The carriage wheels rattled over the cobblestone road that led through the town of Landen towards the castle gates. Torchflames burned in iron cressets lining the road, marking the way for the guests, who came on foot and by carriage alike. In the fiery light, the town looked like a fairytale village, the two-story, slate-roofed houses frowning down as the revelers passed as if sternly watching their frivolity. Storesigns swung in the breeze, their chains creaking softly.
Ahead of them, the castle rose up from behind its curtain wall, towers and battlements thrust upwards into the sky. It was said that Orakio himself had walked its halls a thousand years ago, and looking at the towers by night, it seemed believable. The sight was one to raise thoughts of bold knights, heroic princes, and dragons--at least by day. By night the stories it called to mind were the kind with wicked nobles, Layan witches, and captive maidens and princesses.
Of course, a princess was precisely what Lena Di Satera was, the only child of King Rand and Queen Lissara and heiress to the western half of this world. Naturally, her parents believed it would be a fine thing if she were to marry the heir to the eastern half, and so a childhood betrothal had been arranged between Lena and Prince Rhys of Landen. This night, however, would be the first time she would actually get to meet him.
"What kind of man do you think he is?" she asked her parents, not for the first time.
"I'm sure he's a fine boy," replied her father. "He's supposed to be a fine swordsman and a brave knight."
The queen chuckled warmly.
"That's not what Lena means, dear. She wants to know about his feelings, his personality. Is he kind or cruel, gentle or harsh, light-hearted or stern, strong-willed or weak? Will he make a good companion for her--is he someone she can come to love?"
"Well, er, as to that..." King Rand tugged at his collar, and the two female members of his family burst into laughter.
"Men!" Lissara laughed. "Still," she said, putting her husband's shoulder, "they have their uses."
"Thanks ever so, dear."
The great gate, emblazoned with the sunburst symbol of Orakio, was raised high, and the royal coach of Satera swept through the portals, the burnished steel armor of the escorting knights gleaming in the torchlight.
"We'd better get our masks on," the king advised. "We're almost there."
Suiting actions to words, he slipped his black domino mask into place. Queen Lissara also put on her mask, which was ornate and birdlike to go with her elaborate harpy costume.
"I hope the feathers haven't been damaged," she murmured, examining her arms. "Marta spent quite a long time making this and I don't want her hard work to go to waste."
"You look wonderful, Mother," Lena said. She herself was dressed as a Layan sorceress from a thousand years ago, dressed in an elaborate robe with a pair of those curious bladed weapons, slicers, hanging at her belt. Lena had received basic training in self-defense, something any royal was well-advised to learn, but she couldn't even begin to understand how a slicer could be effectively used. Since the idea of her costume was to look daring and mysterious, even seductive, she'd considered donning a wig to cover her own close-cut brown hair, but decided against it. Lena didn't want the impression she made on her future husband to be all masks and moonlight, just as it was the real Rhys she wanted to get to know.
The carriage drew to a stop in the courtyard, and a servant opened the door. The king got out first, then offered a hand down to his wife and daughter, whose fancy skirts encumbered them.
The castle was made of unrelieved stone, floors, walls, and ceilings alike, and would have looked very cold and forbidding had it not been for the care taken with the decoration and fittings. Tapestries in brilliant colors hung from the walls, as did armorial trophies, while lamps burned sweet-scented oil and had their light cast back by glittering mirrors. The servants wore their finest livery, and the guards present were dressed in ornate, ceremonial armor. Strains of orchestral music drifted through the broad hallways, and the air of pageantry was everywhere.
The castle's grand hall, where the ball itself was being held, was if anything a more glorious sight. The musicians had been placed on an improvised stage at the south end of the room, and filled the hall with round dances, waltzes, and minuets. Along the sides were tables laden with food and refreshments, while throughout the room were the assembled nobility of Landen, Ilan, and Yaata, each more fantastically costumed than the last. A satyr danced with a lady knight, a wizard spoke to a dragon, a turbaned giant whispered soft words into the ear of a scantily clad catwoman. It was thrilling and exciting, and the faint hint of decadence only intrigued Lena the more.
Eagerly, the princess scanned the room for any sign of Rhys, trying to recognize him from the miniature portrait she'd been given. Then, at once, her eyes lit upon a figure. He had short blue hair, though his bangs swept across his forehead, and wore a black mask that left exposed a strong chin and--Lena thought with a blush--lips that looked just right for kissing. His garb was somber, head-to-toe black with highly polished breastplate, greaves, vambraces, and gauntlets. Only the ankle-length white cape that descended from his shoulders lent color to the costume, and Lena wondered for a moment why he wore such a grim outfit, until she saw that the costume sword at his waist was also jet-black.
