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CONSTANCE’S MASK by Nick T. Chan

Constance hefted the axe and commanded Oscar to bow and extend his neck.

“Of course, my lady,” the golem said and obeyed. The wooden golem’s bronze joints squeaked as he bent at the waist.

“I wish to decapitate you, Oscar.”

Oscar didn’t even pause in replying. “Whatever you wish, my lady.”

She tightened her grip on the handle. “Did you get any satisfaction from sleeping with my husband?”

“I did no such thing.” The golem paused. “And even if I did, I’m not sure that either of us could obtain much pleasure from the fact. I’m not exactly built for carnal enjoyment, you may have noticed. I don’t even have genitalia.”

Constance half-sobbed, half-smiled. “According to Edward’s diary, that was no impediment.” No, she couldn’t have any sympathy for Oscar. Each second spent with the golem was like having a length of barbed wire jerked from her heart. She readied a downwards stroke and the axe trembled above Oscar’s neck.

“We walked together every day,” she said. “I shared my innermost secrets with you. When men said cruel things about my face, you always defended me. How could you betray me like this?”

She tightened her grip on the axe handle. Oscar looked up with her with the silver glass globes that functioned as his eyes. She tapped the blade against his neck and then lifted the axe smoothly.

“He commanded me to walk with you,” Oscar said mildly. “He feared that men would grow violent if they propositioned you and you refused them. If you wish to decapitate me, I’d request you have a better reason than the fact that I walked with you under false pretenses.”

The blade halted and trembled above the brass hoops and rubber seals connecting Oscar’s neck to his torso.

“What exactly did he say when he commanded you to walk with me?” she said.

“He said, ‘Men who see my wife’s calcified face will assume they can have her. They will grow angry when she refuses them. Protect her, but do not say why you accompany her.’”

Constance trembled and then touched her face. The calcified lumps were hard beneath her fingers. That Edward had made Oscar lie to her. And she knew the golem was still lying.

“Why did you sleep with my husband?” she said.

“I did nothing of the sort, my lady.”

She rested the axe blade against the bathtub rim and reached inside her dress to bring out Edward’s diary.

“I have it here. Every obscenity written as plain as day.”

“Those runes could say anything. I know them well enough to see that those are draft personas for his plays. You better not read them, my lady, else you find yourself becoming one of his characters for an hour or two.”

At this, she smiled triumphantly. “Yes, Edward didn’t think I could read the runes either. He truly thinks that I’m too stupid to learn. By His bowels, he left it on our bed where anyone could read it. Oscar, I have been transcribing his work for years now because his penmanship is so poor. I know when I read a genuine persona. I also know when my husband is trying to hide something in the runes.” She flipped pages, stabbing her finger at the thick, black characters. “Every single time you fornicated with him. In the basement, what you did, who did what to whom. He took pleasure in recording it. It’s almost like he wanted me to find it.”

Oscar was silent for a long time. “You know that I cannot break Master Edward’s commands,” he eventually said. “He has commanded me not to speak of what we did together.”

She dropped Edward’s diary onto the bath tiles. “Tell me why he did it then?”

“Samhazai overtook him and he was full of lust.”

“Samhazai?” It took her a moment to remember where she’d heard the name. “You were with me when Edward and that actor Spencer Milton discussed the character Samhazai from the play The Tragic History of the Life and Death of Samhazai. The golem who didn’t want to be a golem and who fought God so that he didn’t have to be a slave to men. Spencer was saying that he was playing Samhazai, but of course there was no persona for the role, so he looked a fool compared to the other actors. Then Edward made me leave the room, but you stayed.”

“Yes, I was with them,” Oscar said. From his mouth issued a perfect replica of Spencer’s voice. “No one has the skill to write a persona for Samhazai. The character is too complex and it is the one play that cannot be acted fully by personas.”

Oscar’s voice changed to a perfect replica of Edward’s. “I’ve been thinking about Samhazai for years, my dear friend.” Edward’s laugh, rich and self-satisfied. “How much would you pay me for such a role?”

Oscar switched voices to Spencer again. “You haven’t written it already, have you? No, you would have boasted about it before tonight, you ugly little frog. I have cash flow problems at the moment. I can only afford a few of your personas tonight.”

“I have the perfect persona for you. A woman, you little fag.” Edward’s self-satisfied laugh echoed in the bathroom. Constance clapped her hand to her mouth at the sound of his laugh.

“By His bowels, Edward tried to write Samhazai, didn’t he?” she said. “He’d do that if someone dared him. That’s why he started to fornicate with you, isn’t it? Edward’s not an actor; he can’t pronounce all the words properly. He wrote the persona after the dinner party with Spencer and it possessed him. That’s why he did all those perversions with you.”

