Charon – 05

Chapter Five

   Days passed in Hypnos and Martin grew used to the way of life. They were a quiet and sombre people on the surface, not much given to introspection or gossip or discussion. Yet at night the town came alive. Even when a party wasn’t blazing in the streets and the square, there was always someone’s house to visit, always drink and food that flowed easily and without end.

There were no farms or shops or places to work. No one worked, they only amused themselves. And the Squire kept the town running, a Xanadu for ordinary people. Everyone acted as they wished, some sleeping all day and drinking all night. Others spent the days in a semi-comatose state, drifting through the light and only coming truly alive at night.

Some were like Molly, who took pleasure in the simple chores of day and let herself abandon them all when the wine and music flowed. Others, like Bill, enjoyed the pretence of marriage and ordinary life in their homes and on the streets, but Martin discovered his irregular yet frequent trips outside were to other houses where he enjoyed everything his friends could offer him. Some nights he was too exhausted or inebriated to even join in the party and would be left snoring in his bed as Molly and Martin left for the Square or the Tavern or a friend’s house.

Others were like the Brights, who spent all their time watching and talking. Their pleasure was in encouraging others to new levels of inebriation or pleasure. Esme’s sons and grandchildren often ran large and boisterous drinking games. Martin found them enjoyable himself and often found himself at one or other of the Bright’s houses at some point during the night.

The rules were sometimes complicated and reduced them to fits of laughter. Always there were the basics though, that of not ever saying drink or drunk but imbibed and inebriated. The rule of never pointing with your hand but always with an elbow or a knee. Other rules came and went, equally meaningless, but all somehow comforting in their simplicity and consequences. The penalty was always the same, another drink, always another drink, though termed another beverage, or another tipple.

And the Brights were always the first to spot the miscreant, the rulebreaker, and, as the night went on, the one who was lagging, who was too sober or restrained. And they would be urged on, or sometimes grabbed and bottles held upend over the laggard’s mouth to the cheers and whistles of the room.

   And there was the Squire, a man Martin came to know well by sight as he saw him over the days and weeks. The life and soul of any large gathering. The Hall, the Squire’s house, was by invitation only, and only a select few were invited to those grand events. Great dinner parties of exquisite delicacies and venerable wines. Of commissioned music and famous orchestras from across the kingdom.

There was no end to the Squire’s resources and wealth. Wagons came every day, though largely unnoticed and unloaded out of sight. The great wealth of those covered carts was liberally distributed though. The Squire filled every larder with his largesse, yet kept the best for himself and his closest friends. He would make an appearance often yet unannounced and unexpected at many parties. Sometimes staying for a dance or for a set. Sometimes raising a glass and a toast and leaving as freely as he arrived.

Sometimes he would stop and a cluster of friends and flatterers would attach themselves to him as though orbiting bodies about a planet and the group would laugh at his jokes and ply him with drinks and food. And sometimes one of those people would get an invitation the next night to the Squire’s Hall, and sometimes they wouldn’t, dependant solely on the Squire’s whim.

The Squire was the first to propose a new game, or to call for more drink or suggest a new tune to the one that had been repeated too often. And the songs he called for were always the best, unfamiliar, sometimes unknown, yet always the best of the night. And sometimes, if the musicians did not know the tune he would grab the fiddle himself and lead them all in the chorus. And the room would shake as they danced and the windows would rattle and the town would ring with their raised voices and their applause as the music died and the Squire gave the instrument back and called for more.

   And Martin joined in it all. Drinking and eating until he threw up and passed out and sleeping until the music started again the next night. He would sleep the day away even if he wasn’t tired, he would eat whether hungry or not and he would drink whatever was offered to him. And the days passed in a whirl of pleasure and fun. The days became one, a succession of songs, a procession of drinks. A carnival unending as he threw himself into it without thought or concern.

He did not even see the moor anymore, or hear the wind coming from it. Not since that first night. During the day he was asleep and at night it was too dark to see and the music too loud to hear the wind. And when he thought of it, which was rare, he reached for another drink and forgot it quickly enough.

And with the invitations to the parties came the invitations to the townspeople’s beds. And Martin indulged as freely as in anything else. Most of the women were as free with their bodies as with their drink and Martin rarely found himself waking up in his own bed anymore. Soon he didn’t even bother going back to Molly’s but pulled the sheets over his head and spent the day in the stranger’s bed until the night came round once more.

   And, after a while, perhaps weeks, perhaps months, Martin realised that he could not remember when he had last seen the sun. He slept during the day and only woke at night. The town looked different at night, a twin of Hypnos, a reflection. And Bill had told him, when he mentioned this to him, that some of the older ones, who had lived here for many years and now only saw the town during the night weren’t really citizens of Hypnos, they were citizens of its twin. He had said it half-joking, with a smile.

