I was born during the Week of the Dead.
While drunken, masked celebrants went knocking door-to-door collecting goodies, my mother was flat on her back on the floor giving birth to me.
Every year afterwards, while we were getting ready to go out and celebrate with the city, she’d ruffle my hair and tell me affectionately that she never had to dress up or leave the house to get her candy. We’d put on our catlike Fae masks and head out to mingle and celebrate my birthday together.
What kid can be more thrilled to have a week long celebration full of candies and goodies given to her by the entire city?
The naive glow of my self importance and sense of well being and goodwill to man lasted right up till my twelfth birthday. That’s a better run than many get, looking back.
One minute she was beside me, the next she was gone, and so, the week she gave birth to me, was the same week my mother left the world.
I knew… I had heard the warnings and wives tales about brigands who hunted during the Nights of the Dead, disguising themselves among the revelers and picking off easy victims. But, there were so many people. She laughed off concerns with a flip of the hand and toss of her hair. “What would they steal from me?” she’d ask, gesturing to our poorly furnished hole in the wall.
I was looking for her at eyelevel – looking for her mask in the crowd - when I glanced over and saw from the corner of my eye, a foot. It poked out from between the baskets like the dying petal of an iris, dusty, faded and curled inward. I knew it, without a step closer, as hers, and stood frozen in the melee of bodies and colors swirling around me.
They’d found little on her to steal, and instead had taken the only things she had to offer. She lay half naked; her gauzy dress torn, beautiful Fae mask askew and glittering, oblivious to it’s sudden macabre change in purpose. Blood pooled beneath her head. I could not pull the mask away, I would not look at her face. I couldn’t bear to look into her dead eyes and see the portrait of her last thoughts. We burned her, wrapped in layers of muslin, on a pyre down the beach. A friend of hers handed me her mask, wrapped carefully and placed safely in a sandalwood box. “You’ll want it later” he told me, “keep it safe” and with sadness in his eyes, squeezed my hands, clutched stiffly on the wooden handles.
The desert is cruel, and desert people are fighting for their own survival. There is no charity to go around to little girls who’ve lost their mothers. I was forced to beg in the streets to feed myself. It wasn’t long before I stole food, then coin, then found I had a natural talent for picking pockets. The first kill came earlier than I expected, when a man slapped his hand over my hand in his purse. He grabbed my wrist, turned sharply, and met my dagger under his chin with all my weight behind it. He vomited blood into my face before he died, but I walked away on shaking legs with two platinum coins in my dirty pocket. Enough to keep me fed for months and pay for shelter and clothing.
Eventually, fearing execution, I took myself to Freeport to start a new life. I applied myself to craftsmanship to attempt an honest living, developing a small collection of loyal customers who relied on me for their armor and repairs. It was a good living, but I could not set aside my fear of being stripped of my means to survive, and found myself addicted to stealing money and hiding it away. I rifled the pockets of lovers while they slept, stealing just enough, but not so much they’d notice it missing too quickly. Then, when they were awake, my hands curled in their hair and my mother’s smile on my face, I’d charm them out of what else they could give. I was doing very well for myself, in armory and thievery.
I don’t know how such a man found himself in Freeport. I knew at first glance he was not like the rest of us, scraping and clawing for survival by any means we could justify. He stood on the docks in east Freeport, self-assured and relaxed, taking in the sights. I felt strangled suddenly at the sight of him. Feeling my eyes on him, his head turned and he met my gaze, and the smile… oh that smile… I’ll never forget it. Flustered, I gathered my purchases and left back to South Freeport to my home.
It wasn’t long before we crossed paths again. When he entered the shop, I felt his gaze on my back, competing for the heat of the forge in my face. I turned, and, without making eye contact, took his order and turned back to my forge to hammer out my disconcertion on hot metal.
By the time his armor was finished, I was obsessed. I could think of nothing else but those eyes and that smile – he had won me at a glance. I handed over his armor, met his eyes again and we stood locked in place, staring at each other, lost.
I never understood it - why would a man like him seek this place out and submit himself to the slow erosion of soul that comes of living in a place where death is in every shadow, theft and broken fortunes in the turn of a hand? He seemed to thrive, though, and I never questioned it. I was too happy, too overwhelmed with this sense of home I found in him. I was too caught up to see the subtle decay creeping up like paper slowly burning before it finally ignites into flame.
