure, the mesmerizing current of her hair as she swayed back and forth.
He almost didn’t want to disturb her, so enchanting was the sight. But a need for more than looking drove him to speak. “Hello, Calette.”
She paused her movement, glanced over her shoulder. “Oh, it’s you.”
“I’m not bothering you, am I?”
She glanced back at her shadow, then at him again. “Don’t move.”
“I was hoping we could–”
“Wait!” she said, and before he knew what was happening she had pulled aside the fabric sheet and disappeared behind it.
He groaned to himself. Posing, again. But he did as she had asked, because of course.
Only a few seconds passed, though, before she stuck her head back around. “Would you dance?”
“Like…” she moved one arm up and down again, like she had been doing herself moments before. Obedient to her whims, he emulated her movements, and she smiled in appreciation before disappearing again.
What you do for love, he thought to himself. He knew he should feel ridiculous, standing alone in a darkened maze, waving his hands around like some kind of demented magi during a weather summoning ritual. A group of younger kids, Pash’s age, ran by, some of them giving him odd looks as they passed. He just shrugged and kept waving.
After a few minutes, Calette called out, “That’s enough! You can stop.”
He dropped his arms and waited for her to reappear. When she didn’t, he called out her name. “Calette?”
She didn’t answer. Curious, and little worried that she might have slipped off, he stepped forward and pulled back the panel. She was still there, kneeling on the ground in a puddle of beaded gold, bent over a scrap of paper with a stub of charcoal in her hand.
“I was just trying to remember,” she said, as he came close enough to see the silhouettes she had scribbled onto the page.
“Are you going to paint it?”
“Perhaps.” The charcoal and paper disappeared into a pocket of her skirt, and she scrambled to her feet. It was only then that she looked at him, really looked at him. “You’re not wearing a mask.”
“I like my face too much to hide it away,” he said, trying to forget Nedalya’s too-astute comment. He reached up to touch her mask. “It’s full of stars.”
“My parents,” she said, touching it briefly herself. It was made of glass, and tiny lights flickered within its surface, pinprick enchantments that made it look like she wore the night sky on her face. “They like to be sure everyone knows how much money we have. I’m sorry about Cael. I told him he shouldn’t make fun of you.”
“He doesn’t bother me,” Romeric said truthfully. “Not as much as you never answering my letters.”
“I wrote you back.”
“‘Dear Romeric, thank you for your letter’ is not much of a response. I didn’t know if you wanted me to keep writing or not.”
She shifted her gaze away. “I am not very good at writing.”
“That’s all right,” he said. He moved his hand away from her mask, letting his finger graze her cheek, almost as if by accident. “You can just tell me now.”
“Romeric…” she said, and when the space after his name became too drawn out, he realized he had expected too much. He stepped back, and he heard the soft sigh of relief she let out. “Thank you for letting me paint you the other day.” She glimpsed up at him, a smile flashing oh so briefly across her face. “You have remarkable eyes.”
“I was hoping you might like more about me than my eyes.”
“You don’t have to apologize…”
She leaned forward and kissed him. He responded automatically, kissing her back even as he sensed the tightness of her lips, the stiffness in her torso. He resisted the urge to wrap his arms around her, to draw her close and ravish her with his lips. Instead, when she pulled back after a few seconds, he eyed her curiously.
“Why did you do that?”
The stars in her mask twirled in excited constellations. “Because it’s the Trienelle. Every girl is supposed to want her first kiss at the Trienelle. And I thought, if I’m going to have my first kiss, it might as well be with someone who looks at me like you do.”
He nodded slowly, but didn’t say anything. He didn’t think he had words in Rhemish to say what was in his heart just then. Maybe not in Jurati, either.
“It’s just too much, though.” She touched the pendant he wore, the amulet of Aratanne. “You’re too much. For now, anyway.”
“I understand. Maybe someday?” He caught his hand in hers and brought it to his lips. The kiss he breathed over her knuckles was softer than the wind. “When you are ready?”
