The people swelled in number as they began to fill the streets. Other carriages were beginning to emerge as well, filled with people in very fancy and intricate costumes. Though it was difficult to see beyond the fancy masks, most of them painted gold or silver and encrusted with gems or covered in filigree and lace, there were some people who were wearing either no mask or just partial ones. Matt had been correct that almost all of the attendants of this huge gathering were black. When they could see some of the attendees better, they could see this reflected in the differences in the hairstyles of the wigs they sported. While some had ones that looked a little like the European style, there were more varieties here, many with elaborate braiding around jeweled displays that looked like crowns. One very dark skinned woman had a half mask that was painted black at the tip, fading up to a purple and into sparkling peacock gems to match the feathers that adorned her meticulously styled braids. Her skin was dusted in gold, making her shimmer as she moved and her full lips were painted with a bright teal lip color. She was speaking excitedly to the woman next to her, this one with an afro the color of copper fading out to silvery tips. When she turned, this woman had a silver mask that covered most of her face and the filigree that decorated it was glittery black intersected with lines of copper to match her hair. When the woman with the peacock mask saw the carriage with the three strangers, she smiled brightly and tapped her friend to draw her attention to them. The three sheepishly waved to the two woman as they slowly passed.
“I wonder what everyone is celebrating here?” Lydia said, her voice soft with wonder. “I hope they’re okay that we’re here.”
“They don’t seem too put off,” Matt said, not fully convinced that this was real or safe. He frowned. “I know I asked in the other place you guys were in but are you sure you don’t have an amazing budget that I don’t know about? Like is Dolly sitting on a mountain of insurance money that she could use to punish one guy who set her up? I know that’s a long shot and all but I’ll still feel weird if I don’t ask.”
“Our set is really made out of cardboard and a painting that I made in high school,” Stuart said, clearing his throat despite knowing it was useless. He groaned at the sound of his voice.
“Before we met Will, we didn’t know that place existed,” Lydia added. “And we only found out when one of the things in one of the movies we saw came out and started to attack us.”
“So these places are kinda normal for you guys, then?” Matt asked, getting overwhelmed again.
“No,” Stuart said. “We’ve only really seen the Safe Haven.”
“We’ve never been here before but it’s beautiful,” Lydia sighed. She frowned. “I hope it’s safe to be here.”
As they continued to travel, they had to go slower as the people moved around the carriage. They greeted each other warmly and those passing by the mechanical horses would jovially salute them before putting feathers or flowers in their metal manes. As more people arrived, there were more small steam robots that seemed to follow them around. Some were clearing the streets of rubbish while others were lifting the edges of dresses or fine cloaks off the ground and away from puddles. Everyone seems to delight with these little machines, one woman lovingly plucking one up off the ground and the gentleman she was with affectionately patting it like a household pet. The group of revellers laughed as they set the little robot back down to complete its task.
There were larger groups appearing now. One was a group of younger men who were dressed in clothing that was more in the style of the older men around them but the colors were bold and the embroidered beading that shone on their capes and their cloaks were the type that were found in West African regalia. Lydia’s eyes lit up as she watched them pass by.
“This kind of fusion is incredible,” she said. “I wish I could get out and see some of these costumes up close. I wonder where they all came from and what the traditions were.”
“Maybe it is just a Halloween party?” Matt said, unconvinced himself.
“I don’t think a Halloween party has the power to make me sound like an imitation of the tin man,” Stuart replied.
Somewhere nearby, a band started to play and though they couldn’t see it, the music was loud enough that it made it difficult to hear above the sound of drums and some other string instruments that were hard to identify. It was like a strange form of tribal drum music that had elements of something else that was vaguely classical. The revellers began to gather in the direction of the music, many of them dancing or moving in time with the drums. As the carriage continued on, turning away from the open buildings, there was down the road some distance away, a larger house that shone in the dark with all the lanterns about it. It was painted a dark, lush green with black trim and the metallic components of it were polished to a fine silver finish. They were still travelling on the cobblestones of the road for now but already they could see that the lights were fewer ahead where they were being taken. There were large trees in the way of the lanterns that still hung heavy in the night sky.
Their pace slowed again as they came to an opening like a courtyard or a major town square with a large marble fountain. The spigots were all made to look like flame lilies and the top was mechanized to move around, making the water dance. There were hovering lanterns of different colors surrounding the mesmerizing water, making it look like one stream would dance into the color orange then immediately into purple while another blue one jumped to become pink and when the streams would collide, they would form a new color altogether. The three realized that they had stopped and only now noticed that the street was at a stand still as everyone gathered around the fountain. Above the dancing stream of water, an ornate platform descended. It looked like one of the balconies of one of the many lovely houses they had already passed. What looked like a statue covered in dark velvet was positioned in the middle of it as the lanterns moved to spotlight the platform but they didn’t have a chance to settle for more than a second before the statue moved and dark cover fell aside to reveal a beautiful woman wearing a large, purple gown, her curled hair gathered up and pinned with jewels to match her dress. She wore silver and black evening gloves that matched her mask, which only covered her eyes. Her dark skin was highlighted with a silver shimmer and her lips were painted black. She looked over the growing crowd and beamed at them all as she touched her heart. Looking away with a smile still on her lips, she took a deep breath and steadied herself. She then began to sing, her voice carrying as she built into a strange but enchanting aria. The operatic tones she sang were perfect and echoed throughout the square, holding everyone in her thrall. No one moved and some people seemed to be holding their breath as she sang, her attention moving across the crowd. When she was finished and the last note rang out, the whole square burst into applause along with the three in the carriage.
“Thank you,” she said, her voice lyrical but powerful. She smiled brightly at the three in the carriage. “Welcome to the visitors! Cheers to the lights!”
The crowd applauded again, some of them turning to bow or wave to the carriage occupants. The opera singer waved a handkerchief to them and blew a kiss at them as the platform began to rise again. Some of the young men dressed in the fusion between the west African styles and the Baroque clothing bowed to them and called a welcome to them as the carriage began to move again.
“Apparently we’re expected?” Matt said, still pretty uncomfortable with all the attention.
“Maybe they think we’re other people?” Lydia suggested.
“Maybe,” Matt agreed, begrudgingly. “Maybe that’s why the horses seem to know where they are going. I hope they’re taking us somewhere where everyone is as friendly.”
“To the green house,” Stuart said. “There’s no other roads ahead and we just passed what looks like the last turn.”
“At lease we know someone’s home,” Lydia said as the lights of the square began to fade.
“Here’s hoping that we’re as welcome as whoever they are expecting,” Matt added.