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The Most Dangerous Masquerade I-III

Jan 10th, 2015
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  1. Anons wanted something with masks, which is good because they’re my favorite fucking thing fuck yeah. Ideas were suggested; an extremely debauched party being one, and a variant of The Most Dangerous Game being the second. I’ve chosen to combine the two.
  2.  
  3.  
  4.  
  5. I. The Masquerade
  6.  
  7. Nayeli wore a white dress, but she wasn’t getting married. As far as she was concerned, tonight was a more important rite than marriage--which seemed to her a very far off, ethereal concept--because she would be attending the first masquerade of her life.
  8.  
  9. Adults were very quiet about masquerades when there was a chance of young people overhearing. Most of them didn’t talk about them even in private, as far as Nayeli could tell, at least not in her relatively poor fishing neighborhood on the East end of Venliette.
  10.  
  11. Not even Nayeli’s mother would tell her what to expect, not even when she sewed the spartan white dress for her daughter to wear. Nayeli’s father was just as tight-lipped about what would happen. She knew enough of their body language to know that they didn’t like it though, and that they weren’t happy that she was excited to attend.
  12.  
  13. But it was her right, and as far as the men and women who ran Venliette were concerned, it was also her duty as a citizen reaching adulthood. After this first time, she would no longer be legally compelled to attend each following year, but she knew that if she wanted to, she would always be able to.
  14.  
  15. She came up the river ways on a ferryboat with other citizens heading to the party. Older men and women already wearing their elaborate masks, grinning and whispering calmly while the younger people gossiped.
  16.  
  17. Nayeli was without mask, like many of the other girls in white dresses and boys in red suits around her. She joked with a young man in blonde hair about a less-than appealing mask that a man in the back of the boat was wearing, but was separated from the boy when their ferry met the dock in front of the masquerade hall.
  18.  
  19. They poured out of the ferry in time for about five other boats of every size to clog the port up. She pushed her hair back over her shoulder and ran up the dock with the surefootedness that spearfishing from childhood had taught her. She could tell which people lived along the waterways by the grace with which they handled the swaying piers.
  20.  
  21. Gargoyles oversaw the tithe of girls and boys from every conceivable perch on the building before her, and so did a man standing next to a topiary sculpture of a manticore. Behind his mask, he counted off attendees--how many girls in white, how many young men attending the first time in red, how many returning partygoers in their finest clothes and couture masks. The numbers pleased him. At least five hundred people to begin the party.
  22.  
  23. He made a note of Nayeli when he saw her because she saw him back, even when he was resting in shadows. She was startled to have failed to notice a man standing so close to her as she reached the highest stair, but he was so still and in such dark clothes with a mask that she couldn’t quite make out. But, she tried to be friendly, and she waved with an embarrassed smile before she picked up the hem of her dress and went inside of the enormous manor.
  24.  
  25. The man was enchanted. He would not forget her simple face. A tan girl with dark eyes and hair down to her shoulderblades. A working girl not jaded by the laziness that wealth brought.
  26.  
  27.  
  28. There was food inside. She ate lots of foreign things she had never tried before. There was alcohol. She drank very sparingly with plenty of water for every sip of champagne and never even felt a buzz. There were men. She danced.
  29.  
  30. Nayeli was not a snob. She was flattered when young men of even the lowest castes gathered the courage to ask her to dance, and never hesitated to take their hands. She had been more shy in the past years of her life and had only recently learned the skill of courage, spending it by asking the most shy boys on the edges of the ornate marble floor to dance. None of them enamored her, but seeing people alone had always pulled at her heart when she knew there was something she could do to make them smile.
  31.  
  32. She knew some of them, boys her age from her neighborhood, but they did not speak to one another when they could speak to strangers. Under the surface conversation, each person coming of age had one very important question: Why was she required here, why was it forbidden to speak of what happened here? Everything had been charming and beautiful and pleasant for the first two hours, but every ticking second made her gradually more nervous that there would be something abhorrent.
  33.  
  34. Her eyes were dark and sharp, and she was alert with curiosity even when she was graciously accepting dances from strangers. Older men in their elaborate masks of iron, bronze, porcelain, wood, copper, clay danced with her and complimented her on her dress. Older women pulled her aside to speak to her about the stitches that her mother had imparted in the fabric. There was nothing suspicious.
  35.  
