Fawkes – Nadine Brandes

I wasn’t ready to turn to stone. I leaned so close to the small wall mirror that my nose left a grease spot on the glass, but I held still. Or tried to. I couldn’t control the trembling. The grease spot smeared. My right eye reflected a bright-blue iris, but it was the left side of my face that held me a whisper away from the mirror. Cracked stone blossomed from the chiseled marble that should have been an eye. The ball didn’t move; the lid didn’t blink. I lifted shaking fingers to my face. Petrification tickled the hairline of my eyebrow. A single infected hair protruded like a stone needle. The plague was spreading. I broke off the hair, as though that would help, but I knew better. “Come sit, Thomas.” I stumbled backward before facing the apothecary, Benedict Norwood.

Norwood stood at his dented and stained herb table, the backdrop of his curio cabinet displaying rows of green-hued bottles and jars, most of which held some sort of powder, paste, or plant. He bent over my leather eye patch, picking at the seam threads with a small knife. Norwood wore his color mask—deep Green with gold laurels on the crown. Though no expression painted its face beyond two eye holes and a carved nose, it emitted a sense of calm. I imagined Norwood’s hidden expression as one of care and kindness, like his voice—a balm I’d come to rely on. I felt naked without the patch covering my plagued eye. If any of the other students at St. Peter’s Color School saw me . “Norwood, it’s spreading.” My voice was weak and childish—the opposite of what I needed on the day I was to be declared a man.

“Barely.” Norwood poked a series of eyelet holes in the new edge. My breath quickened. “It’s stayed contained within my eye socket the entire past year since I caught the plague. Why would it spread? And now?” Why on the day of my Color Test? “Thomas Fawkes, come sit.” With a single whisper, he sent a thick olive-green thread through the eyelets and tied it off in a perfect knot. Norwood muttered another color command and mixed a green paste in a wood bowl beside him. Then he removed his mask and leveled me with a stare so commanding, it left no room for panic. When he took off the mask, we switched from student and professor to friends. I wiped my sweating palms on my doublet, straightened my cuffs, and sat on the three-legged stool before the counter.

He lowered himself onto his own stool, across from me. I glanced over my shoulder at the closed door. Then to the window leading out to the garden. “Shall we put the eye patch back on?” “In a moment. The paste needs to set a little longer.” He placed a black cowhide bag on the table and withdrew seven wooden spheres, each painted a different color and none larger than a chess pawn. “Focus on the colors, not the plague. Your Color Test is tonight.” “Norwood, if I don’t bond with Grey, then the plague will spread to my brain. If I’m blind, I can’t bond with any color—” “You worry like a woman!” He tossed me the Brown sphere.

I caught it with one hand by reflex. “Help me polish these.” I halfheartedly snagged a spare rag and rubbed the cloth over the wood. It looked plenty polished to me. Besides, I didn’t want to become a Brown. My gaze strayed to the Grey sphere. It sat there. Still. Dull. Mocking me.

What if, when I put on my new color mask, Grey didn’t bond with me? “I was nervous for my Color Test too.” Norwood spit on the Green sphere and rubbed it in practiced circles. “When my father handed me my mask for the first time and I put it on, all fear fled. I looked through the mask at the spheres and, clear as the sun in the sky, Green glowed like a beacon. The moment I spoke its language, it bonded to my mask.” His smile grew and I found myself smiling with him. “It was magnificent. You’ll understand after tonight.” My hands stilled. Would that be my story? I pictured myself wearing my new mask in a few hours .

and none of the colors glowing. Everyone watching. Father watching. What would I become without a mask? Without color power? The plague would spread and I would be consumed by the stone. “Even if Grey does glow brightest when you call, you need to be ready to speak the other languages.” Norwood rolled the Blue sphere to me. “Go on.” I gave a final polish to Brown. “Brown obeys warmth and smooth authority.” My voice sounded bored.

I set aside the Brown sphere and picked up the Blue. “Blue speech is like poetry—rhythmic and flowing.” “And Green?” Norwood rested a hand on his mask at his belt. “Requires a calm and pleasant voice. It can sense your emotions.” Reciting the color languages was like reciting a nursery rhyme. “Is this really—” “What about Red?” I reached for the Red sphere, but then my hand bypassed it, almost of its own accord. I picked up the Grey sphere, my fingers sliding across its textured surface. “Grey.” Grey obeyed a firm voice.

A command, not a request. Confidence. Authority. I clenched my fist around it so tightly a knuckle popped. “It has to be Grey. That is all I want.” Once I had my mask, I would spend the rest of my life commanding the Stone Plague to recede from my body. “There is no cure, Thomas, even if you bond with Grey.” He sounded resigned. “There has to be.

