Celi awoke with a start as the door to the room opened and a young woman entered. He huddled against the wall. She held her hand to her nose. Did he smell? He sniffed himself, he had not considered what he looked or smelled like before. No one had cared or would have wanted him, so what did it matter? His jailor’s in the past would sometimes strip him of clothes and throw cold water on him. Usually if they knew Sari was coming. So many things were occurring to him since he had joined his mind with Trevi. He wished in some way he could have his ignorance back.
"They weren't lying when they said you stink. Typical I get this job. You and I, the rejects."
Two men entered with a big tub and plonked it down. They returned and filled it with hot water, muttering under their breath as they gawked at him.
"You sure you'll be alright with him? He bites, you know?" They laughed but they had their hands on the hilts of their swords as they spoke.
"If I can cope with his smell, I can cope with his teeth. He's fed, and I can look after myself. You won't bite me, will you?" She stared straight at him, waiting for an answer.
Celi shook his head and watched as the men left, then he glanced back at the woman to see if she wanted to follow them.
"Well come on. Come here," the woman said, as she motioned for him to move away from the security of the wall. She didn't look frightened; instead she tapped her foot as though she were impatient.
Celi moved and sat as he was told. Doing what he was told was something he was good at. The woman grabbed his hair and the pain speared across the top of his head. He turned on her, his fangs lengthening in anger. She shook her head at him as sparks left her fingertips and sent shocks throughout his body. He pulled away and hobbled back over to lean against the wall again, covering his head with his arms. Her footsteps got closer and he waited for the next onslaught of pain. Pain was what he expected and knew how to deal with. Maybe she wanted him to kill someone?
"Sorry, you caught me off guard. I shouldn't have been so rough. I didn't mean to hurt you. It's just that sometimes I can't control the magic as best as I'd like to. I'm Fane. I'm just here to wash you and cut your hair." She held out her hand.
Celi didn't move. He crouched against the wall with his hands over his face. He was disfigured and repulsive. His long matted hair reached down past his shoulders and had always offered some protection so that nobody would have to look upon his deformed face. The guards who had taunted him over the years would sometimes show him a mirror so he could see the scarred reflection. He hadn't needed to see it to know it was there. He lived with the agony of it every day. He retracted his fangs, for fear she would hurt him again.
"You don't need to look at me, but I need to chop this hair off. The days of a comb doing any good here are long gone. Do you have a name?" Fane said, as she gently touched his head and offered her other hand to help him stand.
"Celi." He took her hand in his, hesitant in case the same sparks he had felt before would return. He limped across to a chair and sat, while still keeping the other hand covering his face. He could hear the snip of scissors and gazed between his fingers at the pile of matted hair growing on the floor at his feet.
"Damn," Fane yelled as she moved away, holding her hand.
Celi's fangs popped through his gums again at the smell of her blood. It was unlike any he had smelt before. She backed away as he reached out and grabbed her hand in his. He didn't care if she hurt him again. She smelled so good, he had to taste her.
"Let go," she shouted.
She had cut her thumb and the beautiful trail of red blood was flowing down her wrist. He leaned forward and licked the wound clean. Trevi had showed him how this had healed Clare when she had been injured. He hoped the result would be the same now. The aroma of her blood was so alluring he would have found it hard not to resist, even if he didn't heal her. The door to the room was flung open as two guards rushed in with their swords drawn. Celi scuffled across the room and pressed up against the wall, waiting for the onslaught. His heart beat fast, but the attack never came. Fane stood in front of him and put up her hand to stop them.
"It's alright. I just nipped myself with the shears."
"You should have left the hair on. At least it covered his ugly mug. He's more of a freak than you are." The soldier laughed and shook his head as he left.
Fane glanced across at him. "Take no notice of them. You're a strange one though. That's the first time I've seen a bloodsucker heal a person and not feast on them. Didn't know they could heal wounds with a lick. It's a secret they've kept well hidden in this world. Now, put those fangs away and sit down and let me finish."
His head felt lighter and his breathing became slower as his body relaxed. He didn't speak but he let Fane continue until he was shorn. He tried to understand the sensation her blood had given him. It was not like the humans or the animals he knew of, and it was not evil like Sari's, but even the small amount he had taken had eased his pain. For a second, the cloud covering his right eye had cleared and the room had come more clearly into focus. Now it had clouded again and was the same as before. He had glimpsed something else, too. The blood had given them a connection for a moment, before she had shielded her mind. The Lady Alicia had sent her here but Fane had not wanted to come. She had feared him, but felt she had no choice. If she was to be allowed to stay longer with this clan, she had to gain information for them.