Of course! she realized. He's come as Orakio. Some might see it as sacrilegious to take on the identity of the great hero who'd given his name to their people, but the royal line of Landen was said to be descended from Orakio himself, so in Rhys' case it was no more than attending as a famous ancestor.
Should she go over and introduce herself? No, perhaps not yet. The unmasking was at midnight, so why not take advantage of these hours of mystery? She could approach Rhys, talk with him, dance a set, and enjoy the moment of romance that the masquerade lent them. She kept her eyes on him. Once this set ended, she would approach the prince.
The Prince of Landen thanked his partner, a young lady from Ilan, for the waltz and escorted her from the floor, but he did it in something of a distant, distracted fashion. His attention wasn't on the girl, or the dancing, or the music. Rhys felt a curious atmosphere to the masquerade, an air of mystery and tension, and he could not place its source.
Of course, something of that was only to be expected. The entire purpose of a masked ball was to generate just that, an atmosphere of mystery and romance, where under the cloak of anonymity people could throw off the constraints of their public life and, at least until midnight, be free to be whomever they wanted.
That wasn't all, though. He'd been to masquerades before, as his mother insisted on holding at least one each year. Tonight, there was something different. It was as if the very essence of the masque had taken shape in the great hall of Landen Castle.
Something, the prince was sure, was going to happen before the night was through.
Unfortunately, the sensation was making Rhys less than the most genial partygoer or dance partner. He did regret it; while he knew himself to be hotheaded Rhys did try to do his duty to the throne. He decided to get himself a glass of punch, perhaps a canap�, and use the time to observe the ball. He might be able to narrow down just what was giving him the strange sensations he felt.
As he turned towards the food tables, his shoulder collided with that of a guest.
"Pardon me," he said at once.
"On the contrary, my prince, the fault is all mine."
The guest wore a curious costume, a simple gray hooded cloak, tattered at the edges. His mask was odd, too, full-faced, with lenses over the eyes and a kind of flexible tube for a mouth, a kind of breathing apparatus, perhaps. The mask distorted his voice, giving it a hissing quality that Rhys found vaguely unwholesome. Indeed, between the changed voice and the shapeless form under the cloak the guest might as easily have been a woman.
"You know me?" he said.
"All the world knows of the Prince of Landen," replied the cloaked masquer. "All the world...and those beyond."
Rhys' eyes widened behind his mask.
The stranger laid long fingers on Rhys' arm.
"I can see many things, my prince. This is a momentous night, a night that shall ring out through history."
"What are you talking about?" Rhys asked, confused.
"The future, my prince, the future. This night is only the beginning. Tonight, your life will be changed forever."
"I don't understand. Are you some kind of fortuneteller?"
"Yesss...you could say that. Will you hear my words of portent?" the stranger hissed.
Rhys wanted to say no. There was something about this person, man or woman, that seemed wrong. He couldn't quite place it; perhaps it was the strange voice, but in any case it was an alien sensation that made the hairs on the back of his neck tingle. It reminded the prince of what he'd thought earlier, about the spirit of the masquerade incarnating itself.
Perhaps he should have walked away, feeling as he did, but Rhys did not lack courage. Besides, he'd wanted to find out what made this night unusual, and the stranger seemed to know.
"Yes," the prince decided, "I'll hear you out."
"Very well. You have just made a choice, and tonight you shall be offered one other. You can turn your back on all that I've seen, and this may be wise, for it will take a brave heart to face a future where great weight rests upon your deeds. If you possess the courage, my prince, then follow the girl with the hair of flame. You will not find her when you seek, but what you do find will make your life until now seem as nothing."
Rhys blinked in confusion. This sounded like a fortuneteller's trick, a veil of words drawn over plain meaning, but it was different, too. The "girl with the hair of flame"--that was specific, and so were the instructions.
"This girl--is she here now?" he asked, scanning the ballroom for any sign of her. The cloaked masquer did not answer, and when Rhys turned back to see why, the stranger had gone. He, or she, wasn't slipping away into the crowd, and there were no nearby exits to have escaped through or furnishings to conceal himself behind. He had just...vanished.
Mystery in the air, indeed.