  36. In all it was two and a half hours into the dance before she spotted a familiar mask across the enormous room. Its wearer stood against the wall with a drink in his hand, occasionally lifting his mask a few inches to sip at the bubbly gold liquid. Nayeli never saw more than his jaw, angular and clean-shaven.
  37.  
  38. She had time to analyze the mask and wonder what it said about him. It was old and bronze, fading to dark green and teal in the crevices of the design. It was the face of a snarling beast neither canine nor feline, with nostrils flared and eyes slanted with anger. Through the eyeholes however, Nayeli only saw amusement on the wearer’s hazel eyes.
  39.  
  40. Gradually, she moved through the crowd to him.
  41.  
  42. “Hello,” she said.
  43.  
  44. “Hello indeed!” He replied, and his eyes smiled. There was a slight, tinny sound where his voice echoed in the mask, but otherwise he sounded unimpeded, and his voice carried well and far. “This makes two times you’ve spotted me. I’m impressed!”
  45.  
  46. Nayeli fell into a smile and pushed a loose strand of black hair back over her ear so it would blend in with her pony-tail. “Well you weren’t hiding,” she said. “You are just very good at being still in plain sight, I suppose. Did you find who you were waiting for out front?”
  47.  
  48. “I believe I did,” he said, and smugly stood up as straight as he could. His clothes, mostly very dark browns and other natural shades, were woven to very thin fabric with very thick thread. They hung loose on him when he stood still, but when he moved and gestured, Nayeli got a better idea of what his body was like underneath. He looked like an athlete, and she wondered if that was who he was under the mask. Athletes were high society, she did expect at least a few to be at the masquerade. The girl’s curiosities turned back to his words when he went on talking. “I wasn’t really waiting on anyone in particular, you see, but I do have the distinguished job of picking one of the female first timers to help with the annual festivities.”
  49.  
  50. Nayeli picked up what he was putting down. “Me?”
  51.  
  52. “Yes,” he pointed a pleased finger at her with the hand holding his drink, and then he lifted his mask an inch to finish the rest of it. “Because you are the only one who has seen me standing in plain view. If you give me a moment, I’ll be right back. I would very much like to speak with you some more.”
  53.  
  54. She nodded to him excitedly. It was hard for her to not be excited about being selected for something. There was barely time to gather her thoughts and fix her ponytail before the man returned, holding a pair of drinks.
  55.  
  56. One black out later, she opened her eyes to a small space with very little light coming in from above through a red filter.
  57.  
  58. Confusion made her mute. The red was a cloth draped over her container, a tall and thin cylindrical cage. She was uninjured, but sluggish of mind and body, and fortunately that meant that fear was slow to come to her.
  59.  
  60. Listening painted a portrait of madness. There were gasps of excitement. There was metal clashing. But that made no sense. Had someone started a duel? Why had no one come to help her out of the cage? Had no one noticed her being moved here?
  61.  
  62. “I can hear you moving around in there,” she heard from behind. Nayeli jumped to her feet and nearly crashed into the bars in front of her trying to avoid the source of the voice.
  63.  
  64. The man chuckled, and she placed him immediately as the man who had brought her the drink. “What did you do?” she asked.
  65.  
  66. “Are you implying that I have done something? I’ve not even begun to warrant such accusations.” He sounded genuinely offended by her accusatory tone. “Well, except for the cage. I handed you a drink. What was in that drink is a little something to get you ready for the festivities. If you’re awake it’s already out of you. You cannot blame me for something you willingly drank yourself.”
  67.  
  68. “I don’t even know what to ask next,” she said with abject incredulity and anger. She was too used to using her manners that now that she was furious she couldn’t discard them. “I genuinely have so many questions that need answering that there is no good place for me to start.”
  69.  
  70. “Well that is a bit the point,” he said, and she felt him roll his eyes at her through the red cloth. When she turned to face him, she saw a faint silhouette of the man. “So just, sit tight. And try to keep up some of the enthusiasm you had when I told you what a special role you’d play. You’ll get the explanation you need when it’s time to start your part of the game. But don’t be too surprised if the other contestants come to meet you beforehand, they usually like to scope out the competition. I’ll see you soon!”
  71.  
  72. Her jaw was hanging open when she heard him take a few steps away, swivel around, and return. He added: “One last thing. No screaming. No loud noises. It’s not your turn for attention yet. But no worries. We’re getting there.”