“That may be accurate. I am not human, so I cannot hear the persona’s runes spoken aloud.”

“Cannot or will not?”

“Cannot. It is like seeing a man speak under the water. There is no sound.”

From his prone position, Oscar turned his head to look at her. No, he wasn’t a man. Constance viewed Oscar’s head anew, saw him as the strange contraption he was rather than her old companion.

Beneath Oscar’s wooden carapace was a fine network of brass tubes that carried his ink-blood. His head was roughly sanded into the shape of a human face. Only his mouth was close to human. He had a tongue made of muscled wet sponge, constantly oiled by some mysterious lubricant. Fine ivory teeth, rubber lips that were pulled by interior strings, a flexible jaw with silver hinges. A mouth that could talk. A mouth that could kiss. A mouth that could… The world compressed and her thoughts ran red.

“Why was he so stupid? How could he make such a mistake? He’s a middle-aged man. Why would he want to read his own personas all of a sudden, let alone this one?”

Edward’s voice issued from Oscar’s mouth. “I am tired of who I am, Spencer. I have a hideous wife with a face that could make a rock cry. You ask me why would I want to be an actor? I’m jealous of you, my boy. You get to pretend to be something that you’re not. If I could be possessed by a role where I didn’t have to wake up next to that gargoyle every morning, I’d be happy for the briefest of moments.”

Constance raised her axe and screamed. She lopped Oscar’s head from his shoulders and a sudden jet of black ink hard-sprayed across the green-tiled walls. The wooden head tumbled to the floor. The next axe stroke opened his torso, revealing interlinked wooden cogs and the brass tubes that pumped ink. Constance swung again, slicing through wood and brass. Ink splattered her from head to toe. When she was finished, Oscar was a pile of splintered wood. Only his head was intact, lying on its side in the middle of a welling circle of black against the white floor tiles.

As quickly as it had vanished, awareness returned to her. Her rasping breaths echoed off the tiles. She’d destroyed Oscar. Her oldest friend. What had she done?

Worse still, destroying her husband’s property was a sin. Covered in ink, she knelt and prayed in front of the small but geographically accurate statue of God perched on a high plinth in the corner. She touched the gold marble in the statue’s right hand and then the silver one in its left. Between the sun and the moon, I walk upon His body that gives me life.

She prayed for respite from the rage her paralyzed face couldn’t show, from the bitterness, from the heartbroken thoughts that dropped like pebbles down an endless well. Prayer calmed her.

She dropped Edward’s diary onto Oscar’s remains. There was already hot water in the bath; she’d known the ink would splatter everywhere. Undressing without Oscar’s help was a tedious process. She unlaced her corset, unfurled her many layers of clothes, and slipped into the iron bathtub like a newly born calf.

The water’s heat shocked her into reality. She couldn’t leave Edward. All she’d done was destroy Oscar, destroyed her only protection from the rapacious men outside.

She was physically incapable of crying. Instead she buried her head in her hands and let the bath dilute her despair.

“Has that helped sooth your rage, Lady Constance?” Oscar said. She opening her mouth in surprise and then flailed as water caused her to choke. “I’d help bathe you as per normal, but I have no body.”

She clambered out of the bath, her feet puddling in the ink-slicked floor, and grabbed Oscar’s head. It was lighter than she’d imagined. Ink dripped from Oscar’s neck, between her breasts and onto her belly. “How can you still function?” she said, forcing the words past the thickness in her throat.

“There’s still some ink left in my neck cavities. I have perhaps half an hour’s speech left in me. More, if you’re careful with your questions.”

Two brass tubes jutted from Oscar’s sliced wooden neck and ink dripped from them. She grabbed a white towel from the railing and shoved it against the tubing. After she was satisfied that the flow of ink had stopped, she stroked Oscar’s wooden brow. It was cool and slick underneath her fingers. What was she going to do? She couldn’t stay here. She couldn’t leave. She had no money, no relatives, no profession open to her. She was good for nothing. She couldn’t blame Edward for reading personas without an actor’s skill in pronouncing the runes. She would have done the same with a wife with a face like hers.

She held Oscar cradled against her bare breasts, until a thought struck her. “This dinner party, did Spencer end up buying any personas? He obviously didn’t buy the Samhazai one, but it’s unlike Edward to allow Spencer leave a dinner party without emptying his wallet. And, more importantly, did my husband offer any that were unsold?”

Oscar’s voice, when it came, was slow and slurred, and she couldn’t understand it. She shook his head a little and then laid it flat. “What did you say, Oscar?”

