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Masque of the Red Death
in response to Red Death exercise
by Waikato-Valuta

The Red Death was coming. You could feel it on the wind as the slaves carried food, wine and other necessities over the drawbridge into the castle.

Many commoners had heard about King Prospero’s plan to escape the Red Death. They were coming, and they carried its venomous wrath with them. They could not be allowed to enter.

As the last of the supplies crossed the bridge it was drawn up slowly, the slaves struggling under its weight. However everyone knew the importance of withdrawing from the outside world and this made the bridge seem suddenly light, as it slammed tightly shut.

The commoners called out from outside the castle begging to be allowed in. They could not enter as the sealing of the door had been completed and all left outside could be carriers. Many decided to move on to avoid the plague that they knew was coming.

King Prospero looked down on the commoners from the highest turret, and watched as the Red Death devoured the ones who had stayed on in the vain hope that King Prospero would allow them to enter. Their skin leaked blood. Their muscles and bones were shrinking, their eyes fell limply on their cheeks, and unseeing they fell into the moat and drowned in a desperate bid to enter the safety of the castle.

Prospero was a cruel, selfish king respected by the nobles and feared by commoners. His wrath was harsh and final. He felt no remorse for his people. He had even had his own wife beheaded because of her disgustingly caring nature, soon after childbirth she had crossed the line by interfering in the hanging of her brother who had stolen a diamond from Prospero.

The king retreated and slammed shut the door of the turret, as he feared the commoners might try to climb the walls with their dreaded disease. With a sound of finality he slammed the door to “freedom”, locked it and wildly threw the key into a furnace.

Upon hearing of King Prospero’s act of foolishness the nobles became agitated. How would they get out of the castle once the Red Death had passed on? So King Prospero decided to call a meeting to quell their concerns. He announced that he had food to last for years, many of the country’s finest musicians, performers and actors to entertain them all, and servants to cater to their every whim.

The nobles’ worries were eased by this speech and they happily carried on within the confines of the castle, confident that the Red Death was outside.

Next, on the advice of his trusted advisor Lord Byron, Prospero decided to hold a masked ball to celebrate their successful escape. The theme of the ball would be the Diamond of Hope because it’s cool, glistering whiteness showed no hint of the feared color red.

The palace lit up with anticipation of the ball. The performers and chefs were madly preparing for it. Almost all of the fabric stores had been used in making the most stunning black and white costumes. A mask maker worked around the clock with his apprentice in a desperate bid to complete all the masks. They knew King Prospero would have them punished if they did not complete them in time, and the new threat of being cast out into the claws of the Red Death kept them working to the point of exhaustion.

The Hope diamond glittered in the center of the hall. It was laid on black silk for all to see and admire. King Prospero however remained in his luxurious room, where drapes adorned the walls and a large bear pelt lay on the floor, its head facing the door as if to warn off any unwelcome visitors. He had become fearful of coming out of his room because of his fears of the Red Death. He was suspicious of everyone, even his own daughter Sahara, who visited him nightly. But he brushed off her attempts to reassure him the Red Death had not entered the castle.

Could Sahara have carried the Red Death to the castle, or could any of the slaves or nobles have let it in, waiting to be released at any moment to devastate the castle? Prospero did, after all, have many enemies! How long should he wait before being sure the Red Death was not within these walls?

The nobles’ mood was dampened by their king’s absence. They became afraid that he had deserted them. To calm them he decided to take a walk through the castle to quell their agitation. As he entered the great hall where the Hope diamond lay he noticed a glimmer of colour and quickly turned his head towards its magnificence. There was nothing. But he had been sure that a glimmer of red had flashed across its shiny surface. Frightened he fled to his room.

With the king’s absence the Nobles had turned to Sahara to rule them. She was softer than her father but still commanded respect. She was always adorned with the finest clothing and brightest jewels. However it was all a pretense, for at night she stripped off her noble clothes and wore common peasant dresses. She loved to explore, and as a child this had been encouraged, but now as an adult she had to explore in disguise.

On the day before the ball she was exploring alone in the great hall. She dared not turn the light on as the guards stood alert outside the entrance. As she crept along silently she knocked into the stand that housed the Hope diamond. It silently fell and shattered on the marbled floor.

A soft light began to emerge from the center of the small pile of splinters. It got brighter and brighter, then with a sudden flash the room was filled with a bright red light, and before her eyes a noble lady dressed just like her mother, but with a flowing red veil covering her face, emerged from the diamond.