Calette bit down on her lip but she didn’t say anything. He let go of her hand and stepped back. “I’ll leave you to your shadows,” he said, gesturing at the billowing sheet of fabric. On the other side, someone raced by, laughing.
He turned and left, hoping without expectation that she’d change her mind and call him back. But she didn’t.
“There is nothing good about masks,” he grumbled to himself as he tried to retrace his steps out of the maze. It took him longer than he expected to find his way and, frustrated by the increasing number of couples he was finding amidst the twists and turns, he finally gave up and forced his way through one of the flapping panels. He emerged beneath the moonlight, and the colored lights of the paper lanterns, and the overpowering scent of jasmine.
The music and laughter was like an assault. He wished he could get out of here. Maybe, he thought, if he could leave Barris with Tierce to back him up — but even as he contemplated it, he heard a surge of raised voices from not far away. A sixth sense told him what was happening, even before one voice made itself clear above the others.
“You were warned, Aderen. You’re not wanted here. Now, are you going to leave on your own, or are we going to have to do it for you?”
Be something you’re not.
That’s what Neda had insisted when they were picking out their masks, and why Tierce had ended up with this monstrosity of teeth and bone on his face instead of something that actually looked nice. He’d been hoping to wear something grand, maybe even noble or heroic. Something that inspired more than nightmares. But then Neda handed him the skull-shaped mask with its jagged metal teeth and spiky feathered crest and that had been that.
He wasn’t going to complain about it, though. An ugly mask wasn’t going to stop him from having a good time tonight, not when there was music and dancing to enjoy. Not to mention games with prizes, and good food to eat. And girls.
Without meaning too, he let his gaze slip towards Neda. She was laughing with Pash about something, halfway up the stairs from the boat landing, and her radiant smile made his heart leap despite his best intentions not to let that happen. Her delicate filigree mask didn’t really hide much of her face, and he could see how excited she was, almost oozing with confidence in the costume she’d chosen for the night, every bit the warrior princess she was pretending to be.
Only Tierce knew she wasn’t really pretending.
She’d pulled him aside before they left the house, setting his pulse racing to an all-too-familiar rhythm as she snuck into an unused storage closet near the kitchen. Though their secret lessons had continued, neither of them had ever said anything about the day she’d kissed him in the garden, and he’d done a pretty good job convincing himself that nothing had happened at all. But in an instant, all his hard-earned denial evaporated in a rush of yearning.
But she hadn’t brought him there to kiss him again. Or even to talk about the kiss. Instead, she pulled a long bundle out of a corner and yanked off its wrapping to reveal what was inside. “What do you think?” she asked in a hushed voice.
It was a sword. Tierce just stared at it a moment, not sure how to respond. It looked like a decent blade. Not too fancy, with a slender, tapered blade and what looked to be a keen edge. The boxy pommel and guard were finished with brass, and fresh leather wrapped the grip.
He glanced up at her, unsurely. “Who’s is it?”
“Mine.” She grinned. “I’m going to wear it to the masquerade tonight.”
“Neda, you can’t. They’ll arrest you if they find you wearing a sword.”
“There will be dozens of girls dressed up like Daena tonight, and most of them will have swords. No one is going to check to make sure they’re all fake.”
“You can’t be sure of that.”
She just set her jaw.“I wasn’t asking for your permission, Tierce. I just…I just wanted to show someone. It’s a good sword, isn’t it?”
There was something in her voice he recognized. He remembered the thrill of getting his own sword. Helpless in the face of her enthusiasm, and more than ever charmed by her daring, he’d only been able to flash her a crooked smile. “It’s a good sword.”
She grinned and slid the sword into the scabbard on her belt. With a gleam in her eye, she had pulled her mask down over her face and darted out into the hallway before he could say anything else. Not that anything he could have said would have made a difference anyway.
