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What Masks We Wear

He'd been trained to never show his true face to soldiers and gate guards, so Botella stopped in the gloaming to pull on a Masque. Having taken leave of the overland coach three days ago, he had arrived as a lone traveler. In some towns, folks took interest in those wealthy enough to ride the overland. Botella definitely didn't want anyone taking interest in him.

The glittering white walls of the town called Shale Mount stood out like a beacon against the backdrop of a dark green forest. As pretty as the place might be, they'd string him up right quick if they discovered his use of a Masque. In addition to the one he wore, he carried three more in a leather bag under his shirt. They would only hang him once, of course, but that would do the trick.

If events went easterly, the direction from which all good flowed, Botella would find a certain man in this town—a rich man named Tavard, known for collecting oddities and magical talismans left by the ancients. He was said to have a Masque in his possession, and Botella had traveled far to kill him and take the Masque from his heathen grasp.

Botella had been raised from the cradle for this task and taught the ways of the New Path by his father. One of the things his father taught him was that many in this world hated followers of the New Path. As if Botella needed some tangible proof, his father was killed by an assassin wearing a Masque—one of the very Masques Botella now carried beneath his shirt.

He presented himself before the bowman's slit in a small pedestrian gate on the north wall. He felt the Masque mold perfectly to his face.

"Might a traveler find some good lodging in this town?" Botella said.

His pulse quickened at the anticipation of the next moment. The magic flowed around his head and his gut clenched at the thought of it not working. If not for enchantment, he would look a fool, with this simple blue silk thing over his head. The Masque of Om, the trickster and deceiver. Its charm made others see a face that struck them as familiar and trustworthy. The man Botella killed to get it had used this Masque to become quite rich and gain entire fleets of spice ships.

A whispered conversation took place behind the gate, rapid and low. Two sets of eyes took turns peering at him through the slit. Even in a modern town like Shale Mount, a strange traveler at sunset wasn't always a welcome sight.

"What business you in?" said one of them.

"I buy and sell silver. You remember, don't you?" said Botella, his scalp prickling with the raw magic seething around his head. The guard pressed his face press close to the slit to get a better look at him.

"I... know you?" the guard said.

"Of course. From before," Botella said.

A moment of silence. The guard's eyes opened wide. "Ah yes, from before," he said.

Massive bolts moved on the inside and the gate swung silently open on hinges lubricated by large clumps of black grease. The sharp odor of it hung in Botella's nostrils as he entered a stone tunnel that could accommodate two men shoulder to shoulder. It ended in another thick gate. The ceiling had slots in it that were not there to simply bring in fresh air. Somewhere above, a pot of hot oil no doubt stood ready.

The guards stared at him. They wore matching leather chest armor and yellow armbands, but the rest of their clothing was mismatched. Not professional soldiers then. Probably a Citizens Watch of some sort. Though they had swords and a crossbow, Botella could make short work of them if it came to it. No need, though. Their vacant eyes reflected the magic that tingled around his head.

"Thank you. May your watch be uneventful," Botella said. He nodded to the guards and went through the inner gate. It made his back itch to leave armed men behind him, but he'd learned to trust the magic, even if he didn't comprehend it.

Inside the walls, Shale Mount seemed a friendly place. Gaslights put out a warm glow on every corner. Stone-lined streets were clean and orderly. Laughter and singing came from a raucous place that could only be a drinkery.

Botella found a suitably quiet alley with deep black shadows. Stepping off the street, he reached behind his head and pulled at the base of the Masque of Om, shuddering at the almost reluctant slipping, like a womb giving up a child. More and more it seemed to him that the Masques did not want to come off.

The air he breathed felt cooler without the Masque in place. He tucked it into the leather bag with the others. Working quickly, he turned his long travel coat inside out. He'd come to the gate with the light side visible, and now he swapped it for the darker side. His coat would likely be the only thing the gate guards remembered.

Leaving the quiet alley, Botella explored the streets between the old brick buildings until he spotted a sign that advertised lodging. The man who ran the boardinghouse didn't even give him a second look. He must have had a regular flow of travelers through there.

Botella felt the weight of his eyelids as soon as he reached his room. He'd slept in the cold woods for three nights, and the sight of a soft bed had him realizing his age. But he had a chore to do first. He dreaded parts of it, yet reveled in the part he chose to do last.

The Masques had to be worn each day, if only for a moment, otherwise their power degraded. Some said that this was just lore from days of old, but the only way to know for sure was to chance losing the power of the Masque—something Botella was not willing to do.

