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Castle Grafenheim loomed above them, a Rhine sentinel as thecarriage clattered its way down the steep, slate-bordered road to Kaub. Duchess Richberta of Falkenstein, first lady of Grafenheim and all the lands in the vicinity since the recent death of her husband Rudolphus, leaned forward to get a better view of her domain. Sitting across from her, Eginhard, her personal secretary and confidant, smiled at the pleasure written on the delicate features of his lady’s face. Her radiance of the moment caused his heart to ache, and he reminded himself again that behind the beautiful mask was a heart of stone, and greed such as the Rhine Valley had never before seen. Her husband was only four days dead, and already she was down to business.

The night before, he had stood with her on the high turret of Grafenheim, watched her holding the urn out before her, twisting it over slowly to dump the ashen remains of Rudolphus onto the slate hillside below, then turning to him with a smile. “There, it’s done,” she’d said, and he had blinked at her dumbly, for he’d liked the old man, and would miss him.

“The village seems so quiet this morning,” said Richberta. “Aren’t we to expect some protests from the merchants?”

Eginhard nodded sagely. “I think not. I’ve had my men in the streets since dawn, My Lady, and there hasn’t been a sound. People want little to do with the sword.”

“And the old woman?”

“In her shop, waiting for us. She received notice yesterday, and it should not have been a surprise. Nearly a year behind in rent. So unlike Master Rudi to carry someone for so long.”

“My husband grew soft with age,” said Richberta, leaning back in her seat. She was dressed in black, a young widow not yet thirty, and her dark hair was pulled back from her forehead, creating a haughty, severe look to otherwise finely chiseled features. “It’s only ten years since he took me as payment for my father’s debts, but his payment has yielded him no brats, and so now what was his is mine. We’ve come full circle, Eginhard, and I will collect all debts.”

“Yes, My Lady.” He nodded a bow, noting the grim line of her mouth set in determination. A lovely face, yet behind it a frightened young woman, he thought, only fourteen when sold by her family, pampered, indulged, and then raped, by first a father, and then another his age who found youth again in the close presence of her beauty. Now she was wealthy beyond dreams, as well as beautiful, and she was determined to lose none of it.

“Ah, that tone in your voice. You think me harsh?” Richberta smiled faintly, reached over to put a warm hand on his knee, leaving it there. The smile twisted when she saw his strained face, knowing well the effects of her touch.

“No. It’s a valid debt, and long overdue. But it can be paid in goods, so I don’t understand the necessity for eviction. She’s a widow, like you, but with no place to go, and she’s offered you everything she has if she can only keep her shop.”

“And indeed I will take everything she has, but what then? What can I do with her herbs and potions, stuffed birds and all the rest of the mystical rubble she calls goods? What I need is gold, and warehousing, and fertile land, Eginhard, all the land on both banks from here to Dorbitz.”

Eginhard stared at her. “My Lady has a most challenging ambition.”

Richberta slid her hand up the inside of his leg, rubbing it until he gasped. “And you know how I’ll achieve it.”

The carriage rattled down the rough stone street on the riverfront, and came to a stop before a sagging building with thatched roof, walls finished in brown clay: a doorway, always open to the wind, no windows, dirt for a floor. The light of ancient oil lanterns gleamed at them from the dark interior. Inside it was dry and cool. They stood for a moment, eyes adjusting to the gloom. A single, large room, crammed with goods like an unruly closet: jars of powders, herbs and little wet horrors lining one wall, wooden masks another, floor space filled with stuffed animals and birds, carved boxes and bizarre jewelry from afar. In one corner of the room, something sparkled in candlelight, drawing Richberta towards it. She reached out to —

“Lookin’ for me, M’Lady?” A grating voice close behind, from the old woman who had followed them so silently. Eginhard turned quickly, hand moving to the hilt of his sword, her eyes following the motion.

“Won’t be needin’ that, Sire. I’m truly harmless, as you can see.”

Richberta placed a hand on Eginhard’s back, peered around him. “You are Gerda, then? Do you know why we’re here?”

“Yes, M’Lady. The gentleman’s police told me you’d come to take away all that I have. Good that my Jan is not alive to see it happen; he spent a lifetime collecting these many things.” The old woman was stooped and dwarfish, face wrinkled like crumpled leather, stubby arms moving with each word.

