White Mask

A girl is born to darkness and assassins.

The girl was born the illegitimate child of a dowager countess Elaine Madasz and, like all such children, was inducted into her family's ancient profession: Assassination. By the age of five, she was versed in all forms of combat, and a capable combatant with any lightweight weaponry. By the age of seven, she was given her mask and dispatched on her first mission; it would be seventeen years before she ever saw her face again.

Five years passed; five years of alleyways, blood, and shadows during which the number of times she saw the sun could be counted on the fingers of her left hand.  Those years of darkness paid for the shame her existence caused in excess. She was a legend of the night, a shadow that no one outside of the Madasz household, and few within, could claim to have glimpsed, let alone recognize. Inside the household, her raw ability with any weapon was equally or just second to the best of her master's. The only exception to this status quo was in swordplay, where no one alive in the Madasz household could match her.

It was around this time, that something unprecedented occurred: an eastern lord petitioned the Madasz for her services instead of the Assassin's Guild. This shunning enraged the Assassin's Guild, who demanded that the Madasz turn down the petition and direct the eastern lord to their door. The Madasz Archduke declined, and thus began the Shadow War.

As wars go, the Shadow War was neither obvious in its battles, no grievous in its casualties. It was fought in the backstreets of eastern cities, and in the bedchambers of moguls. Men and women would wake in the dead of night at a violent swish of cloth and see two, or three, dark-clothed figures whirling through the shadow, a dark ballet between grim reapers to see who would claim the wayward soul. Through all of this, Lord Adriat continued to grow in skill and legend, surpassing both masters and rivals alike.

The Shadow War lasted for seven years, and during that time Lord Adriat collected fifty-six marks and the blades of seventy-eight rivals. Despite this, the conclusion was inevitable. No matter their power, the Assassin's Guild had a single, invincible advantage: The Marked.

 Normally, the Marked would not have interfered, but to challenge the Assassin's Guild was beyond even their tolerance. Thus, on one night with a full moon, a Marked called on the Madasz estates and annihilated every member of the Madasz Household that bided there; the lord, the lady, the children, and the assassins.

The Madasz house was shattered and lordship fell to the young nephew of the previous lord. Lord Adriat, however, survived the massacre. She, and two cousins, were hunting a marked man who had fled north when rumors of his impending demise whispered through the underworld. They came upon him, and his guards, on the banks of the Annuir'Hyme halfway between Winter's Gate and the Madasz estates.

Cornered, the lord and his retainers turned on their pursuers; five armored men against three Madasz assassins. Normally, such odds would have seemed laughable, but the lord unveiled his ace card: A blade master. The ensuing fight concluded with sleek brutality, Lord Adriat slaughter three of the lord's retainers while the blade master disemboweled her kin. Then, the masked Madasz protégée turned on the crimson-robed blade master.

They fought as only blade masters can fight: a sleek, whispering song of iron blades and twining cloth that left her reeling and him dying. Sagging to a knee with a hand clutched against her bleeding side, she looked up, her white mask stained red, and lifted her blade against the lord only to have him smile. Taking a ring from his finger, he cast it to the ground at her feet where it imploded and hurled her battered form into the Annuir'Hyme.

The cold water took her into its bosom, as it did all things, then, instead of burying her, the Annuir'Hyme deposited her on the banks of Adriat. She woke to sunlight, white sheets, and a young man with a hand on her pulse. She lunged to her feet, reaching for a knife, but the only thing that remained of her heritage was the white mask.

Calling for others, the young pleaded with her to return to the bed, assuring her that they meant no harm. Slowly, she heeded his request as his associates hurried through the door. One advanced past the others and took a seat beside her, asking her name and the purpose of her mask. She answered with deceit, saying that she had no memory of herself. The elderly men, who presented them politely, fussed over her for another minute and then left, leaving her once more in the company of her caretaker. He smiled and asked if she desired anything, to which she answered in the negative, her mind already plotting an escape. At her answer, he asked if there was something she wished to be called. She answered that she had no interest in what they called her. He gave her the name, Rylia.

