To step into the ballroom was to be transported to another realm; a magical place where resplendent masks of vibrant colors and feathers mingled with dark covers bejewled with flecks of precious gems. The dress, too, called for an imagination unworthy of the earthly realm. Men worn coats of long tails and breeches cut short at the knee while the ladies spun around the room in swishing floor-length skirts or, sometimes less and just barely the proper side of too-short. Bodies laced tight displayed lithe and elegant shapes and protected the dancers from the glancing blows of their partners’ guiding hands. The choreography, like the costumes, like the ballroom itself, created magic, unfurling it like a brand new flag, crisp and clean and with faint scents of something exotic and otherworldly.
Khiana hung on the arm of a young mortal man, her escort and her gift. She surveyed those gathered before her and then glanced coyly back, always aware, especially of those that would stumble in without full knowledge of the splendor they discovered.
“There is magic afoot,” she whispered.
The man, he who named himself Judas because he favored himself a rebel, led her down five gilded steps and onto the dance floor. “Nonsense,” he said. “I do not believe in magic.”
“I do not believe in death,” she replied casually, “Yet I cause it without a second thought.”
Judas frowned at her. He had heard this argument before and had yet to accept or even become accustom her strange tangents about blood and immortality.
“Death is a scientific fact, even if we acquiesce to the immortal soul.”
“What is death, Judas? It is the end of life, a cessation of bodily function, or more brutally, complete destruction of being. Right?” She didn’t wait for him to respond because she knew he would allow her to finish before speaking himself. “You can kill me, but I would not be completely destroyed.”
“One of these days, I’ll take you up on that challenge,” he teased.
“Perhaps tonight?” The mockery so light and subtle, Judas suspected he simply imagined such a tone.
Khiana nodded at a masked form, thin and sinewy with the lithe step of one touched by the magic of storybooks. Judas couldn’t be sure it was male but for the costume. The creature displayed the mixed qualities often referred to as effeminate and yet exuded pheromones that turned the heads of all that drew near, curious eyes sparkling behind glittering veils of stiff and colorful leather and hard, cut jewels.
As if reading his mind, Khiana pinched Judas’s elbow and whispered in his ear. “Be careful what you wish for.”
“Who says I made any wish,” Judas quipped. He turned his face to study guests across the room and to hide his quick blush from her all-seeing eyes.
“He is lovely,” Khiana said. “He also bites.”
Judas shivered. He couldn’t explain the reaction, but he knew, somewhere under the cobwebs of his subconscious, that heeding her warning would save him more than a gentle nip.
No more than an hour later, as Judas watched Khiana perform the complex steps of a festive dance as if her birth decreed its performance, Judas recalled her warning.
“Are you hers?” the voice asked from beside and slightly behind him.
Glancing over his shoulder, Judas flinched as his eyes lighted on the stranger that, according to Khiana, liked to bite.
The stranger chuckled. “My apologies for startling you,” he said. “We do not see many mortals at these holidays. You are, if I may be so bold to say, an exquisite addition to our revelries.”
Judas stared at him. His voice lilted but suited his otherwordly charm. Bright blue eyes of sapphire captured and enchanted Judas within the span of his short speech. With a shake of his head, Judas freed the cobwebs and struggled to bring his mind back to the moment. Focus eluded him, teasing him with quick nips like a playful puppy unwilling to be caught and leashed.
“Again, apologies. Where are my manners?” The stranger bowed at the waist and then, upon straightening, offered his hand. Long fingers extended in perfect union and with offer of, not friendship, but kinship. “My name is Io Allaire.”
“Io Allaire,” Judas repeated in awe. The name rang in his mind of memories older than his kind and of a time just out of reach of any clock or calendar. He nodded and then, as if in slow motion, wrapped his fingers around the cold, smooth hand. Instead of shaking, as Judas expected, Io Allaire raised his hand to his mouth and nipped the tender webbing between Judas’s thumb and forefinger.
“Back off!” Khiana snapped. Before Judas realized she’d taken notice of his new company, she had imposed herself between him and Io Allaire. “He is mine,” she said. Her fury melted off of her in violent tidal waves that threatened to knock Judas back if not for the pull to intervene on behalf of his new friend. He resolved to settle the matter as decisively as Khiana could speak of death and immortality.
Io Allaire smiled but his eyes reflected an imposed sadness. “I am sorry, my dear lady, but you did not properly bind him. Now, he is mine. Properly so, I might add.”
“Inappropriate!” She raised a hand. Shadows swirled in thick, lazy patterns, lapping out from her cupped palm. “I challenge you.”
The sorrow in Io Allaire’s eyes deepened but behind the mask he revealed nothing of his true intentions. Trepidation crawled up Judas’s spine like a thousand tiny spiders, their legs pinpricks of fear-induced action. Hands clammy, scalp itchy, and an undiscovered opportunity slipping away, Judas screamed and swung. The knife, Io Allaire would say later, appeared in his hand like magic. Judas, on the other hand, remembered nothing except Khiana’s dying gasp.
“You cannot kill me. I will return and I will own you.”