“Pardon the intrusion,” I say, edging my way into a small circle of friends, “but have any of you ever heard of the Tale of Lind? Only, rumor has that tale will be told somewhere here tonight and I very much want to find where the audience is gathering.”
They look up at me, surprise on every face. It is a strange question, and no doubt they think I look strange myself.
“I’m afraid I’ve never heard of it,” says the youngest, recovering first. “Is it a fairy story?”
She smiles, gesturing down at herself. She has flowers in her hair, glitter under her eyes, and paper wings on her back that flap gently as she moves. Her costume is the best in the circle, in my opinion, the best except for mine.
“I’m not sure, entirely. Rumor has it that this is the first time the Tale of Lind will ever be told, and who knows the substance of a new story? If an acorn is planted in the earth, it will sprout. If kept supplied with sun and water it will grow into a tree, as that is the way of things, for trees. But who knows how stories are formed? What is their seed, from what half-glimpsed vision of beauty or dimly recalled childhood terror do they grow? What feeds them? Dreams? Adventure? Broken hearts? If fate hides from us both the origin and the growth of a phenomena, of natural or esoteric philosophy it makes no difference, if both are hidden then how can we know what shape it may take?”
Several of them laugh, including the Fairy and one dressed as a wood nymph.
“Well I’m sure I know as little about stories as I do about trees, but I hope this one’s a comedy,” she says, fluttering her eyes at me. She’s a daring girl, but I knew that already for her dress, for want of a better word, shows exactly how daring she is prepared to be. “Comedies are my favorite, especially stories of a handsome, silly men who gets up to all sorts nonsense chasing ladies.”
“Nah, it must be some kind of war story or romance, you know, romance in the old sense with knights and giants and battles,” says a young man in a paper crown, too loudly, for he has been drinking more than is good for him and will likely only drink more as the night goes on, “you just have to look at his mask, those horns, and all that blood to know that this man won’t be interested in any peaceful story.”
Whatever he thinks of mine, his costume is quite bad. In addition to the yellow paper on his head he has a wooden sword in his belt, on old blanket pretending to be a cloak, and the lid off the biggest pot he could find in the kitchen for his shield. It is a mark of just how good this masquerade really is that he still manages to look like a King, like Arthur.
“I think it’s probably a grim, bloody mess,” says a witch, unsmiling, “so many of those old stories are. They’re frightful, when I have children I won’t let them near books of fairy tales.”
I can tell that she is Arthur’s sister, and that they came together, so she must be Morgan le Fay. She is wearing an old, black dress that does not look as alluring as Morgan’s dress probably should, but she has on a great deal of dark makeup and carries a child’s toy wand so you can still tell it’s her.
“No, no,” says a wizard, him of the old gray robe, silly hat, and broomstick staff, “it’s an amalgam, so many stories are, a Celtic tale that merged with a Nordic one and then an Eastern one that came to us through Constantinople, and Persia before that.”
The Wizard clearly considers himself something of a scholar and cannot forbear any chance to prove his learning, even when, like now, he does not know what he is talking about.
“I suspect that you are all wrong,” I say, “but perhaps not, no one knows how it will turn out in the end.”
“Well, someone must know,” says the Fairy, reasonably, “or it isn’t a story at all. Didn’t you come here to find someone to tell it to you?”
“Oh no, I know who will tell the story already. I am looking for the audience. You need both of them, working together, to tell a true tale, the teller often has much less control than he supposes.”
“Well, I’m certainly not part of the audience,” says the Dryad, wanting to come over and put a hand on my arm, but holding herself back for now, “because I want to be one of the actors and it’s your story that interests me. I want to know who you are under that red mask, I’m sure you’re not from around here. Costume or no costume, I would recognize you if we’d met before. Who else has your height, your shoulders, or your voice like brandy on a cold night? Are you a singer? You sound like one.”
“You would know every set of shoulder in the county,” says the Morgan, and I would wager gold or diamonds she has disliked the Dryad since childhood.
