Gemma was shielding herself from a sandstorm of dandelion seeds. Her tutor, Dominick Vickson, and herself were right at the core of a lush field. “As you can see,” Dominick called above the strong summer wind, as they made their way through the long, fine, green stalks, “wind is another form of seed dispersal. So that makes…” He choked on a mouthful of seeds, and coughed them out. Gemma giggled behind her hand and finished the sentence for him.
“…that makes three different ways of seed dispersal we’ve learnt today!”
Dominick nodded approvingly. They had almost reached the village smothered by the thick forest pines on the other side of the field. “And can you remember what they are?” he tested her. Gemma thought for a moment, recalling their trek through the woods, then snapped her fingers.
“The first one we learnt was how the seeds sometimes get stuck in a passing animal’s fur, then fall off later,” she replied carefully. “The second one was how they eat the seeds and— well—excrete them,” she blushed but shook it off. “And we just learnt the third,” she said with a grin, as Dominick managed to get another mouthful of dandelion seeds, “…seed dispersal by wind!”
* * *
Soon they were back in the village. The ripe, orange sun was low in the sky, staining the horizon a horrifying yet fascinating red. Gemma was bathing in the river that trickled be-hind the small log cabin that she and her parents lived in. The water was cool and refreshing, gurgling and bubbling happily as it streamed along like an endless cord of blue ribbon. As she washed, a twittering bird caught her attention. Its wings were a deep, eye-catching turquoise; its chest was a soft, plush orange and it had a white underbelly. The bird’s beady black eyes darted back and forth, as it hopped along the bank. It must be a bluebird, Gemma thought, look at that magnificent sheen!
Suddenly, her mother walked out of the back door of the cabin, startling the bluebird. “Gemma, your tutor is here to see you.” Her mother smiled. “And he’s brought the loveliest clothes with him! You’d better dry yourself off, then greet him.” She handed Gemma a clean linen towel that had been left outside to be baked by the sun.
“I’ll be right there!” Gemma exclaimed, hopping out of the river and gladly taking the warm sheet to towel herself off with, from her mother.
* * *
Gemma walked in, her curling raven-black hair pulled back into a ponytail. Her red cotton dress creased as she sat down on the chair opposite Dominick. “Hello!” she said cheerfully. “Haven’t today’s lessons ended?”
He beamed. “Well, this isn’t really a lesson,” he said. Unable to contain himself, he blurted it out, “Have you heard of the Masked Ball?”
“No.” Instantly, a flashing yellow question mark appeared in Gemma’s head. It was her weakness—a thirst for knowledge.
“Well,” Dominick explained excitedly, “it’s a marvellous ball that happens every year, and the theme is masquerade. All the famous scientists, writers, mathematicians and artists meet there every year and exchange information. The fun part isn’t the elaborate dresses, delicious food or bittersweet drinks; it’s the fact that you have absolutely no clue as to the identity of the person you’re getting information from, because all of these great, talented people are masked. And so you will be too, Gemma.” He stopped for breath, panting. Dominick pulled out a beautiful black mask from his satchel, along with a dark blue gown of silk and pair of pearly white shoes. Gemma’s eyes widened as she realized what he meant.
“I- I- I’m going to the Masked Ball?” she stuttered. Her heart was pounding wildly, she felt the blood pulsing ecstatically inside her. She would get to meet all of those wonderful people! She, Gemma Burberry, would become a masked guest at this extravagant event! “I’m not even on the guest list though!” she cried, more with excitement than doubt. “How can I get in?”
Dominick grinned. “That’s the sneaky bit,” he said. “My Aunt Jennifer is the cousin of the man who runs the catering at the ball. She was invited to come along and mingle with the guests, but sadly she caught pneumonia and can’t go. Instead, we’ve agreed that you, a young scholar with plenty of potential, should go instead. Your name from then on will be Jennifer Vickson.”
“But what if the catering man mistakes me for your aunt?” Gemma gasped. “He’ll certainly be there!”
“No he won’t,” Dominick replied calmly. “He’s gone down with pneumonia too—who do you think my aunt caught it from?”
Gemma sat down, not even realizing she had stood up in the first place. There was nothing stopping her. Nothing blocking her way from becoming a guest at the Masked Ball… what should she do?
A smile slowly began to spread on her face, as sweetly and willingly as hot butter on toast. “Of course I’ll go,” she said. “I’d be crazy not to!”
