The boat pushed off from the dock right at sundown, the sky to the west still blazing like molten gold. But it was the moon rising in the east that held the attention of the boat’s passengers, a swollen disk of silver rising into the twilit sky, casting its enchantment on this midsummer night.
Gliding with the river’s swift current, the hired boatmen barely had to lift their oars out of the water at all. With experienced hands, they guided the sleek vessel along the curves of the river, maneuvering it neatly under bridges and past glowing beacons that marked a safe course through the crowded waterways.
The Frog sat in the prow of the boat, leaning out over the water, eager for the first glimpse of their downstream destination. Every so often, when it caught a rill of choppy current, the boat dipped down low and water splashed him with its cool fingers, making him laugh.
“Be careful, Pash,” the Princess said from behind him. “Your father will kill me if you fall in.”
He turned his head to grin at her, but of course she couldn’t see him, because of the mask, so he went ahead and stuck out his tongue, too, something he would never have dared at home. Not that she would have cared, but his father would have given him a whack with his biggest spoon if he’d caught him at it. It was just one of the reasons he loved the sculpted paper mask, with its bulging eyes and pink tongue lolling out the side of the too-wide mouth. It had been a birthday present, just two days past. You had to be thirteen to go to the Triennial masquerade, and he’d made it just under the beam. He couldn’t wait to discover all the delightful entertainments the ball had waiting for him.
Despite her words of warning, the Princess looked just as excited as he was. She was dressed in an old-fashioned looking warrior’s outfit, with a sweeping surcoat of blue, tall boots, and bits of armor strapped onto her arms and shoulders. She even had a sword at her side, which was okay for tonight, since she was supposed to be Daena and it wasn’t a real sword anyway. Her mask was an intricate fretwork of gold wire winding over the upper half of her face before spreading out in two wings that wrapped around her head.
“If he falls in, he can just swim the rest of the way,” said the Ghost from further back in the boat. “Like a good little tadpole.
“I’m a frog!” the Frog snapped back, and emphasized his point by hopping, frog-like, where he crouched on the prow. The whole boat rocked forward when he did it, alarming all the passengers, but especially the Ghost, who grabbed at the gunwale with an oath.
“Enough of that!” one of the boatmen called out from the rear. “Everyone stay in their seats, if you please.”
“Come and sit with us, Pash,” the Barbarian offered, sliding to one side on the bench. “There’s room over here.”
If anyone else had asked it of him, he would have refused, but the Barbarian had a strange pull on the Frog that he was only just beginning to understand. He didn’t care much for the mask he was wearing—the leather was shaped like some kind of animal skull, with a crest of spiky feathers and embedded metal thorns instead of teeth. But it was paired with a sleeveless leather tunic that showed off his long, tan arms, lean with muscle from hours practicing with a sword. He succumbed to temptation, and scrambled back to the benches to take the offered seat.
The Ghost was still glowering at him. “Are we going to have to babysit this tadpole all night?” he asked.
“I’m a frog!” he protested again, and sprang to his feet. Or at least, tried to. The Barbarian and the Bull each caught him by a shoulder and forced him back to the bench before he could make the boat rock again.
“Stop provoking him, Romeric,” the Bull said sternly. “Pash can take care of himself at the ball. All we have to do is make sure he gets back in the boat at the end of the night. Right?” Even through the the eyes of his mask, the Frog could feel the weight of the Bull’s gaze weighing on him, full of expectation, and he nodded his head quickly. Of all the older boys’ costumes, he liked the Bull’s the best. The stern countenance of the bull was shaped in deep brown velvet, and the horns set with chips of obsidian that glittered in the silver moonlight. The clothes he’d chosen to go with it were almost ordinary in cut and style, except that they were made of brown velvet, too, and covered with embroidery, a colorful, swirling pattern of vines and flowers that was sumptuous and ornate, a design that drew the eye with its intricate complexity.
“Let’s just all relax,” the Princess said. She reached over and nudged the Ghost in the arm. “Try and have a good time.”
The Ghost rolled his eyes. He hadn’t even bothered to wear a mask. Instead, a slash of black paint crossed his face right at the eyes, looking kind of like a mask, but not really. He was dressed in plain white, without even his usual jewelry for adornment. The Frog wasn’t even sure what he was supposed to be. When he’d asked earlier, he’d only curled his lip in response and said, “Respectable.”