  73.  
  74. She weighed the pros and cons of calling for help. On the one hand, she might receive help. On the other hand, everyone who had come to the masquerade with a mask must know what was going to happen, and they must have known that there would be a girl in a cage. “I’m being hazed,” she realized, and scowled up at the top of the cage where the red fabric seemed thinnest and the most red light filtered through to her smooth face. This was what her parents hated. This and whatever was going on outside of her cage.
  75.  
  76. Nayeli sat and crossed her arms furiously. No wonder they made all the kids come. It was a colossal, annual prank. She just wanted her part to be over with so she could be embarrassed and then go home.
  77.  
  78. Unfamiliar footsteps found her in a few minutes. The girl looked at a colossal shape of a man.
  79.  
  80. “I can smell you,” he said in a voice so low in pitch that it was almost difficult to hear. “Kaspar picked you well then.”
  81.  
  82. “I beg your pardon?” she recoiled in disgust.
  83.  
  84. “You heard me just fine. I can smell you. And you smell delicious. I’m looking forward to being the one to bag you so I can sink my teeth into you and get a taste,” the enormous shadow of the man loomed almost as tall as the cage that held her. She saw he stood with his hands behind his back like a gentleman, but his words were terrifying.
  85.  
  86. This is hazing, she reminded herself. Of course they would send the most intimidating man they could find to speak absurdities to her when she was confined to a small place… that made sense. Didn’t it? In some kind of messed up masquerade way?
  87.  
  88. “And now I believe I smell tears,” he said. “I don’t think that my nose is fooling me here. No need to cry, new girl. I’ll leave you be until it’s time for me to find you later.”
  89.  
  90. The next set of footsteps came in pairs, immediately when the enormous man went away. She saw the two shadows approach her cage, the smaller of the two ducked below and popped up between the curtain and the cage. He was a boy. Barely older than Nayeli herself. There was an extravagant mask atop his face. Wicked golden roots wrapped around his face as a gilded tree emerged from his forehead, numerous dazzling jewels hung like fruit upon the ostentatious branches. The young boy’s voice was high as though he hadn’t quite grown into it just yet. Judging by his age though, he should have years ago. “Oh my, you are quite the looker. Ivis, come look at her, tell me she’s not a looker.”
  91.  
  92. A large man, though not as large as the man who claimed to have smelled her, lifted up the veil and peered in. His mask was a simple one, made of cloth and tied with a belt around his neck. A single, bored eye peered out from the roughly cut hole. “She’s quite the looker, sir.” The man mimicked his master. He seemed rather bored from the whole ordeal, but truth was it simply wasn’t his cup of tea. The money he was being paid however, that was certainly enough for him to show up and do whatever the little brat said.
  93.  
  94. “I can’t wait to get my hands on you.” The little man said with excitement. “I’ll enjoy making you a proper woman.”
  95.  
  96. The bodyguard shot him a look, half disgust and half pity for ignorance. The two pulled themselves away from the curtain and Nayeli listened as their footsteps moved from the cage.
  97.  
  98. “What is wrong with these people,” she said in a shockingly level tone under her breath. “There’s no way they’re serious.”
  99.  
  100. She was starting to not believe herself, and fifteen minutes later the last man to visit with her was the one to convince her of that. He appeared right in front of her inside the cage with a hiss like a drop of water falling into a hot pan. There was little space, and she had to press her back to the bars to avoid their chests touching. The man wore dark purple, but let his long, blonde hair flow around his black mask. There were no eyeholes she could see, only a pair of holes low on the mask to serve as vents through which the man could breathe.
  101.  
  102. And he did breathe, loudly. The sound was ragged and vile as Nayeli’s eyes were drawn into the swirls carved into the wooden, lacquered mask where eyeholes should have been. She felt them pull at her, but after a moment the man ran a hand over his mask and the swirls were gone, replaced by flat, horizontal lines.
  103.  
  104. “Hello,” he said. And that was all he said for two or three long breaths, and then he went on. “I’ll be pursuing you tonight. Wanted to get a good look at you ahead of time.”
  105.  
  106. “How?” she asked. Nayeli was trying to be snide, thinking that perhaps if she could be enough of a bitch they’d lose interest in her. She wasn’t very good at being rude.
  107.  
