Here’s an excerpt from Masks, the first book in The Masks of Aygrima, my new fantasy trilogy for DAW Books, out now in both hardcover and ebook formats. You can…
Or buy it from whatever other bookstore takes your fancy.
Thanks, and enjoy!
By E.C. Blake
Prologue: Pain and Fire
From atop a nameless mountain, the Autarch of Aygrima watched another of his villages burn.
The mountain had no name because it deserved none. Its peak was not distinctive; no towering cliff face set it apart from its fellows; no spectacular fall of water cascaded down its stony flanks. It was not even particularly tall; little more than a hill, really. What it did offer was a clear view of the far more spectacular mountains to the north: and, down its eastern slope, a clear view of the village of Starview.
Or, or least, it had offered such a view, when Starview had still existed. Nothing now remained of it but crumbling walls, charred beams, smoking embers…and the tumbled, bloody corpses of its residents, even now being dragged through the streets to the mass grave scarring the once-lush grass of the village green.
The acrid tang of smoke stung the Autarch’s throat, but he ignored it, though it made Keltan, his white stallion, stamp and blow. Behind him the black geldings of the six Sun Guard were likewise restless. He ignored them, too; a similar entourage had surrounded him all his life, even before his father’s agonizing death from the poison of the now-defeated Rebels.
Had he turned to look at the Sun Guard, he would also have seen the ocean, stretching out to the infinite western horizon. Four or five centuries before, there might have been reason to look that way, to watch for the sails of ships from the myriad kingdoms of the West, sailing to Aygrima to trade for the magic that only the Autarchy could offer, bearing away Healers and Engineers and enchanted tools, weapons and amusements to distant, exotic ports.
But then had come the Sickness, brought by a ragged ship with a dying crew. The Sickness had raged across Aygrima, felling hundreds, but in the end the Healers, through prodigious expenditure of magic, had gained the upper hand and snuffed it out. The historians believed it had been far more devastating elsewhere, for that plague ship had been the last from overseas to ever make port in Aygrima.
At the moment, however, the Autarch was not interested in history. He was interested only in the dying village below, and the man now riding a bay mare up the winding path from the valley floor: Perris, his Guardian of Security—his new Guardian of Security, for Floccias, the old one, had died, courtesy of the Autarch, as agonizing a death as the Autarch’s father, the man he had failed so spectacularly to protect.
“Mighty One,” panted Perris as he arrived at last. “As you commanded, we questioned everyone—man, woman and child—then put the village to the sword and torch. No one escaped to tell the tale.”
“I don’t care about the village,” the Autarchy snapped. “Did you learn anything? Anything about the girl?”
Perris swallowed hard. Good, thought the Autarch fiercely. He fears me. As he should. As all should. Fear is my protector.
Fear…and the Masks. They should be ready by the time I reach Tamita. Soon, everyone will be Masked, every Mask telling the tale of the wearer’s thoughts to my guards, the soldiers I have already renamed Watchers…there will never be another rebellion.
“They were…remarkably unwilling to talk,” Perris said. “They feared us. They feared what we could do to them…what we did do to them. But they feared her more.” He shook his head. “They said we could only kill their bodies. They said she could reach inside them and take their souls.”
A worm of fear entered the Autarch’s heart. Then it’s true! She has the same Gift as I. The worm turned, metamorphosed into a pang of a different sort. She would understand. She alone would understand. If things were different between us…
But things were not different. He hardened his heart against fear and regret alike. The girl’s father had been a leader of the Rebellion. And though she might share his rare magical Gift, she had used it against him, time and time again. A series of ruined villages had preceded this one: villages she had attempted to make a stronghold, villages from which she had been rooted by the Watchers, with sword and flame and magic.
Starview is the last, the Autarch thought. She is pinned against the Great Mountains. Here she falls, here she dies: and with her dies the Rebellion. Once and…thanks to the Masks…for all.
He let nothing of his thoughts show in his face. “Superstitious nonsense,” he said. “There are no souls, and if there were, magic could do nothing to them. Did you manage to break through their fear of her with the fear of me?” He leaned forward and let his voice fall to a venomous growl. “Did you find out where she is?”
Perris swallowed again. “Yes, Mighty One.”
“Then I suggest you lead the way, Guardian Perris.”
Guardian Perris nodded and turned his mare. The Autarch and the Sun Guard thundered down the mountainside in his wake.
As they rode through the ruins of Starview, the Autarch ignored the tumbled walls and burning beams, ignored the Watchers dragging the bodies of men, women and children toward the mass grave. The villagers had harbored the girl, Arilla. Arilla was all that remained of the Rebellion. The Rebels—her father, and those like him—had killed his father, had almost killed him. They deserved nothing but pain and fire, and pain and fire he had given them…as he would to the girl herself, now that they had her cornered.