He laid his Masques on his bed in a neat row. Made by ancient people who once wielded magic, the Masques had no real rhyme or reason to their appearance, or their purpose. Some were made from simple burlap, others from fine cloths like silk, and still others from things not readily identifiable.

Each had a different symbol on the forehead. Botella's father spent his life transcribing descriptions of known symbols from old scrolls into new bound books. He trained Botella in the ancient languages, and also trained him in the ways of the bow and blade. Both were necessary when hunting for Masques.

He steeled himself and picked up the Assassin's Masque. He hated the feel of this one and always got it out of the way first. The overly supple leather had the texture of skin, warm to the touch at all times. The Masque seemed to slip across his skin, yet it did not actually move.

He didn't look in the mirror during the few breaths he kept it on. The Masque showed its victim the safe, cherubic face of an angel and lulled them into a peaceful death. Many men had died with smiles on their faces while Botella wore this Masque.

The Masque of Gogol came next. Obviously, the thing was a weapon of war in its day. It put forth a terrifying face to enemies and let the wearer see weakness in defenses. Made of scratchy, stiff material no one could replicate, this Masque always left stinging raw patches on his skin.

He sat on the bed before putting on the last Masque—his favorite Masque. It was called the Masque of Remembrance. It was fashioned from a material that felt like candlewax, but never deformed or melted and slipped over his head like fine cloth. As far as Botella could tell, this one had no practical purpose. It simply held memories of former wearers.

The Masque knew its owner and showed him his favorite among the many memories it contained. As he donned the Masque, his room gave way to a different room, a warm kitchen in another place and time. A mother made soap bubbles for a young boy, no more than two. He laughed and laughed to see the bubbles dance.

Someone watched the mother and son play for quite some time. The observer's love and pride suffused the Masque; Botella felt relaxed and at peace. He often visited this memory before he had to spill blood.

Botella leaned against the wall outside the drinkery and tried to appear nonchalant. He snuck a glance through a window. His target, a man named Tavard, took his leisure inside the place.

Tavard the Trader, dealer of antiquities, owner of many properties, carried the fat of a prosperous man. Long blond hair hung to his shoulders and his lips were pursed in a little smirk. Botella couldn't tell if the smirk was from humor or disdain for the commoners around him.

A pendant made of hammered silver hung from Tavard's plump neck. To most, the shiny bauble was only a rich man's necklace. To someone with the proper training, the thing represented a blood cult known more for the wealth of its members than the weight of its scriptures. Father had always said, "Keep a sharp eye on your soul around the bleeders, boy."

Only the sharpest eye, old man, only the sharpest.

Botella took care not to be too obvious with his glances through the window. A razor-thin woman with short white hair stood behind Tavard. She had the face of a young woman, but her glittering eyes looked hard enough to cut a man to ribbons. A bodyguard for sure.

She carried an odd blade clipped to her belt, not guarded by a sheath. Thin and wickedly sharp, it had jointed sections, but appeared to be locked straight at the moment. Botella had never seen its like.

Tavard had extraordinary luck at the card table. He laughed and shouted for food and drink, all the while raking money into a mound. A young girl set a platter of meat and cheese before him while Tavard's predatory eyes slid over her body. He patted her backside and offered her a coin. She took care to force a smile as she accepted the money. The bartender shot a hard look in their direction. Perhaps the rich man wasn't popular with every resident of Shale Mount.

Botella took his leave and faded into the night, making his way to Tavard's house through side streets and alleys. Tonight, he'd scout out the best place for a clandestine entrance. Tomorrow, he would relieve Tavard of his Masque—and his life.

The house overshadowed its description. At the edge of Botella's blade, the antiquities dealer had confessed that Tavard's home had a few trees around it and a stone walkway. In truth, it had a grand courtyard with olive trees ranked in groups of four. The allotment of enough land for the trees inside town walls spoke more about Tavard's wealth than the sprawling house.

Three guardsmen stood posts along the perimeter wall of the property. They wore uniforms, and each had a golden "T" on his chest armor. Clearly, they were well-financed privateers and not the town guardsmen.

Botella crouched in the darkness of an alley and scanned the place. Torches burnt in wall sconces and hands of bronze statues, lighting the yard. A frontal approach did not bode well for a man who wasn't looking for a fight to the death.

A flash of movement to his left made him freeze—a woman in dark men's clothing. No, a girl, with her long dark hair pulled back, exposing her pale face in the moonlight. She couldn't be more than twenty. Why was she peering at Tavard's house in the darkness?

The girl reached into a pack and produced a Masque.

Though Botella couldn't see it clearly in the darkness, he'd held too many in his day to mistake it for anything else. His blood had been infected with the feeling of the magic.

