These Vicious MasksBy: Kelly Zekas & Tarun Shanker
DEATH. THIS CARRIAGE was taking me straight to my death.
“Rose,” I said, turning to my younger sister. “In your esteemed medical opinion, is it possible to die of ennui?”
“I . . . can’t recall a documented case.”
“What about exhaustion? Monotony?”
“That could lead to madness,” Rose offered.
“And drowning in a sea of suitors? After being pushed in by your mother?”
“It would have to be a lot of suitors.”
“Evelyn, this is no time to be so morbid,” my mother interrupted, simultaneously poking my father awake. “And it is certainly not suitable conversation for dancing. You must enjoy yourself tonight.”
“You’re ordering me to enjoy myself?”
“Yes, it’s a ball, not a funeral.”
A funeral might have been preferable. In fact, there was a long list of things I would rather do than attend tonight’s monotonous event: thoroughly clean the stables, travel the Continent, have tea with my mother’s ten closest friends, travel the Continent, eat my hat, and—oh, yes, of course—travel the Continent. At this moment, my best friend, Catherine Harding, was undoubtedly watching some fabulous new opera in Vienna with an empty seat by her side, meant for me. But when I had modestly, logically suggested to my mother the importance—no, the necessity—of a young woman seeing the world, expanding her mind, and finding her passion, she remained utterly unconvinced.
“Catherine tells me Vienna has grand balls,” I put in.
“This isn’t the time to discuss that, either,” Mother replied.
“But what if tonight, in my sheltered naïveté, I accept a proposal from a pitiless rogue who takes all my money and confines me to an attic?”
“Then better it happens here than on the Continent.”
I bit my tongue, for it was quite useless to argue further. Mother would not be swayed to let me leave the country. Instead, she was determined to see me to every ball in England. But what was the point of all this? Was anyone truly satisfied with seeing the same people over and over again, mouthing the same false words, feeling nothing, and saying less? Even my London season felt like I was in a prison, trapped in the same routine of balls, dinners, theaters, and concerts that all seemed to blend together, just like the shallow people in attendance. They were so eager to confine themselves to a role and make the correct impression that they’d forget to have any actual thoughts of their own. How would I ever figure out what exactly it was that I wished to do, stuck here in sleepy Bramhurst?
Gazing out the window, I wondered if I should try very hard to have a horrible time tonight to spite my mother, or if we were still close enough to home that I could just throw myself out the door and roll back down the hill. But since we had left, the light pattering of rain had become an angry barrage, while the lightning flashed and the thunder raised its voice in warning. Hopes for an impassable flood took root within me as our carriage swerved and slowed along the slick, muddy road. Suddenly, it jerked to a dead stop, and I believed my prayers answered until the driver shouted down to my father.
“Sir! There’s a carriage stopped up ahead! Reckon they’re stuck! It’ll be just a moment!”
We lurched forward until we saw the outline of a carriage crookedly tilted halfway off the road. Our driver’s voice carried: “Hello there! Can we be of assistance?”
Rose and I crowded to her tiny window and found three drenched men—a driver, a passenger, and a near giant—all attempting to push the vehicle back out of a muddy ditch. They paused upon hearing us, and the large man tipped his hat toward our window, the carriage light illuminating his tanned skin and pale lips.
Their driver wiped his brow with a handkerchief as he approached. “Thank you, sir!” he yelled, panting as he waved us along. “It’s quite all right! Get your passengers to their destination! We shall manage—” The rest of his words were sucked up by another growl and crackle of thunder.
Whether it was the man’s words or the storm that was convincing, our driver decided not to argue and sent the horses forward. As I turned back, watching the three men fade into the blackness, a flash of lightning unveiled them for one last glimpse, their shapes stark against the bright white rip across the sky. But it wasn’t any figure that caught my eye. It was their carriage, which seemed to be lifted entirely off the ground by the giant man and heaved onto the road before they were swallowed by the darkness again.
“Did you see that?” I asked Rose.
Her raised brow answered the question, but then it furrowed as she considered the matter. “Is the fair in town? Perhaps he’s one of those strong men we always see advertised.”
“But . . . still, to lift an entire carriage by himself?”
“Evelyn,” Mother interrupted. “I don’t wish to hear another story about hallucinations rendering you too ill to attend—”
“Rose saw it, as well!”
“Oh. Excellent. Then we need not risk the health of any of our footmen to fix that driver’s foolish mistake,” my mother said, in her infinite kindness.