The air is thick with laughter. Elizabeth feels a strange buzzing in her head as she moves to the music, a combination of the heady atmosphere, she suspects, and the even headier wine. The minuet comes to an end and she is grateful to prise her hand from the sweaty grip of Mr Fourcade – he may be in costume, but there's only so much a mask and cloak can do to hide a girth that large. She manages to scuttle away from the dance floor before the next dance begins and she is grateful that she is in a full costume: no one but the servants know what she looks like tonight. She signals to the footmen by the French windows to open them for her, so that she might find some brief respite in the Caribbean night.
It is Elizabeth's eighteenth birthday. It is ironic, she thinks, that no one here (probably not even her father, she thinks, spitefully) knows who she is. Her debut was several months before, and a much more tasteful affair, one she had not thought she would look back on with fondness. But now, now she longs for the stiff, ever present British courtesy and propriety. Several times tonight she has had to avert her eyes from shameful sights that she never needed to have seen. As the footmen moved to obey her wish, she caught sight of her reflection in one of the wall mirrors. What she sees both delights and dismays her. She is wearing a gown of deceptively innocent blue, trimmed with silver brocade – a strange mockery of the Navy uniforms that she is so used to. The décolletage she is revealing was designed to shock and appal her father. It saddens her that he didn't even notice, that he didn't seem to care enough to notice. The "back-up" gown still hung forlornly in her room. The mask she wore was silver, cut ornately so that only her mouth showed – the finishing touch were the plumes of blue feathers, in all shades, sprouting from one corner of the mask and weaved into her dark hair. She looked like a woman now. She looked like a temptress. She didn't recognise herself.
The doors swung open at last and the relief was immediate. Loud and garish sounds and sights made way for the blue and pink of the evening over Port Royal. Elizabeth set down her glass and fan upon the stone railing of the balcony, leaning her weight onto her arms. After twenty minutes or so, long enough for three dances to finish, she became aware of someone moving behind her. The figure lingered for the entire length of another song, before Elizabeth finally lost her patience, turning to the man and gesturing for him to join her. Propriety had never been one of her strong suits. As he drew alongside her, Elizabeth took in his costume. He was wearing a simple black dress suit, providing a strange contrast to the white mask he wore. He was wearing, what she thought was, a Venetian Bauta mask – she shuddered inwardly, trying to quash her dislike of masks.
The silence between the two was surprisingly amicable for such a seemingly strange pairing. The music carried on playing vaguely in the background but seemed to be diminished by the sounds of crickets and tree frogs to the two listeners. After a short while it became clear that one of the two should break the silence, and so it was that both turned to speak at the same time. Elizabeth bowed her head as demurely as she could and asked to be allowed to speak first, which the gentleman of course consented to.
"Forgive me if I speak out of turn, but just for tonight, let us be equals: would you like to dance?" Before the man could speak again, she blustered on, "Out here, on the balcony?" Elizabeth felt the discomfort bout the mask, as she had before, wished she could see his thoughts play across his features, and know what he was thinking.
"Of course, madam." The man said, as she hoped he would, had known he would. He holds himself out to her and she moves into the embrace of the masked stranger. And they dance. They dance not to the fashionable tune emanating from the house but to the sounds of Port Royal at night, footsteps falling in time with chirps and squawks. He breaks the silence this time.
"Why are you dancing with me, madam? Why not enjoy the company of those indoors?"
"I tire of the situation and fear what other awful, carnal sights might be inflicted upon me, should I cross the threshold again." She retorts, and feels a strange tight, coiling sensation in her chest when he laughs. She is oddly pleased with herself for having achieved this small feat. She goes on to describe the grotesque cinch she found Mrs Fourcade in, with a man who was undoubtedly not her husband, and she is rewarded with another laugh.
"So tell me, good sir, why you are in my company, and mine alone?" She almost regrets this when she says it, almost. It seems to imply something darker than she is comfortable, but he does not falter in her rhythm, so neither does she.
"The same as you, I suppose. I came only to wish the birthday girl my best." There is a long pause when they focus on nothing but dancing, and Elizabeth tries to memorise how it feels to be held by a man. A man who is in good health and somewhat nearer her age than most bachelors in Port Royal. Their song seems to draw to a close, the nightlife seeming to quieten, much to her annoyance, and the couple find themselves slowing. Elizabeth finds she can't yet bring herself to let go of his hands, and so they stand there, longer than they should, standing, as if frozen in their dance.
"You look beautiful tonight, Elizabeth." He stumbles over his words, spoken so loudly that they are almost carried off by the sounds of the party. She smiles genuinely and thanks him – she is pleased he knows her. It is time to retire to her rooms, she thinks. The man bows and turns to walk off into the darkness of the gardens. She can't help herself, and she calls after him, feeling foolish:
"Goodnight! And thank you," He turns to look at her again, "Thank you, James." He pulls off the mask and she knows it is him. He smiles at her before being swallowed by the dark.
It is strange Elizabeth thinks how stuffy, uptight James Norrington should only be unmasked as the man beneath, through the conduit of his masquerade.