Masks

by Megan Arkenberg

Snow fell the morning Moretta came to the Queen’s Mirror, blanketing the muddy inn-yard like a layer of ceruse. Lelio and I sat at the edge of the façade balcony, our heads shielded by the gray and peeling Heavens, our legs dangling over the rush-covered stage. The paint flakes and blowing snow stuck to the black-work on my skirt.

“What brings her here?” Lelio whispered, his ink-stained fingers plucking at the embroidery. “An actress with half her talent could find better employ anywhere in the city.”

“Maybe she’s with child.” I brushed his hands away and folded my legs up to my chest. In the gallery box directly across from us, I could see Moretta’s slender shadow playing across the benches. “Do you remember what happened to Sybell at Midsummer? Even the Keys wouldn’t take her on. I think she wound up at the Tulip. Valentyne was furious.”

Lelio shook his head. “It isn’t that. You saw the costumes she brought with her. Even if she was a whore—and I don’t think she is—Valentyne would accept her in a heartbeat, if only to get his hands on all that damask and samite.” He blinked away the snowflakes clinging to his lashes. “What part should I write for her, do you think?”

“Goddess and Queen,” I snapped. “We haven’t done a Maiden’s Tragedy since I was nineteen, have we? Perhaps Moretta would like to try her hand at a choker.” In truth, the sudden loss of my position as sole actress of the Queen’s Mirror made the thought of my rival strangling on stage a particularly sweet one, even if it did mean sacrificing my other specialty role—that of perpetual suicide. I doubted Moretta could die as beautifully as I could, anyway.

From the Tiring House below us, I heard Valentyne’s shrill voice calling for someone to find a place for Moretta’s properties. I rested my chin on my knees. “She’s really worth that much?”

“And more. That’s what I can’t understand—why would she come here, to the poorest playhouse south of Oldgate?”

For the same reasons we did, I wanted to say. Because she wasn’t loud enough for the Crown, or pious enough for the Friars, or graceful enough for the Swan. Because she was too old to marry, too worldly for a convent, and her father couldn’t face the shame of having an actress in the family. Because Valentyne was a foolish old Housekeep with more heart than brains and too little courage to send her away.

I settled for the truth. “She probably wants to see the Queen.”

“She what?”

“Don’t be so modest, Lio,” I laughed, raising a hand to brush the snowflakes from his eyelashes. “Her Majesty loves your work, and even if she didn’t, everyone knows you’re the only playwright in the city who hasn’t offended her by suggesting she marry. The Lady’s Rooms will be filled for our next performance, and Moretta knows it.”

“The Queen hasn’t seen us play since Hallowsday,” he said, but I could see from the raise of his eyebrows that he was pleased. “Still, you’re right about the Maiden’s Tragedy. Moretta would make a beautiful choke . . . er, a beautiful heroine.” He caught my hand in his as my fingers trailed down his cheek. “You wouldn’t mind, would you, Colombine? If I wrote a tragedy for Moretta?”

I set my face in my cruelest frown, the one I reserved for vengeful wives and Goddesses of Retribution, but Lelio knew my acting mask. Laughing again, I leaned over and kissed his cheek where the shadow of our joined hands fell. “Let her die beautifully,” I said.

Lelio didn’t answer. His gray eyes followed Moretta as she crossed the snowy yard, and I knew he was already planning Her Majesty’s Maiden Tragedy.

* * *

Three days later, Valentyne called a meeting of the company at Fleet House Tavern. Lelio was there when I arrived, huddled in a chair by the already-roaring fire, pen, ink and parchment laid out on the table before him. Moretta, dressed in a gown of red fustian with emerald showing at the slashed sleeves, stood over him with one hand raised, as if she were about to run her fingers through his brown curls at any moment.

Seeing her then, with her lips reddened with cochineal and her black hair studded with pearls, I found it hard to imagine that her Tragic Maiden’s suicide could be anything less than beautiful.

“Colombina!” Valentyne cried, kissing me once on each cheek. I winced at the added syllable, but my grace-training came through, and I returned the greeting with a smile. “Gentlewoman Fortune smiles on us this week! Has Lelio given you the news?”

As Lelio hadn’t moved from beneath Moretta’s shadow since I entered the tavern, the answer should have been obvious. I widened the smile and shook my head.

“The Earl of Southermarch sent word last night to the theatre. News has reached the Queen of a tragedy being written in her honor, and she wishes to see it preformed in one month’s time!”

