You are wearing a mask,
As you have always worn a mask,
Simply never knowing it was ever there.
The Admonishment of Deceit
Narrator: Bennoire Hachecoupe de Quende
"I cannot stand that man," I muttered as the door of The Glücksritter closed behind us.
"Benny!" called a girl's voice from above the door.
"Looks like you have an admirer," stated Lehrann. Her voice was thick with a somber feeling I could not identify.
I turned around and looked up.
It was Maybelle, from her bedroom window. "You better come back in one piece, you hear me!?"
I laughed, and ran a hand through my black brushcut of hair. "We're just going to the tavern!"
She shook her head. "Don't play games with me, you know what I mean! You're leaving town."
"What's it to you?" I ventured.
Her face contorted. Was it a scowl? I couldn't tell.
"Guhh," Lehrann groaned. "Men are so dense."
"Now what is the supposed meaning in that?" asked the wizard.
Lehrann cupped a hand against her mouth and leaned up on her tip-toes.
The wizard understood this gesture, and bent down so she could whisper in his ear.
I had no idea what they were saying. But it struck me as rude.
"Oh!" exclaimed the wizard. "Well, that is a beautiful thing. Do not interfere."
"What's so funny?" I asked.
"Yeah!" called Maybelle. "What're you two gossiping about?"
"Umm... nothing," said Lehrann.
"Far from it," I heard the wizard whisper.
"Whatnot, take this," said Maybelle.
She chucked something my way. I caught it deftly with one hand, and that amazed her.
I opened my hand.
The object was round, made of small pieces of wood. It was a woven circle of intertwined twigs. And there was string, or perhaps shreds of roots, crossing the open middle of the ring, tying a web together there. And in the centre of the web of string was a shiny white crystal that hung between the taut strings. It was like a star, with smooth, jagged beams pointing outward in all directions, the string between them against its core.
"What is it?" I asked.
"A good luck charm," said Maybelle. "The Coresska's understudy sold it to me."
"There is magic in that," the wizard told me. "But most of it is sealed away."
"Keep it with you," Maybelle instructed. "I want you back here safe and sound at the end of your adventure!"
I opened my mouth to say something, but couldn't. It dawned on me then precisely what Lehrann had meant earlier. And why she sounded the way she did. I blushed a fierce red, and it reminded me of the warmth I'd felt when the wizard helped Laruetête and I lift the gate in the morning.
Maybelle looked down at me from the window she was leaning into. The words on her lips never came forth.
"Goodbye then," I said with a nod. "I wish you well."
"Come, now," said the wizard. "The tavern is this way, no?"
"Yes, but that's not the fastest way," said Lehrann. "Follow me."
I waved to Maybelle Halden, as I pocketed her keepsake in the studded leather breeches I was wearing. It was no proper place for it. I would have to wear it around my neck, in the times to come.
Her hand went to her mouth. And then those words, words I never heard, were blown as a kiss.
I could do nothing but smile as I stepped backwards, then slowly turned around and ran to catch up with my companions as Lehrann led the wizard into an alley between two houses.
When we got to the tavern, it wasn't very full yet. We got a booth to ourselves, and I ordered a pint of Eastgrog.
"We must wait," said the wizard when I sat down across from Lehrann. "Someone is coming for me. I can sense it."
I cast a nervous glance at Lehrann.
She was frowning. "What do you mean?"
The wizard bowed his head and touched his fingers against his cheeks. Each lined up with and rested upon one of the strange marks that jutted up from his jawline, where the skin was shinier and his facial hair didn't grow. It was like wet clay.
"Are you upset?" asked Lehrann.
The wizard looked up. His eyes were wild with a myriad of colours that cast light about the dim travern. "I can see her through the walls."
"See who?" I asked.
"You're creeping me out," confided Lehrann. "And that's not easy to do."
"The Coresska have sent a priestess," said the wizard as he slowly turned his head as if watching something far away approaching in the distance.
"Plutt..." muttered Lehrann.
After a long and tense wait, where nothing was said, his eyes came to rest just outside the tavern door.
I took a swig of my grog. It tasted more watered down than ever.
"She is getting off her horse," said the wizard, "and now binding its reins to a post."
Lehrann was the one who looked downcast now.
"Lehrann," I said, getting her attention. "Why don't you go fetch Hugh?"
She perked up. "Hugh Halden?"
"Yes. Fetch our boss the guildmaster's son," I suggested.
The wizard drew a taut, touthless grin. He spoke dryly, "That would serve us well. I cannot imagine your old master would grace his eldest son with my offer without disowning him first."
"You read people well," I told the wizard, as Lehrann got up and then left.
