Excerpt: Behind the Mask

Kasumi eyed the man before him, grateful for the mask that hid his distaste.

So this was the brilliant Lord Luther Hatcher-Rosque?

He was not impressed.

A brilliant man, they had been told. Intelligence beyond compare, with looks and poise to match.

The man before them now was tall but…disconnected looking. His glasses were crooked, hair spilling free of a bright blue silk ribbon, and his clothes looked as though his valet had pressed them while heavily intoxicated.

If this was the man with whom his master was to be keeping company…Kasumi wondered if he might arrange a parting of ways.

Fingers pressed lightly at his back, warning him to remain still.

That his master was so easily able to predict his thoughts was disconcerting, but Kasumi was used to it.

He did not take his eyes from Lord Hatcher-Rosque. Surely this clumsy looking man was not the one about whom they had heard so much? He was a veritable buffoon, hardly worthy of his master…

A soft word drew his attention and he turned smoothly to follow Master Minoru up the gangway and into the waiting ship. Silent, elegant, a masked mystery whose presence would do much to dissuade impertinence and threats.

No one would touch Minoru, and if he had his way that idiotic looking fool would not come near enough to converse. Master was a man of honor and dignity; he did not consort with fools.

Three months, this journey.

Kasumi was beginning to doubt those months would pass with any sort of speed. He half hoped for some excitement, but did not let the thought carry far enough for the gods to make note.

A scuffling noise behind, a startled gasp, and he turned sharply around to catch Lord Hatcher-Rosque before he could fall to the deck. Sneering behind his mask, he let the clumsy man go once he was securely on his feet.

“Thank you,” Hatcher-Rosque said politely, smiling.

Kasumi turned sharply away to rejoin his master, who had gotten several paces ahead.

“Do not mind Kasumi,” Master Minoru said with one of his gentle smiles. “He was happy to help.”

He begged to differ, but would not argue his master in public.

“Come,” Hatcher-Rosque said, brushing back a strand of his messy hair. “I will show you your quarters.” He pushed past them, stumbling often, and led the way below decks, finally pushing open the door of a small cabin.

Kasumi stifled an unseemly sigh. Why could they not simply travel to places that did not require the sea? Land he could control. Sea he could not. These small places were also not to his liking.

“I would be more than happy to join you and the Captain for dinner, my Lord. Extend my thanks to him, and thank you.”

A few minute of bumbling talk and they were finally left alone. The door closed with a click and Kasumi allowed himself to relax a notch.

“You were all but hissing, Kasumi,” Minoru said with a chuckle. “That utterly harmless, charming lord just offends your sensibilities doesn’t he?”

Kasumi said nothing.

Minoru laughed harder. “Oh, Kasumi. So easily offended. One would never guess the thoughts behind that pretty face you hide.”

Pretty face. He would glare if it would do any good.

“Hmm, and now I am offending you more. If you were a cat, you would be hissing and spitting and going for my face. Ah, you do please me, Kasumi.”

He sketched a bow. “It is my will and desire to please, Master.”

Minoru snorted. “I have no idea how one of your breeding turned out so blatant a smartass.”

“I know not what you mean, Master,” Kasumi murmured. The mask muffled his words, but Minoru never had trouble understanding him.

Another chuckle was the only reply. “Come, I must change for this dinner. I know he does not look as we might have expected, but you should not judge by looks, Kasumi.”

Kasumi bristled. “I would not be so careless, Master.”

“On the contrary, my protector. You would see an enemy anywhere, and that sight has saved my life more than once. Beyond that, however, you do not see people at all. It is strange that so much you see, and so much you do not.”

“I see all that I must to keep you alive,” Kasumi said, stung. He had never once failed his Master. In training he had surpassed all others. He was a credit to his clan and family.

Minoru sighed. “Ah, Kasumi. There was no insult there, only an observation from which you might try to learn. You are a perfect and unfailing protector, well worth all the money I spent and more. No better protector exists.”

Kasumi nodded stiffly, but did not move from his spot near the wall.

“You are ridiculous,” Minoru said. “I think you like being insulted. If you do not unbend, Kasumi, I shall make you remove that mask during dinner.”

“Master!” Kasumi snapped.

Minoru chuckled. “Come and help me change.”

Muttering soft curses behind his mask, Kasumi moved forward to help Minoru change from his travel clothes into attire more suitable for a dinner with peers. He kept back a contemptuous snort at the idea of regarding that bumbling moron as a peer of Master Minoru.