“You’ve not paid your rent for several months, and this isn’t something I can allow,” said Richberta. “Besides, this shop doesn’t fit in with my plans for the village.”

“Times’re hard, M’Lady. River trade is down since the fancy brauhausen came to Dorbitz. Master Rudolphus understood this, and we had an agreement about the rent. I would pay when I could, he said, and he being the Master of Kaub.”

“He is dead,” said Richberta coldly, “and the owner of this village is speaking to you. You will be out of here within the week, and take only your personal belongings. The rest I will sell or burn. Even so, I suspect, I will not be compensated for the rent owed me.”

“Oh, M’Lady, not everything! Without something to sell or trade, I’ll die. I’m old, M’Lady, far past my days of labor. And there are treasures here to satisfy the debt. See before you, as an example.” Gerda pushed past them to the dark corner Richberta had been drawn to, picking up something white and sparkling, holding it out. “Think of this gracing your gown, M’Lady. There is no other like it.”

A white mask: full-face, carved, full-lips, prominant nose, eye-holes cut at a slant, all sparkling from a myriad of tiny stones set into the fabric. A halo of colorful feathers in reds, blues and yellow surrounded the face. Richberta reached out to touch it; the soft material felt warm to her fingers, like velvet, or the skin of a calf. She brought it close to her face, peering at it in candlelight. “It’s lovely,” she said.

“And magical, M’Lady. It’s called the Mask of Eridani, and comes from Greichenland. Years ago, my Jan obtained it from a Jewish merchant in Palestine, and was told of its powers. It is unique, M’Lady, and has great value. Surely this alone could satisfy my debt.”

Richberta held the mask against her face, turning to Eginhard. “What do you think?”

“It’s truly beautiful, My Lady, and would command a high price in a proper shop.”

“Its magic is to bring out the inner beauty of the wearer, M’Lady. It transforms the face into a window of the soul. That is the legend,” said Gerda.

“It would go well with my white gown, and perhaps Diethelm of Waldeck would find me even more attractive at my ball next week.”

Eginhard frowned, and she touched his arm. “All the lands between here and Dorbitz, dear Eginhard, and Diethelm controls nearly half.”

She will stop at nothing, thought Eginhard, but at the moment she touched him he yearned to hold her in his arms.

Richberta took the Mask of Eridani and some carvings that fancied her as payment for rent due. She allowed Gerda to keep her powders and herbs, and strange, wet lumps stored in jars, but all else would burn. She explained to Eginhard that her husband had obtained aphrodisiacs from Gerda, in secret, on several occasions, and for this she owed her little favor. She set a time for Gerda’s departure, the old woman properly cowed, yet somehow grateful for what had transpired. Eginhard felt her attitude justified, since he’d expected Richberta to take everything, and was surprised she hadn’t done so. A moment of compassion?

As the carriage climbed the hill back to Castle Grafenheim, Richberta sat across from Eginhard and pressed the mask to her face. In daylight the fabric glowed like polished, soft metal, and the individual jewels seemed more distinct. With pressure, the mask conformed with the contours of her face so that she seemed to Eginhard to be part Richberta, and part statue. She giggled at him from behind the mask. “It’s tingly,” she said. “Like tiny nettles sticking my skin. But the fabric breathes well enough. Perfect for the ball, don’t you think?”

“Yes, My Lady. By the way, the replies are all positive. Everyone you invited.”

“Including Diethelm?”

“Yes, My Lady.”

“The man has been seriously considering that wench Mechtildes of Brabant, a pathetic little thing used to being ruled by men, yet quite rich in her own inheritance. I’ll soon put a stop to that, and someday everything belonging to Diethelm of Waldeck will also be mine.”

Eginhard regarded her glumly, considering the layers of the woman and her character: the surface beauty and subcutaneous greed, and beneath that, he suspected, the timerous, insecure person whose father had finally used her as payment for a debt. He started to say something, but then Richberta pulled the mask from her face. Her skin was flushed, tiny, blue veins lacing pink porcelain cheeks in contrast to her dark eyes. The face of a young girl, whose hips have not yet flared. But the effect was disappearing, her face cooling from a light breeze as she leaned forward to touch him conspiritorially on his knee.

“Stay with me, my counselor and confidant, and I will make you a wealthy man.”