On the far side of the village, a larger force of Watchers waited. Fifty-strong, they rode with Perris, the Autarch and the Sun Guard up the other side of the valley, onto the flanks of the Great Mountains themselves, which raised their unscalable, snow-streaked peaks far above.
An hour out of Starview, Perris raised his hand, bringing the column to a halt. The Autarch surveyed the mountainside. The day was growing old, and just half an hour before clouds had shrouded the sky and begun to drop listless, spiraling flakes of snow, but he could still make out a narrow ravine, a split in the rock, choked with dark-green trees. “In there?”
“So the villagers said,” Perris replied. “Unless she fled elsewhere before we arrived. But I have sent out scouts in both directions, and there are no trees up here to give her cover. They would have seen her.”
The Autarch grunted. “Then let’s root her out.” He turned in his saddle. “She is Gifted,” he warned the Watchers. “And dangerous. But not invincible. Her Gift will not turn aside an arrow she never sees, a sword swung from behind. And you all have your own magic to draw upon, or you would not have been assigned this task. Show no mercy. Kill her on sight.” He turned forward again, peering up at that dark slash in the mountain. “Advance,” he said, and dug his heels into Keltan’s flanks.
He thought he knew what to expect, and was prepared to counter it. He thought that, as she had in the past, Arilla would hurl boulders at them or flaming trees, perhaps try to bring down a landslide… although, truth to tell, the mountainside above the ravine looked much less steep than was typical of the Great Mountains. A pass? the Autarch thought, and felt a chill. “She may know a way through the mountains,” he warned Perris. “We must not let her escape!”
“We won’t,” said Perris. They were almost to the mouth of the ravine. The Guardian of Security turned to address the troops. “We—“
His voice died in a little whoosh! of expelled breath, and he toppled from his horse: as did every other Watcher surrounding the Autarch, from the commander of the Sun Guard to the lowliest private. They thudded to the ground like overripe fruit falling from trees.
The Autarch felt a tug, like insubstantial yet powerful hands trying to pull from his body something his body did not want to release. The feeling lasted only an instant; then he sensed rage and a force of magic being hurled toward him, and threw himself from his stallion—just in time: Keltan screamed, reared…and exploded, showering the Autarch with blood and bits of bone, flesh, organs and hair.
Dripping gore, the Autarch scrambled to his feet, his own rage swelling. He needed magic. Arilla had pulled her magic from Perris and the Watchers, so he could not draw on that—but he didn’t need to. He could feel magic all around him, the magic contained in the black stone urns that every member of the Watch had carried to the mountainside. The girl had not touched that store: perhaps their Gifts differed more than he’d thought, and she could not.
But he could.
He raised his hands, and the magic poured into them, encasing them in multicolored light, glowing gauntlets of red and blue and green and gold and colors he could not even name swirling and shifting over their backs, palms and fingers. He knew where that powerful attack had come from. He could sense it, could sense her. There, just inside the ravine…
He stretched out his hands, and released the magic.
It leaped from his hands, the colors melding into blinding white light that illuminated the mountainside more powerfully than any lightning bolt from any summer thunderstorm that had ever scored its side. It struck the mouth of the ravine. The trees within burst into flame, exploding in great gouts of red-orange brilliance and black smoke. The mountain shook. Deep, booming cracks echoed across the hillside. And then, the ravine…closed. Its sides heaved and shuddered and fell apart into massive boulders that rained down into the burning forest, smothering the flames beneath tons of dirt and stone.
The earth shuddered, again and yet again…and then all was still.
The Autarch, breathing heavily, fell to his knees on the snow- and blood-covered rocks. It’s over, he thought. She’s gone. Fierce satisfaction swelled within him. I promised you, Lady Arilla. I promised you pain and fire. And I always keep my promises.
After a long moment, the Autarch climbed heavily to his feet. Without a backward glance at the sprawled bodies of his erstwhile bodyguards, he began trudging back to Starview. Perhaps he would come across one of the spooked horses of his slain escort. Perhaps not.
It did not matter.
The last threat to his power had been eliminated. He was young, he was powerful, he was the Autarch of Aygrima, and he had nothing to fear: not here, and not back in Tamita, the city where his throne awaited him.
With Arilla out of the way, no one remains who can threaten me. And once I return to Tamita, I will proclaim the Masking: and from that moment on, no one will ever threaten me again. I will not die like my father.
Holding that thought in his heart chest like a good-luck charm, the Autarch of Aygrima trudged southward.
I will not die!
