The Alchemy of Forever
I feel as though I’ve been waiting for the masquerade ball for my entire life. At fourteen, I am eligible for marriage and finally old enough to attend. The torchlight flickers on the sandstone facade of Lord Suffit’s palace on the Thames, and the roses woven into my hair are heady and sweet. I remember to push my mask up over my face before I walk through the great arched doorway.
I catch sight of myself in a mirror.
I wear a high-waisted white gown—punctuated with golden threads on the seams—that flows over my body like water. The sleeves are fitted at the tops of my arms and flare out at my elbows like wings. The mask is golden and shaped like a butterfly, dotted with crystals and glass beads. It points back from my face toward the silver net that holds my hair in a thick bun at the crown of my head.
I am momentarily disoriented by my mask, not sure if the reflection I see is really me. I tentatively touch my hand to my cheek, and the mirror-girl follows.
Satisfied, I turn around and follow my parents and the sound of the music—lyres and lutes, tambourines and drums—until we arrive in the ballroom. I stand there for a moment, watching the masked dancers: women in silk and velvet gowns that brush the floor as they twirl in a circle, men forming a larger circle around them, the sinuous glow of the candelabras glinting off their headpieces. Although I have spent my entire life in London, I don’t recognize anyone.
I feel a presence at my side and turn to look. A young man, all in black, with a red mask and white-blond hair, is standing next to me. He offers me a goblet of pomegranate wine, and I take a sip, feeling the burning sweetness in my throat. “You should dance,” he tells me.
“But I don’t recognize anyone,” I answer, wondering if I know him.
“That’s the point,” he replies, his blue eyes vivid beneath the scarlet mask. “The disguises are meant to offer freedom, to let us do things we wouldn’t normally do, to let us be someone entirely different for one night.”
I study him for a moment. “Do we know each other?”
He tilts his head back and laughs. “I don’t think so. I would remember you, I’m certain. But then again, maybe we do. We’ll never know.” He offers me his arm and leads me toward the dancers.
We are partners only briefly, soon separated as we move down the line in formation. But I glance up at him more than once, and each time he is looking at me, following me around the room with those vivid blue eyes. I am grateful that my face is covered, as I feel my usual blush heating up my cheeks. But when the song is over, he is gone.
I wander alone through the crowd, feeling hot and dizzy. The wine, the dancing, the press of people—it is too much. I follow torches down a stone-walled hallway through a courtyard, then outside to the garden, where a magician is entertaining a group of people. I watch, amazed, as he produces a dove from the empty air, then releases the bird above his head.
“He’s a charlatan,” says a voice behind me. I whirl around to see the man with the scarlet mask.
“It’s amazing!” I exclaim. “He conjured a bird.”
“He did no such thing. He merely tricked you. But”—he holds out his hand—“if you will join me, I will show you something truly amazing.”
I am intrigued. I take his hand and let him lead me away from the crowd. When we reach the palace gates, I hesitate.
“I should not leave. My parents will worry.”
“It is just here, on the street,” he promises, and I reluctantly follow him around a corner toward a garden of rosebushes just opposite from the Thames. I can smell their sweet blooms mingling with the torch smoke. We stop next to a stone bench, and he lets go of my hand.
“May I?” he asks.
I am not sure what he is going to do, but I nod my assent. He reaches for my hair, gently pulling out one of the roses and cradling it in his palm. It is still deep red, but wilted, the edges of the petals already drying out.
“People are always looking for magic, when the natural world holds true miracles,” he says, pulling a small glass vial from his pocket. “This flower is dead. No offense meant, my lady.” He smiles. “But the roses here in the garden are still very much alive.”
He opens the vial and lets a few drops of liquid fall onto the base of the dead rose’s stem, then holds it up to a thorny branch of the living rosebush. After a few seconds he
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