But he’d made a decision afterwards, coming downriver in the boat at twilight, with a hideous mask covering his face and a night of merriment up ahead. If she wanted him to be someone he wasn’t tonight, then he would be someone who wasn’t in love with Nedalya Fleuracy. There were countless girls his age in Corregal, and most of them would be at the masquerade tonight. There was no reason he couldn’t spend time in their company, dance with them. Laugh. Maybe more.
Surely there was nothing wrong with that.
Except why did he feel guilty every time he looked at her?
“I don’t believe it,” Romeric said, astonishment plain in his voice. He stood with Tierce at the top of the stairs, and they both tried not to gape at the spectacle laid out before them. “The Rhemish actually know how to throw a party.”
The Palace Bridge had been transformed. From a distance, it had looked as if someone had plucked every star from the night sky and strung them across the river. Up close, it was like stepping into another world. Light from scores of magic-filled paper lanterns illuminated the ancient arcade with pools of shifting colors, rose and turquoise and violet and gold, and made the iridescent streamers and canopies of silvered linen shimmer with rainbows. Lush garlands of night-blooming flowers wrapped all the railings and arches, scenting the air with their sweet, unsubtle perfume, while fist-sized soap bubbles bobbed overhead, sprinkling showers of glitter whenever they popped onto the masked faces below.
It was nothing like Tierce had expected. He’d attended grand events before, traveling between the courts of the petty kings with his father. But nothing that he had experienced in Corregal had prepared him for this kind of extravagant display. Solemn, serious, the people here took pride in their austerity, their answer to the excesses of the Empire they’d liberated themselves from decades before. He’d been to festivals in the city before, but they’d been nothing like this.
He glanced at Romeric, wondering if the sight was enough to shake him from his sour mood. He hadn’t even planned on coming until he’d heard about the ominous warning Sindera Vallen had given Barris. Loyalty to those he had taken to calling his “brothers of the blade” overcame his reluctance, but he’d made it clear he wasn’t planning on enjoying himself. The swash of black grease paint across his eyes was as close as he’d come to wearing a mask, but it was his attitude that was the real disguise. Tierce had gotten used the Jurati’s ever-cheerful demeanor, always ready with a disarming compliment or racy joke. It was strange to see him work so hard at being unhappy.
As if guessing his thoughts, Romeric rolled his eyes. “You look ridiculous,” he grumbled before stalking off into the crowd.
“That’s the whole point!” Tierce called after him, though underneath the mask he felt his cheeks redden. It really was a stupid mask.
Well, no matter. It wasn’t his responsibility to make sure Romeric had a good time. Any more than it was his job to make sure Neda…
He stopped that thought before it went any farther.
She was gone, anyway, disappeared into the crowd to find her own friends. Pash, too, had scampered off as soon as he reached the bridge.
Barris had stopped up ahead to wait for them, though. His extra height and the grand spread of his bull mask’s horns made him easy to spot in the crowd. Even from a distance Tierce could see the rigid set of his friend’s shoulders, the tight line of his jaw beneath the edge of his mask as he scanned the partygoers, probably looking for anyone who was ready to make good on Sindera’s threat.
He pushed his way forward, earning a few sharp words from those he jostled on the way. When he reached Barris’s side he leaned close to be heard over the music and laughter.
“Are you ready?”
His friend nodded, his lips pressed tight. “Ready for what, though?”
Tierce elbowed him in the side. “Ready to have fun.”
Barris turned to him with an almost startled expression, as if the thought of having fun tonight hadn’t even occurred to him before this moment. But it only lasted a moment, and then a wide grin split his face and he let the tension drop away from his shoulders. “Definitely.”
A lively cacophony of pipes, horns and drums had Tierce tapping his toes as they wound their way through the crowd. He was looking forward to dancing later, but for the moment he was just enjoying the parade of fantastic faces—furry cats with jewel-tipped ears, fearsome fanged monsters, beribboned birds and bugs that bubbled with excitement. Everyone was looking and pointing and laughing at the spectacle. Every time one of the glitter-filled bubbles popped there was a chorus of shrieks and a mad scramble as people either tried to escape the shower of sparkles, or get themselves coated with it.