It was not the shortest amount of time I had heard of for a stock tragedy; thirteen years ago, when Lelio and I first joined Valentyne’s troupe, we played the leads in a Youthful Romance collaborated over three weeks. I pursed my lips, remembering the blood-filled pig’s bladder I’d hidden in my bodice for the gory death scene. All in all, it was not the way I thought Valentyne wanted to present himself to Her Majesty.

“That gives us little time to write the play, my lord,” I said. “And much less to rehearse it. Perhaps something previously performed . . .?”

Behind Lelio’s table, Moretta raised her eyebrows and shrugged tightly. From the sour look on Valentyne’s face, I took this to mean she had already broached the subject.

“Yes, yes, I’ve heard.” Valentyne waved his hand like a kitchen maid clearing smoke. “We’re not looking for brilliance, my dear; just something new. Besides, all Lio’s old tragedies were written with you in mind.”

I don’t think he meant for it to hurt, but it did nevertheless.  I bit my lip and turned a poisonous glance towards Moretta.

She wasn’t there.

“I . . .” I turned to Valentyne, but he looked every bit as bewildered as I felt.

We stood for a moment in tableau, with only the soft scratch of Lelio’s pen on parchment to break the silence. Then I gave myself a light shake, just enough to set the jewels in my ears jingling.

“I’ll head back to the theatre,” I offered, glancing out the window at the slush-filled street. Moretta’s scarlet gown was nowhere to be seen. “To get the properties in order. She’ll have to return eventually.”

Valentyne seemed about to reply, but the tavern door dragged open, and Johen and Geoffraie Marcheford swaggered in like the rival emperors on a History Stage.

“You were supposed to be here an hour—” Valentyne began, but Johen cut him off with a shout.

“The Queen is crossing the South Bridge!”

Valentyne scowled. For a group of aged professionals liked ourselves, Her Majesty’s excursions were nothing to be excited about. But for the first time that morning, Lelio caught my eye.

“Oh, no,” I said, tapping a finger on his lips. “I’m not going after her. If darling Moretta wants to see the Queen, she can find her own way back.”

Valentyne and Johen were still arguing when I slipped out the door. It only bothered me a little that, still flustered over Moretta’s absence, Lelio failed to notice mine.

* * *

Calling Moretta’s properties “valuable” was like calling the Keys a pigsty; not entirely inaccurate, but indicating some ignorance of the items’ true worth. Every exposed beam in the Tiring House had been draped with damask and satin, lawn and brocade, samite and silver tissue. The Queen herself had never seen so much richness in one place. I lifted a shift of soft cambric from a banister and held it to my cheek, imagining the feel of it against my limbs. What role could Lelio write that could possibly give justice to such beauty?

And then there were the masks. If there is anything more important than costume in creating a character, it is the actor’s mask . Moretta’s chest overflowed with feathers, gold leaf, and silk ribbons. Her Maiden’s domino was the most exquisite I had ever seen, a porcelain-white oval with silver tracings and diamonds set at the corners of the eyes. The Sorceress’s volto, with its strong cheekbones and arched brows, looked as though it had been chiseled from a single ruby.

There were boxes of gloves, a crate full of shoes, capes and hoods and crowns beyond count. In the pocket of the Empress’s purple cloak, I found a tiny chest of mother-of-pearl.

Her jewelry, surely. I held my breath and began to pick at the lock with a hairpin. What could be so valuable to Moretta that she would hide it in another costume? Images of diamond pendants, rings of emerald and silver, and pearl chains the length of the stage ran through my mind as the lock clicked into place and I lifted the lid.

“Don’t!”

Startled, I let the lid fall shut and glanced around the Tiring House. The many layers of fabric made it difficult to see. “Who’s there?”

A length of tissue lifted from the beam over my head, and Moretta emerged, one hand clenched in the pocket of her overcoat. “Don’t open the box,” she said softly. “Please.”

Bewildered, I set the pearl chest on the top of the crate beside me. “I’m sorry. I was just getting the properties in order…for the Tragedy.”

“Oh, yes. The Tragedy.” A smile twitched the corners of her lips. “I can’t imagine acting for the Queen! Have you done it before?”

I frowned. The Queen’s fondness for theater was well known; I found it hard to believe that any professional actress could go for more than six months without performing for Her Majesty. “Where did you work before this, Moretta?”

