And now, ladies and gentlemen, the story:
The mask is made of steel, forged in the fires of the Emperor’s second year and polished to a fine reflective sheen. Its eyelids are slanted long and low, allowing its bearer to look upon others without their being aware of the act. And its mouth is a mere slit that barely mars the smooth metal surface, as though any whispers that issue forth would gain the sharpness of the molded flame.
“It’s a little tarnished,” Stanislai says, dabbing at it with oiled cloth.
“It’s polished enough,” I tell him, prying it gently out of his hands. Stanislai, true to his form, is remarkably obsessed with detail. Such qualities, I suppose, would be advantages in an Imperial scribe.
“I’m serious, Etiev,” he says, still holding the cloth. “You can’t go into the Emperor’s presence without a perfect face. His majesty won’t stand for it.”
I stare into my reflection in the metal’s cold depths. “He’s seen this mask often enough, Stanislai. He won’t notice it any more than he normally does.”
“That’s the point,” Stanislai says, throwing his hands up in frustration. “What if the Emperor spots some glaring flaw in your face, hmm? What if he realizes that he can’t see his eminent expression in your left side? What if he points you out in front of the entire retinue? You wouldn’t be able to show your face in court for weeks!”
“It’s only a second face, Stanislai,” I tell him, turning the mask over and over in my hands. “The second face doesn’t mean anything. The only thing that matters is the true face underneath.”
“You try telling that to the Emperor,” Stanislai says, taking the mask back. “You may still think it’s that simple, Etiev, but you know that it isn’t. Not anymore.”
“His majesty should learn to look at hearts and not at faces, if you ask me.”
“Who are you to say what his majesty should do and what he shouldn’t do?” Stanislai admonishes.
“I’m an Imperial advisor, Stanislai. I can actually do that sort of thing.”
“You,” Stanislai says, gesturing with the cloth, “are the Emperor’s villain. You are a cruel, black-hearted man who disagrees with everything he says.”
“That’s because the Emperor is a frivolous fool.”
“Don’t say that!” Stanislai says, staring at me in horror and almost dropping my mask in the process. “I… I… well, I’m not saying that you can’t think that,” he says, “but for Aquan’s sake, don’t say that out loud!”
“Why not, Stanislai? You did say that I was the Emperor’s villain.”
“Yes, but there’s a fine line between being the Emperor’s villain and getting your nose cut off by the Praetorians.”
“All right,” I concede, “all right. No insulting the Emperor.”
“That’s right,” Stanislai says, handing me back my mask. “No insulting the Emperor. Not today. Not now, not ever.”
“Can I insult Lord Vykos and Lord Tatien, at least?”
Stanislai shrugs, although he still looks more than a little doubtful. “Go right ahead,” he tells me, “but it’s your skin there.”
“Why not, Stanislai?” I ask, putting my mask on. “They’re advisors too. We’re all in the same boat together.”
“It’s your game, Etiev. I’m just a scribe. They’d fall all over each other to have me fed to the ravens.”
“No,” I assure him, “they’re already too busy falling over each other to lick the Emperor’s boots.”
“You see?” Stanislai sighs in a gesture of defeat. “That’s why they call you the Emperor’s villain. You start arguments. You throw insults. You get on the nerves of every mask in the court.”
Stanislai gives me a withering look. “Even mine, Etiev. Sometimes even mine.”
“At least I’m doing my job well, then. How do I look?”
Stanislai gives me a short, critical inspection. “As well as you could hope to look, I suppose. The steel doesn’t suit you.”
“It suits me fine, Stanislai. The Emperor gave it to me himself.”
“As much as I may admire his majesty’s choice in décor, I must admit that I don’t understand the significance.”
“Neither do I, my friend. But then again, no one ever accused his majesty of being easy to understand.”
* * * * *
Stanislai’s mask is made of soft, smooth wood. He is, unfortunately, not familiar with its origin. As far as he is concerned, it could have been cut from the forests of the Imperial domain, or carved from driftwood found upon the Emperor’s shores. What matters most to him is that the mask is a mark of his place in the courts, and a symbol of the position he has worked long and hard to obtain.
“That’s quite a lot of people, Etiev,” he says.
We look upon the grand ballroom of the Emperor’s summer palace, a massive chamber with high vaulted ceilings and lavish crystalline furnishings. What looks like the entire Imperial entourage is already here, their light conversation adamant above the colored lights and the festive music.
The masks are everywhere. They hold fixed upon the faces of every man and woman who attends to the Eldest of Elders. They are masks of wood and porcelain, masks of metal and cloth – for every mask a purpose and for every purpose a mask.
