Carnival and Masque.


He pulled her aside, out of the thoroughfare and the mob. Her foot slipped just a little and she let herself fall against him, running her hands down his body as she did. She realized she was blushing, openly, nakedly blushing, but she didn't care. The strange man smiled some more and touched her cheek; she though it might burn his fingers it felt so hot. "I see you're very much in the spirit of the day," he said. Portia swallowed, realizing she hadn't said anything to him yet.

"To be honest," she said, "I don't think I've ever really understood the meaning of the Hallowmas carnival until now."

"I hear that so often," said the strange man. The reply made Portia feel merely common, but there was a gentleness about it that smoothed the rough edges away. Perhaps everyone was common next to a man like this? Without thinking, she almost asked his name, but closed her mouth at the last moment; even during a carnival there were limits to what was permitted. But the question seemed to linger, as if threatening to burst from her at any moment. To save herself, she stood as tall as she could, threw her arms around the strange man's neck, and kissed him.

She was terrified at first; she felt as if she were treading on a priest's robes. But the man, whoever he was, caught her up in his arms and pressed her to him, seeming to crush her like a grape in a press. Her heart leapt up and her head swam, and when the kiss was done she felt as if she'd bathed in sacred wine. She was not, she knew, really so drunk as she felt, but there was more to what was happening to her than just what went into the cups.

The stranger was pulling her aside, into an out-of-the-way garden at the edge of some estate, so open to the street and yet so tucked away and private that she had to guess it was designed for this very purpose. He pulled her in for another hot kiss and his strong hands ran up and down her body; Portia went weak in the knees but he held her up. She kissed the stranger again, and then she kissed his neck, and then she kissed the hard muscles and sinews of his chest, her wine-cooled lips gliding across his burning hot skin. And then she went lower...

Portia dropped to her knees, cushioned by the soft bed of grass and clover planted here. They were alone together, but of course, the garden was open, anyone at all could come in...but what did it matter? The stranger wore only loose white trousers, which she pulled down now, sliding them over his calves and knees. The sight of his prick, turgid and swollen, shocked her; she was used to quiet, respectful lovemaking in the dark, where such things remain partially hidden. To see it in broad daylight seemed unreal to her. She kissed it tentatively at first, unsure of herself, but soon she wrapped her mouth around the tip of the stranger's erection and, taking it slowly so as not to overwhelm herself, drew it in one inch at a time, letting her lips massage it on the way down. The stranger leaned against the garden wall, looking at her with half-lidded eyes. She went down until she choked and then eased off. The stranger brushed a strand of her hair off of her forehead. His fingers were strong but soft. She flushed all over.

Portia slid her tongue along the underside of his shaft, trailing wetness there, then slid it out of her mouth just far enough to tickle the head with the tip of her tongue. He seemed to enjoy that, or at least, to be amused by it, so she did it again, sliding her tongue around the ridge and teasing the spot behind it. His body radiated so much heat it was unreal. And what was that taste? She moved her mouth up and down on him again; the taste of his flesh was divine, a sweet and holy sensation that she could not place. She lapped at him, suddenly eager for more of it, and she opened her mouth wider, pushing him to the entrance of her throat, even allowing his fingers to fold themselves in her hair and push down, feeding himself to her. She moaned somewhere in her throat, sending the vibrations up and down him.

Portia was drifting away in the heat of the moment. A warm feeling of satisfaction started in her belly and spread through her body. Her mouth watered and she tried to pull even more of the stranger in, but there was nothing more, she had the entirety of him now, and she was feeling the essence of that sweet, drunken satisfaction that creates a greater need even as it gratifies. She heard, for a moment, footsteps on the stones behind her, and surprised voices, and even laughter, and opening her eyes for a moment she saw the stranger smile and wink, not at her but evidently at someone behind her. They were being watched. Perhaps there was even a crowd? She didn't care. She would not be interrupted. She wanted more. She had become single-minded in her pursuit of the stranger's flesh. She slid her hands up his taut thighs and around back, gripping his hips and all but forcing him, with as much power as her tiny body could summon, to go faster as he rocked back and forth, in and out of her gaping mouth.

