(The 500th story to appear in BCS!)
Dangling from a rope two hundred feet above the rooftops of Râu Tare, I find myself questioning the decisions that have led me to this point.
It is abundantly clear to me—far too late to be of any use—that the whole affair is a joke. What makes the Şiret Mask so valuable? Not the gems and precious metals that decorate it; lovely as they are, they pale in comparison to the Ceresc Mask of Lezaur, much less the Zeiţă Mask of the queen, and would not be worth a tenth so much outside of their setting. Not the craftsmanship, either—the mask has been repaired several times, where inferior joins have given way. No one recalls the name of the artisan who made it, so little was she famed; and even the design is unremarkable, being very similar to that used in a hundred other festival masks.
No, what makes the Şiret Mask so valuable is this: that fools like me have dangled two hundred feet above their possible deaths, just for the glory of saying we once had it in our possession.
I’m sure the joke will be very funny later. If I survive the final line.
The chain of decisions that culminated in my acquaintance with that rope is so long that it would be foolish to attempt to recount it all from the beginning. Let us choose as our point of departure a certain afternoon in the parlor of my dear friend Oana, shortly before her brother Codruţ stormed in to interrupt our conversation.
Oana had been an acquaintance of mine in our school days, and I had renewed the connection when I came to Râu Tare the year before. She had helped me find my place in Taral society, and in exchange, I served as her confidante in the matter of her secret lover, the dashing Conte Vântul.
Of course the conte was not her lover in a physical sense. Oana was not so foolish as to throw her future away on a man of such mysterious origins, no matter how much he charmed her. But she assured me that they had pledged their love to one another countless times in the six weeks she had known him, and that he was unquestionably the finest of gentlemen. “You simply must meet him yourself,” Oana said earnestly one day in her salon, clasping my hands and gazing into my eyes. “During the Festival of Changes. I trust your judgment, Viorica. If you think well of him, then I will introduce him to Codruţ, and persuade my brother we simply must be wed.”
I did not share her optimism. Codruţ was an arrogant and grasping man; he did not let go of his possessions easily, and he counted his sister among that inventory. Had their father still lived, by now Oana would have been married to her sweetheart Nicu, who had adored her since they were children. But Nicu lacked enough money to satisfy Codruţ, and while undoubtedly Oana’s conte had the wealth to please him, a mysterious nobleman would threaten Codruţ’s sense of control.
On that particular afternoon, however, I had no chance to try and convince Oana of this. Before I had done more than draw breath to speak, the door banged open hard enough to strike the wall. Codruţ stormed through the gap. “It is an outrage!” he announced to the room at large.
Oana and I shot to our feet. “Dear brother, calm down,” Oana stammered.
“What is an outrage?” I asked.
In response, Codruţ flung a sheet of paper on the floor in front of me, badly crumpled from being clutched in his fist. I retrieved it, smoothed it out, and held it where Oana and I could both read.
Before the Festival of Changes is over, the Şiret Mask will be mine.
No signature identified this terse message. Only a stamp in vermilion ink: the swirling winds of that infamous master criminal, Laperi.
“He’s going to steal the mask?” Oana gasped.
“Over my dead body,” Codruţ snarled.
I passed my hand over my face to ward off ill luck. “Of course it will not come to that. Were you not intending to wear the Iavol Mask this year? Your vault is impregnable; with the Şiret Mask safely inside, Laperi’s plans will come to nothing.”
Codruţ stopped dead in the middle of his pacing. “Leave it in the vault? Absurd!”
“But you cannot possibly risk it!” Oana said. “You spent so much money acquiring the mask—”
He cut her off with a swift chop of his hand. “I would make myself the laughingstock of Râu Tare if I cowered in fear of this criminal Laperi. No, dear sister—I will wear the mask. With a score of my finest guards around me. Let him try for it; I will leave him bleeding in the street.”
“You do recall he has an airship full of minions,” I reminded Codruţ. Everyone knew of it: the Vulpea Cerului, with its black-painted balloon, like a piece of the night sky itself. “He will swoop down on you from above, and his minions will overpower your guards.”
“Then I will hire a wizard, too!” Codruţ had the bit in his teeth. “I went to great lengths to acquire the mask, and I will no more hide it away than I will let that bastard take it from me.”
