A tale of artists, intrigue, and the magical renaissance

2.08 Dissimulo {Masks}

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***

Elena held the knife in a firm grip, but she didn’t make a move to raise it. It seemed heavier in her grasp than it should’ve been, and although it wasn’t made of black metal like the armor or the mask, it seemed darker than a normal knife as well.

Not that I’ve really stared at a knife up close like this, she thought, or any weapon, for that matter. Maybe this is just what weapons look like, and I’m just projecting my feelings about the knife onto it…and now I’m stalling.

“You don’t have to do this, Elena,” Belloza said, perhaps seeing the hesitation in Elena’s face, or perhaps reading into the fact that Elena had been staring at the knife in silence for several minutes, tilting it back and forth.

“She absolutely does have to do this,” Fred said, “in fact, we probably should’ve had her do this before we got here, but we were all tired and sick of travelling and hadn’t thought of it.”

“Every Twisted in the country has an eye out for me,” Elena said, more to steel herself than for Belloza’s benefit. “They’ll be looking for a girl with my description in the cities they control, and I only have one shot at this, so I have to change my description.”

The little room was quiet for a few moments longer, and Elena hefted the knife and bit her lip.

Do it,” Ele finally said, “you’ll notice the difference for a matter of days, and we have bigger things to worry about. We don’t have time to tarry over every step. Just do it.”

It was a little harsh, but it was the little push that Elena needed to start moving. She took a handful of her hair, scrunched her eyes closed, and used the knife to slice it off, wincing as the entire handful came free in her grip. It only took a few cuts for her to shear the rest of her long curls off, but by the time she was done there was a small pile of locks on the table in front of her.

Emerald was unpacking their meager belongings in this and the adjoining room, and Owl downstairs speaking to the innkeeper, but Elena glanced back and forth between the others at the table, Belloza Frederica Bello Fred and Ele.

“How does it look?” she asked.

“You missed a few spots,” Frederica took the knife from her gently and turned her. Elena had insisted that it was something she had to do for herself, but she was glad of Frederica’s help.

“The keeper says he’ll only rent us each room for the week, not the day,” Owl said, entering the little room that Elena Emerald and he would share for the time being, “I think he’s taking advantage since he knows we want them for a long-” he stopped short just inside the room, staring.

“Does it look that bad?” Elena asked.

“If your hair was lighter we could’ve dyed it,” Frederica said with regret. Elena wasn’t sure she had ever heard the Calaetor so sad before.

“It doesn’t look bad at all,” Owl said, “just very different. And that’s the point, isn’t it? Whatever we can do to hide your presence here, it’ll buy us the short amount of time we need.”

Elena wasn’t sure she believed him, but as Ele had said, she had bigger concerns.

“Hopefully that time can be as short as possible,” she said, “Belloza met one of the Rimi scullery maids at lunch, and heard that the Rimi castle kitchens need hands. If we can get positions there, the first step of our plan might be over before the night is.”

“Finished,” Frederica said quietly. Elena lifted her hands to feel, but then stopped. There was no point to it, the hair was gone and there was nothing she could do about that. The room didn’t have a looking glass, or even a window, and Elena was still adjusting to the fact that this wasn’t one of the cheaper inns in the city.

“The first step of our ‘plan’,” Owl said, “which is ‘get into the castle’. Followed by step two, ‘get to Lucrezia Lucente’, and then step three, ‘kill her while escaping somehow’.”

“I know you’d like to have a better plan,” Elena said, “but I have to play to my strengths.”

“I know,” Owl sighed, “I just wish your strengths were more in line with ours. Are we ready?”

“There’s one more idea Elena had, while you were gone,” Frederica said.

“Something to help her be more conspicuous, I hope?” Owl was looking Elena up and down thoughtfully, “the hair makes for a wonderful initial distraction, but the more I look at you the more I can see the old Elena. If Lucrezia has seen you in this ‘dream world’, there’s still a chance she can recognize your face.”

“Oh it’ll make me more conspicuous,” Elena said, “but I don’t think she’ll recognize my face.”

