The Mask Falling – Samantha Shannon

Dawn had set its match to a clear sky when our cargo ship sailed out of Dover. Now, rain thundered from sullen clouds and the grey sea raged itself to spume against the Port of Calais. At least, that was what I imagined was happening outside, from the jolting and the noise. All I could see was the corrugated steel of a shipping container and the bruised daylight that leaked between its panels. I was curled up on a plywood floor that smelled of brine and rust. Warden had stayed at my side for the journey, trying to warm me as I listed in and out of sleep. Even though I was wrapped in his coat, my hands were still like ice in my gloves, and I shook in the sodden chill of the ship. Beneath my oilskin, I was sticky with blood. Whatever painkiller had padded my bones was starting to wear off. Years I had dreamed of leaving England, but never as contraband. Damaged contraband. As we waited for the ship to dock, I remembered another journey I had made to an unknown land. Back then, it had been my father who kept watch over me as a plane carried us across the Irish Sea, away from our war-torn home. My memories of that night still glinted. Splinters of glass, buried deep, sharp enough to catch me when I least expected it.

I had been sound asleep. Before dawn, my father had lifted me from bed, carried me downstairs, and buckled me into his car. My grandmother must have heard him, or sensed it—she had always said she could feel my fear, like a hook lodged in her chest—because she had come running from the farmhouse, a fleece thrown over her pyjamas, shouting at him to stop. I had beaten on the window, pleaded with him to let me out, to no avail. He had let her tuck me into bed and read to me, as always, neither of us knowing it would be for the last time. After weeks of silent planning, he was defecting to the Republic of Scion. And I was going with him. Under cover of darkness, he had driven through rebel-held territory to Shannon Airport. The car was pitted with bullets by the time he parked it. The rebels had already marked his vehicle, suspecting Scion might have turned him.

My father had come prepared, with a suitcase and a coat for each of us. Other people sleepwalked through customs with blood on their faces and little more than the clothes on their backs. Later, I had come to understand that all of the passengers on Flight 16—Shannon to London Docklands Airport— were collaborators. They had sold their friends and our secrets to Scion, and the laochra scátha, the rebel militias, had named them traitors to the nation. Marked for death, they had seen no choice but to flee to the country they had been serving. There were others, too: Scion diplomats, sent to negotiate a surrender, returning home in defeat. Then there were people like my father, enlisted by the enemy, who, for whatever reason, had chosen to answer the summons from London. Aside from a grizzling baby, I was the only child. Soon enough, the plane had touched down on the other side of the Irish Sea, and we, the uprooted, formed a column at the border—all of us waiting, in hollow-eyed silence, to throw ourselves on the mercy of the anchor. Our first steps outside had been too much for my senses.

Raised on green pastureland cupped by low mountains, I was dazzled and terrified by London, with its cobalt streetlamps and blinding screens and skyscrapers—bright as the sun—that knifed toward the godless blue. It had seemed grotesque in its immensity, stretched out of all rational proportion, this place I was supposed to call home. My father had bought a black coffee from Brekkabox and brazened out the citadel, unaware that London would be the death of him. London, monstrous and marvelous and magnificent, too wild for even tyranny to tame. It had eaten me whole, and in its gut, I had grown a skin hard enough to cocoon me. I never imagined that I would burst out of that skin as Black Moth, leader of the revolution. Never predicted that I would find a new family in the Seven Seals. Never guessed that I would be the one to tear the mask off London when I found out who and what controlled it. No, we were blind to our fates that day. Just as I was now, approaching the Scion Republic of France.

I had no idea what would befall me in this new theatre of war. What names and faces I would wear. Who I might become. If I had, I might have turned back. **** The dockworker who had met us in Dover appeared at the door to our container, face creased beneath the peak of his cap. “They’re searching all ships that arrive from England.” His breath clouded. “We have to leave.” When I lifted my head, pain bolted down my nape. My eyes felt tightly screwed into my skull.

The dockworker watched, impenetrable. His hair and eyes were gray as slate. No distinctive features. Through a dense headache, I wondered how many fugitives he had abetted, and how far this network stretched. “Paige,” Warden said. “Can you stand?” My nod ripped out the bones of the world. All at once, nothing had structure. The dockworker shed features and edges until he was a frameless smear. Everything spread, like paint in water. Colors leaked across boundaries.

I unfolded my legs, keeping hold of the dossier Scarlett Burnish had pressed into my arms only a couple of hours ago. It contained my new identity. As I tried to get up, something deep inside me cracked. Pain thumped through my bones and bruises. With a sharp intake of breath, I stopped, my face glazed with cold sweat. Warden knelt in front of me. As soon as I shook my head, he gathered me to his chest and stood. I clasped my arms around his neck as he followed the dockworker out of the container. Our escape registered in fits and starts. Warden sheltered me from the rain and brutal cold.