This is a sample of the behavior the mask engenders in those who come within its orbit. People have whispered from time to time that the mask itself is enchanted—or perhaps cursed—because they can think of no rational reason why people would go to such lengths to acquire it. They fail to understand that the reason is not rational. Men and women of a certain character are bound to crave prestige. The Şiret Mask is a prestigious item; therefore they desire it, and will not let anyone else have it. Human nature, not magic, is the explanation.
Rationality does assert itself in other places, though. Codruţ could not hope to hire a wizard, not for such a venial purpose as guarding his trinket. He was determined to try, though, and soon stormed off to do precisely that. In his wake, Oana sank back into her chair. “Gods of the change! It will serve Codruţ right if he loses that mask. Such a silly thing—he only wanted it because he didn’t have it.”
I remained where I was, looking at the door Codruţ had slammed behind him. “Oana—darling—”
I bit my lip, then turned and crouched at her feet. “About your Conte Vântul. I... have a terrible suspicion.”
She blinked down at me. “Whatever do you mean?”
“Don’t you think it’s just a little too convenient? He shows up in Râu Tare, and not long after, we have Laperi announcing his plans to steal the mask. The mask your brother is so proud of owning. And you yourself have become so very dear to him in such a short time.”
One infinitesimal movement at a time, Oana’s look of confusion transformed into disbelief. “You—you cannot be suggesting that he works for Laperi.” Another moment passed. “That he is Laperi?”
“I am not certain,” I hastened to reassure her. “Only... cautious. The Conte Vântul was in Malspre last year, was he not? And so was Laperi, when he filched the Star Sapphire of Avere. Tell me—has your conte ever been to Riazănoapte?”
Her silence was answer enough. And in Riazănoapte, of course, Laperi had stolen the famed Book of Ceannanas.
I took her hands and squeezed them. “It could be coincidence. Or your conte might be hunting Laperi, trying to bring him to justice! But... be careful.”
“How can I be careful?” Oana whispered. “You—please, Viorica, you must see him for yourself. You will know he cannot possibly be such a man. Or if he is, you will be able to tell, I’m sure of it. And then I will wash my hands of him forever.”
Myself and the Conte Vântul, both at the Festival of Changes. Laughing, I said, “It will be a very interesting night.”
Word got out, of course. Laperi had announced his plan to steal the mask, and Codruţ made no secret of his refusal to keep it hidden away for safety; there was no better fodder for gossip. Half the street plays I passed in the following days were hastily written pieces about the history of the Şiret Mask: how it was buried in a field to protect it when the Keleti invaded and found years later by a farmer with his plow; how a priest had pronounced the mask cursed, as a way of tricking Domn Avutins into surrendering it to his care; how the infamous thief Răsuşa had stolen the mask just to prevent her rival from acquiring it; how Doamnă Paniu took a drunken bet to place it on her horse and lost it when the horse bolted. The puppeteers for the horse were quite impressive.
The other half of the street plays were tales of the thief Laperi, and those did not have to be written in haste, for they had been scripted over the years of his infamous career. Singers and actors on every other corner told of his exploits, the treasures he’d stolen and the traps he’d outwitted. In the right parts of the city, I was sure, one could place bets on the outcome of this duel. I wondered how many were betting on Codruţ, and doubted the odds favored him... especially after the Vulpea Cerului was indeed sighted in the mountains outside the city.
All of this simply added to the chaos that accompanied any Festival of Changes. The celebrations were each person’s chance to shed their bad luck, donning a mask so that the gods would lose sight of them. For the city it marked the start of the new year; for the citizens, it was the chance of a new life, even if only for a few hours. Nobles could cast off their responsibilities and commoners speak their minds. The brave and the desperate could even go to a wizard and ask to be changed—to wake up tomorrow a different person entirely.
My own plans were not so ambitious. “Here,” I said to Nicu, under the shadow of the Skewed Arch near the river. I pressed a lover’s token into his hand. They were a common symbol of the festival; exchanging them was a sign that the two parties had exchanged hearts. “She’ll be at the foot of the Estic Bridge at midnight. Don’t be late.”
Nicu curled his fingers around the token, an intricate knot of thread. “Are you sure?” he said anxiously. “This Conte Vântul—”
“Will be out of the running long before then,” I assured him. “But Oana will need you tonight, Nicu. Don’t fail her.”
“I won’t,” he said fervently.