His climax took her by surprise; he had given no indication, no verbalization, no change in his body language or breathing. But all of a sudden there was a sensation of pressure being released and then something wet and thick spreading across her tongue, filling her mouth. Portia's eyes snapped open, shocked, and for a second she had the urge to expel him, but she came to her senses fast and instead accepted it. The hot, wet flow spilled inside of her and she observed the gulping motion of her throat with a combination of fascination and horror. She imagined the stranger's seed mixing with the holy wine in her stomach. Is this the largesse of the gods too, she thought? And then she had to pull away because she was laughing, taken with a fit of merry madness.

All at once the stranger pulled her up again by her wrist, so fast that she nearly swooned again. She was gaping, red-faced, breathless, her knees shaking. The stranger smiled, stroking her cheek with the edge of one finger. "I hope you haven't worn yourself out already?" he said, "Come." He started to drag her along. She could barely keep one foot in front of the other.

"Come where?" she said, her words slurred.

"There are people you should meet," said the stranger. He was pulling her into a nearby prayer house, although by the sounds of things there was anything but prayer going on today. The statues and holy icons all had sheets and towels flung over their heads to symbolize the blindness of the gods' to humanity's actions today, and there were many half-empty casks of wine scattered about, and in the dark corners of the room there were many undressed people doing very many things that made Portia's insides quiver even as her head throbbed.

The stranger took her hand and presented it, very cordially, to a woman who was there, standing apart from the others, observing. This woman was pale but vibrant, with golden hair and long, exquisitely formed limbs. Her lips were such a deep red that they were almost purple, like the grapes that make the sacred wine. The stranger presented Portia's hand to this woman, who kissed it, in the manner of a gentleman. Portia's cheeks burned even brighter.

"I'd like you to meet my wife," said the stranger.

Portia's mouth fell open. "But you can't be here!'ve seen each other!"

"So?" said the woman, still holding Portia's hand.

"But it's forbidden, a sin; it's monstrous!" Portia almost babbling now.

"According to whom?" said the stranger. He stood side by side with his wife now, both of them towering over Portia. "This is our house and we will decide what is sacred and what is profane. Who will tell us that it's wrong? You?"

"I—I—" said Portia. She felt confused, her head throbbing. She swayed on her feet again and both the stranger and his wife caught her.

"There, there," said the woman. They took her to a pew and sat her down. The woman began undressing Portia, who did not object. The feeling of her clothes gliding across her bare flesh was very gratifying. Her half-focused eyes fixated on three people in the corner who were very, very busy at something. Suddenly her vision was obscured by the stranger's wife, who leaned over Portia and kissed her with an open mouth. It was a fleeting thing, but Portia raised her head to chase after the woman's retreating lips when she moved away. The stranger swooped in and caught Portia's face in one hand, turning it toward him and giving her a matching kiss.

"I sense that you're feeling in the spirit of the season," said the stranger's wife. Portia nodded, since speaking was too difficult in her state. She was aware of the stranger's hands on her hips, guiding her into a dark corner of the room, and of the strange woman walking in front of her, beckoning her along. Suddenly Portia was in the midst of a mass of people, people half-glimpsed in the dark, a mass of writhing naked bodies and twining limbs. The stranger gave her a little push and almost sent her barreling into the midst of them, but someone (Portia had no idea who?) caught her and helped ease her down.

Portia lay on the floor, the tiles cool against her naked back. A sea of flesh moved around her and the air felt hot and still. She discovered another body pressed against hers, some anonymous woman lost in the drunken ecstasy of the moment, and when they came together (so soft, thought Portia) their lips joined in a long kiss. The nameless woman's hands moved up and down Portia's body, tracing the outline of her hips and her thighs, and Portia raked her fingers up the other woman's back, outlining in the curve of her spine. How remarkable, she thought, that this woman should be composed of all the same parts as I have, and yet we should look nothing alike. She set about testing the theory, examining, with her hot lips and soft hands, the various delicate parts of her unseen partner, tasting the slope of her neck and the angle of her shoulders, feeling the firmness and the ripeness of her breasts, testing the degree of her backside and the plane of her thighs. Portia anatomized the other woman one inch at a time, oblivious to their surroundings.