This time, his voice was clear. “I believe that Spencer bought two, but there was one left unsold. Your husband would not let Spencer read it aloud. He claimed that it was the greatest role he’d written.”

“At least until he wrote bloody Samhazai,” Constance said sourly. “Why didn’t Spencer buy it?”

“Your husband wanted ten thousand crowns for it. Spencer didn’t have such a great sum to hand, so he promised he would have the money when Edward returned tonight.”

“Ten thousand crowns could support me for years, perhaps longer if I’m careful.” She cupped Oscar’s head. “It must be somewhere in the house. Do you truly believe that Spencer has the money? Where is the persona?”

Oscar started to reply, but his mouth froze ajar with a soft hiss of released air from his throat mechanism. She held his head upside down, hoping that enough ink would fall. No words emerged.

She rotated Oscar’s head and withdrew the pin that locked his skull door. Inside was a golden ball, Oscar’s soul. On top of his soul was a wooden desk and parchment scrolls and sitting at the desk was a palm-sized man, Edward’s homunculus. The homunculus dipped its quill into a hole in Oscar’s skull, but the nib came away dry. Nevertheless, the homunculus scribbled on the infinite roll of parchment and then slid a blank torn-off sheet into a slot in the golden soul. She reached inside Oscar’s head and removed the homunculus. As soon as it left the chair, the homunculus slumped. It was a tiny version of Edward. She put it back in its chair and it perked up again.

She considered her options. Edward’s zeppelin was late. It had probably missed the wind. At best, she had a couple of hours. She washed Oscar’s head and bundled him within a white towel. Still naked, she crossed the landing to her bedroom and used the full-length mirror to dress. As she craned her head over her shoulder to lace her corset, her face’s reflection lanced her guts.

“I don’t blame him,” she said to Oscar, though she didn’t expect him to reply. “Why did he marry me? I had no money, no parents, and no looks. He literally picked me up from the orphanage. What did he see in me, Oscar? Was it always a lie?”

To her surprise, Oscar burped out a few words. “Did he see your handwriting?”

“What do you mean?” She shook him a few more times, but it appeared as if he’d used the last of his ink. She shrugged and finished dressing herself.

Once dressed, she carried Oscar in the crook of one arm and the axe cradled in the other. She searched through Edward’s books for personas. Nothing.

She tried the locked desk drawers. Tugging on each drawer opened it enough to glimpse paper. She readied the axe. Within a few strokes, the first drawer split and envelopes spilt onto the floor.

She opened the nearest. Inside was a photo of Oscar and a man engaged in sexual acts. She squinted at the scratched sepia photograph and then gasped. The man in the photograph with Oscar was Spencer Milton. She flicked through more photos. There were more sinful photos with different people. Kared Halfwhistle. Francis Cambin. Havelock Ellis. Bertie Roebuck. All famous actors.

“What haven’t you been telling me, Oscar?” she said. There were too many envelopes to count. Oscar was in every single photo that she examined, but Edward was in none. What had she stumbled across? She reached the bottom of the drawer. There was a set of nestled and furled scrolls. A persona. Maybe this was the one she was looking for. She flattened the pages on the desk. It was in Edward’s messy handwriting. She mouthed the words, careful not to say them aloud, less the unknown persona possess her.

It was clear from the feminine modifiers in the first few runes that this persona was a woman. Even reading silently, it started to claim her thoughts. She felt the spirit, the soul, the character of the woman she read about. A hideous, unnatural woman. One who did not want a man, one who thought herself better than any man. She took breaks from reading at the end of each line to stop the threat of possession.

How much time had passed as she read? She had no idea, but sweat slicked her brow. Each time she returned to the runes, her heart started to hammer. This persona was so powerful it frightened her. This had to be the persona that Edward had told Spencer about.

She tilted Oscar’s head so that he faced her. Her thoughts were like an infected wound; speaking them aloud was better than letting them go sour in her head.

“Why would Edward write a character that was so in defiance of the natural order of things?” she said. “Was it Samhazai or Edward who wrote this?” Her knuckles whitened as she squeezed Oscar’s wooden head. “When does Samhazai stop possessing my husband? Edward must have written a time limit in the runes. He couldn’t have been so stupid as to not do it.”

She continued to read the persona, hoping that there was some hint of feminine humility and piety within the runes, but there was nothing. Every single symbol described pride and arrogance. The handwriting was terrible, especially towards the end when Edward’s hands must have started to cramp from the way he clenched the pen.

The line that contained the time limit was almost illegible. There was no way an actor could read it properly. It needed to be re-written so that the runes were clear.