The river was on fire with the light of the setting sun, the Gagiu Bridge stretching its shadow along the water. The Festival would officially begin at sundown, but revelers already crowded the river walk and the bridge itself, and when a figure appeared atop the bridge’s central market, one might have thought it simply a drunken fool out to impress his lady-love.
Except that the figure was garbed all in black, his flowing cloak and wide-brimmed hat instantly recognizable. We had seen a dozen actors impersonating him on the streets of Râu Tare.
“Laperi!” Nicu gasped.
The master thief’s laugh carried across the sudden hush that fell. “I have thrown down a gauntlet, and Codruţ Deleanu has taken it up! Let him hide behind his guards in the Plaza of Gems; it makes no difference. The Şiret Mask will be mine!”
City guards were already scrambling after Laperi, but they made only slow progress through the crowd. Too many people were shouting and clapping, rather than stepping aside. What did the common Taral citizen care for Codruţ and his mask? They wanted only to be entertained—and Laperi was nothing if not skilled at entertaining his audience. With a swirl of his cloak, he leapt down into the market. I had no doubt that he would be long gone by the time the guards arrived.
“Maybe if I help Codruţ—” Nicu began.
“Help him?” I said with a sniff. “If he loses the mask, it will be no more than he deserves. Help Oana, Nicu. The Estic Bridge at midnight—don’t forget.”
He touched his fist to his heart. With a pat on his shoulder, I left him and went to find Oana.
Had I not seen Oana’s costume before the Festival, I might never have found her in the mass of people that thronged the Plaza of Gold. She was resplendent in costume as a lady of ancient Sarazdat, with a mask in the filigree style that was more a nod in the direction of concealment than an effective shield. There are advantages to being a tall lady looking for another lady of considerable height; I was able to spot her and wend my way to her side.
“Did you see Laperi?” I asked.
Oana fluttered her fan nervously. “I did. But I have not seen the conte.”
Her tone made her suspicions more than clear. “I am sure he will be here at any moment,” I soothed her. “Shall I fetch you some iced pomegranate wine while we wait? I think I see a vendor over there, and I am parched.”
She nodded, distracted, and I slipped away into the crowd.
On an ordinary night, fetching two cups of wine would have been the work of a moment. In the teeming masses of the Festival, one might as well try to fetch the Şiret Mask itself. I returned to Oana’s side a good deal later with my hands empty. “I am so sorry,” I told her. “I think I chased him halfway across the city, but by the time I caught him, his barrel was empty.”
“It does not matter,” she said. “The conte was here, and full of apologies for his tardiness. I do not know whether to believe him or not. He could not possibly have been atop the bridge, could he? I cannot imagine that he could have switched from that dreadful black outfit into his costume so rapidly.”
“Where is the conte?” I asked, craning my neck. Dancers filled the center of the plaza, close-packed enough that it was a wonder more of them didn’t step on trailing hems or snag their jeweled embroidery against someone else’s cloak.
Oana scowled. “That shrew Cosmina claimed him for a dance. I haven’t seen him since.”
“I am sure he has better taste than to favor Cosmina over you,” I said, laughing. “But I will go remove her claws from him, if you like.”
“Would you?” Oana said. “I told the conte you would be back soon, but I fear he thinks I’ve made you up.”
“Then I shall teach him otherwise,” I said, folding my fan with a decisive snap. “Wish me luck. And if you see the conte before I return, then both of you stay right here, or I may never find you again.” With that, I dove once more into the crowd.
What transpired next was less than ideal.
While Oana waited for me to return, hopefully with the Conte Vântul in tow, she kept an eye on the crowd, hoping to see him swirling by in the dance—or better yet, returning to her side of his own free will. And indeed she saw him... but neither dancing with Cosmina or some other lady, nor on his way back to her. Instead he was at the nearby edge of the plaza, slipping into a narrow alley.
I had, of course, told her to stay put. But when her back is up, Oana is no more tractable than Codruţ. And so she followed him.
Two men stood a little way down, their backs to her. One was the conte, in the costume she had seen before: the knee-length cloak of the Cuvântat age on one shoulder, with the curving, crescent-moon horns of his mask rising above his head. The other was a man much more plainly dressed, with a simple cloth domino mask. As Oana crept closer, she heard the conte’s familiar tenor—but cold and brisk as she had never heard it before.
“In the Stradă Martescu,” the conte said. “Your men are in position and ready?”
