She paused at the top of the flight of stairs, smiling slightly, enjoying the admiring and wondering looks from the rest of the gathering. There were also envious looks from the women; a silver mask hid her face, but the filmy white silk of her gown did little to hide her body, and it was obvious to everyone that there was no one there who could match her in beauty.
Now she started down the stairs, slowly, basking in the attention. Silver dust, sprinkled in her black hair, glittered under the lights as she moved. At the base of the stairs, she paused again momentarily, then with a soft laugh crossed the floor to the nearest group.
"Do we know you?" a gray-haired man in a hawk mask asked with a smile. She recognised him; he had been one of her teachers. He recognised her too, she was sure, but the rules of the ball forbade either from revealing the other's identity. Midnight was the time for all unmasking.
"Would you like to know me?" she asked in turn. She spread her arms. "Have you seen me before? Am I an invited guest or a student gatecrashing the ball? Or perhaps I am a phantom of your mind, and will vanish at midnight leaving nothing but a memory behind."
There were chuckles. "Then, lovely phantom, we must hasten to enjoy your company before then. Will you dance?" A second masked man, this one younger, offered her his arm.
"I thought no one would ask." She took his arm and glided into the dance.
She danced with every man at the ball, of course. Several she recognised behind their masks; a few she saw recognised her - mostly teachers and fellow graduates - but for the most part she played the part of 'mysterious and beautiful stranger' to the hilt. It was such fun! Whirling away from her latest partner and standing alone for a moment, she stretched lazily, running her fingers through her hair with sensuous pleasure. Being officially adult was even more enjoyable than she had dreamed…
"May I have this dance?" A soft voice spoke from behind her.
She turned in surprise. A man stood looking down at her - she was tall, but he was taller yet - with an unreadable expression in his brown eyes. His hair too was brown, curling around the edge of his plain mask. Now where did she know him from - for she was sure that she did know him.
"But of course." She smiled and held out her hands. "I don't believe I saw you earlier?"
"I was late," he admitted apologetically. "I only just arrived. On the other hand, I saw you the moment I walked in the room." He pulled her closer, as the dance so conveniently demanded, and she felt herself blushing at the compliment. How ridiculous! Every man here had commented on her beauty, some a good deal more eloquently.
It was nearly midnight. She had to find out who he was…
"You've just graduated, haven't you?" he said unexpectedly. She blinked.
"Why - yes. And you?"
"The same." He seemed about to say something else, but refrained. Now she was even more curious. It was fortunate that just then the dance came to an end.
Bells rang out, chiming through the room.
"Midnight has struck," a hidden voice announced, coming from every direction at once. "Remove your masks, ladies and gentlemen, and let all see who hides behind.."
Raising her hands to her face, she lifted the silver mask away. Then she looked up at him, smiling. He stared back at her, awe in those brown eyes. "Fair's fair," she chided, with a mischievious grin. "Don't I get to see your face? And did no one ever tell you how rude it is to stare?"
"I -" He only shook his head, tearing his eyes away with an obvious effort. Abruptly, he reached up to take off his own mask. He was handsome enough, with a broad high brow that gave him a serious look, and a mouth that looked as if it often smiled. An interesting contrast, she thought. And now she knew where she had seen him before.
"You graduated first in our year. Highest in the Academy. Am I right?"
"You are." He bowed to her slightly. "My name is Lews - Lews Telamon."
She smiled at him, brilliantly. "And I am Mierin Eronaile…"