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.
His hands filled with a variety of sweet and savory treats, plus a mug of spiced (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 over 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 ease 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?”