Sunday, February 26, 2012


Alonzo de Carnelia's father had always said, before his death in the streets of White Starling City, that the fortunes of the great of Maturin were sculpted by the masquers of Tsang. Now, bent nearly double over a gold-inlaid porcelain mask commissioned by the second son of the Daimyo de Ponsier with a brush in one hand and a needle in the other, Alonzo understands what his father meant. The mask, a piece as fine as any he had ever crafted, conveys in the lines of its long, noble features worldliness, power and indomitable charisma. It is the face of a king surveying his realm from the battlements of his castle. How could it not fail to change the hearts of those who saw it, if only in the slightest of degrees? What events might then ripple from that tiny alteration of some unknown person's thoughtless perception?

All great things come from moments of perception stacked one upon the other, combining to create a portrait in rough strokes. Alonzo reaches for his best quill and begins to ink the mask's tiny beauty mark, a little blemish purposefully inserted beneath the left eye-hole. Beside his workbench his oviraptor, Astora, preens her blue-green tailfeathers with special care. The cobbler's cock, Lepidus, has been prowling the alley behind the shop. Alonzo reminds himself to check the locks so that the bastard won't get inside some night and saddle him with a new brood of unmanageable hatchlings. He has enough on his mind with his daughter's marriage to the toad in shambles.

“The Daimyo's son will be well pleased with this,” says Alonzo to Astora. He speaks to her often when he works.

It is past dark when the mask is finally done. Alonzo allows himself to slump back in his craftsman's chair, the tension in his shoulders slowly fading. Outside the lamplighters move down the narrow streets of the Woven Quarter, stilts click-click-clicking against the cobbles as they light the whale-oil lamps that hang on short chains from the iron lampposts. Alonzo watches one of the lamplighters pass by the window of his workshop. A girl in roughspun, skinny legs strapped to long oaken stilts. She looks like an insect creeping down the street, weaving with expert care between the milling men and women of the crowd. The Street of Masks is busy night and day, for men always need new faces. They tire of their old ones so quickly.


Alonzo turns to the stairwell, but it is empty. He passes a hand over his face, thinking that he should shave in the morning before the Daimyo son's stewards arrive to collect their liege's order. It would not do to meet women of such status in a state of discomposure. If he is to marry again it will be from the ranks of the stewards that he will choose a wife. Now he sits in his workshop, a bedraggled craftsman nearing fifty in his dressing robe and sandals. He thinks of the children he fathered and lost, of Lani and Mieli, his wives who had died in the Shogun's coronation riots at White Starling City.  So many died, that day.  He rises, pours himself a glass of honey-wine and drinks it alone in the dusty workshop. Another glass sees him to his bed.

He shaves in the early morning, just past sunrise, and cooks himself a breakfast of peppers, squid, and eggs. He dresses in his best black craftsman's robes, lights incense in the shopfront beneath the altar of the Monkey, and dons his best wig. Astora feasts on half-rotten iguanodon steak in the workshop as Alonzo opens the shop's glass doors, doors that cost him a small fortune in fees to the alchemists of the Golden Cabal. Smells waft into the shop along with the morning heat. Dust, fried meat, flowers, sweat, dung, a hundred traces of perfume from the Street of Musk. The masks on their display stands glitter in the pale light, shaded by the palms that nod somnolent over the quiet streets. In an hour they will be filled to the brim by commerce, by the weavers who hawk their silk and the clothiers trying to catch the eyes of the nobility.

Now only the dead walk the streets. They cart away the dung left by beasts of burden, sweep the alleyways for garbage, shuffle dead-eyed through the dust. Alonzo watches them from the doorway of his shop. Another man of Alonzo's means might have bought a dead slave's contract from the Iron Cabal, but he finds their golden stares disturbing. He does his own work at his own pace, and because it is the finest in the city there are none who complain. Even some among the Dead Senate wear his masks. Last season the Shogun's sister bought one, a delicate work of spun sugar glazed with alchemical resin, for the Spring Revels at the Palace of Memory. The fame won by a visit from Lasciel's stewards alone would feed a dozen masquers for a decade. Still, Alonzo is not a man to rest on his accomplishments. Each day he labors nine hours on new work, fresh designs. Incomplete upon his workbench is an allosaur-mask of surpassing beauty. In glass display cases, another fortune spent on the precious substance, sit scores of others. Warlike, demonic, adoring, penitent, absolved.

