by GR "Maya" Cogman
Beyond the window was clear night, lit by stars that echoed the city lights below. The man stood with his hands stretched against the cold glass, and the sparkles reflected in his eyes.
She was curled on the sofa, her bare feet tucked beneath her and her skirts spread out over the leather surface. "You should come away from there: we don't have enough time as it is to get this sorted out."
He turned, his smile pleasant. "Sweet, it's an easy thing. Half of your lot would come simply to frown at mine."
She shook her head, and her short-cut blond hair glinted in the dim central light. "And the other half would try and kill them, and then where are we? No, there has to be a logical reason for them to keep the peace, at least this once. Especially Laurence and David."
He drifted towards her, motions loose. The light caught the edges of his form, outlining him against the window's darkness. "Let them assume they're spying?"
Her head tilted as she watched him, and she laughed. "Yes, they would be, wouldn't they? Such a coup, to be spying on the poor unrealising Adversaries."
His hand passed across his face, leaving the features a sculpted stillness before he spoke again. "Masquerade."
She ran her hand through her hair, leaving it standing in spikes. "Of course, the other side must have organised it. We will beat them at their own game. Steal in and observe."
He leaned forward, perching on the arm of the sofa beside her, and let his hand hover a breath above her wrist. "But nothing more?"
"A touch," she replied, "is an attack, to some." There was a sudden distance to her voice.
His hand remained, not quite touching. "Very well, then. I shall... restrain myself, a little. And you? Will you be able to avoid suspicion?"
She twitched her head. "I am no Fire to be feared."
"I could fear you."
"Now why would you do a thing like that?" The words were a withdrawal, and she turned to watch their reflections in the window.
He shrugged. "The thrill of it, of course. And the lack of control. Is that why you are sponsoring this dance with me? Control?"
"Impetus." She spun back, smiling. "Movement. The stars by night. Will you dance with me?"
His smile was a mirror of hers, but something failed in the shadows of his eyes. "A single touch? I couldn't refuse."
"No. I don't suppose you would."
"So." His tone changed. "If we both manage the leaks to the other side, then which of us sets the arrangements up? I have a few thoughts."
"We have to make sure it appeals to the more austere tastes." Her tone was faintly regretful. "I can arrange a venue, if you will see to some discreet retainers."
"Discretion," he said, mocking, "always."
He considered, rising again and watching the dark reflection in the window. "Three weeks, perhaps. That's enough time for rumours, but not too much to push matters."
She rose in turn, skirts rustling embroidered flowers against each other. "We'd better arrange damage limitation, too. In case something goes wrong." The light haloed her.
"Always." The shadows wrapped him, and he was abruptly not there, a pulse in the air noticed only by its absence.
She sighed, faintly, as she began to move around the room, tracks almost deliberately following his as though to confuse them from some follower. When she also vanished, only the unmoving light remained: and soon that was gone, leaving the stars to burn beyond the dark window.
The two evening-suited men glanced at each other one last time, and the shorter adjusted his mask slightly, the polished steel catching a flash of light from the lamp above the door. He muttered, "And what if the rumours are correct?"
The other man shrugged wide shoulders. "Then we have a priceless opportunity to observe them." His own mask was a dappled golden serpent that curled across his face, obscuring a line or two that might have been scars. "We can always leave early if there is nothing important."
The smaller man squared himself, centering on the ornamental dark iron knocker. "Very well." He drew a breath, then let it out again, biting back some words as he grasped the curlique of metal and rapped on the door.
The man who opened it wore a face of implacable blankness. He inclined his body in a bow, holding the door open silently for them to enter. The steel mask glanced at the golden one for a moment, then both passed through.
Inside, the corridor was quiet, a drift of music eddying from the carved double doors at the far end. The walls and floor were dark panelled wood, smooth underfoot: all three men walked noiselessly, without even the rap of heels. The serving-man paused just before the carved doors, and gestured towards them, still unspeaking, indicating entry.
Steel turned to gold again, then the slighter man set his hand to the doors, and they swung open. A gust of light and sound washed out, dashed with colour. In the room beyond some couples already moved across the floor, the colours of dresses and masks vivid against the black and white of evening dress. Other men and women stood by the buffet that ran along the opposite wall, or swirled in clumps, their conversations covered by the tuneful patterns of the orchestra in the corner.
