Masque Ball: Chapter V

by Mallard

Once the room was still, the pirates relaxed visibly, one of them lowering the enormous rifle that had made most of the noise, others shifting their weight to more comfortable positions. At any one time, though, six or seven weapons were trained vaguely on the crowd. Enough to discourage any sad heroism.

Where most of the pirates wore masks colored like a peacock’s feathers, brilliant shades that sparkled in the ambient light, the one in front wore a mask of velvet black, feathers from some exotic bird of night. At the distance he stood from us, the black feathers faded into his black suit, so he appeared as some strange creature of darkness, with bright white spots for eyes. The exotic appearance was somewhat mitigated by the sawed-off shotgun he wielded in one hand, and the speaking horn he held in his other.

I looked once again at Hattie, wishing I could leave the wall to help her. But performing the same trick with the floor is much harder, and almost always fails. I talk about pulling a section of wall over me, but of course that’s not an accurate description of what I do. Merely talk of the trade. In order to hide, I have to create an illusion in front of me that mimics the wall behind, sort of like holding up a photograph of an empty hallway in front of an apartment’s peephole to fool the occupants. This works from most angles, so long as the ones I am trying to fool do not get too close. But to mimic the floor exactly…

Perhaps you have seen the almost miraculous chalk drawings that street performers sometimes create during festivals. From a certain angle, the drawings take on incredible depth and realism, and it is easy to believe that the painter has created a physical hill or hole in the street. Being who I am, I truly appreciate these illusions, put together with nothing more magical than skill and patience. But when these drawings are viewed from any other angle, the illusion collapses into mere chalk marks on cobblestones.

Similar concepts apply in my case, and to hide Serah and myself by making it appear as if the floor we stand on is empty is not an easy task.

So I sat there, motionless, able only to watch.

Kristopher, for his part, vibrated in agitation near my head, drawn by his nature to Hattie, but knowing that to fly beyond my illusion would expose us all to danger. But his attraction to her showed that she clearly still lived, for salamanders cared little for the dead.

Hattie lay on her stomach, in profile to me, her head facing away. But her back rose and fell almost imperceptibly, and the puddle of blood no longer seemed to be growing. Her entire left side was red with blood, though darkest on her upper arm, and I hoped that the bullet had merely taken her in the bicep or shoulder. A painful wound, but not immediately fatal.

But hopes were all I could do for her now. I wasn’t a doctor or a healer, and if I showed myself, the pirates would almost certainly shoot me as well. So I forced my attention off Hattie, and looked once again toward the pirates.

They had fanned out somewhat, beginning to move among the motionless crowd. The mayor was no longer in sight, having been hustled out and away by his false security guard. Only a few seconds had passed, when the man with the horn spoke once again.

“Sorry to drop in so sudden-like, folks! I know just how much I hate when unruly fellows crash my party.” He made a big show of looking around at the prone guests, many huddled faces to the floor, a few of the braver ones turning their heads up to watch the pirates.

“Oh, dear! None of you all are masked.” He touched his own feathered mask and shrugged. “And here, we thought this was a masquerade!” He chortled roughly, and his fellows followed suit. His voice was coarse, like that of someone who has spent much of his life outdoors, or smoking, or drinking. Or, most likely, all three. It was the sort of voice I heard often enough in the army, as smoking and drinking defined the off-duty activities of many of us, living hedonistically from day to day because we never knew if our next would be our last.

The man made a big show of looking around, his hand held to shade his masked brow. “Well, no one’s coming to cart us away, so I guess we’re welcome! Pity that Downing fellow’s not around to greet us in person. Word is he’s a bit…bound up in other matters.” He laughed again, then sighed noisily.

“Well, there’s no point in waiting. You all know why we’re here. So out with it! Jewels, money, weapons. All yer valuables, and believe me, we’ll know if you’ve left anything out. No time to waste!”

A few of the quicker folks began to remove necklaces and rings, tiaras and jeweled slippers. Not enough, nor fast enough, and black powder boomed the pirates’ displeasure.

All at once, the room was a sea of activity, and small piles began to accumulate beside every prone couple, finery of every sort filling the floors. The pirates spread out then and began to roam the room at random, kicking at the recalcitrant, whose priorities seemed to waver uncertainly between a desire to keep their riches, and a desire to keep their lives. One man, I saw, actually held down his wife’s arms to stop her from removing her wedding ring, arguing in heated whispers, until one of the pirates strode up and viciously kicked him in the stomach. The man cried out and hunched up, and his wife pulled off her ring and threw it to the man in tearful haste.