At the sound of her name, her eyes narrowed for a fraction of a second, as though she were noticing something for the first time. I smiled to myself, noting it for later use.

“A few places,” she shrugged. “The Tulip, the Golden Bell. Most recently, the Lamp-pool. You?”

“Me? I’ve been here forever.” I wasn’t going to let her change the conversation so easily. “But why did you leave the Lamp-pool? They seem to have treated you well.”

She followed my gaze across the stacks of fabric and jewels. From the concentrated set of her mouth, I would have thought she had never considered the question before. “There were some problems within the troupe. A friend of mine.” The hand in her pocket clenched a little tighter. “Porphyry Norten poisoned herself during a performance of The Empress’s Earring.”

Her voice was nonchalant, which did not surprise me. The stage offers a rough life, and those who choose to live it learn quickly that many do not. But the thick undertone of . . . was it triumph? That, I could not understand.

“Well,” I said, extending my hand. It was time to find out just what secrets Moretta was keeping. “It has been a pleasure, but I had best continue—oh!”

The pearl box flew from its perch at the edge of the chest and landed heavily on the floor, popping open along the hairline crack. I drew my hand in to my chest, trusting Moretta’s sudden panic to keep her from noticing the gesture, and leaned over the crate to see the box’s contents spread across the stone.

But instead of Porphyry Norten’s stolen jewels, a layer of fine black dirt dusted the floor.

“Oh,” I said again, and made a show of sweeping the dirt into a pile. “How clumsy of me.”

Eyes wide and bright as lime-lights, Moretta shoved me aside and tried to gather up the dust, but the motion only succeeded in spilling more earth from her pockets. She sat back on her heals with a harsh sobbing sound, her fingers grabbing at the air.

“Moretta!” I took her by the shoulders and forced her to look up at me. “What is this?”

The hysterical expression lingered for a moment before she lowered her head, cheeks flushing sharply. “Nothing. Just a peasant fancy . . .” She cupped her hands around the dust that had spilled from her pocket and began refilling the pearl box. “They say the soil from a Queen’s footprint can bring luck, and I thought, what with the Maiden’s Tragedy . . . I’ve never led before, and with so little time to practice . . .”

Her murmuring continued incoherently for a few moments before I clenched her shoulders again. “Hush,” I said. “You know Valentyne will not allow witchcraft in his theatre. And earth magic at that—surely you know what they do to your kind? What about Sophya of Amida? They burned her at stake!”

“No,” she whimpered, shaking her head. “It isn’t earth magic, not like Sophya’s was. I don’t mean anything by it, certainly not murder! They . . .” She raised her face again, and I was pleased to see that her tears had smeared the red madder on her cheeks. “They wouldn’t burn me for that, would they?”

I remembered what Valentyne had said when he found Sybell with child, the litany of disgraces actresses were bringing against our profession. I could only imagine what he would say if he knew there was an earth witch in his theatre.

“I don’t know.” I released her shoulders and took a step back. “Get rid of the soil, Moretta. I won’t be the one to betray you.”

“Thank you, Colombine, thank you!” The gratitude in her voice was almost sickening.

“Don’t thank me.” I threw the silver tissue aside and left by the discovery room door. The last thing I wanted was to be caught sharing Moretta’s secrets.

* * *

“This,” Lelio said, holding the parchment out before him like an offering, “is the best thing I have ever written.”

I rolled my eyes and huddled deeper in the blankets at the foot of Lelio’s bed. His chamber stretched the entire length of  the inn’s upper story, a narrow pocket of warmth between the empty rooms below and the roof of snow-heavy thatch. Lengths of woolen fabric hung from the ceiling and covered the drafty windows, leaving the fireplace alone to provide light. Still, I found it difficult to stay warm.

“You say that about all your plays, Lio,” I murmured.

He smiled as he laid the papers down at his desk, but his eyes were earnest. “I mean it this time, Colombine. I’ll find a use for every mask in Moretta’s trunk. You’ll play every one of your greatest successes again—Kirke from The Sorceress’s Cup, Thea from The Empress’s Earring, maybe even Eleanor—”

“I’m too young for the crone,” I snapped. “And you know damn well how I hate playing two parts at once. I don’t suppose Moretta will be lightening the load?” I saw the protest in his grip on the parchment before he could voice it. “No, of course not. Pretty Moretta, the poor little new girl. That isn’t even her real name, you know.”

“It . . . what?” A log burst in the fireplace, punctuating his question with a shower of sparks.