“I was a singer,” I say, choosing to ignore the interruption, “sometimes, and in some places. But that was a long time ago, I’ve been other things since then.”
“It can’t have been that long,” says the Fairy, “I don’t think you’re any older than we are. There’s something about you that seems young, somehow. I can’t imagine you being old.”
I do not contradict her.
“Well, whoever you are, and why-ever you’re here, you should enjoy yourself properly,” says Arthur, grabbing a glass from a passing tray and pressing it into my hand. “Take off that mask and have a drink?”
He takes his own advice, and in a moment he holds an empty glass again.
“Besides, that mask might frighten the ladies. It certainly frightens me! I wouldn’t want to fight you, not unless you got between me and this wine. I’ve never tasted anything like it, I would face you, or dragonfire, or Auntie Ethel’s worst glare for another glass! I mean to learn where our host found it if I have to get down on my knees and beg the man.”
It is good wine, I know that without tasting it. Very, very good in fact, as good as any wine anyone here has ever tried. It’s fierce as fire and subtle as smoke. But our host will not be able to help Arthur or any of the other many, many guests who will no doubt ask where he got the wine for tonight, because he himself hasn’t the slightest idea why his own wine, coming from his own bottles, from his own cellar, is suddenly so good. It isn’t his work. It’s my work, partly, and I am proud of it.
“Thank you, but I’m afraid I can do no such thing,” I say, passing him back the glass, “I still have need of my costume. As for you, Arthur, I think you will need yours tonight as well.”
I know that this is true. It also know that he is not working for my benefit at all, hoping that without my mask ladies will find me less interesting and not more approachable as he claims. He doesn’t like that the women are looking at me; not his sister, not the Dryad, and particularly not the Fairy. But he’s a good sport, and takes it with a chuckle.
“I’m ‘Aurthur’, eh? These are my friends though, they all know who I am old blanket or no old blanket. Are we supposed to pretend we don’t know each other? Do I call my sister ‘the Witch’ and the rest of them ‘Merlin’, ‘Tree Lady’, and ‘Pretty Flower Girl’?”
I’m certain he did not mean to say that last part, at least not quite like that.
“Oh, certainly you should. You must. This is a masquerade after all, look around you.” I gesture expansively. “Gods walk here, as do fairies, satyrs, heroes, trolls, horses, harpies, wolves, crones, sorcerers, dryads, naiads, gentlemen, knaves, barbarians, knights, angels, demons, and many more besides. Everything you’ve ever heard, read, or dreamed of is here and to really see them, to see them with believe deep in your heart where your true eyes are, all you must do is fully don your own mask. Mortals may walk among immortals only when we ourselves are transformed.”
Arthur and the Dryad laugh, thinking, or pretending to think, that I am joking. The others are not so sure. The Fairy looks intrigued, Morgan looks wary, and the Wizard looks as though I have just submitted a suspect logician’s theorem for his personal inspection.
“That’s ridiculous,” he stutters, “surely the truth is the face behind mask and the mask itself is only a kind of trick, a prop for our vanity and weaker passions. We are who we are, not who we pretend to be, and a wise man will look at himself without any illusions. Why, Marcus Aurelias would say…”
“Well, we have to call you something,” says Arthur, punching his friend on the arm to make him be quiet. “You’re big, you have antlers, and you’re all red so why not Red Stag? I said it once, I’ll say it again, but cor do you look fierce!”
“Of course he looks bloody!” says the Wizard, rubbing his arm. “He is the new King Stag, see, victorious and fresh from battle with his rival. Now that he’s thrown down his predecessor he’s the lord of the forest. The King Stag is an ancient symbol for the rising of the new generation to replace the old. The symbol is usually considered to be of Egyptian or Indian origin, but in my opinion…”
“In herds of deer, isn’t there only one stag while all the rest are does?” says the Dryad, not interested in the wizard’s opinion. “So if he’s the king, he must have the biggest herd. And if he has the biggest herd, the most lady deer, then we should call him the Lucky Stag for he’s certainly the most fortunate stag there is.”