Chapter 1: Tests
On the day she turned six years old, Mara held tight to her Daddy’s hand and looked doubtfully at the darkened doorway before her. “It’s all right,” her Daddy said, his voice deep and reassuring. She looked up at him and saw his blue eyes shining at her through the eyeholes in his Mask of burnished copper. The torches illuminating the staircase they had followed down from the surface into this strange underground hallway struck bright-red sparks from the diadem of rubies across his forehead and spirals of rubies on his cheeks, the unique insignia of the Master Maskmaker of the Autarchy of Aygrima. Through the mouth opening she could tell his lips were curved in a smile. “The First Test is nothing to be frightened of.”
“I’m not frightened,” Mara said. And she wasn’t. Well, not really. After all, she wasn’t little any more, she was six years old today, and she was with her Daddy. But the room she had to go into all by herself looked so awfully dark that she suddenly found herself reluctant to let go of her Daddy’s hand.
Instead, he let go of hers. “Go on,” he said. “Tester Tibor is waiting inside. Remember, I introduced him to you yesterday at home.”
She remembered. She’d liked Tester Tibor, a big round man with a bright yellow Mask. He’d given her sweets he’d bought in the market on the way to their house, and he’d made her laugh. He was nothing to be scared of, either. And she wasn’t scared.
I’m not scared!
All the same, her lower lip trembled a little as she walked forward on her own, leaving her Daddy behind, and stepped into the dark room.
Well, not completely dark. The door was open, after all. But it had no windows, and very little light made its way in from the torches in the stairway.
She could just make out the Tester, seated next to a small covered bowl made of black stone, set atop a pedestal so short that even a little girl like herself could look down at the bowl. She was glad she’d met Tester Tibor the day before. Otherwise she might have been frightened by his dark, shadowy bulk. But now she wasn’t.
I’m not afraid.
“Hello, Mara,” Tester Tibor said in the deep, kind voice she remembered. “Happy birthday!”
“Thank you,” she said, because her parents had taught her to always be polite.
“There’s nothing to be afraid of,” the Tester said.
“I’m not afraid,” she said, out loud this time.
“Good!” Tester Tibor leaned forward, resting his elbows on his knees. “You know how this works. I’ll lift the lid of the bowl, and you tell me what you see.”
She nodded again.
“Here we go!” Tester Tibor took hold of a small handle at its center and lifted the cover off the bowl.
Light filled the basin—light of every color she could name, and lots more she couldn’t: so many beautiful colors, all swirling and mingling, painting the walls, the floor, the ceiling, the Tester’s yellow Mask and robes and her own white dress in ever-shifting hues.
“It’s so pretty!” she breathed.
Tester Tibor chuckled. “It is, isn’t it?” he said. “And that’s it, my dear—you’ve passed the Test.”
He put the cover back on the black stone bowl. Mara gave a little “Oh!” of disappointment as the beautiful colors vanished.
The Tester stood and took her by the hand and led her out to where her Daddy waited in the dim hallway. “She’s Gifted,” he said. He looked down at Mara and smiled. “Not that I ever thought there was much doubt she would be.”
“Thank you, Tibor,” her Daddy said.
“My pleasure, Charlton. Tell the next child to come down, will you?”
Daddy nodded, and Tester Tibor went back into the darkened room.
“Was that magic, Daddy?” Mara asked as her father led her back up the stairs to the little room where three other children, two girls and a boy, awaited their turns with the Tester.
“It’s so beautiful!”
He looked down at her, blue eyes glittering like sapphires behind the copper sheen of his Mask. “Yes, it is. Almost as beautiful as you.”
“Does this mean I can be a Maskmaker like you when I grow up?”
“I hope so, Mara. I hope so.”
Together they walked out into the sunlit morning.
Two weeks before her eleventh birthday, Mara Holdfast sat on a padded bench in the tutorhall’s lecture room and heard about the Lady of Pain and Fire for the first time.
She was listening with just half an ear: the main topic of the lecture, after all, was the wonder and glory of the Autarch, and over four years of schooling she had, in between learning how to read, write, do simple sums, build a fire, cook a simple meal and sew, been told over and over (and over and over) how their magnificent leader had squashed the rebels who had murdered his father, instituted the Masks to ensure no one could ever rebel again, established the Watchers, who watched the Masks for the magical signs that the wearer might pose who threat, and blah blah blah perfect society blah blah blah practically a god blah blah blah.
But when Tutor Ancilla mentioned the Lady of Pain and Fire, she blinked and looked up from the Mask designs she’d been doodling on her slate. “Who?” she said.
Tutor Ancilla wore the plain white Mask of the unGifted, marked in black with the insignia of an open book on each cheek, symbol of the teaching profession. Her mouth, just visible, turned down into a frown and her eyes narrowed. “The Lady of Pain and Fire, Mara,” she said. “Did you not read today’s assignment?”
