At the stroke of midnight, I arrived for a great masquerade ball. All eyes fell upon me as I stood atop the wide marble steps of the great hall. There were hundreds of people, their faces hidden underneath feathered masks, bejeweled masks, half-masks, full masks, kitten shaped masks, horned masks, rabbit masks, and the lot. I entered among them, not as a stranger, but as an expectant guest, and they received me as such, taking my hand to lead me among the bodies that filled the dancefloor.
My dress of lace and satin bristled as I walked, blending myself among the crowd, who wore tuxedos with penguin tails, and romantic shirts with ruffles and flared sleeves, gothic satins, ruffled gowns with corsets. For a second I believed I was a guest at the court of Marie Antoinette, but when my eyes found the throne seat and its host, whose eyes bore down on me from the sixty feet between us, I had no doubt of where I was. I was in the court of the midnight queen, she whose name the world had lost, whose legacy had become legend, ephemera among the living.
There was something I meant to say or do, but I could not remember.
At last, it didn’t matter, for the gentleman who took my hand and engulfed me in dance looked very dashing. He wore a mask with devil’s horns, and trousers of fine silk and lace, intricately sewed, a very romantic getup. Nothing mattered once I began to dance. And dance I did—all sorts of dancing—happy, feet shuffling, swing, arm in arm, switching partners and laughing, dipping under arms and turning back and forth.
It was a jovial affair, and no one seemed sad, not until I began to pay attention. I saw beneath their laughter and mutterings, weariness, not the kind that came with having too much fun. It was a weariness of the soul, a deep rooted gloom I saw in their eyes.
“Lady, is something the matter," asked my nameless suitor. This handsome man had stayed at my side since I arrived, and now he eyed me with calm inspection.
“No, nothing's the matter,” I said, and placed my hands in his, carrying on the dance.
I could not shake the feeling that held me from overindulgence—the feeling of servants locked in a dance of enchantment. There was something nagging at the back of my mind—a memory lost. Was I to be here? Why? From where did my companions come? There was laughter and everything was pristine, careful and lovely. The hydrangeas were fresh, as were the lilacs and jasmine, but it was the strange-looking long-vined flower aligning the walls of the ballroom that entranced me the most.
When at last I had a chance, I wandered to the strange flower. It was black and red, and like nothing I had seen. Its folded leaves twisted, almost rose like, but it was far from a rose, not for lack of beauty, but for lack of delicateness. Its vines twisted and strangled the furniture and wall against which they ran. The plant was perfumed, intoxicating and stifled all smells within three feet of it. I pushed my hands toward the plant, desiring the feel its leaves, when I heard the smooth calm voice of the midnight queen.
“Please resist the urge,” she said.
It startled me and I spun to face her, feeling as a child caught in the act of wrongdoing.
She smiled, as if to put me at ease, but I was not. Standing in her presence, I felt more diffident, slipping into my shell of a body. One might be forgiven for thinking she and I were of similar ages, but her youthful face bore the wisdom of age, a deep-seated knowledge I did not possess.
“I’m sorry,” I said, sinking into myself, and wishing I wouldn’t. But, I stood before the living myth, of whose legacy I heard great stories. That a queen ruled a world known to the living, but outside of our breach, was one all children learned. To be here, in front of her, humbled me. Yes, she was small, her face almost mantis-like, with black eyes—those deep black pools of knowledge. I felt she was reading my thoughts, this woman, this queen of midnight.
“It’s alright,” she said, her voice never changing pitch. “The Sisren plant has strong allure.” She brushed her hand above the surface of the plant’s vines and the vines trembled with her touch. I noticed then, the rings on her fingers. She wore rings on all but her pinkies—strangely shaped rings. There was a spider ring, a black-stoned and a red-stoned ring, a ring of symmetrically twisting lines, and a ring with an eye, a flower ring and simple bands. It made her all the more intriguing to me.
Her form-fitting gown of black beads and lace shimmered, and I felt it emanated a powerful surge in my direction; energy rippled under the surface, and I knew I could never wear that dress. It was made for her, and only her. It would, as people were inclined to say, wear me. Her neck bore a sprawling beady breastplate, and her hair was intricately twisted with braids—stunning.
“I expected them to attract men, but even women may struggle to resist their pull. And you are new, so you’re especially vulnerable.”
“I’m sorry,” I said, again.
She smiled, eyeing me. “It’s alright, again.”
The midnight queen stared at me with an anticipatory look. I remembered then, the thought that bothered me upon my arrival, the purpose that nagged me throughout the evening. “I’m looking for someone,” I told her.
“You traveled here to search for someone, knowing there’s a chance you might not return to the world of the living,” she said, watching me.
“I’m told you’re merciful.”
“I’m dutiful, too,” she said, “Breaching the doorway between the living and the dead has consequences, which I am certain the witchdoctor whose aid you sought must have told you.”
“I only wanted to fix my mistake,” I said, unraveling. “I’ll risk the punishment.”
“The punishment is your soul,” she said, and glanced to the ball room.
It occurred to me then to ask, “Where is this?”
“The in-between—the bargainers—the people existing between life and death.”
“You keep them here.”
“They bargained with their souls, aided by demons and witchdoctors, and this is where they end up—not resting as others do when they sleep, but awake, waiting for death to free them.”
Nothing about her words surprised me. I let my eyes wash over the weary looking inhabitants of the room, eternally engaged in dance and laughter. They weren’t dead. They were like me, wanderers from the world of the living, who bargained their souls for some cause they felt was worth it, and now, they found themselves punished this way. This place was some sort of purgatory for the living.
“This is my punishment, too, this place, isn’t it?”
“You are looking for someone,” she said, watching me. “That someone you seek has passed.”
“Where has he gone?”
“To rest, to where the dead lie.”
“It should’ve been me,” I said, remembering the accident. "He died because of my stupidity, and everyone I loved hated me for it. I made the bargain to bring him back from death. I failed."
“There is no need for tears,” she told me. “What’s done is done.”
“I can’t go home, can I?”
“You will. Ritual sent you here, not death,” she said.
I recalled the witchdoctor’s gibberish words as he performed his dark magic. My body was lying on his floor in his medicine hut in the living world. My soul was here.
“This is the bargain you will receive. Your waking hours belong to you, but your sleeping hours belong to me.”
“There’s no peace in that.”
“When your life is over, you will find peace,” she assured me. “But you have the rest of your life to live, which means, every time you shut your eyes to sleep, you will come here. It won’t seem pleasant when you awake—you’ll be tired, drained and your mind will begin to slip from you. Many of these people have fallen into comas or mental anguish in the living world. It takes its toll.”
“Hush,” she said in soft nurturing voice. “There are hours to go until you wake. You should dance and try to be happy.”
I returned to the dance, under the watchful eyes of the midnight queen. My waking memories slipped into oblivion, chipping away as I danced.
When I woke, alive and tired, the wtchdoctor ws nowhere in sight. I returned to life, believing nothing had happened, but when I slept, I arrived at the masquerade ball. Each time I woke, the memory of this place raced away from me.
There was nothing I could do, and when others began to notice my tiredness, I tried to tell them of my epic dream, which lingered in my mind as an empty shell, a pal·imp·sest, covered with the outline of a memory; but nothing came to me, no hint of masquerades, of lavish French gowns and aromatic plants, and none of the midnight queen.
PS. This story is featured in Midnight's Daughter -- available on Google Books.