Her words are meant to bring laughter, which they do, but her smile is meant to tell me how lucky I might be.
“If he only became the king by killing the poor old king, then he’s just a murderer,” Morgan’s voice cuts through the laughter like a winter wind though a thin coat. “We should call him the Evil Stag.”
She means to offend me, but I am not in the habit of being offended. I don’t even need to speak in my own defense, for the Wizard, clearly one of those men who believe they can win women by correcting them, speaks up at once.
“No, see, the old king killed his predecessor too, just as that grandfather king killed his predecessor. It’s not evil, per say, it’s just nature, it’s a cycle.”
“Well, what would you call him then?” asks Arthur, mostly to stop his best friend from further antagonizing his sister
“Ah, well,” the Wizard does not actually stroke his wispy beard, but he manages to give a strong impression of beard-stroking, “I read once that stags have the biggest, toughest antlers in Autumn. I don’t imagine antlers get much bigger than those two, so we might as well call him the Autumn Stag.”
“No,” I say, “there is no Autumn in me. If you must name me for a season, call me the Summer Stag instead.”
The Fairy laughs.
“I think that’s almost the first thing you’ve told us about yourself since you got here. You just keep circling around our questions, like a vulture waiting for them to die. I say we call you Summer, and forget about the stag. That’s not even really a deer costume anyway, your mask doesn’t look deerish at at all. It looks like a person, well, a person with no mouth and hardly any nose; you simply can’t stick antlers on a mask like that, dribble red paint over the whole thing, and call yourself a deer.”
“Maybe he’s supposed to be Cernunos the antlered god as well as the King Stag,” says the Wizard, “an interesting conflation, but by no means unique in the scholarship and debates surrounding…”
“Oh, listen,” says the Dryad, loudly, “the music’s starting, we can’t miss the first dance!”
We join the crowd heading for the dance floor, a school of fish caught in a net of wind and strings. There are many people looking for partners, but choosing is easy for us. The Dryad has my hand in hers even before the Arthur reaches the Fairy or the Wizard sidles up to the Morgan, and a moment later we are all pulled onto the floor.
The song is bright, lively, and a little strange, laced with a hint of drunken summer madness. It heads in unexpected directions, changing too quickly and too often for easy dancing but with wild grace that makes it a joy to try, even if you fail. I see an aged husband and wife on the floor, leaning on each other and tottering about as though possessed.
I dance rather better than they do. I dance better than anyone here, including the Dryad who until now thought herself a very good dancer but soon becomes dizzy and bewildered as I swing her here and there, back and forth, cutting an intricate, looping pattern in the floor that is mad and sudden enough to match the music. Which is not to say she dislikes it. She starts laughing almost as soon as the dance starts and only stops when she runs out of breath.
She is still wheezing when the musicians release us and we make our way off the floor.
“Well, that was invigorating,” she says, leaning on me more than she really needs to. “I’ve never danced like that before, no, I never knew anyone could dance like that. Where did you learn to dance? We made quite a scene out there, I think there were more people watching us then dancing at the end.”
That is true. What is also true is that they were watching me more than the Dryad for all her bare skin, and she knows it, and now there is a sharp edge of envy in her desire. She lives to be the lead actress in her own drama, but she’s just been upstaged. That, of course, only makes the desire flame hotter. Men and women love and want each other for many reasons, but envy is as common as any other.
“I’ve been dancing most of my life. I travel often, and like to pick up the local dances wherever I go. There is something a people can tell you about themselves, about who they are and where are from whether that is the greatest city or the humblest village, that cannot be told in any other way. I was even a dancing instructor once, for a few years. But you need a special dance for music like this.”
“You certainly do! There’s something about that song, it dug its roots into me and set my blood on fire till I felt like my feet were wings and that I would only be happy if I could keep dancing forever. I know most of those musicians, but I’ve never heard this song before, I wonder where they learned it.”
