Second Annual Ascension Gala
It was the first day of Klangiary, one of those Autumn days where all had begun to become crisp and golden; one of those days where life could start all over again. I had placed all my hopes for that day, for that new life, on a letter. The letter was silk, expensive and keen to show that off - it bore elegant words that drew me in like a fisherman's hook. A party, and a large party at that, the intimate sort of party where you can find true privacy. Of course I went - I could never have done otherwise.
The Gilded Chateau was a towering, elegant silhouette against the expanse of the Inner Sea, backlit by the distant lights of the islands across the water, which seemed almost emerald in the midnight glow. I crossed the bridge over the alabaster sands and was transported into a different world, a world where anything was possible, where one stepped out of the haunting loneliness of the rest of the world and into a place that was all about finding one another.
I stood aloof for a time, watching as the adventurous guests - those who had made their name by stepping through the Portal of Fate - made poses upon the carpet and were announced to the rapturous ears of those already inside the Chateau. Their laughter as the tall Czigany announcer fumbled over false titles for them drew me over, pulled me in by the inexorable magnetism of potential embarrassment. I had no desire to become reviled by a false announcement, and so I slipped the gentleman that most universal of understandings - gold.
Thus I entered the Gilded Chateau without any announcement at all, finding myself amongst the mingling crowds of city and communefolk. There was, of course, no sign of the host. Trader Bob was the most accessible man in all of Lusternia and yet it was said that there were few who truly knew him - not even his Coterie, nor the long string of lovers to whom he had been supposedly attached. This was not the first of his parties, nor I was sure would it be the last. The previous Ascension, when the Seals had weakened at the hands of the Higher Gods, had been the inaugural gala, held at the Triple Junction Inn. This year...this year was a dream, a turbulent riot of joy, a last desperate grasp at happiness before facing the Almighty Himself.
I made small talk, as one is wont to do at such gatherings, but largely I observed. There was a tension in several of the attendees from Serenwilde, born of frequent disdainful glances and the painful exhaustion of an argument abandoned before resolution, that I pitied and envied all at once. What must it be like for these strange creatures, to be facing down the Soulless, but to feel more pain from crimes of the heart? I longed for a life where I could be swept up by such things, even as I wished dearly for the world to be uniform and focused upon that which truly mattered.
And the Chateau - the Chateau would have captivated even the most mundane of persons. From the domineering fresco of the entrance hall to the juxtaposition of the game room, where I watched noblemen from the Engine of Transformation play at Fate - a fitting game for such people - the whole affair was like sunlight bursting into a star before the eyes. I passed through a solarium where a dracnari basked with an ever-present smirk, her gown leaping upon her body like gasping flames, as she whispered in the ear of a blushing faeling - through a parlour where another dracnari wielding a notepad scribbled furiously in response to the goings-on around her.
I travelled down the stairs, finding myself in a gallery of sorts. I saw a man of elegant bearing press against something on one of the portraits - and to my astonishment it turned, revealing a secret door that allowed him ingress. He reappeared some minutes later by the same entryway, and marched past me where I stood examining the other portraits. I felt as if I ought to know him; he had that bearing of a man who people spoke of. Curious, I retraced his steps and transgressed through the hooked portrait. What I saw there shall never be spoken of, for there are some secrets that must remain kept.
Beyond those watching Bobs was a larger room, a darker room, a room that smelt as pungent as the ground beneath my shoes felt. It was the sort of juxtaposed image that displayed a microcosm of the gala as a whole: Hallifaxian noblewomen stood in the fine regalia one would expect of that grand city, their thoughts and their speech turned wholly to the spectacle that would soon be undertaken within the pit. Perhaps something buried within them called to the feral nature of it, perhaps they yearned from their staid and stoic towers for the intimacy of the sport - or perhaps there was far more to their city than I had presumed. I saw them cheering alongside the other cities and communes with all the fervour of a street rat at a bar brawl, as the wrestler known as Korgrim claimed a controversial second victory in a row.
But it was the terrace that captivated me the most, and formed the centre for much of the party, the focus for discussions of missing meringues and the lack of champagne. There I stood days later, amongst gossiping partygoers who might never even have taken the time to learn one another's names but for the Trader's gathering. Cheers erupted from the crowd as confetti descended upon us - they were riled, still, from the exertions of the wrestling arena - and all turned their attention towards the steps from which, at last, our host descended.
Trader Bob was a human man with one of those rare smiles that had a quality of reassurance, the sort that you would come across perhaps only once or twice in life, the sort that assured you that it would rewrite the world to be prejudiced in your favour. He lifted his champagne glass in a toast to us, and we followed suit - he seemed the sort of man that one could not help but copy. Beside him swanned in a younger man, barely out of his teens, with a hook for a hand and a handsome face. After my earlier excursions, I found myself following suit as several female attendees stepped away from his presence, listening to their murmurings that Bob Junior was not so gracious as his father.
His father, however, captivated me. I found that I could not look away, could not consider anything but him and the mystery that he was. He swept us up to the ballroom in a dream, and though many of the guests had long since retired from exhaustion those few who remained leapt at once to dancing. Such a wondrous display I have not seen before and I doubt that I shall ever see its like again. I watched the couples spin and twirl as though they were as light as air: a Hallifaxian pair made a romantic contrast in crystal and feathers; the blushing faeling was brave enough to take Bob Junior's arm for a spin; a wild pair of demigods laughed delightfully in one another's arms.
So intoxicating was the intimacy of the display that for a time, my attention was torn between them and the Trader himself. He had made his way quietly to the side of the room, near a willowy viscanti who was doubtless a high-ranking noblewoman from the Engine. It was only when I placed my full focus upon the two of them that I truly appreciated the way he looked at her. Moonlight fell through the windows and refracted across the mirrored room, casting the two of them in a halo of incandescent majesty. The viscanti's silver mask gleamed around her turquoise eyes as she looked up at him, echoing the Trader's gaze - the sort of gaze that men and women both dreamed of having placed upon them. He murmured in her ear, and she in his, and I felt as even from across the room I was as much of an intruder upon their private moment as if I had been stood between them. But I could not look away.
I do not know how long I stood there, watching them. I gleaned no further information, and soon they retired, arm in arm as they departed from the ballroom. I remained for a day or so thereafter, coming to terms with this magical world into which I had entered. I watched the adventurers around me doing the same, heard latecomers announced and watched as waiters began quietly to pick up the detritus of the party. I sat there, brooding on the vast reaches of the world that I had not heretofore understood, of the romantic dreams that could be realised in a place like this.
And all of it could be gone within the month. It would not, of course. There would always be people who dreamed larger than eternal nothingness. The world would always beat on, driving forth against the current of the world, even though it sought ceaselessly to drag them into the past. The thought made me smile at the comfort of it, and I knew that it was time to depart the Gilded Chateau.
I picked up my hat, brushed it clean of confetti, and returned home.