City of Masks
Genre: YA Urban Fantasy
Status: Seeking publication
Weathered hands clamped down over the convulsing body.
The dark figures around the table made low sounds and leaned back, watching in the flickering glimmer of candlelight.
Girsh tightened his hold over the writhing muscles and, with a buckling of strength, fell over the table the patient lied upon. He shook, the white-barked wooden amulets rattling off his neck and eyes rolling closed.
Darkness jerked through his mind like ink ejaculating into clear water. It built in him the way holding breath does, and his face twisted in pain as he rode the table that clacked against its rickety legs on the floor. The patient’s limbs flailed against his weight.
Girsh gasped, rearing off the body and stumbling back.
His hand covered his grey-bearded mouth, and he doubled over. The bitter taste of the insomnia dragged through his veins like replacing his blood with wolf venom. His other hand clutched the smooth white amulets, and the candlelight shimmered purple into the black juma-fur coat he wore, the bristles soft and bearish. His square jaw trembled as he dug his short, ragged nails harder into his whiskers and coughed.
Feeling a wet, silky texture on his skin, he lowered his palm, now covered in blood that creased too between his teeth and stung his tongue. Breath sank out of him, relieving his muscles. The pain began to slip out with that one expelling of blood.
A middle-aged woman with catlike, reflective green eyes and dark blonde hair pulled tightly back at her shoulders stepped in front of the table, between Girsh and the patient, who continued to shake and flop on the surface. She lifted a hand and the comrade behind her reached to the wall and pulled down a switch.
The candles – electric – dimmed to almost extinguishment, little specks of orange balancing on the tips of wires inside the glass bulbs.
“Did you taste it?” She held Girsh in her metallic gaze. The two other men stood behind her in the shadow of the cellar and followed her stare, tethering the maulke with the pressure of their doubt.
Girsh breathed roughly, mouth open, and the woman dropped her eyes for just a second to the redness lining his teeth.
“It touches him,” confirmed Girsh. His voice was deep and steeped with compassion.
“Will Azul listen to his ordained maulke and bid him to wake?”
“By his grace it did not possess me at contact.” Girsh inclined his chin.
Dark silence condensed the air between them. Resentment hardened the woman’s eyes, and she pulled her brown leather capelet around her shoulder, flashing the Growski family crest sewn into it like a threat.
“My brother is the third the Sleep has come to fell. Do you intend to leave him to oblivion?”
“I will join him in oblivion if it may release him.” Girsh passed his sapphire-blue gaze over to the table again, where the man writhed in the permanent nightmare, drool running down his lips. “The Sleep doesn’t want the woken. I can taste what he feels but I cannot join his consciousness.”
Frigid air blew in through the seams of the door behind him, snowflakes hissing in like sparks of white fire.
“You cannot wake him?” Desperation staggered into the woman’s voice. When tears filled her iridescent eyes they shone so brilliantly they could have been mined from the cellar dimness.
Girsh hung his head, trying to mumble prayer but finding his lips unable, or unwilling, to move. The pain and murk that had jetted through him at the touch of the ill man was merely a glimpse of what engulfed the victim.
Girsh closed his eyes hard and his aged voice broke.
The woman pushed past him and thumped hard for the door.
“Then I will find a priest of another ordinance who can.”
The plastic bag fell to the ground and the officer shoved the boy against the wall.
“Think that hurts?” The officer spoke around a knife in his teeth and jingled out a pair of handcuffs. Flurries swirled around them behind the old stone schoolhouse. The grass was grey underfoot, and mountains pierced the cloudy sky like plates of glass and ice around them.
“It does,” the boy snarled. No older than thirteen, his skin was smooth and his nose flat – but covered in smudges of dirt. A snow hat fell down over his ears and black hair and his clothes were dark and tattered.
With a jerk the cuffs latched onto him. “You’re going long away this time, boy. I’m sick of indigenous swine like you bringing that filth into –”
The officer jumped back when a forearm pounded onto the wall above the boy’s head. The soft, inner skin was turned to him, four stripes of silver tape lining it like tattoos with a bordering iridescence of red. Immediately, the officer stepped back and rolled his eyes.