“We outnumber him two to one,” the man in the domino mask said. “He won’t stand a chance. The mask will be yours before midnight.”
“Good man,” the conte said, and coins winked in the scattered lamplight as they changed hands.
Now, a sensible girl would have crept away and gone to warn her brother. But Oana’s passions were up, and she had drunk a little wine; furthermore, she was built like the statue of a Sarazdat goddess, and had often gotten into trouble for brawling when we were in school.
“You cur!” she shrieked. The man in the domino mask fled; the conte turned to look. He was just in time to receive Oana’s fist to his jaw.
It was an exceedingly stupid way to hit him. His mask protected his entire face; had she struck it any harder, she would have broken her own hand. But she followed this up with a much more effective punch to his gut that sent him staggering back a step, before her inflamed sentiments got the better of her tactics for good. The remainder of her attacks were more flailing than fighting, and he easily caught her wrists to immobilize them.
“I hate you!” she screamed in his face. “You have been manipulating me from the start. I’m done with it! You’ll never have the mask. And you’ll never have me!” With a swift raise of her knee that tore her skirt, she delivered her final blow, then fled back out into the plaza.
This was the point at which my evening began to spin off its intended path and into the wilds of chance. All I can say is that the gods of the change have their own peculiar senses of humor, and I should have known better than to bait them thus.
I found an archway shadowed enough to shelter me and took off my mask. Oana’s blow had cracked it; I would have a bruise underneath, and my other mask covered only the upper part of my face.
The mannerisms of Vântul drained away from me like water, for I had no need of him any longer. Rubbing my jaw and cursing under my breath, I set to work transforming myself once more.
First I yanked off my long cloak and held it temporarily between my knees while I unlaced my other half-mask from my shoulder, where the cloak had concealed it. Then I shrugged out of my jacket and turned it inside out before slipping it back on. The flamboyant cuffs of the conte’s outfit went into one concealed pocket designed to enhance the profile of my otherwise flattened bosom; the other I filled with the cloth undermask that had protected my face against the pressure of the conte’s formal festival mask. With those in place, I settled the crescent horns around my hips, then let the mask itself hang down as substitute for the bustle I was not wearing. Finally I spun the cloak so its former lining faced outward and tied it around my waist, transmuting it into a skirt covering the horns, the mask, and the boots of the Conte Vântul.
That left me with the light half-mask of Oana’s good friend Viorica, and a mark on my jaw it would not cover. I donned it anyway and went back out into the crowd. There were plenty of women out there in the fluttering silk veils of piandel dancers; with a small knife concealed in my hand, it was trivial to snip a suitably colored veil off one of them and drape it from the edges of my mask. Not ideal, but it was the best I could do on short notice, and I could not spare the time for more.
When I was done with this, I saw Oana.
She shouldn’t have been there. She should have gone straight to her brother at the Plaza of Gems and told him about the ambush. Instead she was standing alone, a scrap of fabric wrapped about her injured hand, staring into the distance.
When you must hide something, give the observer something else to think about. I rushed up to Oana, veil fluttering. “You have to hide me!”
It jarred her from her thoughts. “What?”
“I heard that Dănuţ Vidraru is going to offer me a lover’s token. I’ve put on this veil so he won’t recognize me, but I must get out of—why, Oana, whatever is the matter?”
Sniffling, she told me of the conte’s perfidy. “That’s dreadful!” I exclaimed. “You must go and tell your brother at once!”
“No,” Oana said, flaring up. “He will only mock me for being so silly. I hate them both—and that stupid mask! I wish Codruţ had never bought it!”
If Oana did not warn him, then Codruţ would have no provocation to go to the Stradă Martescu and get into a fight. If he did not get into a fight, then the rest of my plan would swiftly come apart.
I thought rapidly. Could I invite him to dance? No, Codruţ never danced. An ambush elsewhere—but anywhere else would be too public.
I would simply have to improvise.
“Oh, my darling, I am so sorry,” I said, hugging her close. My right hand slipped a folded piece of paper into one of the deep pleats around her shoulders. She was forever straightening them; she would find the paper soon enough. “Come with me. I think you need something stronger than pomegranate wine.”
Beneath those comforting words, my mind was whirling. I would need a pipe. Some ngimri leaves. A new costume.
And I needed Laperi to keep on distracting everyone.
The order of ceremonies in the Festival of Changes was well-known.