Three days passed and tidings of the Madasz Households annihilation reached Adriat, leaving her with a choice. All those who knew her were dead, and there was no one to reclaim her if she simply refused to return. She knew her past and, however brutal, was comfortable in it, confident in her ability to survive that world whereas to leave it was terrifying beyond anything she had already confronted. In the end, it was the warming sunlight quietly creeping into her room that made her decision. She became Rylia, a servant in the household of Lord Adriat; but the mask remained, bound to her face by ancestral magics.

For a year, she lived and worked in a state of perpetual isolation. It was not from her personal desire, nor from the prejudice of those who shared her position; she simply could not function in open society. For months, she suffered from agoraphobia, an inability to utter more than a few words in conversation with someone, bipolarity, and a pathological need to lie, sometimes for utterly no purpose. These qualities, and her often-violent outbursts of fear led almost everyone to shun her and hope that her mind would eventually calm; everyone except for one: her young caretaker.

He spent a couple hours every day teaching her of The North, soothing her fears, and trying to help her heal. His name was Emaran Sirr. Time passed and she began to heal, to become something more than the emotionally barren violence of her past. Slowly, others began speaking with her again, cautiously making overtures of friendship that she declined in a boute of terror and fled. They had seen humanity in her however, and gradually a few others managed to slip through the cracks in her prison, bringing bit by bit a little more light into her world, and loosening the locks ever so slightly every time they breached her dungeon. Still, she never touched a weapon, and avoided the armories and training grounds at all costs, even to the point of concealing herself in some dark corner whenever they came into use. Her friends noticed this but did not ask, never believing for a moment that it was something other than fear of conflict that kept her away. Of course, it was fear that made her run but it was the fear of reverting to her past self and not of conflict, the fear that if she laid hands on another weapon, her family would return and drag her back into the shadows. Two years after she became Rylia, her nightmares became reality. Three assassins of house Madasz came calling on Adriat.

It seemed not all of those who knew her had died in the annihilation of the Madasz Household; the Marked had left the courtiers and servants untouched, one of whom was intimately familiar with the inner workings of the Madasz assassins. This courtier, a man called Silas Iruse, had assumed control over the Madasz estate in the aftermath of the calamity, using the young heir as a puppet ruler. Now, he desired the return of the Madasz family's most dangerous operative.

She was unarmed when they came for her, but that would not have mattered if she had been alone. It had taken Emaran a whole month to convince her of it, a moonlight supper followed by a performance by one of The North's premier musicians. They took her in the middle of supper, using Emaran as insurance for her complacence. Then, they took her and laid her at the feet of Lord Adriat, her white mask glinting right alongside theirs.  She did not cry a single tear, did not utter the slightest sound as all this occurred, and gave no answer to Emeran's desperate assurances.

Lord Adriat demanded their purpose with the cold, northern wrath that made his kind so frightening. The Madasz agent spoke eloquently in response, detailing the truth of her past and illustrating a litany of her atrocities. Throughout this, she maintained her facade, binding her heart in a winter dark enough to reign in The North.

When they were finished with her condemnation, Lord Adriat turned to her and asked without violence or hate if what they said was true. She bowed her head and said that it was. The Madasz assassins tightened their grips on her and declared that they would be reclaiming their lost sheep. Before they could leave however, Lord Adriat spoke, his words issuing an inviolate command. They would not take a member of his household unless she willed it. Emaran turned to her through the silence and asked if she wished to stay in The North or to return east. Her prison shattered in that moment and, finally, she wept.

The Madasz assassins, and everyone else who bore witness to her tears, recognized her choice and acted instantly. They swept her and the thrashing Emaran into their arms and fled. Yet, they had made a single, absolute error: she no longer had anything to fear. They were dead in seconds with not a sound to betray their passing, or the hint of a struggle to denote their fearsome abilities.

That was the last she ever saw of her family, even the Madasz Archdukes dared not declare open war on The North.  Her healing was done and her prison broken. It was another year passed before the damning white mask she wore released its hold, finally, allowing Emaran to remove that last vestige of her past.

Time tread on; she and Emaran were wed, she was marked as the heir to Adriat and her predecessor died in his sleep some years later. She was Burdened, and became Lord Adriat, The Northern Lord of War.

The End

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