“Arrive a commoner and leave a king?”

It sounded too incredible to be true. The razor scraped along my jawline, removing hair in preparation for forming the mask I would wear tonight.

“Yes, my good Sir. It has happened many a time before.” Old Ottenwilde, the royal mask maker, tilted my chin up to get a better angle. “Ever since the days of good King Janus, the first Masked King of Manovia, we have chosen our next ruler at the Winter Ball.”

I followed Ottenwilde’s gaze to the eerie portrait of the masked man on the wall. King Janus, I assumed.

“Surely that causes problems,” I said. Even though I was not well-traveled, it was hard to imagine a kingdom where all the political jockeying in the world could be undercut by random selection of its next ruler.

“Ah, but it doesn’t, you see!” 

Ottenwilde settled himself on a stool next to my chair and leaned close. I knew the look on his face. It was one I practiced in the looking glass — the look of a man about to launch into a story. 

“King Janus, rest his soul, was exceedingly wise. Sadly, he was blind and horribly disfigured from birth.”

I perked up. 

“You say he was blind?” I asked with a balladeer’s interest. 

The Blind King of Manovia, all-seeing and wise 

My mind was already toying with stanza and verse.

“Aye, but he was our greatest king,” the mask maker responded with a well-rehearsed tear. “Because he was blind, his justice was pure. That is why the King Mask, to this day, has no eye holes, in his honor.”

I looked up again at the portrait and realized the painted-on eyes were what had unnerved me earlier. I might as well be as blind as the king himself! How did I miss that? Pointed out, it was obvious. 

“Don’t the nobles have a problem with the possibility of someone like me, an errant minstrel, ending up king?” I whispered, casting a nervous glance around at what I guessed were other Manovian citizens in the chairs near mine. 

The old man took a piece of dark red fruit in his hands and halved it, pressing the guts out into a strainer. The bloody liquid seeped into a small cup positioned below to catch the juice. For a moment, I thought he hadn’t heard me. Then, as he leaned over and began to pin my hair back, he spoke in a low voice only I could hear.

“The King Mask isn’t the only tradition in Manovia that is unusual, sir,” Ottenwilde revealed. “And the Winter Ball is more than a dance. I am a tenth-generation maskmaker, and it has long been the custom that we make two and only two of each painted design. One for a man, one for a woman. A matched set.”

“But I have no date,” I pointed out. This was a common enough problem in my world. All of my good luck had gone into my voice at birth. My face felt the lack.

“Ah, but you will tonight!” The mask maker’s eyes twinkled above his lecherous smile. “You won’t know her until you see her, but I’ve already made the mask that matches yours. I know who everyone is paired up with, of course. Most of the mask pairings are assigned by royal edict.”

“So, none of the nobles knows who his partner will be?” I asked, the pieces starting to fit.

Ottenwilde’s eyes narrowed. “Are you a prudish man?”

“Hardly,” I replied. 

“Then let me be frank with you, Sir. There is more that happens at the Winter Ball than dancing.” The lascivious look in his eyes drove the point home. “King Janus found that the best way to end the noble rivalries was to force alliances by encouraging the random couplings of its lords and ladies, with the hope of producing offspring that both would call their own.” 

The way he said random made me pretty sure that being a mask maker allowed for some forced randomness by means of bribery. One of the ladies from another chair — a petite, heart-faced little thing — paid for her fitting. As she left, we sized each other up. She could be my match for the night. I would be the lucky one if that were the case. By the look on her face, she agreed with me.

I marveled at the barbarity of it all. “You mean, no one has a choice?”  

“Oh, they have a choice, Sir,” Ottenwilde assured me. “There are pure lines in Manovia. They simply refuse to attend the Winter Ball. Which means—”

“They never have the chance to become king,” I finished. 

I couldn’t help grinning at the political genius of the custom. King Janus had been wise — and wicked — indeed. 

“Rightly so, Sir! Now, if you’ll just relax while I apply the neutralizing agent. It’s just juice from the popa fruit. But without it, the molding agents in the casting mixture would burn your delicate skin. You are fortunate I could work you in today. Very fortunate, indeed.”

________________

Minutes before the coachman arrived at my door, a messenger delivered my mask. Oh, it was a fine thing! Its winglike edges swept backward into my red hair. And I particularly liked the red-and-gilt phoenix that swirled across and around the eyeholes. 

The palace had been decorated in resplendent style for the festivities that would culminate with the selection of the new Manovian king. Hundreds of candles lit the grand hall, requiring a servant detail dedicated solely to trimming the wicks. The smell of sweetmeats made my stomach growl, even as the spiced floral scents of the masked ladies around me turned my thoughts to a different kind of hunger.

I sought a corner from which to observe the spectacle. I was more used to being the entertainment than the entertained. I had thought I would feel out of place, but in truth, I was no more or less than any other man there. The women looked at me — they looked at me! — seeking the pattern of their faces in mine. 

