Bong. The big clock in the back of the ballroom struck eleven. Maria groaned inwardly, beneath her smiling mask. Where was Antonio? He should have been here by now…

She didn’t know anyone else here, so she had spent the last few hours wandering around the ballroom. She knew it very well by now. The big mirrors, running down the sides. The narrow side corridors, down which the men in their gilded suits and the ladies in their huge, colorful dresses wandered from mezzanine to ballroom. The concessions tables by the door, unattended by staff but somehow never empty of food. That gargantuan clock, fifteen feet across if it was an inch, its hands lumbering like unmotivated giants from minute to minute. It was all beautiful, all lights and frills and fountains and performers in absurd costumes, and it all bored her.

She hated this stupid mask as well. It had seemed pretty at first, a black cat, the same color as her hair and going wonderfully with her black dress and mint-green gloves. But now…It scratched, the elastic wore on her ears, she couldn’t breathe or see. She wanted to take it off. But no one else had taken off theirs, and it seemed a breach of etiquette…

Bong. Midnight. How had that happened? She had just sat down at this table with a drink, had glanced up at the clock mere moments ago to lament its slowness. When had it started listening to her?

A man sat down at the table across from her. Black vest, blue shirt, long blue cloak that sparkled where the light hit it, the dark eyeholes and wide black grin of a featureless white mask watching her intently. “Madam,” came a voice, slow and deep and flowing. “If I may be so bold…may I have this dance?”

Whatever would Antonio think? Who cared what Antonio would think? He had abandoned her here. Let him walk in on her, dancing with this gentleman. Let him feel for an instant as she felt now.

“All right.”

Merci. Shall we?”

She got up, took the arm he offered, walked with him out onto the dance floor. There was silence. The other dancers stopped their movement, swept like exotic birds to the sides of the dance floor. The music stopped mid-song – she hadn’t realized it had been playing something already. And then the unseen musicians struck up a new song. Clair de Lune.

Slowly, to the rich and moving beats, the man led her across the chequered floor. Slowly, they danced, as that song rolled across the ballroom like distilled emotions. And as she focused on that, she became aware of him speaking.

“Madam?”

“Yes?”

“Yours is a most lovely mask, madam.”

“As is yours. But…something’s been bothering me. We’ve been here for hours. Why has no one taken them off?”

The man stopped. Clair de Lune still played across the room, and the other guests still watched from the sidelines. “Oh, madam…do you not know?”

“No…”

The man raised a hand. And as one, each and every guest reached up and removed their masks.

Maria screamed. What else could she do? There was nothing she could do against the things that watched with blank eyes from the sidelines, things she was shocked that she had once believed were human beings. Were those hands, that held the things that had covered those twisted mockeries of faces? Was any part of them human beneath the beautiful clothes?

But the man simply watched her. He had not removed his mask, but a tear was trailing from one of the eyeholes…They were eyeholes, right? Not…sockets? Those weren’t pinpricks of light, there deep inside? Those weren’t lips, that framed that stylized smile?

She pulled herself from his arms, those arms that were soft in all the wrong ways, and ran for the door. She never made it. And as she fell, the clock struck one, and the haunting strains of Clair de Lune came to a sudden end.



Written by StalkerShrike
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