By Eugie Foster
Each morning is a decision. Should I put on the brown mask or the blue? Should I be a tradesman or an assassin today?
Whatever the queen demands, of course, I am. But so often she ignores me, and I am left to figure out for myself who to be.
Dozens upon dozens of faces to choose from.
1. Marigold is for murder.
The yellow mask draws me, the one made from the pelt of a mute animal with neither fangs nor claws—better for the workers to collect its skin. It can only glare at its keepers through the wires of its cage, and when the knives cut and the harvesters rip away its skin, no one is troubled by its screams.
I tie the tawny ribbons under my chin. The mask is so light, almost weightless. But when I inhale, a charnel stench redolent of outhouses, opened intestines, and dried blood floods my nose.
* * *
My wife’s mask is so pretty, pink flower lips and magenta eyelashes that flutter like feathers when she talks. But her body is pasty and soft, the flesh of her thighs mottled with black veins and puckered fat.
Still, I want her.
“Darling, I’m sorry,” I say. “They didn’t have the kind you wanted. I bought what they had. There’s Citrus Nectar, Iolite Bronze, and Creamy Illusion.”
“Might as well bring me pus in a jar,” she snaps. “Did you look on all the shelves?”
“N-no. But the shop girl said they were out.”
“The slut was probably hoarding it for herself. You know they all skim the stuff. Open the pots and scoop out a spoonful here, a dollop there. They use it themselves or stick it in tawdry urns to sell at those independent markets.”
“The shop girl looked honest enough.” Her mask was carved onyx with a brush of gold at temples and chin. She was slim, her flesh taut where my wife’s sags, her skin flawless and golden. And she moved with a delicate grace, totally unlike the lumbering woman before me.
“Looked honest?” My wife’s eyes roll in the sockets of her mask. “Like you could tell Queen’s Honey from shit.”
“My love, I know you’re disappointed, but won’t you try one of these other ones? For me?” I pull a jar of Iolite Bronze from the sack and unscrew the lid.
Although hostility bristles from her—her scent, her stance, the glare of fury from the eyeholes of her mask—I dip a finger into the solution. It’s true it doesn’t have the same consistency, and the perfume is more musk than honey, but the tingle is the same.
With my Iolite Bronzed finger, I reach for the cleft between her doughy thighs.
“Don’t touch me with that filth,” she snarls, backing away.
If only she weren’t so stubborn. I grease all the fingers of my hand with Iolite Bronze. The musk scent has roused me faster than Queen’s Honey.
I grab for her sex, clutching at her with my slick fingers. I am so intent that I do not see the blade, glowing in her fist. As my fingertips slip into her, she plunges the weapon into my chest, and I go down.
Lying in a pool of my own blood, the scent of Iolite Bronze turning rank, I watch the blade rise and fall as she stabs me again and again.
Her mask is so pretty.
2. Blue is for maidens.
The next morning, I linger over my selection, touching one beautiful face, then another. There is a vacant spot where the yellow mask used to be, but I have many more.
Finally, I choose one the color of sapphires. The brow is sewn from satin smooth as water. I twine the velveteen ribbons in my hair, and the tassels shush around my ears like whispered secrets.
* * *
“I don’t think I’ll ever marry,” I say. “Why should I?”
The girl beside me giggles, slender fingers over her mouth opening. Her mask is hewn from green wood hardened by three days of fire. Once carved and finished, the wood takes on a glass-like clarity, the tracery of sepia veins like a thick filigree of lace.
“Mark my words,” she says. “All the flirting you do will catch up to you one day. A man will steal your heart, and you’ll come running to me to help with the wedding.”
I laugh. “Not likely. The guys we know only think about Queen’s Honey and getting me alone. I’d just as soon marry a Mask Maker as any of those meat heads.”
“Eww, that’s twisted.” My girlfriend squeals and points. “Look! It’s the new shipment. Didn’t I tell you the delivery trucks come round this street first?”
We stand with our masks pressed against the shop window, ogling the display of vials.
“Exotica, White Wishes Under a Black Moon.” My friend rattles off the names printed in elegant fonts in the space beneath each sampler. “Metallic Mischief, Homage to a Manifesto,—what do you suppose that one’s like?—Terracotta Talisman, and Dulcet Poison. I like the sound of that last one.”
“Oh, hush. Let’s go try them.”
“That store’s awfully posh. You think they’ll let us try without buying?”
“Of course they will. We’re customers, aren’t we? They won’t throw us out.”
My concerns fail to dampen her enthusiasm, and I let her tow me through the crystalline doors.
The mingled scents in the shop wash over us. My friend abandons me, rushing to join the jostling horde clustered around the new arrivals. While the mixture of emotive fumes makes my friend giddy and excited, they overwhelm me. I lean against a counter and take shallow breaths.
“You look lost.” The man’s mask is matte pewter, the metal coating so thin I can see the strokes from the artisan’s paintbrush. A flame design swirls across both cheeks in variegated shades of purple.