A faint sigh from behind the steel mask.
The other man closed the door behind them. He said, quietly, "Do you recognise anybody?"
Lights mirrored in the steel mask as the head behind it shook. His dark hair was caught back in a neat ponytail. "No. Now I suppose we have to mingle." His tone suggested absolute world-weariness.
The taller man slapped him on the shoulder, then turned to vanish into a part of the crowd, step brisk. Straightening his back, the shorter one followed.
The woman's hair was a golden waterfall that brushed her demurely gowned shoulders, covered by a thin veil of shadowy silk: her dress was a matt black satin that had been designed for concealment, and that rustled its layers as she turned to consider the buffet table before her. Her mask was a simple black domino, and her hands were gloved in dark velvet.
Across the table from her, a man raised a bottle and two glasses in half-perceptible invitation. His mask was a domino also, but one in stark white; as colourless as the rest of his costume, evening dress all in white and black. The glasses chimed against each other very faintly in his thin hands, the sound near-imperceptible beneath the hum of conversation and music.
She moved across to him, turning the corner of the table, and inclined her head in what might be acknowledgement - though never a bow - as she extended her hand to cup a glass in her fingers. He nodded in response, then tilted the bottle to fill her glass, then his own, with wine. It glowed red in the dark hollow of her hand, and seemed to be a stain of blood against his pale fingers.
"I am surprised," she commented, neutrality filling her tone.
"At what?" His own was equally flat, and he did not sip the wine.
"Perceptibility." She seemed to consider that enough, raising her own glass to her lips in an antique gesture, the satins of her sleeve rippling.
"Ah. That." A ghost of feeling slipped behind his eyes, muting their burning for a moment. "I might say that I was equally surprised."
"Identity is the puzzle." Her gaze strayed across the shifting crowd, the lights casting her face into sharp relief.
"I await pieces." His pale hair was some light shade of grey, trimmed sharply back, and his tone was dusty. "Then, one moves."
"On both sides?" Her attention shifted back to him like the edge of a blade.
"I would expect so." He returned her glance a moment, then sipped from his glance of wine again. "Cleaner, afterwards. Better defined."
"Preferable." Her voice slipped back to neutrality.
"Yes," he agreed.
The music changed, slipping into a waltz, and they both turned to watch the dancers.
"More chocolate," said the man in the tacky rubber monster mask. He was plump, under his well-tailored suit, and his jowls wobbled faintly as he licked his fingers. "People like chocolate."
"Opinions vary." The man bending over the bowl had a chef's cap perched on the back of his head, staying on by a wish and a prayer. He stirred the syrupy mixture again, and dribbled in a little more vanilla essence.
"Vanilla. I like vanilla." He tried to dip a finger into the bowl again, and had his hand whacked by the wooden spoon.
"Not yet! It's not... right."
"Fuss, fuss, fuss." He waddled away to the next bench. "All this hard work, so delicious. I never knew that you could do that with ham and oysters."
The man in the chef's hat kept a wary eye on his bowl as he stepped aside to pluck down two bottles of liquor. "Did anybody else get to eat any?"
A sound of smacking lips drifted across. "Should have been more, shouldn't there?"
"I was expecting someone else to keep you back." He withdrew the cork from one bottle with a pop, then sniffed it gently. A smile drifted blissfully across his face. "Ahh, this stuff is _golden_, man!"
Stray olives, peanuts, canapes, and stuffed mushrooms were vanishing as the obese man edged along the table. "So get on and finish it, all right? I've barely eaten a thing all night. Last time I got this hungry was in..." he tried counting on his fingers, realised that his hands were full of meatballs, swallowed them, and tried again through a mouthful of food, "... well, ages."
"It'll be ready," the chef said, "when I say it's ready."
"Out, out, already! How's an artist supposed to work under conditions like this?"
The plump man snagged three turkey legs. "If I come back in five minutes, will it be done by then?"
The chef hefted the bowl menacingly. "If you don't get out now, I _drop_ it."
"Bah." A pork pie vanished, and he disappeared round the edge of the door, flab wobbling under the suit.
