Lie Beneath the Skin |

Lie Beneath the Skin

By Genevieve Ann Atwater Maxwell

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Farhana couldn’t remember her own face. No one had seen it since she was a year old, when it was said the royal family’s gift would surface in each of their children. No mirrors adorned the palace walls, and no one met the young princess’s eye, for fear of accidentally seeing what they shouldn’t. To see the face of a royal was punishable by death.

Farhana hated the mask she wore. Sometimes it was a veil, sometimes a literal mask-- when outside the palace it was usually both, just to be safe. If anyone saw her face, she would lose her powers. The royal family’s ability to see visions of the future had kept her people safe and ever prepared for centuries. It was an important and sacred duty. There was just one problem with it.


Farhana shook her head, careful to keep her body otherwise perfectly still. She sat straight-backed on her cushions, her legs elegantly crossed and her hands daintily set on her knees. Around her sat her family: two parents, a sister, a brother. They had names, but in a way those hardly mattered. They all acted the same, spoke in the same careful, slow manner, and sat in the same position, just as they were taught. They weren’t meant to be unique, they were meant to be careful. Their visions were so important. Scribes stood around their circle with pens and scrolls at the ready, prepared to write down anything prophetic from their rulers.

“Are you certain?” Farhana’s brother questioned. “The visions are not always clear, Farhara.”

She lowered her gaze, keeping her head at the same angle as before. Her cheeks were hot, but she had no way of knowing if they changed color. “I did not even dream,” she told them, her voice slow and careful as theirs. “Father, I should not be here.”

Her father looked at her, and she didn’t know if he frowned or glared. She didn’t know him, really. They spoke so rarely; she had no idea what went on in his mind.

“Let us move on,” he said, and he carefully nodded to his son. “Speak your visions, Nuruddin.”

Farhara’s brother let out a quiet breath and nodded slowly in return. “I saw a vision,” he said, “of a serpent.”

The scribes began writing frantically, recording his words and scribbling notes on what the symbolic dreams might foretell.

“It was a great creature,” Nuruddin went on. “That glittered in the sun, with scales like jewels, and a burrow beneath the sands that formed a labyrinth no man could find his way through.”

Perhaps it was some great kingdom, Farhara thought, biting her lip beneath her mask. She tried to hold her envy back as he spoke with such confidence. Never doubting his role as seer and prince.

“But the serpent was dying,” Nuruddin continued. “Crushed under the weight of its own body, it began to suffocate. Until it shed its skin.” He paused here, his dark eyes flicking towards Farhara. “It tore free of its scales,” he said. “Ripping them away and tossing them aside, and what stepped out was not a serpent anymore. It was a simple, brown bird, and it flew into the sky. And there my vision closed.”

There was a buzz of whispers. “Great prince,” one of the scribes spoke up, nervously lowering his gaze. “Were there any other clues or feelings in this vision, to guide us?”

“No,” Nuruddin said. “I am sorry.”

The scribes murmured together for a few moments and the royal family waited. All of them would share a vision from the week, some clear and some mysterious. Farhara would sit and listen, useless as a precious ruby lost miles beneath the sand. Among all her family and her ancestors, only Farhara had never received a vision.

“Farhara,” Nuruddin spoke, stepping beside his sister as they finally left the sacred tent where they spoke their visions each week. “I know you do not enjoy joining us, but it may yet help you. Hope is not gone for your powers.”

Farhara said nothing. When they were children she and Nuruddin had been close, but then there had been the accident-- a game played just too carelessly, and Nuruddin’s mask had slipped. Thankfully, no one saw: he had returned it to its right position at once, and Farhara had managed to cover her eyes in time. His powers remained intact, and she remained unaware of what any of her brother’s features might look like. Whether he smiled often, or remained grim. If he had a birthmark. If he chewed his lip as she did. Since then they had both become too aware: he that his powers were too delicate to risk on bonding with family, and her that she had no family at all. That she was not allowed to really know them, or they her. Now they were as distant with each other as they were to their parents and younger sister-- as distant as they were to the guards who stood around the palace and the servants who served them with careful, downturned eyes.

Farhara was so tired of being careful.

“Please consider,” her brother pressed after a few moments of her silence.

“I come every week,” Farhara said. “There is nothing to consider. I must obey my king.”

