The Council had gathered at the Circle due to an urgent notice of Gopher Meryll and Govin Grindylow, the two heads of the entire council. Gopher Meryll was the one wearing a teal mask with rough skin and bushy eyebrows. The bridge of its nose was pierced by the teeth of a wild animal. There were also protruding canines from the upper lip of his mask.
Govin Grindylow, on the other hand, wore a reddish-orange mask but unlike Gopher’s his has a smooth surface, with scattered marks made to look like small cuts, a circular piercing was placed in between the eyebrows and it also had two canines but they jut out from the bottom of the mask.
The summon was actually filed by the heads of the Artisans Department, Casov Kale and Harley Grud.
Every department was headed by two members of the council of fourteen. A session was regularly held every thirteenth day of the month to discuss projects and problems in the society. Updates and reports on the state of affairs of businesses, peace and health are also presented. Such is the job that is handled by the council. In short, they are the folks who called the shots in the town of Maskerville.
But the current meeting isn’t meant for that kind of discussion. This was due to a developing crisis that had been affecting the Artisans Department. They needed to come up with a solution to the growing problem of price increase of the Vertigo Resin and the decline of their market. Through the past years, the trend of sales for the masks had been dropping despite of the increase in population brought about by the advancement of the Medics Department in the development of specialized herbs that effectively cures diseases.
Demand for masks had been expected to increase. However, the opposite had been happening. Every year it has been anticipated that the renewal of masks would rise. It is the specialty of the Artisans to remake masks that are exactly alike to what the owners already have. This is in accordance with the signed law that only one mask should and will be given to an individual in order to easily identify a certain person. That’s the reason behind the Artisan’s slogan “No two masks are exactly alike. Each is unique to its own.”
They had been making masks for centuries that are both elaborate and durable. However, durability it seems had become a problem for them. Since, wear and tear of the masks rarely happens, the number of people who had been renewing were declining. And it wasn’t only the sole reason for non-renewal but it was also because the already excessively expensive masks kept on increasing in price due to the fact that Vertigo Resin had been more expensive as well.
“Why don’t you consider lowering your profit margin? Haven’t you already been over pricing the masks all these years?” Lord Theodore Grimwell said.
He was the head of the Medics Department together with Lord Firenze Folin. Out of all the members, he was the one who had the most scary-looking ogre-mask. It is neon colored, therefore very bright, with blood red paint around it’s eyes and smeared across it’s cheeks in streaks making it look like he was crying tears of blood.
“This is not an issue of profit margin, Theodore. The price for the masks stays as it is. What we are doing is a very elaborate craft and very detailed that we make sure none of it resembles the other,” Casov declared. “Besides, as far as I know, your profit margin for herbs were just as much. You’re not one to talk,” he chided.
“But clearly Grimwell has a point, Casov. If it is as you said that your market has been declining then a decrease in the price might prove to be the solution to attract more customers for purchase and renewal. It could just equalize everything. The decrease in your profit margin will be countered by an increase in the number of customers. If this would make your former consumers return, as well as encourage new ones, then though the price maybe lesser you’ll be gaining more if your surpass your previous consumer number,” Govin Grindylow, head of the council, said.
“That is if we surpass our previous consumer number. There’s no guarantee that making the masks cheaper would make them want to buy it. Besides, we have already told you that Vertigo Resin had been increasing in price. The most we can do is retain the prices as they are,” Harley Grud reasoned.
He, together with Casov Kale, were the heads for the Artisans Department. Being the head of the department that is responsible for making the town’s mask, it is only appropriate that the two should wear special ones. Their masks were made of precious gems: sapphire for Casov and ruby for Harley. The sapphire ogre-mask has a crystal like glow while the ruby ogre-mask glitters a pale rose red whenever it catches light.
“If only there is a way for us to acquire a vertigo plantation, like the forests in the south,” Sarrin Sadnam voiced out the thoughts that all men in the council had been mulling over in their heads.
He, on the other hand, is the head of the Town Defenders Department. He was wearing a brown ogre-mask with rough skin, resembling the texture of a bark of a tree that had some lichens attached to it. Beside him sat his co-head, Lord Ylcar Quimas, wearing a burgundy mask with three large dots on the forehead like an ellipsis. He usually doesn’t say much during conventions and merely contents himself with listening to the other Lords. But he was a very wise man and whenever he did speak, it is usually with sense, unlike the two blockheads that are the head of the Scientia Department.
