Perhaps in Understanding

Yilien likes the masks. She likes that her meaning cannot be misconstrued, that when she dons Politeness no one can accuse her of overcaution or indecisiveness, the way her parents did in her childhood. When she has the right mask, she doesn’t have to speak.

When Mirnai shows up in her walled garden half an hour late, Yilien thanks goodness that she has bright blue Welcome to usher her in with and Pleasure to hide her nerves. Yilien makes Pleasure her base and grabs Welcome by the handle, holding it over her nose and forehead while she opens the door for her friend.

Mirnai is already layering Apology and Gratitude, notching the former over the latter.  Her curly black hair is flattened to her head by the rain.

“I’m so sorry I’m late,” she says.

Yilien shrugs and puts Welcome back in her rotator. “It’s no trouble.” The painted wooden Pleasure on her face reflects the genuine pleasure blooming in her chest, soft and bright like a poppy. It was good of Mirnai to come.

“I’m glad you came,” Yilien says. “My exhibition is in a month and I have no idea how to arrange everything. Please, help me. I’ll get you some tea while you look.”

She prefers to give viewers a few moments with the paintings alone, hates to watch them watch her when they should be looking at the work. Even worse is when they do look at the paintings, when they tap their lips with their forefingers and shift their weight to one foot, settling in. When they do that, Yilien has to guess what they’re thinking. It’s rude to make judgements based on someone’s mouth, on what can be seen beneath the protective layer of the masks, but Yilien can never stop herself from guessing.

So instead she makes a whole new pot of tea with the water from the stove even though there’s more than enough left in the old pot, and she makes it slowly.

When she comes back, Mirnai is standing in front of the painting of the field of grain. Yilien put that one in the least comfortable corner, where the wall comes in to meet the side of the house and the rocks are hard underfoot. In the painting, the field is golden and uniform, rolling up a hill in serene waves. But twining within the stalks are pink and green vines, which poke up here and there among the rest of the grain and meet together in the soil, knotting and tangling until they blend into the shadows at the bottom of the hill. Mirnai is leaning against the rough column looking at it, her face bare of anything but the thin base mask over her forehead, nose, and cheeks, her store of masks spinning uselessly on the rotator on her upper arm.

If Yilien were the girl her father wanted her to be, the perfect future court artist, she wouldn’t pause for a moment, a cup of tea in each hand, and stare at the smooth line of Mirnai’s nose, at the corner of her mouth and the curve of her cheek where she’s smiling at the painting, perhaps in understanding.

Yilien is not the girl her father wanted her to be, but she coughs after a long moment, and raises dove grey Politeness to her face before the other girl turns around.

“It makes me glad,” Mirnai says simply.

Yilien hands her a cup. “Oh?”

“Glad that your exhibition will be before my ship leaves.” Mirnai is still gazing at the painting out of the corner of her eye. “I would hate to miss it.”

“A ship? Are you visiting family?”


Something small and smooth seems to sink through Yilien’s chest. “You’re leaving.”

Mirnai nods. “It’s time to settle down.” She pauses, thinks for a moment. “I would find it difficult to settle down in the city, I think.”

Yilien hasn’t thought about settling down in the city. A painter’s life does not include settling down; she is meant to soar and never touch the ground.

“Whe—” the roof of her mouth has gone suddenly dry. “When are you leaving?”

“Two days after your exhibition.”

Yilien lets the silence hang in the air.

“I’m sorry,” Mirnai says quietly. “It’ll be better for my business. It’s hard, here, to move beyond the expectations people have of you.” She gestures at her clothing, the blue and tan of a delivery worker. “In other places, there is more flexibility. The number of masks on your arm and the name of your family isn’t everything there.”

Yilien touches the rotator on her left arm, the weight of it suddenly unsettling. “I understand,” she says. “I hope you’ll be successful.”

Mirnai laughs, says “I hope so too,” and Yilien tries to rummage beneath her mask for happiness for her friend.

Yilien’s mother comes over the next afternoon, uninvited as always. Yilien puts away her painting as soon as she arrives because no matter what her mother says, this is not a routine visit. Her suspicions are realized when her mother tells her to pour a third cup of tea because she invited Princess Alisa, and it would be rude not to prepare for her, just in case.

Alisa is one of the twenty or so princesses who flit around the palace, preparing to travel or make good marriages or good art or sometimes all three. Of them, she is nearly the eldest and indubitably the most interesting. She’s responsible for the new trend for embroidered hems and collars, and also for the way everybody laughs at those with bad handwriting, having publicly displayed a sloppy note from a former friend.

