The moment Ren stepped out from behind the silk changing screen wearing Lady Olivia Stryphe’s face, the audience of the Celestial Aurora Theater turned on xem. Echoes of laughter died stillborn in the air, smothered by an uneasy silence.
Ren didn’t know what to make of the audience’s sudden reticence. They’d enjoyed xyr impressions of Lord Maevis and the commissioner of the merchant’s guild well enough. Maybe the locals held Lady Stryphe in higher regard than the nobles who ruled the surrounding countryside. They did live in the shadow of Raeveshire Keep, after all.
Even so, Ren had already taken the lady’s shape — a short, rail-thin woman with a hawkish nose and surprisingly full lips. It would be unseemly to move on without at least a few minor jests. Perhaps xyr jokes would give the lady’s subjects a fresh outlook on their corner of the kingdom. It was important to find humor in life; when laughter died, one was left only with despair.
Ren raised xyr arms, gesturing to the audience. “My people! I am pleased you have come to see me this day. It is my pleasure to provide you a rare tour of Raeveshire Keep.” In the past, Ren had portrayed the lady’s speech with an exaggerated, waspish tone, but xe’d snuck into court the day before and been impressed by the lady’s calm, measured tenor and precise diction. It made xyr imitation of her less of a caricature, which took away some of the fun, but lent an aura of truth to the performance that had previously been lacking.
Xe walked the audience through a verbal description of the rooms one would expect to find in a castle keep, cracking joke after joke that fell dead on arrival. Finally, in desperation, xe blurted, “And here is the dungeon! I hope you never find yourself here again, but if you do, you’ll make fast friends with Lord Stryphe.”
There was no seriousness to the accusation, of course, but the lord had vanished almost a decade ago, and Lady Stryphe was suspected of arranging his disappearance. She’d managed his holdings in his absence and refused to remarry, claiming she still held hope for his return.
Gasps. Murmurs. No laughter to be heard. A number of people cringed up at the centermost balcony booth.
There, staring down at Ren with feverish intensity, was Lady Stryphe.
The lady wore a black samite gown with silver threads woven into the cloth. She gestured indolently toward Ren and made a comment — indiscernible at this distance — to her ladies in waiting. The courtiers winced. Lady Stryphe’s attention refocused on Ren; her lips twisted into a cruel smile.
Shit. Balls. Of all the gods-damned theaters in Raeveshire, Lady Stryphe had decided to attend this one. She couldn’t have been here the whole time — Ren made a point of surveying the audience before every performance. She must have snuck in later.
There was only one way to salvage this. Ren dashed behind the silk screen xe had set up beside xyr costume trunk and slipped off the black woolen dress xe’d used for xyr impression of the lady. Xe donned a suede leather vest over a white linen undershirt and black breeches, then stepped out from behind the screen. Xyr body rippled as xe transformed into a tall, blonde-haired man with a rakish grin. Handsome faces always helped when trying to get oneself out of trouble.
“Ladies and gentlemen! My final tale is a true one.” Xe swept xyr arms wide and graced the audience with xyr most charming smile. “Once upon a time, there was a man — or perhaps a woman, but I’ve found men to be more universally arrogant — who told a story so scandalous that it angered Praeopia, the goddess of destiny.”
Ren snatched up a fur-lined cloak from xyr costume chest and spun around, flaring the cloak widely as xe draped it over xyr shoulders. When xe turned back to the audience, xe had transformed into the classical representation of Praeopia: a heavy-set beauty with flowing silver curls that tumbled to the floor. The form was as tall and wide at the shoulders as Ren could stretch; it took all of xyr focus to maintain it. It wasn’t a flawless rendition of the goddess — that was something Ren could never hope to portray — but it was the closest a mortal form could approximate.
Xe pointed at the ground and bellowed in a rich contralto, “Foolish mortal! You have angered the gods and must be punished. Since you are so fond of stories, I will rob you of your own.”
Ren whirled on xyr heel and whipped off the cloak, transforming into the rakish-grinned man in the process. Xyr expression shifted from wry amusement to utter terror as xe pushed xemself into an exaggeration of xyr usual transformation, facial features melting down until they became so soft and subtle they were almost entirely absent. The color drained from xyr face and hair, blanching to a near-translucent white; xyr body shrunk and shriveled into something short and lithe, not unlike that of a prepubescent boy.
This was Ren’s true form, genderless, ageless — at least, as far as Ren could tell.
Ren held the pose long enough for the audience to drink in the full ramifications of the transformation. Then, to hammer the point home, xe somberly whirled the cloak around xemself and resumed Praeopia’s form. “You have robbed yourself of your own destiny this day. Never again will you remember the person you were. You will wander the earth, able to take on any form but your own, for the rest of your natural life.”
The depth of the curse was not so broad as Praeopia’s proclamation had made it seem; Ren could only take on the shapes of other people, and there were limits to how much xyr body could stretch or shrink. Still, the proclamation never failed to turn heads — and often garnered sympathy, which was desperately needed at the moment.