” “Others have tried Grey speech—” “I am not others!” I slammed the Grey sphere onto the table. “I am the son of Guy Fawkes. The blood in my veins is the blood of color warriors.” I wanted to say more, but the walls of St. Peter’s Color School were thin. And even in the heat of the moment, I dared not say what type of warriors my family was. I barely dared to think the word. Keepers. Even though Norwood was a Keeper, too, an agreed silence always hung between us. The war between Keepers and Igniters was too real—even at St.

Peter’s, an Igniter school. That was why I needed to live. To find a cure for my plague—so I could join the fight. “No matter whose son you are, this is your Color Test. You must be adequately prepared. All masks take on the color with which the bound person is strongest.” He picked up his mask and tied the cords to hold it in place. Then, with barely a whisper, he spoke to the green paste in the bowl and a thick stream of it spread itself on the inner edges of my eye patch. I never tired of watching color power. A knock on the door.

“Benedict?” I startled, knocking the Brown sphere off the table with my elbow. It rolled into the folds of a cream-and-green gown. Emma Areben stood in the doorway—her oak-Brown mask firmly attached to her face with a white rose covering one eye. I clapped a hand over my plagued eye, but the stiff silence was confession enough of my secret. She’d seen. The girl who hung on the arm of my greatest enemy knew about my plague. “I’ll be finished in a moment, Emma.” Norwood’s usually collected voice was stripped of all warmth. Emma stared a moment longer, then whispered something. The Brown sphere soared through the air and back onto the table.

Then Emma backed out of the room, closing the door behind her. Norwood and I sat in silence. Doom had come in the form of an elegant masked lady, all of sixteen. My hand drifted down from my eye. “She saw—” “I know.” “It’s over.” I would be expelled on the day of my Color Test. In front of Father and my peers. Norwood picked up my eye patch. “She won’t tell.

” “She’s an Igniter. She’s with Henry Parker. One slip—” “She won’t tell.” I leaned forward and he affixed it to my face. The green sealant paste hardened and I adjusted to the stickiness. I tapped the eye patch. Nothing in my sight changed—I was half-blind already—but I breathed in the safety that came from a hidden secret. “As you say.” I didn’t see how Norwood could know what Emma would do, but I trusted Norwood. And worrying would do nothing to help me survive this terrible day.

Too much was happening—the spread of my plague, the Color Test, the arrival of Father, who would present me with my mask. Only with my mask could I bond with a color. It had been a year since his last letter . and thirteen years since he last saw me. A mere babe then, I didn’t know his face—or his mask. He had spent most of my life away, fighting in battles, saving lives, upholding a cause. He stopped writing when I told him I was plagued. But until today it hadn’t spread. It hadn’t infected others. I wasn’t endangering anyone.

Perhaps Father was ashamed. After tonight, I hoped he would be proud. Norwood scooped the spheres into their pouch. I rose from the table, but hovered—not quite ready to reenter the drama of St. Peter’s Color School, where I would dress for the supper and endure Henry Parker’s insults and possibly be expelled for my plague. “I expect Father will be ashamed to see my infection.” Norwood’s eyes crinkled in the shadows of his mask eye holes. “The great Guy Fawkes is traveling across all of England to bring you the mask he carved.” He placed a hand on my shoulder. “He ought to be nothing but proud of you.

” The great Guy Fawkes. The mighty solider. How could I live up to such a legacy? “Thank you.” I strode to the door, then looked over my shoulder. Norwood still watched me. I grinned and raised my good eyebrow. “Get a firm look at my face, sir. For after tonight you shall not see it again.” I tied the final ribbon from my doublet to my breeches—both of which were newly fitted for my coming-of-age day by York’s not-quite-finest tailor. I combed my brown hair away from my face as best I could.

In a few minutes I would descend the steps of St. Peter’s Color School for the last time as a maskless. Father would be waiting. If Norwood was right and Emma kept her mouth shut, I would start my final year of training, complete with color power and mask. I forced a deep breath. Confident. Commanding. “Mr. Fawkes.” Headmaster Canon entered my room.

He wore a Blue mask with two painted keys of sky blue crisscrossed in the center. I tried not to let my nerves show. I couldn’t read his face behind his mask. Was he here to confront me about my plague? “You should be downstairs already, boy. Guests are arriving.” His voice was as smooth and singsong as the Blue language he commanded. My fear fled, replaced by relief and then irritation. Boy. Even today, on my coming-of-age day, the headmaster called me boy? I would not stoop to remind him that I was the son of Europe’s mightiest color solider—or that I would receive my mask today and then be his equal. I perfected my posture and strode past the headmaster to the stairs with a curt, “Sir.

