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Richard Lee Byers

The Shattered Mask

Chapter 1

25 Hammer, 1372DR

The Year of Wild Magic

Shamur Uskevren was grateful that all three of her children were home. Even Talbot, who generally resided in a tallhouse across town, had moved back into Stormweather Towers, the Uskevren family mansion, for a day or two.

Shamur found her oldest child in the solarium, where shafts of afternoon sunlight fell through the many windows to nourish the potted plants. This winter it was fashionable for the merchant nobles of Selgaunt to exchange portraits, and Thamalon Uskevren II, Tamlin to his family and Deuce to his friends, was posing for a picture. A handsome young man with wavy black hair, he sat astride a red saddle which in turn rested on a trestle. He held a stirrup cup in one hand and wore a falconer's glove on the other, which he poised as if he actually were carrying a hawk upon his wrist. Presumably his favorite horse and bird would do their posing later in the stable and the mews.

Around the painter and easel milled a tailor and two apprentices, displaying samples of fabric: gleaming damask with designs woven in, shimmering sarcanet, and brocades embroidered with silver and gold. Tamlin winced at a hideous pattern of orange and mauve, whereupon the tailor smiled ruefully and congratulated him on his taste.

Regarding Tamlin from the doorway, Shamur remembered how his birth had brought a spark of happiness into her life after a year of utter misery. A sob welled up inside her, and she suppressed it. She'd worn her mask of lies for thirty years, and she must wear it for a few hours more. When she spoke, her voice was steady, her features, smiling and composed. 'Hello, my son.'

'Mother!' Tamlin replied.

He scrambled down from his wooden mount and strode to meet her. His father had once remarked that the Uskevren heir was too vapid and self-centered to truly care for anyone but himself, but now there was no mistaking the love in his deep green eyes. Behind him, the artist and tradesmen bowed respectfully to the mistress of the house. Up close, Tamlin smelled of wine. Evidently the silver cup was more than just a prop. Shamur hugged the young man fiercely. So fiercely that, puzzled, he asked, 'Is something wrong?'

'No.' She forced herself to let him go. 'Of course not. Can't a mother be happy to see her son?'

'She certainly can,' he said, 'for I'm delighted to see you as well. Especially since I'm having a beastly time deciding on colors. Gellie Malveen says that after Green-grass, everybody who counts will be wearing yellow, but I hate the way I look in yellow!'

They spent the next few minutes in consultation with the tailor, planning Tamlin's spring wardrobe. Ordinarily Shamur delighted in assisting her son with such endeavors. Now, as he chattered on and on about what to wear to balls, hunts, sailing parties, and cotillions, as if there were nothing more to life than revelry, she felt a vague disquiet, and wondered how he would fare in the days ahead.

'Have you paid attention to the negotiations with the emissaries from Tantras and Raven's Bluff?' she asked. Tamlin blinked. 'Excuse me?'

'The discussions are important,' she said. 'If we can convince their cartel to trade with House Uskevren exclusively, it will greatly augment our profits.'

Tamlin peered at her uncertainly. 'Well, that would be nice, I suppose, but you know I find all this buying and selling and dickering wearisome. Father is attending to it, surely?'

Shamur sighed. 'Yes, of course.' Let her perfect boy remain carefree for a little longer. Why not? One way or another, he'd have to become responsible soon enough. 'Let's consider something of true import: the cut of your doublets.'

They spoke for a few more minutes before she took her leave to seek out Talbot, her youngest. He was staying at Stormweather Towers to facilitate his use of the mansion's library, and that was where she found him.

The library was quite possibly the most unique in the land of Sembia. Most of the human inhabitants feared and distrusted elves, but Thamalon Uskevren found them fascinating. In consequence, the Old Owl, as people called him, had filled this room with an assortment of elven artifacts. Golden light from the enchanted sconces gleamed on bronze and wooden masks, a longbow carved from some unidentifiable substance white as alabaster, enigmatic sculptures of fused crystal, and, the pride of the merchant lord's collection, a set of ivory chessmen with a mahogany board. The volumes and scrolls shelved in the massive oak bookcases suffused the air with a musty odor that persisted no matter how often the servants cleaned and aired the chamber out.

Talbot sat at the table, hunched over a book. Like Tamlin, he'd inherited Thamalon's dark hair, but unlike his brother, not their father's trim build and middling height. Tal was a broad-shouldered giant, the only member of the family who towered over the willowy Shamur. He was so huge that people expected him to be awkward, but when he lost himself in his fencing, he displayed a grace worthy of a dancer in the Temple of Joy.

Shamur thought she'd entered the library silently, with neither a creak of hinges nor the brush of a footfall to announce her, but somehow Talbot sensed her anyway. He shot up from his chair and spun around, his teeth half bared in a snarl and a wild reddish light in the gray eyes that so resembled her own.

When he realized who she was, that feral radiance died, and his features rearranged themselves into a sheepish smile.

'You startled me,' he said.

'Evidently,' she said dryly. She took him in her arms, and though she wanted to clasp him to her as tightly and as desperately as she had Tamlin, this time she managed to control herself.

'How are your researches going?' she asked. 'Pretty well,' he said. 'I think Mistress Quickly will be pleased.'

Like Tamlin, Tal showed scant interest in his father's mercantile enterprises. In contrast to his elegant sibling, who chose to wile away the days enjoying the diversions appropriate to a man of his station, Tal inexplicably delighted in performing with a troupe of common players, over which one Mistress Quickly presided as impresario and occasional playwright. Supposedly she now intended to compose a tragedy on the subject of Parex the Mad, fifth Overmaster of Sembia, and her young Uskevren protege was trying to help her learn more about the deranged monarch's disastrous reign.

Shamur turned to glance at the books on the table. Talbot's hulking body jerked, almost as if he'd had to suppress an urge to interpose himself between the volumes and her.

To her surprise, most of the books appeared to deal with magic, demonology, religion, and natural philosophy rather than history. 'The Speculum of Selune?' she asked, flipping the pages of a book whose covers were plates of polished silver. 'The Visage of the Beast? You won't learn much about Parex from these.'

'Oh, but I will!' Talbot exclaimed, too loudly. She raised an eyebrow, whereupon he grimaced, lowered his voice, and stumbled on. 'I mean, there's reason to believe Parex read these very books. That he misunderstood the ideas inside them, and that misapprehension prompted him to perpetrate some of his follies and atrocities.' He eyed his mother as if trying to determine whether she credited what he'd told her.

She peered back, trying to read him in return, wondering why he seemed so nervous. Over the past few months, she'd noticed a difference, a strangeness in him, even though he'd done his best to hide it. It struck her now that after this day, this hour, she'd never have another chance to understand, or to help him if, indeed, he needed it.

'Talbot,' she said, 'you know that if anything were ever wrong, you could come to me, don't you?'

He hesitated. 'Of course.'

'I mean it,' she persisted. 'There's nothing you could ever do and no misfortune that could befall you that

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