He asked a number of people whether they'd seen the gray-cloaked guest, all the while keeping an eye out for both him and the girl he'd spoken of. Both, however, proved as elusive as phantoms. A couple of people thought they remembered seeing the cloaked stranger, but none was sure, and it seemed that no one else had spoken with him.
Reluctantly, the prince was forced to abandon the mystery and return to the ball. This was an important social event for the throne, and he didn't want to embarrass his mother by generating needless gossip. Rhys danced with a number of partners, the most interesting of which proved to be a clever brunette in a witch's costume. They talked amiably during the course of a dance, and it seemed only natural that as the music changed to a waltz, they should step into each other's arms and continue together. Her steps were a bit clumsy at first, like one who'd only been partnered by her dancing-master, but she soon began to move with the melody. Rhys had all but forgotten the cloaked seer when he caught sight of a flash of gray. He turned his head, but it was only a gray cape worn by a man in a knight's costume. His distraction was, however, noticed by his dance partner.
"What's wrong, Prince Rhys?"
"You know me?"
"Only you or your father would attend dressed as Orakio," the girl said. "It would be in exceedingly poor taste otherwise."
"You have a point." Rhys paused thoughtfully and said, "Well, perhaps two heads are better than one. Earlier this evening, I had a strange encounter, and now I can't see the person anywhere."
"It sounds quite mysterious."
"It was, and a bit...disquieting, besides." He told her about the stranger, though not the details of their conversation. For some reason, he felt that those words were for his ears alone, and that to share them would destroy their magic. Rhys didn't know where the thought had come from, but it burned within him like a talisman.
"Perhaps," the girl in Layan dress said slowly, thinking things through, "perhaps...it was a double costume?"
"A double costume?"
"Yes!" she said, warming to her theory. "He or she puts on a costume, something close-fitting, and a small mask like a domino. Then over it they pull a big, shapeless, hooded cloak and a full-face mask, concealing everything. The person approaches you and acts very ominous and mystic, then when your back is turned, whips off the cloak and mask and steps back into the crowd looking like someone else entirely." She giggled. "It's a good joke. I wish I'd thought of it!"
It was a good idea. The cape and mask could be easily disposed of, dropped behind a potted plant or into a trash bin, and Rhys would never know.
"You're probably right," he said.
"I'm glad I could help."
"You have the advantage of me, though. Will you tell me your name?"
She pursed her lips, then shook her head.
"No, I think you shall have to wait until the unmasking," she decided.
"Vixen!" Rhys accused playfully.
"Sweet words and flattery shall not win me over!" the girl replied archly, her brown eyes teasing. "Tonight I am a witch and I shall act like one." Rhys found himself very interested in finding out who she was. The end of the dance came all too soon, and as even at a masquerade it was not done to dance with the same person more than twice consecutively, the prince regretfully abandoned her to her next partner. He stood looking at her as the next set began.
"You find her interesting?"
The voice was rich and throaty, coming from just behind his right shoulder. Rhys nearly jumped; this was the second time someone had been able to slip up behind him. True, a ballroom was not a battlefield, but still, a trained knight and especially a prince should be more aware.
"That's a very personal question," he snapped, nettled, and spun to face the woman.
If there ever was a "girl with hair of flame," this was she. Rhys had seen a number of redheads at the ball, but this one's hair was a brilliant yellow-orange, the exact shade of a candle's fire. She wore a loose tunic and trousers of diaphanous pink cloth that displayed a lithe body and left her feet bare. Her mask was a mere veil of the same translucent material worn just below the eyes. It was a dancer's costume, designed to excite and tantalize, but Rhys found himself less interested in the woman herself than in what she might mean for the future.
"I prefer to be...personal," she replied, eyes dancing. A wicked smile was on the lips beneath the veil. "I hope you do as well."
"I enjoy these masquerades, but they lack privacy. Talking on a dance floor, surrounded by dozens of others is inhibiting."
"Oh?" Rhys had a good idea of what was coming next.
"Quite so. I would like to speak more with you...in private. Why don't we meet, say, an hour and a half from now...by the river, outside the town?"
"We'll miss the unmasking."
"No," she purred, "I don't think so." She turned and walked sinuously away.
An assignation, then. Such offers were not uncommon for Rhys; he was an attractive young man and his position was, to some, even more attractive. He was not inclined to follow through on such invitations; being betrothed since childhood to the Princess of Satera gave him a certain perspective. he also found the wanton greed in the veiled dancer's offer unappealing. There was no romance to it, merely...hunger.
