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Cool Winds: Daversham flashback i)

by  Tony Irwin

Posted: Sunday, December 11, 2005
Word Count: 1825
Summary: Here the narrator Panu pauses in her tale to recount her first meeting with Sebastian, an important character.

It seems best that I should interrupt my story at this point to relate to you a piece of the history between Sebastian and myself. It was at a royal celebration on the outskirts of London, in England, that I first met Sebastian, a full three years before I mounted my coup upon the island. It was a fabulous masked ball, my disguise and gloves were decorated with eagle’s plumage. As per my orders I danced with as many of the likely guests as possible. I flirted with each of them as we danced braisles and corants and some of the new French dances that were popular in King Charles’ court.

The steps of the English dances were rituals of complicated, but ordered, progression. I glided along rows of partners, tiptoed in and out of the squares they made, took hands and passed them, suffered my cheek to be kissed on the fourth beat, hopped on the eighth. My mission progressed in perfect time with the dance; I teased out information, watched for reactions, and tested my many partners for weakness and strength.

In the great chamber where the ball was held, Sebastian was the only guest there who did not wear a mask. I only had to dance with him once to know that he was the spy I hunted. He told me you see, whispered it in my ear as we danced together. “I am the spy you hunt for,” just like that.

When the music ended I thanked him for the dance and walked away as coolly as I could manage. I saw no reason to pretend that I had misheard him or not understood him. He knew what I was.

I nodded to my superior and with that nod I slew Sebastian. Assassins would ensure that he would not return home alive from the ball. Something irked at me though, my career until then had been remarkable, but Sebastian had seen through me with ease.

My superior, she sipped on wine across the chamber, nodded back to me twice in indication that I was the one chosen to be Sebastian’s assassin that night. Such tasks were unpleasant and I had taken my career in such a direction so as to usually be able to avoid them. I turned and looked to where Sebastian stood in amongst the crowd of revelers. I wondered what it was about me that had given myself away. Perhaps, I thought, he whispers “I am the spy you hunt for” into every woman’s ear.

Someone asked me to dance and I accepted. To preoccupy my mind I planned Sebastian’s death, all to the rhythm of the happy music. After that dance a servant found me, passing me a note that he had been asked to deliver. I unfolded it, my eyes flicking away to find and watch Sebastian. When my fingers’ task was done, I returned my eyes to the open message. It read, “I’ll kill you first.”

It was unprofessional and bizarre. I was bewildered by the foolish note. I thought that Sebastian would have been better to have spent his time with plans for his escape, rather than provoke me in such a way. I walked out from the ballroom, through corridors, and out into the gardens in search of a private corner. I followed the path of marble paving: past rose briar hedges, statues and sun dials. A little arbour, fragrant and shadowed, offered me a pleasant hiding place. There I sat on a seat planted with camomile and daisies, and I reread his note. I doubled over with guilty laughter at the man’s strange humour.

When I regained my balance and composure, I tore up his silly little note and sprinkled its pieces across a bed of snapdragons. I walked back to where the party was but stopped when I saw him near me in the quiet gardens. He had his back to me, bent over a shrub, he examined its leaves, smelt its blossoms.

He was vulnerable, exposed, there was no one else around, so I prepared for what I had been instructed to do. Then he turned and saw me and I felt strangely embarrassed: not because I had been caught as I prepared to murder him, but because I had spied on him as he enjoyed the scent of flowers.

He seemed equally as embarrassed to have been caught. As he had turned I had hurriedly hid my weapon behind my back, when he saw me he tried to hide the posy he had just picked behind his own back. They were roses, striped red and white. He smiled gently, and extended both his hands in welcome. His hands were empty, the posy was gone. Just as fluidly I secured my weapon inside my dress and then clasped my empty hands in front of me.

“Perhaps,” he asked me, “you would care for another dance?”

There was a new tinge in his voice, a different coloration in his face, and I knew from it that he was nervous. He wanted his question to probe me, challenge me, but he was not yet sure whether I would accept his offer to dance or attack him instead.

