Authors: E. C. Blake
Be sure to read all three
novels in E. C. Blake's
THE MASKS OF AYGRIMA
* Coming in 2015 from DAW
Copyright Â© 2014 by E. C. Blake.
All Rights Reserved.
Cover art by Paul Young.
Dingbat by permission of Shutterstock.
DAW Book Collectors No. 1658.
DAW Books are distributed by Penguin Group (USA).
eBook ISBN: 978-0-698-15078-2
All characters in this book are fictitious.
Any resemblance to persons living or dead is strictly coincidental.
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U.S. PAT. OFF AND FOREIGN COUNTRIES
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This book is dedicated to the only member of my family I've never yet dedicated a book to: Shadowpaw the Siberian cat, who, after all, shares part of his name with the title.
Â â¢Â â¢Â â¢Â
My heartfelt thanks to my publishers, Sheila Gilbert and Betsy Wollheim of DAW Books, for allowing me to share Mara's adventures with my readers, and especially to Sheila, my editor, who has an extraordinary knack for spotting, not only what works, but, more importantly, what doesn't work, in her authors' talesâand an even more extraordinary knack for helping them discover how to fix those problems.
A special thanks to my agent, Ethan Ellenberg, who looked at several different ideas I was toying with and urged me to focus on what has become
The Masks of Aygrima
. If not for his initial enthusiasm, this series would never have been born.
And finally, all my love and gratitude to my wife, Margaret Anne, and daughter, Alice. I love being a writer. I love being a husband and father far, far more.
The Stranger from the Sea
HE MASK GLEAMED WHITE against the dark surface of Mara's workbench, like a pearl in an ebony box. It looked perfect, priceless, a masterwork of the Maskmaker's craftÂ .Â .Â .
...and it was completely, totally, fatally
“It looks good,” Prella said from behind her. The other girl, the same age as Maraâfifteenâbut smaller, had taken to spending all her free time hanging around Mara, ever since Mara had saved her life by healing her with magic after she'd suffered a terrible injury. Mara understood that, and ordinarily was rather touched by it, but she would have been just as happy not to have a witness to her repeated failures.
Like this one. “It isn't,” she growled. “Watch.” She reached out and poked the Mask's gleaming cheek. As though her touch had infected the shining face with some terrible disease, the Mask cracked at that pointÂ .Â .Â . and kept on cracking, a spiderweb of black lines spreading out across all of the shining surface, until the entire Mask abruptly fell apart into dust and flinders.
Prella gasped. “Oh!”
Mara gazed glumly at the ruined Mask. She didn't even swearÂ .Â .Â . this time. She'd used up her entire vocabulary of obscenities (of which a childhood spent playing in the streets of Tamita had given her a surprising number) the firstÂ .Â .Â . what? twelve times?Â .Â .Â . something similar had happened. Although at least this one had
like a Mask. The first half-dozen had looked more like something intended to frighten small children.
She lifted her gaze from the crumbled clay and stared out through the narrow slit of the window cut through the rock wall above the bench. Her work chamber was on the topmost level of the Secret City, a long climb from the Broad Way that ran from the main entrance down to the underground lake that was the City's source of water. From up here, she looked straight across the big horseshoe of the cove into whose walls the City was carved, all the way to the cliff on the far side. Snow glistened on the trees that capped it, white as the failed Mask had been before it crumbled.
Six weeks had passed since she had returned to the Secret City from the disastrous attempt to rescue her friend Katia from the terrible mining camp to which the unMasked were exiled. Six weeks since she had discovered her ability to harness enormous amounts of magic, and to pull that magic, not from the stores of it painstakingly collected from the black lodestone to which it was drawn when living things died, but directly from other human beings. Six weeks since she had ripped magic from scores of peopleâmen, women, boys, girls, Masked and unMasked alikeâand contained the force of an explosion that should have leveled the mining camp and killed everyone aboveground within it.
Six weeks since she had discovered that she had the rare form of the Gift that had produced the greatest monsters in the history of AygrimaÂ .Â .Â . the same Gift, but to a far greater degree, as the Autarch himself, the tyrant to whose overthrow the unMasked Army dwelling in this Secret City was devoted.
