rosemary edghill: Vengeance of Masks

The Vengeance of Masks


The Vengeance of Masks [?]
Full Edition
by Rosemary Edghill
Betancourt & Company (May 2003)
ISBN: 1-587-15115-4

Chapter 1: The Court of Masks, 28 Years Ago

Childeric, Child of Night, who had been born Emperor of the Eidoloni, who would be both the last emperor of the Starlight Princes and their doom, was eight years old on the day that he realized he was going to die.

Until that moment, life at the Court of Masks had been amusing to a boy with every license and very little freedom.  Childeric went where he wished, with his ceremonial bodyguard hurrying reproachfully behind, and no one contradicted him ‑‑ for was not Childeric the son of Auberic who had last sat upon the Mask Throne ‑‑ and would not Childeric be Masked in his turn?

He would, thought Childeric smugly.  When he was old he would marry Cyannice, and send away Dormaoth his father's brother who ruled for him now, and he would seat himself upon the Throne of Masks and wear the Mindmask, and rule over the Eidolon Empire and take tribute and slaves from all the kingdoms where the Eidolon legions brought peace.  And possibly he would go to war himself, and wear gold and silver armor and ride a black destrier whose saddle would be hung with crystal bells. With lance and spear and bow he would bring eternal peace to any number of the demi‑human upstarts who claimed sovereignty in the face of the Eidolon Empire.

But though the young Emperor-elect dreamed of war, there were no swordmasters in his household. He had tutors and dancing masters who tried unsuccessfully to school him in the elaborate dance of court protocol that he would someday lead, courtiers and painters and musicians and poets to celebrate his Mindmasked ancestors and his own future deeds, jewelers who brought the finest of their craft to adorn him and teach him the understanding of beauty, but there was no one to teach him the arts of war.  The Child of Night, Eidolon Emperor‑to‑be, possessed no hansard vadelet to teach him the way of weapons, to greet him on his first day of schooling in the arena in the traditional fashion:  "Come, swordbride; come and learn the pleasures of the dance!" 

The Child of Night had guards.  He had no need of weaponlore.

On this day of days, preparation for the celebration of the Emperor's Birthday occupied the entire Court, and Childeric had awakened before his servants and slipped away.  Now his entire household was searching for him, and Childeric lay on his belly peering out through the ornamental latticework of the musician's gallery at the Court of Judgment in the Court of Masks, where all his household ‑- slaves, servants, companions, tutors ‑- would never think to look for him.

The floor of the Great Court was checkered in tiles of amber and ivory in a mathematically intricate pattern.  Even bare feet wore away such soft stuff in time; there were an artisan and his apprentice crouched on the floor before the throne, levering up one such tile to replace it with another and carefully polish it into conformity with its fellows before the chamber should be needed for ceremony.

Childeric watched from his hiding place, familiar to indifference with the extravagant splendor of his Court and especially this chamber ‑‑ the jewels and carvings, the walls of milky opal, the vaulting roof enameled with stars and gods and the central skylight of lacquered crystal and semi‑precious stone that depicted Malvisage the Suffering Servant, chained in service to the Mask Court. 

In another corner of the room, a demi‑human slave girl, her long black hair hanging down her naked back, poured sweet resins into a tall brazier of bronze and silver.  Gossamer veils of smoke began to spill heavily forth, veiling her face and spicing her naked flesh.

Childeric looked away.  There were no mysteries there.  He had servants and companions to dispel his every curiosity about the production of new slaves ‑‑ even to show him, if requested, the unenviable secrets he was due to embrace on his wedding eve. No, the only thing of interest in the room ‑- the reason that Childeric had chosen this hiding place ‑- was the Mask Throne itself.

It brooded over its surroundings like a baleful manticore, the red pall draped over its back to conceal the Mindmask beneath as brilliantly scarlet as a freshly-harvested human heart. It was known that the Throne was no throne, that instead a demon ‑- perhaps even Malvisage Itself ‑- had been ensorcelled to this shape for the convenience of the Eidoloni and would suck out the brain of any unworthy soul brash enough to attempt to put himself into the place reserved for the Eidolon Emperor alone.