Mara bit her lip and looked down. “No, Tutor,” she said.
On her right, her friend Mayson, a skinny boy with shaggy blond hair, sniggered quietly. Tutor Ancilla’s gaze immediately shifted to him. “From your reaction, Mayson, I assume you did read it. Perhaps you would care to fill in Mara on what she obviously overlooked?”
Mayson’s snigger died. “No, Tutor Ancilla,” he said. “I…I mean, I read it, but I don’t…” His voice withered into silence in the heat of Ancilla’s tutorial glare.
“As I thought,” Ancilla said. Her gaze shifted to Mara’s left, where her best friend, Sala, sat quietly. “Sala? I know you did the reading.”
“Yes, Tutor,” Sala said demurely.
“Then please stand and tell the class what you learned.”
With an apologetic glance at Mara and Mayson, Sala stood, her bright-red hair, too thin to ever be entirely controlled by a ponytail, forming a wispy halo around her head. “In the aftermath of the Great Rebellion,” she said, clearly reciting (Mara exchanged a resigned glance with Mayson; they’d both long since gotten used to the annoying fact that Sala could memorize anything she read almost instantly), “our glorious Autarch faced a terrible trial: an evil sorceress called The Lady of Pain and Fire, who hated everything the Autarch had done to make the Autarchy such a safe and wonderful place. She used her terrible magical powers to destroy entire villages in the north, razing them to the ground and slaughtering everyone who lived in them, men, women, and children. The Autarch personally lead a force of Watchers to root her out of her stronghold in the foothills. He threw down a mountain on her head, and she was never seen again, for her dark sorcery was no match for our glorious Autarch’s mastery of the magic of purity and light.” Sala stopped. “Was that all right, Tutor?”
Tutor Ancilla gave Sala an indulgent smile, clearly visible even through her Mask. “More than all right, Sala. Thank you.”
Sala gave Mara another apologetic look and sat down. Mara resisted the urge to stick out her tongue.
“The Autarch’s defeat of the Lady of Pain and Fire occurred sixty years ago today,” Tutor Ancilla continued, “and that is why—”
The noontime gong shivered the lecture-hall air. Tutor Ancilla glanced through the open windows into the street, bright-lit by the autumn sun. “That is why class is over for the day. Enjoy your half-holiday, children, and I will see you tomorrow morning. Those of you who have not yet done so,” she gave a pointed look to Mara and Mayson, “should take time to finish reading Chapter Five of The Annals of the Autarch: From Triumph to Triumph. Dismissed.”
There were twenty-three children in the lecture hall. Within a minute, all of them were outside, scattering to the four winds. Sala, Mayson and Mara didn’t have to ask each other where they would go: they headed downhill toward the Outside Market.
“Tutor’s pet,” Mayson said to Sala, but without any real rancor, as they headed down the first flight of stairs that led from the fifth terrace of Fortress Hill to the fourth.
“If you’d just do the assignment….” Sala pointed out.
“I did,” Mara said. “Or at least I tried to. But…”
“But it’s boring!” Mayson complained. “We’ve heard it all before. The Autarch is wonderful. The Masks are wonderful. We live in a wonderful time. Isn’t it wonderful?” He made a face. “I can’t wait until the second Testing,” he said. “Then we can start learning real stuff—how to use magic.”
Mara shot him a frowning look; he caught it, blinked, and suddenly blushed. “Sorry, Sala, I didn’t mean…’
Sala giggled. “You may have more magic than I do, but I’ve clearly got more brains.”
To Mara’s relief, Mayson just laughed at that. Mara grinned, glad her two friends hadn’t argued…this time. Sometimes they went at it like cats and dogs, with her caught in the middle.
“What do you want to do when you grow up?” Mara said. “You’re lucky. At least you’ll have a choice. Once Mayson and I have the second Testing and find out what kind of magic we can see and use…”
“I think I’d like to be a glassblower,” Sala said.
“Stand aside, please,” said a gruff voice behind them, making Mara jump. She turned to see a baker descending the steps with a huge tray laden with bread, his beige Mask marked on each cheek with stylized loaves. The three children squeezed to one side. Mayson mimed reaching out and snatching one of the delectable-smelling loaves from the tray as the baker passed, but Sala slapped his hand. He stuck out her tongue at her.
With the baker safely past, they continued their descent. “Why a glassblower?” Mara said.
“Glass is so beautiful,” Sala said, face alight. “And you can do a lot more than just make bowls with it. My mother and I were shopping in the Inside Market along Processional Boulevard last week and saw an amazing display in a shop…it looked like a garden, but everything was made of glass! Reds and greens, silvers and golds, it was so beautiful…”
“So boooo-tiful,” Mayson said, and now it was Sala’s turn to stick out her tongue.
