Friday, June 27, 2014

Preview Chapter I of "The Masque"!

        He awoke to the sight of an ornamental ceiling, elaborate tiles etched with fine designs and bordered with bronze.  For a moment he couldn’t move, like his body had forgotten how.  Slowly he began to gain sensation in his fingertips.  He wiggled them, feeling a silky soft surface beneath him.  His mind was in a haze, but the haze was receding as his nerves were waking, like mist rolling back at sunrise.  Finally, he sat up, and saw where he was.
        The room was expansive and unfamiliar, every inch of it draped with ornate décor.  The furniture - which included the bed upon which he now sat and a significantly large chest of drawers on the opposite wall, a table and chairs in a dining area and a small writing desk in one corner - was all handmade and skillfully carved, finished with a dark luster that gleamed in the low light.  He looked around and saw that the soft glow was coming from a chandelier that hung near the entryway to the room, all gold and glimmer and refracting light.
        He stood, sinking into a lush pearl-toned carpet.  Then  he noticed his shoes: black and sparkling as if someone had polished them in his sleep.  He would’ve wondered to himself why he was wearing shoes while lying down, but the shoes were merely the beginning.  He looked down at his body, held out his arms.  He was wearing a tuxedo, sharply cut and from the feel of it, tailored just for him.  The cufflinks in his sleeves were white gold and each was studded with a diamond.  He looked around the room for a mirror, but didn’t see one.  No windows either.
        He walked toward the door, and tried the handle.  It was locked.  He looked around the room again, to the four-post bed from which he had risen, draped with velvety crimson cloth.  He opened the drawers in the chest, one by one, finding them empty.  He turned, the cogs of his mind not quite processing what he was seeing and experiencing, and then his eyes landed on the surface of the writing desk in the corner, and saw something there.
        As he drew near he saw a piece of stationery, of fine stock and bordered with gold filigree.  Next to it was an object: a mask.  It seemed to be made of porcelain, and was in the form of a fox, but was not colored so, being nearly all white with some silver paint for the whiskers.  The outside was glossy, but the inside was fitted with a soft fabric, and a fine silk cord connected each side.
        He looked at the note.

              Mr. Fox,
                You are cordially invited to the festivities this evening!
                Kindly don your mask and join the party!
               Everyone is waiting…