***

Every single person who walked past Elena let their gaze linger on her just a fraction of a second too long, turned their head to follow her just a bit too much. On its own the effect was disconcerting, but combined with how crowded the streets of Rimi were as compared to the streets of Milia, it felt as if every eye in the city were latched onto her.

The walkways were full of people, more people than Elena would’ve thought the city could contain, and Elena winced away from contact as the passersby rubbed shoulders with her as a matter of course. The city itself had a smell to it, an odour of people and must and greasy meats and fruit. Elena couldn’t imagine how bad the smell was to the others, given that she could smell it even through the scent of leather and metal that clogged her nostrils.

The unforgiving metal hadn’t been so heavy when she’d first snapped it into place, but now it was too hot and made her neck ache. Emerald kept glancing at her over her shoulder, her face sympathetic. The group was forced to walk in a single file, with Frederica’s gauntleted hand resting heavily on Elena’s shoulder

“Is it starting to get sore?” the woman asked, her voice easy to hear even over the bustle of the crowd with its silver-bell tone. Elena furrowed her brow, shooting a glance around them at the heavily-trafficked walkway they were on.

I can answer direct questions, she realized, and nodded a single time.

“That will go away with time,” Emerald dropped her voice, “and you don’t have to worry. Everyone is looking at you, but no one is really seeing you.”

Elena was still a bit worried, moreso about how cavalier Emerald seemed than about being caught answering a question. The passersby would see Frederica, clad in the black armor of a Rhetorguard, and would assume that she hadn’t broken any rules worth killing her for. There was no such guarantee that someone would brush off Emerald’s words.

“Less on the subject of personal experience would probably be wise, Emerald,” Ele said.

Are our thoughts in sync because we’re Echo and Stormtouched? Elena wondered, since wondering was all she could do for the next few minutes, did the Storm pair us together because we think alike, or did he pair us together because we’re similar, and we think alike because we grew up together?

The light around her suddenly darkened, and Elena looked up with surprise to find that the group was in the main halls of the Castle. Navigating the constant flow of foot-traffic had meant there was no time to look up and see the sights around them, and the crowd was just as thick within the Castle walls as it had been outside.

They’d entered through one of the many back entrances, for servants and soldiers, completely distinct from the more magnificent halls that royalty and courtiers and dignitaries would’ve seen entering from the front. Even for one of the servant entrances, it was grand. Heavy wooden beams and huge stone blocks reminded her of a different style than the typical Italozan architecture, although she couldn’t put her finger on what style.

The flow of people around her gradually began to thin and split as different groups branched off in different directions on the way to their errands.

“Pardon me,” Owl asked a passerby, “we’re looking for the kitchens?”

“This hall, all the way to the end and down the stairs,” said the man Owl had asked, watching Elena with a sidelong glance. The group was quiet as they followed the directions, and the noise and chaos of sound all around them made it easy to be so.

“Here we are,” Owl said as they reached the stairs, “everyone look…um..chefy.”

The kitchens were loud, smelled of yeast and flour and beef stock, but most of all they were enormous. Huge cauldrons of soups and stews boiled along the walls, and rows and wors of pots and pans, smoked meats, and dried herbs hung from the ceiling. Running back and forth in a pattern so complex it seemed almost like a dance, dozens of cooks in white aprons stirred, baked, cleaned, chopped and boiled all along the many tables and ovens in the room.

Elena’s mouth would’ve fallen open if the Rhetor mask didn’t keep her jaw clamped firmly shut. She had been expecting something the size of Studio De Luca’s courtyard, but the room was so big that the entirety of the Studio could comfortably fit within it.

Distinct in an apron that was more of a grey and brown with all of the stains on it, a large woman moved with purpose through the controlled chaos, speaking at such a rate that she barely had time to take a breath between sentences.

“-without the garlic next time, and tell Tosco to throw out the old. Don’t tell him about the dog though, it’ll just make him sad, and what do you five want?” she said, finishing one conversation and moving to the next without pause.

“We heard there was help needed in the kitchens,” Owl said.

“We can help, and we don’t want much for wages,” Belloza added cheerfully. While Owl had sounded stiff, Belloza was already starting to adopt a trace of an accent. Elena wondered how hard it was, making herself sound like a Rimi native after a single day in the city.