And at the very least it was the highest of high treason for any lesser prince even to touch the Mask Throne, let alone remove the covering and expose the Mindmask beneath. Only the Emperor could wear the Mindmask. Only the Masking made a prince of Tacir's line truly Emperor. Childeric himself ‑- son of Auberic, son of Taceric, who could trace his descent all the way back to Tacir and Tacir-lat ‑- was forbidden to sit upon the throne until he was a man grown lest the demon in the Mindmask become angry and lash out against him before he was strong enough to subdue it, and his Masking was still many years in the future.

Bored with watching both the artisans and the slave girl, and unable to maintain a great deal of interest in something he did not quite dare to touch, Childeric was glad to be diverted by the arrival of new subjects for his investigation. The arrivals were excellent distractions; the Regent Prince himself and Bastindor, commander of the Immortals.

Prince Dormaoth was tall and broad‑shouldered, such a man as Childeric planned to be.  His hair had darkened long ago, as Childeric's would in time, from the silver‑white of Eidoloni childhood to a dark smoke mane, a suitable backdrop for the pearl and opal coronet of regency that framed his harsh features.  Dormaoth had been a warlord, captain of the Empire's own Scarlet Legion, before his brother and sister's death had forced him into regency for the infant prince and child queen of their marriage.  He had hand‑picked his successor, Bastindor, who stood conferring with him now, both men oblivious to their secret audience.

"By the Sufferer Itself‑‑" Dormaoth said.

Childeric writhed in secret glee. Bastindor was the captain of his guard: he and Dormaoth were undoubtedly looking everywhere for Childeric ‑- seeking him and unable to find him.  He wriggled forward on the narrow balcony, trying to overhear their conversation, but the acoustics of the Great Court were such that the musician's gallery could be heard, not hear: their voices were muted and he must content himself with spying on their actions.

The two Eidoloni stepped to the dais before the Mask Throne.  Bastindor sent the ambermasons from the room with a sweeping gesture, and the slave girl prudently followed, her basket beneath her arm. The brazier she had filled with spiced resins spilled slow smoke over its golden lip onto marquetry of amber and ivory, onto scented silk hangings stitched with pearls, onto all the plunder of a rich and secure empire.

"A niece is as good as a sister, eh?" 

Some trick of the stones brought Bastindor's words clearly to an uncomprehending Childeric.  From his hiding place in the musician's gallery the Emperor-elect heard Dormaoth's answering laughter, and then the hammer-blow realization of his certain doom came, image by image.

Dormaoth seated himself on the Mask Throne, leaned his head back against the veiled Mindmask, and took Bastindor's hand.  Bastindor seated himself on the Regent's Chair and smiled at the uncle‑traitor, and the cold poison of certainty was heavy in Childeric's vitals.

Childeric's world reeled, then reshaped itself around this betrayal. No Eidoloni save the rightful Emperor would dare to sit upon the Mask Throne ‑- yet Prince Dormaoth sat upon the Mask Throne with easy familiarity, as if he had done so many times.  And Bastindor sat with him at his ease, and showed no inclination to call for his guardsmen to suppress Dormaoth's heresy.

Childeric jammed his fist into his mouth and bit down hard, stifling the groan of cheated fury that might otherwise betray his presence in the musician's gallery.  Even a child of eight who had been raised in the Court of Masks knew that anyone who saw Dormaoth as he was now would see nothing thereafter. 

Blood trickled down Childeric's hand and mingled with his tears.  No matter how well he concealed himself this day, he understood that his days were meant to be brief, if Dormaoth meant to claim the Mask Throne.  Even a child knew that when the Regent moved to take the Mask Throne and the Eidolon Empire for his own, Childeric, Emperor-elect, would be long-dead.


