The setting sun had painted the mountains behind the manor gold. Not that the Von Haunt Estate needed that extra gloss. Cordelia had thought the Charm house to be impressive, but the estate in front of her was something else completely. A palace fit for a princess.
Of course, she did almost look like one tonight, dressed in that gown Morgyn had sent her.
Cordelia had never felt elegant in her life. But it seemed that tonight, wearing the most elegant dress she’d ever laid her eyes on, heading to a beautiful stately manor to attend a fancy ball, she’d get the opportunity to know what elegant feels like.
Then again, perhaps not.
Taking another step, she felt her foot sliding. She flapped her arms around uncontrollably in an effort to prevent the fall, but the heels she was not used to and the slippery road betrayed her. She felt like an injured bird falling down from the sky as she flew through the air, landing in the snow.
So much for elegance. Cordelia couldn’t help but burst into laughter. She didn’t even know how to get up in this elaborate dress. Clearly, she was no princess. She could however be an angel, at least one of the snow variety, she giggled to herself, resuming her arm motion.
There was still something magical about the experience. Cordelia rarely got to be in the moment, always looking over her shoulder, dreading the sprites. But now-
“What in the two realms are you doing?” Morgyn’s voice brought her back to reality. She saw the spellcaster’s silhouette tower over her.
“I, uh, I’m an angel.” She said weakly.
“An angel.” Morgyn repeated. “If by that you mean that you’re working on dying from pneumonia, then I’d imagine you’ll be quite successful.”
“I… also can’t get up.” She admitted with reluctance, well aware this was probably not how Morgyn envisioned… whatever they came to do here tonight.
Morgyn sighed, casting some kind of a spell on her. She felt her body getting lifted into the air again, as if her fall was reversed, going back through time. Even the dampness from the snow in her dress seemed to fade away, the gown as dry as when she first put it on. A warmth surrounded her. And then she was in Morgyn’s arms. She breathed out.
“What is it with you constantly insisting on putting yourself in harms way?” The sage asked softly.
She bit her lip. They weren’t wrong. “I wish I knew.”
Morgyn just chuckled softly, shaking their head. “Well you do look beautiful tonight.” The sage’s words made her blush.
“It’s all the dress.” She objected weakly. “It’s gorgeous, Morgyn. Thank you.”
“Well, I do know a thing or two about dresses.” The spellcaster shrugged. “I considered wearing one myself, but I decided to let you be the belle of the ball tonight. Maybe I’ll wear one next time.” They added with a wink.
Belle of the ball. That was basically a princess, wasn’t it? Way to go and ruin it, Cordelia, she scolded herself inwardly.
“Anyway, there’s still one thing missing.” Morgyn continued, reaching into their suit jacket pocket. “This is no ordinary ball.”
She watched in horror as the sage covered their eyes with a mask.
“It’s a masquerade.”
Cordelia’s body froze, and not because of the snow. The masked hooded figures from that fateful night flooded her mind.
“Oh no… no… I can’t do that!” She blurted out, taking a step away from Morgyn. I’s ok, she told herself. Just because they’re wearing a mask doesn’t mean they’ll hurt you…
“What’s wrong?” The sage asked, tilting their head.
“I… I can’t explain it. It’s just… some memories.” Cordelia stumbled over her words.
Clearly her explanation didn’t really shed any light on the situation for Morgyn. “Have you been to a masquerade ball before?” The spellcaster asked.
“No.” She said truthfully.
Morgyn leaned in, touching her face. Cordelia suddenly felt very weak in the knees.
“Do you trust me?” The sage asked.
“Yes.” She said quietly, ignoring a mental image of Grace popping up in her mind to voice her concerns. There was no time for imaginary lectures. Cordelia decided to focus on Morgyn’s smile instead. Her response seemed to have pleased them.
“Good,” the spellcaster smiled. “It will be fun, I promise. Here.”
They helped Cordelia adjust her mask.
It will be fun, she repeated to herself as they approached the mansion. Forget the old memories. Time to make new ones.
It was easier said than done, of course. Accepting Morgyn in that mask was one thing, but dealing with an entire ballroom filled with masked guests?
Cordelia already felt uneasy at the sight of the first two party-goers she saw when they first entered.