Many people will ask them that question after the party, and tomorrow, and next week, and in six months, and probably in ten years too. They will find it hard to answer. Like as not this will be blamed on the wine, but the wine is not at fault. It was never their song, it was mine and I only lent it to them for a few minutes.
“Maybe,” I say, “maybe it was magic.”
The Dryad laughs, as any girl so alive in herself would.
“You’re a odd one Summer, my big Lucky Stag. You talk about magic, about old stories that are also new stories which no one knows either way, about growing trees that are stories as well, about masks and gods and being who you’re not, or maybe who you are I didn’t understand that part. You silly, there is no magic. No one cares about old stories except for men like the Wizard and you aren’t like him, I can tell. No, wait, no one cares about new stories either, not for long, we all live for the moment, for the next dance, the next ball, the next dress, the next man. There aren’t any fairies, or dragons, or unicorns, or wizards, or even dryads. This is just gauze and leaves and some green skin paint that will take hours in the bath to wash off.
“But,” she whispers, going up on tiptoe and as close to my ear as she can get, “I bet there really are Lucky Stags. Find us a quiet corner and I’ll see for myself.”
The music starts again, saving me from making an answer. I am not here for drink, dalliance, or debauchery, and this woman is not likely to understand that. Through a sudden gap the crowd I catch sight of two I know, and I can see at once that the Wizard wants to dance with the Morgan again as badly as the Dryad wants to dance with me. Sharp action is required. I do not ask for a dance, I take it, stepping to them and seizing the hand gloved in gray before either of our former partners can act. The Dryad swiftly finds someone else to dance with, the Wizard does not.
This song is slower than the last, easier to dance to but with hidden depths. There are subtleties in it, rhythms and patters as strong as ocean currents that will drag you under the waves to strange, deep places if you are not careful. We are careful though, indeed, it is almost impossible to be two more careful dancers than we are as Morgan will not look at me pulls as far back as a couple can be while dancing. She tells herself that she is only being proper. We are all but strangers, after all, she knows neither my face nor my name and what little she does know she does not like.
“I didn’t notice before,” she says at last, wrinkling her nose, “but up close that barbaric costume of yours even smells of blood.”
“I am quite proud of that touch, actually. It is hard to capture the iron scent of blood with anything other than blood itself, and real blood soon turns brown and flakes off. Costumes are all in the details. Why, put on a mask and you look like a man in a mask, but add scent and texture and even sound, if you can, and you will be the mask. It is almost like magic.”
She sniffs, being the sort of girl who knows that a lady does not snort and must therefore resort to sniffing when a gentleman is rude or foolish. She thinks I am both.
“Magic indeed! If there ever was any magic it is gone now and good riddance, it belongs in far heathen places or back in the dark past when men with painted skin told your savage old stories while drinking wine from the skulls of their enemies. Those stories never did anyone any good back then and there is no call to try to bring them back now.”
“Perhaps,” I say, “but this is an odd attitude for one in the guise of Morgan le Fey. Surely the most infamous witch of legend is one of the stories best left behind?”
“Oh, well,” she looks a little embarrassed, “my brother wanted us to come together and I don’t have the right hair to be Guinevere. Arthur and Morgan are siblings, aren’t they? But stories about Arthur are good stories, I didn’t mean that everything out of the past is bad, they to teach men to be noble and courteous and chaste which are lessons you would do well to learn. Morgan is an evil witch, but she is punished in the end and every story need a villain, so there isn’t anything wrong with dressing as her. Not if you do it to contrast her wickedness with the goodness of Arthur.”
“That may be the truest thing you’ve said tonight. But you seem not to know that while Arthur and Morgan are brother and sister, or nephew and aunt in other stories, he slept with her once, or with another aunt, Morgause. The union produced Mordred, a crack that widened to the breach that broke Caerleon in the end. Arthur is not quite who you think he is.”
