“Right foot, then left foot. Go on, try again.”
The Sprite boy was so exasperated, Ameryn could tell he was one more stubbed toe away from snarling and stalking off. She was far from feeling intimidated—she found the way his mono-brow had knotted itself in frustration very amusing.
“What’s the point of this?” he growled, as Ameryn guided him through the dance steps for the umpteenth time.
“Would you rather be sulking by the punch bowl?”
“Surrounded by hoards of costumed people you don’t know?”
“I’m surrounded by them now.”
“You’re not surrounded,” Ameryn insisted. “The rest of them are out on the dance floor. We’re over here in the alcove so you don’t trip up some aristocrat so he falls and breaks his neck.”
“I’d like nothing more,” the boy grumbled, “than to forget this daft exercise and sit down with a plate of food. I’m hungry.”
“And the minute you sit down, little miss rabbit-face will be after you again for a dance,” Ameryn said, nodding to the partygoer hovering on the other side of the room, looking daggers at Ameryn through the eyeholes of her pink rabbit mask. “I’m teaching you to dance to give you an excuse not to fraternize with your admirers. I’m doing you a favor, sir Na…Na…I’m sorry, what’s your name again?”
“Nacjar,” the boy replied, his pale skin beginning to glow red to the tips of his grey-furred ears.
“I’m doing you a favor, Nacjar, so shut up and keep dancing. Left foot, then right. One, two, three….”
It was rare that Ameryn got to interact with anyone close to her age, other than Aileen, of course. But tonight, the night of the dance, there were at least a hundred young Berasians in the palace, whirling away to the music, their identities safe behind sculpted animal masks. Ameryn was not there to celebrate, but to keep an eye on the princess’s progress through her various dance partners. Half an hour ago, Aileen seemed to have forsaken the company of all other men except one—a tall man dressed in black, wearing an ornately carved mask shaped like the face of a ram.
She had found her partner slumped in the shadows, looking about him surreptitiously, as though trying to avoid someone’s company. His mask did not hide all of his face; it was a small, grey, beaked thing that hooked behind his tufted Sprite ears. The fact that his identity was not completely concealed seemed to make him particularly attractive to a girl not-so-artfully disguised as a pink rabbit, who had been chasing him all evening before Ameryn decided to rescue him.
She wasn’t sure why she had. Normally she was content to watch from the shadows, herself, her face hidden comfortably and completely behind a bronze-colored cat mask. But Nacjar was he first Sprite she had seen at this annual gathering since the war’s conclusion. If there was one, there would be more in attendance. He was a squire of one of the Black Knights—this much he had told her. She wanted to know why he—why any of that rabble—were here tonight. Part of her wanted to find Aileen and whisk her away to the safety of the tower. The other part wanted information. But no information was forthcoming. The boy was too busy staring at his feet to say anything of use.
Much to Ameryn’s surprise, Nacjar seemed to be getting the hang of the steps. After another half hour had passed, he was able to look up at her, finally able to direct snide comments to her face instead of her feet. They moved from the alcove to the thick of the crowd, Ameryn casting her eyes about in search of the princess.
“So who’re you, anyway?” he said, crinkling his eyebrow again. “I gave you my name, but I don’t know yours.”
“I’m Ameryn. I’m a servant here.”
“Ameryn,” he said, as though he had heard the name somewhere before. Ameryn swallowed—while the Guardian’s name wasn’t advertised, there were a select few of the Berasian aristocracy who knew who she was. She didn’t want him to be frightened away.
“Strange name,” Nacjar continued. “It’s not very humanlike. Sounds almost Aetarish.” He sneered a little at the mention of the Immortal House. Ameryn frowned. All Sprites harbored that old prejudice—she knew that. But it hurt to see it demonstrated.
“I’m a member of Grare’s house,” Ameryn said, offering a shallow defense. She hastened to change the subject, but Nacjar seemed intent.
“What’s your Beast, then?” he asked. “Wolf? Fox? Are you one of the Dingos from the west? Or a Hound?”
“I’m a servant—what do you think I am?” Ameryn dodged. “I couldn’t be a Wolf; I’m not royalty.”
Nacjar gave a patronizing nod. “Hound. Figured.”
Ameryn was relieved. Those were his words, not hers—she hadn’t been forced to lie. “Don’t be so high-and-mighty,” she countered, chuckling. “Your Beast is a Squirrel—you’ve got no cause to look down your nose at me.”