Maybe the pirate had been drinking, or was just drunk with power, but he wasn’t satisfied with the small concession. He ignored the ring and leaned down, cupping the frightened woman’s cheek in one hand, leaning his feathered face close to hers. I couldn’t hear what the said, but I could guess his intent, and my suspicions were confirmed as the lady’s face turned white and she scrambled away, trembling.

“Victor!” Serah hissed at me, and I looked at her helplessly, knowing that if I did anything, we would be revealed, and probably killed. I looked toward the terrible scene, thinking furiously. Maybe I could make the woman’s face and bosom sag with age, or make some bright light to catch the corner of his eye…

A shotgun roared, and a window shattered, dropping shards of colored glass to the tiled floor and the gardens outside. The lead pirate, his weapon held casually against his shoulder, strode over to his crew member and the terrified woman. He glanced down at the woman, and barked something. She froze, then slowly laid down on the ground beside her prone husband, gripping his hand tightly, trembling from head to foot.

Then the pirate captain turned to his crewman, regarded him for a moment, and casually backhanded the taller man with an audible snap of flesh on flesh.

“We’re here for two things, and this ain’t one of them,” he said loudly, and turned away toward another slow couple, as if having already forgotten the altercation. I half expected the other man to shoot him, or tackle him, but he did nothing, standing motionless, fists clenched, before turning and stalking toward yet another pair.

Aside from that one mishap, the pirates were remarkably well organized, and it wasn’t much longer before the piles were complete, and the pirates began to collect their prizes. I was a little surprised at the care with which they gathered the jewelery; rather than sweeping it all into sacks and running away into the night, they brought out several large wooden boxes and carefully sorted through each pile, completely ignoring the silent guests. The more delicate pieces–those of thin wrought gold or fine crystal–were folded in tissue paper and placed carefully in dozens of small boxes, which were then loaded into the wooden crates. The more durable pieces were simply wrapped and arranged into yet another crate. They took their time, examining each piece carefully before sorting it into its appropriate container. These pirates, for all that they had said there was no time to waste, were very fastidious about keeping their loot in a top condition. If they hadn’t been toting weapons and wearing masks, it would have been not unlike watching laborers load important cargo for shipment to another city.

With every extra minute the pirates took, I expected a squadron of police to barge in, perhaps led by my friend, Scott Casterly. But no one showed, and in retrospect, I wasn’t really surprised. Who could have escaped to warn them? If the pirates had truly infiltrated the house’s security staff, they had likely restrained or killed anyone who had had a chance to leave the premises. They surely had men outside the house, masquerading as security, to stop anyone from entering or leaving the mansion. I couldn’t help wondering just how large their operation was, and more importantly, how they had gotten in the mayor’s supposed “fortress.”

Eventually they had collected and stored the last pieces of wealth–and coerced a few lingering fragments from some of the more recalcitrant guests–and I expected that to be the end of it. But they continued to take their time, reorganizing some of the crates in a seemingly unnecessary manner, walking among the prone guests and gesturing with their guns, making their presence known and feared. Their masks glimmered all the more now that they were the only things in the room left to sparkle, and somehow that made them all the more ominous.

“Why are they waiting so long?” I whispered aloud after several minutes of this, unable to comprehend their motives. I had been more a spy than a thief, but I had always thought the first rule in covert operations was speed: get in, do what’s necessary, and get out before anything has a chance to go wrong. But it seemed like these pirates were in no hurry to go anywhere. Almost as if they were waiting for something.

Beside me, I heard Serah gasp.

“Fuel,” she whispered in sudden realization, her voice as low as mine had been. “They’re refueling.”

I frowned. “Refueling?”

She nodded excitedly. “They must have come in an airship; it’d be much easier to get past the security staff that way, since they would all be on the lower floors with the guests. But they couldn’t carry enough fuel for the return trip, so they’re pulling from the mayor’s reserves.”

I nodded slowly. It made sense, put that way. The pirates would not have come in trucks or walkers, since without invitations, they could not enter the mansion. And though I may not like Joel Downing, he is a cautious man, and in saying his mansion was a fortress, I don’t believe he was exaggerating. At least, not intentionally. But perhaps he had not secured it quite so well against an attack from the air. “Right. How long do you think they have left?”