“Too many masks,” I tell Stanislai.
“You see them all the time, Etiev. There’s nothing wrong with the masks.”
“They’re masks, Stanislai. They’re empty faces. I’m not comfortable speaking with empty faces.”
“You seem comfortable enough in court,” Stanislai points out.
“I wear this same mask to court,” I tell him under the glare of steel, “and it’s remarkable how many emotions this second face can hide.”
We walk through the animated throng, our eyes registering the expressionless features around us. Some seem in a genuine celebratory mood. Others seem in a place and time not of their choosing. All of them look the same.
“The Praetorians,” Stanislai points out in a matter-of-fact tone. I cannot see his face to be certain.
“Yes,” I tell him. “The Praetorians are always here. They are always everywhere.”
They walk among the crowds, fearsome in their crimson robes and their leather expressions. Their swords wear masks as well, sleeping in silken wrappings until roused by the merest hint of disturbance. None dare to cross the Emperor’s bodyguards.
And then one of them approaches us, the redness of his uniform whispering about the marble floor. He walks with the measured cadence of his training, yet with the casual stiffness that accompanies years upon years of service. The Praetorian approaches, and the crowd unconsciously parts before him.
“Etiev?” Stanislai asks in an uncertain tone.
I shake my head, and turn to meet the officer as soon as he extends a hand in greeting.
“Good evening, Lord Etiev,” he says. “Good evening, young Stanislai.”
“Lord Polonius?” Stanislai asks. There is no mistaking the relief in his voice.
Polonius appears perplexed for a moment. “Is something wrong, young man?” he asks.
“Everything is all right, sir,” I tell him.
“It’s just that,” Stanislai adds nervously, “when a Praetorian walks up to you in the middle of a gathering like this, you think, well… you think…”
Polonius laughs, his voice muffled by the thickness of his mask. It is a dry, almost bitter laugh that betrays his old age, but it is a very genuine sound in a room full of false faces.
“You’re jumping at shadows all of a sudden, young Stanislai,” he says. “I don’t suppose you’ve done anything wrong, have you?”
“Ah, er… no, sir. Not at all. I haven’t done anything at all.”
Polonius sighs. “If you didn’t take after your father so much, Stanislai, then you would have been immediately suspicious to me.”
“He’s a scribe, Lord Polonius,” I tell him. “He listens to so much intrigue that you can see it coming out of his ears. You could convict the Emperor’s subjects on what he knows.”
“All scribes are like that, Lord Etiev, to the point that I sometimes fear for my sanity when dealing with them. Isn’t that right, Stanislai?”
“I, ah… I think I see some of my colleagues over there. Ah… please excuse me, Lord Polonius. Please excuse me, Eti… I mean, Lord Etiev.”
Stanislai scurries into the thickest part of the crowd. Polonius and I watch his earnest departure.
“You must forgive him, Lord Polonius,” I tell the old Praetorian. “He’s…”
“He’s just like his father was, Lord Etiev: Nervous as a hunted rabbit.”
“He hasn’t done anything wrong, of course. You cut a very intimidating figure, Lord Polonius.”
Polonius gives a dry laugh once more, but this time with a very skeptical undertone to it. “Was that a compliment, Lord Etiev?”
“You might say that, yes.”
“Strange words to hear, from the Emperor’s villain.”
“I may disagree with the Emperor from time to time,” I answer, “but I find it best to stay on the good side of the Praetorians.”
“Excellent insight, yes,” Polonius remarks, “although you must realize that your disagreements with the Emperor do mark you as a man to watch.”
“I’ve grown used to that,” I tell him, adjusting my mask. “Fortunately for our august Emperor, I am a loyal servant of his great Empire. We may disagree on many matters, but I assure you that it is all for the best.”
“Wise words indeed,” Polonius muses. Years of experience allow him to easily hide the expressions in his voice.
“On a more serious note, however,” I tell him, looking towards the dais where the Imperial party is seated, “I am afraid that I must attend to the Emperor’s needs at the moment.”
“The Emperor’s villain would start an argument so soon?” Polonius replies.
“It keeps him sober,” I answer. “After all, we wouldn’t want him making any important decisions while he’s drunk.”
* * * * *
Polonius’s mask is the same as that of all Praetorians: soft white leather, distinctive enough to be identified across entire rooms. The eye-slits are covered over with thin black cloth, with painted blood-red teardrops underneath each one. Unlike ordinary masks, it has no open area for the mouth – the Praetorians tend to let their blades express any disapproval they feel.
“I thank you for the escort, Lord Polonius,” I tell him.