“I’m just waiting for my friend.” I gesture in the direction of the mob. There’s a glint of translucent green, all I can see of her.
“You’re not interested in trying this new batch?”
“Not really. I prefer the traditional distillations. I guess that makes me old-fashioned.”
The man leans to conspiratorial closeness. “But you purchased those three new ones yesterday. I tried to warn you about the Iolite Bronze. It’s not at all a proper substitute for Queen’s Honey.”
Memories of lust and violence fill me, musk and arousal, pain and blood. But they are wrong. I am someone else today. I shake my head.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.” I search for a hint of green glass or sepia lace. Where is she? “I’d never let someone use Iolite Bronze on me.”
“Didn’t you say it was a gift when I sold it to you?”
“I was the shop girl in the onyx mask.”
I am shocked beyond words, beyond reaction. It is the biggest taboo in our society, so profane and obscene that it is not even in our law books. We do not discuss the events and encounters of our other masks. It is not done. What if people started blaming one face for what another did, merely because the same citizen wore both?
The moment of speechless paralysis ends, and I run. I fly through the glittering doors, not caring that I’ve left my best friend behind, and run, run, run until I am back to the dormitory on Center at Corridor. I huddle in the lift, and it whisks me to my quarters. On my bed, I sob, the tears wetting the inside of my mask. A part of me worries that I will stain the satin, but it is a distant part.
When the tears run out, I am done with the day, done with this mask. But the unmasking time is still far off. If I’d only worn the tan mask today, with the bronze veneer and dripping beadwork, I wouldn’t have fled from the pewter-masked deviant. I’d have punched him in the golden flesh of his gut or hauled him to the queen’s gendarmes for a reckoning.
Then I realize what I’m thinking, what I’m wanting—another mask, but not during the morning selection, not during the unmasking—while I’m still wearing today’s.
And I’m afraid.
3. Black is for sex.
In the morning, as I stand barefaced among my masks, looking anywhere but at the tan one, I receive the queen’s summons. It is delivered, as always, by a gendarme masked in thinly hammered silver. He rings my bell, waiting for me to acknowledge him over the intercom.
The gendarmes are the only citizens about during the early morning when the rest of us are selecting our daily masks, just as they are the only ones who patrol the thoroughfares after the unmasking hour, collecting retired masks and distributing new ones.
“Good morning, gendarme,” I say.
“Good morning, citizen. You are called upon today to carry out your civic duty.”
“I am pleased to oblige.” A square of paper slips through my delivery slot and into my summons tray, bringing with it an elusive sweetness. The queen’s writs are always scented like the honey named after her, both more insistent and more subtle than the stuff which circulates in the marketplaces.
Among my arrayed masks, raised above the others, is the sable mask—hammered steel painted with liquid ebony. It is the consort mask, worn only to honor the queen’s summons. The paint is sheer, and glimmers of silver flicker through the color. The eyes are outlined in opaque kohl, a masked mask.
I lock the delicate chains with their delicate clasps around my head. For a moment, I am disoriented by the lenses over the eyes. It takes longer for me to adjust to the warp in my vision than to the feel and heft of the mask. But not much longer.
* * *
The music trills liquid and rich around us, and I concentrate on the steps. In her mask-like-stars, the queen swirls and glides across the ballroom in my arms. Caught in her beauty and my exertions, I have missed her words.
“I beg your pardon, my queen. What did you say?”
Her mask tilts up, and the piquant flavor of her amusement fills my senses. “I asked if you were enjoying the dance, whether you liked the refreshment.”
“I have not sampled the buffet, but it looks lavish. As to the dance, I am worried that my clumsiness might offend you or that I might misstep.”
“I’ve never danced with you before? That would explain your stiffness.”
“I have not had the pleasure. I’m sorry.”
“Don’t be. It was only a whimsy. I don’t dance with many. You probably won’t dance with me again.” The queen gestures, and the music stops. She leads me to her couch—crimson sheets and alabaster cushions. I am more familiar with this type of dance, but she isn’t ready for me yet. Her scent, though heady, tells me it is not time to mate, although it will be soon.
It confuses me, this waiting. Why am I here, if not to do my duty?
She reclines on her couch but not in the position of copulation.
“Talk to me,” she says.
“What would you like to speak on, my queen?”
“Do you have a favorite mask?”
It is an odd question, treading the boundary of indecency.
“No, my queen. They are all precious to me.”
“Don’t you wish you could discard some masks, perhaps the ones that you suffer in, and just wear the ones that are pleasurable?”
Was she testing me? “They are all precious to me,” I say again. “Each in its wonderful variety. I would never presume to contravene the law.”
“Not even to bend it a little? There are some citizens who wear just a few masks and don others only as often as they must in order to stay out of the purview of the gendarmes.”
“But that’s criminal.”
“Technically, it’s legal, although it defies the heart of the code. Generally, the number of their select rotation is large enough that no single mask becomes dominant. Do you find the prospect appealing?”