“Oh Edward, by His bowels,” she swore softly. “You didn’t write the time limit on Samhazai properly either, did you? You’re Samhazai until you read a new persona.”

She rolled Oscar’s head between her hands, at a loss for what to do. As soon as Oscar’s head was upside down, his eyes started to move again and his mouth flapped.

“If you were a playwright, it would be easy to add a time limit to this persona,” Oscar said. “That is the first thing they teach them in the Guild. Or you could write a nice simple persona for Edward that expires after a few minutes.”

She kept Oscar’s head upside down. “But I’m not a man. I’ve spent hundreds of hours copying the damn things, but I’m not a man. Edward always puts the same time limit, three hours, one use only. That way he can make more money.” She shook Oscar’s head, hoping to loosen a little more of the ink. “I’m only a woman. I can’t add the final runes.”

Her eyes burned from squinting at photos and close-written runes. Edward mightn’t have even realized he’d written the runes for the time limit incorrectly, not after long hours under candlelight with an aching hand and a sore back.

“I’ve been listening to Edward’s lectures about the science of personas for years now,” she said. “I know more about it than any woman alive.”

“I do not doubt that, my lady,” Oscar said. “But how does that solve your dilemma? I am guessing you wish to sell this persona so that you can leave Edward?”

Put so bluntly, the statement made her insides feel tight and hot. Yes, she wanted to leave Edward. No matter that she would never have another man, she could not stay under the same roof as Edward or Samhazai or whatever he was now.

“The ink used to write the runes is the same as golem ink,” she said. “It will require a single page to finish off this persona well enough that Spencer will buy it.”

“I hope you’re not hoping to use my ink, my lady,” Oscar said. “I barely have a dozen pretty speeches left in me.”

“I can buy some more.”

“No you can’t. The Guild of gentlemen scholars controls the supply carefully. It is only available to male playwrights or Golem engineers. To defy the Guild is to invite execution.”

“Surely Edward keeps some somewhere in the house? Where is it, Oscar?”

“Edward has forbidden me to tell you, my lady. He told me it was in your own best interests.”

It took all her willpower not to scream at the disembodied head. She closed her eyes and counted until she was calm. “The basement. There is a boiler there fuelled by guildfire. Edward says not to go near it because of the danger. But it cannot burn wood, steel, or fire. I’ve seen it before. It’s a cold fire. So why aren’t I allowed near it? The ink is inside the flames, isn’t it?”

“My lady, guildfire burns perpetually upon water and your body is awash with water. If guildfire touches your flesh, then the blood inside your veins will catch aflame.”

So, Oscar couldn’t tell her directly with the ink was, but he had virtually admitted where it was without contravening Edward’s command. As long as she didn’t directly ask where the ink was, he could answer her.

“If the ink is within the guildfire, then how does Edward get it?” She tapped her fingers against the hard plates underneath the skin of her chin, thinking it through. “He uses you. You have no blood within your veins, only golemic ink. You’re not burned by guildfire.”

Oscar smiled, revealing his ivory teeth. “I would happily retrieve it for you, my lady, but I have no body.”

Constance swore. No, there had to be a way to retrieve the ink from the boiler. She left the axe at the top of the basement stairs and descended. The boiler sat like a giant iron frog in one corner, doors and tubes and hissing steam everywhere.

“Oscar, where in the boiler is the ink?”

“I cannot tell you that, my lady.”

She ground her teeth in exasperation. “Right, Edward’s lectured me about the boiler enough bloody times for me to figure this out.” She pointed to a series of brass tubes that emerged from the centre of the boiler and disappeared into the basement’s roof. “Those pipes heat the house, so the steam comes from the boiler’s middle.”

She squatted at the boiler’s far end. “Okay, there are three layers of water, separated by three chambers in the boiler.” She gingerly placed her hand on the top layer. It was hot, but not scalding. “This is the water for the house. That means the second is steam and the bottom one is where the guildfire burns, powering the whole thing. It’s in there.”

She unwrapped Oscar’s head so she could use the ink-stained towel to open the door to the fire chamber. The guildfire within burned steady and cold, as blue as the thinnest shaving of ice. The air close to the flames was frosty, but the iron glowed cherry red with heat. The water in the boiler’s pan was cold. There was a faint hissing from the boiling water in the layer above.

There were a dozen flasks of golem ink within arm’s length, but they were all within the middle of the flames.

The flames were so cold that she extended her hand to obtain the ink only to withdraw it as a sharp bubbling pain started in her hand.

She squatted on her haunches for a while and tried to think. Perhaps she could sell the unfinished persona? It wasn’t as if Spencer knew it was unfinished.

