Seto sighed in annoyance, glaring at the ridiculous outfit his brother's maid had lain out on the dressing chair. Said brother was perched on the corner of the bed, watching with a smile. He knew how much Seto didn't want to wear it.
"Don't look like that," Mokuba said. "You have to go. The king requires it."
Seto frowned, picking up the mask. The half-mask was blue, with silver and green sparkles forming a fan pattern from the bridge of the nose. The shape was that of a long-nosed paramour caricature. The accompanying green hat held two long pheasant feathers trailing from the right side of the band. The outfit was a white shirt under a green vest with matching pants, blue stockings and shoes, and a white tailcoat. Not too different from his own normal dress, except it was ludicrously loud and colorful, as well as with the stupid hat.
"It's a costume party," Mokuba reminded him. "Everyone's wearing something like that."
Seto grumbled under his breath, but reluctantly changed. Once he had put everything on, including the mask and hat, Mokuba grinned, clearly trying not to laugh. Seto glared, promising death.
"Things like this are only for the lazy and vapid," Seto said. "If I were king, I'd make sure people spent their time more wisely."
Mokuba's smiled faded and he looked worried, gaze darting around the room. "Don't say things like that! People might think it's treason."
Seto scowled, but shut his mouth. King Aknamkanon might be a fair and widely-beloved ruler, but his regime was still renowned for being unforgiving of traitors and criminals. For his brother's sake, at least he could hold his tongue.
Mokuba looked at the clock on the mantel. "It's almost three. The carriage is going to be here soon."
He was stuck for it. The king's annual costume ball was mandatory for at least one adult member of any household in the kingdom with noble blood. Seto and Mokuba's father had passed away the previous winter, following their mother, who had died a few years previously, making Seto the head of the household. Thankfully their late mother and father had both been of noble lineage in good standing, leaving them both cared for.
Seto headed to the ground floor of the mansion, and outside to await the carriage that was making it's way up the road. Mokuba waved when he got inside and it took off again. He settled in for the long ride. Their land lay closer than most to the castle, but it was still nearly five hours by carriage. If not for the dust and sweat of horseback, he would have ridden his favored mount. He could get there by three hours if he'd been allowed to his own devices.
At long last the carriage was pulling up to the grandiose palace. Seto exited the carriage, ignoring the attendant, and entered the castle. In the ball room, he headed down the stairs to the floor, wondering how long he had to stay before he could leave.
The ball room was grand, lit by three giant chandeliers with dozens of flickering candles and glittering crystals. Torches lined the four walls in their sconces and the enormous fireplace roared with flames. Several long tables forming a rectangle stood on a dais against one wall, ready for the banquet later in the evening. No one was sitting yet, and instead were out on the floor, mingling and dancing to the orchestra in one corner. No one would sit to eat until the king arrived.
Seto reluctantly headed to the floor, dodging the advances of several women and ignoring the greetings of other men. He went to stand near the entrance to the garden terrace where he could at least get some fresh air from the overwhelming miasma of perfumes. From that spot he could watch everything closely and make it undeniably clear he wasn't going to participate in the night's festivities. Nevertheless, some of the stupider women came over to try and chat him up. Seto rebuffed them all callously, angering some, frightening some, and upsetting one so much she began to cry. Seto smiled thinly as she ran off, sobbing, ignoring the looks he got from the other attendees.
"That's no way to make friends," a voice murmured at his elbow.
Seto turned. Behind a glittering purple-and-gold butterfly opera mask and matching ball gown was an older woman, her hair powdered and coiffed into a towering beehive of curls. She lowered her mask on its stem and smiled. Her face was pleasant and friendly, like a treasured grandmother's. The twinkle in her green eyes said she was amused by Seto's actions, rather than bothered.
"Maybe I don't want friends," Seto countered.
The old woman smiled and lifted her mask back up. "Maybe you don't want them, but everyone needs them, especially if they have position and money. Of course, when you have position and money, even friends can turn into enemies."