Dominant mask? What would be the purpose in limiting one’s mask selection? Her words make no sense.
My answer pleases her. Her scent rises, and with it, my arousal, and I cannot think clearly anymore. The queen is the font of desire and satisfaction—the perfume of true Queen’s Honey between her legs, her need, mine—nothing exists but the urgency of mating. It eclipses mere copulation as the sun outshines the stars. I submerge in a tide of desire and completion and the rise of desire again, over and over, until the unmasking hour.
In the morning, barefaced and aching, I report to the Mask Makers galley. I avoid looking at their ugly, soft countenances. It’s partly instinctive discomfort at being seen without a mask, but also, Mask Makers have always made me uneasy. I feel sorry for them, their faces so colorless and insipid. It’s an irony that they wear such bland features and plain colors, yet they make such marvelous faces for us, each one unique in its brilliance. I pity them, and I’m glad I was not born to their caste.
I hand over my summons writ and accept my newest mask, my favor from the queen. It is glossy saffron with pointed wires to fasten it. It has no mouth opening, but it does not seem lacking for that. Like every face they craft, it is a feat of artistry.
4. Orange is for agony.
I press the saffron mask to my face and wrap the barbed laces around my head. A fleeting touch, my fingertips on the painted metal tell me of thick runnels that dent the surface. Their unevenness makes the fit uncomfortable. For a moment.
* * *
Wire mesh presses above and below. If I lie down, I can stretch my neck, a little. But then the mesh cuts into my feet, my forearms, my chest. Standing, sitting, a few back-and-forth steps. But pacing only reminds me how small my cell is. And they do not like for us to pace. Exercise thins the fat between muscle and skin, making the harvest more difficult.
My neighbor wears a ginger mask dotted with cobalt sequins. He urinates, and it splashes through the mesh on me. I hiss my rage, crowded by the scent of his body, and return the favor.
I’m glad when the workers come for him and watch as they trap him in their loops. He tries to fight, but he has nothing sharp or hard to wield. Their wicked tools, edged with blue light, open him from neck to groin. He barely has time to bleed before they carve perpendicular incisions, flaps to better flay him in a single piece.
His eyes bulge as they tear away his skin, all the movement he is capable of. He’s silent, for there is no mouth on his mask; he is as mute as I.
When they’re done, they leave him writhing in the liquids of his body on the wire mesh floor. They take the heavy cloak of his skin with them.
Then it’s my turn. The ginger planes of my neighbor’s mask swivel to me, so he can watch.
There’s no place to run in my tiny cell, and their loops pinion me. When they begin to cut away my skin, it is the most terrible pain I have ever known.
Their masks are lemon, daffodil, and butterscotch. Pretty and yellow, like sunshine.
5. Jasper is for jilting.
The next morning, the choice is harder than usual. I flinch away from the saffron mask and stare for a long while at the tan one. But it feels inappropriate to select it.
Like a whiff of passing corruption, the notion of going without a mask today, simply staying in my quarters and not choosing a face, flits through my thoughts. It is too scandalous to contemplate; I feel guilty to have even considered it.
Without looking, I reach among the rows of empty faces and snatch the first one my hand falls upon.
It is a brackish green, the color of stagnant water in a pool that never sees the sun. The chin and nose are gilded in dark velvet, and the lips shine, liquid silver hand-painted on silk. I tighten the woven cords around my head.
* * *
I hover beneath the window of my lover, she of the cerulean mask detailed in voile. She reclines on her balcony, and a song of courtship thrums from her dainty mouth. I inhale the delicate body scents her servant wafts out with a fan: enticement and temptation, innocence and promise.
“Do you love me?” my sweetheart calls.
“With all my soul. You are my everything.”
“I don’t believe you,” she laughs. “How are you different from all the other men, just waiting for a chance to slather me with Queen’s Honey?”
“How can you say that? I’ve asked you to marry me.”
“What does that prove? Any meat head with a tongue can do that. And anyway, I don’t want to marry at all. Marriage is a sorry state that leads to fighting and grief.”
I pantomime exaggerated dismay for her benefit. “What can I do to convince you of my sincerity? Ask me for anything, and I’ll give it to you.”
“Do you have a jar of Queen’s Honey?”
I hesitate. If I answer truthfully, she might accuse me again of being a libertine. But it’s also my courting gift. She will feel slighted if I don’t have anything to offer her.
I sigh and choose the better of my options. “A humble present to honor your loveliness.”
When I’m not immediately rebuffed, I dare to hope.
“I’m sending my girl down. Give the Queen’s Honey to her, and we’ll all play a game. She’ll seal the jar so the contents may not be used without breaking it, and puncture its lid, freeing the scent. If you can spend the afternoon with me and my girl in my enclosed boudoir and keep from breaking the jar open, I’ll believe that you love me and not simply the pleasures of copulation. But if you lose control and do break the jar, you can slake yourself on her, but you’ll never get a word or whiff from me again.”
