Story Teaser: Julie Czerneda
A truly wonderful and insanely inspiring teaser from Julie Czerneda. There is a reason she is so insanely popular, and her contribution absolutely sings. I hope you all enjoy this excerpt!
By Julie Czerneda
Wizard’s Fog, they called it, when those in the Star Tower loosed their spite to bother honest folk. The thick, cloying mist writhed through streets and alleyways, dampening sound and encouraging cutpurses. It coiled like a great eyeless snake in the bay, trapping ships and hiding all but the tip of one’s nose.
Raising his mask, Hunhau sniffed reluctantly. The reek of flowers to the left. A lingering stench of cold ash to the right. The bite of the open sea like a beacon ahead. He wasn’t lost. Not yet, anyway.
Before the smells overwhelmed him, making his eyes fill with tears, he replaced the mask, its plugs snug in his nostrils. He shuffled along, feet bare to feel the stone, and squinted through the eye holes, for what good it could do. Lamplight couldn’t penetrate a wizardly mist and the sun had yet to rise above the horizon. Without his nose, he’d walk off the quay into the bay or, more likely, into a wall.
Of course, without his nose, he’d be in the Black Gate District, home in bed like everyone else. Everyone honest, he amended.
Hunhau took firm hold of the straps that held the deep woven basket to his shoulders. He wasn’t, he reminded himself, going to miss this chance. Yesterday’s breeze had found him in his shop and trickled through the wads he habitually shoved up his nose while working. His weak affinity for air was usually a nuisance, bringing what he didn’t want to his too-large and overly sensitive nose, but such a breeze, redolent of a distant shore, meant something worth the effort on today’s tide ... if he got to it first.
His toe struck an unexpected edge and Hunhau stopped to pull up his mask again. No need to inhale. The fetid odour of damp wool climbed up his nose, coupled with bat urine. He’d reached the stone bridge from the mainland portion of Taux to the Moon’s Arm, the east most island that sheltered the bay. He hurriedly replaced the mask and went on as quickly as he dared. The Jai-Ruk who chose to sleep in hammocks under the bridge were not the pleasant sort. Not at all.
Not far now. Hunhau’s outstretched fingers found the rail, cold and slick with dew. Moving with renewed confidence, he followed its downward curve until another stubbed toe painfully marked the end of the bridge. He was on the island, meaning the gap in the rail should be … here.
He made his way down the tilted rubble of what had once been steps, following the familiar path. Before he reached the bottom, the mist began to thin, pierced by the faintest light. Sunrise.
He was late. The tide would come in soon, to steal back what it had brought. Worse, with the failing of the mist, others would come. He jumped from stone to damp sand and caught his balance.
Hunhau had discovered where to look years ago. Clean breezes from the open sea pushed flotsam and jetsam of all manner shorewards, to be stranded by the receding tide along this stretch of sand.
The others, wasteful wretches, sought the driftwood to burn.He sought the smooth wood, those pieces with shapes and whorls carved deep and wild to become masks.
Masks were always in demand, though only the elite of Taux could afford those of glorious imported jadeite, with obsidian eyes and rare plumes. Fewer still had the price -- or were willing to pay it -- for a mask of magical potency, bespelled to lure or deflect a gaze, to make the wearer appear otherwise, or to call luck to one’s side like a dog.
Hunhau chuckled to himself. He’d yet to see a mask do more than hide a face. Yum Caax, his old master, had taught him masks were works of art, not magic, insisting what mattered was the craft, not the tricks. The craft was hard enough. Truth be told, Hunhau wasn’t a very good maskmaker. Upon the old man’s passing, he’d dutifully made Yum Caax’s death mask then set up his own, more modest, shop. His masks were of wood and he served a clientele of servants, itinerants, and the like, those happy to afford any mask at all. Their needs were straightforward: masks for celebration, masks to honour their dead. So long as the sea gave him wood, he made a fair profit.
