Corlwyn was astonished at how easy it had been to infiltrate the Comte’s ball—the seduction of a servant girl, the theft of a courtier’s signet ring, and a few coins to obtain a forged invitation.
The Comte had been dead ten years, but his wife had dutifully carried on his tradition of hosting the annual grand ball. Under her direction, the revels had grown more lavish and decadent. And so, the duelist had risen to the challenge of obtaining an invitation.
The ball was everything the rumors promised and more. Tables lined the walls of the grand hall piled high with roasted boar and fowl, sweetmeats, candied fruits, and confections of every kind. Servants filled gilded cups with dark wine from silver ewers while minstrels and jongleurs wound their way through the crowd.
By his fourth cup, Corlwyn had already chosen three ladies whom he deemed worthy of his deceptions. He took one last swig for good measure and was about to make his first advance when a woman’s voice startled him from behind.
“I’ve not seen you here before,” it said, clear and bright above the din.
Corlwyn turned to see a woman in a plain blue gown. She wore a delicate feathered mask. A cascade of raven-black hair brushed her narrow porcelain shoulders. Only an exquisite ring of dark ruby indicated that she was of any status of note.
“The esquire Alphonsus, milady,” Corlwyn said, true to the name on his forged invitation.
“And how do you come to so singular a revel?” she said.
“My uncle,” Corwyn answered, spinning his carefully crafted story. “He is a burgher recently come into his fortune in the Eight Cities.”
“I can hardly say,” Corlwyn said. “We moved so often as his trade grew I have nearly forgotten their names.”
And so his tale unfolded, that of a dull nephew of a nouveau riche merchant lord sent to find his place among the noblesse of the older cities, a callow youth a restless heiress would pull into her circles and dazzle with excess in hopes of parting him from his inheritance, which, of course, would never materialize.
As they drank and danced, a hundred ladies in greater finery and richer beauty spun around them, yet Corlwyn remained transfixed by the unknown lady before him. Her lips curled suggestively and her dark eyes drew him in deeper.
“There is a chamber above,” she said as they came together during an intimate galliard. “Take the staircase behind the statue of a gilded faun. Behind the tapestry of the tower is a hidden door and passage, and beyond, the chamber where I will wait. Tarry here for the space of a dance and then come.” No sooner had the lady spoken then she whirled away, her pale blue dress vanishing into the garish kaleidoscope of the costumed guest.
Corlwyn wound his way to the edge of the ballroom, passing food-laden tables with no interest and brushing aside servants offering wine. As he came to the edge of the crowd, he glimpsed the statue of the faun, glinting in the light of distant candelabras.
He waited until the dance ended and slowly threaded his way out of the revelers, taking great pains to pass unnoticed. Behind the statue, he found the stair and lept up it as swiftly and quietly as a cat.
He entered a corridor hung with a dozen tapestries. Searching, he came to one showing an army besieging a tower beneath a red moon. He reached behind it, and true to the lady’s word, discovered an opening.
The passageway was unlit, and Corlwyn groped his way through until his hand came to rest on a wooden door. He fumbled for the handle and pushed it open as quietly as he could.
He found himself in a small antechamber lit by a single wall sconce. On his right hung a painting of the Comte and the Comtesse, who was far younger than the Comte himself. Before him was another door, and in the space between it and the floor, the flicker of lamplight. Corlwyn loosened his rapier in case the lady had laid a trap and opened the door.
The room was elegant but spare. Through a casement window with diamond-shaped panes shone a cold and pale moon. An ornately carved bed piled with fine linens lay against the left wall. On the right hung an ornately embroidered arras. In the center, a carved chair faced the arras beside a table with a lamp burning low.
“Sit,” said a voice from behind the arras. It was the lady’s.
Corlwyn obeyed, but as he sat, a jeweled hairpin filched from the lady’s hair during the dance slipped from his sleeve and nicked his palm. An instant later the lady stepped from the arras, a golden cord trailing in her hand. Her mask was gone and Corlwyn thought her plain, porcelain face strangely familiar. But before he could speak, she pulled the cord and the arras parted.
In the alcove sat a horrid apparition. It was a man, ancient in age with waxen skin. But it was his eyes that froze the blood in Corlwyn’s veins. They were the color of pearl and glowed with a baleful inner light.
Corlwyn tried to stand, but the eyes fixed him in his seat. He could not speak or move. Only the hairpin, still pressed against his palm, gave him any sense.
“My husband, the Comte,” she spoke. “Oh yes, he lives,” the Comtesse said, imagining his surprise. “But only because of me. Ages ago, he gave me life beyond life. I was a child then, cursed to be chained to his power. Now, he is under mine, sustained by morsels such as you. And in return, I live, ageless and beautiful. Come. Let him drink your soul. It will not hurt. And when he is done, I will have my fill of you.”
The Comte’s gaze engulfed Corlwyn like a sickly fog. Even in his paralysis, he could feel his strength draining from him. He focused all of his attention on the pin piercing his hand. Its pain anchored him and he clenched his whole being around it.
Suddenly his finger twitched, driving the pin into his hand. A shock jolted through his body, and instinctively his elbow jerked. It struck the table causing the lamp to fall and shatter on the floor. Burning oil raced across the carpet and in an instant, the arras was ablaze.
The Comtesse shrieked, but it was too late. The body of the Comte, dry and desiccated, flared into flames. The spell broke instantly and Corlwyn sprang to his feet. The Comtesse lunged. Corlwyn drew his sword, but there was no need. Before him, her body shriveled and collapsed like a paper lantern, until it too began to burn in the rising flames.
Corlwyn flung the chair through the window shattering the glass and leaden frame. He clambered through, dropping to the roof and courtyard below. As he raced across the lawn which shimmered like a lake in the moonlight, he could still hear the revelers in their bacchanal frenzy, heedless of the ancient horror burning above them.