Evon knew he’d have to be suave, long before the night of the ball. Knew he’d have to hide his usual mannerisms, his speech patterns, his very identity. He'd practiced, both under the light of the sun and that of alchemical globes, as the seasons changed and the stars rearranged themselves in never before seen constellations, every minutia that comes so naturally to well-bred nobles. He'd learned how to walk with the right amount of poise, keeping some parts of his body tense while completely relaxing others. He’d learned how to see not the value or practicality of clothes, but rather the cut of the cloth, the quality of the fabric, and the dance of colors. He'd studied heraldry and mottos and ancestries and table manners. He’d listened to all kinds of music and practiced every dance in vogue that season.
And he'd assembled his outfit from the shops of a dozen of the city’s finest merchants, taking great care to ransack and burn down their places of business to cover his tracks. He’d been perfect, down to the smallest detail.
One did not rob a city otherwise.
His carriage left him in front of the villa's main entrance, its ornate double doors resting atop well-lit steps, like a crown on a monarch's brow. The seat of House Vael was one of the most magnificent buildings in all of Ashtry, only slightly outdone by the Lord Mayor’s own estate and, of course, Beacon Hill. Which explained why it had been built far from both, as close to the city walls as a noble family could tolerate. Evon had taken his time ascending those steps, cloaking himself in his persona's entitlement and privilege like a second skin. Until it fit like a glove. Until he could no longer tell where fiction ended and truth began. To the guards, he acted in true Ostravan fashion: presenting a facade that was in equal parts arrogance and well-masked unease. He tilted his chin upwards, for a trueborn noble would consider himself their better, yet kept his tone courteous and respectful towards those who were supposed to keep him safe. And, just like that, he was in.
The first moments went by in a haze of greetings and refreshments. Valets moved with quiet efficiency, taking his coat and providing him with a suitably colored mask. These valets wore their flowing capes as easily as their smiles, each banishing the evening’s shadows with blue flames that trembled in crystal cages. In a head-spinning moment, Evon found himself rushed through elegant hallways, decorated with portraits to past glories. Everything became little more than a blur as he was made to quicken his pace and was ushered, finally, into the lavish ballroom.
The lighting was kept purposefully dim, casting a soft glow on the lacquered pavement and frescoed walls. The same hue was repeated throughout the wide-open veranda that connected the inside of the manor with the outside gardens, dotted with alchemical lamps. The result was a grand illusion, a singular space extending from the sweeping dresses of society’s dàmes all the way to the tiny pinpricks of light hinting at the lush vegetation outside. As per the season's fashion, all dining tables were positioned on the veranda itself, so as to allow the crowd freedom of movement, on one hand while, on the other, some modicum of privacy to the couples strolling the gardens.
Yet, the true wonder was the floor itself. At first glance, it looked like someone had wrestled a rainbow from the skies and found a way to hold it captive in simple wood. But, as he made his way into the room proper, Evon realized it was a jigsaw puzzle. Albeit a huge one. At a certain point in time, a dozen or more artisans had labored day and night, making interlocking panels from different kinds of wood. They'd skipped meals, buffing and levigating the edges, giving each tassel the same height and width, the same smooth quality and finish. They'd lost most of their eyesight, laying the small canals that acted as rails for the movement of every piece, placing hinges and gears in just the right position and order to make sure no further work would need to be undertaken.
Then they had been dismissed, as the Lord of the House had called upon painters and engineers, the former to breathe the appearance of solid marble into the simple planks, the latter to understand the patterns of dance and song. The result was a marvel of extravagance: a floor that could be arranged to suit any and all kinds of dance.
"Red is the starting color for gentlemen. Green for the ladies. The lighter hues show the progression of steps one must take: all the way to pure white and black, respectively."
On instinct, Evon dug his nails deep within the flesh of his palm. It was one of the earliest tricks he'd learned, keeping his emotions in check through pain. It also doubled as a pretty effective assessment method of his own mental state. Judging from the blood drawn, he'd been better.
"Pardon?" He deliberately enunciated each syllable, turning to face the speaker as slowly as courtesy would allow. He found himself staring at the well-aged figure of the Master of Ceremonies, clearly identifiable by his bonnet and classical black attire.
