They were talking about identity, about who we think we are and who we want to be, and whether someone can love you for some trait you don't feel you have, whether it's love if your lover sees you not as you see yourself, but as something else. Can you be loved for some quality you don't think you have? They were talking about identity.
They're still talking of these things as they walk through the basement of the Hotel Pavane and past the costume shop, where Marija comes across a large room filled with masks, masks of all kinds: harlequin, false face, full-head, Venetian. Masks of paper mache or latex, clear plastic or leather, veiled hoods and burlap sacks—disguises, false faces, masks, shields and blinds, all manner of concealments. There are masks from history and masks from nature; animal masks and masks of no known creature; masks from Africa and Asia and the Americas; masks from Greek Tragedy and comedia dell' arte; industrial masks for welders and protective masks for athletes; lavish constructions of beads and lace and flowing plumes, and tight leather gauntlets that cover the entire head in a severe, black skin. They cover the walls and hang on stands. They hang from the ceiling like severed heads, like so many faces removed from their wearers, laughing, threatening, begging, accusing.
"What is all this?" she asks, a strange thrill creeping up her spine.
"Masks," Ari says dryly. "People are always wearing masks at the Pavane. Masquerade balls are very popular, as you might imagine. Everyone likes to play with their identity."
Marija turns a wolf head mask in her hands. It's a lavish production. The fur is real, the teeth revealed in a feral snarl, the glass eyes shine with life.
"May we go to one? I've always wanted to go to a real masquerade."
Ariel looks at her. He realizes she wants to stay for a while, so he lifts himself up to sit on a stack of cartons containing more masks. "Have you?" he asks. "And which would you wear? Who would you be?"
Marija passes her hand through the rich plumes of a Venetian mask painted in gold and purple. "That would be hard. It would be hard to choose. I suppose it would depend on my costume."
"There's a masquerade tonight," Ari says. "It's quite popular, though it somewhat special. It's known as the reverse masquerade."
"Reverse?" she asks. "Why is that?"
"Normally we clothe our bodies but leave our faces bare. At the reverse masquerade, we turn that around. We clothe our faces and leave our bodies bare."
Marija looks at him. "Really?" she says. "Completely naked? Only a mask?"
"Actually, everyone wears a cloak of some kind, usually a kind of cape, but they're naked beneath that. The cloaks go with the masks, so no one has to be totally exposed. We're shy creatures when it comes down to it, and the excitement comes from what's revealed, not from what's blatantly exposed. You can't reveal something unless it's first concealed, and that's where the cloaks come in. Shoes are allowed too, and jewelry and adornment, but the bodies are always available. The cloaks have no fastenings. All you have to do is raise your arms and you're exposed. There's one right over there."
Marija follows his eyes and sees a long black cape hanging against the wall. She goes over and rubs the fabric between her fingers. It's thin and silky, some sort of synthetic that hangs effortlessly, almost clinging to her fingers.
"And what happens at these masquerades? Or do I even have to ask?"
Ariel looks solemn. "Actually, they can be devastating. Clothes do more than cover the body. They determine who we are and how others see us, and being stripped of one's clothes is not the erotic lark it might seem. Many people attend the reverse masquerade thinking it will be a bit of naughty fun, and end up suffering some rather severe shocks to their own self image."
Marija is still standing there fingering the cape, and he can see that his words have gone right by her, so he adds, "What's dangerous about a masquerade is not that other people don't know who you are, but that you don't know yourself. We tend to forget ourselves when we're disguised. Masks have that effect on us."
Marija is gazing at the wall of faces, the brilliant patterns and methods of concealment. She's imagining the feel of walking across a marble floor, her identity hidden behind a shield of paper mache or beaten metal, the air free on her bare skin. She can already sense the freedom that appearing naked with her face masked will give her. No one knows her here. No one would recognize her body, except possibly Ariel, and even he might be fooled if she handles herself well.
He watches her as she gazes at the masks, and he knows what she's thinking.
"So which would you be? If you were to be naked except for your shoes. What kind of face would you present to the world?"