“Well! That’s simply horrible.” she sniffs, several times, and glares daggers at me like an offended vulture. “I feel dirty just wearing this costume now, you’ve simply ruined my evening. Why would anyone tell the story that way, and why would you feel the need to repeat it? I thought stories about Arthur’s knights were a safe story.”
“I am trying to tell you that there are no safe stories,” I say, dropping my arms for the dance is over, “just as there are no safe places in this world. You must face the evil, face it or be broken and ruled by it there is no other choice. Have a care with where you seek for shelter.”
“I’ll thank you to keep your advice to yourself you foul bloody man!”
And with that she turns and storms off. She is so busy being angry that she does not look where she is going and ends up practically in the arms of a man with a wolf’s tail pinned to his breeches, a wolf’s ears on his head, and a shining wolf’s smile taking up his face as he ushers the surprised young woman back onto the dance floor.
I did try to warn her. But I have other business to attend to, another woman to find. I make my way off the floor, refusing ten offers to dance in as many steps, and set off through the crowd.
That last song was not one of mine.
But before I can go far I’m waylaid by the Wizard and Arthur, the later with news for me burning in his face.
“There you are Summer, Ange- I mean, I suppose you think of her as the Fairy, well, she was looking for you,” he does not quite manage to smile as he says this. “I think she’s over by the stairs.”
“Perhaps she’s figured out who’ll be telling the Tale of Lind,” I say. “You have nothing to worry about, Arthur, I’m no Lancelot.”
Arthur looks at me blankly, then over at his friend. The Wizard sighs, the long-suffering sigh of a man whose acquaintances never seem to be aware of the most basic facts.
“Lancelot is a knight who sleeps with King Arthur’s wife.”
“Oh,” says Arthur, and flushes bright red. He knocks his glass back and drains it dry in a single nervous motion, recovering enough by the time he’s done to let out a rueful laugh.
“You’re a sharp one, Summer, saw right through me with one look I bet. Cor, meeting your eyes makes a man uncomfortable. It’s as if the sky suddenly forgot what it was supposed to be doing and bends its whole bloody attention down on you for a second before going back to its business. You’re even worse than Auntie Ethel.”
He laughs again, slapping me on the arm to show he intends no offense. It’s a rare man who can befriend those he finds uncanny, aided by wine or not; the Fairy is luckier than she knows.
“I danced that first dance with her you know,” he says, the look in his eyes showing he is no longer speaking of the the matriarch, “lord, what a mess I made of it. I kept backing her into other dancers and nearly fell down once, she had to sort of prop me up like and old grandfather till I stumbled back to my feet and began sputtering apologies. Those were tricky songs, good songs, mind you, never heard anything like ’em, but hard for dancing. You seemed to have no trouble though, Summer, I saw you. Both times.”
He does not say that the second time was with his sister and the Wizard doesn’t bring it up either, but ever-so-slighty brittle silence that follows shows that this most salient fact has not been forgotten by either man. It is my turn for a rueful laugh.
“I’m afraid I fared no better than you, I spoke my mind too freely and a dance that started decidedly frigid cooled and then cooled further to an arctic finish. Your sister is a woman who knows her own mind, and, if you don’t mind my saying, speaks it too.”
“That she does,” Arthur, who lacks his sister’s delicacy, snorts loudly, “my condolences for your squandered dance. I swear, Auntie Ethel hasn’t even kicked the bucket yet and already she’s been reborn in my sister. She won’t drink, she hardly dances, you wouldn’t believe how hard it was to drag her here and this the biggest event of the season. She’s batty. She isn’t old enough to be properly batty, but she’s batty anyway.”
“She’s not that bad,” says the wizard, though his heart isn’t in it.
“Yes,” I say, “yes she really is. What is it about her that calls to you?”
“She’s the only girl who talks to me,” the wizard blinks, shocked at what he just said. I am a seeker of truth, among other things, and it will come to me even when those who speak it would have preferred the lies.