  108. He laughed to himself, and that was a sound that she found as despicable as the rest of his inhalations and exhalations. He sounded like sandpaper, like rocks being shaken in a tin can, and he left her the way he had arrived with no answer.
  109.  
  110. She went from fearful to fuming and only a distant pragmatism kept her from smashing one of her fists into the bars of the cage. The girl squatted and dug her fingers into her black hair to think, but she had no idea what to think. One man had said he wanted to sink his teeth into her. That boy who looked barely older than her wanted to fuck her--like hell, she’d have rather been eaten--and the last guy said he’d be pursuing her.
  111.  
  112. Well fuck all of them. Nayeli was going to get to the bottom of this.
  113.  
  114.  
  115. II. The Women’s Game
  116.  
  117. Outside the cage and out of the girl’s hearing range, Kaspar stood with Cipac. They were co-competitors every year, but old friends first. They watched the first game of the night with almost no curiosity as the masked women of the city played with the red-dressed boys. They needed the red with all the blood the women usually got out of them with their slender fencing swords.
  118.  
  119. Both Kaspar and Cipac remembered being young men expected to fence the women. Both remembered thinking that it was unfair at first, how could the poor women keep up with them? But boys learned with heavy swords rather than the light, delicate fencing tools that the women mastered, and both of them had left their first masquerade with cuts and wounds.
  120.  
  121. “Have you smelled her? What do you think?” Asked Kaspar, with his hands folded behind his back. He was done drinking and wanted to be sharp for the hunt. He turned to Cipac slightly to get a look at his enormous form.
  122.  
  123. “I think I am not surprised that you picked her.” Cipac’s mask was long out in front of him like the muzzle of a mythic wyrm. Unlike many rich men who were likely to commission maskwrights to make their masquerade masks, Cipac had made his own. It was rough and he had left many marks from his tools, but the most important element was intact: the mask had real teeth lining the mouth. He’d collected them all from animals that he had hunted himself, and there were deer molars, wolf fangs, boar tusks, and everything in between in the mouth of his mask.
  124.  
  125. “Does that mean you approve?”
  126.  
  127. “Oh, very much so. She smells wonderful. Timid like they always are, though.”
  128.  
  129. “Well that’s how it is,” Kaspar said. “But she’s not going to be a coward and pick a lottery room, I know that.”
  130.  
  131. Cipac shrugged. “She’d better not. I want a good hunt.”
  132.  
  133. “We’ll see. Shen isn’t here this year.”
  134.  
  135. “So I saw. And he sent his goddamn brat to play in his place.”
  136.  
  137. “And the brat brought his goddamn bodyguard to help him win.”
  138.  
  139. The man of teeth chuckled to himself. “I heard that as well. He thinks he needs a bodyguard to protect him from a girl who is only tonight an adult?”
  140.  
  141. Kaspar was going to respond, but a screech from one of the white-dressed girls who had been shuffled to the side to watch their male peers fight other women silenced him. A sea of masks swiveled silently to look at the owner of the offending voice, and not at the bleeding boy for whom she had shrieked. The new girls had been warned against screams, just like Kaspar had warned Nayeli.
  142.  
  143. All eyes watched the fencing halt. The boy bled and fell on one knee, looking horrified and pained with his face contorted. His opponent looked at him coldly from behind her golden bird mask, but under her cold eyes there was a triumphant smile.
  144.  
  145. She announced proudly: “You all heard it! A scream!”
  146.  
  147. The newcomers didn’t understand the significance. The bleeding boy was only worried about his injuries, and while they bled they were not of any real concern. A few stitches later he would be back to normal. He should have been worried that the girl who had screamed--his girlfriend, perhaps--had sentenced him to a year in the custody of his opponent.
  148.  
  149. He would be a free man next year, able to participate in the lottery even if he decided to come back to the masquerade. Kaspar estimated that half the men who still came to the masquerade had been the victims of screams at their first masquerade. Their year of living with a rich swordswoman kept them coming back and reliving their trauma here. Conversely, Kaspar didn’t think that many of the girls who had been chosen as prey in The Men’s Game came back. If they did, they were not the weak girls who had chosen the easy way out, girls who had chosen a door and stayed with the man inside. Of the few girls who returned to the masquerade, all of them had been rather vicious during their game.
  150.  
  151. Kaspar and Cipac watched the woman drag away her bleeding prize. The Women’s Game was only halfway over.
  152.  
