Excerpt from “A Boy Bewitched”
Chapter Twenty-Four of The Winding Maze
James’s hands shake as he fastens his mask behind his head. He curses himself, fumbling with the simple knot and nearly losing the modest black eye mask altogether. The sound of revelry drifts out into the vestibule from beyond the propped double doors to Rowland’s royal receiving room, where stiff drinks and expensive appetizers are no doubt being carted around en masse. He fidgets with the gold hem of his cloak, wishing he’d thought to eat something. Beneath the brass buttons of his soldier’s uniform, his stomach gives a low growl.
He hates the Harvest Festival. He always has. The entire thing is an extravagant farce, where the upper elite spends the night celebrating a hard summer’s work—as if they’d been the ones toiling in the fields or braving the summer squalors for a net of wriggling fish. The masks are worn as part of an elaborate and indulgent parlor game. Each year, Rowland has a new mask furnished, expensive and gleaming and adorned with a variety of baubles. Each year, the men and women of the court pretend as if they’re unaware which is the king among them, as a drunk and reeling Rowland stumbles through the crowds and whispers lewd suggestions to the ladies.
Beyond the door comes a brassy laugh, the sound of someone already several drinks too deep. James scowls at the sliver of firelight that slips out into the darkened hall, wishing he could be anywhere but here. He thinks of a cavern, the moonlight turning the dark to blue, and the murmur of an old lullaby echoing across the stone. His chest turns tight, his stomach sour.
“Are you planning to cower out here all night?”
James turns, his teeth on edge, to find a masked and grinning Corporal Anderson at the far end of the hall. He is dressed nearly identical to James, gold cloaked and liveried. The only distinctions between them are the two curling barbs of ivory set at the top of his mask.
“Fitting,” James notes, gesturing to the horns.
Anderson’s grin widens. “You seem calm for a man hurtling down the path of self-destruction.”
“Believe it or not, I have bigger things to contend with tonight than you.” The words come out more bitter than James intended. He does his best to ignore the gleeful way Anderson’s dark eyes glitter beneath his mask.
“I do hope you’re planning on attending tonight.” Anderson tugs at the cuff of his sleeve. “I wouldn’t want you to miss a moment of the festivities. I’ve prepared something exciting for you. I think you’ll like it.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“I arranged for the mummers to put on a small performance in your honor. You know how much Rowland enjoys a good charade during the festival.”
James says nothing as Anderson paces several steps closer across the dimly lit hall.
“It’s a love story.” The Guardian circles James in an arc, his footfalls strident against the silence that strings across the dark like a web. “A poor boy in a gold mask falls for a blue-eyed witch. She uses old magics to ensnare him, seduce him, and make him do her bidding. Bewitched, he kills off each of his gold cloaked companions one by one.”
“You’re way out of line.”
“Am I? I think His Majesty will rather enjoy it.”
James stares without blinking into the dark of the hall ahead as Anderson circles behind him. He thinks of a shark drawn to blood, the dorsal fin cutting through waters churned red.
“Whatever game you’re playing, I don’t want a part in it.”
“Oh, this isn’t a game, James. It’s a threat.” The smile in Anderson’s voice is chilling. “Here’s a question—where’s Henry Masters?”
“How would I know?”
Anderson clicks his tongue in reproach. “He’s your inferior officer, isn’t he? He missed every one of his last few shifts. That’s not just irresponsible, it’s insubordinate. But you don’t seem to care.” He draws to a stop directly in front of James, his hands clasped in the small of his back. “Do you want to know what I think?”
“No,” James assures him.
“I think he followed you and you killed him. I think you shot him dead the same way you fired that gun from the turrets when the gypsy witch was escaping the palace.”
“It sounds like you’ve got a lot of interesting theories.”
“They’re more than theories,” Anderson fires back.
“Is that so?” James permits himself a humorless smile. “Do you have proof?”
Silence settles between them as they square off beneath the coffered ceiling. For a moment, the only sounds in the hall are the tinkling of piano keys and the muffled rise and fall of conversation.
James scoffs. “That’s what I thought. Now get out of my face.”
Anderson’s response is scathing, the contempt in his words unmistakable. “Yes, sir.” He heads for the door, the bar of light from the opening cutting across his face in a strip of gold. “Enjoy the show, General. I know I will.”
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