Carnival and Masque.byTamLin01©
Then the stranger and his wife came to her, he guiding her forward and she placing a dagger in Portia's hand. The bull did not seem afraid, indeed, it took a few steps toward her, a friendly gesture, almost. It wasn't until the act was already done that Portia realized that, in one swift motion, she had cut the bull's throat; her hands had moved entirely of their own accord. She gasped and dropped the knife, but though a red stain spread across the great bull's white hide and its blood flowed over the tiled floor the animal did not cry out, did not stagger, did not fall. It stood calm, peaceful, letting its blood flow in streams, making no sign of pain. The stranger knelt, catching some of the blood in a sacred chalice. Portia shook her head, feeling ill. "What's going on?" she said, but the stranger hushed her.
Minutes passed and the stream of blood diminished to a dribble, but somehow the bull still lived. It shook its ears and flicked its tail, and that was all. The stranger put one bronzed hand on the bull's flank and his wife touched it on the forehead, and then the huge animal turned and trotted away, heading toward the altar, and then the world went out of focus again and the beast was gone, vanished, and if not for the blood on the floor Portia would not have believed it had been there in the first place.
"What...what was that?" she said.
"A farewell to the flesh," said the stranger. "Now Hallowmas is done; the most sacred rite has been observed, and you are our witness."
"Not yet," said the woman. She took the blood-filled chalice and, from the altar, retrieved a flagon of wine, which she mixed with the blood in the cup. Then she presented the cup to Portia. "Drink." It was not a request. Portia gagged, shaking her head, but the woman pushed the cup forward. "Drink!" she said again. "It's important. It's the covenant."
"But why?" said Portia. "What does it mean? What's going on here? Who are you?"
"Don't you know?" said the stranger. "Isn't it obvious who we are?"
Portia began to cry. The woman pushed the cup to her lips, almost choking her, and she drank; the concoction had an acrid, biting taste, and it burned her throat, but she drank. The alcoholic haze overtook her again, and she did not resist as the stranger carried her to the altar, laying her naked body across it, and the two stood over her, the man on one side, the woman on the other, hands joined over her. "Now it's done," said one of them (she could not tell which). "The flesh has been affirmed. Humanity's revels are ended."
Portia saw the masks of the gods on the walls; worse, she knew that they saw her. She wanted to cry out but no words came.
"Accept us back into the world now. Accept us into your hearts, your minds, and your bodies."
Portia was burning up inside; her limbs were on fire.
"Accept us," said the man, kissing her.
"Accept us," repeated the woman, kissing her again. Portia's lips burned with divine fire. Her body was floating away, or perhaps was being consumed. The stranger, she realized, was on top of her now, taking her across the altar, right there in front of the eyes of the gods, and his wife was leaning over, presenting her breasts to Portia's mouth, and Portia's skin burned, and her body became lighter and lighter, until it seemed she was not there at all. In the midst of her delirium, she thought she saw the images of the gods remove their masks. She thought she saw the naked faces of the gods. And—how horrifying to realize!—she saw that they looked just like anyone else.
In the final moments of Hallowmas, Portia could no longer tell mortals and gods apart. She couldn't bear it. So instead, she slept.
She woke the next day in her own home again; she did not remember coming back, indeed, did not remember anything after that moment on the altar. And how much of what happened there was memory and how much simply a mad dream? She did not know. She thought she might never know.
She was sore all over, and her hands were still stained with wine; wine, and perhaps something else. She tried to wipe them on her bedclothes before realizing what she was doing. She dressed herself with aching limbs, pausing only briefly before putting her mask on. It settled against her face, and when she opened her eyes everything about the world seemed to make sense again. Yes, everything was all right.
She went to the east sitting room, where the family was already awake and waiting for her. Cassius embraced her, setting his brow against hers, while Octavia chattered with bright greetings and Alexander, at his books as always, gave her a nod. It was a beautiful day outside, and the entire city was rising to greet the open air and the bright sun; with Hallowmas come and gone they had their entire lives to get back to.
"Good morning, Mummy," said Octavia.
"Good morning, Mother," said Alexander.
"Good morning, darlings," said Portia. She frowned; was there something wrong with her voice? It seemed to echo inside her mask. If so, no one else noticed. Cassius sat with her on a couch, talking about dinner with the count that evening; Portia found herself staring at Cassius' bare hands, comparing them to those of the stranger, even to those of the stranger's wife.
She was seized with a kind of spasm, almost a seizure, at the memory of that bizarre, blasphemous couple. She wondered who they were, where they were today, what they were doing, and the thought set a ringing in her mind, as if the bells of every church had split. Cassius did not seem to notice anything was wrong. He kept talking: "Did you know," he said, "Father Marlowe died yesterday."
"He did?" said Alexander.
"Oh yes. In his sleep, in the sanctuary, apparently. They found him this morning. Quite a thing, dying on a holy day. Seems appropriate. I wonder how we'll ever replace him. Anybody who came along would think—"
Octavia noticed first; her screams alerted the others. They all started, then looked at Portia, and then cried out as well. Cassius tried to look away, but it was too late. Octavia would not stop screaming, and eventually she took a needle from her mother's sewing basket and, in a fit, tried to blind herself, but Alexander stepped in to save her. In the end it didn't matter; what they had seen could not be unseen.
Portia had taken her mask off. Right there, in front of everyone, taken it off and broken it into pieces, and now the pieces were sifting through her fingers, falling away, going to dust, and then even the dust was gone. She looked at her husband and children with her naked face for the first time. "Accept us," she remembered the strangers saying. "Accept us," they'd said, again and again.
Cassius took her by her shoulders, shaking her, trying to get her to speak, trying to reason with her. Alexander shielded Octavia's view of the room, hugging her, trying to comfort her. Portia said nothing. Minutes passed before Cassius could get her to say anything, and when she did all she said was: "Accept us. Accept us." He stared, helpless, horrified, not understanding. But Portia was too far gone to explain.
When she opened her eyes she did not see her family anymore; without her mask on, she saw the faces of gods. And the gods saw her. And it was good.
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