It made his heart ache to see this. She was too young to leave this world at the end of a blade. But he was duty bound, was he not? And yet, he felt a grudging admiration as he realized what she was about to do. So young, yet so brave, she walked straight for the front gate.

She donned her Masque and suddenly he didn't want to look at her anymore. His eyes skipped over her like a stone on smooth water. Gooseflesh stippled his arms. Rare. So rare. Botella knew now what it was. His father had once shown him on the parchment, symbolized by a circular mark with a lightning bolt struck through it.

It was a Masque of Phaeton, named after a demigod who stole fire from the sky and gave it to man. Those who made a living during dark hours would pay fortunes or spill great tubs of blood to have such a Masque.

It provided the odd "invisibility" that cloaked the girl, and it gave its wearer vision to find weak places in an enemy stronghold. It was world-beating for ancient generals and profit-earning for burglars of this day.

Botella slipped on the Masque of Gogol. Designed for battle, this Masque defeated the effects of other Masques. He could see her clearly now.

This girl certainly didn't bear magic with arrogance. She stuck to the shadows and stopped whenever a guard turned her way. Her stealthy approach spoke of experience beyond her innocent years.

Soon, she stood outside a set of stained-glass windows. Her hands went to work and, within moments, she had slipped inside the house. Again, her age was belied by the skills of a professional burglar. Did she know what Botella knew? That Tavard displayed a Masque in a glass case in his home? Possessing it contradicted the laws of this town, but no one seemed to care. Gold and silver soothed moral outrage more often than not.

Whatever she was after, she made quick work of it. She came back to the window in moments. She started to climb out. A guard walked past that side of the house. He turned and looked directly at the window. The girl stayed as still as the black night. Botella held his breath.

A breeze blew the curtains, which should have clued the guard that the window had been opened, but he moved on, returning to chat with one of his comrades. Well-paid and complacent.

The girl slid out the window and closed it behind her. She slinked back through the shadows again, moving a bit quicker this time. Botella could taste the bitter fear in her heart.

Fear causes mistakes if allowed to overwhelm the spirit.

A few steps from the gate, her foot caught on the root of an olive tree, and she staggered into a bronze statue. She tried to grab it and failed. The statue hit the marble slab with a racket fit to rouse the ancients from their tombs. Oil from the torch splashed out, erupting in flames. Even with her Masque in place, the sudden flare of light threw a giant shadow on the wall.

The guards were employed by a man who collected magical talismans. They instantly knew what was happening. One ran to a wooden kennel near the back wall. The girl sprinted away, whipping off the Masque when she cleared the gate.

Botella slid his sword out of its sheath. A black blade made in an ancient forge that seethed with magic and fire; a dreadful weapon that could pierce even the stoutest armor.

The girl passed him so close he could have taken her head from her shoulders before she heard the swish of the blade. He let her run on and waited for the beast the guard had released.

It was bigger than a large dog, with broad shoulders and rippling muscles, and it surged through the fire, singing its coarse hair, flashing its long, white teeth in a fierce growl. Wide nostrils drank the night air. Its ugly head twisted in the girl's direction.

The fire still dazzled the guards on the far side. They never saw Botella stand from his hiding place. As the creature loped past him, a precise thrust that he'd been taught at age eleven parted the thing's spine from its skull. It collapsed without a sound, and Botella sprinted into the darkness after the girl.

He'd worn his soft boots to dampen his footfalls. She didn't hear him until he was at her elbow, and then it was too late. She gasped when his blade touched her neck, but she looked him in the eye. Again, he admired her bravery.

"What's your name, girl?" whispered Botella.

"Surah." Her clear, soft voice had a bit of tremble in it. He couldn't blame her.

"Are you lodged near here?" Botella said. "Tell me now, or it's the blade."

"Yes."

"Lead us there."

"So you can kill me in private?" she said.

A yipping growl came from the dark. Two more beasts. Or three.

"So we're not both ripped apart by long white teeth," said Bottella.

"Follow me," she said.

Surah stayed in a boarding dorm close to the town wall where the cheapest rooms were found—where no one would "remember" any late-night comings and goings.

She led the way up a flight of stairs on the outside of the building. Once inside her room, she lit two candles, which to most people would have turned the small room into a warm yellow cocoon. All Botella could think about was the fact that he stood in a room with no windows and only one exit.

He spied a green jacket cut for a woman lying neatly on a narrow cot. On the jacket's back, a willow tree had been finely embroidered in black thread.

Surah turned to him, and he suddenly forgot the concerns of the world. She met his gaze with determination, but a tremulous undercurrent dimpled her chin now and then. She was no professional. She was scared. And... innocent. His mind stumbled across that word and clung to it, like a long-forgotten treasure buried in the dusty attic of his memories—something he hadn't seen in a long, long while.