Don’t be fooled. Though they are the boss of the scientific community or what little science there is in Maskerville, they are actually not as knowledgeable as you’d think of someone who’s head of that department: Baler Stein and David Garmi.
Calling them blockheads was an exaggeration, they were not that stupid per say but they were two people who have no sense of initiative or responsibility towards their department or the town that they serve. So, how did they land the spot? Well, it was kept in the family for generations much like the rest of the people in the council. The previous generations weren’t as bad as them. Originally, it was created by the first fourteen council members as the division that would facilitate research in the rehabilitation of the land to address issues of food scarcity. The main goal was to make the volcanic pumice arable and sustainable for farming and grazing. But as new heads replaced the old leaders, the objective to provide solutions to the town’s problem and create innovations to make life easier seems to have been lost in exchanged for self-interest. And look where it got them? Nowhere. The money that the council pours into Scientia for research goes straight into the pockets of these two nitwits.
What’s worse? Everyone in the council knows and none of them does anything about it.
They are pretty much content and satisfied with how things are. After all, it doesn’t directly affect them whether the two Lords will do their jobs or not. What’s important is that they keep their pockets and stomachs full.
Baler and David weren’t even listening to the discussion; Baler was wearing his yellow and black ogre-mask just like a bumblebee and David was wearing his mud-like mask that looked exactly like soil and water mixed, adhesive to the touch.
“Have you considered targeting a larger market other than the the upper and middle classes?” Romulus Gris asked thoughtfully. “You know that a large part of the population belongs to the common people. I understand that you do not want to change the value of the masks. But how about creating ones that would be affordable to those people? Maybe, masks that doesn’t have as much Vertigo Resin as the ones the upper and middle class have. I mean, you have already been doing it to the pixie-masks of the mid people and so do the fairy-masks of the servants. The reason why the masks of the nobles are so expensive is because it’s of higher quality: more vertigo resin and made of luxury goods. Why not create one for the common people that makes use of materials available to us, perhaps fine pumice? Us in the traders department” -he indicated his co-head Tarlack Castel- “could provide you with these materials.”
“Oh, is this another one of your preaches, Romulus? Still trying to bridge the gap between the peasants and the upper class?” Lord Firenze asked mockingly.
“We have already been through this discussion, Romulus,” Gopher Meryll said. “The fragment of our society is going to crumble once you start giving power to those people.”
“Giving power?” he asked skeptically. “We aren’t giving them power, Gopher. We are merely giving them identities, dignities since this is how our society functions. We are giving them worth. In Maskerville, only those with masks have true worth, some kind of meaning - even if they’re just servants, it has meaning because they have a mask. Without it, these people are merely slaves - slaves to the mark of the undead,” he reasoned.
“It has only been three months since we reached the conclusion that fueling these kind of thoughts are dangerous to the populace. Once the distance between the higher and lower classes thinned, they will also start to demand more. Or did you already forget the boy who had been punished?” Gopher reminded Romulus.
“I believe what Romulus was trying to say,” Tarlack interjected, his white pallid ogre-mask looking as if it was made of wax. “Is that, this would be extremely helpful for the Artisans Department. I will be able to provide pumice at a very cheap price and they would be able to whip a mask out of it that could be priced twice as much as the capital but still not too expensive for the common people,” he said focusing on the benefits it had for the council.
“That is true. I believe the benefits outweigh whatever preconceived losses you have in your minds,” Falcon Sage, the head of the couriers department, agreed.
He was wearing a gold ogre-mask that actually reflects the masks of the councilmen. It has the eagle seal on its forehead. It looked exactly like his co-head, Silver Black, the only difference is that instead of gold, it was silver.
“Casov and I are going to think about this proposal,” Harley replied. “However this is not the only problem that we have,” he continued.
“Yes, there has been another matter that is needed to be addressed,” Casov started. “There has been a threat. Another cause for the decline of our consumer,” he said forcefully.
Casov walked in the middle of the large round table. “Somewhere in the south, there is a man who had been doing tattoos to cover the mark of the undead for the peasants. Now, this would be no problem if it remained only among them. However, talks had already spread about this fellow and peasants had been walking bearing his work that some of the middle class had been considering to stop the use of masks and go for the tattoos instead,” he finished quite angrily.
“Abominable,” echoed Firenze. “These people need to be educated about the health issues that might arise from the use of unsterilized tattoo equipment. This is indeed a threat to the people.”
