When the curtains fall, the Masque of the Crimson Edge do not congratulate themselves on their performance, nor do they head off in celebration as another troupe would do. Instead, all the performers gather together, ready to receive the day’s criticisms. After all, the troupe’s effortless displays of skill and artistry are as much an illusion as their holographic afterimages and sonic disruption.
If a turn is not sharp, if a thrust is not forceful, if a figure gliding across the room is not ethereal, they must be corrected. No member is immune to criticism – after all, whether trodding the boards or treading the battlefield, a single minute mistake marks the difference between life and death. Each takes on the patterns of their part in clockwork rhythm, time ticking ever onwards with each movement. Pirouette, fouette, pas de chat, arabesque. Thrust, dip, dive, roll, slide, jump, thrust, swipe. Without hesitation, without imperfection, time moves ever forward in the smallest increments for the Masque’s members, allowing them to blossom and improve.
Khoranis cannot remember the last time they had received any critique, any input, anything except the briefest of nods as acknowledgement. There is no criticism for those who wear the black and purple of the Solitaire, no kind words nor solidarity. Only the staggering and deeply numbing understanding that their life was forfeit ever since they wore the black. After all, no one could dare to touch madness in the way they must. Someone must play the villain, coming onto the stage to boos and jeers. Someone must cause the tears of the children, becoming the mask of the deepest one and feeling that stain on their soul.
There is a necessity in darkness, but to acknowledge the presence of a Solitaire is to acknowledge the sins of the Aeldari. It is all well and good to depict such things in beautiful pantomime, to allude and to present them with banners and costumes, but when the spotlights dim and reality sets in, a Solitaire’s only companion is She Who Waits in the void.
‘Your turns are too rigid.’
The music stops as all turn to the voice that has spoken. Clad in a thousand brilliant colours, each shimmering in all spectrums of visible and invisible light, is the Troupemaster. Like all of his ilk, he wears upon his face a mask with an ever-present grin, the sign of those chosen by Cegorach.
‘I have never heard such criticism before.’
Tilting his face to the side, there is a smile almost audible in the Troupemaster’s voice.
‘No, I suspect you haven’t, or you would have understood how sloppy your movements have been. After all, you play She Who Thirsts the way that we see her. As a bogeyman. A villain. Someone to be loathed and feared.’
Khoranis purses their lips, hidden behind the darkened veil of the Devourer.
‘Is that not who she is? The plague that will consume our souls?’
It echoes in their stage movements, stalking behind others as an ever present and all-consuming maw. A shadow, a plague, that embodies all that is evil.
‘For the Aeldari, yes. But on the stage, you are not Aeldari, nor are you Drukhari, nor even a Harlequin.’
A single spotlight shines on the duo, as the echoing organs and piercing strings of a violin begin to play.
‘You are the Thirster, the Devourer, the Seductress and Beguiler. You are limitless, faultless, utterly inescapable.’
With each word, there is a graceful movement from the Troupemaster, each punctuating every word in a perfect sway or feather-light touch, enough to make Khoranis shiver with anticipation.
‘Beautiful. Perfect. You are not a monster to yourself – the world, the universe, belongs to you and yours. You are a queen, just in your ruling.’
For a second, Khoranis hesitates. They do not remember which side of the schism they belong to, whether they were a creature of the craftworlds or a marauder from Commorragh. All that remains is loathing and fear of that which they must become.
‘But if I embody that, will I not stray too close to the edge? Will I not forget myself, and become that which brought ruin to our kind?’
The Troupemaster’s laughter begins as a light chuckle, before echoing into raucous wheezing and guffaws, with just the hint of a sob at its edge. An imaginary tear is wiped from an obscured eye, a pretence of mirth hiding deadly seriousness.
‘Then you have no place among our number. We are not merely actors, not merely performers – we are the Harlequins, who have ascended from the limits of the flesh to inhabit the masks we wear. You, my dear, were chosen to inhabit my echo. My sworn enemy. My other half. And I will not tolerate imperfection.’
Nodding slightly, Khoranis moves their feet into the first position, looking on at the rest of the troupe. The Harlequins are no longer averting their eyes, pausing in their own practice to gaze at the spectacle to come. This time, they allow themselves the looseness of succumbing. In their mind’s eye, they look towards the gaping maw of darkness that threatens to engulf them, and instead of running, they smile—jumping higher, twirling faster, freely moving without a care in the universe. This world is their world, this universe their universe, and all of it belongs to Her.
At the edge of reality, She awakens for the briefest moment, feeling a being revelling in desire. She reaches out to capture it, but it dances out of her grasp on feet lighter than air. It is both Her devotee and Her enemy, a twirling puppet of black and purple always one step ahead of its own lusts. In the farthest reaches of the webway, someone begins to laugh.
When Khoranis opens their eyes, the rest of the troupe has gone, leaving only echoing footsteps and a light shimmer of glitter on the stage.
About the Author
Kyle is a writer, dreamer, and full-time complainer from the Philippines. Her work has been published in Perhappened, Idle Ink, and Analogies & Allegories among others. She’s always had a fascination with the stage, and with Harlequins in particular. You can find her on Twitter at @PercyPropa.