Hazel and Holly — Masked Revelry, Part Two
Previous: Masked Revelry, Part One
Hazel and Holly walked into a grand ballroom, the painted ceiling of which arced the height of two stories. Tall windows lined one end of the room, looking out over a well-kept garden illuminated with candles in glass jars that hung among the trees. And then, of course, there were the people. Nearly the entire room was filled with women. Hazel looked around, trying to find a man or two, but saw none.
Holly gasped as she walked inside, her head craned back as she took in the motifs above. One panel showed rabbits dining with foxes over tea and cakes; another showed a porcupine leading an army of armor-clad mice towards a distant city. There was even a painting of a witch, stirring a cauldron from which a cloud of smoke rose and gave form to a surrounding forest.
Hazel bumped into a woman wearing a butterfly mask. “Pardon me,” she murmured.
The woman peered at Hazel through wings of stained glass. Then she huffed and moved on.
Holly disappeared among the crowd. Hazel tried to hurry after her, but it was like trying to navigate in an overgrown jungle of silk and chiffon. Then the crowd parted, and there stood Holly, holding the hand of a man with wavy, shoulder-length hair wearing burgundy waistcoat and breeches with bright white stockings. His face was covered with a mask of polished green ivy, with curling tendrils that coiled from his head like budding horns. Holly blushed, her neck reddening underneath her ridiculous cat mask.
“My, what an enchanting dress,” the man said and smiled, showing rows of pearly white teeth.
Holly giggled and put a hand to her cheek.
He turned towards the crowd. “There are so many fine witches here this evening, I cannot possibly choose amongst you. So, to help me decide, I will hold a contest, the prize for which will be… me.” He extended a leg, showing off a shapely calf. The surrounding women giggled and twittered.
Hazel frowned. “Ridiculous.”
“It’s a glamor, you know.”
Hazel turned and found a man standing next to her. He wore an owl mask, built into which was a pair of round spectacles. He had a head of thinning dark hair streaked with grey.
“I beg your pardon?” Hazel said.
“My brother. That’s not what he looks like.”
“Your brother? You mean…”
He gave a wry smile. “I’m Hemlock. That’s Hawthorn” he said, nodding towards the other man.
Hazel’s mouth hung open and then she snapped it shut and frowned. “I don’t understand. What does he mean by ‘choosing amongst us’?”
Hemlock scratched the back of his head as he stared at the floor. “Well, you know he’s looking for a wife?”
Hazel blinked and straightened her back. “A wife? What on earth for?”
Hemlock looked away. “What other reason is there for finding a mate? Family, companionship, extending one’s legacy. That sort of thing.”
“The invitation said nothing about this.”
Hemlock grimaced. “Most of them did, actually. Hawthorn, however, is well aware of your thoughts on the subject, and so that particular detail was omitted from your invitation.”
“To lure me here? Why?”
Hemlock shook his head. “There was no ‘luring.’ He just wanted you to attend. The both of you. Whatever decision you make or don’t make tonight is entirely up to you.”
Hazel looked him up and down. “And what about you? Are you in on this as well?”
Hemlock cleared his throat. “Ah, no. This was all Hawthorn’s doing, I wanted nothing to do with it. I had planned on secluding myself throughout the spectacle, but I couldn’t resist watching Hawthorn make a fool of himself.”
A series of squeals rippled through the room as Hawthorn’s hair fluttered as if caught in a breeze, and a pair of cream-colored bunnies hopped around his ankles.
A witch wearing a shimmering green dress and dragonfly mask fainted near Hawthorn’s feet, and then a tussle broke out among the surrounding women. One woman reached for Hawthorn, but Holly—still at his side—planted a hand on her face and pushed her away.
“Ladies, please,” Hawthorn said as a wide smile split across his face.
Another witch came up from behind Holly and pulled her by the hair. Holly cried out, her hands flailing as she stumbled backwards.
Hazel frowned again. “Ridiculous.” She took a step forward, but then, from a corner of the room, music started to play, and the crowd pulled together in front of Hazel and cut her off from Holly.
Chaos erupted in the ballroom. Half the guests were dancing to the fervent tune played by musicians that Hazel couldn’t see; the other half were engaged in a petty brawl of hair pulling and dress snagging as each woman tried to reach Hawthorn. No one seemed to notice the man had retreated to a balcony, upon which he overlooked the scene with a smile wide enough to swallow the rising moon.
Scowling, Hazel started towards him, but was pulled into a jig-like dance by a woman wearing a mask shaped like wolf’s head. Hazel tried pulling free, but the woman just laughed, stifled and muted by the long snout of her mask. Hazel caught a glimpses of Holly through the crowd, the crystals and beads on her dress catching the candlelight like an overwrought chandelier.
Hazel tightened her jaw. This was beyond ridiculous. She yanked herself away from the woman’s clutches and then, rolling up her sleeves, she spoke a spell of dissolving and clapped her hands together.