“What, pray, do I get if I can restrain myself?”
Her laughter is like a teasing wind. “If you can check your desires until evening, I’ll send her away and break the jar myself.”
I’m both excited and dismayed by the prospect of her “game.” My lover will ensure that our time is not spent on chaste recreations or thoughtful conversation. She will pose herself and her servant girl in all manner of ways suggestive of copulation. And she is probably already drenched in one of the trendy distillations—Passion Without Doubt or Exotica or Citrus Nectar—to madden me further. Still, the reward will be sweet. And at the very least (my love did not altogether peg me wrongly), I’ll get to do the servant girl.
My prospective consolation prize opens the door. Her mask is a sage green that suggests transparency, the eyes rimmed in toffee lace. She snatches the Queen’s Honey from me, but there the anticipated script ends. She twists off the lid and scoops the unguent out. Without embarrassment or coyness, she rubs it on herself, between her thighs. As I stare dumbfounded, she smears a glistening coating on me. Instantly, I’m aroused and eager.
“Want me?” she whispers.
“Yes.” Flesh on flesh, the Queen’s Honey brooks no denial.
“Then catch me.” She sprints away.
I waver for only a breath. Above, my sweetheart calls down plaintively, wondering at our delay. But desire roars through me, and all I care about is the servant girl.
I chase her through the dormitory block as she weaves around crowds and over obstacles—sculptures, shops, new constructions. Sometimes men turn, catching the fleeting perfume of Queen’s Honey mingled with her sex as she darts by.
I am enthralled. She fills every breath I take. I run until I’m a creature of fire—blazing lungs and burning limbs. But it is spice to my eagerness. I will catch her, and then we will copulate.
She leads me past the market district, past shop windows filled with citizens making purchases, and into the rural outskirts where the machines harvest our food and workers gather esoteric materials for the Mask Makers guild.
In a shaded copse of green wood trees, she drops to her knees. I’m upon her, not even waiting for her to assume the proper position. She opens to me, and I rush to join our bodies.
It is glorious, of course, the release all the more satisfying for the chase. But even as I spend myself, I notice something wrong. The girl is not making the right movements, and her scent, while intoxicating, is strange. Beneath the Queen’s Honey she is impatient when she should be impassioned. As soon as I’m finished, she pulls away, and for the first time after a copulation, I’m not happy and languid, awash in the endorphins of sex. I feel awkward.
Before I can say anything, the girl tears off her mask. The horror of her unmasking paralyzes me; I’m unprepared for her next action. She lunges, ripping off the bindings of my mask, and yanks it free.
I am barefaced.
It’s not the unmasking hour, not the time for emptiness and slumber. Without my mask, I don’t know how to act or feel, or what to say. I don’t even know if I can speak, for I never have without a mask. I’m lost, no one. The nucleus of my personality and intelligence is empty; the girl has stolen it.
6. White is for obedience.
While I kneel, stupefied, the girl discards my mask, letting it fall among the long grasses where we loved. I don’t even have the presence of will to retrieve it.
She examines the inside of her mask. With infinite care, she peels a sheer membrane away. It is like a veil of gauze or chiffon, but this veil has a shape. There are nose, cheekbones, and chin.
It is a mask, but a mask unlike any I’ve seen. The fabric is unornamented and diaphanous white, like thin fog or still water, all but colorless. It doesn’t conceal what it covers, only overlays it.
She takes this ghost of a mask and drapes it over my face. Without cord or chain, it fastens itself, clinging to my head. It is such relief to have my nakedness covered, I’m grateful when I should be outraged.
I wait for the mask to tell me who I am and what to do.
And I wait.
“There’s not much oversoul there,” the girl says. Without a mask, her features are too animated, obscenely so. I avert my gaze, wondering if the ghost mask exposes my expressions in such an indecent fashion.
“It’s only a scaffold to help you get past the schizo panic,” she continues. “It doesn’t have any personas or relationship scenarios to instill, and absolutely no emotives.”
I don’t like the ghost mask’s vacancy. But at least I can think now, and it occurs to me to scramble for my own mask.
“Stop,” she says.
I cannot move. My fingertips brush the darker green and glint of silver lying in the grass, but I can’t pick it up.
“I’m afraid the scaffold does have an obedience imprint. I am sorry about that, but it’s necessary. You wouldn’t be able to access the oversoul in your mask anyway. The scaffold creates a barrier that mask imprints can’t penetrate, and you won’t be able to take the scaffold off. Go ahead, I know you want to. Try to remove it.”
I grope my face, my head looking for something to undo. There’s nothing to unknot, release, or unbuckle. I find the edge where the ghost mask, the scaffold, gives way to skin, but it’s adhered to me. The memory from yesterday—the saffron mask, being skinned alive—is enough to deter me from anything drastic.
“What did you do to me?” I ask. “And why?”