“She takes too long to respond to it, as though she needs time to think. That means it isn’t a stage name, either.”

“Of course it isn’t a stage name.” Lelio sank onto the mattress at my side and pushed his hand through his curls. “But I’ve seen her plays before, when she worked at the Lamp-pool. It’s the name she used there.”

“Well, what about before?”

I offered half of the blanket to Lelio, but he pushed it away. “Before what?”

“Before the Lamp-pool.”

His eyes narrowed in an expression I’d never seen before. “Moretta worked at the Lamp-pool since she turned thirteen, Colombine. I used to write plays on that end of the city; I knew every actor and actress in every run-down playhouse for miles around. She was always at the Lamp-pool.”

“She said she spent some time at the Tulip,” I said, propping myself up on my elbow. I wasn’t sure what surprised me more—the fact that Lelio had known Moretta at the Lamp-pool, or that he hadn’t known her elsewhere. “And then the Golden Bell. Why would she lie about that?”

Lelio shook his head. “I can’t imagine.” He sat in silence for a moment, staring at the cloth window coverings as they billowed out with the draft.

“Have you heard of Porphyry Norten?”

He nodded sharply, his eyes still on the window.

I plucked at the blanket over my knee. “Moretta says she killed herself at the Lamp-pool.”

“She did—mixed a vial of mandragora into Thea’s vinegar cup at the climax of the Earring. Why?”

“I thought Moretta might have driven her to it.”

“What?” His fingers closed around my wrist. “Why? They seemed the best of friends. Moretta was so broken when Porphyry took her life, she—”

“Left the Lamp-pool. As if she had something to hide.”

Lelio made a half-strangled noise in the back of his throat. “Colombine, be reasonable! Would you stay on at a theatre where your friend . . .” He released my hand and pressed his palms over his eyes. “There are always theatre changes after a suicide. Porphyry herself came to the Lamp-pool after a suicide drove her to the Golden Bell. You know how superstitious actresses can be.”

A catch in my breathing must have caught his attention; he lowered his hands from his eyes and gave me a worried look. “What’s wrong?”

“Say that again.”

“About superstitious actresses?”

“About Porphyry. She worked at the Golden Bell?”

“Yes, she . . .” Lelio’s eyes went wide. “Yes! She worked there before she met Moretta. But you say Moretta claims to have played at the Golden Ball as well.” He leaned across the bed and laid his hands on my shoulders. “You’re thinking something, Colombine. I know that look. What’s going on?”

I gnawed my bottom lip, refusing to meet his eyes. “I don’t know. I’m afraid . . . do you remember Sophya of Amida?”

“The earth witch? What does she have to do with anything?”

“I don’t know.” I shrugged out of his clutch, grabbed my cloak from the back of his chair, and headed toward the door. “I’m going back to the Mirror—I think I know what to look for. Do you remember the name of the woman who killed herself at the Golden Ball?” He shook his head. “Find out. And find out where she worked before that.”

“Colombine!” Lelio gestured to the play script spread out across his desk. “I have work to do. Where would I begin to look, anyway?”

“Try the Tulip,” I said, and let the door slam behind me.

* * *

I found them in the discovery room, the small alcove off the main stage reserved for trick entrances. They were tucked away behind the curtains, hidden in the space beneath the loose floorboards. They were not large—only three weeks old at most, with grayish, tuffy leaves and a strange smell I could only associate with rot.

“Mandragora.” I pulled up one of the smaller plants and gagged, sickened by the twisted shape of the root. “The earth witch’s poison.”

“Porphyry’s poison,” Lelio said slowly, brushing snow from the shoulders of his cloak. “Goddess, Colombine, you were right. The girl at the Golden Bell—it was Sybell.”

I lowered my eyes. “So she worked at the Tulip after all. It was mandragora?”

He nodded. “On stage, during a performance. A Royal Tragedy.” He pushed a hand through his curls with a tight sigh. “Sophya of Amida . . . she didn’t burn, did she?”

I shook my head. “It was before our time, Lio. I’ve heard peasant tales, no more.”

“They were enough to make you worry about Moretta.”

“All right.” I gestured for him to come closer. “Sophya of Amida was an earth witch. It means she used plants grown in earth from her victims’ footprints to cast spells. Her most famous one—the one they burned her for—was Deception.”

“You mean she switched bodies.”