“Yes, My Lady,” he said, and ached in his heart.

In the days following, it seemed the Mask of Eridani had become her new obsession. She carried it everywhere with her, played with it even as Eginhard reviewed his plans to convert Kaub into a trading and banking center for the Rhine valley, pressing it hard to her face as if trying to find a proper fit. Eginhard found this distracting, but made no comment. Several times he found her sitting before a crystal mirror in her private rooms, responding to her call for an appraisal of a certain gown or two. Always, the Mask of Eridani covered her face, and always, when she removed it, there was that youthful flush he had seen before. Magical, the old woman Gerda had said, but Eginhard didn’t believe in magic. Not at the moment.

The evening of the ball seemed a welcome relief from past weeks of haggling with disgruntled merchants, and crafty boatsmen of the Rhine. The ballroom was filled with masked, chattering people by dusk, many of whom had driven for two days to meet the latest queen, and widow, of the valley, and bringing their elgible bachelor sons to meet her. Her time of mourning was over, dear thing, and of course one must have a man to properly oversee the holdings. Eginhard watched them arrive: merchants, and the noble class, people of both political and financial significance north and south of Kaub, the women in long gowns, breasts overflowing bodices, many of the men in uniforms from their services in the Swedish campaign.

Diethelm, slender and striking in his black uniform of the house of Waldeck, arrived fashionably late, and alone, setting himself up in a regal pose against a collanade at the base of the grand staircase. A peacock, thought Eginhard. My Lady will control you like a curl of her hair. You’d best run away to your mother while you can.

Richberta came up behind him at the top of the stairs. “I’m ready,” she said softly. “Please give me your arm.”

He turned, and saw a creature from another world. She had finally chosen the white gown, a tapestry of tiny pearls, and rubies. Her hair was a billowing mass rising above the Mask of Eridani, now alive with the excited sparkle of her eyes. Bare shoulders glowed in the candle-lit room, and around her was the odor of sweet soap and musk. A glance at the body, and one longed for a peek at the face behind the mask. Eginhard offered his arm, and she put a hand on it. “You are devastating tonight, My Lady,” he whispered.

“Surely Diethelm will agree with you before the evening is over,” she said. “This is an important moment for us, Eginhard.”

Us? Her husband had hired him, and they had become close over the years, and yes, he did increasingly entertain fantasies about her, their ages differing by only a decade. But the intimacies she shared were as between sister and brother, her occasional touches an amusing tease. Yet now her hand was on his arm, and he was descending the staircase with the woman at his side, all guests looking upwards to watch them, music suddenly swelling as the quartet they had hired began to play the A’ Commencer. For a moment he was filled with the heady feeling of being host, watching his guests twirl in the dance, his lady at his side. But as they reached the bottom of the staircase, Diethelm was already making his move, rushing up to her without a proper introduction, kissing her hand and whirling her away onto the dance floor. Eginhard released her with a bow, retired to a corner of the room to observe the festivities, and made polite conversation with the few guests who showed any interest in his presence.

Richberta danced the evening away with Diethelm, and all the bachelor sons urged forth by their mothers, quickly establishing, through gesture, the sound of her laughter and the way she drew close in the dance, who her favorite was. Diethelm was overwhelmed by her attentions, his ego stroked by a master. Eginhard watched in some amusement. How nicely she baits the trap, then quickly closes it, he mused. Only once in early evening did he have a moment with her, when she came to him complaining of the heat.

“My face is on fire,” she said, “and it’s hard for me to breathe.”

“Well, then, remove the mask for a moment, and cool yourself.”

“I can’t do that here. Diethelm must not see my face until the masks come off at midnight. Let’s go outside.”

They went out to a little balcony and looked up at the stars. Richberta put her hands on the mask, but Eginhard stopped her from removing it. “He cannot bare to be away from you. Here he comes again.” Diethelm had spied them on the balcony, was rapidly approaching.

“Oh, dear. It’s so hot in here, and my face feels strange. There is magic in the mask, Eginhard. I can feel it changing me.”

“Yes, My Lady.”

Diethelm whirled her away again, leaving him alone, and resentful, under the stars. He stayed there for a long time, sipping wine, considering what course his fate had set for him, what course it would have set for him had he been born of noble blood. Would she love him as a Graf, or even a Count? Only if the title were accompanied by wealth, he decided. No, it was enough that she trusted and confided in him, and that he was of service to her.