“Well, if you wish to talk to others you are at the right place,” I gesture round, “it’s a party after all. No, it is a masquerade, one might even say it is the masquerade for I have attended many and I tell you truly that you will never see another like it. This is a night of wonder, of transformation, a pivot on which lives will turn. Everything begins here. Some here tonight will find the courage to embark on great ventures, the inspiration mold works of matchless beauty, the luck to amass fortunes, the clarity to see themselves afresh and the wonder to see others afresh also, to see and to love what is seen. Unbreaking links of matrimony will be forged on this anvil, I give you my word and my word is worth more than you can know.
“If you think that the women do not like you, well, it’s a masquerade, be someone they do like instead. That’s the magic of it, after all.”
I speak with passion, and though my passion touched the wizard I see that it is in the secret house of his pain. He looks at me like a beaten man.
“Magic is a sociological artifact from primitive cultures, preserved for us only in fragmentary ancient writings and the crude practices of savages out beyond civilization. A most fascinating arena of study, the insights it provides into the minds of our forefathers offer much of value to the historian, but it is of little help when one is attempting to make one’s way in society. A lesson I have been forced to learn again and again at parties such as these. Magic is only in books, books are only in the library, and that is where I will retreat as soon as this dreary affair is over.”
“That is unfortunate,” I say with a shake of the head that makes my antlers sway ominously before turning to Arthur. “What do you think about magic?”
“Oh, magic is good fun,” he smiles and pats his friend on the shoulder, “I love conjures and stage magicians and such. At least, I did as a boy. Haven’t had much time to enjoy myself these days, too much to do you understand. I used to read many fantastic tales as well, especially about King Arthur, I was simply mad for Arthur for a few years there. Mostly read the papers these days of course, so many important affairs of state and society that a gentleman must be acquainted with. Magic is all well and good, but a grown man has to bend his mind to real life.”
“Yes, certainly,” I nod my head gravely, “reality is of tantamount importance.”
I head off into the crowd again, making for the stairs. There are many guests in the hall and the way is hardly clear, but a man who tops six feet by more than a few inches and smells of blood need not exert himself to part a crowd. I draw stares and whispers buzz about me like bees around a sweet-smelling flower. They will remember me, indeed I’m sure there will be endless speculation in later days on who I am and why I am here. I am tied to the night, in their minds, just one more question amidst all the others in this dream of mystery and inexplicable beauty.
That is, perhaps, the universal fate of humankind. To find ourselves grasping at the edges of truths we can never penetrate.
As I approach the stairs the Fairy breaks off her conversation with a middle aged man dressed as Silenus and rushes over.
“Oh, Summer, there you are!”
“Fairy,” I say, and smile beneath my mask.
“I saw you out on the dance floor, you cut a very fine figure! There are plenty of prettier girls here and a few rich widows if that’s what your after, but I love a good dance so do promise to call for me when you head back out? I promise I’ll point out all the richest ones, and I know who really is pretty under the masks. You will dance with me, won’t you?”
“I’m afraid I’ve sworn off dancing for the evening, because my admittedly superb efforts won no appreciation on my second attempt and too much of the wrong sort on the first. Perhaps I’ll swear of women as well, you are all fickle and your inconstancy drives me to distraction.”
“I’m sure we do,” she laughs, “but if you shun us you’ll be confined to your own surly company. You poor men are beset by evils on every side. But if you decide to break your vow, I promise to show you only favor of the proper kind and to to proper degree. I will be a perfect model of chaste admiration.”
“But what about Arthur?”
That surprises her, she had thought the thing between them still too young to draw attention to itself. She flushes, just a little, then smiles shyly.
“Well, there’s no harm in making him a bit jealous, is there? And anyway, a fine dance is a fine dance and whatever else he may be, he is not a fine dancer.”