“Yes. She would poison herself and move into another woman’s body, then use that shape to commit all sorts of crimes. Then she returned to her own body before it turned cold.” I shuddered a little, remembering Lelio’s question. “As for how she really died . . . most people say she burned. But the priest at her execution swears he saw her take something from a vial around her throat before the flames reached her.”

Lelio steepled his fingers and pressed them to his lips. “Moretta, or Sybell, or whoever she started as—could she be . . .?”

“Sophya? Who knows? Earth witches can live forever if they Deceive enough.”

“So the question is,” Lelio said, tugging another mandrake from its pot, “who is Moretta going to become now?”

I counted the plants quickly: thirteen. One for every member of our troupe—with one extra.

“Anyone she wants to be,” I said. “But I’d put gold on the Queen.”

* * *

We didn’t move the mandragora: that was our first mistake. We were afraid of what Moretta would do if she found her magicks missing: that was our second.

On the opening night of Her Majesty’s Maiden Tragedy, we left her alone in the Tiring House. That was our third.

Despite the cold still lingering in the wood of the stage, the snow had begun to melt from the inn-yard, leaving it a mess of mud and slime. I joined Valentyne, John, Geoffraie,  and Lelio in spreading rushes over the ground, while the other troupe members cleaned the gallery and prepared the Lady’s Rooms for the Queen’s arrival. Moretta remained behind the façade, saying she needed more time to rehearse, and besides, she simply couldn’t risk muddying her precious damask gown.

When Lelio and I went in through the discovery room, we found that one more plant had gone missing.

“Whose was it, do you think?”

I slapped him so hard my fingers stung. “Whose do you think it was, you idiot?”

“Not so loud!” He pulled me deeper into the curtains and covered my mouth with one hand. “We need to find that poison. She can’t have drunk it already, can she?”

“Of course not,” I sighed, dragging his hand away. “She’d at least wait for the Queen to arrive—”

A loud trumpet note sounded from the upper level of the façade, cutting off my voice. The curtain fell away behind us, and I found myself staring right into Valentyne’s bright green eyes.

“I don’t know what you two are doing back there,” he snapped. “But the Queen has been sighted. It’s time to be masked.”

I made to follow him in through the Tiring House door, but Lelio caught me around the arm and held me back.

“Wait, Colombine.” He waited until I met his eyes before continuing. “With Porphyry, Sybell, and the others, there’s been a pattern, hasn’t there? She’s waited until she’s on stage. So when does her character drink something on stage?”

“You’re the one who wrote the play,” I said, lowering my voice to a hiss. “When?”

“She doesn’t.” His lips moved against my ear. “Watch her while she’s backstage, Colombine. Between the fourth act and the final, the Maiden goes into the façade and returns with the sash she uses to hang herself. It’s the only chance she’ll have. Keep your eye on that sash.”

“Lelio! Colombina!” Valentyne peered back into the discovery room. “Goddess, you two, you’d think we were playing a Youthful Romance! Be masked!”

“Good luck,” Lelio said, pressing his lips softly against mine, and vanished into the curtain.

* * *

By the time I completed my first monologue, the inside of the Sorceress’s mask was coated with a sheen of sweat. Only years of theatre and grace training kept my hands from shaking at my sides. Moretta’s Tragic Maiden was flawless, precise and beautiful as a cut diamond; if I had not been standing directly beside her, I wouldn’t have noticed the tremor rippling up her spine as her eyes fixed on the Lady’s Rooms above us.

The end of the fourth act was a Discovery scene; the curtain covering the entrance to the discovery room was drawn back, and the Maiden stood in the alcove, visible to the audience but not to those on stage. Lelio, in the black and gold mask of the Lover, delivered his lines from downstage left, aimed directly to the Queen in his own gentle form of flattery. I chuckled to myself, my expression hidden by the scarlet eye-mask and fan of the Temptress. We may both be aging, love, I thought to myself, but we are still beautiful.

A flute’s shrill voice sounded from the top floor of the façade, presenting my cue as I swept across the stage to artfully drape an arm around Lelio’s neck. This scene, where the watching Maiden mistakenly believes that her lover has betrayed her with the Temptress, had become such a common part of stock tragedies that I was surprised to hear the audience’s frantic applause at its closing. The young men and women in the inn-yard called for a continuation.

I lowered my fan for a moment to smile indulgently at the youngest and most handsome of the admirers when a cool voice called down from the Lady’s Rooms. “Do continue the scene, my lady Temptress,” the Queen said.