” Halfway down, my steps slowed. I was about to see Father. My knuckles whitened against the banister. What would he say about my eye? I recalled Norwood’s words. I must go into this ceremony confident. Commanding. I didn’t need Father’s—or anyone else’s—approval. I entered the sitting room. Dark carved oak paneling covered all four walls, interrupted by a white stone hearth. A fire blazed inside it, draping a blanket of warmth over me as I entered.

My throat tightened, urged to whisper a command to the flame and see if it obeyed. Of course it wouldn’t. Yellow speech was extremely complex and required the crown’s permission. Other hues hummed around me, as though begging me to speak to them. Brown wood beneath my feet. Grey from the candle brackets lining the wall. Woad Blue from a fellow’s doublet. Oh, to control them all! But I would command only one—that was the Keeper way. My family’s way. To lust after multiple colors was shameless.

Greedy. The way of Igniters. After tonight, one color—I prayed it was Grey—would obey my voice. I am the one you want. I stumbled and glanced around. Which one are you? A color had never spoken to me before. That made it the most alluring of all. Could it be Grey? “Ah, the Cyclops has emerged from its den.” I ripped myself from the search for the mystery color. Three older students hovered by the fire, pewter goblets of wine cradled in their hands.

Their masked faces turned toward me. Henry Parker—the spokesman of the three and as pleasant to look at as a muddied swine—lifted his goblet. His Grey mask bore a set of painted black lips resting in a side-smirk. That simpering smirk would keep him from ever being taken seriously. Father would know better than to include something so immature as a smirk on my mask, wouldn’t he? Father. I scanned the room. Headmaster Canon chatted with some strangers near the entrance. My grandparents—Denis and Edith Bainbridge of Timble Hall—stepped into the room, leaving their cloaks with the entry servant. A few professors examined one of the school bookshelves holding tomes about color languages. Then I caught the curled dark hair.

The oak-Brown mask. The painted silver eyelashes and a white rose over one eye. Emma Areben joined Henry’s crew. I once thought her beautiful despite having never seen her true face. She’d arrived at St. Peter’s a year ago, already masked. I envied her for never having to take St. Peter’s test. The Color Test was one “student honor” I wouldn’t have minded forgoing. She and Henry would graduate tonight after my maskless peers and I took the Color Test.

She turned her head my way and I darted my gaze to the rest of the room. I’d expected Father to arrive with Grandmother and Grandfather. I glanced out the window. Rain. That explained his delay. “Have you decided which colors you’ll start with, Cyclops? I suppose you don’t care, as long as you have a mask to hide that fencing wound.” After years of Henry’s barbs, I should have been able to handle them better. At least his insult proved he knew nothing of my plague. Teeth gritted, I walked away, mainly so I wouldn’t hear Emma’s laugh. I heard it anyway.

I crossed the room to greet my grandparents—the two who had raised me long enough to send me to St. Peter’s. Grandmother, her broad-brimmed hat like a crown atop her feathered hair, wore a dark petticoat with a modest neck ruff. Both she and Grandfather wore their masks on their belts, Grandfather’s a river Blue carved with the swirls and flow of rushing water. Grandmother’s a dull Brown. I embraced Grandmother, but when I shook Grandfather’s hand, I scanned the entryway again. It was empty save for the maskless servant, his eyes downcast. No father to carve his mask. Where was Father? “Thomas, let’s step outside.” Grandfather took my arm.

“I would have a word.” My knees locked. Outside? For a word? Now? It had to be bad news. Now was not the time. Grandfather steered me toward the door, but Headmaster Canon called out, “Thomas, come here, boy.” Boy again. Fueled by nerves, my feet obeyed his singsong voice and I left—no, fled— Grandfather’s news. I passed the testing room. The door hung open, the interior lit by a lone candle. The six color spheres rested in a line on the surface of the table.

Awaiting me. I walked on. Headmaster Canon led me to the strangers. One man wore a slate-Grey mask at his belt and the other a Brown one textured like tree bark. “This is Master Connor,”—the Grey inclined his head —“and this is Master Haberdasher.” The Brown held my one-eyed gaze, then the Headmaster went on. “They each seek an apprentice and will join us for supper and for your Color Testing.” The two masters bowed, but neither seemed impressed. Instead, their attention drifted to Henry— St. Peter’s most skilled.

Within the hour, I’d have my mask and they’d give me the time of day. I would be like Emma— never taking my mask off. They’d see the power that flowed in my Fawkes blood. I shook off my nerves. Confident. Commanding. I must be a Grey. I gave a small bow. “You are both most welcome.” “Perhaps Fawkes’s mask will have only one eye,” Henry commented to his peers.