  153. A woman spectator, not a competitor, found her way to the two men. She was young, dark-skinned and at least six months pregnant, wearing a fashionable porcelain mask painted with indigo dyes to look as though it was the surface of a rippling pond. More than anything the white surface under the paint called attention to the pale sclerae of her eyes through the eyeholes.
  154.  
  155. Both men knew her. She had no interest in Kaspar, and had come for Cipac. He held his arms outstretched, and she approached him for a hug.
  156.  
  157. “Raya, it’s so good to see you, pet,” Cipac said when he was done giving her a gentle squeeze. He tilted his head and looked down at her abdomen and felt it. “I take this to mean you’re getting along well with that husband I found for you.”
  158.  
  159. “Very well,” she said with a smile that showed glittering teeth. “Thank you, Cipac. You’ve done a lot for me you know.”
  160.  
  161. “You will always be welcome, pet,” he said, laying an enormous hand on her bare shoulder, his reddish skin seeming exceptionally colorful against her bare shoulder. “I did treasure our time together.”
  162.  
  163. Kaspar stepped away to allow their conversation to proceed on its own. A small part of him was slightly bitter about losing Raya, but at least she had been with Cipac in the end, and she seemed to be doing well these days. He was displeased to see Hakan leaving the cage--he was the goddamn boy, son of the absent Shen. Not everyone was as thoughtful as Kaspar to cover their entire faces. With a permanently snarling mask, no one had to know he was actually snarling underneath.
  164.  
  165. “When are we getting started?” Hakan demanded while he stepped down to Kaspar with the air of a spoiled brat
  166.  
  167. “When The Women finish their game,” Kaspar replied. He was unable to eliminate the grinding sound in his throat that gave away his displeasure with the question. He looked with disdain to the half-hearted mask that Hakan’s bodyguard wore.
  168.  
  169. Before he could disentangle himself from the interaction, Hakan asked another question, pointing to Cipac and Raya: “What is he doing with that woman?”
  170.  
  171. “Have you never heard of conversation?” asked Kaspar dryly. “That woman is Raya. She was important before you were old enough to party.”
  172.  
  173. “Is she his wife?” guessed Hakan.
  174.  
  175. “Heavens no, Cipac’s not a man to marry anyone.” He always joked that it was because he had too much love to focus on any one person. “But they lived together for a while.”
  176.  
  177. “Doing what?”
  178.  
  179. Ivis rolled his eyes. Could the boy be any more dense? Could he put nothing together on his own?
  180.  
  181. “Being a damn good winner,” Kaspar answered. “He won Raya in The Men’s game years ago. You should know about her, she gave your father a black eye and broke his nose.”
  182.  
  183. The bodyguard chuckled to hear that. Hakan shut up behind his golden tree. Kaspar wandered back into hearing range to eavesdrop on his best friend.
  184.  
  185. Raya asked Cipac to be the House-Father of the baby, and heard him accept happily. That at least cured the man in green of his scowling. There was something endearing about seeing the gentle giant caring for his former sheep after he had shepherded them into their lives. This couldn’t be the only baby he’d been asked to be House-Father to.
  186.  
  187. Hakan followed after Kaspar, whose rage resumed.
  188.  
  189. “And how does one win, exactly, in this game?” Hakan asked. He brought a hand to his chin and almost seemed studious. Hakan was certainly not his father, who never spoke about the Men’s Game to his son. Kaspar liked Shen well enough--not as much as he liked Cipac, but better than he liked Vikram. Shen was at the very least not an imbecile and he wasn’t the kind of man who would be caught dead trying to bring a bodyguard into The Men’s Game.
  190.  
  191. Kaspar fired a snide comment before he bothered to make sure it was something he wanted to say. “Well, kid, there’s good news for you. You don’t need to worry about being a good winner. Just worry about being a good loser.”
  192.  
  193. Ivis the bodyguard stifled a snigger.
  194.  
  195. Kaspar wandered away from the stunned Hakan again when he saw Cipac bidding farewell to the lovely girl he seemed so close to. “I’m going to check on our prey,” said the man in green.
  196.  
  197. Cipac nodded, his mask bobbing.
  198.  
  199. Nayeli’s cage was in an unassuming corner of the room, but everyone knew what was inside of it. The boys in red and girls in white had seen Kaspar carry Nayeli over his shoulder and put her in there, and then they had been shepherded off for the beginning of The Women’s Game. Those other girls didn’t know how lucky they were. Or perhaps unlucky, depending on who won The Men’s Game and how it would be played.