“Think nothing of it. I would do as much for any esteemed Imperial advisor.”
“Lord Vykos and Lord Tatien don’t seem like the appropriate sort.”
Polonius gives me an odd glance. “Your feelings for Lord Vykos and Lord Tatien are no secret in the court,” he says, “but must you mention them so much?”
“They’re rats, Lord Polonius. They’re toads. They exist only to lick the Emperor’s boots so long as they can gorge themselves on the Imperial coffers.”
“You’re fortunate that they’re not here to listen to you, then.”
“I’ve called them worse names to their faces. You know what they’re like, Lord Polonius. Your Praetorians service them as well.”
“That is true,” Lord Polonius says, his expression unreadable. “But it is not a soldier’s place to question his leaders, much less an old soldier.”
“Not even mine, I expect. Not even the Emperor’s villain.”
Polonius gives me another sidelong glance. “That mask suits you very well, Lord Etiev,” he says, after what appears to be a great deal of thought.
I raise one hand to the smooth reflection of my mask. “What makes you say that, Lord Polonius?”
“Your mask is made of steel,” he says. “I understand that the Emperor finds it most appropriate.”
“Indeed,” I tell him. “But what of steel?”
Polonius’s voice feels distant, as though behind a mask of its own. “Steel moves without shifting. Steel bends without breaking. You adjust to the Emperor’s policies, yet you do not fall under his spell.”
“Sometimes even I cannot stop the Emperor from making the most foolish decisions,” I admit. “In those cases, I find it best to simply move on… and discourage him from making them again.”
“Yet the steel is also what makes a fine blade,” Polonius says, placing one hand on the hilt of his sword. “Every soldier, every guard, every Praetorian knows that their four feet of steel must be wielded in a controlled manner. It cannot merely be drawn at the merest sign of adversity.”
“Steel also makes a prison, Lord Polonius. Steel makes an unbreakable prison. And a man behind steel walls has little to offer but the sound of his voice, and the fire of his statement.”
“Dangerous words from the Emperor’s villain,” Polonius says.
“Would there be any other kind?” a sweetened voice interjects.
The lady stands before us, resplendent in a dress of blue and violet. Where the color of Polonius’s mask would promise grave threats, the form and feature of her mask would promise even graver consequences of a subtler sort.
“Moia,” I say, leaning forward to kiss her outstretched hand.
“Lady Moia,” Polonius says, refusing to move even one inch.
“You promised to send me a message,” Moia says accusingly, enclosing my hand in hers.
“The Emperor’s villain has been quite busy,” I tell her.
“You’re my villain, too,” she says.
“I find it very, very difficult to serve two masters, Moia – one a fool and the other a temptress.”
“You didn’t find it such a difficult decision two nights ago,” she says, pressing herself against my side.
Polonius clears his throat. Moia laughs, her voice sounding through the silken folds of her mask.
“I’m sorry, Lord Polonius. Am I making you uncomfortable?”
“It’s nothing I’ve heard before,” Polonius says, waving the matter away with one hand.
“So,” I begin, looking into Moia’s sparkling blue eyes. “What would such a charming courtesan want with an Imperial advisor?”
“Satisfaction for a lady’s curiosity,” Moia says, winking at Polonius. “Are you up to anything in particular?”
“Lord Etiev will be meeting with the Emperor,” Polonius answers. “It is the place of an advisor to remain at his master’s side, after all.”
“Do you have to, Etiev? Our dear Emperor has been having so much fun.”
“He needs something to temper his evening, Lady Moia,” I tell her. “If he insists on playing during his statecraft, then I can show him that he can just as easily work during his leisure.”
“You’re lucky he hasn’t asked Lord Polonius to kill you yet,” Moia says.
“I might have tempted him, though,” I say. Polonius’s mask, of course, is as expressionless as it looks.
“Why don’t I bring you to the Emperor, then?” Moia suggests. “I’m sure he’ll be simply ecstatic to see you. Let’s not get him angry at poor old Polonius here.”
“What about you, Lady Moia?” Polonius asks.
“He can’t stay angry at me forever,” she lightly tells the Praetorian. “I’m too good for that.”
* * * * *
Moia’s mask is made of the purest silks, spun in the great Eastern lands and layered in a design exclusive to the Emperor’s courtesans. It lies draped across her face, highlighting the distinguishing feature of her eyes and obscuring a smile that would make men fall to their knees in supplication. And as she moves, it whispers the tantalizing secrets that only the courtesans may freely encourage.
“Would you?” she asks me.
“Would I do what, Moia?”
“Would you?” she asks again.