The sounds of music and laughter throbbed in his head, the ballroom a swirling spectre of gaudy masks, half-bare bosoms, and medal-decorated uniforms. Every dance was with Diethelm, now, her head thrown back in delight at a private, clever remark, fingers of one hand caressing the black hair on the nape of his neck. Her captive beamed down at her, enchanted. Only two hours, my dear, and already you have him in your grasp. Eginhard fought back a sudden surge of jealousy. What right do I have to want you? I am here, when you need me.

The music was endless, the quartet inspired by the enthusiasm of the dancers. In only an hour, the masks would come off, and the pompous jay engulfing her in his arms would see the beauty hidden behind the fascade. But her energy was waning, her right arm now dangling at her side, face resting on Diethelm’s shoulder. There was a pause in the dance, Diethelm leaving her for a rare moment to search out fresh goblets of wine. She seemed to stagger, turning to see Eginhard and fleeing towards him standing there in the cool night air.

“I feel as if I’m strangling under here,” she gasped. “The mask has become tight, and painful. How long, Eginhard? How long?”

“It’s less than an hour, now. Really, My Lady, you must pause and cool yourself. Let me help you.” He reached for the mask, but she grabbed his hands and held tightly.

“No, not yet. Just a while longer.” Her nails bit painfully into his palms, her voice rough, and strangely muffled. Diethelm had found the wine, and spotted them again, scowling. He sees you holding my hands, and he is jealous. So let it be, but here he comes again.

Diethelm arrived, giving Eginhard a half-masked, dangerous look, slipping a protective arm around Richberta and propelling her away from him, returning her to the polished marble floor for animated conversation with the other guests. Eginhard brooded and sipped wine, feeling unease in the pit of his stomach.

The hour arrived, the quartet returning to its position on a balcony above the dance floor. Excited chatter as the leader, a small, dark man from the northern provinces, raised his hands dramatically. “Masks off, everyone!” he shouted gaily. “And if it’s your wife you’re dancing with, you’ve had too much wine!”

There were excited shouts and giggles as bare faces appeared for the first time in the evening. Couples embraced and kissed as music gushed forth from the balcony. Eginhard searched out Richberta, found her with back turned to him, head tilted upwards at Diethelm, the mask dropped to the floor at her feet, and Diethelm was staring at her, staring at her with a look of horror such as he’d never before seen on a man’s face. His lips were pressed together in a thin line, nose wrinkling as if to shut out a foul odor. He turned away, flushing red in embarassment.

Eginhard’s wine glass shattered on the stone balcony floor as he sprinted towards her, shouldering people aside. Now there were muffled screams, and groans, as people turned to look at Richberta, the music fading as musicians strained to see what was happening below them. “What’s wrong?” he heard her ask. “Why won’t you look at me?” Her hands were moving to her face as he drew near, feeling, then clawing at it. He heard her sudden intake of breath, a whimper, and then she was turning towards him, a bloody gash on one cheek where she had clawed herself. His breath left him, as on the day he’d fallen hard from a horse; he stumbled, still moving towards her, arms reaching. “Oh, My Lady,” he said, instantly regretting the pitying sound of his voice.

“Eginhard, what’s wrong?” she screamed, hands pressed on brown, rotting cheeks covered with sores oozing yellow matter, forehead a thick, scabrous mass, once full lips now shriveled to a slit twisted into a cruel, compassionless snear.

“The mask — something has happened. Your skin —”

Richberta fled from the hushed ballroom.

She raced up the stairs, running out of one shoe, Eginhard a few steps behind her, Richberta pausing an instant to glance in a hallway mirror before shrieking in terror and clawing at her face once more. She raced ahead of him, down halls and up stairs until he thought his heart would burst. She was crying now, hysterical, not responding to his calls for her to stop. At last they reached the tower apartment she used as a private study; she threw open the door, and he again glimpsed her tear-stained mutilation before she slammed the thing shut, bolting it from inside.

