This one is for my husband, who listened with admirable patience as I sketched out the ten or so KKC fics that have been running through my head for months, then said, "Write that one."
Please comment if you enjoy!
"Where are you taking me?" I said, as Simmon attempted to drag me through the narrow and dimly-lit hallways behind the stage at the Eolian. I say attempted because I was making it difficult for him, digging my heels in every few steps and throwing longing gazes over my shoulder at the cozy taproom behind us.
Sim's answering smile held a touch of mischief. "You'll see."
"I don't like surprises," I reminded him, brow furrowed.
"You'll like this one," he said, with all the cheerful confidence of someone who has never been jumped in a box alley in Tarbean.
It says a great deal about my fondness for Sim that I let him drag me the rest of the way down the corridor without complaint. Eventually, we came to a chipped plywood door. He seized the knob, then turned to me.
"We're here," he said brightly. "Don't freak out."
Ignoring my look of sudden panic, he swung open the door.
The phrase flew from the throats of a half dozen folk, a poorly synchronized but wildly enthusiastic chorus. Then they gave me three huzzahs, each better coordinated than the last.
I stared around the room, stunned into silence. Wil and Fela waved cheerily from behind a wide, worn table, which had been wedged into the narrow space at an odd angle. Threpe stood at the head of the table near Stanchion and Deoch, frowning over two bottles of burgundy wine. Devi and Mola grinned up at me from an overstuffed and appallingly threadbare couch nestled between two storage shelves at the far end of the room. Mola muttered something under her breath, and Devi laughed, her dimpled smile becoming a touch wicked.
I blinked at them all for a long minute, then whirled on Sim. "How did you know it was my birthday?"
He grinned. "You told me."
"I ... I did?"
"Last Thaw. At the Spring festival in Belnay. You don't remember?"
I thought about this for a bit, then shook my head.
"Ah, well," he said knowingly. "You were very drunk."
"Ah." I turned back to face the crowded room.
Everyone was here. Well, everyone but Auri. And Denna, of course, but her absence was almost too familiar to notice. Almost ... Well. I pushed that thought aside.
They were all here. My best friends. Here to celebrate my birthday. Here to celebrate me.
My cheeks flushed red with embarrassment and pleasure. "Thank you for coming," I said finally, and grinned like a fool.
The next several hours are mostly lost to memory, but let me see what I can recall ... Stanchion and Deoch kept us well-supplied with bread, fruit, cheese, and a frankly stupid quantity of local wine. Friendly banter abounded, of course, and snatches of song. Devi composed an ingeniously macabre final verse to "Jackass, Jackass," which we all applauded enthusiastically and promised never to perform on stage. Threpe and I bickered over some trivial point of etiquette that only applied when dining with Vintish nobility during High Mourning: I remember this quite clearly because it resulted in a wager that I eventually won, much to everyone's surprise. Sim stole a few kisses from Fela, and Deoch stole a few from Stanchion, and we all politely pretended not to notice.
Mola and Devi slipped away late in the evening, only to return an hour later with a layered brick of chocolate and spiced rum cream that could only loosely be termed a cake, and which looked almost too expensive to eat.
"Sharping out-at-the-heels troupers must pay better than I thought," I said when I collapsed onto the couch next to Devi a few minutes later, plate in one hand and a bottle of wine in the other. "Maybe I should get expelled and become a gaelet, too."
"If only you had a head for numbers," she sighed. She grabbed the bottle and poured us each another glass. Then, to my surprise, she leaned back and tucked her head against my shoulder. "As it stands, I'm afraid you'd be good for nothing but enforcement." She tapped a finger against her lower lip. "I suppose you could always become a caravan guard or an assassin or something."
I laughed. "Afraid of a little competition?"
She sniffed. "As if."
By the time I had finished the wine and cake, her arm was around my shoulders and my fingers were toying with the dangerously agreeable notion of touching her hair. Thankfully, Sim chose that moment to sneak up on us and drop something into my lap.
I jumped about a foot in the air, hand slamming down reflexively.
"One more surprise," Sim said cheerfully. He shot the two of us a smile that toed the line between a grin and a leer. "This one's from all of us."
An expectant hush fell over the room as seven pairs of eyes turned towards me. Embarrassed by the sudden attention, Devi and I blushed and shuffled apart.
I lifted the object and weighed it in my hand. It was the size of a large book, but far less heavy. It was wrapped in expensive silver paper, and topped by a delicate silk ribbon. "A present?" I asked, surprised.
Sim raised an eyebrow. "It's your birthday, isn't it?"
I sat and stared at it for a while, a little overwhelmed. How long had it been since I'd last received an actual, properly gift-wrapped birthday present? Years, at least. A lifetime.
"I think you're supposed to open it," Mola quipped, and everyone laughed.
I rolled my eyes at her, then shredded the paper and opened the box.
Inside, nestled in a cocoon of soft red velvet, was a leather mask. It was pure black, the color traditionally worn by the demon Encanis. A trouper's mask, then, designed to be a showpiece of Midwinter pageantry.