Alisa arrives ten minutes after Yilien has poured the tea, Graceful Apology quickly replaced by Humor when she jokes about her tardiness.

Alisa is a lively and practiced conversationalist; she compliments Yilien on her taste in wallpaper and asks about her father’s health. When she reaches past Yilien for another sticky bun, she touches Yilien’s forearm and doesn’t apologize. She talks about her own taste in art, her interest in sculpting, the party she wants to throw in a few weeks. She’s tall and thin and impeccably dressed; the thickly embroidered sleeves of her tunic are cut fashionably short to reveal her delicate, bony wrists. The names of the colorful masks on her double rotator are written in ornate gold lettering, one of the distinctions of a royal. Alisa gestures as she talks, and Yilien watches her wrists and her thin soft fingers and wonders when her mother will make an excuse to leave.

“These are your paintings?” Alisa asks eventually, looking around.

Yilien nods.

“I like them,” Alisa says. “Your mother tells me you have a show coming up.”

“If I can puzzle out how to organize all of this into a coherent exhibition.”

Alisa puts on Wry Humor. “I can sympathize. I’m a lot better at disorganizing things than organizing them.” She gives the studio a long, sweeping glance. “But I do like these. However you choose to organize them, I think my friends will want to see these.”

Yilien fumbles for Gratitude, the only mask she can possibly respond with—“You are too kind”—but for some reason, fear rushes through her.

This is what’s expected of her, isn’t it? A wild love affair with a princess, her career as a court artist solidified before it’s even begun. She needs to make connections, and with Mirnai leaving she could use new friends.

They will expect her to paint Alisa after this. Perhaps in long, longing views of the cliffs by the palace, the princess almost blurring into the background. Or maybe she will paint Alisa by the stairs to the tower where her uncle lives, the dark curtains drawn around her.

And then they’ll fight. They’ll take their masks off and scream at each other in private. Put them on and snip at each other in public. They’ll run the gossip cycle for a few months. Yilien will paint storms and broken ships, rip her canvases at the edges and refuse to appear in public for a year. Alisa will find some young new calligrapher rising into fame and start it all over. Yilien will do the same, over and over and over again.

The next morning Yilien wakes up early and paints the city. She paints the palace in its corner, the tall tower where the king and queen live and do not leave, then the sprawling outbuildings, and the market square. She mixes browns and greenish greys for the stone of the city walls, makes the ships in the harbor dark outlines. The sky she leaves blank.

Yilien adds an octopus in the water, large and purple and happy, if octopuses are happy. She can paint over it later.

She stares at the painting and does not know what to feel. It could be a good final piece for the exhibition, she thinks, if it comes together. Yilien gets her rotator from the table and pretends she is in a gallery, staring at someone else’s painting. She flicks Knowing over Interest and wonders how expensive Recognition is. In her more cynical moments, Yilien sometimes wonders if all her work as a painter isn’t just to give the wealthiest people reasons to buy more and more elaborate masks.

In the remote villages the local maskmaker or, if they lack that, even furniture maker can provide only the basic five masks—Politeness, Joy, Anger, Melancholy, and Caring—without the necessity of even a basic rotator. In such villages, as she understands, the people get on with just these few masks for their entire lives, layering Joy and Caring at weddings for lack of access to Devotion and Harmony, which are traditionally required.

Perhaps the villagers do not feel the lack. Perhaps they have made up new languages of expression all their own.

Yilien and Mirnai meet at a chocolate house near the center square at Mirnai’s invitation, both a few minutes early. Yilien’s rotator is crammed full of the widest variety of masks she has.

They sit in a tiny round booth in the back with high backs and velvet arms. A waiter hands them menus in paper gone soft at the edges, and Yilien can’t decide if she should look at hers or at Mirnai or at the smooth, round edge of the table.

She adjusts her masks—Politeness and Pleasure layered on delicate hooks—and looks up. Mirnai wears only Pleasure.

“Did you have any trouble getting here?” Mirnai asks.

“No,” she says. “It was a very convenient walk.” Mirnai must know this. The chocolate shop is fashionable and expensive, close to Yilien’s apartment and far from her own. Mirnai will insist on paying, Yilien knows, though she should not.

The chocolate shop smells like chocolate, of course, the deep, seeped in, baseline smell, but it also smells like mint and oranges, a strange, bitter combination. Yilien focuses on the edge of the table, the worn corner of her menu, her head trying to spin loose from her shoulders.

Mirnai puts her menu down. “Do you know what you want?”

“No,” Yilien says, helpless. A second too late, she grabs Humor and hooks it onto her base mask, trying to make it a joke.