"So it's better not to have them."
The woman chuckled softly. "Maybe so. I'm Alexandra de Corbain, aunt of the Duchess of York."
She curtsied elegantly, and Seto reluctantly bowed and introduced himself. Alexandra nodded.
"I was sorry to hear of your father's passing."
She seemed to hear the censure in his voice and didn't press the matter. Instead she encompassed the room with her gaze and said, "Such a gathering of silly, ravenous vultures as you ever saw. Why the king continues to have these balls, I couldn't say."
Seto's thoughts exactly. "Maybe he wants to know who remains every year," he said. "Keep an eye on who obeys his every command, what alliances are formed, and who could be a threat."
"That's a very cynical thing to say for one so young."
Seto shrugged. "Reality."
A servant brought them fresh glasses of wine. From the way Alexandra greeted hers, she was quite fond of wine. Seto sipped his, studying the room again. The giant grandfather clock across the room read nearly nine. He'd been here an hour, so surely he could go soon. He started to turn to Alexandra to mention this, when a flash of darkness amidst all the vibrant color caught his eye and he turned to look.
A man stood near the grandfather clock, his outfit consisting of black shirt, pants, stockings, shoes, and top hat. His vest and the lining of his black cloak were scarlet red. His half-mask was interesting. Even from this distance Seto could see it was in the shape of a hawk with wings outstretched, black with shiny black sequins.
"Who is that?" Seto asked.
Alexandra followed his gaze and squinted, lowering her mask. "I don't know. Strange. I usually know everyone." She smiled at Seto's look. "I may think they're shallow, useless creatures, but it's still wise to know their names."
Seto frowned, sipping his wine and studying the other across the room. He appeared just as aloof as Seto, standing alone and not dancing or talking with anyone. His gaze was sweeping the crowd, and even with the mask on, Seto could see he looked bored.
"How is your brother, Mr. Kaiba?" Alexandra asked. "Now that your father is gone, you're raising him alone."
Hardly alone, considering the estate employed two maids, a butler, a cook, and a groundskeeper, but Seto knew what she meant. Distracted, he turned to her. "He's fine. He does a better job of making sure the servants care for the estate than I do."
Alexandra smiled, a little drunkenly. Her first wine was finished and a servant had replaced it. Seto suspected she was usually drunk. He was disappointed. She'd seemed very smart and genuine and it was a bit of a let down to find she was a lush. Seto had almost a little tolerance for drunks as he did idiots.
His gaze moved back to the man by the grandfather clock, only to find that he was gone. Skimming the crowd with his gaze, he couldn't see him. The floor was crowded with whirling couples, the crush of color and glittering jewels irritating. It was time to go, if he could leave.
"I wouldn't, if I were you," Alexandra said. Despite being on her third or fourth glass of wine, she seemed to still be lucid enough. "These maybe be happy times, boy, but it seems like everyone would be happy to start rumors about everyone. You leave in the middle of a mandatory party… and you might seem like a Russian sympathizer."
She was, of course, referring to the Crimean War, and this was such a ridiculous statement that Seto snorted.
"As if anyone would suggest that I or my house supported the Russians."
Alexandra shrugged. She'd lowered her mask and was just holding it by the handle at her side, her other hand holding her wineglass. "Intrigue is everything now, and people are way too eager to believe anything." She took another sip of wine. "No matter how stupid."
Seto frowned. But it was a decent threat. King Aknamkanon might be a good and well-liked king, but not everyone in his court was. It was well known that some of the court abused their position. A courtier named Mercer's oldest son had been locked away in prison just the previous month, and Seto knew the Mercers; they were no more treasonous than the king himself, but the patriarch of the Mercer household had refused an offer of courting for his oldest daughter by the Lord Chancellor. What a coincidence that just a few weeks later his eldest son would be charged with espionage.
