The Perfect Mask II
If you missed The Perfect Mask I, find it here.
The spectrum of colors blurred across the ballroom, a sea of enchantment concealing the atrocities beneath. Within the waves the Panther could still be lurking, faceless. My savior could be lost in the depths as well, hiding from the many thanks I needed to shower on him.
I hiked up my bustle, forfeiting any beauty or grace for the task at hand. After squirming out of it back in the hall, the ties hung loosely and I spared no time to cinch them up again. The fabric balanced on my hips, slipping around with every jerky stride across the dance floor. I took up the center again, the same place the Panther first furled his arms around me, where my capture had begun. Spinning around myself now, alone and afraid, no one showed the slightest interest in me. No black tuxedo flashed by in retreat. No gallant knight stepped forward to claim my hand.
This mystery had to be resolved. I would not sleep until I knew the Panther was truly gone and my hero received the recognition he deserved. Yet all I could see were streaks of colors. Only raucous laughter touched my ears. I found no sign of the crime that had transpired in the shadows. The only evidence remained in my grip, the mask of the black cat glaring back up at me.
Finally I straightened myself tall, demanding the notice of everyone in sight. In a swift switch, I glided the swan off my eyes and donned the face of the Panther, the entire scene around me suddenly washed over with a sickly yellow.
In the presence of such sophistication, my appearance must have been alarming. The figure of a young lady, draped in the finest costume of feathers and silk, shrouded behind the false facade of a vicious, black feline. The nearest patrons shot quizzical, suspicious glances my way, but I would not ruin their festivities. These were the reactions I expected, full of confusion and distrust. But the reaction for which I searched was yet to come. It was the sort that not even a mask would conceal.
I scanned the crowd closely, securing eye contact with every man and woman enjoying the party. Every patron was accounted for. The Panther was not among them and, going by everyone’s surprise, my savior was gone also. My heart fell at the realization. With no way of finding them, the danger could strike me again at any moment in the coming days, weeks, hours, minutes. This lack of results far from satisfied me.
My shoulders slumped, losing their confidence, and I lingered near the main entrance, stalling my leave. Outside these walls, anything could occur. I dreaded the darkened streets, the isolated walk home. Panther lurked somewhere. He had to.
I suddenly locked eyes with someone, a man that I had somehow overlooked among the swarm. He wore no mask. His attire was uniform. It was the steward at the entrance that had helped me on with my mask at the start of the night.
Spying my heinous disguise, his skin paled, his eyes widened, and a gleam of sweat reflected on his forehead before he composed himself once again.
He bowed to fill the silence. “Unique choice of mask, Miss.”
I judged him from head to toe, hatred spilling into my tone. “I could say the same for you.”
I yanked the mask away and smashed it into his hand. “I believe this belongs to you.”
He blinked many times, his voice quivering. “You are mistaken, Miss.”
“You will not get your hands on my fortune,” I hissed. “I’ll bring the police. Now I know what you look like and you will be arrested.”
He glanced around for eavesdroppers and then leaned into my ear. “The police are already on their way to arrest the Panther. He’s contained in the kitchen freezer. It’s being dealt with as discreetly and quietly as possible.”
My tongue ran numb and I stumbled back, gazing at the steward in awe. “You’re not the Panther.”
“You’re the one that saved me.”
He lowered his head. “I do not know what you speak of, Miss.”
“How did you know I was in trouble?”
He cleared his throat. “Are you in trouble?”
I peeked out the grand opening, less frightened of the dark now. Lacing my arm around the steward’s, I asked, “Would you mind helping me down the steps? They seem awfully steep.”
His cheeks flushed at my touch, but his professionalism held steady. “Of course, Miss.”
He escorted me onto the stones of the entryway and guided me down the stairs. I leaned most of my weight into him as my heels wobbled. He caught my elbow several times as I flailed.
“Thank you, sir.”
Once I regained my balance and we proceeded onward, I smiled up at him. “You know, I was supposed to meet someone here tonight.”
He lifted his chin. “Is that so?”
“I never found him.”
“That’s a shame. Sorry to hear it.”
“He wanted to meet here, at a masquerade, so we wouldn’t know one another.”
His eyes shifted to the ground. “He sounds quite mysterious, this man.”
“I believe he’s brilliant,” I beamed.
A smile tickled his lips. “I’m sure he would be flattered to hear that.”
“I assumed he would be hiding behind a mask, but I realized the one person I truly failed to see was one of the few without one.”
He gave a courteous nod. “I can attest to the fact that the role of servant comes with its own form of anonymity.”
“I’m certain that anonymity would be easy to use within household staff as well, being able to pass letters without being noticed.”
“I imagine it would.”
“In my world it would be considered impertinent to fraternize with the help.”
His shoulders dropped a subtle amount. “Yes, Miss.”
I stopped us on the bottom step and offered him a smile. “Yet I don’t feel I belong to that world, as you very well know. In my opinion, it’s impertinent to ignore the people that give you the most aid. They deserve our thanks.”
He couldn’t suppress a smile, stealing my breath away. “Very good, Miss.”
Without shame, I rocked onto my tiptoes and kissed the steward on the cheek. His face burned red and my heart fluttered. “Thank you, steward.”
He nodded. “Have a good night, Miss.”
I clasped his hand in mine a moment before stepping away. “Please call me Catherine.”
“Yes, Miss Catherine.”
I giggled at his obstinance and bowed to him before he could bow to me. “I look forward to your next letter.”
His smile shown through the dark and mine gleamed in return as I backed down the sidewalk and bid farewell to the man that I secretly admired.
© 2021 by Kelsey Garber