Ihave two reasons for attending the masquerade—the first is that the people, including my own brother, need to see I will not bow easily. The second is purely selfish.
I want to show Alice more of my world. Some of it is ugly, yes, but not everything. She’s experienced too much of the dark side of Faerie and so little of the magic that often lures humans here in the first place.
I wait for Alice by the fireplace, straightening the uncomfortable half-mask. The molded gold creation always feels foreign when I’m used to the soft fabric I use as the Highwayman.
But I doubt I will ever don that mask again.
Even the thought of my alter ego fills me with revulsion. Mother knew the entire time. Like an indulgent parent, she let me play the part for a while, allowing me to think I had some control over my life.
It plagues me, along with Wallen’s deception. My valet disappeared after Mother arrived at the Gravely estate, somehow slipped away like a snake in the grass.
I thought I might see him here, skulking close to Mother’s side, but there’s no sign of him. No one has seen him either—at least no one who is willing to admit it to me.
The inner chamber door opens, and I turn. Alice looks lovely in deep blue. The bodice hugs her delicate curves before the skirt flares at her hips. The material is sumptuous velvet, and the cut is flattering but modest.
Regina chose well. It only takes one look at Alice to know she’s beloved—not a servant or a pet, not a mistress or a casual plaything.
It’s likely the dress that first agitated Mother at dinner. Alice didn’t realize it, but she wore a quiet battle cry, a proclamation that I refuse to treat her as anything less than my equal.
“Can you tie the ribbon for me?” she asks, holding her mask to her face.
I close the distance between us and fumble with the delicate ties, trying not to catch her hair.
“I’m sorry,” I murmur, feeling clumsy.
Alice turns when I’m finished, smiling under her ornate, black mask. Like mine, it covers the upper half of her face and leaves her lips and the graceful curve of her jaw visible.
Her blue eyes sparkle at me, making me believe she’s already enjoying the intrigue that surrounds the masquerade. “I would think you’d be used to tying such things.”
I smile. “These are different.”
She studies me. “But you’re just as dashing in this one.”
“I was doomed the day we first met,” she says, not quite meeting my eyes. “How couldn’t I fall for you?”
“I dragged you into the brambles,” I say skeptically.
“You saved me.” She lifts her eyes, and my heart stutters.
Alice doesn’t realize it, but I was doomed that day as well. One smile from her was all it took to capture my attention.
And she still has it, though I tried to pull back after Mother cornered us into the illanté agreement. But today, we’ve trampled the line I created between us. It might as well be drawn in sand for how stable it is. Though I knew staying away from Alice would be impossible.
She’s right—the arrangement is cruel for both of us. My convictions are strong, but she makes me weak.
I’m afraid we will eventually fall into each other’s arms, and I will be no better than the Fae I’ve so despised.
But that’s a worry for another day.
Tonight, we’ll dance together in the candlelight and pretend the rest of the world isn’t waiting and watching for our imminent demise.
* * *
The ballroom isawash in firelight. Thousands of flames flicker from the tapered candles burning in the golden chandeliers fixed to the high ceiling. They lend a moody ambiance, just enough light to see by.