I arrived into a relaxed and convivial atmosphere of wellbeing and contentment. Though it was cold it was a fine, dry night and small knots of people were gathered on the grass around the fountain, talking and laughing, drinks in their hands. The small trees were decorated with lights, the same crystalline clusters that hung above the entrance and through the waters of the fountain more lights shone, casting glows of soft yellows and reds onto the night-time gray of the lawn. Music played, seductive and haunting; loud enough to provide a comfortable background but not so loud as to inhibit conversation. It seemed that the party was, if not hosted by all the residents, then at least sanctioned by everyone as most of the doors were open, spilling light and warmth and chatter out into the square.
I received an immediate impression of exclusivity, of sophistication and wealth; the drinks sipped by people who knew their limits, who would likely not be decorating the garden later with the regurgitated contents of their glasses. Everyone I saw looked to be above twenty at least, some of them, at the further end of the scale, possibly crowding fifty. They were having fun, but I could see there was networking going on; they’d come to see and be seen, to impress and rouse envy with delicate hints about the various concrete evidences of their success. I heard snatches of conversations, people referencing their costumes in context. A fair few seemed to be staying in character, making arch comments to show-off their wit and good taste.
Their assured arrogance roused the snob in me, angered me and made me feel completely out of place. My costume was barely a costume whereas even in the low light theirs looked expensive and well designed. Also, not one of them was dirty, as I was and felt, subject to glances of surprised contempt whenever one of the guests deigned to look my way. I pushed on regardless, making for the promise of warmth offered by the nearest open door.
Inside, all three floors had been cleared and opened up for the party. Low sofas lined the walls, cushions dotted the polished wood floors, and at each level there were long buffet tables piled with snacks and drinks.
I took up a glass, found a wall to lean against and watched them, wondering what in hell I thought I was doing. What am I hoping to find? I asked myself. What’s the point of this? They moved around me, those beautiful people. A woman dressed as a moth shimmered in dark silks, hair caught in a silver-net away from her face. Her friend seemed to have come as Ophelia. A long white gown brushed the floor at her feet and her fair hair was twined with the tendril stems of wildflowers. A wizard stood with them, too young for his impressive eyebrows and trailing beard.
A man excused himself to pass them, laughing and toting a tray full of tall glasses. They called out to him as he executed an elegant turn, without spilling a drop, setting down the tray on the table nearby. He was turning away again when a woman approached from the right. She was beautiful, warm and serene in velvet that hugged her body. She touched his arm and he smiled, passing her one of the tall glasses from the tray.
I moved off from where I’d stood, took to wandering again. Strange how alone you can feel, in a place so full of people. The lights seemed dimmer, the music slower. It took on the rhythm of a sleeping heart; hesitant as a catch of anxious breath. Around me the costumed party-goers seemed to shine more brightly, become more solid and awe-inspiring; the fancy-dress losing its feel of make-believe and becoming something else. A feeling in my mind began to grow, an uncomfortable feeling, like being watched.
And it was at this point a movement caught my eye and held it: A woman smiling and raising her glass in a toast to someone beyond my line of sight; Zacharius’ daughter.