  200.  
  201. Kaspar didn’t hear Nayeli crying. That was always a good sign. He asked, “How are you now?”
  202.  
  203. “Fantastic,” she replied, laying on the sarcasm rather heavily. It wasn’t attractive.
  204.  
  205. Kaspar frowned. He didn’t like the attitude. He had things he wanted her to know. “If you want to come out of this as a winner you should really listen to what I’m going to say and if I get one more hideous piece of back talk from you I will not be helping you out.”
  206.  
  207. She almost replied, ‘Helping me?’ sarcastically, but held it in before she forgot her manners entirely.
  208.  
  209. Kaspar leaned on the cage, his shoulder resting on one of the bars so he wasn’t facing inward. He heard the girl get up and come close to him and told her, “I picked you for this and I don’t doubt you resent me for that, but I still have a deal for you that you might want to consider.”
  210.  
  211. Nothing from her after that. Silence meant curiosity.
  212.  
  213. “Once the game starts--and I’m not going to explain it all now, you’ll get a full explanation later--you must find me. No one else. Run from them. Don’t engage them. Hide if you cannot run. But find me, and I will do everything in my power to find you. On the tenth floor look for a room with many suits of armor, and that is where we should meet. Just keep going up and we will cross paths. Don’t worry about getting lost. Just don’t go down once you start going up and remember to always keep moving.” Reluctantly, he pulled himself away from the cage and away from the beautiful girl. He knew she would want to ask questions, but he couldn’t answer them yet.
  214.  
  215. Another girl yelped. Another woman won a year of a boy’s life.
  216.  
  217.  
  218. III. The Men’s Game
  219.  
  220. The red fabric over the cage came away when a shadow on the other side pulled it down. The most enormous shadow looked at Nayeli through his mask, and her heart nearly exploded with surprise to see that he was all teeth and metal.
  221.  
  222. He spoke, “I will open the gate. Please do not run yet or I will catch you. We have formalities to discuss,” the enormous man told Nayeli as she glared to him. “I will guide you for now. No worries.”
  223.  
  224. The casual tone with which he used “no worries” didn’t fit his look. The man’s tooth-covered mask made Nayeli think of dead animals and of feral monsters from bedtime tales.
  225.  
  226. “I don’t want to,” she said, and tested the waters.
  227.  
  228. “I know. Why would you? But this isn’t about doing what you want. I can smell that well enough on you. For now, follow me,” he never raised his voice to her or gestured aggressively, but his stature--seven feet at the minimum--did it for him. His mere presence seemed like an act of aggression to her in her fragile emotional state.
  229.  
  230. She got up to a standing position, and he opened the gate for her to come out. There were still hundreds of people on the floor, but now they were more organized. The men held slips of paper up, little flecks of white in the crowd--Nayeli saw few women left among them. There were a few boys in red left wearing bandages, a few girls in white dresses at their sides. None of them would meet Nayeli’s eyes when the tall man took her to a flight of stairs to raise them up above the crowd.
  231.  
  232. The other people she’d met since being in the cage were there. The boy and his bodyguard, the man who couldn’t breathe properly, the man who had gotten her into this mess. He stood more crowdward than the others and had his hands clasped in front of his chest.
  233.  
  234. “Gentlemen! You should all have your lottery numbers!” he called.
  235.  
  236. Arms holding white slips of paper became erect.
  237.  
  238. “Good! When I dismiss you, you will go into the mansion proper. You will find your rooms--they are all marked like you lottery numbers--and you will wait there. If Nayeli here comes into your room, she is yours for a year.”
  239.  
  240. The excited cheers from the men, the gravity of the possibility that she could be locked away with a stranger for a year--those things made Nayeli want to vomit.
  241.  
  242. “It’s possible you know!” Kaspar went on. His voice carried far on the wings of his charisma, and everyone hung onto his words while he gesticulated and paced in front of them, pointing three fingers at the ballroom ceiling. “The last three years in a row we’ve had our lady contestants pick lottery rooms instead of the hunt! You gentlemen certainly have a chance!”
  243.  
  244. His bronze mask swiveled to look at the queasy Nayeli. “You know if there’s a man out there you really favor, my dear, make sure you get his lottery number and find his door before the end of tonight!”