His own mask garnered a fair share of attention — usually from girls who squealed as they fled in the opposite direction. He did his best to embrace the role, making threatening gestures and noises as they ran off. He wasn’t very convincing, though, and his efforts mostly earned laughter from those around him. At one point, another Daena — Neda had been right, there were dozens of them on the bridge, all in blue with scabbards bumping at their sides — drew her wooden sword and harried him with it. Caught up in the spirit of the festivities, he pretended to let her skewer him, and then clutched at his gut as he staggered back and forth, before falling prone in a dramatic death. The applause was enthusiastic, and the Daena paraded off victoriously with her friends.
“Ridiculous,” Romeric said as he gave him a hand to help him rise. But the Jurati’s mouth quirked with just a hint of a smile.
They spent the next little while wandering past the rows of brightly painted game booths and food stalls that lined the bridge. It was all free, a gift to the young people who lived here, a chance to put aside the allegiances that dominated life on a daily basis. Whether it was the antiquated feuds between the Great Houses that still sometimes flared to violence or guild rivalries that went all the way back to the Age of Kings, in a city where everyone wore a badge, everyone, young or old, picked sides every day. The uneasy authority shared by the Guilds and Houses in the Civic Ministry only barely managed to keep control, and even the Bell Guard and the Black Shields clashed sometimes. The Trienelle Masquerade was one of the few times when none of that mattered, and the youth of the city could come together and celebrate without worrying about which side they were on.
Everything was crowded, but spirits were high, and nobody seemed to mind having to wait their turn. They tried a few of the games, throwing darts and tossing rings and knocking down a tower of tin cups with a cotton stuffed ball — well, Barris and Tierce did; Romeric lurked nearby, frowning, but they refused to let him spoil their fun. And when someone corralled passersby into a massive game of tug-of-war at the center of the bridge, they bullied him into joining them. After a fierce battle that lasted close to ten minutes, their side won. But only because the boys and girls on the other side all let go at once, sending them sprawling across the pavement on their asses.
“I need a drink,” Romeric groused as they sorted themselves out of the tangle of arms and legs.
Barris nodded his agreement, still grinning as he dusted off his trousers and straightened his cuffs.
It looked like everyone who had been in the tug-of-war had immediately headed for the nearby refreshments booths, though. “Maybe we should go-” Tierce started to say.
A frog-faced youth hopped suddenly into his path—Pash, his bulging eyes popping comically from his mask. “That was really great. I got you this,” he said, and pushed a full cup of bubbly cider into Tierce’s hand. He dashed off again before he had a chance to say thanks.
“What about us?” Romeric called after the youth as he scampered away, but Pash never glanced back. “Thrice-cursed tadpole.”
Barris eyed the cup in Tierce’s hand, mystified. “Why didn’t he bring us any?”
“Because we don’t have beautiful faces,” Romeric said with a snort. He grabbed the cider from Tierce and drained half of it before passing it to Barris. “Even with a terrible mask on, admirers find him somehow.”
“Very funny,” Tierce said.“It’s because I’m nice to him.“ Pash, the cook’s son, was often underfoot at the House, but Tierce did his best not to treat him as a pest. The same couldn’t be said of the other two, who alternated between ignoring the younger boy and teasing him relentlessly.
He tried to reclaim the cup, but Barris only smirked and moved it out of his reach. “How kind of you to share, Barbarian,” he taunted. But he’d only just just lifted the cup to drink when something made him sputter and choke. “What in Evod’s black sack is that?” he exclaimed.
Both Romeric and Tierce spun to see where he was looking, in time to watch a capering figure emerge from the crowd, brandishing an enormous, obviously fake sword as he strutted into view. He was wearing a shirt of vivid green, billowing purple trousers, with a multi-colored sash tied around his waist and gaudy paste jewelry around his neck. His leering mask featured an overly long nose — one matched in size by the equally prominent codpiece he wore over his groin. The figure had a short blond wig perched on his head.
