Masque Ball: Chapter II

by Mallard

I stared, and Serah laughed and flushed red. Which only made me stare harder. Serah does not blush. Or perhaps I just never notice it, as her face is ruddy from sunlight and welding, and always covered in a thin layer of grease. Seeing her freshly bathed, with her hair brushed out and flowing down her back, dressed in a midnight blue gown I had never seen before, well, it was like seeing another woman entirely.

“Are you quite finished?” she asked after I had remained silent for some time, frozen outside her door. Her face was a delicate pink up to the tips of her ears.

I coughed and blinked. “Right. Yes.”

She laughed again, a little uncomfortably. “Why, I ought to be upset, Victor. It’s almost as if you don’t normally think of me as a woman.”

“Oh that’s too much!” I sputtered, the moment of surprise broken, but she snickered and stepped forward to hook her arm through mine.

“It’s only fair,” she murmured. “You surprised me, too.”

Which was reasonable. After all, I rather surprised myself.

The suit I wore was a dark charcoal, with a lighter gray waistcoat over a pearl white shirt, finished off with a black satin bow. My hands felt strange in pristine white gloves, doubly so when I laid them on Serah’s, clad in thinner gloves of powder blue. It was strange to find two layers where normally there were none.

I couldn’t really take credit for the suit, though, and said as much. It had been Kristopher who had found the shop, tucked away in some corner where no one could find it. The tailor had been almost embarrassingly glad to see a customer, and had brought out his best work for me, performing in one evening what would have taken a busier or more popular shop several days at the least.

I hadn’t worn a tuxedo in years. Not since my college days, in fact. I just never had the opportunity. During the war, it was the uniform, unless I was traveling incognito–a euphemism we used for spying. And afterward . . . Many of the places I go just don’t lend themselves well to a suit. Imagine me, walking through Kestral’s sewer system in a silk tailcoat and a top hat. It doesn’t work, does it?

The coachman waited silently through our exchange, though the midnight steed in front stamped and puffed in impatience to get moving. It had been raining off and on most of the week, but the puddles around Serah’s warehouse had mostly dried, and we didn’t have to worry about her gown dragging in the mud. I helped her into the carriage and stepped in after, sitting on the opposite bench to face her. The coachman whipped the reins and his horse started into motion, jolting the carriage forward before settling into an even pace that sent us rumbling across the cobblestones.

Dark had fallen by now, and the lamplighters had been about their business so that shadows alternated with glowing orange from without the dark coach. An uneven emerald teardrop hung on a silver chain from Serah’s neck, and the gem caught and played with each bit of passing firelight. She saw the direction of my eye, and smiled fondly.

“It was a gift from my father,” she said. “One of the miners gave him the stone as a thank-you gift last year. It was still rough, so he polished it into this shape, set it on a chain, and gave it to me on my birthday.” She reached up and rubbed the stone fondly with her thumb and forefinger, and I couldn’t help but smile. It fit my memory of the old man perfectly. He had grown up poor, and though he now ran a profitable business repairing mining equipment on-site, he had never grown out of his old habits. Why buy a fancy necklace when he could make something unique and meaningful by hand, paying nothing but his own time? He had a creative and active mind, and it was he who had taught Serah all she knew about machines, instilling in his daughter his own deep love for them.

“It’s beautiful,” I said, and Serah glowed at me.

 * * * * * * * *

Hattie stood by the doorway with her arms crossed over her chest, tapping her foot impatiently as the carriage slowed to a stop in front of the mayoral mansion. She didn’t look happy, but then, she rarely does.

“Specialist,” came her curt greeting, which startled me almost as much as her manner of dress. Her lack of a dress, rather. Despite the evening’s purpose, Hattie Morrison looked every inch the sergeant major, from the tips of her highly polished leather boots, to her brown hair done up in a tight bun that allowed no single strands free will. Medals glittered across her chest, commemorating a dozen recognitions. I hadn’t known she was so decorated, and frankly it surprised me a little. The most I’ve ever seen Hattie do is sit behind her desk and give me orders. The military saber at her waist was the closest I had seen her to a weapon. But she wore it well, as if used to the weight, and that disturbed me more than it should have.