Ordinarily the prince would, therefore, have simply ignored the offer. An evening of waiting alone on the beach instead of being at the masquerade would have been a fit rejoinder to the dancer's tacit assumption that Rhys would accept her invitation. Tonight was different. The stranger's advice to "follow the girl with the hair of flame" rang in his mind.
The question was, did he have the courage to follow the riddle to its solution? Did he even have the desire to? It would be very easy for Rhys to let the cloaked guest and the fire-haired woman play their games, then ignore them. That brunette in Layan garb intrigued him; he'd like to know who she was.
Rhys had just about made up his mind to do exactly that, ignore the two and get on with his life, but something held him back just short of that decision. He looked at the masked revelers, at the glittering chandeliers above, and the mystery and romance of the masked ball reasserted itself. He'd been so sure that something was going to happen, and now, on the verge of that event, he was retreating, drawing back? What kind of coward was he?
The prince slipped away from the ballroom and returned to his own chambers, where he replaced his costume sword with a steel fighting blade. This might well be a trick, a ploy to lure Rhys into the open, away from any protection. There were those who had violated Orakio's Law in the past for the sake of political gain. Rhys would be taking no chances.
As he left the castle and descended the hill towards the riverbank, another thought came to him. If the girl had been right about the double-costume trick, then the gray- cloaked stranger and the dancer might have been one and the same, the fortuneteller's act a clever bit of stage managing to get Rhys out on the moonlit beach with her. If so, she'd soon be on the receiving end of a piece of his mind!
The north river which divided the sister kingdoms of Landen and Satera from one another was odd, as rivers went. Unlike Landen's other rivers, it seemed more to be a narrow channel of the sea. It rose and fell with the tide, and its banks were strips of sandy beach. This made it a popular trysting-place for young couples from Landen, who could find relative privacy among the dunes. When Rhys arrived, he could see no sign of the veiled woman, so he began to walk along the shore, looking into the little valleys between the dunes. The light from the twin moons was bright, and the waves lapped softly at the sand as he walked.
Then, Rhys made out the silhouette of a huddled form lying near the water's edge. As he got closer, he recognized it as a person, still and unmoving. He dashed closer, and saw that it was a woman, but most emphatically not the one who had invited Rhys out onto the beach. This one was slender and fine-boned, with a delicate, ethereal beauty and hair the pale, cyan blue sometimes seen in ice floes. Her eyes were closed, and her chest rose and fell all but imperceptibly with the shallowness of her breathing. She wore a blue dress, once fine but now torn and rent by whatever had brought her here. In more than one place, her skin was but and bruised.
"Miss?" He shook her shoulder lightly. "Miss?"
She did not wake, did not even respond with a cry or moan. It was possible that she shouldn't be moved, but Rhys couldn't leave her there, and she obviously needed a doctor's attention. He scooped her up in his arms, and noted as he did so the dry patch in the wet sand where she had lain. That meant that she'd been laying there during the previous low tide and stayed there during the high tide, keeping the spot dry while the water swirled around her. Her clothing was still damp from the tide and clung to her limbs. As Rhys crossed the sand, the image filled his mind of the girl lying on the beach, unconscious, as the hot sun beat down and the waves crashed around her. She was lucky not to have drowned.
"Don't worry," he told her as his steps took them back towards the town and a doctor. "I'm with you now. I won't let anything happen to you."
"Will it work?" the flame-haired woman asked eagerly. One of the Fatima, a school of battle-dancers of the city of Lashute, she was as fiery by temperament as her appearance and her magic.
"I cannot say." The cloaked wizard's voice was weary. Even for him, one of the Malefic, of the highest order of the Imagio Mages who served Rulakir and through him their dark god, casting the shadows of himself and the dancer to far-off Landen and giving them physical form had been exhausting. Thankfully, he had only been required to send one at a time and not both of them at once or he wouldn't have been able to manage it.
"You cannot say!" the Fatima shouted. "We spend all this time and energy on Lord Rulakir's plan and you, you withered corpse, cannot say if it will succeed?"
"Calm yourself," hissed the magician, trying to conceal his weakness. "We have taken the girl. We have brought her to Landen, and arranged for Prince Rhys to find her under the circumstances we feel best suited to motivate him. We have made certain that her family knows where she has gone. We can do no more. All we can do now is hope that their actions will be as we expect. Rhys, Maia, Lyle, Lena...any of them has the power to choose another path and foil our plans."
Beneath his mask, the Malefic's long-dead lips curved upwards in a smile.