Suddenly, hands tugged at Portia's hair, and she was turned to greet another kissing mouth, another pair of exploring hands. A woman again, by the feel of her. Portia accepted the attention without complaint. Then she was pulled in a different direction and the hard, lean body of a man lay against her, his kisses hard and insistent. Someone else was behind her now and she felt the distinct throb of an erection against her backside. Strange hands pulled her hair again, arching her neck and back, pressing her breasts forward into the waiting molestation of the man in front of her. One of the women insinuated herself into the group, kissing her way up the exposed flank of Portia's thigh as she was pressed between the two men. None of these strangers, though, was the golden-haired couple who had brought Portia here; this she knew, because now and then she caught sight of them elsewhere in the shadows, always standing, always watching her, sometimes together and sometimes individually. But eventually she was buried underneath the huddle of competing bodies and lost sight of them entirely.

So many hands pulled at her, touched her, groped and fondled her; she felt pulled apart in every direction. She met lips on all sides too, too many to count or keep track of, too many mouths against her naked breasts or exposed neck or pale white shoulders. There were other intrusions on her too; a large hand snaked it way between her thighs, following them up, coming to the place where they met, and then strong fingers were massaging her naked sex. The throbbing feeling there spread out across her. Portia moaned and, with some difficulty because of the crowd, spread her legs. The weight of a body on top of hers took her breath away for a moment, but she had no time to catch it as the force of the unknown man's prick entering her made her chest heave and her knees shake. He propped himself over her on the tile floor and made quick business of pumping her soft, pliant body over and over again. She put her hands up and touched this anonymous man's face, feeling the lines of his cheeks and the bridge of his nose, trying to imagine what he might look like if she saw him more fully.

Her exploration was interrupted when one of the woman snaked her body across Portia's, kissing her and then direction Portia's open mouth to her small, soft breasts. Portia's tongue lapped at them, rubbing across the rubbery flesh of one nipple and listening to the tiny gasp catch in the other woman's throat. How remarkable that people's bodies could be operated so easily. Her own was responding with a rush of wetness down below, along with a contraction of muscles independent of her control. She kissed the other woman's flat stomach and hard thighs, then pushed her face between them, finding the other woman's wet sex and caressing it with her tongue. Portia couldn't help but compare it to her own.

And then she wondered, would this man, who was frantically making love to her in the dark as if his life depended on never suspending his pace, even know the difference between her and this other woman? Would he be able to feel it? She decided to find out. She pushed the both of them off of her; there was some difficulty in this, but when she used her nails it finally got a response. Then, standing on wobbly legs, she pushed the two of them together; it was childishly simple to maneuver them against one another, and soon Portia could see, dimly, in the shadows, their frantic coupling, neither of them missing a beat.

Strong hands grabbed at her again as some other man seized her and bent her over. She offered no resistance, and he began taking her from behind, grunting and moaning in the dark. Portia braced her hands against the wall and pushed back against him, feeling the hard bones of his hips bouncing off her body. Spikes of heat radiating through her every time he penetrated. When he finished after a few minutes of artless but ardent rutting he was almost immediately replaced by someone else, and it began again, and Portia, robbed of her senses, could not tell the difference between them, nor between any of the other line of faceless, nameless, meaningless men who used her body, one after another, nor between the equally indistinguishable women who pleasured and took pleasure with her. They were bodies in the dark, willing and eager flesh, a banquet of touch and taste. Portia took greedy mouthfuls of each meal, wondering how alike her own flesh was to theirs; did they know her? Was she as faceless to them as they were to her, or was she somehow special, remarkable, noteworthy, even here, even now? Would she be remembered? Would she know? She had no way to be sure.

Eventually the others dropped away, exhausted, bored, drunk. Portia was wrung-out and spent, but something about the burning ache of the wine wouldn't let her rest. People slept in two and threes on the floor around her and she picked her way between them. Finding one man still alert and at attention, she went to all fours in front of him and sucked his prick in the dark until he contributed to the growing communion in her body, and then he too fell away, uselessly slumbering. Portia groped her way across the floor, blind and helpless, until familiar hands found her; her strange host and his equally strange wife, still here or perhaps returned from an absence, had come to retrieve her. They stood her up, cleaned her off as best they could, covered her with some bare semblance of modesty, and helped take her from the house.