Nacjar flushed again, this time angrily. “I don’t see what’s so funny about that. The Squirrels are a well-respected family among my people. Besides, I’m heir to one of the Rats—now what have you to say to that, missy?”
Ameryn’s pulse quickened. The Rats. The chief family of all the Nareon Sprites. There were few of them left, but every last one of them was bent on the destruction of all the other houses. Sucraam had been a Rat. Her face stung at the thought of his name.
“An heir to a Rat?” she repeated. “Surely you don’t mean Lord Nayr?”
Nacjar’s eyes widened. Ameryn knew she had guessed aright.
Before he could say anything in reply, a bell sounded from one of the palace spires. One…two…three…four….five…six…seven. King Grare rose from his seat by the ballroom window, spreading his arms wide.
“My people,” he said. “In a few moments, the sun will rise on my daughter’s sixteenth birthday.”
There were cheers. Ameryn tried to slide into the crowd in search of Aileen, but Nacjar held her back with a firm grip on her wrist. She looked back at him, too startled by his gaze to resist.
“Sixteen years ago, at 7 o’ clock in the morning,” the king continued, “my daughter was born. To this day, she shines as brightly as the dawn.”
More cheers. Ameryn swallowed hard, her eyes scanning the crowd for her charge. She hadn’t meant to stay with anyone until dawn—she had never danced with anyone all the way to the Unmasking. Where was Aileen? Why had she danced with this boy, heir to the enemy?
“Ladies and gentlemen,” bellowed the liveried philostrate that stood at the king’s elbow, “You may now Unmask!”
Gasps and giggles echoed through the cavernous ballroom as lords and ladies met their partners for the first time, their faces free of the animal masks they had worn all night. At last Ameryn found Aileen. Her large blue eyes were gazing up in amazement at her partner, the tall man in black who now held his ram’s mask in his hand. Ameryn growled in frustration—his back was towards her.
“Here now,” whined Nacjar. Ameryn turned to see him standing there with his bird mask off, his pale, pointed Sprite features exposed to view. “No fair. I’ve taken my mask off and yours is still on.”
Ameryn’s heart fluttered in panic. They were in the center of the crowd—she was surrounded on all sides by strangers. They were pressed in so thickly there was no way out.
“Come on,” Nacjar said, laughing. “What’ve you got to hide?”
Ameryn gulped. “Nothing.”
“All right, then, off with it.”
Now people were staring. Ameryn hunted for a gap in the crowd, but there was no escape. Nacjar was stepping closer.
“Look, if you won’t take it off, I’ll just have to take it off for you.” He raised his hand, gripping the side of her mask with his long white fingers.
But it was too late. The bronze cat mask clattered to the floor. Ameryn closed her eyes tightly—and waited.
There was a gasp. Then a scream. Ameryn heard the hiss of a sword sliding from its sheath. Several more followed. Ameryn opened her eyes to see a dozen swords pointed at her. She saw the horrified stares—the terror in Nacjar’s eyes.
There were more screams as more and more women saw her face. Ameryn panicked. Without the safety of her mask, everyone saw. Everyone knew. They all saw the legendary face of the Guardian in all of its monstrousness.
“What is it?”
“Look at its face!”
“If you can call it a face—”
Ameryn dove for her mask, but someone was standing on it, and he kicked it out of her reach. Someone yanked her up by her shoulders. A hand grabbed her hair, roughly turning her face up to the light.
Before anyone could seize her hands, she reached for the dagger hidden in the fold of her dress and nicked the knuckles of whoever it was who held her shoulders. He sprung backwards as though a snake had bitten him. She took a fighting stance, baring her teeth at the ring of naked swords that surrounded her. If they wanted to see a monster, she’d show them how monstrous she could be.
At last, the king stepped in. “It is the Guardian!” he bellowed over the uproar. “Let her go! Clear the way—let her pass! She will not harm you.”
Ameryn plunged blindly into the crowd, which parted rapidly before her, people recoiling as she passed. She couldn’t see—not just because she held her hands over her face. The images of horrified faces swam in her vision, drowning in the tears she could no longer suppress.
Behind her, she heard Aileen’s voice calling from the mayhem. “Ameryn! Ameryn, wait!”
She could not wait. She could not turn. She could not face those people again. She couldn’t face the Sprite boy. It was the Sprites who did this to her—she would not give any of them the satisfaction of seeing the result of their handiwork.
Leaving the princess behind, she ran up the stairs to the tower, masked at last by shadow.