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Wichapi and Brenzel picked up Iris’ trail the next morning after asking around at the carriage drivers. One, a reserved man named Cornelius, said that he had been hired to take a young gentleman and his lady, one matching Brenzel’s description, to Burghley House.

His next words both comforted and alarmed her heart, “There’s to be a masquerade ball of special significance on the morrow.”

So that’s why she went, hopefully.

Wichapi thanked the man and handed him a gold coin. The man bowed low, obviously very grateful.

“That was nice of you,” Brenzel said as they walked away.

“I’m learning,” her friend smiled, taking her arm.

***

It took all day to find clothes for the masquerade. Brenzel felt dizzy from popping in and out of alleyways in London. Wichapi began to look tired, too, and became short with the people they met. Several shopkeepers took umbrage to her curt manner and said so.

“Why, mind your manners and place!” one woman said as Wichapi glowered at her.

“Please ma’am, my servant means no disrespect,” Brenzel interjected, “we are in need of these dresses for a ball at Burghley Manor this evening.”

Upon hearing that name and seeing their coin, the woman quieted and apologized.

For a sizeable sum, the lady of the shop called extra workers. But even with that additional help, it was near evening when the finally finished their costumes.

“Here,” Wichapi said, hanging a bag of coins to the dressmaker, “it is too heavy to carry.”

The woman, seeing the amount of sovereigns in the bag, almost fell over.

***

In an instant, Wichapi and Brenzel both stood on the grass lawn of the estate, watching carriages rolling up and depositing guests at the front of the enormous Tudor mansion. Gaiety filled the air as people entered the ball.

One of the carriages, after leaving their patrons, circled around and picked up Brenzel and Wichapi, depositing them on the steps of the party.

“I’m nervous,” Brenzel said as they both moved up behind men and women to be announced. She looked around as she ascended the stairs in a lavish, violet dress, face fully covered, volto style.

Wichapi’s mask was pierrot style, porcelain white in color, with small red lips and black eyes. It was mysterious, showing no committed expression. Brenzel smiled as she looked at her. That’s definitely Wichapi, she thought. Though Wichapi’s gown was equally as elaborate, her dress, in black and while, pained in magnificence to Brenzel’s.

“They have invitations!” Brenzel gasped as she watched the people in front of them.

“Your invitation, madam,” the butler said in monotone as Brenzel and Wichapi stepped up.

Turning her porcelain features to the indifferent man, Wichapi simply said, “Thank you.”

The servant, momentarily confused, suddenly bowed, “Enjoy your evening, ladies.” Then he turned to the next in line.

Youre handy, Brenzel thought, as they entered the ball arm in arm.

***

Music played, people danced on the main floor, while others chatted as they sat at tables. Brenzel looked up at two sets of stairs leading to another floor. Men and women ascended them, engaged in various intimacies which seemed to increase as they neared the top.

“How will we find her?” Brenzel asked, leaning over to Wichapi. “It’s a masquerade ball!”

“Start talking to people,” Wichapi said, looking around.

Brenzel’s small-talk skills, which were practically nonexistent to begin with, soon wore thin as she tried her best to mingle. But to her surprise, everyone treated her with respect, and she soon adopted an air of borrowed refinement.

“Oh, never mind,” Brenzel told one young lady, “tonight is about gaiety and, if you are lucky, perhaps more. Let us not talk of anything else.”

No, not her, that was not her daughter. She smiled and walked away.

Moving up the stairs, Brenzel looked down into the crowd, trying to gauge her daughter’s height and form from above. Reaching out in her mind, like Komae had taught her, she tried to feel those around her, their mood, even their thoughts. At first, all she picked up on was confusion, a jumble of feelings; nervousness, boredom, mirth, sexual tension…

Suddenly, she felt someone struggling in her mind, unsure, conflicted, out of place. Picking up her dress, Brenzel moved further up the stairs, reaching out, feeling her way through the people. She found herself in a hallway, dimly candlelit, where a man and a woman kissed.

Taking her mask off to see more clearly, Brenzel saw Iris’ upturned face, hesitantly kissing a tall man. She fought the urge to call out as she saw her daughter repeatedly take the man’s wandering hands off her buttocks.

Brenzel felt Wichapi come up beside her, taking her arm. She put on her mask and walked forward with her, approaching Iris and her partner.

“No, I don’t want to! Stop,” Iris said, pulling away. The young redhead tried to push away from the man, but he was too strong.

“I want you, why deny me?” he said.

Anger rising on her face, Iris raised her foot, stomping on his toes, causing the man to jump back in pain. She turned to flee. However, he quickly recovered and grabbed her, pulling her roughly back. In a flash, Iris turned to look at Brenzel and Wichapi, fear and terror in her eyes.

“Stop!” Brenzel said with a growl as she approached the man.

The man looked at her with raised eyebrows, “Stop what? This is none of your affair woman! Be gone!”

“Please, help me!” Iris said, still struggling to get away.

Wichapi stood still, saying nothing.

Brenzel walked up and took Iris by the hand. “This lady does not welcome your attention. Unhand her at once!”

Looking into Brenzel’s eyes, the man drew back, snarling, “Who do you think you are?”

“Take Iris away,” Wichapi said, approaching, “I will deal with this Wasichu.”

“Wichapi?” Iris said, looking at the porcelain-faced woman.

The man stiffened and ceased to speak.

Wichapi turned to Iris. “Yes, it’s me. And it’s time for you to go. My friend will escort you. Wait downstairs with her.”

I don’t know why I came

Iris nodded.

Brenzel felt a flow of emotions rush through her mind and body – both good and bad – as she held onto her daughter’s arm. It was the first time she’d touch her baby since that awful day, so long ago. Now, finding her in this situation was distressing, but saving her from that lout, that felt good… like a mother. Everything within her wanted to unmask herself and hold Iris, the longing was almost unbearable.

Iris stopped mid stairs, arranged her hair, and said sternly, “How’d she find me?”

Brenzel said nothing.

“Who are you?” Iris demanded.

There it was again, that high-handed, snotty, commanding tone, the one Brenzel had first heard outside her bedroom with Joshua.

“Someone you shouldn’t trifle with,” Brenzel said in commanding tone. “Your servant went to great lengths to find you. Be grateful for her attentions.”

Calming down, Iris continued slowly down the stairs and sighed, “I don’t even know why I came…”

last mask

As they reached the main floor, a woman screamed. Brenzel turned just as a man dropped from the second story balcony, hitting the marble floor with a dull thud. Men and woman upstairs rushed to look over the balustrade, while those below scurried in all directions.

As they did, a woman in a white porcelain mask approached the upstairs railing slowly and stood, looking down, head tilting slightly.

SEOIB.