"What will you do now?" Her voice was a tiny thing.

"Hand me the pack," Botella said. She smiled and tossed it to him without complaint. For some reason, this set his guard on edge, but damned if she didn't look so... innocent. A thought struck him cold. His rough hand touched her jawline where it met her ear. "Do you still wear a Masque?"

"Still? No, sir. I only wear them when duty calls for it."

Again, very straightforward. A burning honesty. He realized his finger still traced the line of her jaw, and he snatched his hand back like he had just set a spring-trap.

He spilled her pack's contents onto the bed. Two Masques slid out—one made of black-gray material with shining blue stones stitched to the surface with silver wire, marked by the symbol of Phaeton on the forehead.

"Very useful for a young lady with cause to sneak into a rich man's house in the dead of night," Botella said.

She stayed silent. Still a little frightened, but she also seemed resigned. As if this was all part of the plan.

The second Masque creaked in his fingers when he picked it up. An ancient leathery thing made from a strange knobby hide Botella did not recognize. The forehead bore a symbol he'd never seen in his studies. Surah must have read it on his face.

"It's called the Masque of Fear," she said.

"Another Masque to frighten men in battle. I've seen many."

Her eyes went to the heavens and she sighed. "Boys. Not everything is for fighting. It reveals the horror each of us keeps buried in deep chambers of the mind, unspeakable things not even confessed into the holiest ear. It is different for each person who views the Masque in use."

"I've been told the man who owned it uses it for harm," Botella said.

"Yes, we were told he takes pleasure in capturing travelers who are poor, who stray from the tolled roads. He subjects them to wicked things," Surah said.

"Who is 'we'?" Botella said. "And how do you come to be in possession of a Masque?"

"The answer to both your questions is that I am from the Sisterhood of the Willow Tree."

"The Sisterhood..."

"Of the Willow Tree. We devote our lives to recovering the magical waysigns left here by the Designer who built our world."

"Waysigns?" Botella said.

"We believe each Masque is a waysign, a device made from the magical fabric used to create the world," she said. "We store them in anticipation of the Designer's return. One day she will come and strike her past work to the ground and build anew. The divine devices she left behind will play a role in the new world she creates."

"How many has your Order stolen?" Botella said.

Her laughter warmed the colors in the dingy room.

"Believe me, we're not master thieves. Our Order accepts donations, and devout followers travel far to bring us Masques they have acquired. A man from the Canted Islands brought us a Masque that allows a physician to see inside a person's body. Can you imagine? What wondrous work the Designer does!"

The sublime glory that shone on her face kept Botella's sarcastic tongue at bay. She was a fervent believer. "Sure... wondrous," he said. "Did Tavard then 'make a donation' tonight?"

"There are times when these things are brought to us, and times we are brought to them. Like the willow tree, we simply move with the wind, which represents the will of the Designer."

Botella had no idea why he stood talking with her. He had no idea why his blade stayed in the sheath. He thought himself to be an educated man in the ways of this world, but these Sisters of the Willow Tree were a mystery he had not uncovered. They had devoted, strong-willed followers, and Botella again found himself admiring this one. That irritated him.

She must have seen it on his furrowed brow.

"Not a trusting soul, are you?" she said.

"You seem only too happy to give me something you were willing to risk your own life to obtain," Botella said.

The dimples in her cheeks and the tiny crinkles around her eyes made him want to smile despite his suspicion. Damn her, she had to be using some magical power against him.

"You don't understand, do you?" she said. "I am the willow. And you are the wind."

"Yes? Am I then the will of the Designer?"

"How could you be anything else?"

Botella shook his head and put her Masques in his bag. Now the difficult part. He was bound by his religion to dispatch those who used the Masques, lest the Deceiver lead these people to bring down the world. Only the Brotherhood of the New Path had the training to resist the foul power held by the Masques.

Didn't they?

Botella armored his heart and steadied his hand on his sword. He saw the fear in her eyes. For all her strong beliefs, she was still a frightened girl facing death. In his travels, he'd never once met a man or woman who possessed a Masque in innocence. Until tonight.

He let go of the sword. Surah appeared hardly shaken. A strong girl, to be sure.

"Though I look for him at every turn, I can't find the Deceiver in your eyes, Surah, nor hear him in your voice."

"Isn't it strange? That you think a Deceiver will destroy the world and I think a Designer will?" Surah said.

"Either way, I don't believe this world will be worse off for your presence in it," Botella said.