“Again, Sal?” He groaned. “Begone, maulke. I’m locking this one up.”
Salena – though none must ever know her as that – stepped closer to the boy, bunching grey sleeve held up by her other hand. Her fist was clenched hard, trying to produce veins that would make her appear male. Her sandy hair was cropped short like a man’s with touches of white, and green-and-brown freckled eyes recalled the singeing warmth of alcoholic cider.
“He is free,” she said in a purposefully lowered, roughened voice. “Strip a tape and be done.”
Anger flushed and twisted the officer’s rosy, round face. “Azul would curse him just as fast...” he growled, but yanked one of the silver tapes off Sal’s inner forearm. She winced. Rubbing her sore skin, she pulled back her arm, which released the magick sealant of the tape only with the authority endowed onto the officer’s fingers on the day he was initiated.
“You should choose your pardons more wisely.” The officer bent to retrieve the plastic bag, and Salena and the boy – white skin next to the tan hue of the Yweni mountain’s natives – exchanged looks. Up to the weak grey light the officer held the bag, and he glared at the black powder inside.
“What offer was worth risking thirteen months in prison?” said the officer.
“It’s gunpowder,” snapped the boy. “It’ll sell well anywhere.” He eyed the older man with gaining suspicion, and the officer folded the bag and stuffed in his pocket. He shooed them away.
“Get out of here.”
Salena enclosed the boy in her arm and led him off the stone wall as the officer waddled over the slush to the busy dirt street. She thought she caught him pull out a wallet, count bills…
“He’s just going to sell it himself you know,” mumbled the boy, whose feet fumbled at Salena’s speed. They were walking west, and so the ground felt slipperier, gravity sucking them into the horizon.
“I know.” Salena cleared her throat to continue sounding husky. “But what were you doing with something that dangerous? What need of you for money that badly?”
“I wasn’t trying to sell it.” The boy jerked his head up to Salena indignantly. “I was trying to –”
“JAYSEN!” A woman’s yell halted them both.
The boy moaned and dropped his head. His mother tromped forward with effort – coming at them, east, where gravity pushed against oncomers like a windstorm.
“Better go.” Salena pushed him forward towards his mother.
“See him?” His mother, holding in one arm bolts of richer, more shimmering fabric than anything she and her son wore, shook a ruler at Salena. “Why can’t you hope to be one of them? A good maulke, saving little rats like you from a year in the stocks.”
“I’m not going to be a maulke,” said Jaysen. “I’m joining the Axis Company and becoming an explorer like Aron Markley.”
The ruler swatted down on him at those words, and his mother shrieked about idolizing criminals.
More frigid wind blew over Salena’s robes and she shivered, turning towards it. It rushed from the west, high up the winding dirt street and into the rocky crops of mountains where the pine and birch wood of Growski Hall towered over the little village. Like all other buildings, it was built on a severe tilt, leaning on stilts to the west to counterbalance the tip of gravity this far at the end of the earth. Rails and ridges in the path were posted all up the trail, and those walking near it were hunched much further forward, clutching themselves and stumbling.
A bell tolled and echoed with the wind. Salena closed her eyes in pain for just a moment and then walked towards it.
Girsh had failed to cure Lord Growski.
They would hang him.
She choked for breath after the trek and buckled the rope belt at the metal chair built directly into the ground. Though level, it felt like a steep slope, as if the edge of the world was folding upon her like closing of a book. Pressure cracks slithered all along the rock in the mountain face. The five-story Growski Hall shadowed Salena from the afternoon rays, but light spilled over the crest of the cliff behind her and into the rolling orange-and-green valleys below. The other end of Yirn seemed almost visible. Distant roads flashed sun off tiny speeding cars. Between far shifts of mist, she thought she could make out the wealthy city of Solstice, rising in the center, where gravity was tame, where air was easily breathed…
Others – townspeople, maulkes, and nobles – clasped their seats and faced the wooden platform that was the hanging stage. Those of the town wore their usual stone-faced frowns, not bothering to brush the icy moisture from their red noses and damp clothes. Arms were crossed, apathetic – or even approving – of the execution they were about the witness.