  245.  
  246. More laughs from people hanging onto every word. There were of course many handsome men in the audience. Men in their primes. But Nayeli didn’t want to walk into a room and surrender herself for a year. No, absolutely not. No. No way. No. No. Her face reflected this.
  247.  
  248. “Of course you all know the rest of it,” he went on, then gestured to the boys in red and girls in white “Except for our newcomers! And I do love the sound of my own voice so I’ll explain it.
  249.  
  250. “Nayeli! After we send this crowd of men into the rest of the mansion, we’ll give them half an hour to get into their rooms. Then we will send you in. Then we will follow five minutes later.” He gestured to himself, the man of teeth, the idiot boy and his uglymasked bodyguard, and the man who sounded still like he was choking softly. “We’re going to hunt you, Nayeli! Not to the death, never that. But we will restrain you if it comes to that. If you can avoid us until dawn, you go home to your mother and father. If one of us catches you, we win and you will live with that man for a year. If you don’t feel like being hunted, I advise you again: pick a door!”
  251.  
  252. Cheering again. Nayeli wanted them all to shut up.
  253.  
  254. “Got that?” asked the man in bronze.
  255.  
  256. She nodded once.
  257.  
  258. The men in the crowd stampeded up the steps past where Nayeli and the hunters stood, heading into the mansion to look for their lottery rooms. Most had a wife hanging onto their arm. All that remained of the crowd were newcomers, older women, and a half dozen older men with their wives.
  259.  
  260. Kaspar saw Raya and her happy husband among the remaining few. He told them all, “You can go home or wait until dawn to see the results. Up to you! But remember kids in red and white: not a word to your younger friends!”
  261.  
  262. Newcomers fled. Older folks filtered out more gradually, and Nayeli was left with the five detestable men.
  263.  
  264. “We’ll give the lotterymen time to settle down,” Kaspar looked at the clock. “The men on the higher floors are going to take a while.”
  265.  
  266. “They always do,” choked the man in purple. He ran a hand over the front of his mask to change the eyes. They were now large caricatures of eyes being rolled.
  267.  
  268. Nayeli’s arms were crossed while she seethed. “You all know my name,” she prompted them.
  269.  
  270. Cipac responded first in a deep and steady voice, “I’m Cipac. This is Kaspar. The young man is Hakan, son of Shen who would normally be competing. The man with him is apparently his bodyguard. And the magician is Vikram.”
  271.  
  272. She hated all of them passionately. “Why are you playing?” She asked. “Why aren’t you all in rooms?”
  273.  
  274. “That’s an important non-secret,” Kaspar said. “This is a masquerade, but as you know by our names it isn’t a game of anonymity like it was for our ancestors.”
  275.  
  276. Vikram picked up where he left off, “I won’t be enormously surprised if you don’t recognize us.” He choked a laugh and everyone cringed.
  277.  
  278. Hakan ended their mild attempts to keep the truth half-masked. “My father runs this town.”
  279.  
  280. Cipac was quick to correct in a steeled tone that sent shivers up the spines of everyone present. “Your father is one of many, and I would expect a more polite and humble attitude from his oldest son.”
  281.  
  282. “You guys are the male council members,” Nayeli said. It was a distant betrayal to find that the ones who ruled her would now be using her for sport. It pained her.
  283.  
  284. “Correct,” Kaspar said. “I manage the waterways of Venliette, for instance. Though the female council members have already played their sport.”
  285.  
  286. She sneered at him reflexively. It was distasteful to think that the man in the bronzed mask controlled Nayeli’s livelihood. Kaspar’s hazel eyes smiled at her through the holes in the angry mask.
  287.  
  288. The woman leaned back against a bannister and folded her arms across her chest with her lips sealed in a tight line. She watched all of them without the luxury of having her expression hidden until everyone but them had left the ballroom. Cipac stood watching the clock with an immaculately sturdy stance. He seemed like the greatest threat, and after him she couldn’t decide whether or not she feared the magician Vikram or the rich boy’s bodyguard.
  289.  
  290. “Time,” Cipac said finally, turning to look over his shoulder. He tilted his head towards the clock. “Go, you get a head start. Take the hallway the men took. Don’t go into a room with a number unless you give up and are willing to settle for whoever is inside. Good luck.”
  291.  
  292. She had already sprinted past him into the hallway.
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