He closed his overcoat and opened her door. He thought he heard just the slightest exhalation of relief. Then her voice came to him, unsure for the first time that night.

"Can you tell me one more thing? Have you ever found a Masque that does something good?" Surah said. She looked like she truly wanted to believe.

"I can't say as to whether they're good, but I've come across a few that seem harmless. I have one. It's filled with good things, I suppose you would say. Nice memories of family and the like."

Surah smiled and Botella somehow felt that she had given him a reprieve. How silly, for a man his age to be so easily moved by the smile of this young woman.

"Thank you for sparing me. Travel well—oh, I do not know your name, sir," she said.

"As well you don't," he said, stepping away. He trod back down the stairs into the darkness. He had other things to think about.

Tavard still owed blood to the blade.

Pikers. That's what people called men like Botella. Devout followers of the New Path who killed at the bidding of the Chief Deacon. In the days of Botella's great-great-grandfather, they often performed the task publicly, using a barbed steel pike. Some still remembered those days and would gladly kill Botella if they discovered he was a Piker, so he stayed to the shadows on the way back to his boardinghouse. Then he went to his room and lit a single candle to examine his burden more closely.

He would burn two of the Masques tomorrow. As a disciple of the New Path, he would keep a maximum of four, one short of the number signifying perfection. The Almighty put five fingers on a hand for a reason. The human hand was a work of perfection, but humans themselves could never be perfect. The number four figured strongly in the teachings of the New Path as a reminder of human imperfection.

In Botella's opinion, the leathery Masque of Fear couldn't be burned fast enough, so he catalogued the freakish thing in his traveling diary and bound it into a bundle for the fire. Unbidden, an image of Surah sprang into his mind. Her innocent smile. The unwavering power of her conviction that having her possessions taken was part of her Designer's plan.

Botella decided that he and people like Tavard had been put here to fight the nasty portion of the battle for the souls of humanity, such as they were, while people like Surah were set here to balance the scales, to demonstrate that there are higher things within us than knowledge of the blade or skill with a bow.

That was why he geared up to make war when he heard the yipping cries of those foul hound-like beasts heading in the direction of Surah's room. They could also track people, apparently. He chided himself for not anticipating that. Had he really been that distracted by her innocent charms?

Botella didn't arrive in time to see Tavard's men take Surah away, but fortunately, the keeper of the boarding dorm liked silver quite a bit. He spilled everything.

The sun had created a pink tinge on the edge of the sky by the time Botella arrived at Tavard's property. He loosened his sword in the sheath and breathed in the familiar dawn air. In his younger days, he greeted many a sunrise on the training field.

When the time for violence comes, make no hesitation. Strike with conviction.

Botella strode directly toward the gate guard. Muscular, young, and most likely used to the cowed people in Shale Mount, the guard put a hand on his sword.

"Stop there, low-life," the guard said.

Botella drew the Masque of Gogol from his shirt and slipped it on with a practiced move. The damn thing always felt like it wanted to go on. The effect was immediate when the Masque bared its putrid soul to the guard.

Terror replaced cockiness on the downside of a heartbeat. The guard had no time to scream as Botella's blade penetrated his fancy chest plate. Though the man fell quietly, the other guards had seen.

They ran toward Botella until they were close enough to see the Masque. He roared at them, letting his rage flow out through the eyes of Gogol. Swords and javelins clattered to the paving stones in the courtyard. The guards turned on their heels and ran for the back wall.

Botella headed toward the house.

Inside, he found it filled with great shadows and hollow sounds. Small pools of light from lanterns revealed pieces of tile flooring, fancy furniture with scrollwork accented by finely hammered gold. Shapes loomed out of the shadows, odd statues that held various objects in their hands.

He took a closer look at one of the statues—he recoiled, hairs on his arms standing on end. These were not statues! They bore the skins of real people, stitched crudely, as if a haphazard seamstress had taken up macabre embroidery. Their stiff hands held short golden staffs topped by arcane symbols.

"I have a fetish for all things magical." Tavard's voice came from behind him!

Botella spun toward the voice but saw nothing. He stayed still as a shadow. Through the Masque of Gogol, he surveyed the room carefully.

At last, he spied the source of the voice, a funnel-shaped hollow in the far wall. The long neck of the funnel arched into the wall and down. A sound tube! Tavard was below him, listening for his footsteps, speaking through the tube.

"I have great powers, poor cultman. All you doltish New Path assassins, none of you have been taught proper magic. They send you out into the world to hunt Masques, completely ignorant of the greater powers around you," Tavard said.

If he hadn't been trained—if he had been a simple cult fanatic—Botella would have died in the next breath, but the Masque of Gogol showed him a silvery whirlwind coming at him from a shimmering doorway.