Sahara had never known her mother, had never been told the truth about her, although she had seen many paintings of her. She had been told that her mother had died during childbirth. Sahara’s childhood nannies had told of her mother’s wonderfully caring heart. Although Sahara had been hardened by many years of living with her harsh father, she did however still have some feelings of doubt about the way he ruled his people with cruelty and injustice. “Sahara my darling, I have a great weight to put upon your shoulders and I only hope you are strong enough to carry it.” The lady’s voice was soft, but rebounded from every corner of the hall.

“Oh mother, what is it you wish me to do? I would do anything for you. I have missed you greatly.” Sahara’s voice was trembling, on the verge of tears.

“Take this to your father tonight. He must receive it before midnight as he has a grave choice to make.” She handed Sahara a faded rough envelope. The old seal of the crown adorned its surface.

“Of course, but what is his choice and why have you appeared now? I’m so confused. Red Death is outside the castle. It will kill our kingdom.”

“Do not be afraid my child. Red Death will not harm you, I will see to that. She only seeks retribution for a deed done many years ago.”

“What deed? Was it something father did?”

“Yes, my child. He never told you did he? Ah, but I cannot tell you now for the spirits call. Quick take the letter to your farther. He must make his choice tonight or Red Death will destroy him.”

The light was gone as quickly as it had come and Sahara was left standing in a darkened room. She reached out to a soft shimmer of fading light in front of her and found the intact Hope diamond lying in the silky embrace of the fabric that had held it for many weeks.

The old coarse paper that her mother’s spirit had given her was the only link with what had just happened. Many questions still rang in her mind, but for now she must simply deliver the message and try to save the kingdom.

Sahara was soon to find out that entering her father’s rooms unheard was a task unto itself. She decided the only way would be to climb out of her own bedroom window, which was just above his, edge down the wall and enter via his window.

She quickly made her way back to her own room and changed back into some pretty frocks, as her father would be angry if he ever saw her in rags. She stuffed the letter inside her top and eased herself out of the window. The rocks of the castle were wet and slippery from an early morning mist, but still it was an easy descent. The window was locked but fell open with a kick near the clasp. Most locks in this castle were easy to break. That was the main reason Sahara had found it so easy to wonder around in the dead of night.

She jumped silently to the floor and ran swiftly over to the door. It was obvious her father was not in this room as he would have heard her enter. So she opened the door to the lounge and saw him sitting facing an unlit fireplace. In the dim light he did not recognize her, but did not seem alarmed. Instead he asked vaguely, “Have you come to seek revenge? I have been waiting for weeks”

“No, father it is me, Sahara. I have been worried about you.” She could see now as her eyes became adjusted to the light that he was half the man he had been, skinny and weak.

“You should not have come.” His voice held no anger like she had expected.

“The Nobles are worried father. They grow restless wondering if you will ever return.” She felt sorry for him now. Obviously he was eaten up by guilt and fear. She never would have believed this possible had she not been standing looking at him. “Shall I light a fire?”

“No, no, no! The red will kill me. It brings the death.” his voice was shaking.

“But how will you see what I have brought for you?” She took the letter out of it’s safe hiding spot and held it out to him.

He reached forward and touched the paper; his fingers ran across the rough surface until the touched the seal of the old kingdom. He hesitated then dropped his hand to his side and sunk back into the chair he had just risen from.

“You open it, my child and we will see together what it holds” Trying to gather courage for whatever he would have to face, his voice was slightly more assertive.

With trembling fingers she broke the seal and pulled out the paper from within. It was soft, a stark contrast to the outer crust from which she had just pulled it. “I can’t read it in this light. Please let me light a fire.”

“All right my child. I guess it is too late now to worry about such things.”

As Sahara took a tentative step toward the fireplace the letter began to feel hot. A faint light was shimmering across its surface. She lit some kindling on the grate and in the light of the flames she saw the letters begin to bounce from the page and spin around them in a haze.

Now Prospero began to mumble as if he was possessed, speaking to some unseen spirit, conversing with curious language punctuated by cries and wails. She only understood a few words. “But…” he cried, mumbling off. “I tried…” he wailed, gasped then shook, “I had no choice…” Clenching his fists and with his teeth chattering in the half-light, he moaned eerily.

Sahara drew back from her father’s side in fright, but as she did so he suddenly reached out his bony arm and tore the letter from her grasp. With a wild gesture he threw the pages into the fire. It flared and was consumed in an instant.

“What have you done father?” Sahara cried as the flames flickered down. She turned to him seeking his words of explanation, but there were to be none. “No”, she whispered to herself as, leaning closer, she saw that her father was dead.

Sahara never told the nobles what really happened that night. And with the Red Death gone they were too overjoyed to question her closely. To tell the truth, she didn’t fully understand it herself. After she became Queen she reigned with compassion and patience over commoners and nobles alike.

But she kept the Hope diamond in a special container beside her bed, a symbol of her connection to the mother she had loved and lost – twice.