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Edwer Thissel, a recent graduate of the Institute, has been ordered to Sirene as consular representative of the Home Planets (Oikumene). Benko, the former consul, had been slain in public for committing a social blunder; unaware of this, Thissel is given three days to prepare. Encyclopedia entries tell him that the Sirenese always wear masks, that they always play music to accompany their daily speech, that they are permitted by a resource-rich environment to devote their lives to artistic intricacy, and that they use no money - all transactions are resolved by an individual's prestige, or "strakh." Thissel uses subcerebral techniques to learn the Sirenese language, procures a small musical instrument and a copy of a museum mask, and departs.
On arrival at the city of Fan on Sirene, Thissel is met in the spaceport by the local Spaceways agent, Esteban Rolver, who shockingly informs him that: 1) The museum mask is a ceremonial mask of high strakh (a "Sea Dragon Conqueror"), and will get the inexperienced Thissel killed if he tries to wear it; 2) The Sirenese converse with over twelve portable and complex musical instruments, all of which Thissel must learn to play; 3) The Sirenese in general are sensitive, violent, and intolerant of outworlders. Rolver gives Thissel a "Moon Moth," a comical mask of extremely low strakh and presumption. When Thissel complains, Rolver replies, "If the Home Planets want their representative to wear a Sea-Dragon Conqueror mask, they'd better send out a Sea-Dragon Conqueror type of man."
Rolver introduces Thissel to the only other offworlders on Sirene: Cornely Welibus, the Commercial Representative, and Mathew Kershaul, an anthropologist. Welibus gives Thissel several musical instruments, a pair of slaves and a large houseboat. Thissel is embarrassed by this generosity until Welibus points out that on Sirene such articles are trifles; the houseboat in particular is old and shabby and would damage Welibus's strakh were he to use it. Disillusioned, Thissel is instructed in Sirenese etiquette over the next few months by Kershaul. Most of this time is spent on the houseboat, where Thissel practices each of six basic musical instruments (the hymerkin, the ganga, the strapan, the kiv, the gomapard, and the zachinko) with varying degrees of success.
One morning, on his way into Fan, Thissel receives a spacegram from his superior, Castel Cromartin, ordering him to apprehend the notorious assassin Haxo Angmark, who is en route to Sirene. Failure, the message reads, is unacceptable. Due to Sirenese indifference to punctuality, Thissel has received the message just twenty minutes before Angmark's ship is due to land. In great haste, he tries to command a mount from a nearby hostler, but chooses the wrong instrument, insulting the hostler and spoiling the transaction.
Running to the spaceport, Thissel encounters on the road a man in a Forest Goblin mask; although Thissel suspects this to be Angmark, he has no authority (and no ability, lacking a weapon) to arrest him. At the spaceport, Thissel learns that the Forest Goblin was indeed Angmark. Rolver, though aware of Thissel's mission, minded his own business like any native Sirenese and did not try to stop him. Completely frustrated, Thissel borrows a power pistol from Rolver, who tells him that Angmark had spent several years on Sirene previously, and, though an outworlder, will be hard to find. His first step will surely be to change his mask.
Back in Fan, Welibus tells Thissel that a Forest Goblin had entered a nearby mask shop. Thissel questions the mask maker, but once more his low strakh and lack of skill thwarts his efforts, and he is forced to flee. Meeting Kershaul on the street, Thissel discusses strategies until he sees yet another person wearing a Forest Goblin mask. Thissel confronts the Forest Goblin and demands that he remove his mask, an unthinkable breach of Sirenese etiquette. Kershaul intervenes before an angry crowd, and Thissel barely escapes with his life. Returning to his houseboat, where even his slaves now hold him in contempt, Thissel thinks upon his impossible mission and the hateful strakhless Moon Moth mask that he must wear.
Next morning, a Sirenese in a Sand Tiger mask brings Thissel the body of an outworlder, found floating in the bay. Thissel wants to believe that the brown-haired corpse is that of Angmark, but knows it is more likely that Angmark killed either Rolver, Welibus or Kershaul and took that man's identity. If this is so, Thissel's task is only slightly reduced, since he has never seen the face of any of these three men. Thissel glumly sends a spacegram to Cromartin describing the corpse and asking for further instructions.
The reply message (transcribed by Rolver) reveals that Angmark has black hair, castigates Thissel severely for his failure, and orders him to give up his consular post and return in disgrace. The next ship will reach Sirene in nine days; Thissel has until then to capture Angmark and redeem himself.
Thissel cannot detect any obvious personality changes in any of the three offworlders, and voices are so muffled by the masks that he cannot be certain of any change. Inquiring about hair color, he learns that Rolver has blond hair and Welibus and Kershaul black - but if Rolver were Angmark, he could have edited Cromartin's reply, changing the hair color. A subtler way to detect Angmark is needed.
Thissel visits the suspects in turn and requests that each of them lend him one of their slaves for a while; all agree. He questions the slaves about the masks that each of their masters wear, then prepares a chart. Each suspect, in Sirenese custom, chooses a daily mask to wear from a personal collection. The frequency with which each mask is worn is dictated by the wearer's personality; a change in the pattern of usage might reveal Angmark. Thissel marks his chart for nine days, and on the morning the ship is due to arrive makes his decision.
Thissel takes the power pistol to his prime suspect's houseboat, but is trapped and disarmed. The revealed Angmark declares that he will now assume Thissel's mask, expose Thissel as Angmark, and execute him. Angmark dons the Moon Moth mask, leaving Thissel's face bare, and herds him bound and helpless out along the docks into the street, declaiming to all that the famous assassin Haxo Angmark is now to be executed in maskless shame. Thissel, thoroughly hopeless, hides his face as best he can, expecting imminent death. A shocked crowd of Sirenese gathers around, including a Forest Goblin, a mask maker, and a hostler, all of whom remember with distaste a particularly annoying Moon Moth...
Thissel's bonds are cut and he is given a cloth to cover his naked face as the crowd accosts the Moon Moth wearer who has caused this shocking public display; they are not at all concerned with the crimes of Haxo Angmark (murder, rape and slavery they shrug off as 'religious differences'), but very angered that this Moon Moth has removed another man's mask. Angmark is stabbed to death on the spot.
The Forest Goblin rebukes Thissel for allowing the Moon Moth to shame him in this way. Thissel, his poise recovered, argues that his strategy in allowing his face to be shown in public led to the death of his enemy, and as such was an example of unparalleled bravery. The Forest Goblin, culturally unable to conceive of removing his own mask, backs down and admits Thissel's courage to be superior; the crowd agrees. A citizen of high strakh offers Thissel the choicest of houseboats, and the solicitous mask maker leads Thissel off to be fitted for the most prestigious mask of all - a Sea-Dragon Conqueror.
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