PROTEUS: THE MAN WITH NO FACE
Getting a character right can be tough. The concept is great — you know what you want them to do, feel, say — but somehow, you’re still struggling. And then, one day, the lights come suddenly on…
The “Man With No Face” has fascinated me for years. The actor, with no history or personality or name of their own, who can just assume any role necessary. And not just about the physical form (a la Mystique), but about assuming/creating the mental processes and emotions — becoming someone else completely. To me, it ties in with the “Gray Man” theory of urban espionage/survival; they’re the infiltrator who can hide in plain sight, so you’d never know they were there.
It’s a great concept — and it comes with so many questions. Where did they come from? How did they end up that way? Would they have a default setting? How would they train? And what about their emotional growth — they must be able to feel and understand the full range of human emotions, but also be able change them or switch them off when necessary. So how does that work?
And: what the hell happens when they get involved with someone?
And so, “Proteus” was born. He’s been (at different times) a spy, an assassin, a shapeshifter, you-name-it. (In one previous draft, he could even change gender – but that was a whole new issue, and it didn’t stay). The core idea, though, has always stayed the same. He’s the invisible man, the man with no face.
The piece below is from the second chapter of Children of Artifice, following the first night that Proteus and Caph spend together. It’s his set-up piece, displaying his unique capabilities, his observation skills, and his ability to remain invisible in a crowd.
And I was really pleased to have finally made him work!
CHATPER TWO: PROTEUS
The mist on the water lay soft and grey.
Watchful and silent, Aden stepped out of the flophouse door and paused to listen, his breath a plume in the pre-dawn chill.
Behind him, Caph snored gently, blissfully oblivious to the outside world – he would probably sleep well into the day. There was the gentle hiss of the water against the uprights, and the first creaks and shouts of the harbours’ fishing fleets…
But that was all.
Soaked in blue moonlight, the wharf was still. There were no traders, at this time of night, no conjurers with their robes and smoke. The servants and performers who’d crowded in colours were long gone, and gone were the workers who’d lazed in their wake, the denizens of the warm and sprawling evening. Cupped safely by rock walls, the great city slept, and its wrought-iron gates were all closed. In some places, huge swathes of its empty streets stood waiting – the parts of the lower city never re-inhabited after the famine…
There were those who still lived in their desolation, but they flickered like rumour, unseen.
Here, there swelled a different life. A ghost-life. A life that shifted by the yellow light of the sodium lamps and the blue gleam of the moon. There were shadows here, figures that clumped and plotted in the darkness, that exchanged words and blades in the places where no-one dared look. Here, deals were struck or broken, lives ended, skin split and blood wasted. In a city once blighted to the point of starvation, where all movement and trade was now rigidly controlled, where City Hall claimed merciless omniscience, the murk of the wharf was inevitable as disease, a seething shadow-commerce beneath its well-dressed, outer skin.
And like all diseases, it spread.
Aden gave the quiet a count of ten. Then he offered the sleeping Caph a brief and backward smile, and closed the door. Out across the mist, the moonlight picked out the gate’s guardians, highlit titans that stood in silence…
He didn’t care.
At night, the wharf was tense. Eyes watched from every shadow. His spine prickled, but the sensation was familiar – it was a warning, and he knew it well enough to welcome it. He breathed it in, stink and all; let it flow around and though him.
Let it make him one of its own.
‘Aden’ was not real. The character was a fiction, an illusion, a name and a personality created for the working docklands. And now, fluid in the moon-tinged darkness, his face shifted. It became older, more sallow and lined; his hair became wispy and loose. His body lost the tight muscle and hunched in on itself, hungry and hopeless. His distinctive tats thinned like ink in water, vanishing into his skin. His boots were off, slung over one shoulder on their laces, and he huddled deeper into his cheaply woven blanket, one frayed at the edges and taken from the mattress upon which Caph still slept. His Vei-charm waited in a small pocket.
The dockworker was gone, less than a memory. Now, the man bore a lurker-face, a weathered face that belonged to the extreme poverty of the wharfside outskirts. He’d never given this one a name – it didn’t need one.
Long ago, he’d asked his mentor – why? Why he could do this, could change his skin as he did. He’d asked who he was, what he really looked like, what his real name had once been – but Austen had just shaken his head. Instead of answers, the old man had offered him a label, a something that he could call himself that would give him an anchor, at least, an identity to which he could return.
Austen had called him ‘Proteus’, the name taken from a legend of the Builders. Ironic, perhaps, but the joke had suited him, and Proteus had claimed it for his own.
And now, sheltered by the doorway, Proteus’s change was complete. He was blotched and starving, a homeless shambler that had lived here all his life, his feet filthy, his muttering wordless. As if he’d absorbed the very feel of the surrounding destitution, he reflected it flawlessly. He fitted, and he faded completely into the background.
Caph’s snores were still audible, even as he closed the door.
But as Proteus shuffled away, not even the scuffling tarras looked up.
Slowly, he headed for the first glimmers of dawn, the paling sky, the first glint of the sun at the edge of the crater. He avoided the walkways that Aden had taken the previous night, choosing instead the shorter route, out to the district gate – the route that no-one would follow.
These were places where the traders didn’t venture – the wide sprawls of dereliction, half-fallen into the water, the areas decaying and tumbledown, all splattered with pictures and slang. These were the poorest habitations, scattered with rubbish, the places that the upper city derided, the places that young men like Caph, in their blindness or naiveté would never see…
The high families did have hands down here, delving into the dirt and what it concealed – but those hands were not their own.
Yet these were the places where Proteus learned the most. The graffiti on the walls told shifting tales of power, of territory, of security, and of hope…
Hearing a noise, he paused.