"Have you been enjoying your rites today?" said the strange man.

"Mmm, yes..." Portia said.

"We have more for you," said the strange woman, as they bore her along between them. More, thought Portia? What else could there possibly be? The sun was getting low. Portia eventually found her feet and began to walk of her own accord, staying between the couple, comfortable in their presence now, indeed, thirsty for it. She slipped an arm around each of their waists, and accepted theirs in return. Ah, now here were bodies she could distinguish, bodies that, even in the dark, she would never forget nor mistake for anyone else's. She became fascinated by the movement of their legs, particularly the way their ankles flexed. For some time she was so distracted by this that she didn't pay any attention to where they were going. Only when she saw the cathedral spires did her feet drag.

"We're going there?" she said.

"Where else on this most sacred day?" said the woman.

"But it's forbidden!" said Portia.

"You say that so often," said the stranger. They approached the gilded gates.

"We can't get in," Portia insisted, "there's no one there." But no sooner did she say it than the gates creaked open. The stranger and his wife entered, greeted formally by whoever was admitting them. When Portia, after a moment's hesitation, followed, she was stunned to see Father Marlowe. Yes, Father Marlowe, in his robes and wearing his mask, against all custom and holy law, wearing a mask on Hallowmas! Portia gasped, as did he when he saw her.

"Portia!" he said. "But what are you doing here child? No, not you, not you of all—"

"I followed them," said Portia. "They insisted that—wait, how did you know me? How do you know my face?"

Father Marlowe seemed about to answer but the stranger gave him a dark look, and he bowed his head. "Well," he muttered, "you are here. There is nothing to be done about it now. Come along."

He led them into the cathedral. Portia was at a loss to keep up, and she had no idea what was going on. It wasn't just the wine now, in fact she felt almost completely sober again. The high arches of the cathedral, always so comforting to her, seemed dark and sinister now. She tried to stay close to Father Marlowe, although in truth his presence was disturbing. How could a priest of all people dare to wear his mask today? And yet the strange couple did not seem bothered by it. Portia began to feel ill; who were these people? How could they so casually stomach such unspeakable sins? Even on Hallowmas there were lines that should never be crossed. She wanted to ask Father Marlowe, but he made a sign for silence, and his eyes behind his mask seemed desperate and pleading.

To Portia's surprise, the sanctuary was full of lights and people; no, she realized, not people at all, merely a line of dressing dummies wearing priest's robes and sacred golden masks in the likeness of bulls, a convocation of masks without faces behind them. Ceremonial torches burned on all sides, and the smell of incense filled the air. What in the world was going on? She followed Father Marlowe and he followed the strange couple, and up to the altar they all went, but here Father Marlowe warned her back. He made suppliant gestures to the couple, who stood at the very utmost of the altar.

"We greet you today, most holy and divine of personages," said Father Marlowe. The stranger smiled a little; his wife was impassive. "And we greet the witness you've brought." Portia started a little when she realized he was talking about her. "In your name, in your honor, shall we initiate the sacrifice?"

The stranger was about to speak but his wife cut him off: "Let her do it," she said. Again, Portia knew they were talking about her, and a hard feeling formed in the pit of her stomach, though she could not imagine what "it" could be. Father Marlowe paused for only a fraction of a second.

"Of course, my lady," he said.

He went to Portia; she stood face to face with the priest, and his eyes looked sad. Portia had no idea what was expected of her. He patted her hand once, reassuring her, and then he turned away and, to her horror, removed his mask, dropping it. Then he shed his robe as well, and for a moment Portia felt as if she were going blind, or perhaps that the world was going out of focus, and when the moment passed Father Marlowe was gone and where he had been, and indeed, still standing over the remains of his robes and mask, was a sacred white bull, lowing and snorting. It was huge and vibrant and alive; in the torchlight she saw sweat dappling its flanks, and when it turned to her its breath warmed her skin. Is it real, Portia thought, half wanting to touch it but half afraid to as well.

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