I suppose I knew Hattie had been an active soldier. She hadn’t gotten to be head of the Peace Workers without being someone of note in the army. I had just never thought about it. She had very possibly fought against some of my comrades in battle, and I had no doubt that she had tousled with the Patchwork Folk at least once. Anyone in a uniform during that war, whether of the Republican Guard, or one of the Royal Army’s many divisions–such as the Kestral Armed Forces–had fought against the Patchwork Folk.

“Why are you late?” Hattie asked after I had helped Serah out of the carriage. My superior’s eyes roved over my suit and her mouth turned down in a frown. “And why are you not in uniform?”

I blinked. “It’s a ball, Hattie,” I said. “You don’t wear a uniform to a ball.” I paused. “Well, you do, I guess, but–”

“It’s ‘sir,'” she barked. “Show some respect, Haas.”

I frowned, and felt Serah tense beside me. “What’s going on, Hattie?” I asked slowly. “Have I done something to upset you?”

Her frown remained in place for several seconds, then she sighed and glanced skyward. “I apologize, Victor. I’m a little nervous tonight.”

I didn’t laugh. I truly didn’t. But it was a close call. Hattie Morrison, nervous? Of a fancy ball, of all things? Don’t get me wrong; I was nervous too. But that was largely because I haven’t been to such an event in years, and because I had this beautiful creature on my arm who claimed to be the same Serah Villifree I had led around a machine shop just the other day, but who couldn’t possibly. After all, I’m supposed to feel comfortable around Serah.

Hattie glanced at me sharply. “Is something funny, Victor?” At least she was back to calling me by my first name.

I shook my head quickly. “No, sir.”

“Good.” She paused and fixed me with a stern gaze. “And inside, for the sake of appearances, you should continue to call me sir. Or at least don’t act so damned familiar.”

“Me, familiar with my superior? Never.” I kept my voice as deadpan as possible, but still earned a glare from Hattie.

“Better not be,” Serah muttered by my side, and I blinked in surprise. I’ve never heard Serah express any hint of jealousy or annoyance at my interactions with other women. It was as if the gown, in addition to changing her appearance, was also changing her attitudes. If she started simpering, I would probably have to leave.

Hattie nodded once, turned sharply, and stalked inside, her heavy combat boots striking a loud beat upon the tiled entry hall. A butler in a finer suit than mine greeted us at the door and directed us down a short hallway. It was lit brightly with ornate gas lamps, and richly carpeted in some thick red fabric that I imagined would feel amazing were I barefoot. Several doors led off the hallway, all closed, brass handles shining in the gaslight.

The hall ended in a cross hall, but another butler stood there to direct us past a darkened staircase, around another corner, and through an opened set of teakwood doors, carved into abstract patterns of swoops and swirls. Through the doors, and suddenly we were standing at the top of a short entry staircase to the ballroom, and everything else paled to insignificance.

The ballroom must have taken up most of the rear of the enormous mansion. The ceiling soared to the skies, and I could have thrown a rock and still not hit the far windows. The walls were carved much as the doors had been, some depicting scenes from myth or history, others merely space-filling trifles. Filigreed glass doors lined the far wall, leading out into the garden, lit by further lamps outside. Music filled the air, and I looked to one side to find a string quintet of golems playing on a low stage, mechanical fingers dancing delicately across strings and keys, small puffs of steam escaping in time to the music. I glanced at Serah, certain her eyes would be upon the musicians, but she as staring at the floor with an expression akin to panic. I looked quickly to see the cause of her alarm.

Large as the room was, it seemed almost too small, crowded to the walls with elegantly clad figures. Various shades of gray and black intermingled with brilliant colors and patterns. Gowns sparkled in the bright yellow ambient light, some long with flowing trains, others slim and short. Lace and ribbons, silk bows and feathers adorned every woman in the room, accenting jeweled tiaras and exotic precious stones hanging from chains of gold and silver.

