Elminster's Guide to the Realms

Nurneene's Marvelous Masks

by Ed Greenwood, illustrated by David Day, (Dragon #321)

For years, the most stylish and spectacular masks worn at revels in Waterdeep have been made and sold at Nurneene's Marvelous Masks. Nurneene's is a tiny, almost demurely hidden shop that stands on the east side of the Street of Bells in Waterdeep's Castle Ward. Better known for its colorful proprietress and her wares than as a flashy landmark, Nurneene's is also notorious for the mask in its display window - and increasingly for rumors of its connection to the god Mask, Master of All Thieves and Lord of Shadows.

What Meets the Eye

This shop rises four floors above street level and has a peaked roof (with a porthole window opening into an attic) that makes it seem even taller. It's only about 10 feet wide, and it's jammed between two other, larger shops set a foot or two back from the sweet with glittering facades of lamps, angled mirrors, and mannequins clad in stylish gowns. The front of Nurneene's is sheathed in fieldstone, and its upper floors each have a single shuttered window. These windows are all closed and barred from within; only the uppermost is ever opened, and then only in the hottest summer weather. A tiny, round door is located in the pinnacle of the eaves, where the steep slope of the roof reaches its peak. Like many Waterdhavian shops that abut neighboring structures, the entire roof is sloped not just from side to side, but also canted so that its side-gutters are markedly higher at the street-front wall, draining away to downspouts in the rear.

The storefront of Nurneene's is taken up by a door and a display window. Through the window, the same thing can always be seen: cream-hued muslin rising in a smooth drape from the counter it covers to a valance. Between the valance and this backdrop hang three lanterns. They illuminate a row of black wooden letters set individually on the cloth-covered counter to spell "Nurneene" and "Masks," and a floating black cloth half-mask that hangs in the air beneath the lights, turning slightly as if an invisible wearer is scrutinizing passersby.

This effect is so eerie and pronounced - the mask moves rapidly forward to peer at some individuals - that many Waterdhavians refuse to pass by the shop. A street roustabout given to bouts of drinking and violence once loudly declared his intention to "get rid of that haunted mask shop," and hurled a cobblestone through its window in the darkest hours of a winter night, intending to follow it with a burning brand. The tale of what befell next has spread all over Waterdeep, as one of the many whispered snippets of local lore: The mask lunged at the would-be arsonist, nearly smothered the man, and chased him through the streets until the man was wrestled to a halt by a Watch patrol.

The ground floor of the shop is the showroom and wrapping area, with a "buying corner" at the back. Showrooms (with closets of angled mirrors for a client to stand amid) and storage drawers for standard models of masks are on the second floor. Cutting rooms containing softwood heads with pins, shears, dyeing pans, and drying stretch frames fill the two topmost floors. The uppermost floor also has some beds for workers to sleep in and a hipbath. The attic above is used to store old furniture, shop records over a decade old, and the like. The cellars are used to store bolts of cloth (wrapped in linen covers and hanging from the rafters on angled end-hooks).

The Lurking Mask

In appearance, the black floating mask - dubbed "the Lurking Mask" by someone long ago - is a drop-point-front, back-tie model that looks identical to the illustration on page 246 of the FORGOTTEN REALMS Campaign Setting, except that it's unusually thick and large enough that only a titan or giant could actually wear it as a facial cover. The mask is a dark purple that appears black in most lighting conditions.

Some time ago, Nurneene worked as an apprentice in a mask-making shop somewhat larger (but less prestigious) than her own store. Clearly more skillful than any other apprentice (and some say even her master), Nurneene toiled in the back of the shop, creating mask after splendid mask, for which her master took full credit.

One day, after Nurneene had lived this life for several years, an ancient-looking man returned to the shop (having purchased one of Nurneene's skillfully rendered masks for a ball) in search of the one who had created it. When Nurneene's master took credit for the handiwork, the man scoffed and demanded the truth. Flustered, the mask-maker brought out Nurneene and presented her to the ancient man, who promised someday to reward her for her excellent craft.

Several years later, as Nurneene watched the dream of her own shop crumble down around her, the ancient-looking man called upon her and promised to bring in more customers than she alone could handle. He instructed her to make a large mask with the same attention to detail of her normal masks and clear out her front window. When he returned a few days later, he set the mask in the empty front window and cast a number of spells upon it. Before Nurneene's eyes, the mask rose into the air and took the position it has maintained ever since.

The mask is a Small animated object permanently enchanted with animate objects and fly spells. It is programmed to hover in the window, to peer at passersby, and to guard the shop and itself if one or the other is attacked. The animated mask also obeys simple verbal commands from Nurneene. Only once has anyone ever successfully dispelled the permanent spells on the mask, but the mask regained its enchantments in a few days.