Mirnai flips to Humor as well. “That’s okay,” she says. “You have time.”

They look at each other for a moment, their matching green masks trying to make the moment something it isn’t. The joke, if it is a joke, drops like a stone.

After their chocolate comes, dark for Yilien, middling with cream and sprinkles for Mirnai, they poke at the silence. Mostly Yilien lets Mirnai talk, asking questions to draw her out when she begins to quiet. At Yilien’s insistence, Mirnai tells her about the mountains she’s going home to. Her whole family lives in a village, building additions to their compound as more people trickle in. They eat big dinners in the long hall in the winter and the courtyard in the summer, and they supply wood to most of the major maskmakers in a nearby city.

Though Mirnai speaks mostly with Politeness and Interest, Yilien can hear that she’s excited about this, about building the business, organizing a tiny world of her own around wood distribution. Mirnai has always known what she wanted, has always been driven toward it. More than the business, though, Mirnai looks forward to the apartment in the city she’ll live in during the week, to going home to her family on the weekends, playing with her cousins and joking with her siblings.

Yilien takes a sip of the last bitter dregs of her chocolate. Mirnai is tapping her fingers on the table, a quick-paced dut-dut-dut. Yilien hates this. It’s never been hard to talk to Mirnai before, nor to understand what she’s thinking. Since the day Mirnai left a note under the garden wall of the academy saying she liked Yilien’s painting five years ago, they’ve always understood each other.

Mirnai has always been driven, has always pursued what she wants. Yilien has known, more or less since they met, that she is the only thing Mirnai has wanted and not chased.

Yilien returns to the painting of the city one morning soon after. She fills in the ships and the shadows on the tower, touches up the bright highlights of tin roofs on the edge of the city. Somehow, she can’t bring herself to paint the sky yet, and she’s still undecided about the octopus. Just as she’s decided to stop and eat, the door opens, and the princess walks in.

Yilien grabs at her cloth base and puts Surprise on, fumbling for it on her rotator, missing hooks with shaking hands. Her cheeks burn. Alisa didn’t even knock.

“I apologize for coming in unannounced,” Alisa says, flashing Apology almost as an afterthought. “I was hoping to catch you at work.”

Yilien beckons for her to sit and picks up her sketch pad. “I was just finishing this,” she says. “Perhaps you’d like to sit with me while I work on something new?” She sits down on the stool next to Alisa’s and reaches for a pencil.

While Yilien is very aware that she said “sit,” and not “talk,” the distinction is less clear to the princess. She asks Yilien what she thinks of the new fashion for dried flowers in one’s hair and affixed to collars. Yilien sketches a few sharp lines, not knowing what she draws. She thinks the new fashion is beautiful but wasteful.

And what about the king’s new plan for moving certain favored artists into the lower courtyards of the palace? Yilien gives up on paying attention to what she is sketching, though she continues absentmindedly. She thinks it’s an interesting idea, though she wonders if it’s not just so that the court doesn’t have to travel to come to exhibitions and galleries to show off their exquisite new emotions.

Perhaps that comes off a little sharper than she meant it. Alisa leans closer. Her mask is Interest, bold gold letters on a red background, but it might as well say Flirtation. “You might like the palace,” she says. “It’s so convenient.”

Yilien chuckles, layers Gratitude over Modesty. “I think you mentioned that it was an arrangement for the most accomplished artists, which I hardly am.”

Alisa tilts her head, flips to Disbelief, and leans closer. “You are what you make of yourself.”

And Yilien doesn’t even begin to have a way of telling her how deeply untrue that is, how they’re all trapped in different stratospheres of wooden masks and foolish paths, that Alisa is at the top, her expressions nearly unlimited, but there’s a whole universe below her. Something like amusement bubbles in Yilien’s chest; she probably doesn’t have the mask for it. And she knows that there’s a whole universe below her too, as much as she’d like to ignore it.

There’s a knock at the door. Yilien stiffens, but Alisa just says, “Come in!”

Mirnai opens the door, her bag over her shoulder. “Oh, I’m sorry,” she says, “I didn’t realize you had company.” She turns to close the door, bringing the rotator on her arm down for a moment as it jostles against the bag.

Alisa judges quickly, donning Grace and Condescension in swinging layers. “Do you have a delivery?”

Yilien freezes in horror. Mirnai is wearing her delivery uniform, a dark blue robe and loose tan pants. It’s an easy assumption to make.

“Ah,” Yilien starts, watching as Mirnai flips through her rotator, settling eventually on Gratitude and Politeness. She clearly hasn’t brought Deference—nor should she, to visit Yilien.