While the musician in me appreciated the music being played, the true entertainment was watching the recognition of the masks take place. Some pairings were received with calm smiles that were as good as proof of the transactions that must have taken place to ensure them. Others were received with horror, one resulting in a lady throwing her mask to the floor and spitting on it. She was escorted from the palace with tittering scorn and great haste.

Some laughed. Some seemed shy. Others responded to their partners with a stiffness that said they would do as duty required for the sake of a greater prize to be had. With every pairing, the tension in the ballroom increased among those who were still unmatched. 

“I believe you wear my face, my Lord.”

I turned to find the angel that had spoken. Arrayed in red and cloth-of-gold, she glided across the harlequin floor toward me. This was no commoner, I realized, but a lady in all her glory. The sight of her startlingly blue eyes made my throat — and if I’m honest, my pants — tighten. 

“So I do, milady.” 

I was grateful that my voice was more on display tonight than my face. For once, the flaws that had earned me a childhood of ridicule and a solitary life were of no account. With a performer’s flair, I offered her my hand and led her to the galleria where we became part of the whirling splendor that was the Winter Ball.

________________

We danced for hours with barely a word between us. My inquiries were met with little smiles, and I never heard her speak aside from asking for a cup of wine. I saw couples disappear up stairs and behind curtains and then return. By their throaty laughter and the sheen of sweat on breast and throat, I had little doubt now as to the veracity of Ottenwilde’s tale. 

I contemplated my courage, thinking to take my own lady behind a closed door when a fanfare sounded from the high balustrade. A portly man ascended the dais. Imitating the other revelers, I took my lady’s hand and turned to listen to the speaker.

“And now, by custom, we shall select our King, in the tradition of our wiser forebears.” His voice soared over the hush of the hall. “Ladies, if you will remove your masks, that we may find the Queen.”

The Queen was among us!

Every woman in the hall reached up to untie their masks and let them drop. Even so, I had no eyes for anyone but my lady — she of the blue eyes and angel voice. My gasp at her beauty sounded loud to my ears until I realized it had been echoed a hundred-fold by those around me. 

The Queen reached up to remove my mask. I think I managed to harry the shock from my face before she revealed it to all of Manovia. As she saw me for the first time, her blue eyes were sweet, then sad. Disappointment made a clumsy lunge at my pride. Hers was a look I had seen all too many times before.

“I give you your king!” she proclaimed in a faux-bright voice, holding my mask aloft in her hand.

A singular chant began to rise from the throng of people as they let us pass.  

Mask the King! Mask the King!

Or was it, The King Mask! The King Mask!

Bewildered and elated, I let the woman who would soon be my wife — my Queen! — lead me to the dais and past, into a small chamber where Ottenwilde stood, waiting with the King Mask.

________________

I lay back on the velvet-upholstered chair. It was a far cry of luxury from the serviceable one in Ottenwilde’s shop. I smiled up at the old man. I must have looked a fool to him, grinning from ear to ear like a child given sweets, for he looked at me with a pained expression.

The Queen sat nearby, watching me without a flicker of expression to warm her face. It dimmed my smile a bit, but only a bit. I wondered if she was disappointed now that the mask was off. Now that her phoenix had proved to be a pigeon. 

No matter, I thought. She was now my Queen and held to me by the very customs that had delivered me my fortune. To be King! And only this morning, I was a near-starving, horse-faced traveling minstrel!

Guards filed in, six of them, and took up positions around the room. Being guarded at all times would take some getting used to. Until the King Mask was in place, I supposed there was still no king. But soon there would be.

Ottenwilde bowed. “Are you ready for the fitting, your Majesty?”

As he addressed me, I felt my chest swell with pride and power. 

“I am.”

Perhaps there is a king in all men, I thought, beginning my reign with benevolence. I closed my eyes and awaited the tart-smelling wash of popa juice.

The hands that closed around my wrists and ankles were strong, as strong as the hands that held my head like a vise. Confusion gave way to a cold understanding of danger. I bucked like a sail lashed tight to a mast, panic bowing my body off the chair. 

Ottenwilde picked up the jeweled golden mask in his hands and moved toward me. There was no fruit in sight, no juice to be applied. Just that eyeless mask moving closer to my face.

“And it was realized that the King’s blindness brought him wisdom, and his disfigurement gave him compassion,” Ottenwilde intoned, apologetic and relentless. “For many years, we searched for a King who could measure up to King Janus, but all we found was this truth: that whole men have broken spirits while broken men learn to become whole.”

I watched Ottenwilde’s gloves blister where they touched the mask. One scream was all I was allowed before a leather strap came up under my chin and cinched down, slamming my jaws together.

“Now, you must hold still your Majesty. We only have one chance to set it properly.”

The molding solution dripped from the mask onto the bridge of my nose. My world contracted into the burning path the acid drip made as it slid toward my eye. I strained against the hands that held me, choking on my screams as the mask came down.

The last thing I saw before my eyes were dissolved into fiery darkness was the Queen.

In the fifteen years I was to rule, it was the only time I ever saw her cry.

© Melody Wingfield, 2009.

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This was my very first short story, submitted to the Writer’s Digest Short Story Competition, where it took 3rd Place honors in the Horror category. 

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