“Not only is that the problem, this had already reached the ears of the nobles. News had been spreading fast. I have even received letters asking whether this is the new trend, or if I could gladly book them for a session,” he said.
The council looked amongst each other at this new development. Clearly, this wasn’t something that they had been expecting to hear. They don’t even have any idea of this tattooist until Casov mentioned him.
“And what do you propose to do, Casov?” Sarrin asked.
“We need to take action before this becomes an even bigger crisis!” he exclaimed.
“What kind of action?” Tarlack prompted.
“We need to look for him and bring him to the council,” Harley replied. “I am quite sure, the sentry would gladly lend us a hand in finding one person,” he said looking at Sarrin.
But Sarrin didn’t answer though, instead, it was Ylcar who spoke, “I understand that some men of the sentry division are already under your direct authority. And no doubt had been doing the search. There is no need for more than what has been allocated to your department. The town defenders could spare no men just to simply look for a man who had been doing some childish tattoos. We have bigger issues that needs to be dealt with such as the vagabonds that had been killing our men along the road.”
“Yes, that is true. Deliveries had been delayed and it’s even harder now to recruit new couriers because of the threat outside Maskerville,” Silver Black seconded.
“I understand your concern, Lord Black and Lord Quimas. But the Artisans are not going to need a battalion. We simply need a few of your men no more than twenty,” Harley explained.
“Suppose that our men are going to aid you in this search, how are they going to know who this tattooist is, let alone where to start?,” Sarrin asked.
“If our intel is accurate, this man shouldn’t be too hard to spot. Apparently, he is bald and he also have some tattoo on his face covering his mark. He seems to go around bare chested. Furthermore, if finding him would prove to be difficult. We always have ways to make his customers talk,” Casov said darkly.
The two council heads, Gopher and Govin, discussed the actions that should be taken pertaining to this man who had been doing tattoos in the south. Govin argued that it is apparent which is more important than the two. They needed to protect the town defenders and the the town couriers from the vagabonds that had been doing a killing spree. But Gopher indicated that like what Lord Harley mentioned, they wouldnt be needing a lot of men. Surely, they could spare at least a few. They argued and finally decided that it would be best to vote with all the members of the council.
So, Govin called all the men in attention.
“Gopher and I have decided that it’ll be better for us to make a vote with regards to the matter of The Bald Tattooist of Maskerville, those in favor of sending more town defenders no more than twenty to seek this man and have him brought before the council, please raise your hand.”
Casov and Harley were the first ones to raise their hand. Followed by Firenze and then Theodore. Theodore sharply kicked the seat of Baler who’s sitting just next to him, indicating that he should raise his hand, David just followed suit.
Six lords were now in favor. Making it seven, when Gopher raised his hand. Only one more needed to reach a decision.
A few seconds passed and the rest thought it’s going to be an equal vote when suddenly Sarrin raise his right hand as well.
Govin cleared his throat and said, “Eight people in favor. Those not in favor of sending more town defenders to the Artisans Department in pursuit of the Bald Tattooist of Maskerville, please raise your hand.”
Romulus, Tarlack, Falcon, Silver and Ylcar raised their hands. Five people. Then, Govin also raised his hand. “Six people not in favor. It has been decided, the town defenders are going to provide more men to help the Artisans Department in seeking for the tattooist,” he said out loud. “Meeting adjourned.”
Romulus looked at Govin and shook his head before standing like the rest of the councilmen and headed out of the circle.
“You know this bald head?” Demelov asked.
“Just ignore him. He can be a little rude sometimes,” Rebecca told Ink ignoring Demelov.
“A little?” Sebastian asked incredulously. “A lot, you mean.”
Ink didn’t know any of the men that accompanied Rebecca. All of them were wearing ogre-masks, depicting their status in the society. They seemed very lean and tall, dressed in their luxurious clothing.
He briefly - very briefly wondered, if Rebecca fancied any of the men. He presumed that all of them must be handsome and it seemed like all of them were interested in her. So, it’s only natural to be curious about things that are quite obvious but not so obvious. He reasoned to himself.
The sun had now come close to the horizon by the time Ink finished tattooing a humongous name of Rebecca on Demelov’s chest.
Grandpa Palo and Arlo were already down at the tent where the other laborers rested, accompanied by Catherine. Both. her and Arlo, supported the old man as he slowly walked. He felt much better after resting for almost an hour. Claus and Frank assisted them as well despite of Catherine’s protest. They didn’t bring him all the way down to the tent though so that they wouldn’t cause a commotion and attract unnecessary attention. Before leaving, Claus left a comforting message to Arlo saying that his grandfather will feel much better once he had cooled down and drank plenty of water.