“Cooking experience?” the woman barked, as if annoyed she had to spend even that much time getting the sentence out.

“I’ve worked in Studio kitchens,” Emerald said, “the boy and girl are quick learns, and the Rhetor comes with her guard, will get you two pairs of hands for the price of one.”

The woman grabbed a wooden spoon from a passing cook, dipped it in a pot on the stove next to her, tasted, then turned back to the group. “You two can work,” she pointed first at Emerald, then Belloza, “go to the back, grab aprons, start plucking the chickens you find back there. The rest of you clear out.”

Damn. Elena had wanted to get into the Castle on their own merits, without resorting so quickly to their largest weapon, but it was more important to get in that it was to get in fairly.

“We’re actually a bit of a family,” Emerald began, “so-“

“Don’t care what you are,” the woman was already turning, “doesn’t change a thing.”

Emerald sighed, glanced at the cooks nearby to confirm none of them were listening, and suggested that the woman wanted to hire all five of them.

“Look, this discussion is wearing on my patience,” the woman said, “you two can get to work if you want, or not if you don’t want, but if the options are take or leave you all, then I’ll leave you all.”

Emerald’s mouth did fall open, and she wasn’t the only one who looked visibly shocked. A cold, icy feeling was growing in Elena’s stomach, the same icy feeling that had built when the Stormlings dragged her to the table where the Twisted had been waiting for her.

Emerald very pointedly told the woman that she very much wanted to hire all five of them.

“I don’t see as I do, and you know, the more you open up your trap, the less I’m wanting to hire you either,” the woman said, “I’m thinking just her now.” She nodded again at Belloza.

Elena was confused and horrified, but she focused on her Storm. If Emerald couldn’t get them into the Castle…

“I’ll take it,” Belloza said, already moving toward the back where the woman had indicated. The Saggitara walked backward to address the group as she went, “sorry guys, but I’m not about to pass up a job in the Rimi castle, I guess them’s the breaks.”

Elena couldn’t nod, but she appreciated that Belloza had kept her head. Better to have a source at least somewhere in the castle, even if they couldn’t get everyone a job there. The group turned to go when the woman spoke again.

“You, Rhetorguard?”

“Yes?” Frederica said without missing a beat, even sounding more regal.

“There’s usually work for some Rhetors in the pit scullery,” the woman was looking at Elena with something like pity, “follow the stairs all the way up, cross the hallway, take your first door on the right. If you tell ’em Fiammetta sent you up they won’t toss you out first thing. Don’t know what the rest of you ‘ll do.”

“Thank you,” Frederica replied.

Owl, Emerald, Fred, Ele, and Elena were quiet as they climbed the stairs up from the kitchens. Emerald seemed angry, but Elena was simply scared.

“I’m sorry I let you all down,” Emerald broke the silence between them. “I had one thing I was good for, but that…that’s never happened. Not to me, not to any Rhetor.”

Elena couldn’t speak, but a single thought ran through her head.

“If even their cooks have that kind of power,” Ele said, voicing Elena’s thoughts again, “how much protection will Lucrezia have?”

***

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***

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3 responses

  1. Every now and then, I have to work some pretty intense overtime hours for my full-time job. Long-time readers will recall that during these OT weeks, I usually am really bad at cancelling chapters, and I’d just like to say I’m proud of not having to cancel any recently (delay, yes. Cancel, no)

    That said, I’m sure there was a drop-off of *quality* even if there was no drop-off in *quantity*, and I know my interaction with my lovely readers has suffered a bit too, so I’m very very glad to be out of this particular patch of OT! (Glad for a number of reasons, really)

    I hope you all enjoy today’s chapter, and thanks to those who are lovely and comment and vote! You really keep my spirits up!

    Like

    2016-06-12 at 11:46 pm

    • Hey, if anything, it’s a welcome surprise to see the chapter uploaded this early! :3 And thanks for working so hard on the story. I can’t imagine how shocked Emerald must be.

      Like

      2016-06-13 at 12:05 am

  2. Anon

    Even tired and over-worked you are a better writer than most of us!

    Like

    2016-06-13 at 1:17 pm

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