Marija goes to a close-fitting leather hood that zips up the back, enclosing the wearer's head and face in a featureless skin of leather, only the eyes visible, a prominent zipper over the mouth. It's frightening, dehumanizing. She looks away then, to some featureless masks representing the sun and moon. She pretends to study them.
"Telling you would spoil the fun," she says, taking down a clown's wig and pulling it over her head. "I'll just show up and you'll have to find me. What time did you say it began?"
# # #
She waits until he leaves and then buys the mask she wants, charging it to Ariel's account.
Back in her room she sits at the dressing table putting her hair up, staring at the black hood. It frightens her, repels and fascinates her. It's featureless, shiny black with stitching around the eyes and an opening beneath the nose to breath through. The mouth is nothing but a thick horizontal zipper. Looking at the blank expression makes her unaccountably excited.
She's already bathed and shaved herself, powdered and put on scent. The mask will leave her eyes exposed so she was very careful about her eye makeup. She sits in her white terry bathrobe and opens the back of the mask. She slips the hood over her head, chasing some errant strands of blonde hair and tucking them back up beneath the hood. The mask smells like new leather and polish, a smell that excites her. The inside is brushed, almost as soft as suede. She pulls it snug over her face, then pulls down the large zipper that runs from the back of her head to the top of her neck and feels the leather embrace her, pressing against her cheeks, closing her off from the world.
She looks at herself in the mirror and feels a weird thrill run through her. The mask is grotesque and repellant, yet strangely erotic too. Her features are covered with a featureless expanse of cool, shiny leather so that only her eyes are visible, and her eyes hold the look of both predator and victim. She looks like a living mannequin, horrible and beautiful at the same time, faceless and female, no one and everyone.
The erotic force of her image looking back at her makes her breath catch in her throat. She feels her nipples contract in excitement. She could never appear in public like this. How could she? It's absolutely obscene.
Sitting at the table, she shrugs off her robe and sits up straight. The faceless mask, so snug and smooth against her skin, makes her body seem even more female, more lush and vulnerable. She's a caricature, a faceless woman, a slave, anyone's to fuck and have.
Will Ariel recognize her? They've not known each other that long, but she thinks he will—her body, her eyes. He already knows her quite well. But what will she be to the other revelers? That's what interests her. Faceless and without identity, she has terrible power.
She's already quite excited as she slips into a pair of low sandals, merely to protect her feet. The black cloak that came with the mask hangs behind her door. She fastens the tie around her neck, allowing the sheer black fabric to hang like a curtain over her nakedness. The lines of her body are still quite visible, the thrust of her breasts, the peaks of her nipples, the rich curve of her hips.
She glances at the clock and sees she still has twenty minutes before she's going to meet Ariel, but something inside her won't wait. She throws on her terry cloth robe and drapes a bath towel over her head to hide the mask. She looks absurd, like a prize fighter, but she doesn't care. There are all sorts of strange characters prowling the corridors of the hotel at all times of the day or night. Besides, no one can recognize her. She's free of herself.
# # #
The ball is just beginning when Marija arrives. The lights have just been turned down and the candles and lanterns lit, and the string quartet has just begun to play. Everyone wears a cloak, most black, but some in red or white or even blue, and all wearing lavish masks.. So far there are few signs of overt nudity, but there are discrete flashes of skin as people move about, and above the hum of conversation Marija can hear the occasional nervous laugh..
No one is dancing, of course, because dancing means touching skin to skin. People stand around in knots, uneasily, some self-consciously with their capes thrown back, most still keeping themselves concealed. In their masks they look like sculptures, aliens, being of different species, and their interaction is both shockingly intimate and strangely formal. The lighting is dim, only the candles on the tables. Some of the men are already erect, and proudly showing off. Some laugh uneasily, and at least one of them wearing the face of an Egyptian god is already being masturbated by a woman in a white feathered mask that makes her look like an ancient owl.
