"Give no indication that you can hear me," the voice whispered into Lord Mumphrey's left ear.
Failing to follow this instruction in the most spectacular manner Lord Mumphrey spun round, examining the masked faces of his fellow party-goers for some indication that the directive had come from them. Nobody gave any signal that they had heard him but he did spot what he believed was a rather attractive young woman standing near the ornate punchbowl set in the centre of the trestle table closest to him.
Lord Mumphrey sidled up to the slim young woman.
"I don't believe we've been introduced," he said.
The woman regarded him from behind the turquoise feathered mask she wore, she smiled gently.
"You are correct, sir," she said, smiling. "Tabitha Lumpworthy, a pleasure to make your acquaintance."
"Lord Vilpus Mumphrey," Lord Mumphrey said. "A similar pleasure to make yours."
"My Lady," interjected a third gentlemen approaching them from Mumphrey's left. "It appears that I have arrived to effect your liberation from this tedium at just the right moment."
The new speaker was a rakish young knave wearing a mask that appeared to have been fashioned from scraps of cloth sewn together hastily into a fool's motley. A spray of wiry red hair emerged above the top of the mask, a broad, unpleasantly mocking grin hung underneath it.
"Dance with me, milady," the young man said. "I will induce a feeling one may best liken to floating on air."
He offered his hand. Technically, as he had asked for a dance the only thing party protocol allowed Miss Lumpworthy to do was decline the invitation because she had already arranged to dance with someone else. If Mumphrey wanted the young lady's attention again he would have to wait until the dance was over.
"Your arrogance tells me that you had better be right, sirrah," Miss Lumpworthy said, accepting the proferred hand, the two went off together towards the dance floor.
Slightly deflated Lord Mumphrey cast his eye over the buffet.
"Shall we try that again?" whispered the voice that had hailed Lord Mumphrey a few moments previously. "Just keep looking at all the food. Don't eat any. It's cursed. Don't let on you know."
Lord Mumphrey froze. He didn't know what to do. He found himself looking over the buffet table, turning the concept of cursed food over in his mind. The prawns looked nice, he liked prawns. They looked tasty, not cursed. How could prawns that looked so tasty be cursed?
"You can't let on you can hear me," the voice continued. "So I'll tell you how to respond. If you understand, clear your throat."
Lord Mumphrey didn't know if he did understand, but he did know how to clear his throat, so he did, it made him feel like he was participating in a conspiracy rather than experiencing the onset of lunacy.
"Good," the voice said. "Now, I'm going to tell you a few things, you'll find them difficult to believe, more difficult still because of all the curse magic in this place. I'll start with something easy. That man who went off dancing with the lady, he's a djinn called Harvey Raine."
Lord Mumphrey felt a little prickle of righteous happiness, he had known that that young man was trouble.
"He is working with me, although we haven't had a chance to communicate since we got here. He's trying to rescue you," the voice explained.
Lord Mumphrey had to bite his tongue not to blurt out: 'Rescue me from what?' Cursed prawns, he supposed. Although he didn't see how poaching a dance partner could be viewed as liberation from the effects of tainted seafood.
"The fact is," the voice said, a weary note came into its cadence, "you are not who you think you are. You are a knight who has been trapped at this party and given the mask of Lord Vilpus Mumphrey. Your identity is a prison."
At this Lord Mumphrey's mind revolted. Who was saying this? Who was whispering this nonsense into his ear? What treacherous, villainous...
"You're hearing the voice, aren't you squire?" a voice asked behind Lord Mumphrey, another voice he recognised, although lower than it had been. It was the voice of the djinn who had taken away Miss Lumpworthy.
"What? No! I mean. What do you mean?" Lord Mumphrey said spinning round to face the dance partner stealing knave.
The boy's features had changed in the last few minutes, gone was the cheeky grin and air of arrogance. Actually the arrogance hadn't really gone anywhere, just transformed into a bizarre electric intensity. The grin had collapsed into a long thin scowl. The djinn's eyes were narrowed beneath the motley mask, making the cast of his features too dark and serious for a light and jolly celebration.
"You want to get rid of the voice and its lies meet me in the garden in two minutes, come alone," the djinn said. He dodged past Lord Mumphrey with a remarkable speed and agility. By the time Lord Mumphrey had turned to follow the young man's path the djinn had disappeared, leaving Lord Mumphrey in a state of distress and confusion.