I felt Serah step back in astonishment at the sheer display of wealth and extravagance, and her gloved hand rose to finger her own single emerald. Next to many of the women in the crowd, her dark blue gown looked plain and poor, her necklace cheaply made, and I could well imagine what she was thinking. I said before that Serah does not care about appearances. But it seemed the gown had worked its wiles on her once more.

“How . . . excessive,” she whispered, but I could see her face fall ever so slightly.

I forced myself to laugh heartily, and Serah turned a stricken eye to me. “Absolutely,” I agreed boldly. “Extravagant, excessive . . . and unnecessary. If you had dressed like that, why, I wouldn’t be able to find you amid the perfumes and lace. Besides, you don’t have to worry. I’m the one who will have to deal with every man’s jealousy when he turns his head our way and spies the midnight-clad beauty on my arm.”

Serah rolled her eyes, but she smiled and tightened her grip on my arm, and her eyes lost their frightened cast. Behind us, I heard a gagging sound.

“I thought we were being professional tonight, sir,” I said without turning.

“Yes, well, it’s hard to be professional when you’re pouring sap down my throat, Haas. Now move your bulk out of the doorway; you’re not the only ones trying to get in.”

Serah and I stepped forward and descended the short flight of steps to the dance floor proper. No one was dancing just yet, as the ball had not officially begun. Many were simply milling around, or standing in clusters of friends and acquaintances. I recognized several members of the army, though none were Peace Workers and only a handful bothered with the full uniform like Hattie. There were also several members of the Mayor’s cabinet, though I didn’t know their names, and many of the most influential or wealthy merchants in the city. It wasn’t the sort of crowd I tend to associate with socially, but I could still recognize many of them by sight. The Peace Workers interact with all manner of people, from the beggars on the street to the wealthiest men and women, and I’d spoken with more than a few of the guests at one point or another.

Several of these glanced my way and waved or nodded, but most didn’t acknowledge me. Which suited me fine. Though, there were a few who I would have preferred to leave me in peace.

“Oh dear, surely it isn’t Victor Haas? Please, assure me you are not here to protect the mayor’s home and assets. I fear none of us will survive the evening if that is the case.”

I rolled my eyes and turned. “Evening, Jedediah.”

The dean of KAMA smirked and stuck out a hand, which I took with some trepidation. “And you must be Ms. Villifree,” he said, turning to Serah and holding out his hand once more. She reached for it, but he twisted her wrist deftly and brought the back of her glove to his lips. “A pleasure to meet you,” he murmured. “Your beauty rivals that of the Lady Autumn herself.” The dean is likely old enough to be my grand-sire, but he’s still a charmer.

Serah flushed and I quickly stepped in. “Jedediah, have you met Hattie Morrison? Head of the Peace Workers division of the army.” I gestured and Hattie stepped forward, though she shot an irritated glance my way.

Jedediah nodded and reached for her hand, repeating his previous routine. “A pleasure, Ms. Morrison. I’ve heard quite a lot of your work, and you have my utmost admiration.” He glanced at me and frowned. “Though your boy here causes me no end of headaches.”

“Jedediah Millston,” Hattie said, nodding in recognition. She paused, then her mouth curved up in the tiniest of smiles. “Believe me, your headaches are nothing next to mine.” The two shared a loud laugh at this, and even Serah sniggered quietly in a very unladylike fashion. I rolled my eyes again.

“Truly good to meet you, but I am probably keeping you from the mayor,” Millston continued, to which Hattie nodded. “Then I will bid you a good evening.” He turned and looked me up and down once, then nodded. “It’s good to see you doing better, Victor,” he said, before turning and meandering off. The last time the dean had spoken with me, I had been nearly passed out, covered in soot and smoke, chafed by manacles, and worn out emotionally and physically from having narrowly escaped death in the basements beneath his school. It was nice to know that the old bastard cared, in his own gruff way.

