This story takes place in one of the rooms of Eclectic Alli’s Masquerade Ball. It’s based on an idea I had for a holiday in one of my fantasy universes. I’m still messing with the setting, trying out new versions and iterations of the ideas I have inside it… Eventually I’d like to spin the very-short-story you’re about to read into more of a novella with a lot of other characters involved, so consider this a sneak peek. Enjoy!
Sesen went to the masquerade alone, determined to enjoy it, but of course he was miserable. Why did Leae have to make such a fuss whenever he wanted to do something? It was just a party. She could’ve just not said anything and come anyway.
He wasn’t being fair, but he didn’t really care yet. He’d just wanted to have a nice night, and she had to turn it into a fight. He hadn’t known that so many people were still afraid of masks. For god’s sake, he’d thought the big masquerade was proof no one take the tradition seriously. Apparently he’d been wrong.
Someone downstairs had commented on his Universiton-brown skin, thinking he was someone important. He’d been confused, but apparently the hosts were — improbably for the owners of such a large house — not natives. Maybe they didn’t realize the masquerade was inappropriate. Or maybe they were being flagrantly offensive just for the sake of it, as she’d accused them of being. As she’d accused him of being, he remembered. He slumped in his chair and scowled.
“Why so glum?” asked a throaty voice coming from behind him.
He jumped and looked around. Nothing had changed from when he entered the room to escape the clamor downstairs — he’d found an ornate room full of polished wood and rich upholstery, and chosen it simply because the door was open and only five people were inside. Those people, in groups of two and three respectively, were still talking to each other and not bothering him.
The voice, in the form of a striking masked woman, draped itself into a neighboring chair and edged closer, chin on hand on upholstered headrest. He didn’t know how he’d missed her entrance, but he admitted he hadn’t been paying the strictest attention, caught up in his own thoughts.
The woman wore a red-and-black ball gown, finely embroidered and extremely snug over her corset. She also wore tall red boots with a costume tail snaking around one of them. He quickly moved his eyes to her face, and found himself staring at a smirking red mask. Black sequins traced flames along its edges, highlighting a hooked nose and sweeping back toward twisted black horns. Her hair was an untamed mass of red curls. The only parts of her face still visible were extremely blue eyes and a curious pink smile.
“I had someone I wanted to bring,” Sesen finally replied. This woman was dressed as a devil — If anyone was being flagrant tonight, it was her. He’d be safe in his complaints.
“Ah, love problems,” the woman sympathized. “What happened?”
He’d needed to oversee a major project in the real world before being named an Architect at the university, was what had happened. He’d come to the capitol to rebuild an old watchtower, where he’d met an intriguingly serious project manager and fallen in love.
“I’m here from the university,” he said simply. No identifying details. Leae would still be here long after he’d left, and he didn’t want to start any gossip about her.
She seemed to understand. “Then you’ll be returning there, and your lover doesn’t want to go with you. Have you asked him? Or her?”
“Her,” Sesen clarified. He was blushing under his owl mask. “I… well, I may have assumed she’d just come with me.”
The woman started to speak, but Sesen raised his hands to stop her. “I know, I shouldn’t have! I apologized. She said we’d just see what happened with me back in Universiton, but isn’t that just a soft break-up?”
“Not necessarily. Maybe she meant it.”
He sighed. “Well, I’m leaving next week, anyway. I thought it was just… post-dating our break-up to put it like that, but if she wanted it that way, okay. I thought this party would be a good way to say goodbye to everything.”
“Then why isn’t she here?”
“Nothing is ever easy with her! It always has to be the hard way. She always has to know every little detail before she makes up her mind. Everything has to be so planned that it’s not fun anymore. Any time you say anything, she grills you on why you said it. I mean, yeah, I like the way my shampoo smells, but I don’t actually feel that strongly about it, I was just making conversation! And god forbid we just go to a party, it has to be a huge fucking production about who’s religious and who’s not!”
“I don’t think I follow what religion has to do with a solstice ball.”
He passed a hand over his mouth, wishing he could rub his eyes under the mask. “She thinks it’s dangerous. She believes the old legends about masks, I guess.”
The woman just looked at him blankly, as if she didn’t understand. Her skin was light, but it occurred to Sesen that she might be one of the hosts, from another city like he was. He’d better explain, and try not to be rude this time.