“Good, you’re questioning. I knew you’d acclimate quickly.” A scent penetrates my distress. She is pleased. Except the tang isn’t right. It’s not feminine but not masculine either. She has no mask to tell me whether she’s male or female. Should I continue thinking of her as a girl? And for that matter, the scaffold hasn’t provided me with a gender. Am I a man or a woman, or am I neuter, or perhaps some sort of androgyne?
I feel lightheaded and ill. “If this is some perverted game,” I say, “I’m not amused. I’ll report this to the gendarmes. They’ll confiscate all your masks for this crime, and….” I trail off. Her naked face is testimony of her indifference to the severest penalty of our society.
“Why are you doing this to me?” I whimper.
“Did you ever wonder who you are beneath your masks?” she says. “When you say me, who is that?”
Hearing her voice the question that has lately made my mornings so troubling and the hours after unmasking so long, is a kind of deliverance. I’m not the only citizen to have these thoughts; I’m not alone in my distress. But the guilt remains, along with an added unease. Is exposing my crime what this is about? Am I to be penalized?
“Don’t be afraid,” she says, “I’m not going to turn you over to the gendarmes or anything like that.”
My breathing quickens. “Are you hearing my thoughts?”
“No, only watching your face.”
“It conveys emotions. It’s like smelling another’s confusion or knowing that someone’s angry by the tightness of their shoulders, only with facial musculature. Before long, you’ll read it as instinctively as you do scents and stances.”
“You say that as though you expect me to be pleased.”
Her mouth curves and parts, revealing the whiteness of her teeth. Being witness to such an intimate view is both repulsive and fascinating.
“I know you don’t think so now,” she says, “but I’ve given you a gift, one very few people receive.” She stands. “Walk with me.”
I don’t want to go anywhere with her, but the scaffold compels me to obey. We stroll deeper into the wilderness, leaving my mask in the grass. It is an uncomfortable sensation, having my will at odds with my body.
“I’ve been watching you for a while to make sure you were right,” she says.
“Watching me?” Fragments of confusion knit into understanding. “You’re the shop girl who sold me the Iolite Bronze and the deviant man with the pewter mask.”
“And the customer at the bakery who bought a dozen egg tarts from you before that.”
“The woman with the pink mask who asked for the recipe?”
“Yes. And before, when you wore your roan and iron mask, I was in the audience when you presented your new poem. And the day before that, I picked indigo with you for the Mask Makers.”
We emerge into a clearing. A broken-down hut lists, obscured by overgrown foliage. Her sage and toffee mask still dangles from her fingertips. She passes its brim over the doorknob, and the door swings open.
“I’m glad to finally meet you,” she says. “You can call me Pena.”
The interior is dim, lit by stray sunbeams poking through holes in the ramshackle walls.
“Pena?” The word is meaningless. “Why?”
“It’s my name, a word that means me, regardless of what mask I’m wearing or not wearing.”
I snort. “Why stop at each citizen having their own name? Why not each tile or brick the builders use or every tree or blade of grass?”
“Every street has a name,” Pena says. “And every shop.”
“So we can tell one from the other. Otherwise, we couldn’t say where a place was, or differentiate between one food market and another.”
“Exactly.” She runs her fingers over a floorboard, and I hear a click. In the far corner by the fireplace, flagstones part to expose steps.
“What’s down there?” I ask.
We descend, and the flagstones rumble shut overhead. Ambient light washes over us—dim and red, casting bloody shadows.
We’re in a tunnel with rough, stone walls. The light extends ten paces before us; beyond is darkness. Pena strides toward this border, and I am obliged to accompany her. When we are within a pace of light’s end, more red comes on to reveal another span of corridor. When we are within this new radius, the light behind us goes out.
And so we walk.
“Why do citizens need names?” I ask. “We change masks every day, unlike shops and streets which stay the same. What if I discover that my physician is the same citizen as my murderer? Or a citizen in one mask is my lover and in another, my enemy? If I call that citizen by a single word, it’s like treating all their mask identities as the same person.”
“That’s the point,” she says. “It lets us be who we truly are, underneath our masks.”
I shake my head. “Without the masks, we’re not anything.”
“There was a time before the masks.”
“And we were empty, primitive creatures, without will or purpose, until the First Queen created the First Mask to wear and carved faces for the citizens and—”
“And She designated the Guild of Mask Makers and tasked them with their sacred duty so that everyone would be imbued with souls, blah blah blah. I know the lies.”
Her heresy is both disturbing and intriguing. “What do you believe, then?”
“That’s what I’m going to show you.”
“There’s a group of us named. We seek out others who harbor the same doubts and resentments we do, and we liberate them.”
“I don’t want to be liberated.”
“Don’t you? Haven’t you wanted to be free of the daily selection routine? Or chafed against the mask, wishing the hour of unmasking came sooner? Don’t you hover in indecision some mornings, not because the choosing is so hard, but because none of them appeal? Don’t you wonder who you could be if you were left to decide for yourself?”