He shouted. He pleaded for her to let him come in. From inside the room came only the muffled sounds of crying and cursing in a voice foreign to him. He went downstairs to console her guests, many of whom had already scampered away, explaining that his mistress was suffering from a severe rash caused by heat and a reaction to the fabric of the mask. Some nodded in sympathy and understanding, offering their regrets. Others turned sullenly to leave, and Diethelm was nowhere to be found. The quartet began to play softly as he retrieved the Mask of Eridani from the floor, suppressing a desire to heave it into the fireplace in vengeance for the person it had caused grief. But it was not his to destroy. He took it with him in a weary climb back up to the tower, where he found her door still closed and bolted. He put his ear to the door, and heard nothing.

“My Lady, I’ve returned to help you. Several people extend their best wishes.” He then told her his explanation given to the guests. “I would like to send a servant to Chemist Brut for something to heal you. Surely there’s a salve, or ointment —”

“Bring me the mask.” Her voice was hoarse, but steady, and close to the door.

“The mask, My Lady? You don’t mean to —”

“Bring it to me right away. It has work to correct, and quickly.”

“But there is something in the fabric your skin will not tolerate!”

A pleading whisper from behind the door; “One more hour — perhaps two — there has been some error — a misinterpretation — Eginhard, dear Eginhard, from the bottom of my heart, please bring the mask to me.”

He could not refuse her. “I have the mask with me, if you must have it.”

A bolt snapped. “Then step back, and hold it up to the door.”

He did so. The door opened a crack, a slender, bare arm snaking out, Eginhard guiding the edge of the mask to her fingers, watching it disappear as the door slammed closed.

“I’ll remain here, My Lady,” he shouted. “Ask anything of me, and it is done.”

Her reply was muffled, and he knew she had once again put on the Mask of Eridani. “Wait for me, then,” she said, with an air of finality suggesting he might not ever see her again. He found a chair, putting it opposite her door, and dropping onto it with a sigh of exhaustion. In only minutes, he was dozing. Twice, he was awakened by her cries in the room. Twice he pounded on the door, pleading to help her, but hearing only sobs and cursing. Dizzy with fatigue, he slept, but near dawn there was a piercing scream from the room, fading as if its source were moving away from him, and ending with a thud that came to him from slits in the tower wall. He threw himself down hallways, and stairs, past startled servants still cleaning up after the horrible revelry of the previous evening. He heaved open the massive door to Castle Grafenheim, and stumbled to the base of the tower, where he found her lifeless body splayed out on a flat slab of gray slate, covered with her blood. Her face was unchanged from the previous evening, a leathery, diseased apparition of something twisted and cruel. Still, he lifted her tenderly and carried her upstairs, past stunned servants, one of whom he ordered into the village to fetch Herr Brut, who understood the art of preparing the dead.

He climbed the tower stairs, carrying a heavy axe used in the Swedish campaign, and vented his angry grief by battering down the door to her room. In it he found the Mask of Eridani in one corner, on the floor. On a table, he found a parchment, written in her hand and sealed with her signet, naming him trustee and governor over the castle and all her holdings. “Dear Eginhard,” she had written, “he has served me and loved as has no other man before. But I have been changed into something foul, something evil that must be destroyed. I do so by my own choice.”

When it was two days until her internment, Richberta lay in state where she had danced gaily only two nights before. Common villagers came with merchants, and those of noble blood. They came to stare, hoping for a glimpse of the monster reported by those who had attended the ball, but going away disappointed, for Eginhard had covered her face with the Mask of Eridani, the mask of her death. It has done evil to you, and so shall it decay with you, he reasoned.

On the last evening he could be with her, Eginhard came to the candlelit ballroom for a vigil to end at dawn, when Herr Brut would come to take her away. A charwoman was bending over the casket, jerking back when she heard his footsteps. “Your pardon, sire, but I knew her before she were a bride, and I wanted just another look. A terrible tragedy, sire; such a pretty, little thing, even in death.” There were tears in her eyes, and she shuffled away into the darkness.

Eginhard gasped, and rushed to the casket. He found the mask askew, where the old woman had moved it for a last glimpse. He lifted the mask, and saw the beauty that had been hidden at the core of his Lady’s soul, the beauty of innocence fouled by an incestuous and greedy father, and the world that had come after him. Tears stung his eyes as he leaned over to kiss her cold, full lips, a porcelain cheek and delicate nose. He replaced the mask, and closed the lid of the casket. “May you keep her true self forever,” he murmured. And then he drew up a chair, and sat beside her until dawn, when Herr Brut arrived to take her away from him forever.

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