Hawthorn’s glamor faded, leaving a short and grey man standing on the balcony.
The music stopped as everyone turned to gape at him.
Hawthorn grinned at the attention. But then, looking at his hands, his face fell.
Murmurs wafted through the room, and then the guests started to shuffle out the door.
“Wait!” Hawthorn squeaked, but no one paid him any mind. He gripped the balcony bannister, his face reddening and his eyes panicked. “Merrick! Don’t let them leave!”
The butler, standing near the door, rolled his eyes and let out a heavy breath. He walked over to a gong sitting on a narrow table and struck it with a mallet.
Everyone froze and the room quieted.
Merrick drew himself up tall and, in a resounding voice, said, “Dinner is served!”
A few women clapped their hands, while others emitted various oohs and aahs. Everyone seemed to have forgotten about leaving and allowed Merrick to herd them through a different door and into a dining hall.
Hazel, however, refused to be taken in. She pushed her way through the crowd until she found Holly just as she was about to step into the dining room. Hazel grabbed her arm and yanked her back, and Holly emitted a startled yowl.
Holly pulled free and rubbed her arm. “That hurt, you know.”
“We’re leaving,” Hazel said.
“But I don’t want to leave.” Holly’s voice turned wistful. “Have you ever seen anything so grand? All the masks, and then the painted ceilings. Why don’t we have painted ceilings?” She sighed. “When we get home, I’m going to paint them.” She nodded.
Hazel closed her eyes and shook her head. “You can’t paint thatch,” she snapped and then clenched her jaw and took a breath. “Never mind. We need to leave. We shouldn’t have come here. All this trickery. I should have expected as much from warlocks. Can’t be trusted, the lot of them.”
“But–” Holly began, but was cut off as Hazel again grabbed her arm and pulled her out the door and into the hallway.
Hemlock was there, standing in the little alcove with the leftover masks. He smiled. “Well done dissolving Hawthorn’s glamor. Always a pleasure to have a witch in the house.” He gave a small bow.
Hazel glared at him. “I didn’t do it for your amusement.”
Hemlock straightened and grinned. “I know, which only makes it all the more amusing.”
Hazel made a disgusted sound and pulled Holly towards the door.
Holly sniffed. “But… I don’t want to leave.”
“The night is still young,” Hemlock said. “I hope you’ll stay a little longer.”
Hazel snorted and turned around. “And why on earth would I do that? So you can make a mockery of me and my sister? So we can be fools for your amusement?”
“No,” Hemlock said. “Because I know your father, and word has it you’ve been looking for him.”
Hazel narrowed her eyes as Hemlock met her gaze.
“I don’t believe you,” she said. “I don’t believe you know my father at all.”
“Your belief is not required, I’m afraid. It remains true, all the same.”
“Then where is he? If you know him, tell me where he is.”
Hemlock shook his head. “It is not that simple.”
“It would be if you were telling the truth. Come on, Holly.” She grabbed her sister’s arm and started to pull her away when Hemlock said, “I said I know the man, not where he is. Yet knowing a man is a starting point, don’t you think? I know more of his habits and inclinations than you do, I suspect. How much do you know of your own father? The foods he likes to eat or the places he likes to frequent?”
Hazel stiffened her back. She tried to recall her father, the few times he had visited when she was young. She couldn’t remember him. He was little more than a disembodied voice, a shadow over the portal that came all too infrequently. She couldn’t even remember when she had seen him last, or how old she had been.
“I’ll admit,” Hemlock said, “that what I know of the man is woefully inadequate. It has been some years since I have last seen him, and so what I do know of him is perhaps no longer true. But I’d like to think I can help you find the path. If you’re interested, that is.”
Hazel turned to look at him. “Why would you help me? What do you want?”
Hemlock smiled and looked at the ground. He shook his head. “I don’t want anything. I am embarrassed my brother’s antics have inconvenienced you, and this is my way of making amends.”
“We weren’t inconvenienced,” Holly said, but clamped her mouth shut when Hazel glared at her.
Hazel remained silent. She didn’t want his help. This was a family matter, and she’d rather not enlist the help of a warlock she barely knew and didn’t trust. And yet, her refusal caught in her throat. She hadn’t been able to find her father on her own. Despite her determination to find a way to set her mother’s soul free, Hazel didn’t know what to do–she was out of options. And so she just stood there, not wanting to accept, yet unable to refuse.
Hemlock cleared his throat. “Such decisions need not be made at once. Perhaps we should join the others in the dining hall. A good meal always helps clear the thoughts, or so they say, anyway.”
Holly squeaked as she hopped up and down while clapping her hands. “Oh yes, please. That would be delightful.” She turned towards Hazel. “Right, Hazel?”
Once again, Hazel found herself unable to refuse. But she could, at least, accept an invitation to dinner. “Very well.”