I am saved from having to answer by the appearance of something new when the next lights activate: a door.
7. Red is for revelation.
“Where are we?”
“Beneath the palace at the Mask Makers guild.”
She passes her mask over the door. Like the hut’s, it opens.
I balk. “No. Absolutely not. It’s prohibited.”
She studies me. “I can make you, but I won’t. It’s your decision.”
I open my mouth to repeat myself.
“But first, hear me out.”
I exhale. “If I must. But it won’t change my mind.”
“You know I’ve been keeping by you as you’ve switched masks. I was also with you when you wore the saffron mask at the leather harvesters.”
The memory is still raw. “So?”
“Do you know who I was?”
“One of the skinners, I presume.”
“I was your neighbor in the adjoining cage.”
Despite everything, I’m dismayed. “Didn’t you know what they were going to do to you, to us?”
“And still you let them, willingly even. Why, in the name of the First Queen?”
“Because, to be with you, I could either hurt you or be hurt, and I chose not to hurt you.”
“Am I someone to you? Have we been lovers or spouses or friends?”
“Not that I know of.”
“Because I know who I am, and my actions are a reflection of me. I don’t skin people alive.”
Her last sentence carries a conviction, a certainty that makes me envious.
“What would you do if you had to choose,” she says, “if your decisions extended beyond what mask to wear any given day? Would you willingly inflict such suffering upon another?”
“I would… I-I don’t know.”
“Do you want to know?”
And I find I do.
The door opens upon a storage room jammed with row upon row of shelves. Bolts of multi-hued fabric, rolls of ribbon and lace, and jars of washes, dyes, and lacquers are piled together without any semblance of order. More rolls of textiles spill out of cubby holes and closets lining the room.
“This is their overflow storage, where they keep their excess,” Pena says. “We raid it for our mask-making supplies. Named artisans can create near-perfect replicas of guild masks, but without the oversouls, of course.”
“With added features that can unlock doors.”
She displays her teeth again. Some part of me has learned to equate that facial configuration with positive emotion, even before I breathe the perfume of her approval.
“You noticed. Very good.”
“How do they do it?”
She leads me through the jumble. “It’s complicated to explain. All of our mask functions, including the scaffold you’re wearing, are based on the Mask Makers’ constructs. There’s bits and pieces appliquéd, sewn, glued, or imbedded in all masks which stimulate thoughts, trigger emotions, assign personality traits, and so on. Named artisans have taken apart and put back together these pieces, re-aligning and modifying them until they’ve gained an understanding of their workings. In the process, they’ve discovered that the components can do much more than imprint oversouls, like lock and unlock doors. And there’s still so much we haven’t figured out yet.”
The supply room exits upon a dark corridor that illuminates red at our approach. But unlike the one from the hut, the circle of light shows a cluster of turnings that forks in different directions.
“You make it sound like you named have been at this for a while,” I say.
“We have.” She sets off down one of the twisting tunnels. “Sometimes the gendarmes get wind of our activities, so we work exclusively in pairs—one mentor, one recruit. That way, the most named any of us knows is two, your mentor when you’re recruited, and your recruit once you’re ready to bring someone in. We disseminate information and requests through codes and drop-off points. It’s slow but safer.”
I’ve lost track of the bends and turns we’ve taken. “You must recruit pretty selectively, if each mentor can only take one.”
“Mentors can take another recruit if theirs is apprehended by the gendarmes.” The lighting casts deep shadows over the planes of her face, and for a moment, it seems that she’s wearing a crimson mask. She brushes her fingers over her eyes, and they come away wet.
“What happens when the gendarmes catch you?”
“They kill us.”
I shrug. “That’s all? So you lose the day. In the morning—”
“No. They kill us. It’s not like the petty murders citizens inflict upon each other. There’s no waking up from the death the gendarmes deliver.”
I stumble, shocked. “That’s-that’s monstrous. How is that possible? How can our laws permit it?”
“You said it yourself; without the masks, we’re nothing. When the gendarmes execute one of us, they reassign all of that named’s personas to the population at large. The oversouls continue, and there is no disruption among the citizenry. I think the gendarmes grieve more when they have to destroy a mask that has been murdered than when they kill one of us.”
Pena rounds a corner, and there is a wall. It’s creamy smooth, as though stone workers spent hours painstakingly sanding it to perfect flatness.
“Did you make a wrong turn?” I ask.
“Afraid of getting lost?” Her tone is teasing. “Don’t worry. Even if I had made a wrong turn, my mask contains the labyrinth’s secrets. But I didn’t.”
I half expect her to wave the mask at the wall and a door to miraculously appear. She doesn’t. Instead, Pena lifts a hand to her mouth and tears at it with her teeth. Dark blood oozes, and she smears this droplet on the wall.
Soundlessly, the wall glides up and disappears into the ceiling. White, not red, light comes on, blinding after the dimness.