"Thank you, young man," said the wizard, from beside me.
I downed more of my drink and pounded my fist on the table. That's when I saw the Coressian woman entering the establishment. She was tall and slender, and wore a hooded robe, tightly covering all, that made her holy servitude more than obvious. The only skin to see was her hands and her upper chest, above the breasts. Her face was hidden behind a golden mask. The robe itself had a glossy lustre, and was threaded with gold trim against the beige body of it. Even her fingernails nails were painted with gold, as was the rope tied around her waist.
The mask was segmented had hinges on the cheeks, probably to lift the bottom up so that she could eat and drink. The top, however, had knobs of gold nail heads on either temple, and one where her forehead met her nose. I winced at the sight of those three nails, hoping there weren't actually nails hammered into her head.
She stepped toward the bartender, who was idly polishing a glass. He pointed her toward our booth, and she walked over. Her gait was unseen beneath the parted dress leggings of her robe. She came forth upon us with an overwhelming aura of venerant vehemence.
She looked nothing like the Coresskan priest that served Quende's only shrine. His robes were not as ornate, neither rich nor glossed. And only his eyes were masked by a band of gold. But I had never went to the shrine except a few times, when forced. And the priest there gave me shivers.
When this priestess spoke to us, her voice was truly beautiful. Her words, however, were not. They were in Coresstongue. And they were hateful. I will translate what she said as best I can: "Was that abomination that just left the bar under your care?"
"I know not of what you speak," said the wizard, still speaking in Eastongue. "You saw a little girl, though, and she is with me."
I watched her carefully as she sat down across from me, in the spot Lehrann had occupied. I did not like the mask this priestess wore. And I was sure there was a scowl of superiority behind it. Or perhaps guilt.
"I am surprised," I admitted, "that you let yourself sit across from a man with a drink."
She laughed. I will not lie to you. It was music to my ears. And I resented that.
I slid the glass mug her way.
The wizard was taken aback.
She stared at me. Her open neck had become stiff, behind painted gold runes. Her eyes were brown. Not like a tree's bark, more like a road's mud on a rainy day. Her Eastongue was rough and choppy, "If you value the poison in your cup, you will not tempt me to contend with it."
"Zut," I exclaimed, and grabbed my grog and held it close, defensively.
She rolled her eyes. For a moment, it seemed as if the gold-dusted skin of her eyelids was one with the gold that covered the edges of her eyesockets.
"Be your nicest," said the wizard, though it was not clear which one of us he was talking to. "We are waiting upon Lehrann's return, the girl, with my will-be apprentice."
"An apprentice?" said the priestess, a worried tone in her wild, turbulent voice. "Are you sure that's wise?"
"I leave this world when my task is over, until I am needed again. That may be a while. I want to leave part of myself behind."
"Will he be in our keeping?" asked the priestess.
"Our?" he repeated interrogatively.
I darn near snorted my laugh.
"The Coresska," I explained to him.
"Yes," she hissed. And it drove me wild.
The wizard shook his head. "The man, or woman, in question... is the only one who can answer that."
I liked that answer. And if Hugh was anything like his brother, he was far more fond of the Coresscrown than of the Coresska Priesthood. My idle hand withdrew my keepsake from Maybelle from my pocket. I placed it on the table and looked at it more carefully.
"Put that away," whispered the wizard, nudging me. "She will only sully it."
I took that to mean it was too secular to draw attention to, perhaps even blasphemous. And that made me smile.
She paid no attention. Her gaze was on the ceiling.
It was then that I was struck by the notion that the priestess had never introduced herself.
"Ummm... d-do you have a name?" I asked.
"Not in your tongue," came her haughty reply. "I will share my name when the others come. Not that it will be of any importance. I think you will be relieved to know that I will not be joining your little... err... fellowship."
"Fellowship," said the wizard, stroking his white goatee. "I like that word."
"Excuse me," I said to the wizard. "I need to use the back room." I was referring, of course, to the stall at the back of the tavern where there was a chamber pot to piss in.
"Rinse your hands in a clean water bucket when you're done," he requested of me, as he got out of the way so that I could slide off the padded bench.
I frowned. "Why would I do that? I don't intend to get sullied."
"You will live longer if you do anyways," said the wizard.
"Interesting theory," said the priestess, now speaking in Coresstongue once more.
"It's not a theory," said the wizard, looking at her intently as he took his seat once more. "Nor is it a superstition, ritual or daft notion. Though he might do better to dip his hands in grog, that is a wasteful idea. There exists dirt, sickness and tiny devils in this world too small for the common eye to see."
"Hmmmph," she said as I walked off toward the back room.