Edition 2: Masks by Stephanie Barr
Stephanie Barr’s Mask was deservedly a finalist in the Story Quest Short Story Contest for 2011. The judges were impressed with the evocative imagery she used in her narrative, as well the tightly written plot and theme. We are sure you will also enjoy this fantasy piece. GH
Two enticed him, two among thirty displayed before him.
One was exquisitely beautiful. The cheekbones high but not too sharp, the lips full, but perfectly so. There was a flash of ivory teeth between the full lips and a gleam of amethyst in the glistening eyes. The face seemed formed of the finest dark wood and polished to a velvety perfection, unblemished and rare in its uniformity. Around the slanting eyes was the unmistakable glow of gold, which rimmed the face as well to where the edges disappeared under the cascade of thick black hair. He had never seen a more beautiful mask. Or one more costly. A chieftain’s daughter was among the prospective brides, and there could be little doubt which one she was.
Oddly, though, it was not that mask that had first caught his attention but another. It was not as costly a mask or as finely crafted. It was, in fact, different from every other mask he saw. It was not of the finest wood; the wood used was riddled with knots and blemishes, with uneven color ranging from honeyed lightness to mahogany red. The eyes were round as if with wonder and dark with the smokey dullness of black topaz. Some surfaces were polished to ravishing softness, but others were rudely hewn and left raw, sharp. There was a lack of symmetry: a different shape to each eye, a twist to the lips, that robbed otherwise attractive features of much of their beauty. No gilt, no craftsmanship, and yet…
He was intrigued. His eyes consumed the beauty of the gilt mask like one does with a hunger and finds satisfaction, but his eyes were continually drawn to the other as with an unquenchable thirst, finding some feature, some aspect he had not noticed before. A part of him began to suspect the author of the mask had chosen the wood as carefully as the artist who had created the gilt mask, had left it polished and unpolished with as much purpose as the velvet finish on the gilt mask.
The figure in the gilt mask, swathed in purple robes, began undulating in her dance among the girls already swaying to the music of the drums. Slender feet moved with unerring grace in the dust beneath her. And he found himself staring at the strange mask again, losing himself in the dark mystery of the black eyes. The girl in the strange mask turned fully and stared, as if with the topaz eyes, directly at him, directly through him and he felt an answering chord within himself. The strangeness was almost beautiful in itself.
Suddenly, in a swirl of brown cloth, the maid leapt to lightning feet and began to dance, gracefully, energetically, but in a dance all her own, to a different time than the drums were beating. The feet were like those of the wood sprite, barely touching the ground in her excitement.
Somehow, the difference of the dance enhanced the strength of the drums, for they quickened in response, pounding with peculiar excitement. He found his body respond, his heart echoing the drums with a strength he could feel in his fingers and hear in his ears. There were thirty girls swirling around the fire, their robes intermingling with the force of their movements. With the flutter of rich purple cloth and the unmatched grace of her movements, the girl in the gilt mask was easily discerned among the gyrating figures.
Even so, the girl in common brown, dancing to her own rhythm, flashing her strange eyes with every odd movement, she held his gaze. His breathing stopped as he watched her, his senses thrumming with a magic like one possessed, feeling the crescendo in his bones, in his chest, rather than with his ears, finding himself unable to tear his eyes from the mysterious woman, caught up in music of her own making that he began to hear beneath the pounding of the drums.
And it was over. Thirty women fell to their knees, sweat glistening from arms and necks, faces upraised, waiting to be chosen. No one chose.
They waited for him, he knew. He was this tribe’s first son, prince in his own right. His was the first choice. He forced his eyes to the gilt mask. The girl who wore it breathed easily, free from sweat, a perfect complement to the serene beauty reflected in the mask. Against his will, his eyes returned to that other, rough and smooth, intriguing and attractive. That girl glistened with perspiration, her chest heaving in her exertion, in her excitement. His choice.
He thought for a moment of insult, whether the neighboring chieftain would be insulted if he chose another, but then dismissed the thought. The masks were there to preserve dignity, deny insult. He could choose whomever he wished.