"The color-coded tiles, sir," the man repeated, a smile both on his lips and in his voice, "I saw you studying them and concluded you were a stranger to their proper function. I hope I did not presume too much."
"Not at all. I pride myself in the knowledge of music and dance, but it is indeed the first time I've observed such a marvel."
"But of course, sir. House Vael is always striving to be at the forefront of innovation. This dance floor was the crown jewel of its more ‘mechanical’ period. Before the Revolution, you understand."
Evon nodded, sipping his wine as if such a remark didn't merit a full answer.
"Until the music starts again, I would suggest keeping oneself outside the white line. I wish you a pleasant evening, sir." with a bow, the Master of Ceremonies left.
Evon observed the man go out of the corner of his eye, making a mental note of his snow-white hair. The exchange had been invaluable, for it had both served as a warm-up and avoided him a potential embarrassment. He had the talent and, more importantly, the training to back it up. All of a sudden, the cuts in his palm seemed unnecessary.
He took the next few minutes to make a round of the whole room, meticulously memorizing the tiles and patterns, careful not to tread on the line that marked the dance floor. His mind worked through all the permutations, calling upon his knowledge of music to conjure up phantoms of precise steps and graceful movements, for it is one thing to read, another to see, and another yet to do. Occasionally, he would spot a lone group of tiles rearranging themselves and would adjust the projections in his head accordingly, sparing no thought for the inner workings of the mechanism beneath his feet. He was careful to spend some time on the veranda too, so as not to look like a slack-jawed country noble, ignorant of the ways of the city. Luckily for him, a row of chairs was arranged all around the room, a few scant inches from the walls, for etiquette dictated that any lady who wished to dance, and whose dance card was yet to be filled, was to wait in the wings. Thus, Evon masked his third and fourth rounds with undeniable charm and witty humor, bowing and smiling from one dàme to the next. He was always friendly, knowing exactly how to compliment each lady's clothing and hairstyle, commenting on the radiance of their skin and the cut of their jewels. To those who sported their heraldry, he would work his admiration for their House into the conversation, professing his deep love for their homeland or profession of choice. Once or twice he was the target of baleful - and sometimes downright hostile - stares, for nothing upsets a nobleman quite so much as his charge - be it sister or betrothed - laughing and smiling with a debonair stranger. Yet Evon was always respectful, careful not to show any undue interest, and quick to move on when needed. He kept his movements and words as pleasant and vague as his persona, and thus avoided being subject to any sort of questioning or prolonged conversation. His existence was forgotten as quickly as the hostility he'd garnered.
"A pleasure to see you again, milord. I trust the evening is proceeding well?" The white-haired Master smiled and bowed at his approach.
"Not entirely," Evon answered. He kept his words clipped and his figure turned slightly askew as if contemplating the event as a whole.
"Oh? That is regrettable. May I provide some assistance?"
The right kind of smile, a tone of subservience laced with genuine concern... Evon appreciated good acting when he saw it.
"Actually," he accosted the man, dropping his tone to a conspiratorial low, "you may. I have been looking for a very special lady. Masks being what they are, it has proven impossible for me to find her."
"Quite understandable, sir. It would be a pleasure to point you in the right direction."
It wasn't clear whether the older gentleman’s excitement was genuine or simply the result of the gold coin now pressing against his breast pocket. Either way, Evon's breathing relaxed: with a simple question, he'd justified both his affectations and his touring the ballroom. Not bad, if he said so himself.
"The Lady Vera Duarte. She intrigues me."
Had his interlocutor stiffened? Just for a moment, perhaps?
"An… interesting choice, milord. An interesting House to be sure," the Master said.
A mistake, then. He'd touched upon something society had chosen to pretend didn't exist. Not an optimal outcome, but time was of the essence. There were only so many hours in one night, after all.
"It is not the House that interests me." Evon leaned heavily on each word, willing the man to understand the implications. Or at least to construe some of his own.
"I see. Well, all I can say is, foxes have been known to travel the gardens at this hour."
With that, the Master of Ceremonies bowed and melted back into the crowd. He didn't see Evon head to the garden straight away, each stride infused with singular purpose. He didn't see him discard his mask as soon as he'd turned a corner, donning a new one he produced from his robes.
In the mansion’s dim light, Evon’s grin was so feral it might as well have belonged to the wolf whose guise he now wore.