“... Of course,” Nuruddin agreed. “I am pleased by your words, Farhara.” He offered her a little, careful bow, and left her to walk alone to her room. Her sister slept in the room with her, but she was staying later than the rest to discuss her vision with the scribes, because it had come with many feelings and premonitions that were outside the imagery of the actual dream. That didn’t matter, though. They would hardly have spoken anyway.

Farhara sent the servants away, not ready to prepare for sleep yet, and leaned against the frame of her window. It was a circle cut out of stone, just low enough for her to rest her elbows on as she peered out into the gardens. Her veil kept the warm breeze from brushing her face, and it mostly hid the tear that streaked down her cheek. It was different for her family, perhaps. They were protecting their people. They had a gift to defend. But Farhara only had a lie. Perhaps her mask had been put on too late, or a servant had caught a glimpse and never told anyone-- a reasonable act, she had to admit, given that if they had confessed to such an accident they would have lost their head.

Regardless, no one was to know that the first princess had no powers. Her family always reasoned that she might someday yet see a vision, but she had long since given up hope on the matter. So she practiced the same poise, learned to be still and impassive, and never, ever showed her face. The masks and veils were like a part of her skin, grown thick over her face where it shouldn’t be, choking her. Suffocating, for no cause. A slow, horrific end she had no need to bear, but she had to. Because. Because that’s what she was. A living lie, hiding behind the splendour of a palace and a mask.

Suddenly, her room was stifling. The garden was, at least, outside, and it looked about the most appealing place she could imagine at the moment. Farhara grabbed a mask-- preferable for out of doors, in case a strong breeze blew a veil upwards-- and hastily tied it onto her face before dashing out the door. The bells and jewels woven into her clothing jingled as she ran through the hallways, dodging the occasional servant and sliding around turns. She’d have to apologize later for such behavior but at the moment she didn’t care.

Now she just wanted to breathe.

Farhara caught sight of the open archway to the garden, gold-brown stone surrounding the rare greens of lush plant life. She felt that warm breeze again, though it would be steadily getting colder now that the sun was setting. She ran the last few yards to the closest thing to freedom she knew, just as a guard stepped across the archway.

A royal walked slowly and deliberately, never making a sound unless necessary to do so. A princess did not blow through halls like a sandstorm-- the guard peered into the palace, perhaps seeking the source of the unfamiliar jangling noise her clothes made, and Farhara slammed directly into him. Both of them fell back with echoing cries of surprise and pain. The princess’s head smacked against the stone archway and for a moment her vision went fuzzy.

“P-Princess! Are you…” the guard’s voice died away with a strangled gasp. A breeze drifted across Farhara’s face and she blinked her eyes into focus, groaning miserably as she sat up, rubbing her head. The guard was watching her with a horrified expression-- probably afraid of being punished for harming her. Blessedly, she didn’t think she was seriously hurt. Just a little bruised, and feeling rather foolish. It was her own fault. What was she thinking, running around like a hare? Her father would be displeased. Miserably, she raised a hand to straighten her mask.

It wasn’t there.

Farhara gasped, jerking around to find it. The treacherous thing, loose from carelessness and all her dashing about, must have flown off on impact. It lay on the ground a few feet away, by a patch of flowers, and she scrambled to get it.

“I-I’m sorry,” the guard spoke, his voice trembling. “Please forgive me, I didn’t… I… Great gods of the skies, I saw…”

Farhara glanced over her shoulder at him, the mask held uselessly to her face. He’d already seen her. His hand held to his throat and the tears beginning to glitter in his lashes implied that he understood what that meant as well as she did.

I’ve killed him.

He was still on the ground from their fall, kneeling as if he’d tried to get up and then stopped. Young, with dark skin and large, grey eyes. He couldn’t be older than twenty, and she suspected younger. Near her own age, perhaps. And she’d just killed him for nothing. If she had powers, they’d be gone now, but she had none. The penalty would be exactly the same despite no wrong on his part and nothing really lost.

Why couldn’t she just be careful? Once she’d almost destroyed her brother’s power, now she killed a man by mistake. The only good thing was that now they could admit that she wasn’t a seer-- she’d been seen, and supposedly lost her abilities, so anyone might see her face now.