* * *
Meanwhile, the ball was taking place. Lords and ladies, scientists and amateurs, all gathered under the brilliant, golden light that leaked through the crystals of the grand chandelier, which hung suspended over their heads. The floor was a cool marble, the tables all of the smoothest oak, even the curtain cords were tied in fancy silver bows! But the highlight of the evening was the masks. Oh, what a variety! There were red masks of velvet lined with gold tissue; menacing black masks adorned with long, dark feathers; pleasant, solid blue masks with shining silver pearls. Suddenly, the chatter subsided as the doorman led another person into the room. It was a young woman, wearing a soft, navy-blue dress and an intriguing, mysterious dark mask almost as black as her hair. Eventually, the noise grew back to its usual level. The girl was Gemma.
Gemma walked around, blushing prettily for no apparent reason. She felt waves of adulation coming from everyone in the crowd, everyone seemed to be admiring the professor they were talking to, and everyone was learning and enjoying themselves. Unfortunately, Gemma wasn’t really looking where she was going and bumped right into someone. “Oh!” Gemma exclaimed, smiling apologetically. “Sorry!” She smoothed her hair out. The man she had bumped into was wearing a plain white mask, but it gave him a rather chilling, haunting effect. However, she soon discovered that his nature was a complete contrast to what he was wearing.
“That’s all right,” he grinned. “My name is Professor John Clair, specialty: marine biology! What’s your name?”
Gemma grinned up at him. “Gem… er… Jennifer Vickson…”
Professor Clair nodded.
“Nice name, nice name,” he said politely, then immediately plunged into a conversation. “Now, Jennifer, what do you know about the nudibranch?”
“Excuse me?” Gemma exclaimed, puzzled. “I’m not really sure what a nudibranch is!” Professor Clair smiled his jolly smile again.
“Now that,” he said proudly, “is the beauty of science! Tell me, Jennifer Vickson, would you like to know what a nudibranch is?” Gemma nodded eagerly. This is exactly what she had come for—knowledge! “Well,” began Professor Clair, “it’s basically a sea slug. Ah, yes, I see the disappointment on your face! You’re asking yourself what the point is, knowing about sea slugs, where’s it going to get you in life? A nudibranch is actually quite a fascinating creature; it comes in a variety of different colors and shapes, and is a real deep sea creature too, like the blobfish. Blobfish are really quite lazy animals; they sit on the bottom of the ocean floor all day, waiting for their food to come to them instead of vice versa! Because of this, they have a fat, slimy appearance, thick lips and tiny eyes set into their large, pink head. I bet you wouldn’t like to come face-to-face with that ocean potato!” He beamed, whilst Gemma laughed. Suddenly, a young woman shoved in front of him.
“All this ocean stuff is nothing!” she exclaimed, tossing her head dramatically. “Hello, young lady, I’m Sylvia Heartwood—the best actress in this room!” She flung her arms out and twirled around like a ballerina. Gemma couldn’t stop grinning. If it was possible to label someone’s voice as “sparkly,” she would definitely use it to describe Sylvia Heartwood’s voice! It seemed to tinkle on, like a row of perfect, never-ending silver bells. “Even my mask is committed to the dramatic arts,” Sylvia was saying, pointing to her mask. Gemma gasped. It was a beautiful gold, embroidered with dramatic slashes of purple and silver. Into the gold, little pictures of characters from Shakespeare’s plays were visible; their facial expressions were as intricate as their patterned brown belts.
“It’s dazzling,” Gemma admitted, meaning it, as Sylvia plunged into a conversation about how pantomime dancers shaved their foreheads to make their masks fit easier. The rest of the evening passed like a marvelous dream. Gemma flitted from place to place, talking to professors, eyes wide as she listened about the alignment of the planets, why cows gave more milk when they listened to music, and how Christopher Columbus originally thought that turkeys were peacocks! It didn’t seem real, being in a beautiful ballroom, with beautiful people, beautiful food and drink, beautiful dresses, and most importantly—the beauty of knowledge. Gemma could almost feel the neurons connecting in her brain like entwined tendrils, sending off information at lightning speed. Eventually, the evening came to a halt, and soon Gemma found herself outside again with the fresh air, and the glitz and glamour of the night gone. As she walked home to the village on the gravel path, using the flickering orange lamps to guide her, she reflected on all she had learnt. She remembered that someone at the ball had been telling her, “Learn to Live, Live to Learn,” and Gemma felt her lips curve into a smile as she realized just how right it was.
