Masques - By Patricia Briggs

Chapter One
The great hall of the castle was his favorite room. At first she'd believed it was the grandeur that appealed to him - a weakness he freely admitted. Now she concluded that it was something more. Certainly the pleasure of desecrating with his dark arts the only room of the ae'Magi's castle that had been kept free of magic for over one thousand years was not lost on him. Even now she could see one of the guests glance nervously at the shadows in the corners of the room. People who couldn't use magic tended to get nervous in a room where magic was performed often.

Most of all, she thought, the reason he loved this room was the delight he took in watching the highest aristocracy of a dozen nations dancing gaily where only a few hours before a young child had screamed out his life.

Aralorn shivered and paced behind the ornate black bars of her cage.

The great hall was resplendent, lavishly decorated for the pleasure of the people who tripped lightly across the floor. Soaring ceilings were etched with tear-shaped skylights. Pale pillars dripped down to a polished ivory floor that reflected the jewellike colors of the dancers.

Aralorn's cage sat on a raised platform on the only wall of the room that lacked a doorway. From that perch she could observe the whole room and be observed in return. Or rather, they could see the illusion that the ae'Magi had placed on the cage. Slavery was frowned upon by many of the nearby kingdoms, and so instead of the tall, exotically blonde woman that the ae'Magi had purchased from a traveling slaver, observers saw a rare snowfalcon.

A chime sounded, announcing new visitors. Aralorn hugged herself as the ae'Magi greeted his guests with a warm smile. He'd smiled that same smile last night when he held the boy's pulsing heart in his hands.

Biting her lip, Aralorn gazed at the dancing royalty in an effort to distract herself. She matched names and countries to the dancers' faces with the ease of the professional spy that she was. Gradually she replaced the boy's dead eyes with dates and politics, but she still paced her cage restlessly.

There was a hypnotic quality to the kaleidoscopic, brilliant colors of the dancers: twisting around and around only to stop, rearrange themselves and swirl into motion once again. They surely felt it. Their laughing faces were strangely blank, without a hint of any other emotion than simple enjoyment. She saw the Duchess of Ti and the Envoy of the Anthran Alliance dancing cordially with each other. Four years ago the Envoy had the Duchess's youngest son assassinated, sparking a bloody feud that left bodies littering the Alliance like a plague.

The Envoy said something and patted the Duchess's shoulder. She laughed gaily in return, as if she hadn't had the Envoy's third wife killed in a particularly nasty manner only a month ago.

When the musicians paused for a break, people crowded around the Archmage, Geoffrey ae'Magi, drawn to his twinkling eyes and mischievous grin the way butterflies surround the flowering coralis tree. Like the coralis, he was extraordinarily beautiful, with blue-black hair, high cheekbones and the smile of a child with his hands caught in the cookie jar. But the true attraction lay in his gentle warmth and the uncanny ability to poke fun at himself and others without causing hurt to any. Before she'd come here, Aralorn herself had been more than half enamored of him.

When an insect lands on the sweet-smelling, scarlet flower of the coralis, the petals close and the flower digests its hapless prey over a period of weeks.

She turned away from the ae'Magi and back to the room. Leaning lazily against one of the pillars, a short, square-built young man wearing the colors of the royal house of Reth also observed the throng: Myr, Prince - no, King now, of Reth. His face was unremarkable except for the stubborn tilt to his chin that he'd inherited from his paternal grandfather, a formidable warrior and king. What caught Aralorn's attention was the expression of distaste that briefly crossed his face as he looked at the crowd, remarkably different from the vacuous smiles that everyone else wore.

He shifted unexpectedly and met her gaze. He looked away quickly, but then began to make his way through the crowd toward her cage. When he reached the platform, he tilted his head down so that no one could read his lips and asked in a low tone,