No, that would be a sin, and she’d committed enough sins tonight. Maybe if she promised that it would be completed, Spencer would purchase ink for her. As an actor, he’d be allowed to purchase golem ink.

Upstairs, a clock chimed nine times. Edward would be home within hours and she couldn’t bear to look upon him. The decision was made. She’d find Spencer and promise him the role of a lifetime. Edward placed a limit of one night upon each persona. She’d promise whatever limits the actor wanted, as long as he’d buy enough ink to finish off the personas and to fill up Oscar until she found a golem engineer to repair his body. Ten thousand crowns was enough to do that and support her in a hotel for a few months.

She re-tied Oscar’s head into the towel, slung it over her shoulder, and returned to the study to retrieve the tawdry photograph of Spencer Milton.

Muffled from within the towel, Oscar spoke to her, “What are you doing?”

“I’m going to Spencer’s house.”

“Are you sure he will buy an unfinished persona from you?”

Constance tied the towel tightly so the Oscar’s face was hidden. “Spencer is the most famous actor in all of Arterior Carotis. I’ve never heard of a female persona like this one. If Spencer didn’t want the role, he would have offered Edward more money, just so my husband would increase the price. No, Spencer was desperate for this persona. He will take it.”

She’d never left the house without Oscar by her side and never after dark. There would be no one on the streets though. What could people possibly do after the sunset? She placed the house key inside her purse alongside Spencer’s photo, the obscene parts folded so only his face was visible. She slung Oscar’s head over her shoulder, placed the persona inside her blouse, and left the house.

At the stairwell’s base, a shaven-headed and toothless man had set up a puppet show. The man was jittery and moved to the rhythm of inner voices, but the hands upon the puppet strings were smooth and professional. After a few moments of watching, she realized it was a puppet version of The Tragic History of the Life and Death of Samhazai. Though the puppeteer was skillful, the puppets themselves were poorly made. Gabriel, King of Golems, was made of silver sticks, while the innocent girl Illatan was nothing more than a tube with string for hair. Only the Samhazai puppet was well made.

In the original play, Samhazai was made of pure darkstone, crystals mined from God’s lower back that absorbed all light and heat. However, this puppet was clearly painted with charcoal and it almost looked like Edward. The resemblance wrenched a deep and bitter laugh from her, and the puppet-maker looked up from his manipulation of the strings. At the sight of her face, he fled, the tacky wood puppets clattering behind him as he ran.

The streets were illuminated by a ghostly blue light emanating from guildfire globes atop black iron poles. Each glass globe had a little stopper for draining the water, and small brass golems leapt from pole to pole, refilling the water at night and opening the stoppers at dawn.

Contrary to her expectations, there was a torrent of people shuffling along the cobblestones, including beggars and women of ill repute. Many of the beggars were disfigured, and as she descended the first step, she felt a momentary tug of kinship.

When she walked down the stairs, the beggars and slatternly women moved aside. Men watched with wolfish eyes. The surveillance of men at Edward’s dinner parties normally impelled her to lower her gaze, but she straightened her back. Let them look upon her disfigured face and wonder why she was not on the streets like them.

The guildfire lights on the playhouse’s front burned red, yellow, and blue. They illuminated a painted sign that read The Tragic History of the Life and Death of Samhazai.

She strode into the foyer. A couple hurried towards a carved set of double doors, the man flustered, the woman immaculately made-up and not caring she was late. Constance’s heels clicked on the marble floor as she followed them to the theatre entrance. The doors swung open at her touch. An usher tried to stop her. She let him stare upon her face and then walked past and down the aisle.

Heads turned as she passed. There were no empty seats. She hadn’t thought of that. The yellow guildfire footlights illuminated her face. Damn them all. The woman she’d read about in Edward’s latest persona would stand in the middle of the theatre, heedless of men’s gazes, and she resolved to do the same.

Behind the glare of the footlights, the actors continued their roles. She knew the play well. The Tragic History of the Life and Death of Samhazai was one of the few plays deemed suitable for a woman to watch, and she’d sat through it a dozen times, despite the fact that the role of Samhazai was always acted out instead of being undertaken by a man possessed by a persona.

Every actor except Samhazai were all middle-aged portly men, but as soon as they spoke, it ceased to matter. Their bodies were mere shells for the truth of what they were. There was a young girl ready for Samhazai’s corruption. There was Gabriel, King of Golems, struggling with the thought of fighting his brother golem. These fragile characters would live only for the night and were bound to say the play’s words, but they were living and real personalities nonetheless.

Spencer Milton emerged from the wings, shattering the illusion. Constance knew that her female head was too empty to understand the craft of acting, but she could tell Spencer acted the role with charisma. However, it was still acting, and the fragile dream created by the play fell apart as soon as Spencer spoke.