She likes him. Not as much as he likes her, it is true, but also not yet as much as she will come to like him as the evening progresses. The Fairy is not too hard for an earnest man to woo, being a romantic at heart who loves children, beautiful things, and stories with happy endings. Tonight will give her all of that, eventually, but she would have had it all anyway without my interference.
“What was the real reason you wanted to speak with me?” I ask, “Wanted it so much you put the poor man’s teeth on edge by asking him to look for me?”
“Ah yes, that,” she twines here fingers idly through her hair, marshaling thoughts ringlet by ringlet, “This masquerade, it isn’t normal is it? I may not have been to many masked parties, this is only my second, but even if it was my very first I would still know this one was different. It’s not that it’s too good, it’s that it’s too real. I’m sure there are always costumes at a masquerade of course, but not like these costumes, I believe in them. I mean, I believe them whether I want to or not, I turn and see the costume, not whoever’s in it. Oh, I know that we’re all just people; I know that it is, say, my disgraced second cousin over there under that gorgon mask, there is only so much you can do with lacquer and paper mache. I know it’s her but I still see the gorgon.
“It’s seems silly to say it, I’m hardly a little girl anymore, but is this magic? Real magic? Please don’t laugh.”
“I’m not laughing,” I say, “that is a good question. But not a wise one. Magic is not something that can be pinned down and put in a box like a butterfly in a dusty study, magic is too wild for that. If I told you the truth of the matter, the spell, if there is a spell, would be broken for you, or else it would swallow you whole. It is best to believe a little in magic, but allow it the freedom to do it’s work in the margins and not probe too deep. Ask a different question.”
“In that case,” she takes a deep breath, and clasps her hands tight before her, “I suppose my question is about you. Who are you, Summer, really? What is the Tale of Lind, and why did you come here to tell it?”
I laugh, I can’t help it. They are so perceptive sometimes.
“I cannot answer any of those questions either, I make a poor oracle tonight. But I will promise you this, you will know the answer to at least one of them before you leave this estate tonight. I swear it. I will tell you, also, that Lind is a man, and near the start of the Tale he will fall in love with a lady, and because you have moved me, Fairy, that lady will be very much like you.
“Try to forget me, if you can.”
With that I turn and ascend the stairs. The Fairy watches me go, but she does not speak and she does not follow. She will not forget. Or at least not much, not more than a mortal must, and I see that the masquerade will stay with her till death and on that very day she will speak of it with nostalgia and a longing like hunger. She will remember the night as perfect in form and execution, lovely to the point of pain in every detail, and it will glimmer hard and sharp in her memories like a cut diamond.
Magic is perilous. I wonder, as I always have, if I do wrong to bring it among these people, though of course this burden is not wholly mine to bear.
Half of it at least is yours.
Did we do her a favor, you and I, by entering this party? Will our interference do more harm or good, in the long run? I do not know. Perhaps you see farther, and perhaps not.
Seeking you, of course, is my true objective tonight. It has been my objective every night, in truth, for a long time; you are not an easy one to find. And that is good. It would not be fitting otherwise, it would be too simple, too free of cost.
I knew you were here at once, the moment I crossed the threshold. A weight to the air, a beauty like music in the rise and fall of conversation, the scent of old roses and dry riverbeds. The first song, and dance, were mine, but the second were yours. I felt you in them, felt you in in the notes like rustling leave, felt you in the rhythm like the movement of waves, felt you in its elusive beauty like red shafts of the setting sun bursting out through a veil of clouds. I felt you strongly enough to follow, not the way a hound follows a scent but the way an eagle follows the wind.
I find you when I open the door to a small room overlooking one of the gardens and you turn from the window to face me. We look at each other for a long moment. The sheep may not recognize the wolves in their midst, but the wolves always know each other.
You are costumed as a great bird, a Sunset Owl with a vivid, mottled plumage of reds and oranges and yellows. An elaborate mask fits over your face, the gay coloring juxtaposed with a beak wickedly sharp and great mask-eyes that both emphasize and shadow your true eyes. Masks are a great leveler between age and youth, but I catch glimpses of silver in your auburn hair.