Nurneene and the Lord of Shadows

The proprietress of the most highbrow mask shop in Waterdeep is a skilled seamstress and crafter of masks, with a true genius for cutting, steaming, and binding materials to obtain a desired shape. Many of her masks soar like crowns or support shells or side-wings that alter the perceived shape of the wearer's head. Scaled, plush, metallic, or satinlike, the surface finish of her creations is exquisite.

Nurneene is also patient, a diplomat used to handling arrogant and difficult clients, and a good teacher. Her small but loyal staff of six fitters and mask-crafters have, under her tutelage, acquired skills almost to match her own. The two men and four women who work for her can all serve in the shop and make masks; Nurneene simply divides their time so the most beautiful women do the most meeting of clients, and the less attractive plus their male counterparts do more of the backroom work.

Petite and graceful, Nurneene has white skin, russet hair, and large green eyes. Her voice is husky and inclined to rasp when raised, so she's adopted a quiet, murmuring mode of speech. In recent years, she's increasingly retired from public view, gliding regally out from a curtained alcove behind the buying-counter when patrons become difficult. If real trouble erupts, she summons her other staff with a handbell. Nurneene's male staff are both rogues (LE male human Rog3) chosen for their strength and swiftness; they are customarily armed with-and skilled in the use of daggers, darts, saps, and slings.

Some years ago, Nurneene fell in with some thieves who hired her to make masks that would conceal lockpicks, flexible saw-knives, and poisoned darts. She was excited by their exploits but wise enough to know she'd never be more than adequate at actual thievery - and could make a better and safer living as a fence, coin-cleaner (Note from Elminster: Ye would say "money launderer."), and procurer of supplies for thieves wanting to keep out of sight for a time. She became an avid fan of the city's thieves, fascinated by their deeds and hungry for news of their unfolding plots and exploits. This knowledge in turn made her dangerous to them - but she saw a way to justify her curiosity about Waterdhavian thievery, stay alive, and even hold some power in Waterdeep's shady underworld: becoming a cleric of Mask.

To do so, Nurneene sacrificed her wealth and herself to a cold and cruel priest of the Lord of Shadows named Hathrel. As her master, he commanded the building of a chapel to Mask in the deepest cellars beneath her shop (at Nurneene's expense), and set her to the task of acquiring poisons that would slay paralyze, blind, deafen, or cause slumber. By ongoing sales of these substances, Hathrel hoped to become truly rich. Unfortunately, he didn't consider Nurneene's distaste for handling such substances, and he misjudged how her hatred of him had grown to outstrip her fascination and fear. In Skullport, he fell victim to the poisons he'd ordered her to procure, leaving the mask-maker to take control of the small flock of thieves who worshiped at the chapel.

Now grown in number to sixteen or so, these worshipers are almost all street thieves. They have come to love Nurneene, who gives them shelter, food, encouragement, hiding-places for themselves and their loot, and even clothing and bathing facilities - all in return for their "confessions." So long as they tell her all, she makes them welcome, never demands offerings to Mask or coins for her services (although the devout who can afford it do leave temple offerings), and shares news and gossip she thinks will be of benefit to them.

For her part, Nurneene (NE female human Clr6/Mask1/Exp6/Rog1) has found a satisfying purpose in life (beyond creating ever-wilder masks for rich and frivolous fools). She's come to truly believe in Mask, and now spends hours praying before his altar, seeking inspiration and guidance. Already she's been rewarded with visions that directed her to where Hathrel had hidden a scroll, and she has been told in whispers by a hooded dream-figure to "weave schemes and plots to make thieves of Waterdeep's wealthy and powerful."

Elminster's Notes

Know ye that Nurneene bids fair to become a real power in Waterdeep if no ill befalls her. She's clever enough not to let greed rule her. If the thieves who obey her can manage to do the same, she might well guide them in a sophisticated and subtle series of intrigues and thefts that earns far more coin than even the most spectacularly bold "snatch job" ... and do so unnoticed, mayhap for years.

As for her plots, I can reveal that she's already begun spreading rumors among young noble wastrels - knowing very well that they'll whisper them to their friends - of a secret society of Deep Lords they might be able to join if they contact the right folk in Skullport and successfully undertake the missions they're given. Being a Deep Lord, the whispers say, will bring riches and in some few years real power, as the Deep Lords begin to subvert the Lords of Waterdeep and ultimately come to rule the city.

Now, only foolish nobles are likely to believe they could ever hold real power when dealing with illithids, drow, and worse from the Realms Below . . . but then again, Nurneene won't be the first cunning person to profit from the naiveté of others.

She's also busily trying to arrange a warehousing cartel and a corruption of the tax clerks of Castle Waterdeep. When she feels in need of a little entertainment, her own concealing creations allow her to attend revels in costume, posing as visiting nobility. Dalliances there often allow her to collect a few gems from young, impressionable noblemen without even going to the trouble of thievery. Not bad for a mask-maker, eh?

Elminster's Guide to the Realms