Stephano Ferrara di Sarvos was the only man I have ever loved. Whatever else you write in your scandal sheet or gossip to your friends about, remember that. I loved him more than anyone else in the world. Yes, I mean that in both senses. There was nobody that I loved more, and nobody who ever loved him as much as me. And now nobody ever will.
Since I have only one night left in this world before the magistrates rouse the executioner from their comfortable bed, I will tell you my story. Stephano and I studied together at l’Accademia di Sangue, the foremost establishment teaching young dramaturgists the art of the Theatre of Shock. I am not merely boasting when I say that we were the leading lights of our class, and that we embraced the power of theatre to jar people from their complacent feelings of safety. Fear, loathing and disgust, these were to be our theatrical tools. Where others in our classes saw only the surface images, we looked beneath to the core of what truly disturbed the souls of our audience. Not for us mere phantasms that would vanish from people’s minds like mist in the light of dawn. No, we would leave an impression that people would never be free from until their dying day.
Upon our graduation it was only natural that together we should found our own theatre company together. Stephano was a leading man of extraordinary talent; never before or since have I seen a man as capable of persuading an audience that he was the soul of purest evil. More than once I saw him sleeping in a barricaded dressing room for fear that some maddened spectator, too drawn into the performance, would attempt to strike him down as if he were the villains that he portrayed. Yet any who confronted him when not performing would find an individual so different as to cause people to question their sanity. Stephano was a kind man, Proud and Loyal, as eager to lift others up as his fictional alter-egos were to cast them down. Some actors only ever play themselves, but for my Stephano the stage was a different world, and he was a different man altogether.
While Stephano inhabited the role of the leading man, I laboured out of sight to create those elements of a stage show that could not be achieved merely by the skill of the performers. I worked hard to create the lamps that allowed the stage to go from absolute darkness to blinding light in a mere second. I constructed backdrops so detailed that audiences fancied they could hear the dripping of water from the ceiling of a dungeon, or feel the icy wind blowing from the Varushkan mountains. And yes, the props and effects were mine too, and finer work has never been done in the realistic representation of the suffering that can be inflicted on the human body. Why, when we staged The Blinding Of Prince Borgio several physicks tried to invade the stage, believing that we were killing the actor in the title role. I was even interrogated by the militia after we staged The Wendigo’s Bride, as they were unable to understand how I had so accurately represented the dismembered corpses of small children without, shall we say, doing first-hand research. I refused to tell them any of my secrets and in the end they had to let me go, but the notoriety did no harm to our reputation. The Theatre Of The Grotesque, as our establishment was called, thrived on scandal.
As our audiences swelled and our fame and riches grew, our social standing naturally rose alongside them. You do not need me to tell you of the importance of the rounds of parties to which our company was invited, and later which we staged on our own. The patronage of Princes and Bishops and the acclaim and opprobrium of broadsheets such as your own can make or break a theatrical company, and the quality of our productions were but one battlefield in the war to claim the attention of the jaded theatre-goers of Sarvos. Naturally, Stephano was as comfortable in these gatherings as he was treading the boards. He was much sought after as a conversationalist and wit, and stood as one of the primary reasons that people attended upon us. A legion of sycophants vied for his attention, and his off-hand comments would be seized upon and repeated a thousand times over the weeks that followed by those who sought to bask in the reflected glory of his ease and charisma. Everyone loved him, as was his due.
As for myself, as brightly as Stephano’s star shone mine was swiftly eclipsed. Hordes of adoring suitors would crowd around him, while I was left to keep my own company. Once in a while someone would come to speak with me, even pityingly offer me a chance to speak on my skills as a designer, but always the conversation came back to Stephano, and shortly after that I would find myself abandoned again. I bore no resentment towards him, you must understand. I saw him as clearly as everyone else, more so because of our long friendship, and knew that such adoration was nothing more than the rightful reward for his beauty and charisma. But I am as Proud as any righteous citizen ought to be, and to be disregarded was not something I took lightly. At first it was irritating, then unpleasant, then actively painful. I tried to seek out those who might understand, who would acknowledge my skills, who would see me as I wished to be seen. They all turned their backs on me. They said that I was too intense, that there was something intimidating in my demeanour, but I knew the truth. They stepped away from me, but in doing so they inevitably moved back towards him.
There was a time when I asked him what his secret was, how he attracted people so easily, how he compelled them to see him and give him the love that was his due. Stephano smiled at me sadly, and shook his head. “My darling,” he said, “Don’t you see? None of them love me. None of them truly see me. Such is the actor’s tragedy. We wish them to see us, but they only see the mask.” I called him a liar, and I struck him, and he struck me back, and we made love on a pile of discarded costumes, as was our way. Time and again I pressed him for his secret, but he would never reveal it to me, and his secrecy drove me near to the point of madness. It was only then that I realised his true cunning. He had told me the truth, and I had been too blind to see it. People came to see the mask, he had told me. If I could discover which mask of his it was that called his admirers and make it my own, I could claim the adulation which was my right.
The first mask of his that I stole was a plain and pale thing, discreetly tied with a cream-coloured ribbon. If he noticed that I had taken it from him he gave no sign, for like all actors Stephano collected and discarded masks on a whim. It was the oldest mask he owned, this I knew, and so I was filled with confidence as I swept into our next gathering with it sat clearly upon my face. Yet I was downcast as if anything, I was seen even less than before. My every attempt to make conversation was rebuffed, and those I spoke to seemed to recoil from me as if I came to offer them violence. They made polite excuses, but I saw the truth. They feared me, they hated me, and above all they still did not see me. I could not allow this to stand.
More and more of Stephano’s masks fell into my hands. Every mask he had ever worn in our performances joined my collection. I would go to his house and search his wardrobes, making off with whatever bounty I could find in search of my true treasure. When he refused to allow me entry I would make my way in through a poorly-secured window as he slept, and explore his lodgings in the darkness. Even then I knew that he still held onto his secret, the true mask that held his power. I fancied that I could sense the light of his presence wherever I was, the radiance of his beauty shining through walls as easily as if they were glass. I stood in his home, and I searched, and I took his masks, and it did nothing to grant me any shred of his glory.
Last night he awoke as I stood in front of his grand mirror, hoping to see what it was in me that others found so repulsive. He confronted me, demanded to know what was the object of my obsession, and again I demanded to know where was the mask that made people see him. He seized me by the shoulders and told me that I did not understand, that I was not an actor, that I could never truly know what he meant. I saw only the masks that people wore on the outside, but that he was forced to wear a mask all the time, that he could never escape the mask that lay on the inside. And in that moment, I understood, and he saw in my eyes that I understood, and I knew what I had to do.
He resisted only a little as I bound him to that chair. He drank the Marrowort infusion with only a small amount of persuasion. He sat calm and accepting as I took my knives and removed from him that last mask, the true secret of his adoration. And as the dawn came and I walked the streets with that gory trophy upon my face, I knew that he had told me the truth, and that he would thank me if he were able. I tore away that mask of beauty, allowed everyone to see his true self, and demanded that everyone see me in my turn.
You hide behind your mask to conceal your shock. The magistrate hid behind a mask to wear the face of a just man. The executioner will hide behind a mask to play the Reaper for me. But though I may die, I do so with a Proud heart, and a final urging to all those who read my last words.
Take off your mask, or someone else will take it off for you.