From the nest of his coat, I caught my first glimpse of the Port of Calais. Though it had to be mid-morning, the sky was dark enough that everything was still illuminated. Floodlights cast shadows on to walls of shipping containers. Ferries and freighters waited to depart, their gangways sheened with ice, and a transmission screen shone a message through the downpour: YOU ARE NOW ENTERING THE REPUBLIC OF SCION FRANCE VOUS ENTREZ MAINTENANT À LA RÉPUBLIQUE DE LA FRANCE DE SCION The dockworker splashed ahead and ushered us into a mail van. “Keep quiet,” he said, and closed the doors. Darkness enfolded me, as it had in the cell I had barely escaped. The never-ending void, broken only by the light above the waterboard, the fire of Rephaite eyes. Warden shifted a few of the sacks and boxes in the van. As I crawled into the space he had cleared, I caught the stale reek of the sweat beneath my oilskin and the thick grease in my hair. “He could hand us over,” I rasped.

Warden covered me with his coat. “I have no intention of letting Scion take you again.” The engine rumbled to life. Icy perspiration trickled down my face. “I want to sleep.” I breathed the words. “I just want to sleep.” He settled in beside me, and his hands closed around mine. My wool-clad fingers seemed brittle in his grasp. “Sleep,” he said.

“I will keep watch.” **** The poltergeist in Senshield had left a web of fine cracks on my dreamscape. As I dozed fitfully beside Warden, shunted by the motion of the van, memories rippled through the flowers in my mind, which were steeped in murky water. I saw my grandparents, hauled into the shadow of the anchor. I saw their farmhouse, its briar roses, the hand-carved sign above its door that showed a honeybee in flight. I saw my father, murdered by a golden blade. **** Somehow the dockworker drove out of a guarded port with the two most wanted fugitives in the Republic of Scion. After an eternity, the van stopped, and Warden scooped me back into his arms. I was starting to hurt again. Pain seethed like the red heat under the earth, waiting to burst forth.

The dockworker had parked on a quiet street. He shepherded us through a door, into a small hallway. “This is your safe house,” he said tersely. “You will hear from someone in the network soon. Do not go outside.” The door clicked shut behind him. Only my labored breathing disturbed the silence. A staircase led up to the next floor. Warden was still for a time, his hand at the back of my head. In the colony, he had found ways to help and protect me.

He had wielded a degree of power, even if it had been a façade. Now he was a fugitive. A god in exile. He had no means of stopping my pain. Upstairs, he set me down on a four-seater couch, mindful of my injuries. Its cushions were so wide and deep I sank right into them. I stared at the parlor: the plasterwork ceiling, the cream walls and herringbone floors. A table stood by a wall-length window, promising long breakfasts in the amber glow of morning. All was clean and comforting. “The fireplace is false,” I said.

Warden glanced at it. “Yes.” “But how are you—” A wild laugh was bubbling up. “How are you going to cope?” “Cope,” he repeated. “You need a fire. To stare into, pensively. Did you know,” I said to him, “that you do that a lot?” He tilted his head, which set off a fit of silent mirth. My ribs ached. When I lifted my hands from the couch, blood lingered in their wake. Warden turned to close the nearest set of shutters.

“Is there anything you need before you rest?” he asked. “I need to— to shower.” The stutter. The hitch in my breath. Whatever it was, something made him look back at me. “Perhaps a bath would be more sensible,” he said, after a silence. Somehow he knew. A bath would feel less like the waterboard than being drenched from above. “Yes,” I said. He left.

I listened to the swash and gurgle of the taps, the liquid oozing through the pipes. You sound thirsty. My hands scrunched into fists. Perhaps the Underqueen would care for a drink. “Paige.” I looked up. Into Rephaite eyes, demonic and soulless. Suhail Chertan, come to drown me on dry land again. My muscles seized up. I was chained to the waterboard again, smothered by sodden cloth.

Before I knew what was happening, I had scrambled away from those terrible eyes and smacked into the floor, and then my skeleton was made of glass. The impact splintered me. I reached for a breath that refused to be drawn, groped for a knife that was no longer there. A familiar aura called me back. When my vision had throbbed itself clear, Warden crouched beside me. Not close enough to touch. Just enough for me to sense him. To remember him. “Warden. I’m sorry.

” My voice shook. “I thought—” I wished I could find the words to explain. “We are likely to be in this apartment together for some time.” Warden held out a gloved hand. “Perhaps we should begin by agreeing that there need be no apologies between us.” It took a moment to muster the courage. When I placed my fingers into his grasp, he got me to my feet and helped me hobble to the bathroom. “Warden,” I said quietly. “No matter what you hear, don’t come in. Not unless I call you.

” After a moment, he nodded. I closed the door behind me. A row of lavender-scented candles lit the bathroom. Once more I was unsettled by the cleanliness, the space. Stone floor tiles, warm underfoot. Fluffy white towels and a starched nightshirt. With my back to the mirror, I removed the jacket and sweater, the trousers, the bloodstained shift I had worn in my cell. The sweater pulled at the sneer of stitches on my upper arm. When I turned to face my reflection, I knew why Warden had chosen to light the room with candles. Even the faintest illumination was too much.