Ha. Any man who could not walk a straight line without falling over at least three times was no peer to anything except perhaps the floor he kept encountering.

When at last they were ready, he led the way out of the cabin, stepping back to let Minoru lead the way only once he knew the way was secure. He hated these confined places.

In the Captain’s quarters, he prowled until he knew every nuance of the room, ignoring Minoru’s quiet murmurs to the others to mind his bodyguard’s strange ways.

“Will you be dining with us?” Hatcher-Rosque asked politely, pushing up his slipping glasses and shoving back strands of hair.

Minoru chuckled. “He is welcome to, but he will not—that goes against his training and beliefs.”

Kasumi glared at him in warning, knowing Minoru would be aware of it even if he could not see it.

“Plus, he would have to remove his mask.” Minoru tossed him a smirk before taking the seat offered him by the Captain. “Lord Hatcher-Rosque, you are a man of great knowledge. Know you anything about our famed protectors?”

Hatcher-Rosque pushed his glasses up again and peered curiously.

Kasumi glared at him.

“Call me Luther, please. I don’t believe anyone knows anything about the prized protectors of the land of night.”

Minoru smiled and motioned Kasumi forward.

He went obediently, silently calling Minoru every last nasty name he could think of, making more up as he was ordered to bend.

Smooth fingers traced the line of his mask, something that would have cost anyone else his fingers. Kasumi held perfectly still, save for his eyes which constantly examined and reexamined the room, the people, all of it. Nothing was amiss, yet he could not settle.

Then again, Minoru was putting him on the spot. Stupid uppity pushy know it all masters.

Fingers again traced his mask, the marks carved into it, the deep jewel colors in which the carvings had been painted, sliding over the lips and nose to where the colors faded away into the solid black that dominated the left side. Each mask unique, the marks upon it meaningless to all but his brethren. None may bid him remove it save for his master.

“The markings are a mystery even to me,” Minoru explained. “I purchased him eight years ago, at no small cost let me tell you.” He winked and motioned for Kasumi to rise to his full height once more. “They show their faces to none but their parents, their teacher, and their master—and if I bid them do so.”

The Captain frowned. “How would anyone know, then, if the wrong man was behind the mask? Surely there must be situations where such a problem would arise.”

Minoru smiled.

Kasumi stifled a groan.

“My good sir,” Minoru said with a smile that had convinced more than one man to get himself in trouble, “try to remove his mask.”

The Captain quirked his brow, but gamely nodded and stood, moving around the table to approach Kasumi. He hesitated a moment, then reached up to pull off the mask.

It didn’t come off.

Kasumi wished fervently that inflicting harm upon his master was not strictly against the contract.

“Why will it not come off?” the Captain asked.

“So it is true that your people do still practice magic?” Luther asked.

Minoru chuckled softly. “Only in bits and pieces. I myself know nothing of magic. The secret clans, such as Kasumi’s, still know bits of it. The mask Kasumi wears is probably one of the strongest bits of magic that still exists.”

“Fascinating,” Luther said, pushing back his glasses again and if he did it one more time Kasumi was going to yank them off his face and fix the damned things. Honestly, did he not pay attention to such trivial details? This man was supposed to be one of the greatest scholars in the world and he could not even dress himself? Had he no pride?

Dinner continued in agonizing fashion. Kasumi did not mind the stillness. He used to dinner longer and more tedious than this. It was simply that he could not reconcile the man before him with the scholar about whom he had heard so much. Neither could he understand why his master was so indulgent of the man who looked like an idiot, stumbled over his words like a fool, yet clearly possessed the rumored brilliance.

A man so visible should care more about how he looks.

When they finally reached the dessert course, Kasumi almost wanted to cheer in relief.

Then Luther spilled his coffee all over his cake and Kasumi settled for rolling his eyes, not even caring if anyone realized what he was doing—which was highly doubtful. When at last the dinner and chatting and farewells finally came to a close, Kasumi all but dragged Minoru back to their cabin.

Minoru laughed.

Kasumi pointedly ignored him, playing the role of protector and nothing more, until with a last laugh Minoru climbed into bed and shortly fell asleep.

Still he stood, opposite the bed where he could see everything most clearly—the single porthole, the door, and the bed. When at last every sound or lack of sound seemed to indicate all aboard had settled in to sleep, he closed his own eyes to catch what rest he could. Still standing.