Chapter 17: A Good Story

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Chapter 17: A Good Story

The bell jingled flatly when I entered the cramped space of the shop. A gust of dry air that smelled strongly of glue and plaster wafted into my face. Small as I was, there was barely enough space to stand before the counter. With the proprietor nowhere in sight, I allowed my gaze to wander over the heavily laden walls. My heart hammered in my chest.

I was alone but watched from all directions.

Carved face mannequins made of wood were glued to the walls, each sporting a mask. There were masks of every colour, for every occasion. Masks of lace and linen for brides, rough masks of canvas for funerals. Small grey mask caps for children, and frilly silk masks with satin ribbons for merchants. In the centre of the northern wall, however, was one mask different from the rest.

It was a mask of gold, like the nobles wore, but it was a full mask that covered the mouth and continued down to the lower jaw. It had no gemstones, or adornments, or a family sigil. It was a youthful woman's face, complete down to wiry eyebrows, and small, pouting lips. The eye sockets and nostrils were left empty.

I took a small step towards it. Something about that vacant stare felt familiar. The beautiful face was framed by gauzy gold ribbons as its hair. The mask showed nothing of human emotion, no pain, fear, or regret. Not the slightest will for vengeance.

I reached my hand out to touch it.

"You do not fear death, girl?" asked a voice behind me.

I whirled around, clutching my hand behind my back guiltily. Papà explicitly told not to touch anything in the shop. 

There stood the mask maker, teak skin like wrinkled autumn leaves and cobweb hair hanging all about her shoulders, loose as if she were a Lady.

I was afraid to blink lest she see into my soul.

"The Sciurid of Ansi in the jungles of the Toles used to wear masks of spectres during the longest night celebrations, pleading with the gods to set the land free of the spectres. They believed that all the spectres were the ghosts of wronged maidens. To break the curse of this land, one must right the wrongs of the past, and ask forgiveness of the young girls who were taken before their time."

"Used to? Why did they stop?"

The mask maker walked from behind the counter and picked the golden mask off the wall.

"Why, indeed?" she said, handing me the mask.

It was lighter than it looked. I didn't know what to do with it, so I held it up to my face.

"The gods didn't listen, and these masks of death scared the people. Fear is not useful in the midst of winter."

"And if the spectres were ghosts," I said, moving the gold mask from my face. "They'd want revenge against whoever wronged them. That's not how the spectre looked..."

"You've seen a spectre, then?" The mask-maker's eyes gleamed when she watched me.

"When loony old Arnithra took off her mask. Papà and some other men tried to wrestle it back on her. But she was crying and struggling, asking for it to stop. And then it came. I got a good look at it."

"It didn't frighten you?"

I squared my shoulders. I was nine and always told that I was clever for my age. "No," I said pointedly.

"And your papà, he's the vintner, yes?"

I nodded, disappointed that the mask-maker's interest shifted away from my fearlessness.

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