“An installation,” Mirnai says, after she bows to Alisa. “My colleagues are on their way with the stove.”

The threat of more workers has the desired effect on Alisa. The princess makes a show of taking a strand of Yilien’s pale hair and weaving it back into the loose braid at the back of Yilien’s head. Yilien watches Mirnai watch Alisa touch her with Politeness and Gratitude still stiff on her face and wishes she were an octopus.

“I—” she starts, but Alisa pats her hand.

“Don’t worry, I have to go anyway. I’ll see you soon,” Alisa says, and lets Mirnai hold the door open for her.

Yilien slumps over as soon as the door closes, scrambling for three masks at once—Apology, Embarrassment, Confusion. They clack as they hit each other, a chaos of meaningless wood.

“She’s not—she doesn’t—” Yilien starts, “—she doesn’t know me that well. She doesn’t know we’re friends.”

Mirnai comes in and sits on a cushion on the floor, switches to bare Politeness. “I could have gone. Would have, if you’d wanted me to.” The question is clear.

“No,” Yilien says. She adds Sincerity to the masks on her face, in her hands. “I didn’t invite her. I invited you.”

Mirnai looks down. “Thank you.”

Yilien gestures at Mirnai’s bag. “Unpack. I’ll make tea. You brought work with you?”

Mirnai flashes Humor. “Shipping schematics. Riveting, as you can imagine.”

Yilien has known her long enough to know that Mirnai does find them riveting, but she doesn’t say anything. Mirnai settles on a cushion on the floor, spreading documents in front of her and propping her chin on her hands.

Yilien waits for the water to finish heating and sets up her easel with the city painting, the sky’s background dried enough to add another layer. She’s decided she’s just going to put in the thick clouds, the dark drama of the sky, that the painting requires. But now she finds herself staring blankly at the canvas, still worried about Alisa, Mirnai, the parts of her life that aren’t supposed to intersect.

Mirnai turns a page, bending closer to read a diagram. She jots down a note on a pad of paper. She’s kept Politeness on, the other masks on her rotator lying quietly in their places. Yilien wonders if she has Fellowship, and realizes, with a faint jolt, that she’s never noticed Mirnai’s relative scarcity of masks before, though surely it was obvious. She’s always felt that she understands the other woman.

Yilien puts her paintbrush down.

After Mirnai has gone, Yilien goes back to the page of her sketchbook she was doodling on when Alisa talked at her. There’s a mountain, tall and proud, thick trees—or at least charcoal blurs indicating them—growing up the sides.

She prepares a new canvas.

Yilien visits Alisa twice, both times at the princess’s request.

The first time, Alisa asks about Yilien’s exhibition, and Yilien’s worries jump out. She sketches out a diagram and explains the organization of the gallery, the way she has it all planned: vertical landscapes on one wall, horizontal on the other, arranged by color and subject: the academy, the harbor, the view of the gray, rocky hills on one edge of the city, the fields outside the city walls. The painting of the city, if she can finish the sky, will be in the middle, to tie it all together.

“That’s very neat,” Alisa says, Amused. “But why don’t you paint people?”

Her fingertips are on Yilien’s shoulder as she bends over the outline.

Yilien shrugs. “I learned how, but…I don’t know. Landscapes always felt more peaceful.” She knows what Alisa wants, though, what she knows better than to ask for directly. “I could paint you, if you wanted.”

The second time Yilien visits Alisa, they walk around the royal gardens. There are roses all around them, carefully maintained in the greenhouse throughout the seasons, and Alisa presses her long fingers to the mask on Yilien’s cheeks and kisses her. Her mouth tastes like mint salve, and the air is filled with the sweet, obedient scent of roses, and Yilien leans into the kiss and thinks, well, this isn’t so bad.

Yilien can’t finish the painting of the city. The sky is blank, and the tower is too tall or too dark. Instead, she paints more mountains—mountains that were doodles, mountains with forests, light filtering through leaves in a thousand shades of green. And when she gets to the gallery the day before the exhibition, she has five paintings of forested mountains and no idea where they belong in her painstakingly organized system.

First, she tries to replace the painting of the city with the five mountains on the far wall, everything else unchanged. It doesn’t work. Instead of connecting everything together, the mountains stand out for their difference, and everything falls apart around them. Suddenly, the stone walls of the academy clash against the ships in the harbor, and the golden fields and rocky hills seem ill-suited to each other.