We stood there in the dim light and stared at each other, listened to the garden sounds, listened for the sounds of footsteps that could swing a fight either way. The party’s noise and joy spread out into the garden, its revelers came and took root in a plot too close to us. I turned and walked away from the man and gave no answer to his question. I wasn’t being paid to talk with him.

I found an empty bed chamber where I could check my dress, hair and mask. The chamber had a full length gilded mirror to stand in front of and I removed my mask carefully so as to let me wipe the beads of sweat from my brow and cheeks. It was a warm evening and the heavy confines of my mask made it seem warmer still to me.

I stood at the glass a while, and examined my face’s reflection. It seemed clean and strong, unmarked by worry or unhappiness. “It hardly seems fair,” I thought silently to myself, “that I have seen his face but I have not shown him mine.”

Then the woman in the glass coloured and frowned, unhappy to be found thinking such foolish thoughts. “How strange,” I whispered to that hypocrite, “that such thoughts would cause you guilt.” I had, after all, done far worse things in my life than yield my heart to innocent glimmers of attraction.

I replaced my mask upon my face, and so hid myself from the world again. As I tied the slim cords of that artifice I permitted myself to wonder what Sebastian would think of me without it. I laughed at the accusations of the reflected woman, and happily embraced the guilt that she thrust at me.

I left the bed chamber in search of Sebastian. I walked back to the chamber where the ball was held, and moved through the banquet’s crowds. As the only person without a mask, besides the platter bearing servants, he was easy to find. He danced with another woman. I watched, and smiled to myself and tested my thoughts, wondering if I might taste jealousy there.

The woman in the mirror had followed me from the bed chamber, she hid herself in the back of my mind. “You must commit murder tonight,” she whispered to me. “Don’t make it more difficult for yourself than it needs to be. Don’t store up a feast of pain for yourself for after he is dead.”

“Let it be difficult,” I breathed aloud in answer to those thoughts. “Let it be painful if I can but once taste love.”

I danced with Sebastian only one more time, it was to be the last dance of the evening. As we moved across the dance floor I smiled behind my mask, enjoying the rhythm and the music, the touch of my partner’s hand upon my own.

I almost let myself laugh out loud but in the instant before I did so I remembered that I was enjoying something that I was very soon going to lose. I treated as mine, something that would soon leave. Behind my mask my smile turned to an unhappy frown.

So I steeled myself against the loss with thoughts of how whole and happy my life had been up till then. Although my vocation was unusual, I was successful and satisfied with it. It would continue regardless of Sebastian, regardless of how quickly the dance should end.

Sebastian broke into my thoughts, asking me something or another, but my throat choked and I found I could not reply. He repeated his question to me but I remained mute, genuinely unable to respond. I looked away from him, ignoring his patience as he waited for my answer.

He constructed a new conversation in which I was not required to participate, and chattered away merrily and made silly jokes. I ignored him, I focused on the sound of the music to block out his voice. I immersed myself in the cold complexity of the dance steps, and found balance there.

At last the music finished, he bowed to me and I curtsied sorrowfully to him. The end of the evening’s last dance was also the moment when, in obedience to tradition, all masks are lifted and all faces revealed. I stood uncomfortably as he reached out tentative hands to untie the silken cords that bound my mask to my face.

All around us, the guests gasped with surprise and laughed with pleasure as the mysteries of the evening were solved. I felt no anticipation of such delight, only apprehension and distrust. Then great doors were opened for the sake of ventilation and the evening’s cool wind breathed into the ballroom, anxious to be a part of the final merriment. That breeze braced and emboldened me, dared and encouraged me. I stepped closer into Sebastian’s reach as he untied my mask. “Let him see me before he dies,” I thought, “let him know me before I slay him.”

Then, even as the mask fell from my face, guilt returned and overtook me. I knew that I could not let him see me, for my face would reveal all to him and let me to keep no secrets for myself. Glimmers of attraction so revealed would not die easily but, once acknowledged, might flame up and burn indefinitely.

So I pulled away from him, and made a new mask with a gloved hand to replace the one that he had undone. I snatched back my stolen mask from him and turned and left him. I hurried from that chamber to escape his eyes. “Let him die in ignorance,” I prayed, “and let me live in peace.”