But they had given this twin a name, the townspeople. They called this twin town Pasithea. And these ‘citizens’ of Pasithea were unseen during the day, but at night they freely intermingled. And these twin citizens seemed to frequent the Squire’s Hall more so than the others, as though they were his favourites.

But either night-dwellers or day, either folk of Hypnos or of Pasithea, they were all beholden to the Squire. He welcomed them all, with open arms and a broad grinning smile. The two towns were twins, exactly alike, and they both had the same father.

   And the townspeople of Hypnos and of Pasithea seemed to now accepted Martin as they all saw that he had thrown himself into their way of life. Even Esme hadn’t a bad word to say but watched him with a thin smile and invited him to her parties. And the townspeople invited him to their beds and the streets and the barrels in the tavern and the fires in the Square.

But it was the invitation to the Squire’s Hall that was the prize. And when it came, Martin truly felt like the town was his home.

The Squire’s Hall was lined with tables. More food than could possibly be eaten was laid out on platters and plates, in bowls and tureens. Each piece of diningware elegantly made, each filled only with the best. Each dish freshly made.

Flowers were laid out among them in silver and glass. Tablecloths stitched with silver threads and the gorgeous chandeliers that Martin remembered were above it all, shining their faceted light.

And milling about, picking at the food, tasting small pieces of each delicacy without filling their bellies were the guests. Favoured townspeople, strangers from out of town, each dressed in their best, each chattering among themselves, in groups and in circles. The musicians were specially hired. Right now just warming up with background melodies.

Martin found himself in conversation with an elegant lady who chatted about how wonderful the Squire’s parties were and how she always tried to make at least one a month. She spoke about the lights and the jewels and the champagne in her glass. She said nothing of consequence and moved on to say the same to others.

Martin was dazzled and impressed. He felt helpless among the currents of the room and allowed himself to be led among the guests, taken by hand and introduced to strangers whose names he instantly forgot. It was a masked ball, he understood, and his mask had been given to him at the door. It was white-feathered and simple compared to the creations he was introduced to. Some just covered the eyes, some the whole face, feathers and jewels and sequins. Hiding behind them, delighting in their anonymity were so many people he didn’t know and never would.

What were the masks for he wondered, why were they needed since all were most likely strangers anyway. Yet still he got a kind of thrill from staring out from behind his own. And realised that it was not just the fact that his mask hid his face, but that it gave him a new one. And the faces of those around him became simpler.

He did not know their names but he knew them by their masks, the cat, the fox, the crow, the dog. And he knew, if he knew the mask he would know them, or at least a part, for the servant who had handed them out had chosen them carefully, as if by an insightful instinct.

Martin’s mask was white for his innocence in the town, his newness, it was not representative of any one bird or animal though. It looked like it could be a number of different birds. Perhaps a swan tonight, but tomorrow he could just as easily be an ostrich and the next night he could be an owl. It depended on the company, and his perspective.

   And Martin watched these masks of people move about the room. And he saw that the party seemed to be gravitating towards the far side, where a closed door exerted a kind of magnetism over them. He realised that the Squire would come from that door, that he would enter and the party would then truly begin. And Martin realised also that he was trying to stay as close to that door as possible. All his movements edging him in that direction.

There were other pulls at the crowd though. There was one woman, invited from outside the town. She was young and her mask had been held back for her by the servant so it could be given to her alone. It was that of a unicorn, a sleek white mask with a short, slender silver horn high upon her forehead. It covered only her eyes and brow, the rest of her face, delicate and beautiful, was bare. She exerted a pull over some of the crowd who seemed to be orbiting her almost as much as the door.

There was a restraint that Martin had not noticed before in Hypnos, a holding back of emotion and desire. The wine was excellent but was being sipped rather than emptied. The food was exquisite but was being nibbled rather than gorged upon. This was not a party like the others where appetites were encouraged.

Martin looked up and thought he recognised one of the Brights, wearing an iridescent blue mask with a crest upon its head, a Peacock’s face of haughty male beauty. The nose was shaped to a beak and the eyes were slits. He was not encouraging the others like he would at any other party. He was young and drinking heavily with a small group of friends. Yet he watched the proceedings through his haughtily beautiful mask, as though languidly waiting for something interesting to happen.

   The flow of guests entering seemed to have stopped as Martin watched the doors. The entrance doors were flanked by two servants wearing dog masks. Martin watched as they pulled the doors shut and locked them. He glanced about the room, and then noticed a mask near the corner somehow different from the others, a Jackal. He did not recognise the tall man who wore it. He wore a simple robe, grey and featureless and heavy. His mask covered his entire face. He was not talking to anyone else and Martin noticed he was watching Martin, studying him.