The chef looked around, alone, and breathed a sigh of relief. Then he poured himself a glass from the opened bottle.
"And now," he said, between swallows, "for something _really_ creative..."
The man and woman paused together on the edge of the dance floor. His arm rested near her back, not quite touching, but with a suggestion of support to it. He was tall and sturdily built, shoulders square and muscular under his dark suit: his mask had been carved from polished granite, shadowy stone flecked with tiny sparkles of crystal, and his blond hair was cut sharply short.
The woman stood straight-backed, head cocked as though she were listening to something. Her black hair hung loose to the small of her back, lying against the gas-flame blue of her silk sheath. Bare arms and lower face were a dark ivory, and her mask was fashioned from gold, opals, and blue topaz.
"It is changing again," she said, her voice barely audible. "I saw the morning star rising, and then divided at the heart: a crack ran through it as it does now through his high Cathedral."
"You were the one who wanted to come." His voice was as dark and heavy as his presence. "No blow is struck.Yet."
She took a step onto the dance floor, and he followed her, the motion half automatic, turning to make the movement one of taking her in his arms, turning again into the waltz that the orchestra were playing. She was poised in his arms like a flame, motions nearly unconscious of him as she danced with him.
"Why?" he asked, voice a low rumble.
"It was necessary." Her voice was distracted, and other dancers spun round them like the blades of a fan. "I could not stand still any more. If I could show you what I mean, that time is burning till it burns away, that every second is falling like ashes and we are a breath nearer the end of..."
When it was clear that she was not going to continue, he prompted, "End of?"
"Game. The game. God does not play games with his children, we are the only ones that can do that to ourselves." Her words spilled out as he guided her across the floor. "The world's heart is still warm, and the sun burns, but we are poised between those two poles and are yet so cold. Turning, burning and returning."
"We do not change, you and I." His grip was firm as he guided her to the edge of the floor, and she followed him, continuing to walk forward as his hand fell from her shoulder. He followed her, then, a step behind.
"We can't." She did not look behind her as she walked towards the door, steps beginning to grow faster and faster, her slippered feet soft on the floor. "Words, natures." People moved out of her way without noticing it, and left a gap for the man who followed her. "What is essential is to remember who we are."
He set a hand on her upper arm, the thick bone showing as his knuckles tightened: she slowed to a stop, eyes wide in the shadows of her mask. "You said there was a reason for us to be here."
"Oh, yes." She was still again, then turned slightly, twitching her shoulder. "It will come to me, by and by."
"Walk with me." It was not an order, but neither was it a request that might be refused. She nodded, vaguely, as she turned back to him.
"A little longer," she said. "A little longer, and then we can dance again, when the end comes. It has been too long."
He nodded, something of satisfaction in his posture. "It will come, and then we will do as we did once before."
The lights caught on her dress and mask as she moved, and the colours glowed like the heart of a flame.
Near one door, a different man and woman were engaged in discussion - animated on the part of the man, vague on the part of the woman. He was in a sharply cut suit, with vivid bowtie and mask of fragmented newsprint: she was in a dark grey dress bordered and sashed in green and curliqued with elaborate embroidery, her mask in a silk of the same grey, curling black hair loose over her shoulders.
His voice rose for a moment, before he hushed it. "Your people want exposure, baby, we can get exposure! It's the optimism thing, it's all the go at the moment. Look at Disney. Look at every single cutesy flick on the market. People eat that stuff up."
She said, with perfect courtesy, "You're very kind."
He waved a hand. "Naah, not at all. It's all getting the appeal right for the audience. We've got audiences analyses you wouldn't believe. They want it twee, honey. They want the heroes, the bad guys, the stories they know. Look at the ratings, that's what I always say. And I gotta admit, honey, your people, they're _good_ at that sort of thing."
Her voice remained mild. "On their behalf, I am flattered."
"Yeah, so, look." He leaned in closer. "What they need is a little more scaling, you know that? Sugar for the children's market, hard stuff for the adult. We've got some stuff that'd knock your eyes out when it comes to getting this sort of thing on television. Think of it. We could call it, I don't know, _Dreams R Us_ or something. I've got people working on technology to link you in whichever," and he leered, "way suits. We're talking bigtime, baby."