Dressed in a black sequined Venetian mask adorned with black plumes, Ariel stands near the orchestra and recalls now why he stays away from these things. It's like amateur night, he thinks. The masks make people wild and reckless. He's worried about Marija. After only three days at the Pavane he wonders whether she's ready for an event like this, and the enthusiasm she showed when she looked at the masks surprised and worried him. The passions aroused by the reverse masquerade are not always what the masquers expect, and he wonders if Marija's ready to handle this perverse sort of desire. Playing with identities is always dangerous, especially when passions run high.
In the face of all this erotic tension, the revelers turn eagerly to alcohol and even other, less legitimate drugs. The bartenders are busy and the scent of illicit smoke drifts about the room, weakly masked by the heady scent of musk and incense.
Unbeknownst to Ariel, Marija enters the room from the other end and goes to the coat check, where she's given a thin bracelet in return for the bath robe and towel. The coat check girl is a professional and used to all sorts of things at the Hotel Pavane, but the sight of the tight-fitting black leather hood on that voluptuous body is arresting and more than a little disquieting, and her eyes linger on Marija for a moment. When their eyes connect, she's forced to look away.
Marija is wearing nothing but the hood, her sandals, and the soft cape of black that encloses her from neck to ankle. There are no accommodations for the wearer's arms, and so to use one's hand is to reveal one's naked body beneath it. Clad only in the thin, clingy cape, Marija is suddenly self-conscious. A waiter approaches her, captivated by that smooth, unsettling black leather mask and the living eyes behind it. He offers her a drink from a tray, but Marija refuses, unwilling to expose her body by reaching for it.
Still, there's no mistaking the femininity of the body beneath the thin cape, the curving thrust of her breasts, the stiff peaks of her nipples. The waiter seems about to say something when Marija turns and walks away. When she walks the cape parts, showing her bare leg all the way up to her thigh. She feels the breeze on her naked sex.
The ballroom is dizzy with mirrors, and she can't resist approaching one and inspecting herself again. The mask is featureless, but her brown eyes show through, glittering with excitement. She opens the zipper over her mouth and sticks out her tongue. The pinkness and the sight of her white teeth against the black leather is quite obscene in a disturbing kind of way, and she zips the mouth closed. No drinks for her tonight, nor will she even be able to speak. The thought strikes her with renewed erotic force. She won't even have her voice to define her.
She becomes aware of a man looking at her reflection from over her shoulder. He wears the head of a bear over his face, and it suits him. He has a thick and powerful body, the hairs of his chest sprinkled with gray. She tries not to look, but it's impossible to ignore the thick, flaccid penis beneath his parted robe.
"And who might we have here?" he asks, coming up behind her. "A faceless beauty. That's quite a mask, my dear. Rather disturbing. Can you speak?"
Marija feels a thrill at her own disguise. He of course has no idea of whom she might be. She shakes her head.
"Can't talk?" he asks. "Then just nod your head. Are you with someone, or unattached?"
This is the moment. The instant that she can make fantasy reality.
She shakes her head no.
"Excellent," he says. "If you can't talk, then perhaps you can dance?"
He opens his arms for her and his robe falls open, exposing his powerful thighs and thick cock, hanging like a primitive club between his legs.
Marija's heart is beating fast. She knows what it will mean to be enclosed by his arms, her naked body pressed against his. It's all happening so fast.
The orchestra—masked but decently clothed—is playing, and now there are some couples dancing. She realizes that in order to take his hand, she'll have to open her cape and expose her nakedness, but then, what has she come to this ball for if not for that? And why not this man. He's older, obviously discrete and knowledgeable, so why not?
Somewhere Ariel is presumably looking for her, but then, he doesn't know what mask she's wearing. No one does. She's a body with no identity. She's hers to do with as she wishes.
She puts her hands through the front of her cape and presents herself for the man's embrace. He says nothing, but she sees his dark eyes glittering as he steps forward. He takes her in his arms and, rather stiffly, they begin to dance.
It's a waltz, slow, but still not something Marija's familiar with. The man is, though, and he stands at a distance from her so as not to touch her body with his and guides her effortlessly to the music, their capes swirling gently around their naked bodies.