“Is that…” Romeric’s eyes widened, “…supposed to be me?”
Tierce’s jaw dropped. Around them, people were laughing at the comic figure and his antics. In Rhemish theater, Jurati were often depicted as foppish clowns, with exaggerated features and boorish mannerisms just like this, so it was a familiar caricature in front of them…if not a comfortable one when you were standing next to an actual Jurati.
“I think it’s Cael,” Barris said, just as dumbfounded. He and Tierce exchanged a glance, unsure of what their friend’s reaction would be, but ready to step in if it became heated.
But Romeric surprised them both. “Huh,” he said. And then, “Is it wrong that I find this incredibly arousing?” They stared at him in disbelief as a wicked smile spread across his face. “Hey, Cael!” he shouted. The masked figure turned to look at him, raising its hands in feigned surprise when he spotted the target of his mockery. He wiggled his hips back and forth, and shook his sword like a rolling pin, making the bystanders laugh even more. It only made Romeric’s grin wider. “It’s too short,” he called out. “And I don’t mean the nose!”
The crowd roared with laughter. Cael paused in his antics, and Tierce didn’t think he imagined the quick glance he shot down at his codpiece. Romeric didn’t stay to see it, though. He turned his back on the scene and walked away, pausing only long enough to reclaim the cup of cider from Barris and drain it.
“I want to dance,” Tierce said somewhile later. Romeric, having dismissed Cael’s attempt at mockery as inconsequential, refused to talk about it further, except to say, “You know, for someone who claims to despise me, he went to much trouble to get my attention.”
They found more cider, played more games, and spent some time watching a puppet show about a trio of Eresti battling a vicious skriek. Now they found themselves near the southern end of the bridge, where a dancing pavilion had been erected. A lively reel filled the air around them, and Tierce could no longer resist its pull.
Romeric just shook his head. “I am not dancing.”
“I bet you would if Calette was there,” Barris said. “Or Cael.”
“Only if he took off that stupid mask.” He flapped his hands at them. “Just go. Have fun. Dance your boots bald. I will find something to eat.”
Tierce didn’t need another push. With Barris on his heels, he headed for the dancing floor, weaving his way through the crowd of watchers to claim a place in the lines forming for the next dance. It was crowded, like everywhere else at the Trienelle, but being pressed close together somehow made all the more fun — people were more worried about not bumping into one another than making sure all the steps were exactly right. The drums kicked up an energetic rhythm, horns and pipes filled in a festive melody, and the dancers whirled apart and spun together and hopped and jumped and sashayed and romped with boisterous abandon.
He wasn’t sure how long he’d been dancing when he first became aware of the girl next to him. She was wearing a fluttery green dress and a mask shaped like a butterfly, covered with beads that shimmered in the color-changing lights. She was making an effort, he realized, to stand beside him, again and again. Often enough that her hand began to feel almost familiar in his own, a sensation that, even damp with sweat from dancing, was not unpleasant. He found himself looking for her when the dance took her away from his side, a whirl of green across the floor, and when their hands touched again, he smiled.
She was at his side again when the next break in the music came, looking up at him with a soft smile on her lips. He opened his mouth to say something. Found he had no idea what he should say.
Her breathy laugh startled him out of a moment of panic. “Yes, I’d love it if you got me something to drink.”
Some words tumbled out of his mouth that he hoped meant, “Yes, of course, I’ll be right back,” and he dashed off into the crowd.
This is all right, he thought, waiting in the long line at the refreshment booth. This was perfectly normal. It’s what he’d decided to do. Meet a girl. Dance with her. Talk with her. Maybe more, depending how things —
A flash of blue to one side caught his attention, nearly shattering his resolve. But it was only one of the other Daenas, not Neda, and his breath wooshed out in relief.