So Alexandra was probably right. Now was not a time to tempt the danger of the court. It hurt a great deal to stick around like a horse whose spirit was broken, but though England was experiencing a time of relative peace and prosperity, there was plenty of sneaking around, trying to ruin other people's lives, by those who were rich, bored, and mean. Seto didn't need that sort of negative attention. The family's landholding was large, and there were several other peer families who would be glad to have it. And now that Seto's father had died, making him the head of the household, there was likely to be even more attempts at takeover.
Seto sighed in defeat, but walked away from the glittering, swirling mass on the floor, heading outside to fresh, cool air of twilight. Couples and groups were mingling on the large terrace, but there were far fewer people out here and it didn't take long for Seto to find a secluded spot to stand in. In the shadowy corner of the terrace, standing next to a large honeysuckle bush that gave off a sweet fragrance, Seto looked out over the impressive rose garden. The moon was beginning to rise over the tops of the trees, turning the blood red roses to velvet purple, the pale yellow to burnished gold, and the innocent white to glistening silver.
Seto stood there for quite some time, so long that most of the couples out enjoying the night had gone back inside, as the time for the feast drew nearer. Seto pushed it, staying in place even when the trumpets indicating the arrival of the king played. He watched as some of the other late guests trotted dutifully back to the palace, coming up the stairs of the terrace and passing him on their way in. One or two glanced at him curiously, but he didn't return their gaze, still looking out over the gardens, which formed a long maze of rose bushes, common spotted orchid, foxglove, and more flowers Seto didn't recognize. In the center stood a circular fountain, from which six rearing horses on which angels rode, spouted water from their mouths into a deep base. In the center was a spire, water shooting straight up and falling straight back down. Even from this distance, Seto could hear the faint splash of the water into the pool at the bottom. It was a much more pleasant sound than the chatter and music inside the palace.
"Nice night," a soft voice murmured, startling him.
Seto turned. Standing a few feet from him, gazing out over the gardens, was the black-and-red clad man Seto had spotted beneath the clock. Up close, Seto could take in more detail. The first thing he noticed was that the man was quite short, the top of his top hat barely reaching Seto's chin. He was slender, his skin pale in the light spilling from the open doors and the moonlight through the sparse clouds. The hawk mask on his face spread elegantly from his nose outward. And it was there a second thing caught his attention, as the other turned to face him, though it was hard to be sure in the poor light.
The stranger's eyes were scarlet. Seto stared openly, shocked by the sight of such bright red eyes peering from the wings of the ebony hawk. The eyes were arresting, large and compelling, staring back up at Seto intently.
"I saw you staring at me across the room," the other said finally. His soft voice was deep and rich, almost as enthralling as the scarlet eyes. "Was there something you wanted to say?"
Seto's voice seemed to be lost to him. It was only when an amused smile spread across the other face beneath his mask did Seto find it.
"No. I was merely looking around. It's your fault if you're conceited enough to think I looking at you only."
A slender black eyebrow arched, but rather than be hurt or offended as all of the women who Seto had insulted had been, this stranger seemed even more amused. The bright red eyes trailed briefly over Seto's costume and his smile widened. Seto glared, then jerked his chin towards the brightly lit interior of the palace.
"Why aren't you in there with all the other gossip-grubbing, ass-kissing socialites?"
The eyebrow rose again. "Perhaps for the same reason I suspect you aren't; I'm not a gossip-grubbing, ass-kissing socialite. These parties bore me." He gestured with his hand, towards the gardens and starting walking towards the stairs. "Join me?"
For a moment, Seto didn't move. Who was this smart-mouthed stranger? But then Seto headed towards the stairs, following the other into the garden. Their boots made soft thuds against the earth, the pair of them walking silently side-by-side through the maze of a trail towards the fountain. They came out into the clearing, the dull roar of the fountain now much louder, the soft chirrups of crickets barely audible. The light of the palace was now a distant thing, and the dominating glow came from the climbing moon above.
"Ah, much better," the stranger said. "I much prefer silence to the words of fools."