She seemed about to reply to him for a moment, then her head turned, as she glanced towards the opposite door. Another woman was standing there, her hand still on the doorframe, staring across the room at the pair. Her gown was dark crimson, cut low across her chest and shoulders, and her mask was the same shade: its shape suggested some unidentifiable strangeness which left the watcher uneasy. Black hair was cut short, baring her neck and the line of her chin.
The two women regarded each other for a long moment, then turned without any signal or warning, moving to the separate doors. The two tiny clicks as they shut the doors behind them went unnoticed in the general hum of music and conversation.
The man sighed, wandering off to find himself something to drink. "Fine. Wonderful. Great. Where the hell else do I get Malakite porn for the new network show?"
The woman cut a swathe through the crowd, her dress a discreet provocation in very thin, very fine scarlet leather: the style of the dress was demure, high to the neck and leaving the arms bare, and slit to the knee at both sides, but her carriage was proud. Her mask was stylised ivory, half-covering her face: where her skin showed, it was the shade of dark coffee, and broken chains were woven among her cornrowed braids.
She tilted her head, peering among the milling guests till she caught sight of a particular mask. A faint smile touched her lips as she began to pick her way towards him, high heels tapping on the floor.
Ahead of her, the steel-masked man had paused to scrutinise the people near him. He folded his arms, back as straight as a poker as he glared at them: most of them continued with their conversations or food obliviously. One giggled.
She stalked up behind him, in a flick of leather, and as he turned - for he turned, aware of somebody approaching - she leaned over, and her lips brushed his ear. She might have muttered something, but if so it went unheard.
His back went even stiffer, head jerking back, and he took an instinctive half-step away, hand falling to one hip as though to grasp for something before he controlled the reaction.
The woman's lips curled in a vague smile, and she stepped between two couples, then further on into the crowd. It closed behind her like a field of wheat, and she blended into the throng of colours and talk.
The man was paused a moment, hand clenched at his side. Slowly the fingers unfolded, then he blinked. With a muttered exclamation, he began edging through the crowd after her, short neat movements between the couples and groups who he divided.
Somewhere ahead of him, she kept on walking, mouth still curved in a smile.
The man in the anonymous grey half-mask sighed as he folded up his cellular phone.
"Busy night?" asked the man beside him. He had steel circuitry worked into his own mask, and white fluffy hair poked up haphazardly behind it. His suit was disarranged, and the pockets bulged in strange lumps.
"You wouldn't believe it." The phone began to buzz again. "Sliding scale on the Index. You'd think you could trust people to manage things when you step out of the office for a moment." He sighed, unfolding the phone, and began to mutter into it again.
The other man nodded sympathetically. "You just step out for a moment, and before you know it half your experiments have walked away."
The first man snapped the phone shut. "It isn't _quite_ like that."
He shrugged his shoulders. "So reconfigure the phone to only take transmissions from the frequencies..." he nodded upwards, "...thataway."
"Our people are still working on that one."
"Surely." He pointed at the phone. "It's not too hard, we've been working on a variant. You just cross-connect a few points and..." he waved his hand, "...intersect a bit. Look, let me show you..."
Across the room, another man glanced across, as he had been doing towards the circuitry-masked man all evening. His own mask was of silver-streaked black, across a cheesewire-straight nose and blond hair: his eyes widened behind it as he saw his target remove a screwdriver. He began to make his way across the floor, the course optimal, muttering apologies to those he pushed by.
The grey-masked man watched, with a less than reassured air, as the circuitry-masked one began to dissect his phone, the components laid out on a corner of the buffet table. "So this is one of your regular items?"
The other licked his fingers, then pulled a couple of wires loose. "Yup. Almost got the bugs out. My people won't leave home without it." Something inside the phone began to beep, on a rising and painful note.
"Should it be making noises like that?"
He shrugged, cross-connecting into a few vague areas. "Ignore it when it screams. I always do. You never get anywhere if you stop halfway through them."
The phone kept on beeping, rising to a note that made the glass beside it begin to tremble.
"Look, are you _absolutely_ sure..."