Ren whirled the cloak around xyr face and let it fall, assuming xyr true form once again. Xyr voice rang out across the theater, a treble pure and lilting as a dancing brook. “That, ladies and gentlemen, is how I became Ren of the Thousand Faces. My previous life was wiped from reality by the wrath of the gods. That was not, however, the end of my story. In truth, I regard it as an auspicious beginning. I came into this world with no memories, no connections, and no family, but I also harbor no obligations, no trauma, and no enemies — at least, none I’ve not made of my own accord.”
Now the audience laughed — everyone but Lady Stryphe. She leaned forward intently, studying Ren’s every move with a piercing, calculated gaze.
Ren expected Lady Stryphe to visit xyr dressing room after the performance, accompanied by a cadre of handmaidens if xe was lucky — or an escort of guards if xe wasn’t. Xe certainly didn’t expect her to come alone. The door opened silently; had it not been for the large, polished tin mirror, Ren wouldn’t have noticed her entrance.
Ren stood, spun on xyr heel, and gave a deep bow. “Milady.”
Lady Stryphe smirked. “There’s no need for formalities, husband.”
Ren froze mid-motion. “I beg your pardon?”
Lady Stryphe sat in the satin-backed chair usually reserved for performers. “You committed what could arguably be considered an act of treason tonight, but I’m willing to show leniency if you do me a favor in turn.”
Ren blinked. “You want me to pose as Lord Stryphe.”
“I want nothing more than to welcome my long-lost husband back to Raeveshire Keep.”
“You’re that certain he won’t be returning?”
“Nothing is ever certain in life, but I doubt he’ll return of his own volition after such a long, unexplained absence.”
Ren tilted xyr head to the side. “I can’t take the form of someone I haven’t seen.”
“I’ve hung a twelve-foot portrait of Lord Stryphe above the landing of Raeveshire Keep’s grand staircase.”
Ren arched an eyebrow. “Fair enough.” Why would the lady hang a painting of someone she’d disposed of where she’d see it every day? Why, for that matter, would she hire an impersonator of someone who might yet return?
Lady Stryphe smirked. “Shall I inform the guards waiting outside that we’ve reached an accord?”
And there was the stick if Ren didn’t jump for the carrot. Xyr options were to allow Lady Stryphe to blackmail xem or to be arrested and tried for treason.
As always, Ren chose the unlisted option. “Of course, milady. Shall we toast to our new partnership?” Xe fetched a bottle of elderberry wine and two flute glasses from a nearby cupboard, palming a knuckle-sized skein of Dreamer’s Bliss in the process.
Lady Stryphe chuckled and nodded her assent. “My husband was always fond of his drink.”
Ren shifted just so as xe poured the lady’s glass, making sure to mind the view she’d have should she look in the mirror, separated a few threads of Dreamer’s Bliss from the larger bundle, and dropped them inside. The strands were thin as spun sugar. They dissolved within seconds, leaving no sign of their presence as the glass filled. The rich, fruity aroma of elderberries filled the dressing room.
When xe offered her the glass, she waved it away. “The other one, if you please. I trust you’ll forgive my paranoia.”
Damn. Ren should have dosed both glasses. Xe grinned broadly and offered Lady Stryphe the glass meant for xemself. “Of course, milady.”
Lady Stryphe clinked glasses with Ren. “To newly formed partnerships.”
“To partnerships….” However reluctant they might be, Ren added silently. Xe sipped at xyr wine, savoring the full-bodied berry flavor and the buttery sensation it left in xyr mouth. There was a subtle, bitter note — the Dreamer’s Bliss — but it would take at least half a glass for that to have its full effect and lull xem into unconsciousness.
Lady Stryphe paced herself at the same rate as Ren, setting her glass down after a few scant sips. “We’d best continue this discussion at the castle.” She fluttered through Ren’s bevy of costumes and picked out a yellow linen shift, amber-colored woolen dress, and rust-red sheepskin cloak. “These will do well enough to take the shape of a lady-in-waiting.”
Ren changed clothes behind a wooden screen, leaving xyr undershirt and breeches on beneath. The linen should have been cool on xyr skin, but the outer layers left xem oppressively warm. Xe assumed the shape of a slight woman with mousy brown hair that half-covered her plain features and pockmarked skin. Xe looked eminently forgettable — which was, of course, the point.
Lady Stryphe departed the theater, holding Ren’s hand in stark defiance of common propriety, and led xyr to a trio of royal carriages. The handmaidens averted their eyes, but the guards studied Ren with grim intensity as Lady Stryphe dragged xem into the middle carriage.
The city radiated out from Raeveshire Keep like ripples on a pond, with the castle a stone cast into the water to break up the calm. The outer towers and walls were constructed from massive slabs of emerald-green granite, flecked and swirled with whorls of mint and ivory that glistened like seafoam. The interior, in contrast, was hewn from carmine-red marble, laced with threads of alabaster white like a good cut of ribeye steak.