She rubbed her tired eyes. “And a fat lot of good all that power is doing me right now,” she muttered.
“You'll figure it out,” Prella said, and Mara started. She'd momentarily forgotten the other girl was there.
“I hope you're right,” she said. She tried to give Prella a smile. It wasn't very successful.
She looked down at the crumbled Mask once more. Growing up, she had watched her father, Charlton Holdfast, Master Maskmaker of Aygrima, make many, many Masks. She knew how to shape the clay, how to fire it, how to do everything except for one little thingÂ .Â .Â . how to infuse the Mask with magic.
Catilla, the elderly woman who had founded and still commanded the unMasked Army, had seen no difficulty with that little fact when she had kidnappedâ
, Mara reminded herselfâMara and four others who had just turned fifteen from the wagons taking them to the mining camp in the wake of their failed Maskings. Catilla didn't
real Masks, Masks that would reveal any traitorous leanings on the part of their wearers to the Autarch's ever-present Watchers, Masks that would shatter completely if the magic within them judged that the wearer posed a threat to the Autarch's rule.
She wanted even less the new Masks, those made within the last year or two, which not only revealed incipient sedition but allowed the Autarch to draw magic out of the Masks' wearers for his own use, a process which also weakened the wearer's will to the point where he or she literally could not conceive of any rebellion against the Autarch. As a side effect, the new Masks altered the personalities of those wearing them, making them almost unrecognizable to their friends and loved ones. But what was that to the Autarch, desperate for more and more magic to stave off the ravages of old age and keep himself firmly in control?
wanted were believable semblances of real Masks, Masks that her followers could wear as disguises, enabling them to safely enter the towns and villages of Aygrima, and even Tamita itself, toÂ .Â .Â .
Mara asked herself, not for the first time, and, also not for the first time, had no answer. Catilla had not confided in her what she intended her followers to do once they could enter those towns and villages.
But then, it doesn't really matter, does it?
Mara thought, still looking down at the failed Mask.
I can't make the counterfeits she wants.
The Mask in front of her
have been nothing but inert clay. She had put no magic into itâshe
none, without reaching into the bodies of those around her. And since she had almost killed those whom she had treated as her personal storehouses of magic before, including her friend Keltan, she wasn't about to do it again.
No matter how tempting it wasÂ .Â .Â . which it was, despite the agony she had felt when she'd stripped magic from living people, despite the warnings of Ethelda, the Palace Healer who now dwelt in the Secret City and had been tutoring Mara in the knowledge of magic (though not in its use, since the Secret City had no store of it with which to practice), despite the soul-sapping, nightmarish images of those she had killed with magic that had driven her to the edge of ending her own life before she had Healed Prella.
That act of Healing had somehow eased the nightmares, as if it had salved some internal injury she had done herself through her use of others' magic. Ethelda had warned her, though, that those horrors were not gone from her mind: her power meant that every person she killed with magic, or even those who simply died in her presence, imprinted themselves on her, their final agonies mingling with her own imagination to produce hallucinatory horrors that could threaten her sanity if fully unleashed.
She knew all that. She
it. And yetÂ .Â .Â .
...and yet, despite it all, she longed to touch that raw power again, to see what else she could do with it.
the magic inside Prella's skinny little body. It would be so easy to reach out and tug it to herself, use it to try to make the
Mask succeed where all the previous attempts had failed. Prella might not even notice what she had done, if she wasâ
She clenched her fists.
Keltan had been unconscious for hours after she had sucked him dry of magic that night in the camp. It had taken him daysÂ .Â .Â .
Â .Â .Â . to recover fully.
I will not do it
, she told herself.
It wasn't the first time she had made herself that promise, and so far, she had kept it.
She shoved the thought aside, hard, like an annoying branch on a forest path. In any event, she had put no magic into this Mask, or any of her previous attempts: and that, apparently, was the problem.
She had very carefully left out the “recipe,” as her father had called it, the black lodestone dust, infused with magic, which the law required each Maskmaker to include in every Mask he or she made. That “recipe” imparted to the Masks their traitor-detecting, and more recently Autarch-feeding, capabilities. Without it, she had thought the Mask clay was perfectly ordinary.