“No need to ask you what you want to do when you grow up,” Sala said to Mara. “You’ve said so often enough. You want to be a Maskmaker like your father.”
“More than anything,” Mara said. “What could be better than being apprenticed to your father?”
“Not being apprenticed to your father?” Mayson said, an edge of…something…in his voice. Mara exchanged a guilty glance with Sala. Sala’s father was dead, but she was very close to her mother. Mara loved her parents and doted on her father and couldn’t imagine what it would have been like to grow up without them. But Mayson…Mayson seldom mentioned his parents. And more than one he’d come to school with a black eye or a sore shoulder. Mara thought she knew why, but she didn’t know how to talk to him about it.
“What do you want to be?” she said instead, though she already knew; he’d said so at least as often as she’d said she wanted to be a Maskmaker.
“A Watcher,” he said promptly.
As if on cue, a pair of Watchers crossed the street ahead of them at that moment: black-Masked, black-helmed, black-cloaked, wearing mail and heavy gloves and high, polished black boots. Their Masked faces turned toward the children for a moment, and as always, Mara found herself running down a quick mental checklist of her recent activities to make sure she hadn’t been up to anything that might get her in trouble. She hadn’t, but still, there was something about those blank, black Masks that sent a chill up her spine.
“Why?” Sala said in a whisper; she’d obviously had a similar reaction to Mara at the sight of the Watchers.
“They’re not scared of anybody,” Mayson said; and then, as if he’d said more than he’d intended to, said, “And neither am I,” but somehow, Mara knew that wasn’t true.
A month before she turned thirteen, Mara once more sat in the lecture hall. This time, though, she was alone with Tutor Ancilla, and the Tutor sat on the bench with her and talked quietly to her instead of lecturing. “In a month,” Tutor Ancilla said, “you will turn thirteen years old. And that means…?”
“…my second Testing,” Mara said dutifully. It was hardly a surprise: she’d known about it for years. Could any Gifted twelve-year-old not know about her second Testing? she wondered. It seemed unlikely.
“Your second Testing,” the Tutor said, nodding. “In preparation for which, I am required to ensure that you understand what the Testing is all about. So…” She tilted her head to one side, her bright brown eyes locked on Mara. “Tell me.”
They’d learned little enough about magic in their lessons, but what they had learned, she knew off by heart. “The Gift of magic is a rare and wonderful thing,” she said. “Only one in five hundred people have any measure of the Gift, so those who have it must serve the Autarch in whatever fashion their Gift best suits them for and the Autarch sees fit. Because of that, all children are Tested at age six. If they can see magic, then they are Tested again at age thirteen to see what kind of magic they can see, and how strongly they can perceive it.”
“Very good,” the Tutor said. “Apparently you do pay attention once in a while.”
Mara shot the Tutor a startled glance. Was Ancilla actually making a joke? If so, the straight line of her lips behind the mouth hole of her Mask did not betray it.
“What is the difference between the First and Second Test?” Tutor Ancilla continued.
“At age six, Gifted children can see all colors of magic,” Mara said. “But by age thirteen, their Gift has settled and they can see only one or, rarely, two—and even if they can see two, one is always strongest.”
“And the color of magic seen reveals what?” Tutor Ancilla said.
“What kind of magic the Gifted child will be able to use,” Mara said.
“What are some of the colors of magic, and what do they mean?”
Mara hesitated. “You only taught us a few, Tutor…”
“Oddly enough, I am aware of that,” said Tutor Ancilla. “Only a few colors are permitted to be known. But tell me the few that you know.”
“The Gift of Healing presents itself as blue,” Mara said. “The Gift of Engineering—”
“Which is?” Tutor Ancilla interrupted.
“The ability use magic to move and shape objects?”
Ancilla nodded. “Correct. Continue.”
“The Gift of Engineering presents itself as blood-red.”
“The Gift of Enchantment—the Gift of imbuing inanimate objects with magical traits—” (Mara was rather proud of herself for remembering the word “imbuing”) “—the Gift of the Maskmakers—reveals itself as a coppery red-gold color.” She stopped. “That’s all you told us, Tutor.”
“Only the Autarch and members of the Circle know them all,” the Tutor said. “As it should be.”
Mara said nothing. The list of things only the Autarch and his Circle of advisors and ministers were permitted to know was a long one and not something it was wise to ask too many questions about: Tutor Ancilla had made that clear long since.