Under attack! Tavard's slender white-haired bodyguard appeared seemingly from nowhere. His sword rang and he parried and dodged, letting instinct take over where thinking might have killed him. She was amazing. His roaring Masque had no effect on her. Her oddly jointed sword whirled around her in a perfect defensive shield, while striking like a steel serpent when she willed it to.

Her weapon blazed silver through the eyes of Gogol, and Botella knew the magic there. Of all the deadly talismans his task forced him to face, this one might be his undoing.

There! The Masque showed him a flash of red in the silvery blur. He heard the deadly woman breathing hard. He made her chase him around furniture, knocking a case of books in her path, and still she came for his blood. That sword made by the ancients seemed to keep itself aloft, tripling her stamina, driving Botella back and back and—

The red flash again. Just there, when the jointed blade spun on the far side of her body. Not a large gap, but his blade was very narrow. He waited, fending off blows in a different manner this time, poised on the balls of his feet.

Now.

Lunge. And back.

She stumbled away from him, shock in her eyes. He'd heard the pop of the steel slipping between her ribs. There was nothing for her now. Her weapon clattered to the tiles like a toy dropped by a weary child. She slid down the wall to a sitting position.

People immune to the ways of a Masque were more rare than the finest diamonds, and Tavard had indeed found many treasures. As she died, Botella mourned the loss of her uniqueness. He had the sudden thought that he'd never heard her speak. He wondered if she had a beautiful voice that would be missed.

Idiot, that girl has made your heart soft as lamb wool, he thought.

It didn't take long to find the stairs near the sound tube. No more cocky words. No more threats of great magic. Because, of course, no one in this day could truly do magic. They only had these items left behind by a greater people. He removed the Masque of Gogol and tucked it into his shirt. Botella's own face would send Tavard on his way into the blackness.

He edged downward, taking flight after flight of solid oak stairs. He had envisioned Tavard being in a basement just underfoot, but he was far below ground in a room dazzled by torches and mirrors on every wall.

Tavard stood behind a table draped in white. A wooden head, holding a Masque of glittering gold, sat on Botella's side of the table. It had no symbol on the forehead—just a large green jewel shaped like a teardrop. So… Tavard had another besides his Masque of Fear. Botella would have to remember that the next time he saw his friend, the antiquities dealer.

"Do you recognize it?" Tavard said.

"I've not read of it in any book or scroll," Botella said.

"It's called the Masque of Minos. It helps me see where my competitors lack strength, tells me when a man is lying to me, shows a face of honor and trustworthiness to those I deal with. It has been in my family a very long time, and has made our name a great one in this town. One that the local guardsmen vigorously defend. Even a skilled man can't beat an army."

His implied threat was clear. Not impressive, but clear. Tavard swallowed in the silence, his throat clicking. When Botella said nothing, Tavard motioned toward the Masque.

"This amazing thing is yours, if you want it. I would think a man in your line of work would benefit greatly from something like this."

"It's not work, brother of the world, it's a calling. A sworn duty, if you like," Botella said.

He tried to stay focused on Tavard, but it was difficult. He had seen Surah the second he entered the room, cowering in the corner, her hands tied with fine silk cords. She had a purple welt under her eye. Her wonderful hair had been hacked off, and it littered the floor around her. A pair of golden shears sat on a granite block beside her.

"What ritual is this?" Botella said.

"None," Tavard said. "I needed to know certain things. Of course, that was when I thought this little hellion had something that belonged to me. I now understand differently."

"Ah, friend, she would have told you without force. It burdens my heart to see such an innocent harmed," said Botella.

Despite his obvious fear, Tavard uttered a short laugh. "This one? Hardly. She's a master thief who obviously thirsts for magic as much as I do."

"And what of the skins I saw above? What thirst do those slake?" Botella said.

Tavard ran a hand over the golden frame of a mirror that ran from floor to ceiling. "The talismans in this house have been collected for ages, handed down to the worthy, meant to help us rule common folk. For their own good, without a doubt. Men like me see the course of things; we can guide everyone along the path of prosperity."

"Do you believe the ancients made these things so rich men could rule poor men? So they could skin folks for their own amusement?" Botella said.

"Is that any worse than believing that the Masques are evil and those who use them should be destroyed?" Tavard said.

All the time they'd been talking, Tavard had been running his hand over the designs carved into the mirror frame. He leaned down and picked up a bit of Surah's shorn hair. "Take the Masque, my friend. Do whatever you will with it. Burn it, keep it, wrap it in a bow and give it to the young lady."