He's quite confident, and once they have settled into the music he moves his hand from her hip to the small of her back, pulling her subtly closer, and closer still, till their bodies are touching
Dancing naked, even with the cape trailing behind her, holds an eroticism like nothing she's ever imagined. Her breasts scrape against the hair on his chest and her thighs are caressed by his legs as he leads her slowly around the floor. She feels the warmth of his hand on her back, the subtle way he guides her, and Marija finds herself instantly aroused.
Her hand is under his cape on the hard muscle of his shoulder, and his stiffening cock presses against her puff of pubic hair as he leads her slowly to the music, his eyes locked on hers. Under these conditions it's simply not possible to hide his growing arousal, and he doesn't even try: his prick is hard and eager. Marija can hardly pretend to be surprised.
"You're a beautiful woman," he says. "I can tell just from your eyes. Why would you choose such a grotesque mask?"
With the zipper closed over her mouth, Marija doesn't even try to speak. She leans back slightly so that her nipples aren't stimulated by the rough thatch of hair on his chest, but that brings her crotch more firmly against the man's loins. His cock is quite hard now and pressing insistently against her stomach. He doesn't seem to mind in the least, and neither does she. If anything, his animal horniness excites her further. If he wants to fuck her, why not? What should she care what this faceless body does?
Around them other couples are dancing, some kissing, some slowly rocking, hands moving under the protective cover of their capes. Some couples have simply stopped and stand there openly embracing, locked in hungry kisses as hands search eagerly, their sexual intentions obvious. The music of the string quartet is underlaid with the sounds of low laughter and murmured words and whispers of encouragement and desire.
There are benches set around the dance floor and some are already occupied by couples shameless in their lusts: women's fists on men's pricks, and men's hands between the women's thighs, and everywhere the riot of grotesque masks, feathers and sequins, animals and sunbursts and devils and angels.
"People choose their masks to express how they feel about themselves," the man says as they dance. "What does yours say about you, I wonder? That you're faceless, featureless, anyone's for the taking?"
"I'll never know who you are," he continues. "Never even know if you enjoy it or what you think of me. Is that the idea?"
Marija's relieved that she can't answer, because she doesn't know what she'd say. She chose this mask for it's anonymity, and yet she can't say why. Just that for once she doesn't want to worry about who she is or what her partner might think of her. Or even what she'll think of herself
The orchestra plays and as they dance. The man pulls her closer, lowers his head and presses his lips against her breast. Awkwardly, they dance like that as his tongue emerges and licks at Marija's nipple. Her nerves are already on fire, her nipples sensitized by the rubbing against his curly chest hair. The feel of his warm, wet tongue against her makes her bite back a moan of shameful pleasure.
Seeing her response, the man stops dancing. Both his hands reach inside her cape and close on her buttocks, and he pulls her against his throbbing erection as he continues to lick circles around her nipples. Danger signals flash to her brain, but she fights them off. No one knows who she is, not even this man. She's safe, free. She can do whatever she wants.
She pushes the man away, not sure that she wants to give in so easily, and he draws himself up, ready to pursue her, his eyes glittering. His cock now fully erect and standing up, reaching for the ceiling, an angry reddish purple.
He stands regarding her as Marija raises her hands and signals for him to slow down, wait. She's just seen something that gives her pause, a woman standing at the edge of the dance floor in a lavish bird mask, a woman who could be her own double.
Signaling the man to wait again, she turns and walks up to the woman who regards her through her elaborate mask as if she's noticed the resemblance as well.
Marija has to open the zipper over her mouth to talk, and because it feels foolish, she keeps her head down.
"I couldn't help but notice you." Marija says. "We're almost the same. Same height, same weight."
"So we are," the woman says. "Remarkable, isn't it?"
"Are you with someone?"
The eyes smile. "This must be your first reverse masque. No one's with anyone here, not really. That's the entire point. What did you have in mind?"
"Nothing. I think someone might be looking for me, though. I want him to be confused."
"Is that him?"
The girl gestures with her chin across the dance floor, and Marija sees Ariel standing there in a red cape wearing a mask that displays his mouth and beard so that identifying him is easy. He's looking in their direction but seems uncertain.
"Yes. I just want to see if he knows me. I doubt he will." Marija says, and the girl nods in understanding.