She shook her head. “Depends on the airship. It can’t be much longer, though.”

I nodded. “I’ll go take a look. Wait here.” I made as if to stand, and Serah grabbed my arm. I looked down at her, and her face was full of determination.

“And what, get discovered when your illusion fades? Remember, Victor,” she hissed. “Kiss or clobber.” I winced. I really didn’t want her involved. She didn’t have a gun, and full of dislike for them as she was, she had never learned to handle one. Not that I was armed either, but I was at least more familiar with this sort of situation than she. Wrench or no wrench, it was too likely that she could be hurt.

But she had a point. I couldn’t leave her, and she knew a lot more about airships than I ever will. Despite my misgivings, I’d probably need her.

“Come on, then,” I whispered, and couldn’t keep a displeased frown from my face.

The entry staircase to the ballroom was between us and the pirates, but unfortunately, so were a number of tables, chairs, prone guests, and other obstacles that would make hugging the wall difficult. If we went too quickly, the pirates might notice a sort of ripple effect on the wall as my imperfect memory botched the edges of the illusion. But if we went too slowly, we wouldn’t make it before the pirates themselves left.

“On the ground,” I hissed, and Serah obeyed. Her shoes clicked on the tile as she got on her hands and knees, and I froze, but the pirates were too far to hear anything. Quickly, Serah pulled her shoes off and set them with exaggerated care on the ground, pushed up against the corner where the floor met the wall. I did the same. Hopefully the pirates would not notice two pairs of shoes suddenly appearing out of nothing when we moved away.

I took one last look at Hattie’s still form, and gritted my teeth. There was nothing I could do. She still breathed, but had not moved since she had fallen. Whether her lack of movement was out of pain or a desire not to draw attention to herself, I couldn’t tell. I could only hope it was the latter.

“Winter take it,” I hissed, and began to crawl behind Serah toward the stairs, moving as quickly as I could, while hugging the wall as closely as possible.

Lady Autumn’s grace and Sir Summer’s luck both must have been with us, for we made it to the stairs without mishap. And though I couldn’t breathe for the fear, we were able to ascend the stairs and pass through the carved teakwood doors, moving in short bursts when the pirates were looking elsewhere. As I’ve said before, the great power of illusion lies in the fact that no one expects it. The pirates were confident that they had everyone at their mercy on the floor, and it was through this flaw that Serah and I were able to slip away.

Once in the hall, I dropped the illusion and we stood, taking just a moment to stretch cramped muscles. Then the two of us ran headlong down the hall, toward the dark staircase I knew we had passed on the way in. It was no longer guarded by a black-suited security man, and no longer dark. Elegant wrought-iron lamps lent a soft yellow glow to the narrow stairwell, lighting a path to the higher floors. Circumspect, these pirates were not.

As we turned into the stairwell, the faint amplified tones of the captain floated down the hall to us. “Gentlemen and ladies, it has been a pleasure! But we’ve taken enough of your time. We’ll take our leave now, with these fine gifts. And, since they seemed so eager, just one or two guests will be coming with us. Off to attend a fancier and grander party elsewhere. A good evening, all!”

At first, I took it to mean only that Serah and I had no time now, and that we had to run. We did so, rocketing up the carpeted steps, past gaily glowing wall scones and darkened doorways. It wasn’t until we had reached the third floor that I realized the full extent of what the pirate had said.

One or two guests. They had taken the mayor, of that I had no doubt. Who else would be important enough to spirit away? Who else indeed, but a woman whose position was as high above Joel Downing’s as his was above mine?

“Serah,” I said, slowing to a stop. She stopped a few steps higher up and frowned down at me. “Did you see Martha in there?”

Serah frowned in thought, then her face slowly drained of color. “No,” she whispered, and shook her head. “I didn’t see her at all.”

Behind us, though I could not yet hear them, I knew the pirates would be walking out of the ballroom and down the hall, lugging their laden wooden crates. And more importantly, their numerous weapons.

“Winter take it,” I cursed again, but as before, there was nothing I could do. So we ran up the stairs, praying that we could reach the airship before the pirates and, though I knew not how, to prevent its launch.

* * * * * * * *
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