Do. Not. Turn. Red. The possibility of a cyclops mask had crossed my mind. Father might fill in an eye hole when he saw my patch. I wouldn’t mind— Father. Why wasn’t he here yet? I avoided Grandfather’s scrutiny, though his posture leaned my way. If my suspicions about his bad news were right . No.

Grandfather gestured to Headmaster Canon. My stomach lurched. They both spoke in low tones, then Grandfather withdrew an envelope, his gaze drifting to meet mine. I strode over. “Thomas.” Grandfather faced me. I shook my head. Please, no. “He’s not coming.” The room muted as though a giant pillow pressed upon it.

Cloying. Suffocating. “Of course he is —” “We’ve only just had word from London.” Grandfather kept his voice low, but it still rang like a cathedral bell in the silent room. This discussion couldn’t be happening. Not in front of everyone. “He promised. In his last letter. I will not doubt him.” I didn’t mention that the letter came before Father knew I was plagued.

Headmaster Canon handed me the new letter. It contained one sentence. There will be no mask for Thomas from me. Below that, Father’s signature. No explanation. I faced Grandfather, more to hide my shame from others than to meet his gaze. “But . everyone’s here.” My voice rose. “He has to come.

” Everything rode on Father’s presence . on the mask he was to give me. I needed him on this day only. I would never ask for another favor. Norwood slid into the room from the hall. His appearance caused my good eye to burn. Henry’s whisper cut the silence from my blind spot on my left. “He really thinks the great Guy Fawkes will show up with a mask. Does he actually believe the man is his father?” No one responded. Emma didn’t laugh.

“I’m sorry, son.” Grandfather sounded remorseful, but he had no idea what he’d done. He’d announced this shame publicly. Before my peers, my professors, the masters. Master Connor and Master Haberdasher inched toward the other students—the masked students. Giving up on me. Headmaster Canon cleared his throat. “I need to have a private word with Mr. Fawkes.” He took my arm and led me from the room.

“Come along, boy.” I craned a look over my shoulder until I located the Green mask and gold laurels. The man I wished was my father. “Norwood?” He could fix this—explain this. He was our herbalist. Healer. My friend. Norwood strode after me. “I’m here.” His quiet words were for my ears alone.

In one swift moment, the buildup of emotions that had filled me deflated, leaving me empty. But I did not stay hollow long. Anger trickled into the space. Drip. Drip. Drip. Headmaster Canon opened the door to his private study, allowing me to enter first. Muted moonlight filtered through the rain-speckled windows across the room. “Give us a moment.” He closed the door on Norwood, then lit a candle.

“Without a mask, there’s no reason for you to continue at St. Peter’s.” Canon’s usually singsong voice came out monotone. “We cannot apply color training when you have no color power.” “You want me to leave?” I croaked. I couldn’t leave with one year left—the final and most important year that resulted in an actual profession. The year I would hone my skill with the color of my choice—Grey—and maybe heal my eye. Despite the school and its dog-eat-dog students, I couldn’t be cast out now. I had a mere sixpence and shilling to live on. Headmaster Canon hung his head and I caught a muffled sigh.

“Only your father can carve your mask and pass on the color powers. Unless you can track down Guy Fawkes for a mask, you cannot be bound with a color.” “Why cannot my grandfather pass on his color power? Or even Norwood?” My voice sounded shrill. “It comes through blood, from father to son and mother to daughter. Denis Bainbridge is not your grandfather by blood.” He folded his arms as though steeling himself. “You no longer have a place in our society.” I could not harden my heart fast enough to block the sting. Not just in the school, but in society. I no longer had a purpose.

The servant in the entrance hall came to mind. Me—the son of Guy Fawkes and the grandson of the master and mistress of Timble Hall—maskless? Viewed as an orphan? Treated as an orphan? Not just that, but . A plagued orphan. They were casting me upon the street. No Fawkes had ever been maskless before. I wouldn’t allow it. I would not be the first. “You are welcome to remain for the graduations—” “I will find him.” My voice emerged strong. Commanding.

Like a Grey. “I wish you all the bes—” “Good eve, Headmaster.” I forced winter into my voice. I wasn’t in the mood to hear his well wishes when he was the one sending me from St. Peter’s. I strode from the room and nearly plowed into Norwood. He gripped my hand in a firm shake. A farewell. I nodded, clenching my jaw, and then continued through the halls of St. Peter’s Color School. I would find Father. I would get my mask from him . And then I would make him regret ever having a son.

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