"If you want rid of me," the disembodied voice whispered, "you had better do exactly as he says."
"Whuh-huh," Lord Mumphrey said. A woman in a cat mask was halfway through gesturing with a small novelty sceptre in conversation with a man wearing the ridiculous proboscis of some tropical bird, inexplicably holding a small shovel such as one might take to the beach. They both stopped to look at him. Knowing what bad manners it was to be miserable at a party Lord Mumphrey smiled at them and gave them a little wave. "The prawns are delicious!" he called over to them, he picked up a prawn from a display bedecked in small ornaments in the shape of mermaids.
The masked party-goers smiled at Lord Mumphrey before returning to their conversation. Lord Mumphrey believed the amount of perspiration caught under his mask was starting to become uncomfortable. He carefully replaced the tainted prawn onto the dish.
"You are, in fact," the disembodied voice said, adding to the giddy delirium of the moment, "a young knight by the name of Frederick Cobb."
"Please be quiet," Lord Mumphrey whispered, desperate for peace to come to his churning mind.
The crowd in front of Lord Mumphrey parted and the hostess appeared. The young Lady Scovina Crimzona, who's debut in society was the occasion for this delightful evening. Lord Mumphrey suddenly became acutely aware that he was feeling a bit ill, and this illness may have manifested in the physical appearance of something less than rapturous joy.
If there was one thing Lady Crimzona did not appreciate in the slightest it was someone having a less than wonderful time at her big night.
"Lord Mumphrey," she said. "A little bird told me that you were looking a little... lost. Is everything to your satisfaction?"
The question, everyone present knew, was rhetorical, but Lord Mumphrey's answer was required however redundant it was in reality.
"Oh, yes, milady," he said, finding a hearty smile somewhere in the back of the mental cupboard containing his emotions. It was possibly a little dusty and definitely past its best but he hoped it would serve as a confirmation of Lady Crimzona's benevolence and generosity. "The food is excellent, the music delightful, you bless me with your company."
At that last statement a hot little spark kindled in Lady Crimzona's eye. Acting out of some desperate and passionate need to be on the better side of the tyrant in charge of this shindig Lord Mumphrey's smile set hard onto his face, beaming out across the room but at Lady Crimzona in particular.
"My lady," he said. "How could you doubt that your very presence in this place is the engine, the very heart and soul of this occasion? What would this be save for a paltry gathering had we not your radiant presence to bask in? How could we truly experience joy and merriment without knowing that it is your happiness that forms the core of our assembly? What need would there be for dancing or wit if not to serve as a delight for the most beautiful woman in the room, the hostess of this dream occasion?"
There was a moment's silence in which everyone wondered if Mumphrey had overegged the pudding.
"Lord Mumphrey," Lady Crimzona said, her voice low. The world balanced upon a knife edge, the guests collectively held their breath. "Do you really think I'm the most beautiful woman in the room?"
The room exhaled at Lady Crimzona's soft, but somehow still dangerous, tone. They all breathed out, slowly, so as not to alert the wrong person to the wave of party-inappropriate relief.
"That you could ask the question," Lord Mumphrey replied, not breaking eye contact with Lady Crimzona, "just adds humility and modesty to the lengthy list of your attractive qualities."
Lady Crimzona giggled and held out a hand decorated with an enormous ruby ring.
"Dance with me, Lord Mumphrey," she commanded him. So he had to.
Lady Crimzona, it turned out, was an excellent dancer. Lord Mumphrey couldn't help but feel that possibly he was not. He didn't miss a beat, put his feet in the wrong place or any other such clumsiness but he could feel the dance in his limbs as a series of barely competent close shaves. Somewhere in Lord Mumphrey's mind he wondered how much dancing he had actually ever done, even as his memory provided a full programme of social education that told him he had been schooled in popular dancing since the age of eight.
He wondered, as the dance came to an end, whether he would have a problem with Lady Crimzona wishing to continue their encounter with a second round of sycophantic flattery. As it happened the lady made it quite plain to her dance partner that he was surplus to requirements moments after the final strains of the band had died away. The vision of terror, wrapped up in red silk, bustled away into the crowd, ever the social butterfly.
"Good job," the disembodied voice whispered. "Now, quickly go meet Harvey."