He watched now with more understanding, as she gathered up the hair and placed it in a basket. Celi moved one of his hands away from his face and stretched out to touch the cut hair which was hard and gritty between his fingers. Then he ran his hand over his head, the hair was short and prickly. It was as if what had made him who he was had been removed. The men were right. No one should have to gaze upon his misshapen form, least of all this person who was showing him kindness. He was once again lost, not knowing what to do or how to react.
For so many years the sound of High Priestess Sari's voice echoing in his head had been all he knew. She had told him how to think and what to do. His brother's thoughts had been there briefly, but they seemed faint now and beyond his grasp. He had his brother's knowledge, but no experience, nor the ability to cope with it. The pain in his body was strong again. The only thing that had kept it at bay was Sari's blood and now he didn't have her blood any longer.
Fane eased his clothes off and helped him into the tub. That he was naked did not matter to him, but he didn't want to inflict such a sight on her. He wished Trevi were here so he could explain everything about his life to her, so she would understand and not be offended. Fane knelt beside the tub and soaped up her flannel. She had not cringed or shown pity. In fact she had not reacted, apart from the show of painful magic. Now she washed his face as she hummed. The sound was beautiful and Celi found himself smiling, or attempting to. He must have appeared grotesque as the scars on his cheek pulled his lips into a contorted grin. For the first time since she had come into the room, he peeked at her.
She had long black hair that was tied back in a plait and her eyes were brown with gold and green flecks in them. He had always thought Sari beautiful, but now he realized she was evil hiding inside a pretty cover. Fane's body wasn't skinny like Sari, or the other servant girls he had seen. He tried not to stare but could not draw his eyes away from the neckline of her dress which revealed her breasts. He had never touched a woman, apart from feeding, but he appreciated the curves of Fane's body, with her small waist and rounded hips.
She scrubbed away the layers of dirt and the warm water eased his aching body. Celi grasped her hand in his good right one. "I'm sorry." She squinted at him as if she didn't understand. "For my body. You should not be made to look."
She shook her head at him. "Shut up. I had a brother and a cousin who walked around naked all the time. I'm no shy thing. You, my friend, have been a long time in need of attention. The Lady Alicia sent me to care for you because she didn't think you could manage. It's why I'm here and happy to do it. She thought you might be slow in the head. You're not though, are you?" She raised an eyebrow as she gazed at him.
"Maybe." Celi heard a sound come from his throat that he had not heard before and he guessed it was his first laugh.
"You've a sense of humor then? I don't know why you've not taken care of yourself, but if you don't look after this hair from now on, I'll do a spell and make you bald forever. Understand?" She wagged a finger at him.
"Yes. I promise I will," he answered, knowing what she had said would probably be true. He didn't want to feel the pain of her magic again.
ALSO BY MAGGIE MUNDY
Corrupted magic is hard to fight when you’re the only one who believes something is wrong. Daria faces a battle to save her world.
Six hundred years of peace are destroyed when Daria’s settlement is attacked. It is the start of problems for the land of Majura. Daria saves people with magic and must join the magic wielding Mask wearers who rule the land. Her dreams have warned if she became one it would be the end of Majura. Are the Mask wearers keeping secrets or is she the only one who can see the power in the land is changing. A Mask wearer called Alenze believes her and offers to go on a quest with her to fix the Essence where the magic comes from, but he is keeping secrets from her that could be the death of them all.
by Maggie Munday
Reviewed by G. Lloyd Helm
Maggie Munday has written a complicated dense story that will keep lovers of fantasy literature happy for hours.
UNMASKED is a story about the breakdown of what I would call a Magical Society. The world has been run by a group of people connected to some living crystals. Those at the top of this basically feudal society are called Masks because they connect to the power of the crystals via masks which are carried until need and then worn when in communication with the power. But things are not going well for the Masks. There are internal jealousies which have festered to the point of one Mask having gathered an army made up of humans as well as non-human creatures to over throw the ruling Masks.
This is not my first encounter with Maggie Munday and I must say I am impressed with her. She writes strong, complex, interesting stories and UNMASKED is another of those.
Trent Feldor is a Seeker vampire who protects human females from Rogue vampires who would take them as mates. Kellie is a reporter who wants to make the front page of the Adelaide newspaper by finding the Parklands Killer. Instead she stumbles straight into a vampire fight and she is the trophy being fought for.
Kellie has never let anyone into her life since her mother's death, and isn't going to let the mysterious Trent get under her skin. As for Trent, he may have found the one woman he could love but he will have to stop Rogue vampires who want to kidnap her, and vampire hunters who want to kill him.