The maulkes, all men, watched the empty stage with sad, gentle eyes and grey vestments, holding crooked staffs in their hands. Some of their toes were blackened with frostbite at their sandals. Salena made sure to sit aside from them, for if they caught the merest scent of her sex, she would be burned.
Bishop Bruner, a brown-skinned, middle-aged man with the symbol of Azul on the back of his robes – the crook and a birch branch crossing it diagonally – had his heels out in front of him and bobbed with relaxed, even breaths. A silver stud was pierced in the middle of his lower lip.
The Growskis were the only ones sitting towards the audience, and so many belts fastened them to their seats that they looked like the prisoners. Jarl Growski, nearly eighty years old, was so white he was nearly transparent. The crown tilted over his wiry hair long ago lost its gold plating and showed only the cheap steel undercoat tarnished with spots of beige. His eyes were droopy and dead, staring into what might have been the sunset with his mouth hung open. His two other sons had the hollow blackness of improper mana-use under their eyes and wild, curly orange hair. Two seats were empty. One for their eldest, most respected brother, who’d fallen to insomnius three days prior. And one for their only sister, now mounting the stage. A harness was attached to her chest from a post behind the gallows to keep her from tumbling into the audience.
Tears almost seared the perimeter of Salena’s eyes, but Girsh would have scolded her,
If you wish to follow Azul, you must not be so in love with life as to deny death.
She supposed death called for him today.
A staff head hit the ground next to her and pebbles rolled as a body slid back with the force of the horizontal gravity.
Salena ripped off the belt buckle and turned to grasp the staff of the man who had fallen.
Her eyes popped wide.
Girsh laid on his stomach, holding hard to the crooked staff and trying to climb up beneath the weight of his thick juma-fur coat.
“Help me, Salena…”
His voice was so shaken that he’d forgotten to disguise her feminine name.
“Shh, rabboni…” she said, and grabbed a handful of his coat and hauled him up. He limped with her into a chair and laid back his head as she fastened the belt for him.
“You cured the Growski’s Sleep?!” she said. “Then who is being hanged?”
“I did not,” breathed Girsh. The redness of blood still lined between his teeth as it always did and sweat dripped across his face like bullets of rain in a rushing subway. Salena’s eyes searched him with apprehensive confusion.
“Bishop Bruner has taken my place.”
Sure enough, after a speech from Lady Growski about the maulke’s failure to cure the insomnius epidemic and their disputed validity, Bishop Bruner rose, leaned forward, and used his staff to climb against gravity and mount the stage.
“Fifteen different ordinances on this face of Yirn and all we can agree upon is a flat earth,” said Girsh.
“Fifteen?” said Salena. “I thought there were seven?”
“Seven that matter…” Girsh’s guilt-ridden gaze did not leave the platform as Lady Gorwski secured the noose around Bishop Bruner’s neck and removed the staff from his strong hand. His feet were placed firmly against a vertical board of wood so that he appeared to be laying down comfortably on the stage.
“Any last words to your probable false god?” said Lady Growski.
Bishop Bruner took Lady Growski’s hand and laid his lips over it, closing his eyes. “Azul al mein.”
She scoffed and kicked the wooden board away.
Bishop Bruner jutted forward and gurgled. His feet and body rose off the floor and towards the audience.
The rope creaked and swayed him side to side, flat in the air, like a gruesome banner.
A horizontal hanging.
The maulkes cringed and turned away. The villagers watched with stolid, shifting jaws. One of the younger Growski brothers yawned.
“Good riddance,” Lady Growski declared. “And may the same fate be met to every maulke claiming to heal for an all-powerful god.”
She used the tether at her harness to heave herself off the stage and to her family members. Together, the hobbled back onto the slanted deck of their mansion where movement was easier.
Salena jumped as Girsh’s calloused fingertips touched the sensitive spot beneath her chin. She turned to him.
“With that, your life is in jeopardy,” he said.
His voice lowered.
“Bishop Bruner was good to you. If I am not elected his replacement, prepare to be discovered.”
Salena shivered as the maulkes shifted to glare at Girsh, half grieved, half bitter. Her breath stumbled.
“What will we do?” she said.
Girsh gripped her wrist hard. His eyes did not leave his fellow clergymen.
“You will act like a man.”