He rose. In the depths of his chest, his heart beat a heavy pounding rhythm, reminding him of the dances he had witnessed. As he walked, he held the eyes of the strange mask, probing it depths, searching for the girl who would wear a mask such as that, dance a dance as she had.
He stopped and reached to pick up his bride, light as meadow grass in his arms. He saw himself reflected, distorted, in her amethyst eyes.
The other girls were quickly chosen by eager youths until there were no more men to choose, and only one girl remaining who stared at him with topaz eyes. The tribe disappeared as did the newly wedded couples, slipping away courteously or to consummate new lives together until only the three remained: the prince, his bride and the unchosen maid.
He could not bear the sight of her dark eyes, so he turned his back on the strange face and gripped his new bride with one arm as he removed the rich mask with his free hand. For an instant, he saw a face more beautiful than any mortal face had ever been, caught the flash of real amethyst in the slanted eyes before she flickered and was gone, leaving him with costly robes and an empty mask.
“Wood sprite,” came the voice behind him, low and melodic. “You chose an empty mask for its richness.”
“For its beauty, then. They are one and the same, masks only.”
He turned to the girl, who had taken off her mask and examined him with obsidian eyes. He started as if struck. “You! It is your face she wore! Who are you?”
“The daughter of the neighboring chieftain, or was. Now I am my own woman, belonging only to myself.” In her hands she held the mask caressingly, as if was immeasurably precious.
“You tricked me,” he whispered, feeling as if he should be angry, but finding no heat to feed the fury.
“Yes, and no. I prayed to the wood sprites that I might find a mate to match me or none at all, and they answered my prayers. My father’s best woodcarver made the mask, imitating my features as best he could. I fashioned my own mask. It was left to you to chose the real me.”
He felt again the strange rhythm that she danced to and pulled from it what anger he could. “You did not want to be chosen! You deliberately tried to make yourself strange and ugly. The other mask was the better fit for you.”
“It was only a mask, a mask of the masks I wear already as a princess. This is my soul, my personality.”
“I don’t understand.”
“Did the other mask move you? Did it make your heart beat faster or harder to find that beauty? Did that mask find an answering chord in your soul?”
“No. It could not, for it was only a mask, a reflection of beauty, and nothing more. But I am more than beautiful. I am strange, soft and hard, skilled and raw, simple and complex by turns. My feet hear their own music, my eyes light with their own light, and not the light around them. This was the mate you could have chosen. I thought, when you watched me, that you could appreciate the real me, would choose with your soul and not your eyes, feel beyond the masks.”
“I did. I saw you, felt you, like an intoxicating drink, speeding my blood, filling my senses, touching my soul.”
“And you chose the mask. Why? Were the beauty and the wealth more important than your soul?” Her eyes, dark and intense, demanded an answer.
He made none, only stared at her with unhappy eyes.
She lowered hers at last. “I will go now. My father agreed to release me to my husband or to myself if I were unchosen, so I will go to the land of the wood sprites and build a life for myself.”
“For now. I will wait until a mate worthy of me, the real soul, can find me. That is my choice. Yours you have already made.” She bit her lip and looked again into his eyes. “Did you not feel enough to make the right choice?”
“I felt you, pounding in the depths of my heart, calling and filling me with your life.”
But he would not answer, so she left, placing her strange mask at his feet.
The moon rose and set after she had gone before he picked up the mask and held it as if it were formed entirely of gold. “Why?” she had asked him, knowing instinctively he had longed for her from the depths of his soul. “Why?”
“I was afraid,” he said softly to the emptiness around him as he had not been able to tell his soul mate, “afraid I would lose myself in your music, afraid of the strangeness that so attracted me.” He placed the mask over his face and wept, hiding the tears behind eyes of topaz darkness.
Stephanie Barr has spent the past 22 years working in the space industry as a rocket scientist, raising three demon children and trying to save the world by keeping her husband, a dragon, in check. Sometimes, she finds time to write.