“Would I do what?”
She presses herself against my shoulder once again. “You know, Etiev.”
“Perhaps, Moia. If my duties to the Emperor end early tonight.”
She purses her lips. “For a villain, you follow the Emperor around relentlessly,” she tells me.
“That is the role of a villain,” I tell her. “Where would the Emperor be without me?”
“More likely somewhere in his bedroom, rolling around the sheets with four or five young women, bestowing imaginary baronies upon any name that comes to mind.”
“Exactly,” I tell her.
“Do you really believe that the Emperor would be so incompetent, Etiev?”
“So do you, Moia. You’ve told me so.”
“Yes,” she says, considering the matter for a moment. “But I’m a courtesan. I tell stories. I spread rumors. I can say or think whatever I want because no one would take me seriously.”
“I know,” I say, looking into her blue eyes.
“But you’re an advisor,” she points out, her silken mask brushing against my steel visage.
“You go as far as to insult them to their faces, and they brand you a villain for you disagreement.”
“False faces, Moia. Masks.”
“You’re being very mysterious today, Etiev.”
I think for a moment. “Do you think, perhaps, that the masks hide who we truly are?”
She smiles at me. “No I don’t,” she says, attempting to see into my hidden eyes. “I don’t think that at all.”
“Then what do you think, Moia?”
“Look around you, Etiev. Everyone wears a mask. The silken ones imply the courtesans, the white leather faces belong to the Praetorians, even you know that your friend Stanislai the scribe owns a wooden face. If anything, the masks show who we are.”
“And me?” I ask, smiling at her.
She smiles back. “You’re a villain, Etiev. You’re the most fiendish villain I’ve ever known.”
* * * * *
Vykos’s mask could hardly be called a mask. It is a mottled white design over a transparent monocle that covers a single nearsighted eye. Vykos is a wrinkled man whose face gives the impression of great age and wisdom, yet as an advisor, he is perfectly content to sit back and listen to the Emperor’s wanton pronouncements.
Tatien’s mask, on the other hand, is fashioned from black porcelain, and covers his face from forehead to chin. Diamond dust surrounds his eyes, with sapphires in the center of each cheek and ruby shards ornamenting his lips. The mask otherwise distracts from Tatien’s corpulent figure, grown fat on his overwhelming support of the Emperor’s decrees.
Masks or no masks, none of them are happy to see me.
“Nothing else to do tonight, Lord Etiev?” Vykos asks.
“I was about to ask you the same thing, Lord Vykos.”
“What are you here for, Etiev? It’s not as though you’ll find any matters of government policy here.”
“It’s still a party, Lord Vykos. Don’t I get a chance to celebrate along with the rest of you?”
“Oh, do leave him alone, Vykos,” a familiar voice says.
I step back into a florid bow. “Good evening, your majesty,” I finally say.
* * * * *
The Emperor wears no mask.
Each eye is dyed with inks of blue and white. Each sleek hair upon his brow is clearly outlined. Each wrinkle, each imperfection upon his skin has been brushed away with the finest flesh-colored powders.
The Emperor wears robes of gold and green, cunningly tucked and folded to hide his growing paunch. He carries an extensive train of silk and lace, all the more to conceal his diminutive stature. He gestures with white satin gloves that cover hands so soft they would bleed at the slightest blister.
He wears a construct of gold and diamonds upon his head, although every single courtier knows – much to the Emperor’s detriment – that the wig is obvious, and that the baldness is already in its advanced stages.
In a sense, the Emperor is his own mask.
I smile. Underneath the façade, the Emperor is just an ordinary man.
“I haven’t seen you smile in a long time, Etiev,” he says.
“I haven’t had reason to smile in a long time, your majesty.”
The Emperor nods. “Another snide remark regarding a recent development, Etiev?”
“On the contrary, your majesty. I have never been in greater agreement with you… or with the rest of the court, for that matter.”
The Emperor looks confused. I am familiar with the expression, having seen it mostly during his ill attempts at statecraft.
“Well… that’s good, Etiev.”
“I am the Emperor’s villain,” I say, giving him a florid bow once again.
“We wear many masks, your majesty. The masks make us who we are.”
“I don’t see quite where you’re going, Etiev.”
I smile at him. “You’re just an ordinary man, your majesty. Underneath all the posturing, underneath all the positioning, underneath all those uncomfortable robes… you’re just a man.”
He stares at me for a moment, wondering what to make of my statement. Then he laughs.
“How droll, Etiev. You are most certainly a villain.”
“And you, your majesty, are most certainly just a man.”
And I thrust the dagger into his heart.