South of the chin, not an inch of my body had been spared. Little by little, I absorbed my reflection. As I counted my injuries, I relived each one. Hands around my throat. An armored fist striking my stomach. Hobnailed boots against my ribs. Anything to make me talk. All of it in a blinding white room—white walls, white floor. Surgically clean, at least at the start. Nowhere to hide from the laughter and questions.

Blood streaked me where shards of glass from Senshield had torn my skin. I traced a cut above my eye, a shock of red against my pallor. My chin pinched. I had seen myself in bad shape before, but this was different. The work of people who had viewed my body as an instrument of torture. It had taken months to scrape back the strength I had lost in the colony. Now I would have to start again. I would have to live as a house of cards, so fragile that a breath could knock it flat. The bath was sinister in its stillness. When I touched its surface, my arms bristled with gooseflesh again, and my shoulders ached where I had pulled against my chains.

I needed to get the blood off. If I didn’t nip this fear in the bud, I might never be able to stand water again. Taking a deep breath, I submerged one foot, then the other. As I lowered myself into the bath, my arms shook and my wounds stung. When I was up to my waist, I exhaled. I was warm. I had almost forgotten how good that felt—to be warm all the way to my fingertips. They had left me soaked after each session on the waterboard, with the cold skin of a corpse. My shivering worsened. Before I could stop it, a heaving sob racked my whole frame.

I had tried so hard to be strong. I had said nothing under torture. I had not broken. Now, at last, I folded in the wake of all that time in darkness, stripped of my name and pride again. Warden honoured my wishes. He never came in. When I had wept until I was hoarse, I leaned against the side of the bath and held myself with both arms, fingers pressed into my bruises. The water had almost cooled by the time I forced myself to sit up. Slowly, I cupped the bathwater in my hands. I brought it to my face.

It covered the tip of my nose. Then my lips. It was too far. In an instant, every muscle in my body turned to iron. Darkness ruptured before my eyes, and I was hauled back to my cell, down to the basement. Frantic, I groped for the edge of the bath. Filth, Suhail hissed from my memory. Drink. Black waves reared over my head. No one is coming for you.

I crashed onto the floor, slick as a fish, and threw up into the toilet. There was nothing solid in my stomach. Each retch mangled icy sweat from my pores. By the time I was done, I felt as if I had been ripped inside out. “Paige?” “I’m fine, Warden.” Tears scalded my face. “I’m fine.” When I could move, I spat out the last of the bile and climbed straight back into the bath, insides writhing in protest. I needed to do this. I needed to wash my imprisonment off me.

Perhaps the Underqueen would care for a drink. To celebrate her short-lived reign. “I can’t.” My throat had a thick lining. “Warden, I can’t breathe—” Drink. For a terrible instant, I thought I would pass out and slide under the surface, never to emerge. Then Warden was there, holding my elbows. “Breathe in,” he said. My hands went to his shoulders. “Paige, look at me.

” I tried, through a dark haze. “Breathe in. Slowly.” Easier said than done. I managed to inhale, but it did little to wring out the soaked cloth of my lungs. “Good,” he said. “This will pass.” I had to blink several times before I believed he was really there. “Breathe out.” His voice guided me back to myself.

My fingers dug into his shoulders. When the surge of terror had receded, Warden drew back, his shirt wet from my touch, and saw the extent of my injuries. His gaze darted to mine, asking permission. I gave a small nod. He took in every cut and bruise on my upper body, lingering for no longer than necessary, ending on my ravaged wrists. “Who did this?” The pitch of his voice was so low, it was little more than a vibration. “Vigiles,” I said. “Sometimes for information. Sometimes for the fun of it. Suhail was the one who … poured.

” Banked heat flickered in his eyes. “You must be angry with me,” I said. “For giving myself up to Scion. For not telling anyone I had a plan.” His attention dropped to my hands, which rested on his wrists. Half of my fingernails were black. “I resented you. For eluding us all,” he said. “For knowing exactly what she does to those who defy her, yet still gambling with your life, all for a strategy with little chance of success.” “I don’t regret it.

” I whispered the confession. “It was the only way to destroy Senshield, and it had to be then.” “To those of us who care for you, your life would not have been an acceptable exchange for that victory. Every night, I wished you had not thought it was. That you had not done it.” With the barest touch, Warden lifted my chin. “I also expected nothing less of you.” I managed a short-lived smile. With him beside me, I was calmer. All I wanted now was to be out of the water and into a bed.

Warden moved to sit on the floor, while I reached for a cake of soap. “Jaxon was in the Archon. He told me things.” The bathwater rusted around me. “He said it was the spirit of the Ripper that scarred you twenty years ago.” Warden was silent for a long time. “We were hung in chains to await our punishment, to learn whether we would be sequestered— executed—for our crimes,” he said. “That was not our fate. The Sargas do not destroy their fellow Rephaim lightly.” “Nashira destroyed Alsafi.

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