Anyone. Farhara blinked, sitting up. She let the mask fall from her hand, ignoring the young guard’s gasp behind her. The desert air, cool now with coming night, danced across her face. The lie was over then. She could be seen. She turned to face the man who would die for seeing an ordinary woman.

“It is all right,” she assured him, her voice the careful, gentle tone she’d been taught. But that wasn’t right. She’d never been a seer; she’d never needed that special care in every move. “It’s alright,” she spoke again, letting her voice echo that of the servants and common people. Just a voice. “It’s going to be fine.”

“Fine?” The guard swallowed, averting his gaze from her face. “Princess I… I…” His hand stayed at his throat, anticipating the swordfall that would end his life. How long would it be until then? Days? Hours?

But this was how she’d always been. He’d taken nothing from her: no power, no dignity, nothing at all. The only thing she’d ever lost was that breeze, and this man had, even by accident, given it back to her.

“It’s going to be fine,” she said again. “I won’t let them kill you. It was my fault. You’re not in the wrong. Here.” She scrambled unsteadily to her feet and offered him a hand. She hadn’t helped anyone up since that last game with her brother, years before. “Get up. What’s your name?”

“...Tahir.” He didn’t take her hand. “I know the law, Princess.”

True. She couldn’t change the law. Farhara looked at her discarded mask, left behind like the shed skin of a serpent. “We’re not going to tell them,” she said.

“But your visions--”

“I never had any visions,” she snapped. It felt amazing to snap, even though she felt a little guilty as he flinched back. “I’m ordinary, Tahir. I don’t know why, but it doesn't matter. I won’t let you die for this. We... we’ll leave instead.”

His jaw dropped. “You want me to kidnap you?”

“No!” Farhara put her hands on her hips. “I want you to run away with me! I… I was going to, anyway.” She was a little surprised to realize that was the truth. Her dash into the garden wasn’t going to be the end. Some part of her had already planned to leave. “But I can’t make it on my own. I don’t know how. So you’ll help me.”

“I’ll be executed for stealing you away, then,” he protested, finally clamouring to his feet. “I can’t just run off with the princess!”

“Why not?” she returned. “They won’t recognize me. Even my family doesn't know what I look like. You- you’re the first human to see my face in sixteen years.”

Tahir stared at her, finally meeting her gaze. “I… I’ll die if I stay here,” he breathed. “For seeing you.”

He was assuming she would turn him in if he refused, Farhara noted silently. She chewed her lip but didn’t correct him. She was going to leave, whether he came or not. Regardless of the consequences. The idea was more chilling than any night wind.

“And I’ll die for taking you away,” the guard finished unhappily. “I have no good way out of this, do I?”

“Leaving is literally getting out.”

Tahir shook his head, wiping leftover tears from his face. His expression was hard to read, but as he glanced up Farhara could see a faint determination in it. “Can you get servant’s clothing?” he asked her. “You’ll be recognized in all that finery, mask or no mask.”

The sky was peppered with stars when they left, slipping out of the palace in disguise. Except that Farhara’s disguise was the truth. Her own face: her own skin, decorated only by the common cloth of a servant woman. A regular young woman. Exactly what she’d always been.

“Come on,” Tahir said, his voice a little sick and his hand on his sword’s hilt. “We need to go as far as we can tonight. Gods forgive us…”

Farhara took one glance back at her old home. The palace, rising out of the desert, wasn’t a terrible place. But it wasn’t hers.

Her eye caught on a window, lit with a candle, revealing a masked face. Her heart almost stopped, but of course, he wouldn’t recognize her. He couldn’t. He was the only one she regretted not being able to say goodbye too-- at least Nuruddin had been close to her once-- and she should be grateful to get a final glance at him without his knowing her.

Her brother’s eyes met hers, all the way across the palace grounds, and she saw him slowly nod. As if in farewell.

“Princess?” Tahir whispered urgently, and she ripped her eyes free, dashing after him. She was leaving her old life behind, like a serpent leaving a great, shining skin so it could fly free, becoming the simple bird it really was.

She was going to fly.

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About Genevieve Ann Atwater Maxwell

Genevieve is an aspiring author who has been dabbling in the arts of storytelling and writing for almost as long as she remembers. She writes mostly in the fantasy genre, and has received an Honorable Mention in the 'Writer's of the Future' contest for her short story 'A Faerie's Will'.

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