This Masquerade

With thanks to Elyse, Kate, Liz and Zebulon, for their varied and objective beta-reading skills!

The bustling crowd nearest the south entrance turned as one towards the door, detecting the arrival of someone of importance: no matter who, for their attention was never held for long.

"It is Lady Blakeney and Lady Ffoulkes," a princess announced to the obligatory shepherdess amongst the masked faces.

"Unattended, once again," came a dry observation.

"It is no wonder," a flower seller chimed in, shifting her basket of posies from one arm to the other. "I imagine their lords have already grown quite tired of play-acting!"

"But doesn't Lady Blakeney look beautiful?"

This contrary statement was spoken by a young gallant, whose costume had already caused much hilarity and was felt sure to be mentioned in the society papers, as he had donned the livery of a recently disgraced earl. Flower seller, shepherdess and princess rolled their eyes in his direction, and then pointedly looked away again.

"She carries herself well, to be sure," one of the privileged females admitted, "but a domino is terribly tedious – I should have thought she might have put a little more effort into it."

"And red doesn't really go with her hair, does it, Sophia?"

"I fear the hue is probably meant to be scarlet," the flower seller sneered, "as I hear her crowd is closely linked to the League of the Pimpernel."

"Oh, pish!" Sophia dismissed the rumour with a toss of her bejewelled head: "Sir Percy in the same breath as the Pimpernel, let alone the same crowd – why, it's laughable!"

"I said Lady Blakeney's crowd," the other fired back; " 'tis hardly the same thing, for I doubt Sir Percy would recognise his wife without the mask and cloak."

The three ladies crowed behind politely raised hands, until they realised that the butt of their humour was weaving ever closer through the throng.

"Oh, how long 'til the Supper Rooms are opened?" Sophia opined rather loudly, sweeping her glittering skirts in the opposite direction. "Lord Hastings, please do accompany us to a refreshment table."

Hastings, with an apologetic glance over his shoulder, grudgingly raised his arm to take the hand of his father's goddaughter. He managed to catch Marguerite's teasing smile and Suzanne's playful shooing gesture before turning to look where he was being hastily piloted.

"Poor Lord Hastings," Marguerite whispered into her friend's ear, "I fear he's rather intimidated by royalty."

"Quand on parle du loup," Suzanne murmured, tapping the arm linked through her own to direct her friend's attention to a figure approaching through the crowd.

The Prince of Wales, dressed rather predictably as the Sun King, was steering his basic entourage towards them, causing the masked guests around to him to bend like corn stalks in a breeze. He stopped short before Marguerite, just that little bit too close, as was his wont.

"I know you," he drawled the traditional greeting of a masque; "I should know those eyes anywhere, as they haunt my very dreams."

Marguerite took a slow, imperceptible breath as if to brace herself, and then rose from her low curtsy. "And I you, sir," she returned in the same fashion, although it was useless to even pretend that the Prince's identity could ever be disguised.

"I haunt your dreams?" he whispered with theatrical awe, leaning in close towards her ear to avoid anybody overhearing.

Marguerite gave a practiced smile, but said nothing.

"And Lady Ffoulkes upon your arm!" he announced, reaching for Suzanne's extended hand. "But how delightful! I shall forgive the absence of your lords and masters, as their loss is certainly my gain!" The gentlemen of his suite, and a handful of people about them, laughed politely at his comic display of delight.

Marguerite, who knew that he would take her arm, released her hold on Suzanne's elbow. The Prince, however, took a step backwards, his hasty movement rippling amongst his attendants: he was appraising her.

"Mmm," he mumbled through pursed lips, his arms crossed and a finger held to his mouth. "A red – no! – a scarlet domino! How devilish of you!" he beamed. "And how it suits you!"

Marguerite dipped in a gentle curtsy. "Your Highness is too kind."

"Come, let's find some refreshment," he commanded, raising her gloved hand to his lips before snaking her arm through his.

Marguerite shot a meaningful glance at Suzanne, as if to say, I think he means 'More refreshment'! Suzanne, biting down on the inside of her mouth, followed on a little behind her friend.

"Do you see what I mean about scarlet being her colour?" Sophia hissed to her now somewhat unwilling audience, as the Prince's refreshed retinue swept past. Hastings sighed into his glass of port before quickly gulping down the contents. "No discreet lover for her, she flirts with the Prince!"

"Madame!" Lord Hastings barked, a little louder and harsher than he had intended. Sophia's green eyes flew wide open at his tone. He took a breath before adding in a hoarse whisper: "Please try to act with the dignity befitting your own role, and not the common behaviour of Lady Calverley's costume!"

Her eyes shot to the flower seller. "I - I was only giving voice to what everyone must think," she stammered.

"Then pray keep silent for a moment, and let people think," he snapped back, huffing another sigh. Letting the moment for an instant apology and retraction of his words slip by, Hastings, swilling the dregs in the bottom of his glass, mumbled something about craving the ladies' pardon before disappearing into the crowd.

"Oh dear!" Lady Calverley said airily. "Another falls prey to the scarlet domino."

"Do hush!" Sophia hissed, staring after the retreating figure of the masked footman as he followed in the wake of the Prince.