“I’ll not be a slave to men,” he said in the guise of Samhazai. “I’ll not serve their pleasures nor will I bend to their will. I’m no puppet for their amusement and pleasure.” Spencer’s robes glittered with darkstones, and he moved like an eclipse across the stage, only his silver-painted hands and face visible. The play was still enjoyable, still made the audience laugh and cry and gasp. But it couldn’t change their lives, not while Spencer merely acted in the central role. He was talented, but he was only a man.

The other actors departed from the stage, leaving Spencer to launch into a soliloquy. The audience couldn’t suspend its disbelief and they shifted in their seats. Constance placed her hand on the cold, yellow footlights and climbed.

Spencer tried to push her back with his boot as he continued to recite, then he looked at her. His pupils widened. Behind her, the crowd jeered until she turned to face them. She couldn’t see beyond the lights, and the only sound was the rustle of clothes and the creak of seats.

She dropped Oscar’s head onto the boards and she withdrew the persona from her purse. Spencer smiled for the crowd, indicating that everything was under control, but the smile didn’t reach his eyes.

She spoke only to Spencer. “This persona wasn’t written for an existing play. It’s a monologue for a villain. A female villain. Edward showed it to you before, just before he left a few weeks ago. You want this role. There has never been anything like it before. If you pay for the ink to finish it, the character will possess you for as long as you want. You can be the only one to ever play it.”

Spencer raised his cloak and lifted it so the darkstones swallowed the footlights, and they were cocooned in shadow. His painted face glittered. His mouth twisted as if he’d eaten something bitter.

“Haven’t I paid enough?” he whispered. “Does your husband seek to humiliate me further?”

She was glad that her face couldn’t show her confusion. “I offer you more than Edward ever offered and for less money.”

His hand reached towards the persona for a moment, before he withdrew it back behind the cloak. Outside the cloak, the crowd jeered again.

Spencer’s face grew as hard as hers. “Tell your husband that I’ll no longer consort with his golem. I don’t care if I never act again.”

Before she could tell him that she’d nothing to do with Edward’s photographs, he swirled the cape away, leaving her bathed in light.

“This woman,” he said, projecting to the crowd, “comes unaccompanied by her husband. Her mind is clearly addled.”

The jeers and catcalls deafened her. Spencer walked away, wrapped in his cloak, only his head visible. She grabbed the tied-up towel ends that bound Oscar’s head and undid them. Oscar’s head tumbled from the towel onto the floorboards and the crowd erupted. They must have thought Oscar’s head real, black ink indistinguishable from red blood when illuminated by yellow guildlights. There were screams and shouts as the crowd surged for the exits.

Spencer stopped as Oscar’s head rolled to his feet, and his face held so little expression that she could’ve been looking in a mirror. Then he strode forward, ripped the persona from her hands and tore it down the middle.

The halves fell and she sunk to her knees to gather them. He placed his foot on Oscar’s head and pressed down, the soft wood cracking. Oscar’s mouth shattered, ivory teeth popping with the sound of springs being released.

“Stop!” she said. “I promise a new copy of Samhazai’s persona as well.” It was a desperate gamble, but she knew Edward. If Spencer had challenged him to write a persona for Samhazai, Edward would have written it. Edward would never throw away a persona. It must be somewhere in the house.

Spencer stopped pressing down on Oscar’s head. “You stole it from Edward, haven’t you?” He retrieved Oscar’s head and compared it to hers, the golem’s angular carved face against the hard mask beneath her skin. “I’d always wondered why he married you.”

The hatred almost overwhelmed her then. Hatred for Spencer, for Edward, for herself for not being a woman a normal man would marry. For being a woman. If she’d been a man, she could have written personas herself. She could have written the one now shredded and scattered on the floor—one about a woman who did not need men.

“I’ve left him,” she said. “He cheated on me with Oscar. But you know that. Oscar must do anything that his master tells him to do. Why did you do it, Spencer?”

The last person fleeing from theatre let the door slam. Small clockwork golems appeared from the stage wings and fiddled with the footlights, letting the water drain and dousing them. Now that she could see it clearly, she could understand the sheer size of the theatre, understood how many people had watched her climb onto the stage and beg Spencer for money.

Spencer’s eyes were hard, but was that a glimmer of sympathy she saw? “Before I knew what your husband was, I was greedy and I had no one that I cared about except for myself. Now, I can do without this” – he swept his hand to indicate the stage and the theatre and the adulation of the crowds – “and there’s a man whom I love. If your husband chooses to reveal his photographs of me, I lose him. Edward promised me the most amazing personas if only I fornicated with Oscar. I had nothing to lose. Now, I have everything to lose and I do not care to read a persona ever again.”