Yilien waits until the gallery owner leaves to start hyperventilating. She detaches her rotator and mask and paces between the sections, trying to find a new thread, a connection tying everything together, however basic. There must be something.

At the academy, it was etched above the doorways: An artist’s talent extends only so far as their understanding.

And Yilien doesn’t understand anything. She wanders over to the paintings she made of the academy, mostly from memory and old sketches. It broke her and all her classmates and built them back up again.

She leaves the paintings of the academy in one corner.

She finds, as she paces, that they all have something a little off hiding in their corners and shadows. Yilien has always painted like this; it’s seen as a charming, identifying idiosyncrasy. But in the paintings of the mountains and the forests on them, the unnatural is bright and bold, impossible flowers, feathery mushrooms growing from boulders, tree roots turning to serpents, all in unmissable color. These she places in the other corner, the end of a long cycle. In between the academy and the mountains, she places regions in roughly chronological order. The fields she and her classmates picnicked in, the harbor where she and Mirnai walked, the hills she stares at when she doesn’t want to paint, the tower Alisa comes from.

It will have to do.

Everyone Yilien expected comes. Alisa arrives in a bright blue dress with a sheer jacket and kisses her on the temple in front of everyone. Yilien can practically hear her mother vibrate with joy. People wind through the paintings in order, flip through their rotators to express increasingly abstract reactions. Yilien stands in the middle of the room and accepts their compliments and critiques and tries not to feel faint.

As the evening winds down, a core set of people remain, clustered in small groups for conversation. Yilien watches Alisa chat with a few of Yilien’s friends from school, the whole group flipping masks so fast they must be talking about her. Her mother is speaking to a family friend, Smug as anything. The night has gone well. Her path spreads out before her, open and inviting.

Mirnai approaches, wearing her best robe, smooth green silk that must have cost a fortune, and Yilien’s chest clenches. Mirnai is leaving in days, and there’s not enough time. There’s never enough time.

“Have you ever been to my city?” Mirnai asks. “Or the mountains?” She is Polite, Curious.

“No,” Yilien says, “unfortunately I’ve never had that pleasure.”

Mirnai flips to Humor. “You’ve imagined the area well.”

“I beg your pardon?”

“The mountains at the end. They’re my mountains, only you’ve completely made them up.” Mirnai hesitates. “You should visit me, see them for yourself.”

“Oh,” Yilien says, says it like a long sigh. She lets the realization wash over her slowly, thinks about clouds parting and the clarity of mountain air. It seems that she’s arranged everything chronologically after all. The mountains are the future. The one she wants.

Yilien looks at the room around her again, a little more closely this time. Her parents, proud of what she’s accomplished but not, really, of her. The princess who’s chosen her for the moment, as is expected of her. The paintings that make her wince a little when she looks at them, filled with some kind of foreboding. But, arranged as they are, they are an arrow pointing to a new path.

Yilien always did take a while to know her own mind.

She beckons Mirnai to follow and slips behind a curtain and out the back exit into an alley. There’s a single streetlight here, and the air is cold and wet.

“What is it?” Mirnai asks. She is curious and impatient, Yilien can tell, though she can’t remember what mask Mirnai’s even wearing. It doesn’t matter.

“Don’t you know? Haven’t you always known?” Yilien asks. She’s bad at talking, always has been. She’s always wanted the paintings and the masks to speak for her, but she’ll have to get this out herself. “If I went to your room, would I not find Devotion and Harmony in a box somewhere just in case?”

Mirnai puts a hand on the stone wall of the gallery. “Maybe so.”

“I’m miserable here,” Yilien says. If she were paying attention to her masks, she’d flip to Decision or Sincerity. “I want to leave. I want to paint the mountains. I want you to tell me you’ve bought an extra ticket, just in case, and that your little apartment will hold me, at least for visits, and that we’ll squabble and leave our masks in drawers until someone else visits.”

Yilien watches her friend as closely as she can in the dim light. Mirnai touches a hand to her own face and unhooks her mask, then reaches for the cloth base. She takes it off her face—her soft, unfamiliar face—and blinks up at Yilien slowly, smiling.


AnaMaria Curtis

AnaMaria Curtis is from the part of Illinois that is very much not Chicago. She’s the winner of the LeVar Burton Reads Origins & Encounters Writing Contest and the 2019 Dell Magazines Award, and her work has been published in magazines including Strange Horizons, Uncanny, and Beneath Ceaseless Skies. In her free time, AnaMaria enjoys starting fights about 19th century British literature and getting distracted by dogs. You can get in touch or find more of her work at or on Twitter at @AnaMCurtis.

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment. You can register here.