From sundown until shortly before midnight, everyone was free to dance and carouse, to enjoy the liberties of the night. In that final hour, the members of the Consiliu—of which Codruţ was one—would visit a fortune-teller in the small hut constructed at the base of the steps that led to the Temple of Transformation. Everyone visited fortune-tellers during the Festival, but this woman was specially chosen to perform this duty; the fates of such important men could not be left to chance. Codruţ, being the most junior member of the Consiliu, would have his fortune told last.
It was the one point during the festival when he would be alone.
And no one in their right mind would attempt to steal the mask from him during that time. There could be no escape: his guards would ring the hut, and if Codruţ did not emerge with the mask, they would descend with blades drawn. If the Vulpea Cerului tried to swoop in, a city airship would catch it before it could rise again. Codruţ was perfectly safe. After that he would be in the temple, and then he would return home, to lock the mask into his vault.
Laperi and his men burst out of a dragon puppet when Codruţ was nearly to the Temple Plaza. There was never any chance of success; there were too many witnesses, too many people who saw a chance to curry favor by capturing so notorious a criminal. It was only by the narrowest of margins that the would-be thieves eluded their hunters and vanished into the night. Codruţ never even had to raise a hand to defend himself. He shouted obscenities at Laperi’s fleeing back, and likely would have pursued him were it not for the pressing matter of his duties. His companions recalled him to his task, and they continued onward.
Robed and hooded, I sat in the little hut and did my best for the other members of the Consiliu, as if the real fortune-teller were not in a drugged sleep under the table. I’ve been a fortune-teller in my time, as need arose, and can be quite good at it when I have cause.
But when Codruţ entered the hut, I was determined not to divine his fate... but to change it.
The sinuous curve of the Şiret Mask gleamed in the candlelight, gold and darkness intertwined. Up close, though, it was less impressive. I could see where the upper part of the curve had been welded back onto the base, and someone had tried to restore the paint on the cheek, but hadn’t quite matched the precise shade of midnight blue. It was an ordinary mask, really.
Yet it was also one of the most coveted objects in the world—and tonight it would be mine.
Codruţ’s step weaved back and forth as he approached my table. I had gone to a great deal of trouble the night before to break into his household shrine and get access to the cloth undermasks stored there. Had Codruţ and his men brawled in the Stradă Martescu as I intended, their sweat and the increased heat of their skin would have activated the chemical mixture soaked into the fabric. After breathing in the result, they would have collapsed in delirium, making them easy to rob. But the night was only warm enough for Codruţ to work up a mild sheen of sweat—not enough to do more than put him off-balance.
So I drew a mouthful of ngimri smoke from my borrowed pipe and breathed it into his face.
It worked on him just as it had on the fortune-teller. I caught him before he could fall over and lowered him gently to the floor. Off came my stolen robe, which covered the reversible costume of Viorica Mareşoiu and Conte Vântul. Shed of the skirt and masks, I stripped Codruţ of his own garb and put it on. His jacket was much too big for me, even with my own jacket inside; wincing at the waste of fine embroidery, I cut apart my own skirt-cloak and used it to stuff the gaps. I was nearly tall enough; with his cloak over me and the Şiret Mask proclaiming my identity, I should be able to pass muster. The deception only needed to last a short time.
I made sure to wipe down the inside of the mask before I donned it, with Vântul’s clean undermask to protect me. The last thing I needed was to lose my own balance along the way.
Then I squared my padded shoulders and went out to join the Consiliu.
There was never any chance that I could make it through the entire ceremony that marked the Festival of Changes. Only members of the Consiliu, a few select clergy, and the temple guards ever attended; I did not know where to stand, what to say, or anything else that might preserve my masquerade. Had I planned this moment well in advance, I might have been able to gather the necessary information... but this was all a last-minute gamble, thrown together when the Stradă Martescu ambush failed. Entering the main chamber, I devoted only a little attention to following the Consiliu members. The rest was on the archway that led to the temple spire.
I had to choose my moment with care. Not too late; if they discovered my ruse, I would find myself with a great many new problems and no solution up my borrowed sleeve. But not too soon, either, or—
Shouting came from behind us.
The question of timing suddenly became very simple. As Codruţ burst into the temple sanctuary, wild-eyed and stripped to his smallclothes, I bolted for the archway.