It came again – a scuffle, a sharp cry, feet. He stayed still, hunched in his blanket. Two figures ran into view, frantic and glancing around them for help, or cover. They were skinny, dirty, barely teenagers, wearing an assortment of scavenged clothes and a grinning, rodent-patch design that he recognised. They were Tarras, named after the creatures – rummagers and scroungers, gang-kids who traded in whatever oddments they could find. Once, he’d been very like them.
As he watched, they stopped in a huddle, panting.
Their fear was tangible; the girl was almost sobbing. She had a short, serrated knife clutched in one hand. The boy seemed to be nursing a wound; there was a dark blotch spreading across his lower belly.
‘It’s okay,’ the girl said, like a mantra. ‘It’s okay.’
He watched them, unmoving and expressionless.
Then he heard other voices, older and deeper, mocking. Deliberate, heavy feet – the pursuers were in no hurry, and their confidence was hard-edged and brutal.
‘Teach you to raid us, you little shits,’ one said. ‘We can see you.’
The girl pulled the boy to his feet. He held a hand to his wound, wincing. She looked round and her eyes passed over where Proteus crouched, then snapped back as if she’d only just realised he was there.
‘Please,’ she said, desperate. ‘Please help us.’
He didn’t respond. He could save them if he chose – the petty thugs of the wharfside held no fears for him. But he had no need for them; they had nothing he wanted. And he had no intention of breaking his cover.
He stayed still, hunched in his blanket.
The girl said, ‘Please…’ but the word was a whisper, as if she already knew it was hopeless. The boy said, ‘Leave him. Let’s hope they knife him next, hey?’
He spat, and they vanished into the gloom.
The voices went after them, coarse and laughing.
If those kids were lucky, the fishers would hoist their corpses out of the harbour in the morning – the first catch invariably picked up the previous night’s debris.
If they weren’t…
Silently, Proteus slipped backward, away from sound and conscience. Wharfside politics was savage, an endless cycle of opportunity, betrayal and revenge. And he had no alliances, and nothing to prove – no reason to get caught up in any of it.
As the sun crested the caldera wall, Proteus came to the district gate.
The sky had paled, and the high clouds were streaked with fantastic colours, reds and purples like the all the layers of hell. The crater’s edge had lit like a bonfire, heralding the full sunrise; the temperature was beginning to climb.
The damp wood of the wharf steamed.
Standing like supplicants, a ragtag group of people awaited their morning freedom. Most were workers, heading for their shift, or back home. Others were district-approved traders; several stood with gletars, small and stocky herd beasts bred for work and burden. The creatures carried simple cargo: salt, fish, shellfish, weed, the staples of the city now marked for the industrial districts, for the farmers at Vanchar, or for the merchants’ or artisans’ guilds. And most of the traders bore high family colours – they weren’t slaves, but their lives were owned just the same.
As the people moved restless, metal glinted. Compulsory copper wrist-tags carried names, permitted routes and family affiliations; without one, you couldn’t leave your own district, and you couldn’t carry anything more than the clothes you stood up in. The gates had been built after the famine – from City Hall’s compulsive need to manage both goods and consumption. There were a few, senior servants of high families, who bore tags of gold and a freedom from questions – but you wouldn’t find those out here.
Proteus had a copper tag, a forgery punishable by permanent facial branding, but he rarely needed to use it. Instead, he was back in Aden’s face and garb and dockside credibility, his chain and tats all in place – the latter identical to their previous incarnation, a detail that had taken years of practice.
A herd beast stamped a hoof, the sound echoing sharply from the wall.
The sun bulged at the crater’s edge. At the gate, the uniformed greycoats stood waiting, blades at their hips, faces impassive. Like the tags, they belonged to City Hall – they had no loyalty to a single family, and they stood staunchly in the face of any smuggling or corruption…
Well, most of them.
Voices rose further, getting impatient. The edge of rising sun grew larger, lighting the clouds to bloodsmoke and ruin. At last, there was the sound of a horn, a single, long note. The guards moved and the people shifted and surged.
Proteus held to their centre, waiting. As he shuffled slowly forwards, the wrought iron gates loomed austere over his head, sternly intricate and rusted with time and salt. Upon them, in severe metal lettering, was the word IVAR, the name of the district beyond. With a protesting grind, they broke apart and the name cracked in half like a seal.
The crowd moved as if commanded by the noise.
He stayed at their centre, eyes down. As they huddled through the gateway, each offering their allocation marker, he went with them, drifting at their heart like a water-reflection.
The greycoats looked straight past him.
As the shuffle of workers came through to the gates’ far side, Proteus’s pace didn’t change; he showed no self-consciousness or triumph. The crowd began to disperse, and he drifted into the narrow, stone roads, past the sagging shrines, the scattered rubbish and the beggars on the corners, out towards the raggedly piled, dusty slums where Austen was waiting for him.
Another morning, and another report to make.
Danie Ware‘s Children of Artifice is out now, published by Fox Spirit Books. Here’s the official synopsis:
An ancient city, sealed in a vast crater. A history of metallurgical magic, and of Builders that could craft the living, breathing stone.
Caphen Talmar is the high-born son of an elite family, descended from the Builders themselves, his artistic career ruined when his ex-lover broke his fingers.
One night, gambling down at the wharfside – somewhere he shouldn’t have been in the first place – he meets Aden. An uncomplicated, rough-edged dockworker, Aden is everything Caph needs to forget the pressures of his father’s constant criticism.
But this isn’t just another one-night stand. Aden is trying to find his sister, and he needs Caph’s help. Soon, they find themselves tangled in a deadly game of trust, lies and political rebellion.
And, as Caph begins to understand the real depth of the horrors they’ve uncovered, he learns that Aden is not what he seems. And Aden knows more about the coming destruction than Caph could ever have guessed.