I was in the streets of Maj Dul, standing in a crowd of women all identical to my mother in her gauzy dress and bright Fae mask. The cords of her neck, the dark hair pulled into a graceful knot on the back of her head, the fine bones of her hand…the arch of her bare feet in the dust. They were all the same. I went to one, pulled the mask away and choked in horror. There was nothing but a smooth mask of featureless skin. Panic shrieked in my throat and ears as I fought my way through the crush of bodies, tearing at masks, hunting for the one that had a face beneath it. Some were skeletal, some a swirling black void, but most were the featureless orbs, blank and empty.
My own groans of grief and fear woke me, sweating and shivering. The room was warm, silver shot rays of moonlight poured across the bed. He was so still beside me that I thought for a moment he had died in his sleep and, unable to help myself, I reached over to give his shoulder a shove. He stirred, rolled over and wrapped his arms around my hips, mumbling something to himself before relaxing back into sleep. For a second, it seemed to me that his eyes had opened to slits and looked at me, knowing, and in the fading haze of night terrors, menacing.
I pulled myself free & sat for a while; clutching my knees to my chest, I pressed my back hard against the wall. I could not sleep, and took a candle through the house, heading downstairs to the cellar into the small room where I kept the sandalwood box.
Frequently, afterwards, I had the same dream. I woke up shaking and, imagining I saw movement in the shadows, could not sleep again. I found comfort in that small room; and there, feeling my ears pop in the vacuum of predawn silence, I would construct masks. One for each victim... a blood splattered mask for the man in Maj Dul, a feather adorned mask for a rich woman en route to Qeynos, an ornate dragon mask for the man with the prismatic sword… masks of feathers, of bone, glittering jewels, iridescent beetle shells and the shiny black needles of scorpion stingers. Masks with no eyes, slitted eyes, cat eyes, wide eyes…masks without mouths, with screaming mouths, with expressions of surprise and horror and some, without expression at all.
I didn’t know where he went during the day. He came and went from the place with such regularity that I was shocked when one of my regular customers, a gruff barbarian, chided me on my lack of motivation to find a mate. It didn’t seem possible that this person, in my shop so often, had somehow missed my lover’s comings and goings. I joked and asked him how he could be so blind. Another customer, hearing the description said he’d never seen the man before, either.
That night, watching him, his easiness and grace seemed suddenly unnatural. In the days afterwards, I’d catch him watching me, and feel a sudden rush of irrational fear that just as quickly passed. I wanted to tell him about the dreams, tell him of my late nights and the masks, but in daylight, it seemed so ridiculous.
My night terrors continued, and some nights, in the startled jerk from sleep to wakefulness, I would catch a glimmer of white in the moonlight, like my mother’s dress slipping away. I was sure now that I’d caught the glint of his eyes in the dark, watching me as I climbed from the bed and went downstairs. If I turned to examine him, I would find him sleeping peacefully. When I prodded him sharply, he’d grumble sleepily and roll over with a sigh. I wanted to wake him up, to make him face me. I wanted to crawl into his arms and hide, protected, but every time I reached to touch his face, my macabre imagination conjured images of the demons that would rise from the bed to meet me & I jerked my hand away. I locked the door behind me when I entered the room and set the sandalwood box on the desk, as though somehow it’s presence might ward away the evils that lurked outside.
It was a desperate need for my mother’s hand in my hair and a sense of her comfort that made me open the box. I sat behind the locked door, daggers on the table before me. The candle guttered and flickered in my hand, reflecting off the facets of hundreds of crystals…diamonds… glittering, glued to the fabric that had touched her face. All of these years of thieving and killing, hoarding and my survival, my fortune, had rested on the face of my mother as she lay in the dust in the street? I placed it on my face and it fit, perfectly. The candle burned out with a sigh and I sat in the darkness, my fingers moving over the rough scale of the stones, feeling protected and finally, safe.
Why was it then? What provoked him finally, that night, to come down the stairs – to come find me? I stepped out of the room, the mask’s warm clasp across my cheekbones holding me suspended in its embrace and a dark shape rose before me…
It was the night that I came into the world and my mother left it, that I began to make his mask.