“It sounds like you are well-prepared for your Second Testing,” said Tutor Ancilla. “Once the Tester knows what color of magic you see, you will be pre-apprenticed to a Master of that particular Gift. Although you will continue to attend thrice-weekly classes with me—” Mara saw her lips tighten in what she thought might be a smile “—which I am sure is a great joy to you, you will also begin spending several hours a week with you assigned Master. He or she will teach you what it seems good to him or her to teach you about the use of that Gift, although of course you are absolutely forbidden from using magic or even seeing magic until you are Masked, on your fifteenth birthday. Once that occurs, you will become a full apprentice and will be taught the full use of your Gift in the service of the Autarch.”
“Very well. You are dismissed.”
Mara went out into the bright sunshine and stood there, blinking. She looked right, further up Fortress Hill: up there, on the last terrace below the golden walls of the Palace itself, stood her house, though she could not see its bright green tile roof from this angle. I should go home, she thought. It’s almost suppertime.
But instead, she turned and headed down Fortress Hill, toward the city wall. She knew Mayson had had his own conversation with Tutor Ancilla just before she had: he turned thirteen the very next day. And there was no way Mayson would have gone home right away: not to his father. Which meant…
Sure enough, she found him at their favorite spot atop the wall, seated, his bare feet dangling into space. She plopped down beside him and hung her own feet over the edge, unconcerned about the fifty-foot drop to the cobblestones of the Outer Market below. “Where’s Sala?” she said.
“Dunno,” he said. “’Course, she didn’t have to have a little chat with Ancilla about Second Testing. Lucky.”
Mara shot him a startled look. “Don’t you want to be Gifted?”
“Only if I can be a Watcher,” Mayson said. He made a face. “But I don’t even know what color of magic I need to see to be a Watcher. What if I end up a Healer? Poking sick people. Old sick people.” He shuddered. “Naked old sick people. Yuck!”
Mara laughed. Mayson shot her a look. “Aren’t you worried about what color you might see?”
“My Daddy says the Gift of Enchantment runs very strongly in our family,” she said. “His grandfather was a Maskmaker—one of the first Maskmakers, right after the Autarch ordered everyone to be Masked—and his father was a Maskmaker, and he’s the Master Maskmaker. I’m sure I’m going to be a Maskmaker, too.”
“You can’t be sure,” Mayson said.
“I’m sure,” Mara said stoutly, and told the butterflies in her stomach to settled down and believe her…but they didn’t pay attention.
A sudden blast of trumpets off to their right startled Mara. She gripped the edge of the wall and leaned out a little. “It’s the Autarch!” she said in amazement.
“What’s he doing in the Outside Market?” Mayson wondered.
“Beats me,” Mara said, but there could be no mistake: no one else had an entourage like the Autarch, not even the members of the Circle. To begin with, there was the horse: Keltan, the famed snow-white stallion the Autarch had ridden since he was a boy (which meant Keltan was either amazingly long-lived or the fourth or fifth of his name, Mara thought). Scarlet tack bedecked Keltan: gold bedecked his rider. A golden cape hung from the Autarch’s gold-armored shoulders and draped Keltan’s hindquarters; the Autarch’s golden breastplate glittered with rubies; golden gauntlets encased his hands and golden greaves protected his legs. Even his boots shone gold in the late-afternoon sun.
A jewel-encrusted cap of gold hid his hair—or probably lack of it, Mara thought, mouth quirking; for all his glory, the Autarch was at least eighty—and then, of course, there was his Mask, the only one in all Aygrima permitted to be made of gold. From her perch high above Mara could see very little of it, but she knew what it looked like: stern, handsome, given an unearthly sparkle by a dusting of tiny diamonds.
It was, truth to be told, a little gaudy, and Mara thought, as she usually did, that her father could make one far better, should the Autarch ever need a replacement.
The Autarch and his entourage passed through the Outside Market like a moving seam in the patchwork quilt of the vendors’ brightly colored awnings. The cream, white, gray and beige Masks of the ordinary citizens, crowded together on either side of the main boulevard to make way for the Autarch, moved in unison to watch him pass. Here and there a Mask of red or green or blue stood out, marking their owners as Gifted.
What color will mine be? Mara thought uneasily, and pushed the thought away. Copper, like Daddy’s. I’m sure of it.
“Look at those country yokels,” Mayson said scornfully. “They don’t know what to do with themselves.”
