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Cehrazad

Cehrazad has six masks, not counting her underface. Columbina is her commedienne. Lafayette is a gold domino on a stick for daring nights. Calcutta, carved of mahogany, she wears for grief and bridesmaid duties; Semiot, a blue bauta, for market days. Blind is a white cord, wrapped six times around her eyes. Cehrazad wore Blind once for pleasure and once in desperation; she does not intend to do so again.

The sixth covers her from eyes to ankles, and there are very few people–not even her parents–who know that Dunyazad is not truly Cehrazad’s sister. Sometimes, Cehrazad forgets herself.

Cehrazad

Cehrazad lives in Memorare, which has five walls. The traders’ road goes through the walls northeast and south, so those gates are Rich Gate and Poor Gate. The farmers’ gates in the southwest wall are Bright, Blood and Burn Gates. The collapsed one in the east wall is called Broken.

The west wall overlooks a thousand feet of cliff and so is only vaguely necessary, but it has its Sky Gate too. It’s said that the man to enter it from above will change Memorare forever. That’s exactly what Cehrazad’s grandmother did, fifty years ago, on a rope and a dare.

Cehrazad

“I’m going now, tonight,” Dunyazad says. Her voice is quiet and careful; Cehrazad–twelve to her eleven–is the one crying. “Cehrie, Cehrazad, shhh.”

“I can’t, I can’t live here alone–”

“There are nine children in our wing,” Dunyazad says drily. “And the mothers, and the slaves, and even Father.”

“You know what I mean!”

“You won’t be alone. I’ll be here in your mirror, in your mind, when you need me. Are you ready?”

Cehrazad scrubs her eyes closed. Dunyazad kisses her, and whispers a word in no language, and presses her face to Cehrazad’s fingers; and then she’s gone.

Cehrazad

Cehrazad’s grandmother had three daughters, and all three married the same man; when the third wedding was over, she disappeared. Cehrazad’s father is so important in the city’s administration that he wears his official mask, Loong, even at home. None of the children have ever seen his underface. Nor do they know precisely which mother gave birth to whom.

Dunyazad wouldn’t admit it, but Cehrazad knows she’s gone to find their grandmother. She doesn’t understand. They have plenty of parents; why seek a woman they never met?

Cehrazad’s mothers never knew their father, or fathers. In Memorare, that’s almost the norm.

Cehrazad

Old Mother, Young Mother and Middle Mother: Cehrazad doesn’t know what they’d do if her father married again. Add another wing?

Middle Mother finds Cehrazad on her sixteenth birthday. “Oh, finally,” she says, “is your underface washed? You’re due for a fitting in the city.”

“It’s always washed,” says Cehrazad. “A mask fitting? Is it a present?”

“No,” says Middle Mother. “Well, yes, I suppose. Something new for the ball.”

Cehrazad tries to remember. “I’m going to a ball?”

“Of course!”

“Why?”

“To see if the King will marry you,” says Middle Mother, and her voice is small, like a child’s.

Cehrazad

The new mask is nameless.

“If nothing comes of the dance, we’ll dispose of it,” says Middle Mother, hovering, obviously longing to take a licked handkerchief to Cehrazad’s underface. “If something does… well, we’ll talk about that then.”

Cehrazad is afraid to do more than cradle it: it’s molded perfectly, spun of iridescent glass as thin as spiderwebs. “Dispose of it,” she whispers.

“Well, it’s hardly for everyday use, hmm?” Middle Mother raises the handkerchief, and Cehrazad has to put the mask on in self-defense.

Through the glass, everything’s edged with rainbows; her hands are mirrored, multiplied, like insect eyes.

Cehrazad

“How many books have you collected–specifically, relating to antique races and departed rulers?” asks the King. “Do you know the works of the poets by heart? Have you studied philosophy and the sciences? Are you polite, or at least witty; are you well-read?”

They’re alone in the starlit garden. “I’m only just sixteen,” says Cehrazad shakily.

“I’m only just sixteen, Your Majesty.

“Yes,” she says.

“Old enough,” he purrs, “to tell me a story tonight,” and touches her arm.

Cehrazad is running, scrambling, wild over fantastic hedges. She stumbles down a vast stairway; the unnamed mask shatters on stone.

Cehrazad

Cehrazad expects cold horror, to be cast out, shamed by her wailing sisters: but she slips into the house without incident. There’s only First Mother, waiting in her room.

“You’ve lost face?” she says, not unkindly.

“It broke,” Cehrazad stammers. “The mask–I had to leave, I couldn’t… without…” She flaps one hand at her underface, barely veiled by a strip torn from her dress.

“They’re searching for you already. The girl who disappeared at midnight?”

Cehrazad stares.

“There is one great secret, in our city of masks,” says First Mother sadly. “The only face to hide behind is your own.”

Cehrazad

Dunyazad’s face was rounder than Cehrazad’s, cheekbones higher, eyes set more deeply. The carefully repaired glass mask doesn’t fit.

“Pity,” murmurs the King, handing it to an attendant. “There’s some resemblance. Have you other daughters, Lord Loong?”

“To be honest, Your Majesty, I’ve never bothered counting the children,” says Cehrazad’s father. “I have wives for that. But no one in my house would hide from you; feel free to search.”

Cehrazad is holding her sister’s face hard, but it flickers there. When the King glances back for a sharp moment, she feels she must be shimmering, like a hot summer road.

Cehrazad

Figures play before the shimmering curtain, and in Cehrazad’s eyes their limbs are fluid: swords, then tentacles, then the crested heads of birds.

Shimmering. Curtain. Fire. She wakes in a choking cough. Her sisters are screaming, but they’re moving: she gets them outside and barely remembers to throw on Dunyazad’s mask.

Guards in black move grimly through the bucket-line. Cehrazad needs no help composing her face in terror, but even keeping her eyes on the blaze she can see them converging. No. No. How?

Idiot, she thinks, you’re wearing the only sootless face, and then their hands are on her.

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