Pena tugs me forward while I’m still blinking. I squint, eyes tearing and blurry, at the small room we have entered. The walls are polished metal, and they encircle us, curving outward so it feels like we’re inside a cylinder. A closed one. While my eyes adjust, the door shuts itself.
In the room’s center is an ornate chair of silver and gold. Resting upon its seat is a mask.
I recognize it, for it is the stuff of legend. Carved from a single diamond with a million-million facets, each representing a mask-to-be, the First Queen’s Mask, the one She created with her own hands to bring enlightenment to us all.
8. Diamonds are for death.
Pena touches my face, and the scaffold slips away. The anxiety of being barefaced is forgotten in the wonder of the First Mask.
“The truth, your answers, they’re all in the oversoul of that mask,” she says. “All you have to do is put it on.”
“What if I don’t?”
“Then we go back, and tomorrow morning, you choose a mask to wear, like every other morning, and you never see me again.”
“I might turn you over to the gendarmes.”
Her lips part and flash teeth. “What will you tell them? That a citizen kidnapped you and filled your head with truth? How will you find me? And how do you know the gendarmes won’t kill you simply for knowing this much?”
She’s right, of course. “But I don’t have to put on the First Mask?”
“What you do is up to you. Now and forever.”
I hesitate for a heartbeat before striding to the chair and seizing the First Mask. It’s so light. I’d expected it to be heavier. Holding it aloft, I realize the eyeholes are encased in nearly transparent lenses like my consort mask, except diamond instead of glass.
“You might want to sit before you put it on,” Pena says. “I didn’t and ended flat on my back.”
I perch on the gold and silver chair, and set the mask over my face. There are segmented strands of diamond to wrap around my head that fasten with glittering diamond locks. The lenses warp my vision, disorienting me. But only for a moment.
* * *
The war is finished! My last rival and her progeny are dead, and I reign in exclusive sovereignty.
My children, I am so proud of you. This is the dawn of a new age, a glorious and splendid age.
* * *
My scientists have conquered our only remaining enemy: time. They have found the key to unlocking the shackles of age and injury, and conquered the last disease. I am no longer chained by the dictates of perpetual reproduction. The years of my empire will be like a magnificent river, rippling past eon after eon, powerful and endless.
I do worry, however, that my soldiers will decline. They are the simplest of my children and only understand rigid procedures and physical contests. Perhaps I should manufacture a new corps of soldiers, an elite one. They can vie with each other in mock battles for the honor of being counted among my gendarmes.
* * *
The river of years is murky and deep, and I cannot see where it will take us.
I am stymied at an unanticipated quarter: my consorts. The noblest of my children, nearly my equals—clever and curious, independent and imaginative—I should have known they would feel neglected and adrift when I ceased summoning them to mate. They are creatures of great passion, as I am, and now they squabble, forming factions and carrying out vendettas.
I have started opening my body to them again, but I will ask the scientists to develop a synthetic pheromone so they may copulate amongst themselves.
* * *
I am despair.
A citizen killed another today, beyond what my scientists were able to restore. I must accept the truth; we are an aggressive people, not destined for peace, and all I have tried to build is in ruins.
If only there was a way for my consorts to expend their passions harmlessly.
I must confer with my scientists.
* * *
At last! I have devised an end to the chaos which blights my citizenry.
My scientists have developed a means of imprinting memories and eliciting emotions that may be interchanged, swapped out, and added upon with seemingly infinite variety. My consorts may oppose each other and mate with promiscuity, all without garnering rivals or blood feuds.
I have set my scientists to generate these oversoul masks in copious quantity and in wondrous variety.
This must work.
* * *
All is well. The activities of my children are once more in accord with my desiring, and eternity’s river holds no more uncertainties.
There was a minor dilemma, but I have solved even that. It seems that I am not immune to the effect of the masks. I thought my royal will would safeguard my identity, but it is becoming a strain, sorting reality from fabrication.
I have had an oversoul commissioned. It will be a lasting record of all the tribulations I have confronted and my efforts to remedy them. This mask shall be sealed beneath my palace in a chamber secured by steel, and my blood shall be the only key that unlocks it.
* * *
I take off the mask of diamonds. Pena watches me, her lips parted.
I tumble out of the chair and fall to my knees. “I am your servant, First Queen.”
Pena’s eyes widen, and she laughs. “Oh, no, no.” She is at my side and hauls me up. “I’m not the First Queen.”
“But your blood opened the door.”
“Don’t you get it? We’re all of her blood, each of us descended from the First Queen. Some joke on her, huh?”
I stay silent.
“Come,” she says. “We need to get back before the hour of unmasking. If we’re seen on the streets after, the gendarmes will take us.”
I straggle after her, lost in my thoughts. I don’t try to keep track of the red-lit corridors and notice only when we are among the fabrics and dyes of the storage room.
“Hsst.” Pena gestures.
“What is it?”
Without warning, she shoves me, and I tumble into a closeted hole. Bolts of velvet and felt topple upon me. She flings an oversized bottle of jasmine oil after, engulfing me in cloying sweetness.