“Hostess,” I say, bowing, “I apologize for disrupting your revels. They call me Summer.”
“Well, how clever of them. I suppose that makes me Autumn. Come in! No need for formality between us.” you wave me forward with one hand. Between your waist and the inside of your arm there is a skein of fabric, cunning constructed to resemble a wing, which glitters and flashes in the light. “It’s not really my party anymore though, you’re quite taken it over. I intended a subdued and somewhat melancholy affair, a place to reflect on time’s passing, its gifts and its burdens. But now, well, the whole place is full of your fire. Wine like dragon’s blood, songs to shake the earth, beauty like a poison flower that entraps, and kills.
“Not that I mind!” you continue with a low, musical laugh. “I was simply delighted to feel your mind out there, passing through my enchantments like a dagger through cobwebs. You are surprisingly elusive, for a Summer that is. I’m glad you’re here, while it’s rewarding in its way there is just no challenge in putting on a show for the regular people. Philistines.”
“Perhaps,” I say, and smile,“yet, if the whole point of a masquerade is to lose who you are in who you pretend to be, to dream, and to let others do the same, then I will say that I walked among them and it seemed to me that you succeeded. If some of them can only go so far, if they are too afraid to let go of themselves and too small inside to see anyone else through the lens of wonder, well, what can you do?”
“Exactly!” you say with a snap of the fingers that sets lacquered nails flashing. “People, and I do say that in the pejorative sense, people are always accusing sorcerers of meddling with forces we don’t understand. True enough. But there are some things you can’t understand without a little meddling, secrets you can’t see but only blunder into in the dark with your hands outstretched.
“Secrets like love, or death for that matter. Secrets even regular people need to learn sooner or later whether they want to or not.”
“All we can do is guide them a little way down that road,” I reply. “You do yourself a disservice, you have made a thing of true beauty and the mark of it will never leave them.”
“And here I thought Summers only flattered young women. You are an odd one. Too polite, too serious; where’s the bravado, the pride, the vitality? You should laugh more, and curse more, and be down there with the wine and the dancing and the girls crowding round. Why are you here, my rouge Summer; why are trading words with an old woman when you should be down there in the thick of things?”
“I have come in supplication. I have a work in mind, but I cannot complete it alone and I am here, lady Autumn, to ask your blessing.”
“Ah, a work, I should have known” you sit down, perching on the arm of a chair like a girl but your eyes seemed suddenly hard and cold. “It is always so with you men, always hunting after more knowledge, more secrets, and more power. It is not enough to walk blindly into the dark, oh no, you want to go further, faster, you must run. But this is a masquerade, practically the only space regular people have for magic, you should call it a spell like they do. After all, tonight they might understand what we do.
“This is that Tale of Lind I heard you speak of, isn’t it? It must be quite the story for you to seek me out. Most Summers aren’t willing to pay the Autumn price. Not willing to bank the fires down to coals, not willing to feel the first chill touch of the wind, certainly not willing to see the first lines of age and sorrow crease their ladies’ faces. I am the Sunset Owl, the Hunter of Twilight. My burden is not easily born, not even by the forest lord bathed in blood and proud as any king. Are you really ready for this, young man?”
“I am.” I say, standing tall and fierce in my red leathers and antlered mask. That may have daunted the guests, but before the lady called Autumn I seem young and uncertain, even to myself. You’re a deep one, deeper than me it’s more than likely. Any mountain looks tall on its own, it is only when you compare it to another mountain that you get a real sense for its height.
Still, it’s not called courage if you’re sure you can win.
“With your permission, I will lay before you the tale of Lind, named forever among the great, who wandered twilit roads to strange places and was never the same again.”
You said nothing, but lean back in your seat and gesture for me to continue. I begin, voice rich and wise as an oak tree, weaving about us a story that will stretch far into the night.