Her Majesty had rested her hands the rail of the balcony, the fabric of her voluminous white sleeves spilling down like snow. Very slowly, she raised them and brought them together, her smooth gloves muffling the sound of the applause. Still, everyone in the theatre knew what a compliment we had been paid. Lelio and I scrambled to continue the scene, spinning new puns and wordplays as quickly as the audience could follow them.

It took nearly forty lines of dialog for me to realize no one’s eyes were on the discovery room. Moretta had closed the curtain.

“Dear lady,” Lelio was saying, clutching my left hand in both of his. With my right, I spread the fan half-way across my face in warning. Let the few noble audience members who had learned the fan language as part of their grace training think what they would: Lelio would know what I meant when I said we were being watched. “I beg you,” he continued, “torment me no further.”

I made a move to leave, but the audience cried for another continuation. I looked back to the Queen, and she answered with another silent clap. I nearly moaned in despair. “I assure you, my love,” I said evenly, “we are not being watched.” Dear Goddess, let him understand!

He did. Beneath his mask and the stage makeup, the color drained from his cheeks. “Then before I do something I regret, I demand that you leave. Now, Colombine!”

If the worst that came of this performance was that my name was now a by-word for the Temptress, I would think Valentyne’s Gentlewoman Fortune was smiling on us indeed.

The audience moaned good-naturedly as I lifted my hand from his and ran back through the façade, tossing my fan away as I did. The Tiring House was dark and cramped, as it always was during a performance, and it took me longer than it should have to squeeze into the side housing most of Moretta’s properties.

The silver sash for the Maiden’s suicide was gone.

“Colombina!”

I swore softly and turned to find Valentyne at my side.

“You were magnificent, my dear, simply stunning!” His expression darkened suddenly. “But what are you doing back here?”

“Getting the sash for Moretta?” It sounded stupid even to my ears.

“She came back for it nearly fifty lines ago,” he said. “She’s in the discovery room now. Preparing for her big scene, no doubt. Believe me, Colombina, if ever there were a magnificent final, it will be tonight!”

If he said anything more, he spoke to the masks. I had already run to the discovery room.

It was still veiled off from the stage when I arrived, waiting for Lelio to finish his lengthy opening before the Maiden emerged to play the final scene. So little light trickled in through the curtains and thatch roofing, it took me a moment to notice Moretta’s shadow against the near wall.

“Moretta!” I hissed.

“Who’s there?” She took a hesitant step forward, and for the first time, I noticed the goblet in her hand. “What do you want, Colombine?”

“Moretta.” I extended my hand for the goblet. “Don’t do this. I know all about your earth magic. I know what you have in that cup.”

If she was afraid, her domino well disguised her fear. “Really? And who will you go to with the knowledge? What can an actress from the poorest playhouse in the city say against . . . a Queen?”

She raised the goblet to her lips and began to drink.

Biting back a cry of despair, I leapt forward and knocked the cup from her hands. She smiled as it rolled across the floor, precious mandragora poison spilling out across the dark wood. “You’re too late,” she whispered. “It kills fast—trust me, I know. Already my hands are cold . . .” She pressed an icy finger against my cheek. The rough object she clutched with the others scraped against my skin.

The sash.

I grabbed it in both hands, twirling as quickly as I could to loop it across her neck. She was smaller than I was: her head came only to my shoulder as I pulled hard on the make-shift garrot, cutting off her breath and silencing her screams before they could start. I fought wave after wave of nausea as her hands clawed at mine, growing slowly more feeble until her eyes rolled back and her body went limp.

I loosened my grip and let her body land with a thud at the hem of the curtain. Grace training or no, I couldn’t stop my hands from shaking.

Slowly, slowly, like the sound of thunder moving across a long plain, Lelio’s voice reached me from the stage. He was nearing the end of his opening. “My lady knows I am true!” he cried.

Biting color back into my lips, I ripped off the Temptress’s mask and knelt beside Moretta. I forced my hands to still as they worked through the diamond-studded tresses to the ties of the Maiden’s domino.

“My lady knows I am true!” Lelio said again. The Maiden’s cue. With icy fingers, I wrapped Moretta’s sash around my neck and pulled back the curtain. If ever there were a magnificent finale . . .

“My lady knows I wear no mask!”

Through the eyeholes of the Maiden’s domino, I watched the Queen’s silent applause as I stepped out on stage.