This could be considered a shameless self-plug. Hope you enjoy anyway!
Her hand flashed out. “What’s behind that, anyway?”
“No – don’t -”
Too late. Her fingers, those slim white fingers he’d admired as they wove the balls back and forth, had gripped the edges of his mask, and, in one swift motion, she’d pulled it away. Almost like sleight-of-hand. She’d make an excellent conjuror.
He flung up his hands to try to hide his face, in vain, in vain. Her brilliant eyes, almost the same light turquoise of a depthlessly clear alkali lake, widened in shock, and her conjuror’s hand dropped weakly to her side, his white mask slithering from between her fingers. “What – why on earth do you wear that silly thing? There’s nothing wrong with you, nothing at all!” She sounded breathless, her voice becoming shrill on the last three words. He couldn’t quite see, but he thought a blush had risen to her cheeks.
“Did I say there was anything wrong with my face?” He dropped to his knees, trying to find and lift the mask without dropping his hands. “I don’t wear that mask out of vanity!”
“Why? Why not let the world see your face?” She knelt too, her long, dishwater-blond hair falling down and obscuring her eyes. Impatiently, she pushed it back behind her ear, and turned those bright eyes on him. “You’re…you’re really handsome.”
He laughed, a laugh which seemed to sear his throat like bile. “Exactly.”
She regarded him for a long moment, eyes boring into him like augurs. Finally, she said, “I don’t understand.” She sounded frustrated, pushed beyond the limits of her experience. “Why would you want to hide yourself, if there’s nothing wrong with you?”
He gave in at last, letting his right hand drop to the sawdust on the floor below, groping for the mask even as he stole a glance at the huge, mottled purple-red birthmark disgracing the right side of her lovely face. She cringed back, whether from his careless stare or the glimpse of his face, he couldn’t tell. Immediately, he averted his eyes, turning all his attention to the finding of his mask. “I want to hide from the world, want to hide this face, because…”
There weren’t words. How could he explain the long years, the young women (and men) falling at his feet, only to find their hopes dashed and their hearts crushed the very next day, discovering he was not the same person they thought he was, or worse, thinking that he’d moved on and forgotten them? How could he explain the betrayal he – or, rather, his traitor face - had dealt to so many naïve faces in the crowd, so many bundles of hopes and dreams and fears and wishes who made up the Audience, the great faceless, seething, demanding mass that had stolen his hopes and dreams and still ate a little more of him every night? “Despair.” The word was an apt description of what he’d finally succumbed to, what he’d found living on the coattails of that thing that had driven him to the circus in the first place. “And desire.” He had no other explanation. “It’s just easier this way.”
She stared at him, not angrily, not accusingly, not longingly like so many girls before her, just blankly and for so long that he became uncomfortable sitting there and busied himself looking for his mask again. And just when he thought he couldn’t bear it any more, she spoke.
“Easier?” Her voice sounded flat, dead. “It’s easier for you? You don’t have to bear the burden of having a beautiful face?” And now a touch of venom leaked into her words, a deadly poison mixed of tears and bitterness, with just a shred of hardy hope. “You don’t know what a burden is. It’s easier for you to hide? So it is for the rest of us. But some of us have more guts than that.”
She stood, her hair falling back over her face. He stood too, fixing his mask back in place as he did. It settled into place like a welcoming embrace. They stood looking at each other for another long moment, a sort of silent battle boiling the air between them. Finally, he turned away. “You would make an excellent conjuror.”
Her voice was soft, but there was a shade of reproach in it. “Some of us are brave enough not to hide.”