Catherine looked at him dubiously. It didn’t made sense that someone like him seemed to care so much about the old man’s state or the boy’s. But nonetheless, she felt quite grateful and decided to just let it slip. She thought that all of them were a weird bunch. What was even more puzzling for her was that Ink knew Rebecca. She wondered the how, the why and the when of the story which she will surely grill Ink later.
Ink, on the other hand, kept on glancing at the two boys flanking Rebecca as if he was some kind of criminal that’s about to pounce at her. He now knew that the red ogre-masked guy who paid him 50 Lirhams for the tattoo was Demelov, a Kale. While, the one who had red hair in a blue mask was Sebastian. He wanted to talk more to Rebecca but every time there is something he wanted to say. They would either distract her or engage her in another conversation.
Sneaky punks! Obviously, they didn’t want me talking to her. He thought.
So instead, he just stood there awkwardly listening to their conversation.
“I heard you got a special gift from your father on your birthday. What was it?” Sebastian asked.
“Oh, that. It was a family heirloom - something round and clear,” she said slowly tilting her head sideways in Ink’s direction.
Ink can’t help but smile, for he knew exactly what that gift was. And somehow, he felt triumphant that he knew it before they did.
“What are you smiling at?” Demelov asked suspiciously.
“Nothing,” Ink replied. “Just that there’s something I know that you didn’t,” he boasted just a little bit.
Demelov scoffed, “And what could that be?”
“Oh, just something round and clear,” he said mysteriously grinning.
Sebastian picked up on what Ink was implying. Although, he thought that it would be impossible, “You know what was Rebecca’s gift?”
Demelov laughed. “As if. He wasn’t even there at her twenty-secondth birthday, dimwit,” he replied to Sebastian.
This was news to Ink, he didn’t know that Rebecca was only twenty two years old. That would make him five years older than her.
“We were there and we didn’t know what it was,” Sebastian pointed out.
“He has a point, you know,” Ink said towards Sebastian.
Claus and Frank were now walking back to the group. The two were accompanied by Omer who went looking for them inside. He was worried that it was getting late and his Master, Romulus Gris, might’ve been wondering where Rebecca was.
“We need to leave now, Becca,” Claus said. “It’ll be a long ride back to the North. We’d be arriving very late if we don’t go right away.”
She nodded towards him. Demelov and Sebastian moved ahead to follow the three. Rebecca stayed behind a bit to say her goodbye to Ink.
“Well, it was nice seeing you again, Ink,” she said extending her hand.
Ink took it and shook it briefly, smiling at her. “You too, it was great to see you.”
“I’m sorry about them and their outrageous behavior. I mean, Demelov and Sebastian. They argue all the time and I couldn’t really go all strict on them seeing that they’re all older than me.”
“They were?” Ink asked curiously.
“Yeah, by a few years only,” she smiled underneath her mask. “By the way, my hand.” She motioned for her hand whom Ink forgot to release. “That was a very long handshake.”
Ink laughed. “Yeah, sorry about that.”
“Becca! What’s taking you so long?!” Demelov shouted.
“I’m coming!” she shouted back. “Well, I guess, I’ll see you whenever. Bye,” then she ran towards her friends.
Ink stared at her retreating back. He felt like he was always the one who was watching her walk away. Not that it happened often, but the feeling was exactly the same, that day when she left the bell tower.
“So, they’re leaving already? Thank goodness,” Catherine said returning from the tent. “That was eventful. Tell me. How did you get to know Rebecca?” she asked suspiciously.
Ink looked at her calmly, not giving away anything in his expression. “I happened to bump into her.”
“That is very curious. As far as I know, you don’t simply bump into a noble somewhere in our area. And you don’t simply bump into them and became friends enough to shake their hands for more than a minute.”
“Come on Catherine, lay off me, will you?”
She raised her hands. “What?! So, all of a sudden you don’t want to share things with me now?” she asked enraged.
Ink sighed. “What do you want to know?”
“I just asked you.”
“And I gave you an answer, I bumped into her.”
“Fine, be like that. But I’m telling you Ink. Don’t get yourself associated with people like them. And I don’t like the way you look at her. People like her do not belong in our world. You should remember that.”
“I know, Catherine,” Ink replied wistfully.