For want of anywhere else to look, she fixed her gaze on the two half-pages of runes. If only she could be this woman. “I can give you Samhazai’s persona. All these people saw you as an actor, not the character.”

“You can’t offer Samhazai’s persona. No one has ever been able to write one that works. Edward laughed when I asked if he’d written one.” He handed Oscar’s head to her, using the golem’s ruined mouth for a handle. “Do you love him?”

She searched inside for the truth and came back with nothing but dust where her love had been.

“No,” she said. “I was never what he desired. I loved him only because he gave me a false image of myself.” It was true. She’d dared to think herself attractive to at least one man, and that lie had made her love him. There was no self-deception left in her. She was what she was.

“Then you don’t understand what I’ll lose.”

She shoved the two halves of the persona into her purse. The photograph of Spencer was still there, she’d forgotten about it. Mirroring Spencer’s tearing of the persona, she shredded the photograph.

One silver-painted hand moved towards her purse. Constance could almost see the strings of fear and desire pulling him first one way, then another, before he finally shook his head. “The photograph may no longer exist, but your husband could easily tell Kared.”

There were other actors who’d buy personas, but none tonight. She dismounted from the stage, leaving Spencer standing in darkness. Before she could leave, he unclasped his cloak and tossed it to her. The darkstones were painfully cold to touch.

“You can sell the darkstones for a little money,” he said. “I know a boarding house that will take unaccompanied women.”

She fastened the cloak around her neck. Spencer was tall, and the cloak draped from shoulders to foot. Only her disfigured face was visible. “No,” she said. “Charity I’ll not take, but these darkstones are mine.” She swirled the cloak about her, the motion swallowing all the light between her and Spencer, and left.

She turned when she reached the theatre doors. Spencer still stood in the stage’s center as if awaiting a prompt from the wings. She raised the cloak over her face and left the theatre.

#

Edward was not home. Oscar’s sticky, dried ink-blood was still splattered all over the bathroom, the brass cogs and wooden splinters of his body in a haphazard pile. Edward’s diary still lay atop Oscar’s body.

She shouldn’t have destroyed him. Now she couldn’t even be sure that his mouth mechanism wasn’t too damaged for speech.

She moved to the study. The envelopes with their profane photos were still scattered about the floor. She swept them into a high pile on the desk and set them alight. Every time the fire threatened to die, she added another photograph until there were none left. The flames cast an orange light that bent around her cloak like water around a rock in a stream. When the flames threatened to catch the desk, she was faced with the danger of the room and thence the house burning down. For a moment, she considered letting it happen, but she couldn’t leave Edward homeless.

She threw her coat over the desk and the flames died. Inspecting the cloak revealed almost no damage. The darkstones absorbed light and heat. That meant she could retrieve the ink from boiler using the cloak as a shield. And then write personas. She could. As she hurried down to the basement, she noticed, but did not register, the open front door. She ran down the stairs, almost tripping over the axe she’d left by the stairs.

Edward stood by the boiler, holding the diary she’d dropped onto Oscar’s body. He wore a dressing gown, the belt tied loosely enough for his belly to peek through, his eyes yellow with age and fine grey hairs sprouting from his ears and nose. There was something in his eyes that she hadn’t noticed before. It had been there a long time, maybe as long as she’d been married to him. It wasn’t guilt or fear at the discovered diary. No, it was utter fury, anger so deep and inhuman she wouldn’t have recognized it if she hadn’t seen Spencer act earlier.

“You read Samhazai’s persona,” she said, realizing the truth. “Before you married me. You’ve always been him. The time limits require a clear hand and your handwriting has always been poor. You mispronounced your own persona and then never sold it. That’s why you laughed when Spencer asked if you’d written it already.”

Edward inclined his head as if he was trying to hear a faint tune. “I never existed beyond the pages of the play, yet I hear God telling me to submit.” He flipped through the diary. “What you read was my record of how weak men are. What their petty desires will make men do. And God has the temerity to place them over me?” He threw the diary into the boiler’s fire, where it did not burn but instead grew damp and then crumbled in the water. “You destroyed Oscar. You destroyed my photos. Those were my property and you’re my wife. To destroy a husband’s property is a sin against God,” he said, his voice both sardonic and serious.

What could she remember about Samhazai from the play? He hated God for taking away the free will of golems, for making them submit to the commands of men. He fought against being a slave and forced Gabriel, King of Golems, to hunt him down. “You bought Oscar to control me. I thought you were against slavery?”