They just seemed so… sinister. It’s all in your head, she told herself firmly. She tried not to stare at the couple while Morgyn spoke to the man at the reception to get their names checked off the guest list.
The couple have noticed her as well. “You look beautiful, dearie.” The woman said. Something about her voice made Cordelia’s skin crawl. “First party at the Von Haunt Estate?”
“Um, yes.” Cordelia nodded timidly. “Yours too?”
For some reason, the woman seemed to find that question hilarious. She was cackling so much she was unable to respond. Her companion said nothing.
Thankfully, Morgyn was done at the front desk and lead Cordelia through to the ball room. Although she couldn’t help but glance back at the woman, only to see her eyes following her.
It’s all in your head.
More masked people as they entered the room – naturally. Cordelia better get used to them. It did help that everyone was wearing suits and vibrant ballgowns. She pushed the visions of the hooded masked figures as far down as she could.
Morgyn took hold of her hand. She realised she had been shaking. “Are you alright?” The sage asked again.
The mask was making it difficult to read Morgyn’s face, but they did seem to be concerned for her. Cordelia scolded herself. This was the closest to an actual date they’d gotten, and she was ruining it.
“I’m fine.” She said quickly. “Just nervous.”
“Don’t be.” Morgyn tried to reassure her. “May I have a dance?”
“I… I don’t exactly know how to dance to this kind of music.” She confessed. Even if the masquerade ball wasn’t entirely out of her comfort zone, ballroom dancing was definitely not something she’d had any form of practice in.
“I’ll lead.” Morgyn told her. “You just… be an angel, like back outside.” Cordelia smiled softly, allowing herself to melt into the sage’s embrace. She would be just fine.
Cordelia wasn’t sure how long they’d danced for. Somehow, Morgyn managed to make her feel like she knew what she was doing. Her worries faded away.
“You’re a natural,” the spellcaster grinned at her. “Clearly you had nothing to be nervous about. Afraid I have to take a little break from the dancing though. If you’d excuse me for just a moment…”
“Sure,” Cordelia nodded. She couldn’t believe she truly was in a fairy tale with Morgyn tonight… Of course, once the sage left the room, her fears and memories crept right back in.
She tried her best to calm down. It’s just some people in masks. They’re just having a good time, like you.
She decided to wait for Morgyn at the bar. She sat down and ordered a drink, trying to compose herself. But suddenly, a feeling of inexplicable cold washed over her.
“Oh, fancy running into you again, dearie.” It was that woman from the beginning of the night. Cordelia instinctively drew away.
“What are you doing?” The man hissed at his companion quietly. She appeared to pay him no mind, making herself comfortable on the seat next to Cordelia.
“I haven’t been back here for a long while, but the Von Haunt Estate never disappoints.” The woman flashed her a smile. “The soirées here have always been extravagant affairs, and they haven’t let their standards down. And all these beautiful creatures around…”
Cordelia nodded, shifting in her seat uncomfortably. Would it be rude to leave the bar? The bartender hadn’t even finished making her drink yet.
“What’s the matter, darling?” The woman asked. She sounded so friendly, but Cordelia couldn’t help that strange feeling of dread… even L Faba did not make her this uncomfortable.
“This is distasteful,” the man mouthed to the strange woman. “And unnecessary.”
The woman just laughed. “Forgive my companion, he’s a little cranky. What do you call it these days, hangry? I’m getting a little peckish myself, I must admit. Perhaps I’ll go fetch myself a little starter to wet my appetite…”
“But… you’re at the bar?” Cordelia said weakly. “Wouldn’t this be the place to get a snack?” Perhaps not, she thought. What did she know about balls, anyway? Clearly a lot less than this woman.
Once again, the woman appeared amused by Cordelia’s words, a sharp laugh escaping her lips. She stood up.
“Yes, I suppose the bar is a good place to source refreshments.” She turned to the man. “Don’t you think, dear?”
And with that she walked away, leaving her alone with the man.
Cordelia didn’t like the way he was looking at her. Sure, she was suspicious of everyone around, with all those masks, but there was something off about his look she couldn’t place. She needed to get out of there.
She cleared her throat, rising from her seat. “Well, it was nice to meet you.”
She hurried out of the room, into the now empty reception. What was taking Morgyn so long? Every minute that ticked over in their absence here was making her more and more terrified.