Then there is confusion. The red light extinguishes, and white beams flash in the darkness. They catch and glint off white metal—glittering eyes, gleaming brows—the silver masks of the gendarmes.
Hidden in my cubby, my scent as obscured as my body, they do not detect me. They converge on a single spot, Pena, huddled between shelves.
“By order of the queen, you are hereby accused and convicted of treason,” one gendarme says.
I cannot smell anything over the sickening jasmine, but I can see the terror on her face. She glances at me, and there is a beseeching in her eyes, and a question, but she looks away before I can understand it.
“The penalty for treason is death, citizen,” a gendarme, perhaps the same one, says. “Do you wish to repent? Identify your co-conspirators, and we will allow you to return to the way of the mask.”
Pena lifts her head. “Never.”
They don’t ask again. They activate their loops, and I’m reminded of the day of the saffron mask. I’m ashamed of the gladness I felt then.
They don’t skin her, but this is as gruesome, if swifter. A gendarme kneels over her as she is pinioned on her back by bands of blue. Bracing himself, he staves in her face with his fist. I want to look away. It is an obscene violation, a perverse defilement to damage a citizen there—to do any violence which might cause harm to a mask. But Pena isn’t wearing a mask, and I don’t look away.
He strikes again and again until there is nothing left of the front of her head but a wreckage of bone and pulped wetness.
9. The last mask.
The gendarmes are as efficient in disposing of Pena’s body as they were in dispatching her. When they have gone, the red light comes on, and I dare to creep out. As I untangle myself from a length of burgundy velvet, my hand falls upon an unmistakable shape—Pena’s green and toffee mask. The sight of it, so soon after the atrocity of her execution, unhinges me. I start crying, and I cannot stop. But it doesn’t matter, because her mask will hide my tears.
Somehow, I make it to Center at Corridor and the familiar confines of my quarters. Safe.
But I am not safe. I cannot forget the First Queen’s memories, which the gendarmes would surely kill me for having, and more, I cannot erase the beseeching question in Pena’s eyes.
I tear off her mask. It’s not the unmasking hour, but I don’t care. I’m weary of masks, even a blameless one without an oversoul. Pena’s death burdens me with shame and guilt—like being flayed again, but with the pain inside.
I am surrounded by masks. Each is a player in some fabricated theater—artist, victim, rake, entrepreneur, lover, spouse, friend. None of them is real, but I can put them on and escape these feelings.
But I won’t.
One after the other, I destroy my masks. The ones that shatter are the easiest. I hurl them at the floor and shards spill across the tile. The ones that burn, I commit to fire. But the metal ones I must work at, smashing one upon another until they are twisted out of all recognition.
I save the sable mask for last out of a sense of propriety. Although it is metal, it is oddly malleable, and it crumbles between my hands. The lenses fall out of the eyeholes and tumble among the broken bits of ceramic and glass on my floor.
I stand amidst the debris that was my life and don the only mask I spared, Pena’s green and toffee one.
* * *
My lover glances at me in her cerulean-with-voile mask, and lets me in. She thinks I am her servant girl.
“Where did you go?” she demands. “Do you know how long I’ve been waiting for you? And where is my suitor?”
Her quarters are much like mine, much like every citizen’s. There is a mask room, a kitchen, and a bedchamber. I brush past her, and she follows, continuing to scold as we enter her kitchen. I find what I need in one of the drawers: a tenderizer mallet, heavy and solid. Even when I turn with it upraised, she doesn’t relent.
“Are you ignoring me, you slut?” she shouts. “How dare you!”
Only when I yank off her mask does she become afraid, and by then, it’s too late.
I smash the mallet into her face. She stumbles, and I ride her as she goes down, hammering the metal tool into her face over and over. Bones and flesh mash together into pulp, and still I persist. I must be thorough.
Pena did not have time to teach me the secrets of her league of named. But through her, I have learned enough. I have seen how the gendarmes kill. I do not have their loops or their strength, but I know how to murder so that my victims will not wake.
Pena also taught me to know who I am.
I am chaos in this ordered society, the flaw in a carefully wrought plan. I am turbulence in the queen’s eternal river.
Originally appeared in Interzone #220
More from Eugie Foster:
Eugie Foster calls home a mildly haunted, fey-infested house in metro Atlanta that she shares with her husband, Matthew, and her pet skunk, Hobkin. Her publication credits number over 100 and include stories in Realms of Fantasy, Interzone, Fantasy Magazine, Cricket, Orson Scott Card’s InterGalactic Medicine Show, Baen’s Universe, and anthologies Best New Fantasy (Prime Books), Heroes in Training (DAW Books), and Best New Romantic Fantasy 2 (Juno Books). Her short story collection, Returning My Sister’s Face: And Other Far Eastern Tales of Whimsy and Malice, is now available from Norilana Books. Visit her online at EugieFoster.com.