* * *
The next morning, Dominick knocked on the door. He was worried: Gemma hadn’t come back to see him last night, to tell him what a wonderful evening she had, to chatter on endlessly about the professors and everything she had learnt. Gemma’s mother, Mrs. Burberry, opened the door with a quick twist on the wooden knob. “Hello, Vickson,” she smiled warmly. “Here to see Gemma?”
“Yes, actually,” he replied steadily. “Is she all right? She didn’t tell me she was home safely last night.”
Mrs. Burberry led him in. “Of course she’s fine,” she said coolly. “In fact, she was so excited she couldn’t get to sleep for—oh, I don’t know—three hours? Anyhow, I could just tell from the look on her face that it was the best experience she’d ever had! Thank you for giving my little sugarplum this opportunity, she’s really very happy.”
Dominick gave a relieved smile. “Oh, really…?” he said contentedly. “That’s good. Is she here?”
Mrs. Burberry nodded and then turned her head. “Gemma…!” she called. A distant, muffled reply could be heard. “Your tutor is here to see you! If you’re having your morning wash in the stream, come out—the linen sheet is on the grass beside the riverbed!” Mrs. Burberry turned back again, to face Dominick. Soon enough, Gemma burst through the door, in her usual red cotton dress. Her hair was damp and tangled, but her eyes shone, recalling the events of the previous night.
“It was great!” Gemma burst out, before her mother or tutor could say anything. “Did you know that dolphins sleep with only one eye open? I learnt that from Mr. Garnelle, a biologist. And did you know that golf is the only sport so far that has been played on the moon? I got that fact from Miss Aneliese Tornex of the Space Exploration Society. Also, another guest told me that the results of a recent test have proved that right-handed people live longer than left-handed people. Dominick, are you right-handed or left-handed?” Before Gemma could get another word out, her laughing mother had clapped one hand over her mouth.
“She’s a little brain box now!” she exclaimed. “Gemma Burberry, my little brain box!”
Dominick laughed. “I’m glad you had a good time,” he said. “Aunt Jennifer will be pleased!”
Gemma nodded enthusiastically. “Oh, she will,” she mused. “It was…”
Yet again, Gemma’s mother clapped a hand over her mouth. “If you say ‘it was great’ one more time,” her mother joked, “I swear I’ll feed you to the fishes!” They all burst out laughing, even talkative Gemma. Dominick stopped suddenly and pulled a little parcel out of his bag.
“This is for you,” he said, “to write down all that knowledge that’s swimming in your mind. Our brains are greatly evolved, but we’re only human, Gemma. We all need to pour our thoughts onto paper someday!” He handed it to Gemma proudly. She tore at the paper eagerly.
“Oh, this is wonderful!” she cried, gazing at the present. It was a sky-blue notebook made from smooth, light leather, with tiny green gems connected on its surface to form a beautiful, swirling design. “Thank you, Dominick; I’ll use this all the time!”
“I’m glad to hear it.” He stood up abruptly. “See you tomorrow!”
“Wait a minute!” Gemma stood up. “No classes toady?”
Dominick shook his head. “I think you’re still reeling from the Masked Ball yesterday. Why don’t you go out back and write something in your new notebook? I’ll see you tomorrow, then!” He waved as he stepped outside, shutting the door with a slight clang. Gemma stood up.
“I think I will go out back,” Gemma told her mother. “Maybe write a few things I learnt from the Masked Ball in my new notebook?”
Her mother smiled. “OK,” she said. “I’ll just be doing the laundry further up the riverbank with the other mothers.”
* * *
Outside, Gemma breathed a sigh of satisfaction. The sky was a stunning azure blue, decorated with clouds that looked like white watery waves. The same little bluebird was hopping by the reeds and pecking curiously at the gurgling water of the stream, fascinated by the world of rainbow mirages inside the bubbles. “What should I write about?” Gemma asked the bird as she lay down on the light brown riverbank, the soil crumbling beneath her weight. The bluebird cocked its head at her and squawked. Gemma giggled. “All right,” she said, and she began:
Some people ask what the face of knowledge is: if knowledge was a cheerleading team, who would be its mascot? What connects all the great minds in this world? It sounds silly, but it’s quite a task—the face of knowledge… is a mask.