The Mask We Wear

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The Crown encompasses everything. The Branches are only a part of a Majestic Whole that die and grow anew. With them come Fruits and Leaves that come and go when it is time. This is our Law, of which we know and understand. With time the Tree learns and with it comes Wisdom that leads to our Triumph. In its shade is the tree's Kingdom, built on Love for the Sentient. Even when the Crown is bare, there are always the Branches that are the Source of its Beauty and carry it on.

"Hymn to the World Tree", unknown author

Act 1: Return

Malkuth stumbled after Hod. Although his best friend had just made him a new pair of legs right after the escape, this was not the reason for his clumsiness. He was nervous, if not full of fear.
"Madame Hod…"
"Madame Maj…"
"Majesty, do you know why Monsieur Crown wants to see me?"
Malkuth swallowed.
He had been to the castle before he was detained by the Division, he even knew Hod, in a way, but today he would see the 'throne room'. Hod walked briskly up a spiral staircase. Malkuth pondered for a few seconds if it wasn't rude to walk up the stairs behind a woman, until he remembered which kind of person Hod was.

Hod and I have a history with the department. I'm supposed to get along with her somehow, we both only look human on the outside. But that's the difference between us: I'm the exception that proves the rule. I wonder why I am here.

He had to laugh. Quietly, of course, so that Hod didn't hear.

Hod and Malkuth approached the hall door. The servant, an automaton given a soul, greeted them with a jerky bow. Hod nodded curtly. Malkuth watched the servant under his mask. She noticed and showed signs of stress, recognisable by the discordant ticking.

What makes me so different from the others? Surely it can't be that my abilities are so powerful? Or does he know about…

He fixated again on Hod, who was making moves to go into the hall. Malkuth heard a squeak behind him, which he interpreted as a relieved sigh from the servant. He would talk to her later, after Kether had finished with him.
The hall with its table and eleven chairs was dark only in the corners, which was impressive for 121 candles. Malkuth squinted under his wooden second countenance in the room. While he was overwhelmed by how dramatic and kitschy everything looked, which he liked by the way, his concern was for Kether. He wasn't sure how their leader was taking it that he was standing here.

"I greet you, my Branches."

Hod and Malkuth bent their heads in sync in the direction from which they suspected the voice was coming.
"Thanks be to you, Hod. I give you permission to leave."
"Thank you."
Hod hurried too much for Malkuth's liking to get away. He remembered that he was very quick to read something into the cold and calculated manner of his 'colleagues'. His full attention turned back to the person he knew by the name of Kether, the Crown of the Caecus Carneliana tree.
"Kingdom, my faithful branch. You have returned unharmed."
"You are not angered by my capture, my Crown?"
"Have you betrayed us?" the shadow retorted.
Malkuth hesitated. "I do not know." If he had any real muscles, he would have tensed them for fear of the response that would follow.
"Is your answer born of the fact that you have claimed the help of one of them, Kingdom?"
Malkuth was not relieved, not yet, and so he kept silent with his head bowed.
"You are silent because you know that your escape is not a betrayal of me. You doubt."
Malkuth remained silent.
"You doubt me." It wasn't a question, and Kether didn't need to ask one to prompt Malkuth to answer.
"Yes," Malkuth whispered under his mask, "Why am I valuable? I am weak… yet I am a branch."
"Feeble Branches grow longer and instead of breaking, they spring back. You have come back. Don't worry about your worth. I dismiss you."

Malkuth looked at his gloved fingers as he moved them slowly. The hinges moved fluidly, as if they were made of muscle or nerves. He stood in the hall, uncertain if Kether had already left, for a minute or two. He was aware that the servant was watching him secretly. His focus turned to this. "Answer me a question."
"What do you expect to hear, Master Malkuth…? Tick-CACK … I'm terribly sorry," she couldn't feel fear, but that didn't stop her from worrying.
"I forgive you for your misstep. I would like to explore the question of what I am?"
"Don't understand… Tick …You are Master Kingdom,… Tick …a Branch, servant of Master Crown and High Lord…"
"What am I as a being?"
"That I cannot judge… Tick."
Malkuth realised that such a philosophical question was too high for a Fruit.
"Thank you, Fruit- What was your name?"
"Oh Master Kingdom, … Tick …this is too much honour."

Apparently my politeness is too much for her…

"I was away for a long time. Did anything special happen?"