Tavard tapped the mirror three times with Surah's hair. His forehead looked waxy and pale, and his eyes had grown wide. Almost too late, Botella recognized the panicked look of a desperate man.

"Stop what you're doing," Botella said. He gestured with his blade. "Stand away from that—"

Tavard stroked the mirror with Surah's hair and the glass trembled in the middle. A talisman that required a trigger! A shimmering door started to form in the glass. So, this was how his female warrior had appeared upstairs. Tavard made ready to leap through.

Botella's legs propelled him forward in a graceful stag's leap, his sword leading. After learning of the man's ruthless prey drive, he expected Tavard to be a fighter himself. But this rich man's bodyguard had not been for show. He had needed her. Tavard went down to the blade quickly, with hardly a struggle. When he collapsed to the floor, the mirror ceased trembling and the door disappeared, leaving Botella gazing at his own face, something he'd never seen after killing a man. He didn't care for what looked back at him.

Botella turned to find Surah staring at him with resignation on her face and a tiredness that hadn't been there before. It was not physical exhaustion, but more like she'd had her bright spirit tarnished during her time in this basement.

"I suppose I will be next?" she said.

"Do you know me not at all?" Botella said. He put his sword away and drew a small knife. He cut her bonds. His hand went toward her wounded face, but stalling halfway. Surah took it in her own hands and touched it to her cheek.

"Thank you," she said. "But you should have left. This town has a fearsome number of guardsmen."

"It also has a fearsome number of decent people. Come, let's get you back to your room so you can gather your things. Might be just as well if you caught an overland out of here." He stood and offered his hand. Surah heaved a sigh like she'd come to the end of a desperate race. She took his hand.

Botella and Surah walked out of Tavard's gate to a brilliant morning sun. A group at least twenty armed men waited for them. Botella shouted a merry greeting to the grim-faced guardsmen. A man with cropped white hair stepped forward with a massive broadsword in his hand.

"Stay there, brother. Lay down your arms," the man said.

Botella tapped his fingers on the hilt of his sword and saw the nervous tick in the other man's eye.

"Brother, I would, and with cheer," Botella said. "But my young friend and I are making ready to leave your fair town. We were recent guests of Tavard, and sadly, he has parted from this world. I... I would hope all the riches in that empty house find their way into the proper hands." Botella was betting that a man who kept his popularity with coin wouldn't be missed too sorely when he was gone.

After a moment of apparent deliberation, the guardsman nodded and smiled. "Ay, brother. That they will."

The armed men shifted their attention to Tavard's house. What began as a slow walk soon became a mad dash to be the first to claim something shiny.

The overland coach would not come through for another day, so Botella talked Surah into camping in the woods with him for safety. It was likely that Tavard had at least a few friends in Shale Mount who might seek to do her harm.

They left together through the main gate and walked for most of the day to put the glittering walls of Shale Mount behind them. He was still surprised by her strength. Not once did she complain about the pace or the heat of the day.

He led her deep into the woods before they made camp, taking fire duty as she stripped green branches to make an overhead shelter for them.

The deepening bruise beneath her eye made his heart ache. The welt had swollen like a small plum on the point of her cheekbone. The remains of her beautiful hair now stood in jagged clumps on her head, yet she smiled as if they'd just met at a social gathering.

"I see the look you give me. Don't worry, it doesn't bother me. This body is a simple form to house the spark the Designer places within us all. My hair will grow back and the bruises will fade. And when I die, this body will simply become part of the world again. My spirit, spark, soul, whatever you wish to name it, will go back to the Designer's hand."

Her conviction moved Botella. He longed to be so comfortable in the belief that no matter what happened he would go on to something greater.

He'd brought some bread and cheese from his boardinghouse. They sat near the crackling fire and shared their food. The tall trees around them brought on an early dusk as the sun went west. He suddenly remembered a question she asked him last night. He dug through the Masques and held one out to her.

"What is this?" Surah said.

"It is a Masque of Remembrance. You asked me if I'd ever found one that did something good. I've heard that many Masques of Remembrance contain foul things after being passed through the wrong hands. This one seems to have made it through unscathed. Please. Try it."

She reached with her fingers slightly curled, as if the Masque might snap at her. She summoned the courage to take it. Turning it in her hands, she gazed at it in awe. "I've never seen material like this."

"Nor have I. And I've travelled a fair piece of this world pursuing these Masques."

Surah slipped the Masque over her face and her body went still. Botella sat in silence, watching her heartbeat in her slender neck. Some time passed before she removed it, and her cheeks were wet with tears when she did.

"Thank you, Botella. I am glad the Designer saw fit to bring us together."

