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Laughing Into 1939

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Charles leaned against a pillar, lit a cigarette, and watched the swirling crowd. Tinsel party hats, silks, broadcloths, and velvets, laughing voices, satin slippers and patent-leather pumps. It was pathetically human, how oblivious the partygoers were to the abyss yawning before their feet; they spun, flirted, and exchanged partners as if the wooden dance floor were stable and permanent as a Roman road.

Against his will, his gaze returned to the dark-haired girl who was the vortex of the party. She flitted from partner to partner like the last butterfly of November, sipping, flirting, promising, then dancing on to a new prospect. Not that the men minded; the eyes of the rejected suitors followed her as eagerly as those of the remaining hopefuls. Over the music and the chatter her laughter rang out, musical, ephemeral, and useless as the streamer of silver paper caught in the curls of her hair.

Suddenly his glance was returned; the girl's dark eyes went wide, then her face lit with a radiant smile. She tripped over to him, leaving a clot of abandoned admirers protesting behind her. "We've not been introduced... shouldn't we dance?" He discarded the cigarette, bowed, and took her into his arms. She was light, graceful, and followed his lead as if her destiny depended on his whim. A petty empire, but all the fallen world had to offer.

They had made half a circuit of the room before she lifted her head and smiled at him. "You're so quiet. Are you listening to something they cannot hear?"

He smiled grimly. "The hoofbeats of the Four Horsemen, fair lady." Why had he said that? Why would this frivolous child care whether civilization came crashing down? After the fact, perhaps, but never before. Butterflies didn't concern themselves with the future.

The fathomless eyes flickered and became grave. "There are always horsemen, always. I hear their hooves wherever I go. The moon looks down, unchanged, while the people come and go to their eternal rest. But the moon doesn't care at all. She never has, nor ever will."

"It's a sublunar world, true enough. But this time the horsemen are real, butterfly. Your world will end. This never was much of a peace, founded upon sand and ruins of broken promises. Before you know it, everything you love will come crashing down. Enjoy these pretty parties while you can; you dance over the abyss, and one day you must slip and fall." How foolish to say such things. She couldn't understand; wouldn't want to. Any moment, she would certainly leave him for a partner adept at the sugared nonsense the beautiful demanded as their tribute.

But the upturned face grew graver still, and she made no attempt to leave him. "I think you see what I see. Will you come out to the terrace and talk awhile? It's very lonely sometimes, in the dark and the fog."

Astonished, he let her break the embrace and lead him away from the hubbub. Of all the people in all the world, an exquisite little mayfly saw his vision and shared it. Perhaps it wasn't too late after all; perhaps there remained some small hope for the human race.

"Ready to go, pet?"

The dark-haired girl looked up from the corpse and smiled. "I like parties. All the presents, wrapped so prettily. This one said the world might end. Wasn't he the clever boy?"

Spike shrugged. "If he's all that clever, why's he dead?"

"But he's right. Dead people everywhere. Not at all like us. The world is going to end. I saw it. Does that mean I'm not clever?" Her face crumpled.

Spike gathered his sire into his arms, casually licking a drop of blood from her chin. "Sssh, love. You're the cleverest one of all. There's a lovely party, all just for you, and lovely hunting to boot. What could be nicer?"

In the hotel ballroom behind them, crackers exploded, confetti and streamers fell from the ceiling, and the partygoers cheered. The New Year had arrived, full of promise and wonder. Spike took his Princess by the arm and led her back to the feast.

Behind them, forgotten, lay the man for whom the world had ended indeed, somewhat before time. Prophecy is a chancy vocation.