Mara had to agree, grinning to herself as she watched the vendors scuttle out of the way of the approaching ruler. She could easily pick the country women out of the Masked crowds below by their simple, unadorned hair. No city woman would be seen in public without an elaborate headpiece, feathered and silvered, gilded or jeweled. But country women… If they wear a headscarf above their Masks they think they’re a popinjay
Mara herself was a city girl through and through, born and raised in Tamita, capital city…only city…of Aygrima. She couldn’t imagine living in the rolling green countryside, dotted with cattle and sheep and sleepy little towns, which stretched to her left, west, all the way to the distant western ocean and its tiny fishing villages. She thought it would be even worse to live in one of the lumber towns scattered through the forested hills to the east, or one of the distant mining towns in the lower ranges of the snow-capped, impassible peaks that formed Aygrima’s eastern border and, curving west, the northern one. As for the flat prairie to the south, mile after mile of wheat and barley and oats, eventually giving way to orchards and plantations and finally the salt marshes of the southern shore…she shuddered at the thought, even though her own mother had grown up in the south. What is there to do out there? she wondered. Play with cows? Dig holes?
She glanced over her shoulder into Tamita, climbing in terraced ranks up Fortress Hill. From their perch she had a straight view up Maskmakers’ Way to the red roof of the tutorhall she had just left, the emerald-like gleam of their own home’s tiles, the golden dome of the Maskery, where in two years’ time she would don her Mask…and, looming over all, the Autarch’s Palace itself, a vast, many-towered pile of yellow stone, aflutter with blue pennants from which the sun struck occasional golden sparks as it glinted off the golden emblem of the Autarch.
“Here come the Child Guard!” Mayson said, and she looked down at the Market again. “Lucky brats!”
There they were, a dozen slim and silent youths in the wake of the Autarch, dressed in identical white robes, wearing identical silver Masks, riding identical white mares, the six girls side-saddle, the boys astride. Membership in the Child Guard, instituted just five years earlier, was the greatest honor the Autarch could bestow on a young Gifted. The youths, from across the Autarchy, spent their days in close company with the Autarch himself, learning to use their magic in his service. When they turned twenty-one, they took their place in the court. Someday, it was said, some of them might join to the ranks of the Circle.
The whole village celebrated when a country youth became a Child Guard, Mara had heard. It offered hope to even the lowest commoners that one day a child of theirs might ascend to the nobility. But looking down at those silent white-robed, silver-Masked youths, she shivered. Might as well be in prison!
Most of the Child Guard kept their Masks turned resolutely toward the Autarch at their lead; but one, a boy riding in the last rank, looked about him as he rode. His gaze travelled up the city wall…and stopped on Mara and Mayson, sitting high above.
Mara stared boldly back. What must his life be like? she wondered. Always in the presence of the Autarch Himself, living in the Palace…
She also wondered what he saw when he looked up at them. And then she suddenly remembered she was wearing a short tunic and he was looking up at them, and felt herself blushing. She squeezed her knees together.
“What’s he staring at?” Mayson said, and Mara blushed harder but said nothing, not wanting to put any ideas into his head.
The silver-Masked boy’s gaze finally slid away as the twelve silent youths rode on in the wake of the Autarch. Behind them came six Watchers of the Sun Guard, the elite force that guarded the Autarch day and night.
“Look at those!” Mayson said, voice tinged with admiration.
He seemed to find the Sun Guard fascinating. Mara found them frightening—though less frightening than regular Watchers, she supposed. Most Watchers wore all black: black Masks, black armor, black surcoats, black capes. But although the Sun Guards’ Masks were as black as any other Watchers’, their helmets, armor and cloaks were gold like the Autarch’s, and their surcoats white as snow. Blue-and-white banners fluttered from the shining silver tips of their long black lances.
A respectful distance behind the last pair of Sun Guards, the rigid lines of the crowds dissolved into the ordinary bustle of the marketplace. Mara, glancing left, saw the Autarch’s procession reach the main boulevard of the Outside Market and turn toward the Market Gate.
She shook off her momentary self-consciousness. It was getting late. “Guess I’d better head home,” she said. “Good luck tomorrow.”
“Thanks,” Mayson said. His eyes were still on the receding figures of the Sun Guards. “But I’m sure I’ll get what I want.”
Mara said nothing. Mayson wanted to be a Watcher. If he does get what he wants….how will we still be friends?
“’Bye,” she said, gathered her feet up under her, and headed for the guard tower whose stairs would take her back down to ground level, and the road home.
A month later, on her thirteenth birthday, Mara once more stood in the darkened hallway outside the Testing chamber, holding her Daddy’s hand; but this time she held it, she told herself, only because she loved holding it, loved the feel of his calloused fingers in her, loved being close to him. It had nothing to do with being afraid. After all, this time she knew what she would see.
Well, sort of. She knew she would see magic. But…
“What if I don’t see the right color?” she said. She looked up at her father’s Masked face. She didn’t have to look up as far as she had when she was six, but far enough: her father was very tall, so tall he was always easy to pick out in a crowd, even from behind, while she was still rather short for her age. “What if I don’t see the red-gold color I’m supposed to see?”