“Is there really going to be a fight tonight?” he asked, turning away from the surly Ghost.
The Bull tilted his horned head slightly. “Who told you that?”
The Frog shrugged, but didn’t say anything. The truth was he’d overheard his father the cook talking about it with one of the housekeepers, who had overheard the boys talking about it a few days beforehand. But you weren’t supposed to gossip about people in the House, no matter what role they served. He wasn’t going to get anyone in trouble for talking.
“There’s not going to be a fight,” the Princess said. “There will be too many people there for anyone to make trouble.” She said it convincingly, but all the same, he saw each of the three older boys furtively reach for their swords, as if checking to see that they were still there. The Frog did not have a sword—he knew a little swordsmanship, but he was too young to carry one of his own. Anyway, he wanted to be a musician, not a swordsman when he grew up. His other birthday present, along with the mask, had been a second-hand viol, and you couldn’t be a great viol player if your hands were callused from wielding a sword. All the same…
“If there is a fight,” he said, lifting his chin up boldly, “then I’ll fight with you.”
“What do you mean, Pash?” The Barbarian pushed his mask up off his face to look at him with a concerned expression. “You can’t be serious.”
“There’s not going to be a fight,” the Princess reiterated. “And if there was, you certainly can’t…”
“You don’t even have a weapon,” the Bull pointed out.
“Doesn’t matter.” The Frog felt a little bullheaded himself just now. “I’m a member of Fleuracy House, too. I have a right to defend the house’s honor. I can use my fists. Or, I don’t know, kick ‘em in the nuts.”
The Ghost burst out with a startled laugh. “You’ve got spirit, tadpole,” he said, and punched him in the shoulder.
The Barbarian smiled at him approvingly. “That’s really brave, Pash. But Neda’s right. Probably nothing is going to happen.”
“But if it does, promise you won’t leave me out of it.” He looked between the four faces surrounding him, saw the others turn, expectantly, to the Bull. The Frog fixed his gaze on him too. “Promise?”
There was a long moment where everyone was quiet, and then the Bull nodded. “All right. Just try not to get yourself killed.”
The Frog beamed under his mask. The Ghost clouted him in the arm again, and then the Barbarian tossed an arm companionably around his shoulders. His face flushed hot and he was even more glad of the mask then he was before. He was just thinking that maybe he wasn’t in such a rush to get to the masquerade after all, when one of the boatmen called out, “Palace Bridge” and, ahead of them on the river, a fantastic panorama of lights and colors hove into view.
They had arrived.
“What do you mean, he’s not coming?” Barris said to the sharp-nosed fox standing next to him.
“He said he hates masks. ‘They smell bad. They make your face sweat.’” Neda lowered the fox mask from her face to show off her unsympathetic impression of Romeric, her words stretched out with ridiculous flourishes in an exaggerated imitation of his Jurati accent. “‘You can-not see properly. You can-not flirt. You can-not fight. Masks are stupid.’” She sniffed in faux disdain, then rolled her eyes.
“Oh, brother,” Barris shook his head and put the leather salamander mask he had been inspecting back on the display stand, between a snarling bear and a fanged wildcat that was uncomfortably familiar, and much too lifelike. “You’d think, knowing him, that he’d jump at the chance to show off.”
“I guess not.” She pointed towards the of the bridge, where Romeric was heading off with a peeved expression on his face. One of the most annoying things about the Jurati newcomer was his incessant cheerfulness, so it was surprising to see him looking so sour. Barris doubted it was all about masks.
“He’s probably just moping because Calette Averre won’t return his letters.”
Neda giggled and linked arms with him, drawing him away from the stall. “It doesn’t matter. He can stay home and mope, and you, Tierce and I can have a great time without him. Where is Tierce anyway?”
“No idea,” he answered without bothering to look around for his friend. It was a rare treat to have Neda to himself for a moment. Better still, walking arm in arm with her, even if it was only as far as the next booth. Out in the sun, her tawny skin glowed golden, and she had her hair, as straight and black as his own, tied up in a pony tail. It bobbed jauntily as they wove their way along the crowded thoroughfare, offering a pleasing view of her slender neck. He pushed that thought away as quickly as it came, though. They were friends, nothing more. Friends who enjoyed a certain closeness that came from having lived in the same house for five years. That was all.
Still. It was nice.
They stopped at a small stand with a fantastic array of feathered masks on display. He reached for one sporting brown plumage and a prominent beak. “Maybe Tierce and I could be hawks,” he said as he held it up in front of himself. “For Fleuracy House.”