Lord Mumphrey had stopped asking questions. He couldn't remember when the party had stopped being fun but that was probably because he now understood that it had never been fun. He made his way through the crowds and out onto a patio area where more guests conversed, enjoying the fresh, cool evening air.
Mumphrey looked about for the young man who had told him to come out here, he searched for a couple of minutes before realising that he had been told to come alone. Lord Mumphrey sidled over to the edge of the patio and out into the darkened shadows of the garden. On a path in between two rows of trees the djinn waited for Lord Mumphrey.
"You came," the djinn said. "If the mask glamour wasn't even stupider than you I'd give it the credit for this display of good judgement."
Lord Mumphrey wondered for a moment if he should take offence. He decided that he was too confused for that.
"What do you want?" he hissed at the djinn. "How can I make the voices stop?"
"Very easy," the djinn replied. "Technically. Very difficult in reality. You just need to remove your mask."
"Don't be ridiculous!" Lord Mumphrey scoffed. "The unmasking is not until midnight."
"And therein lies the problem," the djinn replied. "The glamour has a safety feature built in telling you not to remove the mask."
"There's no safety feature," Lord Mumphrey complained. "It's just not in the spirit of fun to take it off before the unmasking."
"Are you having fun?" the djinn asked quickly.
"That's not the point," Lord Mumphrey shot back before he'd even decided on a reply. Almost as if something else was answering for him.
"Nothing can completely dominate true will, Frederick," the djinn said. "If you want to, you can take off the mask. Be aware, though, that if you do no one will be able to compel you to put one back on again. Lady Crimzona might get a little short tempered about that."
Lord Mumphrey's mind was at war with itself. The only thing that he could say for certain was that he was afraid. When it came to wondering what he might be afraid of things started to get a bit trickier. He was afraid of taking off the mask, but he was afraid of what might happen if he didn't. He was afraid of confronting Lady Crimzona but, again, he was also afraid of allowing her party of thralls to dance and laugh their way to some terrible fate. Everything in this place was wrong but Lord Mumphrey was not the man to put them right.
Frederick Cobb, might be though...
Frederick looked down at the mask in his hand as all of his memories sloshed about in his head like water slopping around in a falling glass of water. The glass was the personality and history of a party guest called Lord Vilpus Mumphrey, it fell onto a hard surface that was the return of Frederick's personality and smashed into a billion pieces so tiny it was almost as if it never existed at all.
Lord Mumphrey's memories were like a puddle of water sitting upon the surface of his real mind, they were cold and wet and unpleasant. Frederick knew, within an instant that they would evaporate, until he would only remember them as something that had once been done to him, not with any depth or substance.
"Ordinarily," Harvey said gently in front of him. "I would mock you a little at this point, but that kind of glamour's about as harmful as magic can get, so I'll forego my habit in favour of telling you what we have to do next."
Harvey leaned in close to Frederick.
"You can't go running in there waving your sword around," he said. "Crimzona's magic has a lot of inertia behind it. She could kill you with a smile about now. She could disperse me so thin that I might not even be able to pull myself together. If either of those two things happen this party will go on for another few centuries and all of our companions will be lost. So we need to execute a clever scheme to leverage the one person who can lend me the power to deal with this, that being Phoebe. As it has to be a clever scheme I've devised it and all I need you to do is your part, without questions. Got me?"
Like the erstwhile imaginary Lord Mumphrey Frederick bristled at the way Harvey treated him. The arrogance of the djinn was infuriating. Frederick had to remind himself that if Harvey hadn't interceded he would still believe he was Lord Mumphrey. Frederick didn't know as much about magic as Harvey, so maybe doing his part without questions was exactly the right thing to do at the moment.
"So what do you suggest?" Frederick asked.
"If Phoebe removes her mask she will, of course, be incredibly angry and probably unleash masses of plasma and other elemental magic on impulse. This is just compounded by the fact that the way Crimzona's magic works is that the mask glamour continues to operate until the wearer chooses to remove their own mask. You can't just rip them off people's faces."
"Then it's hopeless," Frederick said. "I... I mean, Mumphrey, only took the mask off because he was pretty sure he'd gone mad, that was down to a double assault from you and my talking sword."
"You're welcome," the sword said in a tone of voice that let them both know how much it disapproved of being ignored.