In a night full of abysmal luck, I could at least thank the gods that everyone was looking toward Codruţ, which gave me a head start. I tore off my stolen cloak as I went and hurled it in the faces of the first guards to follow me up the stairs. The heavy fabric tangled them, and they went down in a painful-sounding heap. I did not stay to watch. Instead I flung myself up the spiraling stairs two or three at a time, cursing the insufficient efficacy of ngimri smoke on men of Codruţ’s size.
The bells of the city tolled midnight as I burst out into the open air of the lower gallery. The heavy door would hold off a hundred pursuers, but only if I could find something to block it with, and the walkway around the spire’s base was bare stone. With footsteps approaching at speed, I had no choice but to continue fleeing, up the second staircase to the top of the spire itself.
Behind me I heard Codruţ bellow, “You’re running out of places to run, bitch!”
He was right. The stairs were so narrow that the padded shoulders of his jacket scraped as I forced myself through the last door, and the lintel nearly knocked the Şiret Mask from my head. Here at least I had no need of anything to wedge it shut; the top gallery was so narrow I could brace my back against the door, planting my feet at the base of the railing that kept me from plummeting to my death.
A moment later something thudded against the panels at my back. It did not trouble me. Codruţ, or whoever was trying to bash the door down, was at a disadvantage: the narrow passage afforded him no good angle of approach or way to build up speed.
He knew it, too. The thudding stopped after a moment, and a voice began speaking. I couldn’t make the words out clearly—they were too muffled by the wood and drowned out by the wind—but I could guess. He thought he had only to wait there until I tired of holding him out, or a city airship came to pluck me from my perch. I could hear a whistle in the plaza below, calling for such an airship even now; that gleam off to my left was one approaching. It would be here soon.
But not soon enough.
The bells of the city began to strike the midnight hour. If anything tonight had gone according to plan, then Oana and Nicu were at the Estic Bridge, exchanging lover’s tokens. If the gods of the change had any sense of charity, she at least should come out of this happy.
I took a deep breath. A second. A third.
Then I unbraced myself from the door, climbed up onto the railing, and—just as Codruţ threw the door open and lunged to grab my ankle—leapt into the air.
If I die because Codruţ’s gloves are too big for me, I will be very, very upset.
My grip is slipping. I’m clutching the rope with everything I’ve got, but I’m sliding out of the gloves, and I don’t dare trust my weight to a single hand for long enough to shake the other one free. Especially not when I’m barely three handspans from the rope’s bottom end—I almost missed it entirely. There isn’t enough of a tail left for me to catch it between my knees.
I wonder if they’ll be able to repair the Şiret Mask after I fall to my death. I suppose it depends on whether I land facedown. The thought shouldn’t make me want to giggle, but it does.
The rope starts moving upward. My right hand skins out of the glove, and only a desperate flail renews my acquaintance with the rope before the same thing happens to the left. Now there’s only one handspan between me and a swift introduction to the city rooftops passing far underneath my feet. The gloves tumble away into the patchwork of darkness and light below.
But at least my grip is more secure now. I begin climbing as the rope itself drags me upward. Soon I reach the railing, and climb over it onto the deck of the Vulpea Cerului.
The Şiret Mask has slipped askew. I untie it from my head, letting the cloth undermask fall to the deck and blow overboard. It can go join the gloves.
My first mate and lover Cserjén claps me on the shoulder. “You made it! Lykos laid a wager that you wouldn’t, what with all the last-minute changes to the plan.”
“I hope you threw him overboard,” I say, catching my breath. “He should know better than to wager against Laperi.”
Cserjén tugs off the black cloak and swirls it around my shoulders, where it settles into place like an old friend. More softly, he says, “We almost didn’t make it in time. It was a hell of a scramble, getting from the Temple Plaza to the ship, and then up to that spire.”
“I knew I could trust you.” I lean into his warmth. Being Laperi has gotten easier since Cserjén joined me. He’s good at taking people’s eyes off me, so I can do things like drug innocent fortune-tellers and take their place.
As Râu Tare recedes in the wake of my airship, I study my prize. Welded and repainted and battered by the years, the Şiret Mask gazes up at me with blank eyes.
Cserjén says quietly, “Was it worth it?”
My layers of masquerade, months of preparation, my final, desperate gamble: all for this. An unremarkable mask, whose only true value lies in the stories told about it.
Stories to which I have just added my own chapter.
I smile at Cserjén. “Absolutely.”