But clearly it wasn't. The clay the Maskmakers shaped into Masks
came from the PalaceÂ .Â .Â . and though she could shape it and fire it in the Secret City's own kilns, used by their own potters to make ordinary pots and plates, and though it always looked, when she drew it out, as though it had fired successfully, one touch, andÂ .Â .Â .
. She stared down at the remnants of her latest failure for another long moment. Of course she'd known that making real Masks required magic from the Maskmaker. What she hadn't realized was that that magic was required simply to keep the Mask from falling apart. And she had no idea how to use her magic to accomplish that, nor any magic she dared draw on to attempt it.
She sighed and swept the ruined Mask into a dustbin, where the dust and shards of her previous three attempts still rested. “Are you going to try again?” Prella asked.
“I don't think I can,” Mara said dully. “I'm almost out of clay.” She crossed the small chamber to a chest in the corner, Prella trailing her. She lifted the chest's lid, revealing a smallish lump wrapped in wet sackcloth, all that remained of the clay she had been provided by the unMasked Army, which had raided (and then burned to cover their tracks) the Maskmaker's shop in the nearest village, Stony Beach. “I can't make more than three Masks out of that.”
“But surely you'll figure outâ”
figured it out,” Mara snapped, suddenly annoyed beyond reason. “Don't you get it?
I can't do what Catilla wants me to do.
And you and your stupid questions and your stupid chatter and your whole stupid always being there, joggling my elbow, aren't helping. Go away!”
Prella's eyes widened, her lip trembled, and Mara had an instant to feel terrible before the smaller girl turned and ran from the workroom, slamming the door behind her.
, Mara thought.
She felt like she'd kicked a puppy.
I'm a failure as a Maskmaker
I'd better go apologize
And then I'm going to have to face Catilla. I'm going to have to tell her I can't do what she wants me to do. What she rescued me to do. What people have
me to do.
She felt sick.
She slammed the chest shut, then raised her eyes to the wooden shelf above it. Three clay faces stared back at her, blank eyeholes and mouth openings filled only by the shadows behind them. As sculptures, they were rather good, she thought. But as Masks, they failed utterly. Made of ordinary clay, they were monstrously heavy, whereas a true Mask felt light as a feather on the face. And a true Mask also simply clung, clearly another function of the magic within that accursed special clay, or the magic provided by the Maskmaker. The fake Masks could not be held onto a face without an elaborate system of leather straps. It seemed to Mara that she had somehow managed to carve disappointment and reproach into the expressions of each one.
, she thought again.
But at that moment, she didn't think she could face either. Or anyone else: not Alita, or Simona or Kirika, the other girls rescued from the wagons along with her; not Keltan, whom she had met in Tamita, who had fled the city rather than be Masked, and who had almost died when she pulled magic from him; and definitely not Hyram, great-grandson of Catilla, whose father, Edrik, was second-in-command. Alita would be contemptuous, Simona uninterested, Kirika sullen, Keltan and Hyram would fall all over themselves trying to outdo each other in compassion, and none of it would change anything.
She had failed. All she really wanted was to be alone, and she knew just where to go to achieve that.
Her fur-lined leather coat hung on a peg by the door; she grabbed it and left her workroom. Beyond the door a corridor ran left and right, parallel to the cliff face. Other doors led to other workshopsâthose of the blacksmith and the regular potters, a few othersâall located on the topmost level of the Secret City for the simple reason that they all needed fires and the smoke from those fires could be most easily vented through cracks in the ground at the top of the cliff. Mara had worried that that smoke, and all the other smoke from the heating and cooking fires down below, might lead Watchers to the City, but Hyram had explained that the many hot springs in the area (like the one that heated the women's bathing area in the underground lake) vented steam through similar cracks scattered over a wide area. From a distance, there was nothing to distinguish the smoke of the Secret City from the natural vapors of the landscape. “Provided they don't get close enough to smell the smoke,” he'd added. “And nobody will get that close without one of the patrols seeing them.”