"Not at all, my educationally sub-normal friend," Harvey grinned, ignoring the sword. "The geis which bonds me to Phoebe doesn't distinguish between Phoebe and the fake person Crimzona has put over the top of her. If Phoebe tells me to do something and ends her directive with the words 'this I do command thee' I instantly get the magic power to make that thing happen. Normally, I don't like it but in this place I can disperse a huge amount of sour magic and get you all of your friends back. Besides, whatever happens when this party ends is bound to be a hoot. Everybody wins."
"So what do you want me to do?" Frederick asked.
"I don't know," Harvey said. "Stay out here, talk to the trees, get in touch with your inner monkey. It wasn't you I was particularly fussed about, it was your mask."
"My mask?" Frederick said with the feeling that things were moving too fast again.
"By choosing to remove it you've essentially disempowered it," Harvey said. "Going in there with my improvised cloth mask was a bit of a risk. If Crimzona had spotted me she would have known that something was off. With your mask on my face I can swan about in there like an invited guest. I've already seen Phoebe I just need to convince her to command me to do something."
"So... you did all that, with the sword and the madness and what have you to get your hands on... this?" Frederick asked holding out the mask distastefully as if it might bite him.
"Now you're getting it," Harvey said. "It took a while but I knew it would."
"Well... here," Frederick said and handed the mask to Harvey. He was now irritated that Harvey had wanted the mask more than he had wanted Frederick but this was not the time for a confrontation. The longer he spent in the djinn's company the less he liked the unpleasant sprite.
Harvey slid the mask over his face.
"Oh yes," he said. "That's much better. Okay, well, if you hear screaming and see explosions, lights, other evidence of a heavy magic battle... well, that's all as it should be. Probably means the plan's going well. Until then just, uh, don't get into trouble."
With that Harvey walked away from the grove of trees and back onto the patio, heading for the party.
Alone, the full force of Frederick's resentment of the djinn washed over him. What right had that magical nuisance to pass judgement on Frederick's education or mental agility? Admittedly Frederick had always counted standing on the side of the angels as his chief attractive quality, he was a decent fighter and he liked to think that he had a healthy notion of the difference between right and wrong. Harvey, on the other hand, was a prime contender for the title of 'smartest sprite in the room' but seemed to have no moral compass, or, at least, one that had a bizarre notion about where north lay.
Now they were in this terrible situation, trapped in this nightmare party, dominated by the wicked Lady Crimzona and Frederick's moral goodness and strong right arm were not the useful attributes for the successful resolution of the situation. Frederick wasn't sure that Harvey's disregard for safety and love for sneaking around were quite the thing either but at least the djinn had a plan. What did Frederick have? Cold ears and no sense of purpose.
What was the point of being a hero when the villain could only be defeated by acts of skulduggery?
The question would go unanswered as a voice chirped up in Frederick's right ear:
"So, the djinn's gone. Thank goodness for that. I don't like him one bit."
"No, you're quite right," Frederick said to his sword.
"Sorry, what?" the sword asked. "I wasn't listening."
"I agree, the djinn's shifty," Fredrick said.
"Agree with whom?" the sword asked. "I didn't say anything."
"No," Frederick sighed, adopting an air of martyred patience. "You did. You just said you didn't like Harvey one bit."
"I said no such thing," the sword said.
Before Frederick could start getting seriously annoyed another voice piped up behind Frederick.
"The sword's right," it said. "I was the one who was speaking."
Now that Frederick heard the two voices one after the other he could tell they were separate. He still didn't understand what was going on, even now he remembered who he was. These strange voices were determined to convince him of his descent into insanity.
"Who's that?" Frederick asked.
"My name," said the disembodied voice, "is Tabarnas Riseandshine, I am a goblin merchant and I am protecting a scared little girl by the name of Rachel."
Before Frederick could come up with a sensible response to that there was a scream from inside the House of Mirth followed by a fork of lightning that flitted across the sky and a deep rumble of thunder. In the brief flash of light that preceded the thunder Frederick could now see an old and weathered goblin face standing nearby to Frederick's right.
Tabarnas's eyes met Frederick's. The young knight started back at the sight of the goblin merchant, who looked down at himself. Patting his clothes in surprise.
"It would seem," he said, turning his attention back to Frederick. "That midnight has come at last. This is not good, we shall have to hurry and make sure that Rachel remains safe."
So they did, and she was, but the particulars of their escape will make a story for another day.