“Ugh!” Neda made a face. “You’re so predictable. The point is to be something you’re not.” She grabbed the biggest, most ostentatious mask in the stall, a multi-colored monstrosity with a crest of fluttering peacock plumes, and held it up to him instead. “Perfect!” she laughed.
Enveloped by the gaudy feathers, he suppressed a moment of panic. ”I don’t thinks so.” He pushed it away—and instantly regretted it when he saw her disappointed expression. She gave him an exasperated sigh and dropped the mask back on its stand.
“I’m going to go find Tierce. His father is a performer, so he must know at least a little about showmanship.”
She pivoted on her toes and marched away into the crowd. Barris watched her go, her pony tail swaying back and forth, taunting him for his cowardice.
The new market stalls had gone up on Great Furzon Bridge just this morning, squeezed in between the usual peddlers and produce stands, a riot of color and creativity that made it feel almost like a festival. Young people darted between the usual market-goers, zigzagging from vendor to vendor in a flurry of enthusiasm that not even the oppressive summer heat could dull. The Triennial Masquerade only happened every third year, after all. Even Barris had to admit he was excited about it.
He had not attended the last one. An awkward and isolated fourteen-year-old, he hadn’t felt ready yet to come face to face with his peers—former peers—in such a social situation. He’d stayed in Fleuracy House that night and waited for Neda to come home and tell him all about it. The Palace Bridge decked out with garlands and glowing lights. Costumed youths swirling in a cacophony of games and dancing. The music, the food, the laughter…it all seemed impossibly wonderful, and also terrifying.
He was actually sorry to hear that Romeric didn’t want to go. He’d come to like the high-spirited young blade better than he thought he would. Yes, he was too flamboyant, and often deliberately irritating, but there was something about his reckless attitude that Barris found provocative. At first it had annoyed and angered him, but more and more, especially since that night on Soz Bridge, it felt like a challenge. Romeric did what he liked without worrying what other people thought about it. Shameless, he’d heard the house cook call him. Barris was all too intimate with shame.
While he was trying to figure out how he could persuade Romeric to come to the masquerade anyway, his attention was caught by another display of masks. These were simple ovals of clay, painted with comic faces in shockingly bright colors. He stepped closer, and picked one of the faces at random from the rack. Bloated purple lips, spiky blue eyebrows, cheeks painted with lime-colored hearts. You’re supposed to be something you’re not, Neda had said. Well, this certainly qualified. Taking a deep breath, he slipped it on over his head.
Of course nothing happened. It was just a mask, after all. It wasn’t like it was going to transform him into something ridiculous. It wasn’t even going to make anyone look at him funny, not when they were all busy trying on masks of their own. It was only his own fear of drawing attention to himself that made him anxious. Blend in. Don’t get noticed. Don’t do anything that might attract criticism. Those were the rules he’d lived by for the past few years, hoping people might forget who he was. Maybe, he thought to himself, it was time to relax a little.
He laughed at himself, shaking his head as he pulled off the mask. He was reaching to put it back when someone snatched it out of his hands.
“Barris Aderen, what do you think you’re doing?”
The unexpected fury of the words jolted him back. One, two steps. And then, seeing the young woman brandishing the mask at him with a white-knuckled grip, he froze. He knew her immediately. Sindera Vallen. They’d grown up together, had even been friends when they prepared their First Offering together. But it had been almost five years since they’d spoken. She was tall, now, almost as tall as Barris, with long black hair that fell straight down her back and sharp features that were made even sharper by her anger.
“Do you think this is going to make a difference?” Each word was a hot spike she threw at him, blistering in the glare of the noontime sun. She thrust the mask forward, inches from his face. Barris didn’t react. Not visibly, at least. Inside, he felt her anger slice into him, tearing at the few tatters of confidence he had managed to patch together after all this time. Around them, passersby had stopped to watch, their wondering gazes only adding to the uncomfortable pressure building in his chest. “Do you think,” Sindera said, “a stupid, painted mask is going to hide who you are?”
With an abrupt gesture, she threw the mask at his feet. It shattered, fragments of painted clay scattering across the cobblestones. Barris managed not to flinch, which only seemed to inflame her more. “No one wants you there!” she shouted. “No one wants you here!” With impotent rage, she kicked at the shards of porcelain that littered the ground. One skittered sideways. Bounced errantly off the toe of his boot.
