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Original Science Fiction & Fantasy every weekday. Welcome! We publish very short science fiction as broadly defined: sf, fantasy, slipstream, etc. Please read today's short story below. Browse topics in the sidebar, and read what intrigues; subscribe via email to receive each story in your inbox for free; and consider becoming a paying member to ensure we can keep paying authors and providing stories to all.

The Faces and the Masks

Marie Brennan is a former anthropologist and folklorist who shamelessly pillages her academic fields for inspiration. She recently misapplied her professors' hard work to The Night Parade of 100 Demons and the short novel Driftwood. She is the author of the Hugo Award-nominated Victorian adventure series The Memoirs of Lady Trent along with several other series, over seventy short stories, and the New Worlds series of worldbuilding guides; as half of M.A. Carrick, she has written The Mask of Mirrors, first in the epic Rook and Rose trilogy. For more information, visit swantower.com, Twitter @swan_tower, or her Patreon.

In every labyrinth in Vraszan stand the Faces and the Masks.
They differ in their materials: some wood, some clay, some metal, some stone. They differ in their details, though the general appearance is the same: the abundant petals of the Face of Roses, the shattered pieces of the Mask of Chaos, the elderly wrinkles of the Face of Ages, the skeletal grin of the Mask of Bones. They stand in pairs around the labyrinth path, each Face with its corresponding Mask, the good and the ill of the deities they represent.
One thing is the same, no matter where you go: the Faces have eyes, and the Masks do not.
When worshippers come and make their offerings, they slip coins into the open mouths of the Faces and the Masks, which fall into a common box. But their prayers--ah, those are kept separate. To the Faces people whisper thanks for their good fortune, and hopes for the blessings they wish might come into their lives. While to the Masks...
To the Masks they speak only of horror and suffering. Illness, grief, loneliness, injustice. All their fears and sins and hurts, everything they want to escape or avert or atone for with their offerings and their prayers.
The Faces have eyes. They can see the people come and go, witness human life in all its complexity. But the Masks are blind, and they hear only what people say to them.
In the dark hours of the night, when the people have gone, some say the Faces talk to the Masks. They tell their ominous counterparts of the good things in the world: the joy, the kindness, the gratitude, all the wonders the Masks can neither see nor hear. Some say they do this to keep the Masks in check, the benevolent half of each deity persuading their wrathful side that the world is worth preserving.
Or perhaps it is simpler than that.
Perhaps they simply want to bring some light and hope to those who bear the weight of all our woes.
The End
This story was first published on Monday, August 15th, 2022


Author Comments

This little meditation takes place in the setting of the Rook and Rose trilogy I've been writing with my friend Alyc Helms, under the joint name of M.A. Carrick. Although Vraszenians believe that a given Face and Mask are two aspects of the same deity, rather than separate entities, thinking about how people pray in labyrinths gave me this eerie notion of the representations of those deities having some awareness... and hearing such very different things.

- Marie Brennan
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