Samantha Lee’s Picture Choice: Both
We all wear masks, some even more so than others. We have to; it’s a simple fact of life that we conform the truth of ourselves to fit the circumstances of any given situation. We’re polite and formal with strangers, easygoing and friendly with acquaintances, respectful and honest with family. We cut ourselves into pieces and recreate who we are, becoming collages of truths buried amongst lies. Sometimes…sometimes I wonder if any of us remember who we really are.
I look at the woman in the bed. She’s beautiful, every contour, every line so perfect you’d think she’d been sculpted by divine hands. Her skin is so tanned its golden hue seems to almost glow against the dark silk sheets and her blood red hair comes off like rubies on black velvet. When she’s awake, when she’s out in public for all the world to see, she wears brightly coloured gowns and stands out like a sparkling jewel amongst any crowd. Her energy all but vibrates around her, her aura an almost visible inferno around her. Asleep…asleep, she’s delicate, fragile, her vibrant energy buried deep within her and contained. It’s one of the greatest lies I’ve ever witnessed.
This woman…she has so many masks. I’ve watched her, studied her, for what seems like centuries now, and I’m still not sure I know who she is, who she really is.
Today she killed a man. She reached her hand into his chest, closed her fingers around his heart, and pulled it out. It was over in a matter of seconds, his body crumpling at her feet. The heart…it actually beat – thump, thump, thump – in her hand before she let it fall to the floor to join his body. She held out her clean hand and her guard gave her a handkerchief to wipe off the blood, her face remaining calm and dispassionate the entire time. Then she walked back to her throne, bounced back into her seat, and smiled as she asked for the next person seeking her audience to step forth.
Once, I watched her order an entire city burned to the ground. She'd been angry, so very, very angry; the city had learned of a troll under one of their bridges, blamed it for their run of recent bad luck, and dragged it out into their city centre to be drawn and quartered. This after having left it tied up for days while the citizens took turns torturing it. The troll had been gentle and compassionate, had never hurt anyone, and, worst of all for the city, had been a friend of hers. She...she's never been very good at grieving. Case and point: after the city was turned to cinders, she ensured all the adult citizens endured deaths as painful and humiliating as his had been, and then cursed their children and all their bloodline to come to wander eternity without ever finding another home.
Ruthless, merciless, and absolute, she swiftly and decisively eliminates any threat to her people with extreme prejudice, accepting no arguments or excuses. What's worse, she learned first hand long ago that death is far from worst fate to endure and her punishments reflect this.
When she was a child, I witnessed the day she came into her power. She was at the ruins of an ancient temple which, unbeknownst to anyone, turned out to be haunted. Enemies of her father, planning to capture her and use her as leverage against him, ambushed her entourage at the ruins. Her bodyguards were killed and her handmaidens brutalized while she hid, curled in a ball on the lap of a seated statue. Over and over, with no one left to hear her, she whispered "Don't let them hurt me. Don't let them hurt me." When the rebels found her, she scrambled back as they reached for her and screamed, the sound echoing through the ruins, the terror vibrating through the stone so deeply that to this day still it echoes there. Following on the fading tail of that note came the erupting wave of her power, a chilling blast that swept out, searching, probing, hunting, trying to find what it needed - what SHE needed - to survive. And it found him - the ghost of the ruins - a djinn who, millennia ago, had been savagely killed where once a palace temple had stood. It took his spirit, gave him flesh, and summoned him to her defence. He slaughtered the rebels, their weapons and magic useless against him, then sat with her until her father’s guards arrived to bring her home.
She has a mate. He's a vampire prince she met when he tried to assassinate her. Repeatedly. Over several decades. Gradually, a sort of affection took seed between them and, with time, grew and flourished, becoming love. The tipping point happened in New York City. He was chasing her over the rooftops, throwing knives at her back as she leapt and spun and danced through the air, her laughter trailing behind her like silk on the wind. Every once in awhile she'd catch his knives and send them spinning back towards him, her twirling motion so graceful she didn't even break stride. Then another assassin decided to take advantage of the distraction the vampire provided to slip ahead of her and stab a blade through her abdomen. As the other assassin moved to slice a second blade across her throat, her vampire saved her, snapping her attacker's neck and pulling her back from the roof's edge. I can still remember the smile she gave him as he frantically tried to apply pressure to her wound, still hear her tone, pain-laced though it was, as she told him, "I thought me dead was the goal here, slayer." His panicked laughter as he told her he wasn't through with their game yet...it was far from fairy tale perfect but it made her smile, made her laugh, made her...happy.