The mayor and his wife were not hard to find, surrounded as they were by a knot of well-wishers and friends, both political and social. His wife hung on his arm, practically glowing with pride and pleasure. Her pregnancy barely showed, pushing out her belly only the slightest bit through the thin fabric of her gown, but it was enough. She stood half a head shorter than her husband, who was on a level with me: a tall thin man dressed in a white suit, with his black hair slicked back behind his head. He was in his middle forties, but could have passed for someone quite a bit younger. His wife was at least a decade his junior, but she held herself regally beside him, her hair flowing in waves down to her waist. One hand rested on her husband’s arm, the other on the tiny bulge in her belly.

Hattie didn’t bother to stand in line to congratulate the mayor, but stepped confidently to the front. The party-goers separated before her, unsettled by her manner and appearance, and Serah and I stepped easily into the gap behind.

“Ms. Hattie Morrison!” the thin man said in a delighted voice, always deeper than I expect from his thin frame. “A pleasant surprise!”

I found that hard to believe, but said nothing. The mayor bent his tall frame over Hattie’s hand and kissed it delicately, as he had no doubt done a hundred times already during the evening. He straightened up and pulled his wife a step forward. “I believe you’ve met my wife before. Rachel, you remember Ms. Morrison, I trust?” The tall woman smiled and greeted Hattie warmly.

“A pleasure, as always,” she said in a soft voice. “I have heard much of your activities from my husband. You are quite the inspiration to the women of this city.”

Hattie smiled thinly. “It pleases me to hear you say that.” She turned back to the mayor and motioned me forward with one hand. “Mayor Downing, I would like to introduce you to Victor Haas. A reformed member of the Republican Guard, as are many Peace Workers, and one of our top agents. He was very recently involved in foiling a plot to destroy our great center of learning in Kestral, as you may recall.” Mayor Downing smiled and nodded, and I stifled a snort. It had not been a Peace Worker mission–as I had been reminded when I had submitted a reimbursement request–but I was not surprised to see Hattie take credit all the same.

I stepped forward, unsure whether I should bow or shake the mayor’s hand. I didn’t particularly want to do either, but he made the choice for me, sticking out his hand and grasping mine with a surprisingly firm grip. He shook my hand vigorously for several seconds, and I withdrew the instant he let me. I wanted to rub my palm on my pants to clean it, but admonished myself not to be so petty. “Victor Haas,” Mayor Downing said. “I have indeed heard much of you, especially after this incident at the university. And this must be the infamous Kristopher the salamander.” At this last, he reached tentatively for Kristopher, but the salamander darted out of the way.

(You do not like this man,) Kristopher observed. I smiled. “He says it is a pleasure to meet you, sir,” I said.

The mayor laughed. “I am glad to hear it. And please, don’t bother with ‘sirs’ and ‘madams’ this evening, Victor. Call me Joel. And please, allow me to introduce you to my wife, Rachel.”

I had nothing against Mrs. Rachel Downing, and my smile was honest as I greeted her and congratulated her on the pregnancy. She took the compliment with the tired smile of one who has heard the same thing a hundred times already, and not for the last time, either.

The mayor opened his mouth to say something further, but nothing came out. His eyes focused on something in the distance over my shoulder and they lost some of their sparkle. “Oh dear,” he sighed, and motioned to the crowd to make way. I turned, unable to help myself, though it was probably poor etiquette. At first I saw nothing out of the ordinary, and was about to turn back when the woman stepped into view, and I wondered how I had not seen her before.

She was dressed as extravagantly as the richest of the women in the room, but it was coordinated well, and suited her perfectly. The lace about her neck was complimentary rather than gaudy, and the pearls of her necklace were of a pleasant sheen and tasteful size.

She was shorter than I by a good foot, but she held her head high, curly blond hair framing a face full of good humor and relentless determination. It was a face I knew very well. All the Peace Workers did. Without it, most of us would not still be alive.

I smiled warmly, as the mayor recovered his own mask.

The woman stepped forward and nodded at him, and though her lips were turned up in a smile, her eyes were cold. “Mayor Downing. A pleasure to see you again.”

“Likewise,” the mayor said, his expression no more genuine than hers. “It is always a pleasant surprise when Mrs. Martha Chorice, the Minister of Internal Affairs, graces my home with her presence.”

* * * * * * * *
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