His retinue remarked the boy‑emperor's feverish low spirits when they discovered him a few moments later wandering through one of the gardens of the Mask Palace. As soon as they had come into his presence, the young Emperor-elect had issued wild orders, contradictory and half‑hysterical. He had called for his hunting falcon and then flown it at his favorite slave so that both the bird and the beast‑man had to be destroyed, since nothing imperfect could serve the Emperor. He demanded sweetmeats and wine and stuffed himself until he was quite thoroughly ill ‑- anything to explain, to dissemble, to hide.

His personal physician was called ‑- the young emperor must appear at his birthday celebrations at all costs; eight years hence, amidst far more elaborate ceremony, he would be Masked, and his absence from these festivities today would be an omen of the most sinister sort. To that end, Heridor had wanted to bleed him, but Childeric already knew the uses to which Eidoloni blood could be put, and the money to be made from it in the shadow-market, and angrily dismissed Heridor to a flogging at the mere suggestion of such treatment. After that, his remaining attendants were more circumspect, offering palliations that they knew would please.

Childeric attended the festivities honoring his birth in pallid, red‑eyed, opiated silence, and no one of the Court thought more of it than childish nerves and self-indulgence. For the first time in his life Childeric was grateful to something outside himself, even if it was only stupidity.  Dormaoth meant to kill him and take his place. Bastindor knew and approved. In the rawness of his new knowledge too many things were clear, from the death and banishment of his favored companions to the precariousness of his own position. His uncle Dormaoth wanted something more than the Mask Throne, or else Dormaoth would have seen his rival dead in infancy. There was some reason Childeric had been let to grow up, but now he knew that he would only live until Dormaoth had gotten what he wanted. And how could Childeric withhold that thing unless he knew what it was?


It was the seventh hour of night and Childeric made his way into the Women's Court by secret ways known to him alone. Habit and a whim of secretiveness made his approach to the Women's Court invisible. The festivities of the Imperial Birthday continued, but eunuchs, demi‑humans, and beast‑men all slept: the Emperor's nativity was not to be shared with slaves and girl‑children.

Cyannice would help him.  His sister, his bride ‑‑ two years his senior, and his comrade in all things ‑‑ she would know what they must do to be free of Dormaoth.  In the selfishness of childhood, Childeric had never bothered to make friends where he could command servants, but he knew the difference.  And he knew, too, that the kindness of sycophants turned upon his father's brother's whim.  There was no preferment he could offer that could make him sure of them.  There was no one else he could trust save Cyannice, but she he could trust.

They had been raised apart in the fashion of the Eidoloni, but Childeric had been willful and curious about this elder sister who shared his blood.  In his brief lifetime he had made many visits to the woman's world where Cyannice was kept. Until today, it had been a game to disappear and watch from hiding his attendants' frantic efforts to find him. Now ‑-in a court where the heir to the Mask Throne was closely watched and closely guarded ‑- it was more than amusement.  It could be his life.

Light shone through the pale carved jade panels of Cyannice's door, and Childeric stopped, wary.  There should not be lights at this hour, and there was no one to visit his bride save the other cloistered women and the servants of their households. But two voices came from within, and he heard his sister's laughter ring out, high and sharp. 

There was another way into her suite, a way that led in through her gardens.  After a moment's hesitation, Childeric took it.

Ten minutes later he stood in the dew‑wet grass of Cyannice's garden.  Fireworks still illumined the revellers beyond the walls of the Women's Court; the lacquered papyrus doors to the garden stood open to the welcoming summer's heat, the spilling light from the rooms within washing the black grass to green.  Childeric stood in the shadows.

In the shadows, he watched as Dormaoth poured wine for Childeric's sweet sister, and watched Dormaoth ease the damask robe from her slender shoulders and kiss her soft pink mouth.  And he watched what came after, and swore to himself that one day Dormaoth would know what it was to reach out for those things that were Childeric's.