So long as he refused those seeking something more than a mask, he stayed out of trouble. For Yum Caax had been right. The only magic a Taux maskmaker possessed was the ability to convince a customer to believe what a mask could do. When results inevitably failed that belief, it was that foolish maskmaker who’d pay, unless he or she ran far and fast enough.
Hunhau preferred a safe and long life. He bet on the games, but not to excess, enjoyed women and wine, in moderation, and prudently collected bits of blue shell for his own death mask, having accepted that his meagre skills wouldn’t attract an apprentice. On mornings when the conditions were right, he’d trundle along the quay, as this morning, and descend to the sand to gather driftwood.
Wizard’s Fog... Hunhau shivered in the lingering damp, glad to see it lift even if that brought others to the sand. Now to see if the little breeze had been tease or promise. He lifted his mask to better look around. The clean sea air was potent, but didn’t vex his stomach the way bilge and sailor-stink and that fusty odour from the sails did.
“Saints Great and Lesser,” he gasped.
The exposed beach was strewn with wood of all shapes and sizes. Treasure for the taking!
And he was here first.
He picked his way through a delicious agony of choices, mind awhirl. Had a distant storm tossed shipwrack this way? Or had one of the dreadful waves that followed a disturbance of the earth washed an entire village out to sea?
Perhaps the saints, despite his neglect, chose to smile on him. “I’ll pray,” he promised. To all of them, just in case.
All too soon, despite raising his standards well beyond what ordinarily he’d have taken and been glad of, Hunhau staggered happily beneath his overfilled basket, arms laden as well.
He should go back. The light of the rising sun glittered like a sword across the water, the mist a memory. He should go back and would, he promised himself.
After one more…
The maskmaker followed the curling line of wet sand, bright red crabs scuttling out of his way, and there it was, kissing land’s edge mere steps ahead, a piece of driftwood already bent to fit a face, with the finest grain he’d seen.
Hunhau tossed aside the armload he’d collected and hurried to claim his prize, though there was no one else in sight.
But it was no more wood than the swirl of silver and blue pushing it closer was wave.
What he’d thought driftwood lifted with rare grace to become a head, and what surely, oh surely! had been ocean an instant before, like the spray salty on his lips, sculpted itself into pale shoulders and arms, and shaped the curved form of a woman from froth.
A woman who gasped and fell forward, outstretched hands holding her from the sand, face hidden behind a sodden fall of hair. Hair, Hunhau noticed with dismay, that became water where it touched the damp sand, as did the white and gold cloth of her garments. No shipwrack, this. No hapless victim tossed from the seawall by murderer or Moon Priest. Those bodies he’d seen, bloated and grotesque, half-eaten by crab and seabird. They’d not bothered him, other than the stench. When he could, when there was a face still, he’d fashion a death mask as best he could from a plank or scrap of cloth, for he was a kindly man at heart.
This creature was nothing so safe or simple. His eyes lifted reluctantly to where the Star Tower pierced the sky beyond the seawall. Wizards lived there. Only there. And never left.
Until, he feared, now.
Heart in his throat, Hunhau replaced his mask and eased a careful step back, then another.
“Tell me, good man. Am I dead?”
Masks could hide a face and its expression, as her strange hair did now; the voice was harder to disguise. Hers was melodic and low, free of fear, as gentle as the lap of wave over his sandaled feet. It held him when he would have fled.
“I don’t know,” Hunhau answered honestly. “I’m but a maskmaker.”
“Maskmaker?” She made an odd sound, like a seabird, her shoulders shaking. “Well met. I’ve need of your services.” With that, the woman of the sea lifted her head, hair flowing aside, to show him her face.
Hunhau shrugged off his basket, precious driftwood spilling on the sand, and put an arm around her shoulders. “It’s a healer you need. Come. Easy now,” he said as he helped her stand. At his urging, she took a step on feet, he noticed numbly, she hadn’t had before. He swallowed. “How could this --?”
“It doesn’t matter,” she said quietly. “Will you help me?”
Knowing what she asked, the maskmaker bent his head and sighed with true regret. “If I could, I would. I’m sorry. My masks have no magic.”
“From now on, they will,” she told him, and he heard the sea.