The Marigold Masquerade
as told by Irene Adler
Pearl tear-drop earrings. A viridian silk-wrap dress flaring out at the hips, sans straps or sleeves. The hem brushes the tips of polished flesh-colour pumps, not so high as to infinitely exaggerate one's stature, but just enough to gather a few glances. No necklace – the unaccented throat always applauds the décolletage more than any scintallant might – and sweetheart neckline which keeps me bound to a dip in the back.
My dark locks were harnessed by a marigold hairpin to the back of my head, tightly wound. I swiped a bit of black onto my brows and lashes and filled in the hollow below my cheekbones with the same tint as my lips.
I seized my phone and affixed it to a simple strap which snapped around my upper thigh. My most vital possession must only be housed near vital piping.
"Prepare your ammunition, Mr. Holmes," I said quietly, to no one at all, and turned on my heel towards the sounds of strings and murmurs.
The ballroom was exquisite. Generously glittered with golden accents, lit by hundreds of fractal flames kept in a dozen chandeliers, it was an aesthetic opus. I slipped on a simple ivory eye-mask and descended the staircase to join the chattering crowd.
"So this is what our taxes pour into? What rubbish," noted one refined gent as I passed through. Masks, from basic to ornate, moved around the floor with their attached heads and bodies. An orchestra spun out notes sewn to pitches, lead by a jumpy conductor in a flamingo mask. There were lords and ladies, mares and pigs, distorted visages with shining cheeks and broad smiles; jewels, feathers, bland, bold, bright, baffling. Those unmasked served appetizers on crystal trays.
Some people thrive in disguise, some people yearn for it, and some people should never bother. People like the two anti-socials clumped together in a corner, conversing between themselves. One slender, elusive, urbane, the other more homely, less advantaged in the height department, yet nearly as dangerous. I approached them without hurry.
His eyes fell upon me and I gave an impulsive smile. He stood stone-faced, rigid, giving nothing away but I knew that his blood flowed with intrigue. I knew, and it gave me such pleasure that my flesh prickled from my shoulders down. I inhaled the suddenly saturated air, slowly, and I was before him.
A simultaneous salutation. How quaint.
We regarded one another for a long moment before Dr. Watson cleared his throat.
"And I'm John Watson, but, please, don't mind me. Just carry on as you are. I'll go drink away the feelings of neglect and abandonment with some frightfully lavish white wine. If you'll excuse me, then," and he slipped away towards the bar.
"No tie?" said I, still staring.
"I abhor them," he said simply. "Too restrictive. I can't think while I'm restrained."
"Oh, shan't we test that claim?"
He sported a white half-mask, reminiscent of Andrew Lloyd Weber's most celebrated antagonist. The guise failed to hinder the prominence of his cheekbones. He was striking. The rest of him was sorted out in formal midnight blue, not too imaginative but these sorts of decisions were never at the forefront of his brain.
I reached up and grazed his face with my palm.
"Unfortunate that you are so unparalleled," I noted, "in mind and appearance. It makes you all too easy to spot in a room full of camouflage."
"Was it not you who proclaimed that the problem with disguise is that it is 'always a self-portrait'?"
"Uncompromised memory, as usual. Shall we dance, Mr. Holmes?"
"I do not dance, Ms. Adler."
I took his hands and situated them at my waist, then encircled his neck with my arms, and lead him to the center of the ballroom. We swayed for a moment; I was the woman in his arms and my heart became a faulty metronome.
"Why are you here?" he asked.
"I wanted to dance," I responded, resting my head to his chest.
"In the midst of a ball sponsored by London's police force? You're looking for protection. From what?"
I tucked my chin into his clavicle and I looked up at him.
"Whom indeed. You've clearly been living by less-than-comfortable means – ordinarily you would be fresh-faced and bathed each morning but this evening there are spots of makeup on your jawline which were not completely eliminated before you applied more moments ago, which indicates that you didn't have ample time from the point you arrived here to the time you prepared for this gala. You wouldn't burden yourself with keeping on your person a fragile fabric like the one you're wearing so you acquired it here, but it doesn't conform flawlessly to your figure so you've 'borrowed' it from someone in this hotel. It took a bit of fishing but you spotted your target in the lobby – a woman with a comparable frame – and as she departed you broke into her hotel room to garnish yourself with her finest accessories. This explains the unlikely scent you've spritzed on your nape, something forgettable and old-fashioned, nothing you would ever select on less restricted means, and the shades of your lips and cheeks, which are not perfectly compatible with your complexion, and we both know that you never settle for less than perfection."
"Just look at my choice of dance partner," I cooed, only slightly less awe-struck than my first encounter with him. "You're so sexy when you do that."
"Observation is a benefit of intellect, not of courtship."
"Your violin-playing must breed you your sense of rhythm. I'm half-surprised you aren't lending your talents to the orchestra this evening."
"I am something of a soloist."
"Not fond of duets?"
"Good duets are complementary."
"I can keep up."
"You're in danger."
"I seduce danger, Mr. Holmes. I cuff him to my bedpost and when I've had my way with him, I tuck him into my pocketbook. Makes for excellent portability."
"Someone has taken it."
"No. Someone is threatening to. Though someone is always threatening to. It's safe for now," I reassured him, brushing my lips over his throat.
He stopped suddenly and my toe caught his instep, stumbling into his torso. He seized me and in doing so, gathered a fistful of my skirt. The whole of my calf exposed, his fingertips swept over the back of my thigh until they brushed over the band securing my phone.
"Sentiment, Ms. Adler."
I kissed him.
I lingered, and just as my lips fell away I felt his give just so.
"Goodbye for now, Mr. Holmes."
I turned and left just as the ballroom broke into applause at the finish of another song. The conductor turned and bent at the waist, his flamingo mask falling to the floor, exposing the equally pink hue of his cheeks. He scrambled for the mask and gave a sheepish smile before setting it back over his expression.
The room was slightly damp and mostly cool as I walked in. Instantly my gaze fled towards an open window, and a small note of panic bounced from my heart. The curtains swayed with the wind, lifting up and out. I peered over the frame and saw no one.
No one beneath the bed, behind the door, or in the closet. I noticed the bed sheets and blankets had been re-tucked and the pillows spruced and fluffed, and chuckled gently. Housekeeping. But why would they leave the window open?
And when I spotted what was on the dresser, I knew it wasn't a maid who was responsible for the draft.
A deep scarlet rose, newly plucked, sat in just in front of the mirror on the vanity. Its blossom was selected intently, wide girth and many petals, fragrant even from a foot away. I grasped it and settled on the edge of the bed, smiling.
"Why Mr. Holmes, I never took you for the romantic type."
I brought the flower to my nose and inhaled deeply. Several grams of pollen accompanied the scent, and I coughed as they colonized my lungs.
As I gazed down at the gift, a feeling of dread overcame me.
My head began to swim. I stood, dropping the rose, and nearly stumbled. Drowsiness overwhelmed me. I fell back onto the bed with the cream-colour ceiling swirling before me.
My hand reached back and freed the hairpin from my hair. I felt the top of the comforter before slipping it into the newly-folded crest. My head fell to the side. A blur moved towards me, a voice spoke in low waves of sound.
My eyelids sunk down.