at an end
The ballroom looked like a menagerie, sparkling with silver and gold as fifty couples danced in ornate costumes of fantasy and whim. Anne Marie De Léon ran one wrinkled hand along the bannister above them, eyes searching for the happiest couple, the one most likely to live well into their nineties and beyond. Such a notion would make any one of them laugh, she guessed, each in the prime of their life, still too young to know death's somber visage. That's exactly why they'd been invited.
Her husband, Paul, emerged behind her, hugging her to his chest in a way most seventy year olds would not have. His strength and warmth seemed youthful, yet his deep brown eyes were circled by wrinkles and lines that told his many years. "The fat frog is not an option," he said in disgust. "Look at him, hitting on that poor swan. You'd think she was on the buffet table. His princess is beautiful, though not as attractive as the swan; she seems entirely too fond of alcohol. That'll take ten years off her, at the least."
"I like the swan," his wife replied dreamily. "She seems so... joyous." Paul nodded in agreement. "The cat and mouse do seem the most attractive match, however."
"Hrm, no. The cat has played with entirely too many mice since coming of age. I like the phoenix and swan, for my pick."
His wife was harder to convince. "The one playing as the Queen of Hearts comes from a very old line. And I do so enjoy her taste," she giggled. "Either her or the swan. What do you think, dear? How does being King of Hearts suit you?"
"She may be well-bred but he isn't. No, he seems... out of place. All smoke and mirrors with little substance. I don't like him in the least."
The elderly couple watched as their great hall, filled with men and women less than half their age, laughed and carried on. At a quarter to midnight, there came a great buzz and hum of conversation from below them. By ten 'til, it had swelled to a cacophony
. At 11:59, the music stopped and all eyes gazed up at the Count and Countess De Léon
, dressed in rich velvet costumes of 15th century design. It was time for the prize they'd all coveted since the arrival of their invitations.
"And now, ladies and gentlemen, before we call our merry gala to an end, it is time to announce the winners of the grandest prize of all." Paul's baritone voice bellowed through the ballroom. "The prize we give tonight shall remain secret to all but that couple which is selected for their beauty, their grace, their happiness..." he trailed off, his grand smile growing slightly weaker. The audience hung on, eager for more.
"The grand prize" Anne Marie interrupted, "shall be awarded to none other than Marc Riggins and his lovely wife, Dany!" The hall erupted in cheers and applause; Marc twirled Dany around in circles, laughing and smiling as they enjoyed a private moment of triumph. They were immediately led away by two serving men. Seconds before passing through the door of the hall, Dany looked up and noticed the look of regret that overshadowed the Count's face.
Marc was acutely aware that Dany's fingernails were digging into his arm. She was clinging to him--and not happily. They exchanged a worried look as the two serving men led them further down the stone steps. Somewhere above them could be heard the laughter and conversation of 49 intoxicated couples, making their way to their cars. Somewhere below could be heard the sound of rushing water. Only by yellowed light could Dany make out the path that curved downward ahead. Then the men were turning around as if to speak, and there was only darkness.
Dany came to quickly enough, though her mind felt swampish and groggy. Her eyes fluttered as she looked around, realizing with sudden horror that they'd been struck unconscious and taken to their current location. She was not so surprised, once she recalled the Count's last glance, to find that her mask had been taken and that she was tied firmly to an iron gate behind her. Dany began to whisper harshly in eager attempt to awake her dazed husband.
"Marc! MARC! Wake up. Wake up, sweetheart, wake up!!!"
His eyelids fluttered. She tried again. "MARC!" she hissed through clenched teeth. His eyes snapped open
and a scream of terror burst from his lips as he came to. "SHHHH! Stop that. They'll hear
you. They'll know we're awake. Fuck
, Marc, what are we going to do?!"
"Why, we're going to show you the surprise, that's what!" Anne Marie tried her best to sound gay and cheerful, though exhaustion underscored every word as she interrupted the couple in their state of panic. "Don't you want to know what the grand prize is?"
"We don't want anything but to go home, Countess. We're willing to forget all about the prize."
A laugh. "Oh, Marc, don't be ridiculous. This is a terrific honor. Though I expect you'll not understand." And then, to herself, "Ah, well. Youth is wasted on the young."
"What my wife means to say, of course, is that your youthfulness and joy is what first attracted us to you. Our prize is... well, you may not think it much, but..." He trailed off again, lost in a millenia of memories.
"It's not every day that youth achieves wisdom. You should feel honored!" Anne Marie finished her declaration, raising her hands above her head as if she were basking in light. At the gesture, the two serving men reappeared with what looked like large, hooked knives in their hands. Dany began to cry.
"It's a masquerade, child! All of life is. We're just taking your mask and giving it to someone wiser, more worthy of its years to come. Don't cry, now. Tut, tut. It'll all be over soon. Keep a pretty face." The old crone lovingly wiped tears from Dany's face. "You're going to keep me young, you are. My own little fountain of youth."
One slow nod later, and the Count and Countess were two lives richer.
Thank you for this gift.