It was then when she noticed she wasn’t on her own after all.
Brilliant, just like she needed any more reminders of that night now. Suspicious masked people, the sprites, she may as well be a child back in Gibbs Hill again, at those strange ritual grounds…
There was no way she was returning to the ballroom with that strange couple around, but frankly, she didn’t want to be around any of the masked guests anymore. She needed to be alone. She headed up the stairs, with the sprites dutifully following.
She found herself in an empty lounge, off the main staircase. Shaking her head, she let out a deep sigh. It was what she deserved, for making herself believe she’d be a princess tonight. She should have known the minute she slipped in the snow that it was never in the cards for her. She could never escape her past, it would always find a way to haunt her.
The sprites fluttered around her. They appeared especially agitated tonight, for some reason. “You and me both,” she mouthed at them. She decided to keep heading up.
The staircase led to a small balcony. The cold air greeted Cordelia as she opened the door. It appeared it was as high up as one could go in the Von Haunt Estate, but she could barely see the view. Her vision was blurred by the hot tears that came into her eyes.
She buried her face in the palms of her hands and started sobbing.
“I’ve been looking for you.” She jumped up at the voice, and the sight of a masked figure. Calm down, she told herself. It was just Morgyn.
“It’s almost midnight. Why did you leave the ballroom?” The sage asked. They noticed the sprites. “I see you have company. Is that why you’re crying?”
Cordelia dried her eyes quickly, forcing herself to smile. “I’m not crying.”
Morgyn drew closer, wrapping her in their arms for warmth. She leaned into them. Their embrace was warm. Safe.
“Cordelia, you’re a terrible liar.” Morgyn told her. “Not to mention you’re insulting my senses, I could clearly see and hear you crying. Will you tell me what’s going on?”
“I..” She looked at Morgyn’s face. “Sorry, would you mind taking the mask off?”
The sage obliged. “You’re really not a fan of the masquerade concept, are you? It’s no different than everyday life, you know. Everybody wears masks.”
Dandelion doesn’t, she thought. But that was beside the point.
“It’s not that.” Cordelia explained. “I… I just have some not so fond memories involving people in masks, that’s all.”
Morgyn frowned. “Does it have something to do with the sprites?”
She let out a sigh. “It has everything to do with the sprites…”
She finally told Morgyn about the strange ritual she interrupted, the masked people, the sprites making their claim on her, and her mother dying to protect her…
“And for what?” She finished her story, her voice turning bitter. “The sprites have been following me ever since anyway. She died for nothing… because of me…”
“It wasn’t your fault.” Morgyn said quietly.
“But it was, wasn’t it? If I hadn’t followed her that night…”
“What happened is terrible, but you can’t blame yourself for it,” the spellcaster told her. Their voice sounded kinder than usual, soft. Filled with something she hadn’t quite experienced with Morgyn so far; compassion.
“It was out of your control. Do you know what made me want to become the sage of the untamed? The prospect of having control. But even I don’t have control over everything. Yet.” Morgyn added with a sheepish grin. “Still, I will do everything in my control to help you with these sprites. I promise.”
The sage sounded sincere. The tone in which Morgyn made their promise gave Cordelia butterflies. Or sprites, clearly, she laughed to herself bitterly.
“Thanks, Morgyn. That means a lot.” She tried to smile.
Morgyn cupped her face in the palm of their hand. “You know I didn’t intend to bring up those memories by taking you here, do you? I didn’t mean to hurt you.”
“Of course.” She uttered quickly, hoping to sage the subject. Morgyn’s touch was sending shivers down her spine. “I… I don’t want to talk about it anymore. I just wish the sprites were in a better mood tonight. They seem really on edge.”
Morgyn leaned in closer. “Well, luckily we have enough knowledge to address that matter.”
“We do?” Cordelia’s head was spinning. Don’t mess this up, she pleaded with herself. It would be just like her to trip and fall and ruin the moment. If this even was a moment. She’d been wrong before, after all, at the romance festival.
“Of course, you’ve told me yourself. They like jokes, and mischief.” She could see a twinkle in Morgyn’s eyes. “And romance.”
The sage leaned in to whisper in her ear. “Let’s give them a good show.”