Not that it should matter if it had been her, he reminded himself.
But he was glad it wasn’t.
He was busy making a list of clever things to say to the Butterfly (“What do you think of the decorations?”“Have you tried the games yet?” “You’re a good dancer.” “I really like your mask.”) when a familiar voice piped up beside him. “Tierce! You looked great out there dancing. You must be thirsty. You can have this.”
It was the familiar frog mask, holding out a cup filled to the brim with a deep red punch.
Taken by surprise, Tierce accepted the cup automatically. “Thanks, Pash. It’s not for me, though. It’s for…” He gestured back towards the dancing floor, where the Butterfly in her billowy green dress wiggled her fingers at him from afar.
“That girl?” Pash’s thirteen-year-old voice cracked on the question. “Do you like her?”
“I don’t know,” Tierce said. His thoughts whirled with his own uncertainties. “Maybe. I think she might like me. Are you sure it’s all right if I take this?”
“Yeah, sure.” But there was a slight hesitation before he spoke, and a twist in his voice that sounded like Tierce’s heart had felt the day Neda had kissed him.
The realization hit Tierce like a brick. “Oh, Pash. I’m sorry, I…” He halted, not sure what he could say. He tried to push the cup back into the boy’s hands. “Here. I’ll get another one.”
But Pash took a step back, shaking his head and avoiding the cup. “You keep it. I don’t want it.” Then he turned and fled into the crowd.
Tierce watched him go helplessly. For a moment, he thought about going after him, but a smarter part of him realized that would probably be the worst thing he could do right now. Pash was a good kid, and he liked him…but not the way the boy evidently seemed to like him. Chasing after him now would only make it more embarrassing for him.
Besides…he cast a glance back to where the Butterfly was waiting for him.
He had a quest to complete.
Punch in hand, he returned to the where she stood watching him, a laugh creasing the corners of her mouth.
“What was that all about?” she asked. He shook his head.
“Nothing. Just a friend.” He handed the cup to her, and she took a delicate sip, the punch dyeing her lips an even deeper shade of red.
“Mm, delicious.” She smiled at him sweetly. “Thank you. I’d offer you some but I’m not sure how you’d drink it with that mask.”
“It’s not easy,” he admitted, watching as she traced her finger along the lip of the cup.
“You could take it off.”
She giggled. “Yes. Maybe it’s too forward of me, but I’m very curious to see what you look like underneath that thing.”
“Really?” She nodded, but when he reached for his mask to remove it, she put a lace-gloved hand on his.
“Not here.” Her hand slid from his hand up and around his bare arm. “There are too many people around. Why don’t we go someplace else?”
“S-someplace else?” He almost managed not to stammer. “What — where do you want to go?”
The Butterfly tilted her head to one side and looked up at him. He could just make out the flutter of her lashes behind her mask. “Do you trust me?”
“Then come with me,” she said, tightening her hold on his bicep. “I know somewhere quiet. And private.” She started forward, tugging him along with her.
“It’s not far, I promise.”
“My friends. I should tell…”
She caught her lower lip between her teeth and it was like every thought in his head evaporated.
“…Never mind,” he said. “I’ll find them later.”
Her smile curled in satisfaction.
Be something you’re not, Tierce reminded himself every time his nerve started to fail him as they crossed the bridge heading north. He was not the sort of young man who ran off with girls he’d just met — but the Barbarian could be. This is all right, he told himself, thankful for the mask that hid the doubts that wouldn’t leave him alone despite his intentions. It also hid the way he turned to look at every flash of sky-blue fabric that crossed his path. None of them were her, but he knew, deep in his heart, if he were to see Neda at that moment, he wouldn’t have gone on.