“There’s no ‘supposed to’ about it,” Daddy said. His lips curved in a smile. Wearing the ruby-studded copper-colored Mask and his favorite rust-red hat, he looked the same as he always had, although she knew well that the Mask hid a few more wrinkles and the hat a lot more gray hair than the last time he had brought her to the Testing chamber. “You’ll see what you see. There’s nothing you can do to change it.” He squeezed her hand. “But if it makes you feel better, both Tester Tibor and I feel sure you’ll see red-gold, the color of Enchantment. Some skills tend to run in families, and Enchantment is one of them. And as you know, both your great-grandfather and grandfather were Maskmakers, too. But whatever color you see, the Autarch…” For some reason he paused. “The Autarch,” he finished, his voice a little rough, “will still find use for you.”
That wasn’t a comforting thought. Mara hadn’t seen Mayson again since the day a month ago that they had sat together on the wall, watching the Autarch pass beneath them. Whatever it was that the Testers looked for in Watchers, Mayson must have had it: the very day he had been Tested, he had (Mara had heard second-hand) moved out of his parents’ house, accompanied by much shouting and cursing from his father, and climbed up the hill to the Palace and the barracks of the Watchers which nestled inside its outer wall. Though he would not receive his black Mask for another two years, his training had already begun.
The Autarch had found a use for him, and Mara wondered if she’d ever see him again…and what would happen to her if she saw a different color of magic than the one that would allow her to fulfill her dream of being her father’s apprentice.
The door to the Testing Chamber swung open, and Tester Tibor stepped out, lips curled in a smile behind the mouth opening of his yellow Mask. “Come in, Mara, come in.”
Mara let go of her father’s hand and stepped into the darkened room. Everything was just as she remembered, except the pedestal on which the bowl of magic rested seemed much shorter.
“Now,” said Tester Tibor. “Ready?”
The Tester lifted the lid of the basin.
Mara stared into it, heart beating fast, and her breath caught in her throat.
“Which color is strongest?” Tester Tibor said.
Mara didn’t know how to answer. She’d been frightened she wouldn’t see the red-gold of Enchantment, the color that would mean she could be a Maskmaker. She’d worried that her Gift would have faded, as they sometimes did, so that although she might be able to see Magic, she wouldn’t be able to make much use of it: that was, after all, what had happened to her mother, whose Mask of pale blue proclaimed her to be Gifted with Healing, but whose Gift was so weak she could do nothing with it and thus had not been called upon to use it in the service of the Autarch.
What had never occurred to her, because she had never heard of such a thing, was that she would see exactly what she had seen as a six-year-old: the basin filled with seething, swirling colors, every color of the rainbow and every combination between, breathtakingly beautiful…but wrong. At thirteen, she was only supposed to be able to see one color, maybe two. Is something wrong with me?
“Go on,” the Tester said. “You can tell me.”
Mara swallowed. She thought her heart might burst right out of her chest, it was pounding so hard. She knew she should tell Tester Tibor the truth…but what would that mean to her dream of being her father’s apprentice?
Faced with the rainbow maelstrom of colors, she thought back to what her father had said…and lied. “Red,” she said. “Well, more like an orangey red. Red-gold, I guess you’d call it?” It’s not a total lie, she thought. I can see those colors.
Just a lot of others, too.
“Excellent,” the Masker repeated, making a mark in a small leather-bound notebook. “And as I expected. These things usually run true.”
“My father is hoping…I can be apprenticed to him,” Mara said. Her heart was pounding. He’s going to figure out I’m lying. He’s going to find out…
“Pre-apprenticed, certainly,” Tester Tibor said. “Of course, it may still be that you do not have the Gift in strong enough measure…something which cannot be determined until you are Masked and allowed to start using magic yourself…but you answered with such confidence, I think that’s unlikely.” He gave her a big smile, teeth flashing behind his Mask. “Congratulations.”
Mara managed a small smile, though she thought she might be sick. She turned and went out to join her father, waiting in the hallway.
“A happy result all around, Charlton,” Tester Tibor said to him. “You have a new apprentice!”
Her father whooped and gathered Mara up in a huge bear-hug. Mara hugged him back, but inside her mind wailed, What’s wrong with me?
It wasn’t too late. She could still tell the Tester the truth, tell her father the truth. She knew that was what she should do. But then she thought of the Autarch, trailed by the silent Child Guard, the Autarch who could snatch her away from her father tomorrow if it would suit his purposes, and she said nothing.
“Let’s go home and tell your mother,” her father said, and she nodded mutely, took his hand, and left the Place of Testing.
[…] the first book in a new series, will be released on November 5 (hardcover, ebook). The prologue and first chapter can be read on the author’s […]