"But I do not think that they will."
The orchestra had stilled while the great tower clock chimed out the hour, one peal after another, until all twelve had sounded. On the dais, the king and queen of Landen removed their masks, the symbol for everyone to do so. Heroes and goblins, monsters and cyborgs again became lords and ladies, merchants and artisans, knights and courtiers. The Layan witch was once more Princess Lena Di Satera.
Lena looked around excitedly for Prince Rhys. The two of them had hit it off splendidly! They'd only talked once, but they'd shared two danced and the conversation had been amiable. Rhys had even seemed interested in what she'd had to say, unlike some noblemen who looked down their noses at a girl who didn't share their love for hunting and battle.
She couldn't see Rhys anywhere, though. Lena had expected him to be on the dais with his parents, but he hadn't appeared there, and she didn't see him anywhere in the ballroom either. Everywhere people were laughing and gasping with surprise, saying things like, "I knew it was you!" or "Why, I thought you were..." but Lena could not see the black-armored Orakio costume among the gaiety.
It's the height of the party! she thought. Where could he have gone?
As the queen signaled the musicians to start again, and the unmasked revelers paired up for the next set, Lena now looked, on a crazy hunch, for a person in a shapeless gray cloak, but of course, she found not such guest, either.
Oh, Rhys. What's happened to you?
"You can come in now."
Rhys all but rushed up the stairs to the doctor's room. The girl lay in bed, her eyes still closed, her breathing slow and regular.
The prince rounded on the doctor, spinning around so quickly that the green-haired woman in her neatly pressed white uniform took a step back in shock.
"Is she going to be all right? What happened to her?"
The doctor held up her hand, forestalling his questions so she could explain.
"Physically, she seems fine. There are no internal injuries, no broken bones. Her right ankle was sprained, but a dose of Monomate took care of that as well as the superficial cuts and bruises. I'd say that she's obviously suffering from exhaustion and exposure, but luckily she doesn't appear to have gone into shock. She's lucky you came along when you did, though. The nights are cold and the water at high tide would have made it worse."
A small cry issued from the sleeping girl's lips, the first sound Rhys had heard from her. Her eyelids slowly raised, then suddenly she yelped and sat bolt upright in the bed. She held the soft hospital robe close around her and her gaze flickered here and there, taking in everything. She had, Rhys noticed, eyes like twin jewels the same color as her hair.
"Where...where am I? Who are you people?" she asked nervously, her body trembling with fear. Small wonder, Rhys reflected, after waking up in a strange room surrounded by people she'd never met.
"This is a doctor's residence in the town of Landen," Rhys said. "My name is Rhys; I found you lying on the beach and brought you here." He decided to omit his title; that could come later, and he didn't feel like playing "You're not really a prince, are you?" He indicated the doctor. "This is Dr. Elwynn. She's been taking care of you."
"Landen," the girl murmured, trying out the sound of it, a look of puzzlement on her face.
"What's your name?" Rhys asked.
"It's...Maia..." The confusion was still there, almost as if she was stumped by a riddle but knew the solution ought to be obvious.
"Where are you from, Maia?"
"From? I'm...I'm from..." Her eyes widened in shock. "I don't know!"
"Could it be Satera? Ilan? Yaata?" Rhys suggested, hoping the names would strike some chord in her mind.
"I don't know! None of them sounds familiar! I can't remember a thing about who I am or where I'm from," she whimpered, "only my name." Tears began to flow from her scintillating eyes, genuine ones of shock and fear.
"I'm sorry," Rhys said, ashamed. "I didn't mean to press."
"Yes...you said that you found me lying on a beach?" Maia asked tentatively.
"Yes, I did, on the riverbank just below the town."
"How...how did I get there?"
Rhys shook his head.
"I don't know. I've never seen you before in my life."
"All right, enough questions," Dr. Elwynn interrupted. "What Maia needs is food and proper rest. There will be plenty of time in the morning to address the question of her amnesia--after we take care of her body's health."
"Then, I'll be back tomorrow...if, that is, you'd like me to come," Rhys added hesitantly.
"Oh, I don't mind. In fact, I...I think I'd like that very much."
She dropped her eyes shyly.
"Now, now, you two. That can also wait until tomorrow."
As Elwynn hustled the blushing prince into the hall, away from the equally red-faced Maia, Rhys knew then and there that he was going to do whatever it took to insure Maia found out who she was and where she had come from.
The stranger had been right. Rhys' life had changed forever.
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