Act 2: Puppet Play

The corridor echoed the clack that Malkuth's bare feet made. His destination was the Library. Malkuth also heard a chorus of bells. He did not move, standing very stiffly against the wall. He wanted to watch Gevurahs and he knew how the latter thought about him. Gevurah's face was also masked, which made it even harder to judge whether he noticed his Branch Brother.
Gevurah paused, trying to figure out whose presence he sensed.
"It is useless to stand still. I know you are there."
Malkuth could not suppress being amused at his childish attempt to trick the blind Gevurah.
Gevurah began to shake himself in annoyance. "Is that you, Source?"
Despite Gevurah's skill, he seemed to have trouble spotting Malkuth from the stone relief. He moved his head back and forth, apparently looking for someone invisible, until he turned his head towards Malkuth.
"NO, IT'S YOU!" Gevurah's voice contained all the contempt and pain of someone toyed with him and exposed a weak side of him.
Faster than anyone had thought, Gevurah's face was close to Malkuth's, or more, that which was veiled by masks. For the first time he was glad of his nature, otherwise he would have had the fright of his life. A time passed when all the bells fell silent. Gevurah made signs that he was no longer so sure that there was life in his counterpart. But then Malkuth had the idea to speak: "Hello, Law."

Tiferet had made herself comfortable on a sofa. She was reading a book from the 'Library of the Wanderer'. She was almost so absorbed that she did not notice the man who was closing the door a little too frantically to be a visitor. He flitted across the room, seemingly oblivious to her. The noise he made with his mouth indicated his inner rush. Apparently he had been running. A muffled sound informed her that the armchair in the far corner had been claimed. It grew quieter.
Tiferet squinted over the edge of her lecture. From the angle where she was currently sitting, she could only make out a tuft of indefinable shading.

Malkuth sat motionless in the chair. He had hoped that this would increase the likelihood of meeting Daath. And until Gevurah's anger was a little less fresh. His nature allowed him to be patient.

When I think about it, this trance is what came close to human sleep.

As such, he endured, no matter what time it took. The mechanics became looser and his features more neutral until his gaze was set.

When Tiferet looked to see who had come in so noisily, she was astonished to discover a lifelike doll in an old-fashioned single-breasted suit. More out of an artistic fascination than genuine curiosity, she went to see her. She was impressed. The limbs were sculpted by an expert and the facial features were finely… Ah, this is a mask that fit so snugly against the head that the transition was not apparent. She carefully stretched out her fingers to feel the transition between mask and head.
Like a feather, a hand shot up and gripped her wrist, tighter than intended. Eyes woke and turned to Tiferet's face. Malkuth was silent, watching with two expressionless, glassy eyes.
Except for a small fright, Tiferet felt nothing. When Malkuth had studied the situation sufficiently, he loosened his grip, releasing his hand. "Why?"
"Excuse me?"
"Why are you fascinated by my mask?", Malkuth differentiated his question.
Tiferet, surreptitiously rubbing the joint, did not trust the calmness with which her counterpart spoke.
Malkuth stood up cracking. "How rude of me. I'd better introduce myself: I am Malkuth, the Kingdom," he bowed.
"The Branch who allowed himself to be caught?"
Malkuth twisted his face a little piqued.
"With what fair lady do I have the honour?"
Tiferet narrowed his eyes. How conceited did a Branch member have to be to be so condescendingly polite? She would beat him at his own game.
She curtsied. "Tiferet, the Beauty. Pleased to make the acquaintance. To return to the mister's question. I wanted to get to the bottom of your preference for wearing a mask."
She observed that her counterpart stiffened briefly.

A sore point!

"Ah, it makes you uncomfortable?", Tiferet enjoyed the power she had at the moment.
"Yes. I don't like my face."
Tiferet was surprised by his naïve honesty and her interest was a little piqued after all, just to be able to evaluate him. "Why are you different from us?"
He seemed increasingly uncomfortable.
"Why are you different?" she repeated.
Malkuth looked surprised, as much as the mask allowed, that she was seriously wondering this.
"Because…" he raised his hands haphazardly, "Because I want to… I just want to be liked."


"Why what?"


"Why what?"

"…Why do you want to be liked?"

"You said you don't care about others, but why not?"

Tiferet lost her balance. Why did she care what her reasons were, what she was like? What did she care that he cared. A knot formed in her mind. She hated being thrown off balance.
Malkuth tried to change the subject, "What is the book you are reading about, beauty?"
Tiferet was ready to let him off the hook. For now.
"Do you want to know what my talent is?" she smiled wickedly.
Tiferet began to sing. A clear and pure sound. Malkuth twitched and under his mask he contorted his face in pain. Then he began to dance. Lightly and smoothly, without hesitation. Thrilled by the light play, Tiferet continued. But she too felt a tugging that began at the same time as Malkuth's finger movements. When she was close enough, he grabbed her hands. Like a pair of vise grips, his fingers closed on hers. All the while she felt the urge to keep singing
"I so hate to dance alone. So forgive me for being gallant enough to invite you."
Tiferet glared at him but she has to admit that he had only repaid her in kind. Thus they made circles in the Library.

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