“Since you’re here, I assume you know it’s a tradition to party on Solstice. You’re supposed to stay up all night, drinking and dancing and talking, going from party to party and checking on all your friends in their houses.”
“Well, I’ve heard fall and winter celebrations are about masks and trickery in other countries, but not here. It’s not traditional to wear masks on Solstice, because it’s supposed to be dangerous. I didn’t realize anyone still thought it really was dangerous, I thought it was just tradition!”
“I believe you,” she murmured to calm him.
He sighed. She was still waiting for him to explain.
“They say the Long Night is when our world passes through the underworld. One of the benevolent gods drapes the night over us to keep us from seeing it, but if you do, you’ll go mad. If you fall asleep, you might never wake up, because you’re not supposed to forget who you are on solstice night. That’s why you’re supposed to stay up until sunrise. I guess you’re supposed to spend the time reflecting on your station in life, compared to the gods and devils.”
“Very wise,” she nodded.
“Yeah, well, to protect the people, the benevolent god said all the gods and devils had to wear masks on that night so we wouldn’t see them. So, if something is masked, that means it’s something you shouldn’t see. But people were afraid just seeing the mask and knowing it was a devil would be enough, so they all started wearing masks, so you’d never know if you’d seen a devil. But something happened, and some kids died, and people started thinking no decent person would wear a mask like a devil would. Now no one does. They take it seriously here.”
“It sounds like she just wanted you to be safe.”
He sighed. “Yeah. I’d apologize if I could.”
He furrowed his brow. “Of course I would.”
“The question is, do you love her, or do you just want someone there to love?”
“I don’t understand.”
The woman sat up straight for the first time, gesturing. “She was grounded here, and you’re not. She has deeply-held beliefs about the world that you don’t share. You’re comfortable when she’s not, and probably vice versa. You argue. Does it matter if you’re with her, or could it be anyone?”
“I don’t know her very well,” Sesen answered after a pause. He felt it was important to tell the truth. “I think I love her. I don’t want to be separated when I’m gone. I don’t want to argue the way we always do. I want to get to know her, what she’s really like. I don’t think I’ve ever seen that. I mean to say, I’m not sure I’ve ever seen the real her, and the bits I have glimpsed, I’ve never seen anything like…”
“You don’t know the half of it,” the woman said, amused.
“And I have to agree,” she continued. “You must not know her very well, if you don’t recognize her in a mask.”
In an instant, he realized his mistake. He looked the woman up and down, really looking instead of the politely-shortened glance he’d given her before. Yes — a corset and dress like he’d never seen Leae wear, but her, underneath. Her voice was much lower, but he’d heard it once before — the time Leae had gotten tipsy and tried to scare some pigeons. The devil mask covered most of her face, and the red hair was a wig.
He instinctively reached to remove the mask, but she stopped his hand.
“I love you too much for you to go mad because of me,” she said. “Listen to what I have to say next time, please?”
“Of course, but–”
She silenced him with a finger to his lips, then replaced her finger with her mouth. It wasn’t like any of the kisses they’d shared before. It was her, unmistakeably, but she tasted like fire, burning his lips and tongue and fingertips. It was her, but not her.
“We mustn’t forget who we are on solstice night,” she whispered. “That will protect you, if you come looking for me.”
She smiled at him, making sure he saw the invitation. Then she was gone, leaving him wavering in the air like the end of his chair was the edge of a cliff.
He came to his senses and looked around wildly. The others in the room were staring at him with curiosity — it could only have been a moment ago that she’d kissed him. He got up and ran into the hall, pulling off his mask to look both ways.
He saw something on the floor a few steps away. When he approached, he recognized the black-and-red devil mask, familiar now, yet still strange. He crouched to run his fingers over the carved leather.
He flinched away from a passing group of costumed guests. How could he possibly find Leae in the crowd, if she put on a new mask? He’d rashly assumed that everyone here was human, but he couldn’t tell anymore. Who was a harmless friend, and who was a masked devil waiting to pounce?
He raised the devil mask over his own face. He could smell Leae’s perfume.
We mustn’t forget who we are on solstice night.
He tied the straps behind his head, adjusted the mask so he could see, and headed downstairs.