The magician led Evie to a room she had never been to before. There were a lot of rooms she had not been to within that vast house that seemed to contain entire countries behind its locked doors. Her midnight blue dress, a gift from the magician, shuffled at her feet as she attempted to keep up with his long strides. Each of her steps caused the shimmer of her dress to catch on the candlelight; sparkles danced on the walls around them as they glided down the halls.
They came to a door with an ornate handle. It looked old and untouched for decades. The magician produced a key from his tailcoat and unlocked it; she followed as he stepped inside.
With a flick of his wrist, the candles in the room crackled to life, igniting the dust on their wicks with a quick spark. Dust evaporated in fire.
The light revealed a room equally ornate as its handle; rich brown wood floor, and deep red drapes engulfed the windows, hiding a starless night. Positioned around the room stood elegant shelves; but it was what sat on top of those shelves that caused her breath to catch. Each shelf held on top of it several elaborate masks; some were half masks, and some would cover her entire face; beautifully ornamented yet all haunting.
“We cannot show up to a masquerade without a mask,” the magician’s voice came from behind her. She turned to meet his gaze.
“Can I choose any mask I wish?”
He nodded to her, with that same bored expression he always wore for her. Perhaps she should choose a mask for him that would compel him to be a bit more animated.
“Choose wisely, Evie,” he warned. “Each mask will change you into an entirely different person. Think carefully about who you want to become.”
She rolled her eyes. “I should have guessed as much. A mask can’t just be a mask with you,” she teased.
He did not laugh, but did, however, let out a low “hmm” sound from deep in his throat. As close to a laugh as she would ever get from him.
Evie scanned the shelves, taking in each mask and the impression of the person she might become. Her thoughts strayed to an old acquaintance; Arabella. In that moment, she recalled Arabella’s confidence and radiating personality. They came out to society during the same season. Though, where Evie had been a wallflower avoiding the dances, Arabella had her dance card perpetually full. Her laugh was hypnotic and drew everyone to her. Evie had been jealous, and never understood how someone could be so effortlessly carefree. Arabella’s smile infected the men in a plague of lust, turning every male gaze as soon as she would enter any room.
Evie approached a mask decorated with deep purple roses that gleamed with radiance that caught the eye, held it, hypnotized just like Arabella would.
“That is who you wish to become,” asked the magician, as if he could see Arabella, knew her the way she had. His tone held a hint of judgement in it. At least Evie thought it might if he cared enough to judge, which she knew he did not. He picked up a mask from a nearby shelf without so much as looking at it; “Lets go”.
They rode in the carriage in silence. He stared out the window. Her gaze bounced between him and the dark trees that rushed by as the horses dashed towards their destination.
“Remember why you’re there tonight, Evie,” the magician reminded. “Don’t get caught up in the festivities. Stay focused.”
She took a deep breath. Evie recalled the conversation she had with the magician in his library shortly after she came to his home, seeking his guidance. Evie was at risk of becoming a spinster with no place in society, a burden on her family. Though Evie never did particularly want a husband to begin with. If she had, she would have tried harder during her London seasons. But as the years went, her family became more and more cross with her. “A woman should be married,” they would comment under their breath, wanting to insult her, but being too polite to say anything directly. Her family treated her as a villain, as if she embarrassed them. So she did what any desperate woman would do in her position; she sought a magician to fix her situation, though he would not name a price.
The only way to fix her situation, he surmised, was to find a husband. And the only way she could do that was to become a completely different person. Evie couldn’t help but to feel insulted, initially. Though given her record, she also couldn't help but agree with the magician’s assessment. Evie was nearing twenty-three years old, and her hopes of finding a husband were all but non-existent.
The Earl of Carnarvon would hold the carnival ball to celebrate the end of the social season, and Evie’s last chance before she would officially be too old to be desired. The magician determined it to be the perfect opportunity to alter her prospects.
“Put on the mask,” the magician commanded, placing his own over his face as they approached the estate. His was a simple mask, silver fabric that covered half his face across the eyes.
As they approached, Evie felt the expectations of her family crashing into her. Crowds of people swarmed out from their own carriages dressed in a menagerie of animals and characters. Laughter rose through the air and hung there, filling the space with a feeling of excitement and lightness.
She fastened the mask behind her head, covering her entire face. She felt a rush flood through her; little sparks traveled down her body while a fog rolled behind her eyes. Their carriage came to a halt, and the magician helped her down. Offering his arm, he led her inside, passing by contortionists, juggling jesters, and men blowing fire out of their mouths like dragons. It all felt like a dream to Evie. Reality was transforming around her, yet also stayed the same. No. It was her that was transforming, she realized.
All at once, she felt giddy and excited for the evening to come. She never felt excited about any of these events before, but she did now. As they entered the grand foyer, she felt every single man’s gaze slide towards her. This was certainly an experience she was unfamiliar with. She leaned into the magician and whispered, “What’s happening? Why are they all staring at me?”
He leaned into her this time; “They are noticing you, just like they would notice Arabella. They find you desirable.”
Desirable? Evie thought. She had never been desirable before in her life. She felt as if she were two people in one body. One was herself, shy and uncomfortable; observing this other person who was forcing her way in. Arabella. Or Evie as Arabella. It was the oddest feeling, but Evie no longer had control over herself. They did not make it over five feet into the room before men began approaching her, insisting on a turn to dance. Eventually, she lost sight of the magician as a random man led her to the dance floor. Half of Evie was in complete panic, but the other half was having the time of her life. Evie had longed to feel that way, and now she was. But Evie, the real Evie, absolutely despised every moment.
The room seemed to glitter like her dress as the soft notes of a violin fluttered through the room. Positioning her on the checkerboard dance floor, the man held Evie close in anticipation of a waltz. Masked dance partners next to her seemed to transform from her acquaintances to the animals of the masks they wore.
The orchestra played each song in quick succession as her many dance partners passed her off from one suitor to the next. The music was playing faster, or she was possibly slowing down. Evie felt dazed but could not stop dancing, decorum dictated that she could not, as the gentlemen would consider it insulting. She felt her feet bleed as yet another song played. She did not know how many dances she took part in; but time seemed to stand still as the melodies encapsulated her soul and the delirium worsened.
Evie laughed and flirted with each suitor that held her close. It was uncomfortable, yet she also felt intoxicated by the excitement. Now, exhaustion prayed upon her. She forced her eyes to tear away from the man she danced with and scanned the room for the magician. She found him leaning up against a wall on the other side of the room. Her face was hurting from smiling so much, but she hoped he could read the terror in her eyes. Yet he did nothing. Instead, he looked on with that blank expression she was growing accustomed to.
She wanted to stop dancing, but that other half of her was enthralled and addicted. She fought to keep her eyes fixed on the magician, pleading for his help as she experienced complete euphoria.
Without warning, a thousand shocks shook through her body, vibrating down her middle, splitting her in half. The fog cleared from her eyes, and she felt like she was finally waking up from a dream.
She still couldn’t stop dancing.
Her attention was no longer fixed on the magician, but over the shoulder of her most recent dance partner. A woman stood staring at her in a mask that matched her own; Evie stared back. The woman reached up to her mask slowly and untied it, revealing her face. It was identical to Evie’s. Upon closer inspection, Evie realized she was staring at herself, as if looking into a mirror. Same hair, same outfit; it was undoubtedly her.
Terror filled Evie as her doppelgänger smirked; Evie watched her turn, making her way towards the magician. He gave Evie a deep bow as he took her look-alike by the arm and led her out of the carnival ball; leaving Evie to her many dance partners and bleeding feet. A prisoner of despair stuck in a facade of elation.