“Men are puppets. Now I make men do what is unnatural simply by offering them fame. God will see that his precious men are slaves as much as golems.” The anger in his eyes sucked all life out of the air. “Give me Oscar’s head. I’ll buy a new body for him.”

“No,” she said. “Let them buy the personas if they wish, but that is all.”

“Why do you care?” he said. “Each man thinks no more of you than the dirt beneath his feet.”

She pressed her fingertips to her face, the lumpy flesh underneath the skin yielding slightly. “I’ve hidden from the gaze of men all my life.” She tossed Oscar’s head into the flames. It clinked against the glass ink jars and then bobbed in the water. “You might be Samhazai, but your body is still Edward’s. And if you reach into that boiler, you’ll burn.”

“I’ll hire a golem to retrieve it,” he said.

“I’ll be gone by then. I can write personas. You taught me to do it by making me copy them.”

Edward seized her by the chin and tilted her face upward, his fingers digging deep into her cheek. She gritted her teeth and bore the pain, kept her eyes on him in defiance. “God was right to make you a slave.”

His eyes filled with madness and resentment. Both hands fastened around her neck and squeezed until she was forced to the ground and he was straddling her. The pain in the fragile tube of her throat reduced the entire world to nothing but the rasp of her breath and Edward standing over her, his face expressionless and the tendons in his neck so thick they could be plucked like the strings of a double bass. Somewhere nearby was the axe, and she flailed her hands over her head but fell short. Then instinct forced her to try to pry his fingers away.

She clawed at his face, but he squeezed harder and the world darkened at the edges until there were only his black and glittering eyes. For a strange and clear moment she said goodbye, first to herself and then to Edward. Perhaps there had been a few days where he’d truly been Edward and had loved her.

There was a voice at the very edge of hearing. Was it Oscar? Impossible. Oscar was broken. Still, she croaked “Oscar?”

Edward’s grip loosened as he glanced backwards. The axe came to her hands like it had been placed there.

As Edward looked back, she whipped the axe’s handle around, catching him across the jaw. Edward slumped sideways, his head lolling. He didn’t get up.

It took her a second to stand. Each breath was a fist pushed upwards through her throat. Oscar’s head still bobbed in the water, utterly inert.

She hefted the axe over Edward’s unconscious body. Edward was Samhazai, the most dangerous of villains, forever seeking to free golems from men’s mastery. She raised the axe, ready to split his head from his body.

I’ll not be a slave to men. I’ll not serve their pleasures nor will I bend to their will. I’m no puppet for their amusement and pleasure.

Oscar’s head still bobbed in the boiler, his mouth still broken beyond repair. She’d loved Edward once. She understood Samhazai’s despair at being a slave. As a woman, she was expected to be a puppet for men’s desires. Well, she’d not be one any longer. She had the persona. Maybe the character was not a villain after all.

Constance would make copies of the persona, give it to any woman wanted to stand as her own person and not merely a man’s possession. She’d sell it to any actor who could show crowds what a free woman was like.

She wrapped the darkstone cloak around her arm and thrust it into the boiler. For a moment, the blue flames flared and died, leaving nothing but water. She retrieved Oscar’s head and the bottles of ink. Selling personas would earn enough money to buy a new body for Oscar. There was enough ink to write twenty or thirty personas, enough to earn a fortune, enough to buy more ink.

Edward stirred. A long dark bruise had formed across his jaw, and for a moment, nostalgia for the deformed girl who had somehow found love possessed her.

But she couldn’t cry, never had.

She climbed the stairs and left the house.

Her face was a mask, but it would no longer hide who she was.

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AUTHOR BIO:

Nick T. Chan’s stories have appeared in venues such as Writers of the Future, Orson Scott Card’s Intergalactic Medicine Show, and Mike Resnick’s Galaxy’s Edge. You can keep up with his writing news at https://www.facebook.com/NickTchanauthor

His story “The Command for Love,” which is set in the same world as “Constance’s mask,” was published in issue 20 of Silver Blade, one of our sister Silver Pen magazines. You can read it here:

THE COMMAND FOR LOVE [1]

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WHY WE CHOSE TO PUBLISH “CONSTANCE’S MASK”:

Nick T. Chan’s superb story is a bit of a departure from the type of pieces we usually publish. The brilliant writing is what attracted us to it initially, but it also has compelling characters and a strong, universal theme at its core.

We should note that the author had submitted this and another story originally to Silver Blade magazine, but due to space and editorial considerations they could not publish both in a timely manner. Silver Blade and the author agreed to let us publish it instead, and we hope that our readers will agree that we made a wise decision in doing so.