The phone said, on a half-shriek, "Hello? Hello? My-name-is-Javan-but-Master-says-call-me-Birdy? Hello? Hell-"
The man with the silver-streaked mask stepped between the other two. With a single motion, he picked up a discarded screwdriver and thrust it into the heart of the phone. There was a mangled, pitiful squeal, and the thing fell silent.
The tinkerer hissed. "Luddite!" He would have continued, but a hand fell on his shoulder from behind. The man who stood there was of medium height, face covered with a flat black mask like that of a hanging judge.
He said, in flat tones, "It was not Fated to be."
Fixing a hand on the phone-owner's shoulder, the silver-streaked masked man dragged him in the direction of away. He muttered, "If you require something like that, it would have been far more practical to speak to me about it."
The grey-masked man gave one last, longing glance at his phone before the pair of them were lost in the crowd.
A white cat was brooding beneath the table, curled up with a single paw extended. From time to time, it flexed its claws.
Standing nearby, a man in an almost offensively bland mask considered direction. He nibbled thoughtfully on a piece of carrot-stick as he judged angle, position, and speed. His foot flexed.
The cat twitched its tail.
The man kicked it.
With an offended squall, the cat blurred into motion, whizzing past and through the black skirts of the black-masked blonde woman, who was still talking quietly with the white-masked man. It left a wide trail of white fluff over her smooth skirts, like some furry mould.
White mask and black mask together swung to regard the blandly-masked man. He smirked, selecting a new carrot stick.
The cat settled some distance away, and began to preen itself, whiskers still bristling. On a bunch of flowers nearby, some butterflies rustled their wings in sympathetic time.
Still smirking, the man strolled away, eyes roaming over the crowd.
The orchestra fell silent, rather than simply modulating into their next piece, and the dancers on the floor began to drift away, leaving it bare. Gazes turned to the orchestra, where the conductor was speaking to two similarly-built men: one wore a mask of a coiled golden serpent, the other had a mask of the same design but in black. They were both examining violins.
The steel-masked man broke off his motion through the crowd, and turned to stare at them: as he paused, another man beside him touched his elbow, murmuring, "This must go unopposed."
"But I have sworn an oath!" the steel-masked man muttered.
His interlocutor pushed his glasses back up on his nose with his free hand. He wore no mask. "Do you doubt his ability to handle the matter?"
"Of course not, but..."
By the orchestra, the gold-masked man finished tuning up his violin, and set it to his shoulder, and drew the bow across the strings with a flourish. The black-masked man echoed his movement, and for a moment silence settled across the room.
Both melodies began together, the notes of the violins echoing through the room. First the gold-masked man took the lead, with his music expanding in arpeggios like distant calls to war, then the black-masked man increased his own range, his notes swirling like a coiling serpent. The lines of music fluctuated against each other, faster and more demanding.
The crowd was still, their conversations hushed. A few figures in the mass of people moved, settling into two groups that half faced each other across the dancing floor, but no person spoke.
Swifter and more angry, the violins clamoured against each other like contending voices, crying out for an answer: one spoke of pride, fury, superiority, while the other answered it with a streak of notes like the descent of a blade, of passion, or of truth.
The temperature might have risen. Some people in the crowd clenched their hands, as the swirls of music cut through the room like a knife, and others watched from the corners of their eyes, setting their backs to the wall. Something pulsed in the room, rising as the music rose in fury.
The strings on both violins snapped in a final scream of notes.
The lights went out.
They stood in the dim, echoing room together. The tables were empty of food, and the stands of flowers, though faint odours still hung in the air. Neither of them were masked.
"A success?" His voice was half a mockery, half a caress.
She shrugged, her skirts shifting as she paced a circle round him. "A beginning. A change. A step forward, a whatever you like."
"Nobody killed each other. Is that your definition of a success?"
"I'd have thought it would be yours." She stopped, facing his profile. He had not turned to match her. "After all, it's not as if you like people dying."
"Sweet," he replied, "nor do you."
"Well, then." She stepped back to in front of him. "A success."
"It hasn't really changed anything." He stretched out a hand, touching the edge of her blouse. "You're still where you are, I'm still where I am - and we only meet here for the occasional dance. Which reminds me..."
"The musicians have all gone home," she said. "The carnival is over."
He smiled. "But we still have the Symphony."
The paling light of dawn watched their dance, and watched their parting.
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