Seto grunted in agreement, watching the other walk over to a foxglove bush and bend slightly to sniff the pleasant aroma of the blossoms. The other turned and saw him watching, smiling.
"I'm sure that now you're looking at the flowers, and not me."
Seto glared, annoyed. A soft chuckle came from the stranger as he straightened up and walked over to him. Seto got the feeling this night was about to become something he remembered for a long time, and he didn't know why, and he didn't like the feeling. But the other turned towards the fountain, standing there and watching the water spout from the horses' mouths and fall into the pool.
"Have you ever done something you wanted to do on the spur of the moment, just because you wanted to do it?" the stranger asked, though his eyes remained on the pool.
"What do you mean?"
"I hate the restrictions of what's expected, don't you?"
Seto frowned, but before he could ask again what the stranger meant, the other suddenly turned around, facing him. His eyes were no longer so bright here in the moonlight, but they were still intense, arresting. Seto swallowed. He was still staring when the other reached up, his hand cupping the back of Seto's neck, and pulling him down.
Their lips met.
Seto gasped in surprise, but the other merely wound his arms around his shoulders, his mouth warm against his. The other's lips worked slowly over his, languid and thorough. A light flick of a tongue against his bottom lip drew another gasp from Seto, that was answered by a purr of approval from the stranger. The other didn't seem the least bit abashed of his forwardness, or at all concerned with Seto's reaction. He was just enjoying himself.
Seto found himself wrapping his arms around the lithe body, something instinctive inside him taking over. He returned the kiss, earning a louder noise of approval from the other. One hand slid into his hair, beneath the edge of his ridiculous pheasant-feathered hat, the other lightly gripping his shoulder. Seto ran one hand down the curve of the other's back, groaning softly when that caused the stranger to arch against him, his body pressing firmly against Seto's in a way he'd never experienced before.
The kiss was broken as they both gasped for air. Suddenly the night was no longer cool, Seto's body beginning to warm up in response to what had happened.
He looked down into the bright red eyes of the other, seeing the amusement and satisfaction in that gaze, but also something else. Almost surprise.
"Who are you?" Seto demanded after a minute.
The stranger had opened his mouth to answer when he suddenly cocked his head to the side. He jerked out of Seto's arms and smoothed down his vest.
"We have company," he said in a soft voice, before briskly disappearing down one of the paths leading from the fountain.
Not a quarter minute later, two royal guards appeared from the path he and the stranger had taken to the fountain. Clothed in scarlet and white, each held a bayonet-tipped musket in the crook of his left elbow, leaning against his left shoulder, while a sheathed sword rested against his left side. Both stopped and studied Seto.
"What are you doing out here?" one barked imperiously.
"Getting some fresh air," Seto retorted.
"The feast has started," the first guard said. He jerked his head back towards the palace. "Everyone else's inside."
The way he said it suggested that no one was welcome outside and he wondered why Seto was. Taking the hint, Seto headed back up the path towards the palace, followed by the two guardsmen. He didn't know what had become of the stranger in the hawk mask, but he'd evidently heard these two coming and rather than be caught kissing, he'd slipped off and probably had headed back to the palace. Seto would find him out and get some answers out of him.
Back at the palace, Seto entered the Great Hall again, ignoring the glances of other guests, and went to the empty seat one of the guards gestured him towards. He wasn't surprised to see that the seat was next to Alexandra, who seemed to have kept it open for him. As Seto sat down, he skimmed the gathering in search of the hawk-masked man. To his surprise, he wasn't among the guests. Seto looked around again, ignoring the small talk and feasting going on around him, but the other was nowhere to be seen. Had he skipped out on the festivities and gone home? In that case, he was braver or more foolish than anyone else.
Frustrated, Seto reluctantly turned to the food. But even as he ate and endured the gossip and chatter going on around him, his mind remained on the stranger in the hawk mask with the captivating scarlet eyes.