Lady Stryphe approached the center of the keep and gestured at the massive double staircase that framed the painting of Lord Stryfe: a severe-looking fellow with sharp-angled features, short-cropped dark hair going gray at the temples, and a carefully groomed beard streaked with white. “And now, if you please, I would like to be reunited with my husband.”
Ren studied the lord’s features, memorizing every detail. Xe took a deep breath, closed xyr eyes, and focused. There was still a way out of this, though if the darker rumors about Lady Stryphe were to be believed….
Better to know her true colors sooner than later. Had Lady Stryphe truly disposed of her husband, she’d see through xyr ruse instantly.
Ren cycled through half a dozen forms in a matter of seconds, making sure each shape xe took reflected an aspect of Lord Stryphe’s features while being different enough to be distinct. Xe collapsed to the floor, assuming xyr natural shape with a gasp, and stared up at Lady Stryphe with carefully constructed shock. “I cannot take this form, milady.”
Lady Stryphe’s mask of calm cracked. Her lower lip trembled; color drained from her face. After several seconds, she whispered, “Aidric?”
Sometimes, the best way to sell a performance was to let the audience fill in the gaps. Ren said nothing.
Lady Stryphe knelt and embraced Ren. “Aidric! I didn’t think— Some part of me hoped, but I didn’t believe—” She pulled xem into a fierce kiss.
Ren tensed, uncertain how to react. Most noble marriages were arrangements of convenience. Ren hadn’t expected Lady Stryphe to care for her husband, but the affection and enthusiasm imparted by her kiss were undeniable. Xe pulled away as soon as could be deemed polite. “Might I remind you, dear lady, that I have no memory of my former life.”
Lady Stryphe let go of Ren and stood quickly, straightening her dress and blushing. “Of course. My apologies. I got caught up in the moment.”
“A bit, perhaps.” Ren smiled gently. “I must admit to being pleasantly surprised by the depths of your passion. Perhaps, in time, I’ll become familiar enough to return it.”
Late that night, Ren slipped into Lady Stryphe’s chambers in the guise of a servant meant to kindle the fire. Xe took a moment to look at the lady. Sleep softened her features. A gentle smile teased at the corners of her mouth.
Ren reached out as if to touch her but pulled xyr hand back at the last moment. Xe couldn’t afford to second-guess xyr plan. Growing comfortable in this life, developing affection for this woman, would only hurt them both in the end. Destiny was not kind to anyone Ren formed lasting attachments to.
Ren assumed Lady Stryphe’s form for what xe dearly hoped would be the last time and donned the gown she had worn to the theater. The samite was heavier than xe expected, yet the fabric caressed xyr skin like a lover. Xyr linen undergarments seemed coarse in comparison.
Xe paced quietly for several minutes, agonizing over whether to leave sight unseen or leave some explanation for xyr departure. In the end, xe penned a letter and left it by the lady’s nightstand.
My Dearest Olivia,
I regret to inform you that I cannot stay here and live a life I do not remember. I am off to seek the favor of the gods in hopes that I might one day regain the memories of our life together.
I understand that attempting to regain the gods’ favor is hubris, and potentially impossible. However, the constraints of my curse would cause no small amount of strife for either of us. I would not be able to prove my identity to your subjects, and none of your fellow nobles would trust me.
I do not expect you to forgive me for this, but I pray that you understand well enough to let me go. If fortune deigns to smile upon us, our paths will cross again.
Whether the lady took the letter at face value or as proof of Ren’s fraudulence mattered not. Either way, it would give her a sense of closure. Ren, of all people, could appreciate the necessity for that.
Xe departed the lady’s chambers and informed the guards xe couldn’t sleep and needed to clear xyr thoughts. The guards escorted xem to the entrance of the royal gardens. Xe ordered them to wait outside, claiming the solitude would do xem good.
Once Ren was alone, xe took shelter in a copse of aspens and stripped out of the dress, down to xyr undershirt and breeches. Xe climbed the tree nearest the castle wall, vaulted onto the battlements, and slid down the other side.
The landing was rough — the moat was lined with thorn bushes. Roses, perhaps? It was hard to tell in the dark. It took a full minute for Ren to disentangle xemself. Xe limped off into the city, covered in cuts and scratches. The idea of returning to the theater for xyr things was tempting, but under the circumstances it seemed wise to make a clean break.
As the sun rose over snow-capped mountains, Ren cleaned xyr wounds in a fast-moving brook. Xe stared into the water at xyr reflection, so pale and featureless it was almost like staring at a ghost.
Xe couldn’t help but wonder if there was more truth to xyr letter than xe realized. Lord Stryphe’s disappearance coincided with Ren’s first memories….
Xe pictured the lord in xyr mind, let the change wash over xem, and peered into the brook. A masculine face with sharp-angled features, short-cropped dark hair going gray at the temples, and a carefully-groomed beard streaked with white stared back at xem.
Ren threw back xyr head and laughed. It was important to find humor in life; when laughter died, one was left only with despair.
Xe wagged xyr finger at the reflection in the water. “You could have ruled a third of the kingdom, you daft fool….” A sad smile flitted across xyr face. “But then, it wouldn’t really have been yours, would it?”