A face for every occasion.

The stewards of the Daimyo's son arrive at the appointed hour, six women wearing their master's polished face and long robes of blue silk. The dead have gone, replaced by the babble and warmth of the living. Alonzo meets the stewards at the door, taking just long enough in his ritual courtesies to show his neighbors and competitors who honors him with patronage, and then ushers his guests inside. The mask is brought forth and presented for consideration. The shortest of the women turns it over in her slender hands. “This is fine work, Maestro de Carnelia,” she says, running a thumb along the curve of a gilt cheekbone. “Truly, you are without equal in your field.”

“My father taught me well, magistra,” says the masquer. “Please, allow me to prepare the mask for transport. Dust would aggravate the varnish.”

The woman hands back the precious piece of artifice and Alonzo wraps it carefully in velvet before placing it inside a flat brown box of treated oak. The women seat themselves on tatami mats in his receiving room and he closes the shop's doors and serves coffee in the gathering heat. Astora watches from the shadows, leery of so many strangers. The women discuss payment with Alonzo as they drink their coffee, exclaiming over its quality, over the porcelain, over the patterns woven into his tatami mats. The shortest, who must be their steward superior, takes the lead.

The woman sips milk-lightened coffee through a sieve in her mask. “My master, the valiant and handsome Baptiste of the Great House of de Ponsier, is prepared to offer sixty-six koku.”

“His Purity overestimates my shul,” says Alonzo, setting down his cup and gazing at it in a show of humility. “I would be overwhelmed by even so much as thirty-one.”

It isn't about the money. Alonzo has all the money he needs, all the money he'll ever need. This is about favors, about forcing the Daimyo's son to underpay. Accepting low fees improves a craftsman's shul, increases his standing in the local courts, and betters his prospects for a marriage. Alonzo inspects the women before him even as they haggle, weaving together along the careful tight-rope of prices that flirt with offensively low and degradingly high. Three of the six are too old for childbearing, but the steward superior and two others look suitable. Broad hips, narrow shoulders, throats smooth and hands unwrinkled by age.
“Fifty-nine koku,” says the steward superior.

“Thirty-five,” says Alonzo, appraising the woman's breasts. They look firm. Not too big.

“Fifty, with the promise of patronage by the Daimyo's house guardsmen.”

“I am unworthy of such a gift. Please, allow a poor old man to save face! Thirty-eight.”

A moment passes. The steward superior sets her porcelain cup down on its saucer with a fragile clink. Behind her mask, sculpted in Baptiste's handsome image, blue eyes narrow in consideration. In the corner of the room Astora chirps and clicks her beak.

“Forty,” the woman says.

Alonzo wais more deeply than protocol requires. The steward superior, bound by the more rigid rules of service to her master, cannot equal his obeisance. She rises and the others follow suit. Alonzo sees them to the door. His hand lingers on the steward superior's as he surrenders the mask in its velvet-lined box. Their eyes meet, and he sees that his intent is understood. She nods. They depart. Alonzo locks the door. It is not yet noon, but he has finished his business for the day. Shutters drawn he removes his wig, unclasps his robe and sinks into a chair. Astora joins him, nuzzling his palm as he drinks the dregs from the biggin he used to brew the morning's coffee. He scratches the oviraptor behind her crest, suddenly tired of the game he has played in his little shop for so many years.

What does it matter if he marries again, or if his new wives bring him children? He will be dead, ground down by the weight of years, before they grow. They lack the time to replace what he has lost, or to undo the necessary sham of Mara's marriage to the southern banker, that poem-named preener with his perfumes and his powders. Alonzo rubs his chin, resolves to drink no wine, then rises and pours himself a glass.  It is the city's finest transmuted vintage, cast from pure agate into liquor by the masters of the Golden Cabal.  He drinks it slowly, savoring the deaths of his memories, the decay of his regrets.

Another glass sees him to his bed.

No comments:

Post a Comment