At the north end of the bridge, the Old Palace loomed. Once the summer home of ancient kings, the palace had burned hundreds of years before, leaving only the elaborate facade standing, a hollow testament to history. The facade had been lit up for the masquerade, more colorful paper lanterns illuminating the intricately carved cornices and sculpted traceries, and the grand steps that led from the bridge up to the palace’s gateway were crowded with partygoers taking a break from the festivities. But the gate itself remained closed, locked and barred, forbidding entrance to anyone.
The Butterfly led Tierce up the steps, holding his hand as they climbed past other couples and small groups. Nobody paid them any attention. There were pedestals at the top, one on either side of the gate, massive blocks of stone that had once supported heraldic sculptures. They were empty now, except for the decorative bunting strung between them. With a swift glance to either side, as if to ensure no one was watching them, she pulled him into the shadows behind one of the pedestals.
“Can you keep a secret?” She was very close to him — with his back pressed up against the base of the pedestal, there was hardly any room for her between him and the old castle wall. He nodded, not sure he could trust his voice in this situation. With a giggle, she reached up and touched a spot on the pedestal somewhere above his head.
The stone behind him gave way.
He stumbled backward into darkness, only just catching himself in time to keep from tumbling down what, he quickly realized, was a narrow, twisting stairway. She giggled again at his startled gasp, but grabbed hold of his tunic to help him steady himself. When he had his feet under him again, she pushed in after him, shoving him back and down far enough so she could nudge the door shut once again.
“What is this place?” he whispered. The darkness had closed in around them, but instead of being afraid, Tierce felt a sudden thrill, quite separate from the thrill of having a young woman leaning up against you in the dark. This wasn’t just a tryst, it was an adventure.
A small light flared in her palm. The marble-sized mercy cast just enough light to make the beads of her mask glitter when she held it up. “I told you, it’s a secret. Come on.” She wriggled past him — an intense sensation — and started down the stairs. “I think it’s an old guard tunnel. Come on, I want to show you.”
He bumped his head against the ceiling when he followed, and had to go slower after to keep from doing it again. The stairs were steep, and twisted so sharply that he quickly lost site of her light. Relying on his sense of touch to guide him, he tried counting the steps on the way down, but lost track at fifty-something and gave it up. By the time the stairway opened up onto an equally dark and narrow corridor, he figured they must have descended close to river level.
He could just make out the glow of her light up ahead as he emerged from the stair. “Wait!” he hissed out, but she only giggled from afar, and the patter of her shoes on the floor got faster. Resigned and intrigued at the same time, there was nothing he could do but follow after her. One hand on each wall, he negotiated his way down the hall as quickly as he could. His fingers found several doors along the way, the rough wood distinct from the slick stone, and once or twice an open void that must be an alcove, or another passage. He didn’t stop to investigate.
It crossed his mind that Neda would like to see this, but he quickly swatted the thought away. This wasn’t the time to be thinking about her when he was here with…
He realized with an uncomfortable start that he didn’t even know the Butterfly’s name.
“What am I doing?” he muttered to himself. Be something you’re not. Where had that gotten him? Lost in the dark with someone he didn’t know, and no clue where he was going.
He’d been keeping his eye on the Butterfly’s bobbing light up ahead, but just then, it disappeared from view. He froze, staring into the blackness. He hadn’t decided yet whether or not he should panic when she once more popped into view. She waved him after her, then disappeared back through what must be another opening in the passage.
With a ragged sigh, he pulled his mask off with disgust. If he could just catch up with her, he would ask her to take him out of this place. And when he was out, he was going to find Neda and tell her how he felt. That’s all there was to it.
He hurried, as much as he dared, to the spot where she’d disappeared, and found the expected opening there on his right. He’d been right about being down by the river. The cavern where he found himself opened up on the water’s edge, though judging by the density of the shadows it must be under the bridge, or maybe under the palace itself. A hidden boat landing, he guessed, unused for ages. The Butterfly was standing on the far side, where a meager bit of moonlight had managed to find its way through.
“Listen-” he started to say, but another voice cut him off with an angry snarl.
“It’s the wrong-”
Then everything went black.