In spite of its simple coloring, the mask was fiendishly complex, as if its maker were determined to demonstrate what a master of the craft could accomplish in monochrome. Sharp flanges at the cheekbones and brow lent it a lean, vicious beauty. Silver lined each eyehole and every edge. A narrow silver plate marched up the bridge of the nose and fanned out across the forehead before exploding into a tangle of metal and leather that called to mind the gates of hell. Each leather tongue in the wild crown had been embossed with the likeness of a man or woman standing alone in a pit of fire. They had thrown up their hands and thrown back their heads, and it was impossible to tell whether they were dancing, or burning, or both.
It was a strange and wonderful gift, as disquieting as it was beautiful. More importantly by far, it was familiar. In all my life, I had only ever seen one mask that compared to it in either craft or form.
I became dimly aware that Sim was speaking.
"... said your father had owned a Solani. So I asked around a bit, and it turns out that Threpe knows Solani from way back ... something to do with a wager they've had going for years ... anyway, Threpe called on him and asked if he remembered an Encanis mask that he'd made for a trouper named Arliden years ago, and Solani said, 'Remember? How could I forget? That was the finest mask I ever made.' Then he brought out this book full of old sketches, and they haggled for a while, and ... Kvothe? Are you alright?"
I nodded vaguely as my fingers stroked the black leather.
Sim's tone grew worried. "I know it's less flashy than your father's was. But ... well, we all talked about it, and we decided you'd rather have one with some distinction. Besides, since you're not likely to play Encanis anytime soon ..." He trailed off again. "Um, Kvothe?"
I lifted the mask out of the box. I held it as delicately as possible, irrationally afraid it would crumble to pieces at any moment.
I rocked it up and down and side to side, admiring the way that light reflected off the silver horns. I turned it upside-down and raised it to my face. A perfect fit. I lowered it and examined the maker's mark stamped along the inside edge.
A true Solani mask. Mine. I marveled at the thought.
Sim cleared his throat. "Kvothe?" he said again.
I looked up at him, mouth working silently as I searched for something, anything, to say.
That was when I burst into tears.
Mortified, I buried my face in my hands and fled from the room.
Sim followed me into a cramped alley behind the building. There he waited, patient as a priest, while I cried it all out in the bitter cold.
I cried for the boy who once rode his father's shoulders through wild crowds festooned in white, fingers clenched tightly around the horns of a magnificent black mask. I cried for the boy who had been bailed, barefoot and bloody, out of a back-alley snowbank by a black-masked stranger on a colder, harsher midwinter night many years later. I cried for the boy who had once clutched the shattered fragments of his father's lute to his chest and known, down to his very bones, that he would never again hold something with so much of his father in it. I cried for the boy who had let seven birthdays go unnoticed for fear of having no one to share them with.
I cried for many more reasons that I could not begin to identify or name. But most of all I wept for knowing that I had somehow found a family again, a home. I had found so much to love, so much to live for.
So much to lose.
Eventually my tears subsided. In their place fell an embarrassed silence. I sniffed quietly, swiped at my cheeks, and thanked the darkness for hiding the worst of my deepening blush.
Simmon was the first to speak. "I'm sorry," he said glumly. "You warned me you didn't like surprises. I should have listened."
"No, I'm the one who should be sorry." I looked down at my shoes. "I think I ruined your party."
"You didn't," he said, though his voice sounded a bit hollow. " Anyway, it was your party. So it's fine." He hesitated, then said, "I can have the mask returned, if ..."
"No!" I clutched it to my chest.
Sim blinked, then gave me a shy smile. "You mean ... you like it?"
I gaped down at the mask, then up at him, staggered by the concept that he could think anything else.
"Oh!" I cried, after a moment's thought. "Oh, Sim. You thought ...?" I seized his hand in both of mine and held it to my heart. "Sim, I love it. Truly. It's ... "
Then, because there are times when words are useless, I flung my arms around his chest.
He froze for a moment, utterly shocked that I would ever initiate such an intimate gesture. Then he hugged me back, arms so tight around my shoulders that I felt his ribs creak under mine. "I'm glad," he said thickly, and I realized for the first time that he was a bit choked up himself.
We took a few minutes to compose ourselves before heading back inside, but it was a wasted effort on my part. My thinly-mended composure fell to tatters in the doorway, as I gazed around at the concerned faces of my friends. To my horror, I began to ramble, tripping over my own words as I tried and failed to convey the depths of my gratitude and love. Sim, bless him, saved me any further embarrassment by placing his hand over my mouth and loudly blaming my muddled and maudlin state on the Eolian's house wine.
Nobody was entirely fooled, but they all played along. Stanchion and Deoch crossed their arms and drew their eyebrows down into twin expressions of mock disapproval, and everybody laughed.
Suddenly inspired, I stumbled to the table and lifted a wineglass in the air. I looked from face to face, wanting to memorize every last detail of this single, perfect moment.
"A toast," I said firmly. "To family, never forgotten. And to true friends, always remembered."
"To family and true friends," they echoed, and we drank.
It was a poor replacement for all of the things I wanted to say. But then, that is the virtue of true friends: nothing that I wanted to say ever really needed saying.