She handed the Masque back and he tucked it away with its kin. Before he could stop himself, he wiped a tear from her face. "Do well and good in this world, Surah. The heavens know I have not. I figure you're one right thing I've done that just might be good enough to tip the scales back. A bit, anyway."

He grabbed his bedroll and started to roll it out, not entirely sure he hadn't lost his mind. Letting her live flew in the face of every moment his father spent training him. Why then did it seem like the first true step he'd taken on this journey?

"Wait," Surah said. She dug through her modest pack and brought out a small bundle of waxy paper. "The Sisterhood of the Willow Tree is known for making fantastic sweets. My sisters would be shamed by my manners if I did not offer something for all your help."

Surah unrolled the waxy paper to reveal delicate treats about the size of a finger. They looked sticky and were covered with toasted nuts and seeds. "We make them from flour we grind ourselves, and honey from hives we maintain in the hills around our home. Please, share with me."

Botella didn't normally go for sweets, but he took one to be polite. Surah held hers up in a toast. "To the Designer's will. Surely we were brought together for reasons beyond our understanding."

He shrugged. "Sure, why not?"

They each took a bite. Botella never had anything like it. The thick honey filled his head with the flowers that spawned its creation. The toasted nuts and seeds crunched pleasurably between his teeth. The whole thing was gone in three bites. If she'd had a pound of them he likely would have downed them all and asked for more.

This brought a boyish smile to his face…

Surah sat perfectly still, her own sticky treat still in her hand. He noticed she wasn't chewing, just watching him with a look of curiosity.

She spat the first bite back into her hand.

The last sight he remembered of her was a tiny smile, wistful and full of regret. His eyes closed, and he fell into an abyss of dreamless black, with no stars to guide him back.

Botella woke bathed in sweat. His coat was draped over him and the sun was directly overhead. He'd slept through a night and half a day! He sat up slowly. He hadn't felt this hammer inside his skull since he stopped the hard drink as a young man.

Memories crashed upon him, and a feeling of shame pushed his head down. He slammed a fist into the ground. His leather bag lay beside him, yawning empty like a laughing mouth. He'd been so stupid to trust her!

His gaze lighted on something beneath the tree Surah sat against yesterday—two Masques, laced with a chain of wildflowers she wove together: the Masque of Gogol, the one he'd used to rescue her, and the Masque of Remembrance.

Wait, what was this? He noticed a bit paper inside the Masque of Remembrance. He took it out and smoothed it open. The note was in a light feminine hand. Remember.

He stubbornly thought of ignoring it, but he knew he could not. He put on the Masque, his scalp tingling at the feel of something new. The trees around him morphed into the blurry image of a fire burning in the darkness. The emotion of the memory settled into Botella's heart, and he knew the blur came from Surah's tears.

There he lay, with his coat draped over him, the light of the fire making his face look calm and peaceful. His mind spun for a moment to see his own face from this point of view. Not like looking in a mirror at all, this odd sense of knowing yourself through someone else's eyes.

The warmth and love he felt made his heart ache for something he had lost long ago. Unlike the image, these feelings were like a mirror. Affection, fondness, a sense of stumbling across a kindred spirit.

Surah's delicate hand came into view and touched his sleeping face. "You have killed many, Botella, I know that. Yet your heart is still good, otherwise I would be dead. Go where the Designer will take you. Maybe the wind will shift and move us near each other again someday."

The view blurred again, and the memory ended. Other memories swam from of the blackness—things he'd seen a thousand times and might not ever care to see again. He ripped the Masque off his head.

For a bit, he just wept slow tears like a heartbroken boy.

Then he packed his two Masques and cleaned the blood of his previous labors from his sword. The next overland coach would come in three days. He had time to perform his devotions in solitude and get himself to the center again.

Once his mind and spirit were clear again, he would place his feet back on the New Path. He'd go back to the antiquities dealer who gave him Tavard and start down the next branch on that tree. He could keep the next two Masques he claimed if he found them useful.

After that he'd burn them as he went, always walking one step short of perfection.

About the Author
Michael Ezell is a former US Marine who works in Southern California as a project coordinator for an Emmy-winning makeup effects shop. His work has appeared in Fantasy for Good, Girl at the End of the World Vol. 2, Hidden Youth, and On Spec Magazine. You can find Michael at his sorely neglected blog sinisterwriter.com, or follow @sinisterEZ on Twitter.
Background image by ESO/IDA/Danish 1.5 m/R.Gendler, J-E. Ovaldsen, C. Thöne, and C. Feron.
http://www.eso.org/public/images/etamosaicnm2/, CC BY 4.0, Link