The next day, Keshena woke with her arms afire. She sat up and found them limp and aching. With a disgusted grunt, she pushed herself out of a pile of cushions and clothing that only resembled a bed by the most generous of definitions, and dragged herself before the mirror. You look like shit when you don’t wash up before bed, she thought at the stained, bruised creature before her.
Lin had been gentle, had not pushed for more than she was willing to tell at a time. It was hard to interpret. Perhaps there was no point in this subterfuge… perhaps they spied on her constantly. But the habit was the thing. The first thing she had learned in the theater that raised her was that a performance had life apart from its audience. The repertoire that had become her patchwork life over two centuries was not put on for any particular eyes, unless they were her own. She washed the smudged makeup from her face and hands with oil, letting it take time. The wan sunlight slid across the floor, got tangled in clothes and flashed on stray weapons, and finally stretched across her knees like a cat. The meticulousness of this routine was precious to her.
An audience made her game adversarial. She didn’t mind that – she would not be the actress she had become without constant scrutiny to test her illusions. But wearing a mask had so many social implications, communicated so much even in silence, that the pure mechanical pleasure of disguise was sometimes lost to her. And increasingly, it was necessary for her to find it again before wearing Mama Mata’s face. Mata was a woman of deep, resonant calm, and Keshena had very little calm these days.
With magic and makeup, she painted warm golden skin and soft, lush flesh to fill it out. Mata’s cheeks were round, her body was heavy, her hands and feet were small. There was such sensuous pleasure in this, and Keshena found herself smiling as she padded her spare frame with pendulous breasts and swollen belly. It was like an embrace, the luxurious generosity of this life.
Villi had left something out of her explanation when she had demonstrated the trick of adding mass with illusions. Lin had filled her in later, when she asked. “There’s a degree of… what’s the word?” She frowned for a moment, but Keshena was no help. “Proprioception, that’s what Nat said it was. With enough practice, you can build an illusion that stands up to touch, if not a good smack or anything. And when someone touches it…” And then she had, running her fingers over the illusory moss Keshena had spread on the bench between them.
Keshena had shivered, as she shivered now, running her own fingers over the flesh she invented on her hips. The sensation emanating from a part of her body she knew did not exist… she’d heard as much from soldiers during the occupation of Shiel, mourning their lost limbs.
“When someone touches your illusion, you can feel it. Sometimes it can be a warning, so remember that.”
The flesh done, she turned and extracted a velvet pouch from a mess of accessories at the foot of the mirror. Her fingers felt six – no, seven – fragile pieces still inside. Have to set aside a day to make more, she thought. It would be hard to find the time, but Mata did not negotiate on her proper tribute. Keshena plucked a bruised, plum-colored petal from the pouch and placed it in her mouth, where it began to slowly dissolve. Rivulets of smoky bitterness and vegetal sweetness drained down her throat from the curled cup of her tongue, and she opened a pot of glutinous black ink.
She closed her eyes and began to paint curling symbols around her wrists and arms. The drug had taken effect – there were greater vistas on the backdrop of her eyelids than this little room could provide, and these glyphs were nothing she had ever seen awake anyway. Mata’s life had been a series of dreams as thick and inescapable as tar pits, punctuated by moments of piercing clarity when she was forced to act. Only a few acts. Perhaps all lives were like that. Perhaps, she thought, we only wake for a few minutes between birth and death, and all our dreams in between are reflections of the decisions we make in that ephemeral day.
When she rose from her knees and whispered the patterns she’d drawn to spread over the skin that would be hidden – what a convenience, that! This used to take her a whole morning – she let her eyes remain closed. The lights in her head were brighter than the thin Northern sun, now. They picked out Mata’s wig with clustered stars, showing their love and drawing her hands to it. Heavy auburn curls fell over her shoulders and bounced as she adjusted the fit, then blended it in at the hairline. And then the dress.
Mata dressed in finery. Another sensuous pleasure, the feel of silk and velvet on skin more used to leather and linen. Cost wasn’t something that concerned her overmuch; money came and went easily. She had starved before, and sat at banquets too, in the same year. Hunger had never frightened her so much as being caught unprepared. Many of these garments had been gifts – from wealthy patrons, then from worshipers, and finally from husbands. The women they had patroned, and worshipped, and married no longer existed, except in her memory. But the clothes could make the memory live again, walk among men and earn new forms of regard. In this dress, today. In this face.
Finally she turned back to the mirror, and though she did not open her eyes, she did indulge herself to look. She didn’t see what stood there so much as know. The mirror showed a short, plump woman, bronze-skinned, russet-haired, painted with intricate symbols that seemed to shift when she moved. Her gown seemed to barely contain her lush flesh, making the heavy velvet scandalously provocative, even though it covered her from neck to ankles. She had an atavistic splendor, the gravity of a graven goddess. She looked, with eyes closed, like an implacable idol, a prophetess or a prophecy.
Satisfied, Mata smiled at herself and left the room.