She would never admit it, but she loves attending the lavish balls she's expected to regularly throw. She loves getting to wear the elegant gowns and the fancy hairstyles, loves being able to dance with her mate, loves getting to watch her people indulge themselves, be happy. She'd have them go on forever if she could. She loves cooking, which is ironic given that she doesn’t need to eat, but she enjoys taking this and that and creating delicious meals for others to consume. She can play both the violin and the cello, what she is allowing her to move the bow more swiftly across the strings than any human could, achieving sounds you wouldn't have thought the instruments possible of. She loves to work at her computer, writing code and hacking firewalls just for the fun of it, says it relaxes her. She rearranges furniture on the spur of the moment, sometimes going so far as to redecorate to get the look right. She has cats - a half dozen fairy cats and a dozen more of various breeds from lions and tigers to Siamese and tabbies. They're around her constantly and she delights in spoiling them rotten. She trains - both in martial arts and with weapons - with her wraiths, brother, and mate. She goes out into Faerie and simply plays, freely using her magic, embracing all that she is like a wild bird at long last set free from its cage.
She's linked to her people; she is the source of all magic, all power for her people, and shares in their feelings, be they physical or emotional. She knows every thought, every secret, every action. She knows when they've fallen in love, when they're frightened, when they're hurt. She goes to their weddings, attends their births, mourns each of their passing. She comforts their children in the dark, promising them to keep the monsters at bay. She soothes them in their grief and wrath, protects them when they're vulnerable, and never - NEVER - holds their nature against them, accepting them for what they are without reservation or judgment. She's angry with them - so very, very angry with them; they stood idly by and allowed such horrible things to befall her. She's there for them, always, but when it was she who was trouble, she who needed help and protection, in their fear they did nothing, just idly sat by, then blamed her when she couldn't take anymore and lashed out. Doesn't hold it against them though. I would.
But then night falls and she's simply...this; the vulnerable, delicate little doll asleep in her bed. Her wraiths leave her at night; they cannot bear to watch what's coming, to stand near her and know there is no way for them to help her, to soothe her. Her mate's away on one of his mission, trying to build up his syndicate to compete with his mother's coven. Her brother, her friends...none of them know about this, about what happens at night when the darkness creeps in and the shadows deepen. It begins...it begins like it always does, with a moan. She starts to twist and turn and kick and roll, her moans turning to screams as she called for a father murdered long ago and begged for an end impossible for her. I wonder sometimes if she realizes that, gripped in the claws of her nightmares, her glamour slips. The scars of her past - the jagged cuts, the smooth slices, the web-like burns, all of it - are laid bare, the illusion of her perfect beauty gone, the reality of her marred and damaged skin revealed. She...she has so many. Claw scratches - now four parallel scars - slash across the left side of her face. Burns are random patches on her sides and legs. Her back bears the marks of repeated lashings. Her torso is a network of incisions, the result of repeated vivisections conducted, the torturer claimed, for science. She...her nightmares were earned, are justified. Her scars...they're not just on the outside.
I go closer, kneeling beside her, wanting to offer comfort but unable to do more than watch, bear witness, and remember. Remember nights long ago - so very, very long ago - when she'd cry out for me and I could go to her. My mother, she told me that comfort bred weakness, that strength needed to be forged through pain and suffering successfully endured. My mother, in other words, was more than a little cold. I was, I'd like to think, more compassionate in my views and, consequently, more pragmatic in my practices. I would comfort my daughter, soothe her nightmares. I would race with her through the forest, play hide and seek with her in the palace, practice magic with her in our gardens, teach her swordplay in the ballroom. She used to love archery but her eyesight...after she came into her power, she couldn't see as well, couldn't aim accurately. She was heartbroken; her wraith - the djinn from the ruins - started teaching her knife-throwing not long afterwards.
I don't know if my empathy bred weakness, but for almost a century, my daughter knew happiness, knew laughter, knew joy. I knew. I knew that monsters would come, knew that her years would fill with torment one after the other, knew that the darkness would swallow her whole and set to shredding her with its claws. Before she ever took her first breath, I knew how one day her voice would grow hoarse from screaming, how one day her mind would snap under the deluge of constant pain. I knew. I even understood it was necessary. But...but I wanted her to have something more, something bright and full of joy that she could cling to in her darkest moments, something to remind her that the hell she endured was but a perversion, to show her that life could be so much more than what it had become for her. My daughter...my darling girl...
Her cat - a fairy breed she found half-dead as a kitten centuries ago - leaps up onto the bed. He nudges her with his nose until she shifts enough for him to slip in next to her, shifting his size from domestic kitty to something larger, something wilder. She sighs and snuggles against him, her glamour rippling over her once more, her peace restored for tonight.
So, yes, we all wear masks, some even more so than others. We have to; the truth of who and what we are...if everyone saw it, if it was laid bare for all the world to see...it would destroy us. And so we hide, we bury deep our secret selves, and we present to the world what the masks we need to. It's, to put it simply, survival.
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