Martin shivered and realised he hadn’t seen the Jackal earlier and hadn’t seen him arrive. He wanted to go over to the man though and talk to him. Questions rose unbidden to his mind, questions about Hypnos, about Acheron and Martin for some reason thought the Jackal may be able to answer them. Yet Martin was unnerved by the tall stranger’s presence and he pushed the questions away, and turned his face to one side, looking at the other guests.

His eyes fell on the Unicorn, surrounded by admirers, who complimented her on her beauty, on her dress, on her grace and manners. She seemed perfect, pure, otherworldy. It was strange, she seemed more solid than the others that surrounded her, as though she was more real. And then Martin realised her dress didn’t seem to fit in with the others. And then it struck him. The style was modern.

   The door at the far end opened with a blaze of trumpets and drums from the musicians. And all was silence as the Squire entered the room. He wore a Boar’s mask, large and realistic looking. Bristled and snouted. His mouth was uncovered below the mask and he was grinning broadly at his guests as he raised his hands as if to bless them. Martin saw two more dogs move to close the doors behind him and stand to flank it. The Boar stood before them all and cried “Welcome,” with open arms.

 “Welcome, my guests, my friends. I trust you have enjoyed the evening so far, you have drunk my wine and eaten my food. You have danced to my musicians and enjoyed their talents. Yet this world offers so many pleasures to ones such as us, and so many talents to enjoy. Why should we restrict ourselves to food and drink and song? Why should we not take what we want and as much as we can carry. We are but dreams within dreams, and what we do has no lasting consequence.

“We will wake soon enough and this place will be but a fading memory that puts a smile on our faces through the day, or makes us face whatever toil awaits with a frown. And why a frown, except because of our foolish self-imposed restraints here? We could have done anything, enjoyed what we could only otherwise imagine, but we held back, following morals and restrictions that have no meaning to us. For who has authority over us here?”

 The Boar moved as he spoke, taking a glass from a new tray brought out by the servants. He raised it, it was filled with a dark red liquid that gleamed within the crystal. The servants took the trays out among the guests and each mask took one. Martin stared at his, he wondered what it contained.

 “I ask you to join me my brothers and sisters, I ask you to join me as we take and enjoy. This is no ordinary liquor I offer to you my friends. This is the drink of the three graces, a stimulant, an intoxicant, an hallucinatory blend. A drug of more potency than any wine, a drug that will cast off your remaining cares and worries and woes. A drug that will abandon you to this town as you have wanted to so badly.” And at this point his eyes behind the mask met Martin’s and Martin knew the Squire was speaking directly to him.

 “Alcohol only takes us so far, this will take us to the end. And finally we will know what it means to live in Hypnos, to live in a dream.” And he raised the glass along with all the rest. And Martin saw that the Unicorn girl was the only one without a glass, looking around, bewildered as the servants passed her by.

And Martin looked around but the Jackal was gone, though the doors were locked. But he didn’t care. He no longer wanted to speak to the Jackal, he wanted to embrace the Boar, to join him in his toast, to raise the glass and drink deeply from it. For he realised that was the only way to stay away from the moor, the only way to quiet the wind that even now blew against the house outside. He drained the glass with the others and as he did he felt the warmth of it hitting his loins, his belly, his chest, his brain, and filling him with a deep heat that cleared his vision and made him see it all so clearly.

He could do anything he wanted, he could forget everything else. He could let himself go, along with the past, along with his questions, along with any answer he might have wanted yet could not stand to hear. In this abandonment was the answer, in this void of heat and desire and sensation was the only truth.

   And music rose up from the band as the Boar took the fiddle and played it, a song of heat and depth, of speed and haunting thoughts. It was the opposite, Martin realised, to the constant, thin whistling of the wind outside. It was thick and pulsing, keeping time with his heart as it beat faster and faster.

And the Boar threw back his head and sang out, a roar that the room caught up and carried and danced with it. And Martin danced with them, a cacophony of stamping and shouting and great laughs. Whirling round in a circle they danced. Every one in a great circle turned in on themselves.

And in the centre was the Unicorn, looking scared now. Pipes played and the fiddle danced and a drumbeat caught their hearts and made their blood pump faster. And the room spun with them as they turned around and around. And Martin felt it all slip away, all reason, all wondering, all problems. He was just the mask, a swan among the others.

And the he shouted and sang and stamped and cried out with the others, the music primal now and unmelodious. Throbbing and screaming as the circle broke and they threw themselves forward. And he moved forward with the crowd as it chased and brought down the Unicorn.

Her screams were lost in the cheers as the frontrunners, a wolf mask and the cockerel, leapt upon her back. She screamed as her mask was crushed under foot and the silver horn snapped off, her dress ripping, the laughter of the crowd and Martin’s heart beating in his chest as the world started to shift and flow.

And he thought no more, and would never remember what he did.

> Chapter Six

Chapter Four <

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