The words didn’t seem real, like the mist of sleep would soon begin to evaporate the note and the mask and the room and himself.  He closed his eyes, expecting to fall back into an unconscious state, but he didn’t.  When he opened his eyes he still stood there in his tuxedo, still holding the note, the mask looking up at him, waiting to be worn.
        Gently he folded the note and tucked it in his inside breast pocket.  He reached down, letting his fingers glide across the smooth surface of the mask.  Slowly, he picked it up, stretched the cord and felt the mask enclose his face, firm but comfortable.
        He checked the door again, and this time the handle turned in his hand, and the door popped open.
        He stepped out into a corridor as equally extravagant as the room, walls punctuated with glowing sconces that illuminated the length of it.  The carpet was shorter and darker, but still lush.  There were other doors; he could see two of them from where he stood, both closed.  He noticed that neither one had numbers identifying the room, and looked back at his own.  No numbers there, either.
        He looked down the hall both ways.  His room seemed to be situated in the relative center of it, and on either end he could see a foyer of sorts, lit by a chandelier and revealing a set of elevator doors.  He supposed it didn’t matter which way he went, so he chose his right and began to walk, slowly, down the corridor.
        He passed door after door, all identical, all devoid of numbers.  He reached out and tried numerous handles, but found them all to be locked securely.  He turned and peered back down the hallway, finding not a sign of another soul, just the steady glow of the lamps and the fullness of silence.
        He approached the elevator doors and they opened with a small chime that seemed to echo in the quiet corridor.  He hesitated, taking one last glance over his shoulder to the hallway, then stepped inside.  He saw a panel of buttons, numbering from L all the way to ninety-nine.
        His finger was poised over the L button when two things occurred to him.  First, he stepped back out of the elevator and looked above it.  There was no indicator telling him which level he was on, and when he stepped back inside none of the buttons were glowing.  Like the doors, there was no telling his location.  Secondly, he closed his eyes and pushed a random button, not opening his eyes until he heard the gently gliding sound of the doors closing.  He opened his eyes and saw that 78 was aglow.  Quickly, he paid attention as the elevator began to move.  It was difficult to tell because the motion was so smooth, but he believed he felt a slight increased pressure on his feet, indicating that he was moving upward.
        A moment later there was a gentle inertial sensation, and the chime sounded as the doors slid open once more.  They revealed what he expected: a hallway identical to the one he had just left.  Stepping out, he walked to the first door on his left and jiggled the handle.  Locked.  He didn’t bother to check the others, but stepped back onto the elevator.
        Taking a breath, he pushed L.
        The doors closed, and for an instant he felt light.  Going downward.
        The descent seemed to go on and on, and there was no indication of his progress.  Only the steadily glowing L looking back at him in the dim interior.
        Just when he was beginning to grow concerned that the elevator had become stuck, he heard something at the furthest range of his hearing.  It grew by miniscule degrees until he finally could discern what it was.
        It was music.
        An icy finger traced a tremor down his spine and a wave of inexplicable dread rose within him.  His descent, like plunging into the depths of some unknown void, coupled with the music heralding from below created a nightmarish sensation at the back of his mind.  He briefly wondered if he was still asleep.
        Finally there was the inertia once more, and the elevator slowed, slowed, stopped.
        There was a terrible moment of silence and stillness as he held his breath, waiting.
        The doors slid smoothly to the sides.
        Immediately the music was louder, absolutely clear.  As he listened, he realized it was a tune he knew.  It was Gershwin’s “Stairway to Paradise”.  From the deafening sound of it, a full band was throwing itself into the performance.
        He stood there, frozen in his feet, the music simultaneously inviting and threatening, the sound of horns blaring.  Something was telling him to turn back.  But to what?  Endless hallways and locked doors.  He stepped out, into the thick swell of music.
        He was in a large foyer, two facing walls studded with elevators.  The sound came from the left, across a white marble floor and around a corner.  He walked toward the sound, rounded the corner, and stopped.
        The wide corridor abruptly opened onto a massive chamber, four stories tall, that was filled not only with music, but with hundreds of people.  His feet stalled in their tracks and his hand came to rest on the marble rail of the balcony upon which he stood.  He gazed around in awe, overlooking the chamber floor, where most of the throng was located.  Milling about and mingling, hands holding sparkling glasses filled with champagne in their hands were men in sharp, black tuxedos and women in their best shimmering evening gowns.
        He took in a million details in a split second:  the checkered black-and-white marble floor; the massive columns that studded the floor below, supporting the wrap-around balcony; the enormous grand staircase leading from one level to the other with alternating black and white steps; the rails covered with gold filigree, like the borders of the note in his pocket; and above, the gargantuan chandelier that hung from the domed center of the ceiling, skirted by a dozen smaller ones, all aglow with a million tiny lights.  The band was playing on the level below, on a platform that took up one corner of the room.
        But one thing overpowered everything else he saw.
        Everyone, absolutely everyone, was wearing a mask.
        As he looked around he realized that each mask was in the likeness of a different creature and stylized in the same pure porcelain, each covering only the top half of the face, leaving room for shimmering white smiles to shine through.
        He took a few steps more, letting his hand slide across the banister, but he didn’t get very far.  Out of the corner of his eye he caught a movement, a movement that stood out as deliberate in a roomful of cheerful and casual wanderings.  His eyes flickered to the source and saw a tall, thin man mounting the steps hurriedly, glass in hand, all smiles.  The man alternated looking down to make sure he didn’t trip in his excitement and looking directly at him.
        “Mr. Fox!”  At last the man reached the top of the staircase and came bounding toward him, hand outstretched.  “At last, at last, you’ve finally joined us!”
        He met the man’s hand in a social reflex before he realized what he was doing.  “I’m glad you finally made it,” the man said, shaking his hand vigorously.  He wore a bird-like mask, with a large sharp bill.  “I’m Mr. Pelican, as you can see.”  He motioned to the mask he wore and chuckled.  “Don’t get too close, you might lose an eye.”  He chuckled again.
        The Pelican stood half a head taller than him, and apparently never stopped smiling.  “You’ll have to excuse me,” the Fox said.  “I’m not entirely sure what’s going on.”
        The Pelican’s smile faltered, but only for an instant.  “You have an invitation, don’t you?”
        “Yes, I do,” the Fox said, reaching into his pocket and retrieving it, “but I’m still not clear.”
        “Well, that, my friend,” the Pelican said, pointing at the invitation, “is the only thing you need.  Come on, I’ll introduce you around.”  The Pelican snatched another glass of champagne from a passing tray carried by a server, who also wore a mask.  He handed the glass to the Fox, then draped an arm across his shoulders, leading him down the staircase, talking as they went.
        “Welcome to the grand hall,” he said, sweeping the room with his champagne bearing hand, his voice filled with gusto and excitement.  The Fox continued to look around, noticing large arched windows set in the far wall beneath the balcony.  It must have been nighttime, because he couldn’t see anything beyond them.  “But more importantly, welcome to the party, huh?”  The Pelican chuckled again.
        “So who are all these people?” the Fox said.
        “Well, I can’t give you names, that would spoil the fun.” The Pelican clapped him on the back.  “But there are some very important people here.  Like over there.”  He pointed.  The Fox followed his finger to an enormous man seated on a plush red couch situated between two columns.  The man wore a tuxedo that looked like it could make three of an average man’s suits.  He was surrounded by a gaggle of people; a few men, but mostly women in gowns of scarlet and gold and black.  They all seemed to be hanging on every word the man was saying, which was odd, because he didn’t seem to be saying much.  He was the only person the Fox had seen who wasn’t wearing a blistering smile.
        “Let me guess,” said the Fox.  “The Hog?”
        The Pelican laughed, hand going to his stomach in amusement.  “Oh, goodness!  No, no.  The Boar.  I fear if you addressed him as the Hog, you might have your invitation removed.”
        “Removed by whom?  Is he the host?”
        Something happened as soon as the words were out of his mouth.  All the people within earshot seemed to silence in an instant, snap their heads in his direction and fix him with a glare, smiles fading quickly.
        The Pelican, arm still around him, quickened his pace and chuckled again, only this time it sounded strained.  He led him away from the spot, squeezing his shoulder a little tighter in nervous fingers.  The Fox glanced up at his face and saw the forced nature the Pelican’s smile had taken on.  He led the Fox toward a column against one wall and out of earshot of the crowd.  Only then did the Pelican release him.
        “The Boar is not the one who invited you here.”  He was still smiling.  The Fox could see he was slowly regaining his composure.  “As for who did, let’s just not voice those thoughts aloud, hmm?  Best to let these things play out as they may.”
        “So this is some sort of game?”
        The Pelican made a tsk sound.  “No, no, I wouldn’t call it a game.  Just a bit of fun.  You should just try and enjoy yourself.”
        “Pardon me, I just don’t really know where we are or how I got here.  And why all the secrecy?”
        “I’m not sure I know what you’re talking about.  Listen,” the Pelican stepped toward him, bringing his smile closer.  “Let’s just say, we’re all here for a reason.  What that reason is,” he gently nudged the Fox with a finger, “now that’s up to you.”

No comments:

Post a Comment