discreet flirtations were conducted behind the anonymity of concealing disguises.Anya Hamilton, watching the crowd from where she stood against oneof the great columns that supported the dress circle boxes, smothereda yawn. She allowed her dark lashes with their auburn tips to close. The smoke and the smell of partially burned gas from the lights weregiving her a headache, or perhaps it was the tightness of the tie of herecru satin demi-mask. The music was too loud, though the hollowshuffle of feet on the temporary wood floor, combined with thechattering of voices, nearly drowned it out. It was still early in theevening, but there had been too many late nights for Anya in the pastweeks. This was her fifth bal masqué since coming to New Orleansshortly after Christmas, and she did not care if it was her last, thoughshe well knew there were nearly two weeks more of them to go beforethe blessed respite of Ash Wednesday.Mardi Gras had once been a pagan festival celebrating fertility and therites of spring. Named in those early days the Lupercalia for the cavewhere had been held the celebrations surrounding the worship of thegod Pan, deity of the land of lovers called Arcadia, it had evolved intoan excuse for debauchery and licentious conduct during the time of the Romans. The early Christian fathers had tried to stamp it out but,failing abysmally, had incorporated it into the rituals of theResurrection. Mardi Gras then was decreed to be the last day of feasting before the arrival of Ash Wednesday, which heralded the fortydays of Lenten fasting preceding Easter. The priests had called theirfestival in Latin carnelevare, a word that could be loosely translated tomean farewell to the flesh. It was the French who had named it MardiGras, literally Fat Tuesday, for their practice of parading a boeufgras,or enormous bull, through the streets as a symbol of the day. It wasalso the French, under Louis XV, who had popularized the weeks of opulent festivities in advance of the final holiday, and the tradition of the bal masquéAnya had a grudge against the Gallic race for the last. It wasn’t thatshe disliked the masked balls, not at all. She always enjoyed the firstone or two of the winter season, the saison des visites as it was knownin New Orleans. But she saw no reason why Madame Rosa andCelestine had to go to every such affair to which they received aninvitation. It must have I been her Anglo-Saxon heritage that deploredsuch prolonged merriment; to her it was expensive, it was boring, butmost of all, it was exhausting.Anya, wake up! People are staring!