Incendium

The last feast of winter was a masquerade.

After the servants had dressed him, the prince of Calladon stood before the looking glass in his chamber. He wore the costume of a pagan river god. Its blue tunic and cloak were trimmed with lace to evoke the froth of cataracts. His mask had a swirling beard beneath an azure face. Edwin studied the porcelain guise in the mirror.

It was rigid and smooth, revealing no hint of what lay beneath.

He took it off. He put it on. He took it off. He put it on.

And he realized he could see no difference.

He was late meeting his bride-to-be in the antechamber of the banquet hall. Aishling all but threw herself into Edwin's arms. "My love, you look glorious!" She ran her hands over the folds of his costume. Her own gown evoked the image of a Naiad. It had the same blue cloth and lace, though more flowing and diaphanous than Edwin's. "What a splendid pair we'll make!"

"Most splendid, my darling," said Edwin, giving her a kiss. "Be careful. You don't want to ruin your dress when it looks so radiant on you."

"Does it indeed?" she asked, stepping away and giving him a slow spin. The gown set elegantly upon her well-formed figure. Her golden hair was done up in a series of elaborate curls cascading over one shoulder. The color of her clothing brought out the exquisite blue of her eyes.

Yet the sight of her kindled no spark in the void at Edwin's center.

He made a show of drawing in a deep breath. "You're so beautiful it hurts my heart to look upon you."

Aishling gasped and held a hand to her mouth. "Oh, my prince."

Edwin took her hands and kissed her once more. "Come, we should go in." He put on his mask and gestured to hers. "May I?"

"Of course, my darling," said Aishling. She lifted it to her face as he stepped behind her to fasten it. Then he offered his arm and she threaded hers through it.

"After all," he said as he led her to the banquet hall doors, "this is the anniversary of the day you first arrived in Calladon."

"You remembered!" said Aishling with delight.

He smiled at her. "I'll never forget that first sight of you riding through the city as long as I live."

In truth, he only vaguely remembered the day. They'd been betrothed when he was a small boy. His father had grown weary from years of battle with neighboring Pendor and treated with the Pendorian king. The compact was sealed with Edwin and Aishling's engagement. With peace had come prosperity and abundance. The coffers of the kingdom had grown full. Trade flourished and the realm thrived. The princess had come to live in Calladon's capital a few years later so that she might learn the customs of the people who would one day call her queen.

"You know what this signifies, my love?" said Aishling as they approached the doorway. "My birthday is only half a year away."

"And then we shall be wed," said Edwin warmly as the guardsmen opened the tall doors.

The great chamber stretched the length of barley fields—its edges ornately gilded, its windows large and artfully colored, its walls hung with the most intricate tapestries, its ceiling lavishly painted with scenes from story and legend. Nobles of court and country crowded together, their brilliant costumes creating a moving mosaic upon the marble floor. Laughter and voices and the clink of metal goblets filled the air.

The king and queen sat at the center of the main table. Edwin's father wore the same costume he had every year since the masquerades began. The hippocamp was the faerie creature depicted on Calladon's royal coat-of-arms, its upper half the body of a horse, its lower half the tail of a fish. A porcelain horse head arched over the king's pate like a helmet. The cloak he wore was brown cloth down to his waist, where it became a train of tiny scales, their burnished tin shining in the firelight. The train was long and awkward and had to be held by two squires coming behind the king when he moved about. Edwin suspected the reason his father favored the costume was the excuse it gave him to avoid dancing.

He and Aishling, on the other hand, went straight to the center of the floor and stepped directly into the twirling dance. A grand event was planned for their wedding in the summer, and they were the focus of every eye, the talk of every tongue. When they paused to drink some wine, the ladies of the court drew up eagerly to converse with the princess while the lords gathered around Edwin. He endured the attention with practiced skill, glad he had a mask other than his face to hide behind that night.

In the waning hours of the celebration, when the guests began to thin, Aishling pulled Edwin in the direction of a deserted corridor. The two knights who'd been discretely watching over them followed behind. Aishling smiled at the older of them. "Mightn't you allow us a few moments to ourselves, Malcolm?"

Sir Malcolm nodded to her. "I think I could manage to lose sight of you for a bit, Your Highness." The grizzled knight winked knowingly at Edwin.

Edwin's mask concealed his grimace. He reluctantly allowed Aishling to lead him down the corridor. In a darkened alcove, she folded herself into his arms. She took off his mask and hungrily pressed her lips to his. She was as soft and delicate as a doe in his embrace. While this engendered a sense of tenderness in Edwin, it fell far short of passion. Even so, he amicably returned the play of her mouth.

"Do I not stir your blood, my love?" she whispered into his ear. "Do you not yearn for our wedding night as I do?"

"Of course I do," said Edwin.

"Perhaps we need not wait," said Aishling. She squeezed his thigh between her legs and began rubbing herself against him. It reminded Edwin of the way someone rubbed an itchy scab. He suppressed a shudder of disgust.

Aishling looked into his eyes, and her face fell. He realized she'd glimpsed the emptiness within him. He forced his mouth into a commiserating smile and, gently but firmly, moved her to arm's length. "Come, we should return to the feast."

"Yes, of course," she said. "Please forgive me." Edwin thought he saw tears threaten from her eyes.

"There's nothing to forgive, my love," said Edwin, taking her arm. "I know myself how much honor chafes. I feel the pinch of it as much as you."

That night, Edwin lay awake staring at his chamber ceiling. He listened to the lonely sound of his breath in the dark and wondered if Aishling were crying herself to sleep on the other side of the palace.