“Here, now!” The mask seller bustled out from behind her booth, “Who’s going to pay for that?”
“I will,” Barris said, his teeth clenched tight around the words. “I’ll pay for it.” He dug into the pouch on his belt for coins. “How much—”
“Are you sure you want to take money from an Aderen?” Sindera hissed. “Bridge killer money?”
The merchant had been reaching to accept the offered coins, but now she hesitated. Barris could almost see the gears churning in her head as she ran the calculations. In the end, she snatched the money from his hand, then stepped quickly back. “That’s the only mask an Aderen will get from me.” She gestured at the broken shards on the ground, then retreated quickly to the far side of the booth.
Sindera drew herself up, pushed her black hair back from her sweat-dotted forehead. Managed to reclaim something of the dignity that children of the Great Houses were supposed to uphold. Her eyes still burned with fire when she fixed Barris with them, though. “Don’t go to the masquerade,” she said, her words flush with intensity. “If you know what’s good for you.”
With that, she spun on her heel and stalked away. The crowd split around her, some of them shooting Barris their own hateful looks before following after her. Only when everyone else, with sidelong glances and hushed remarks, began to move along did Barris finally let his shoulders slump.
Do you think a mask will hide who you are?
He moved away from the booth, clay fragments crunching underfoot as he went. There was no crowd blocking his way now, at least. People stayed out of your way, when they didn’t trust you. He slipped through a space between market stalls and found a quiet spot along the bridge’s rail, where a hint of a breeze made it easier to breathe. He forced himself to unclench his fists, palms laid flat on the rail as he looked west. Somewhere there, hidden by the bends and bridges of the river, were the wrecks of once-grand abutments on either shore, all that remained of the Vallen Sun Bridge.
Five years. One-hundred and six lives. One-hundred and seven, if you counted his own father.
Some days, when he was feeling particularly pathetic, he counted himself as the hundred and eighth.
“Barris.” Someone put a hand on his arm and he recoiled from the touch, only recognizing Neda’s voice too late. Had she felt how badly he was shaking? Had she seen what happened? Watched as he was once again humiliated in public? He didn’t look at her. Didn’t want to see disappointment on her face again. Or sympathy.
Tierce slid up on his his other side. Cuffed him lightly on the shoulder but didn’t say anything. He didn’t need to. Just his presence, quiet and dependable, made Barris feel steadier inside.
“Thanks for staying out of it,” he said, his voice still taut.
“I just can’t believe they’re still trying to blame you. It’s not fair.”
“None of it’s fair, Tierce.” His hands wanted to make fists again, but he resisted, palms pressed flat into the smooth granite of the railing. “Sindera has every right to be angry. My father killed her brother. And her aunt and uncle. A whole lot of other people. They all have a right to be angry at someone.”
Neda huffed aloud. This time he looked at her, and she met his gaze with her shrewd, gray eyes. “Who do you get to be angry at, Barris?”
Her words startled him. “I’m not–“
He stopped himself mid-sentence, because he knew it wasn’t true. He was angry. He was always angry. He just never let anyone see it, even himself most of the time. He jerked his gaze away from Neda’s too-knowing expression. Acting on that anger wasn’t going to help anything, was it? It was anger that had ruined everything to begin with—his father’s anger. He wasn’t about to start making the same mistakes. He turned away, put his back to the river and the bridge that wasn’t there. He wasn’t his father. But he’d spent a long time paying the price for his crimes.
“What do you think she meant?” Tierce leaned against the rail beside him, looking back over the marketplace and its myriad of masks on display, the throng of lively youths swirling between them. “That you’ll be sorry if you go to the ball?”
“I…don’t know.” Barris furrowed his brow as he imagined the possibilities. Sindera had a few over-sized cousins, not to mention any number of like-minded friends among the Great Houses that would probably be happy to teach him a lesson. The question was, what form would that lesson take? Not knowing was the worst. It would be better—safer, easier—to heed the warning and just stay home. That’s the choice he usually made.
You’re supposed to be something you’re not.
Neda’s words ran through his mind again, and he looked at her sidelong. She was pretending to be interested in something on the far side of the bridge, but he could feel her attention on him as keenly as the point of a blade. He took a deep breath. Let it out again, and said, in a rush, before he let himself change his mind about it,
“I suppose I’ll have to go and find out.”