The Masks of Mirada

Sonata Diamante is a thief and swordsmaster. She serves her nefarious wizard uncle, Borshen Galo, doing his “dirty work” in the shadows of Cragsport. But when she stumbles upon a strange silver mask, her world shatters.

Now, she’s on the run. With the aid of her bullmastiff companion, Fellfang, Sonata must discover the truth behind the mask’s origin.

Her journey south into the enemy province of Pontaboro will test her mettle, physically, spiritually, and mentally. Sonata must confront not only the evils wrought by the mask, but must face the truth of her own origin. Who is Sonata Diamante? And could she be even deadlier than The Masks of Mirada?

Only the gods know.

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The distant roar of Adriana Falls masked Sonata Diamante’s delicate movements on the warped slats of the old apartment terrace. Perhaps she was too confident in her abilities, but in her position, a thief and a swordsmaster, she’d take any natural advantage afforded her. Soon, the white mist blowing off the water would spread across the spires of her Cragsport home and give her even more cover. She’d take it. When breaking into the home of a dangerous wizard and self-proclaimed nationalist, it was best to have a shield… even one made of mist.

She watched the man wander back and forth across the room from a rickety workbench to a line of tiny fires boiling potions along the far wall. The old codger was so focused on his task that he scarcely recognized her shadow against the long glass door. Sonata couldn’t help but smile. Typical behavior of your classic eccentrics, men of mind and soul, and little else. They cared not a whit about the physical dangers of the real world. But this “eccentric” would get an education in about two minutes.

Sonata waited until the man left the room. She knelt down until her face was level with a small lock on the glass door. She rubbed her tongue across the roof of her mouth and popped a small bone pick free. She’d accidentally swallowed one before on a mission when it had shifted in a fight. A sore bowel for a week taught her a valuable lesson: always keep a bone pick lodged tightly behind the top front teeth. She wriggled it between her lips and pulled it out. She held it between thumb and index finger and gently placed it in the lock.

The pick was a rib bone from an Ynti Quetzal Snake. It was a sturdy little bone, but one made flexible by human saliva, and Sonata worked it up and down in the lock until she felt the tumblers fall, one by one, into place. The mechanism itself was simple and not reinforced by any spell. Foolish old man! She turned the bone sharply to the right and heard a quick snap!

She smiled, snaked her hand through the crack, and gripped the door tightly. She opened it slowly, then crawled through on hands and knees.

Before she even cleared the doorway, a dog’s foul muzzle was in her face.

It was the largest head on a bullmastiff she’d ever seen, black and tan, its fleshy mouth drooling white foam and snarling with yellow teeth and bad breath. Sonata held still, keeping her gaze on its piercing black eyes. A flicker of fire shone in the dog’s pupils, and a slow rumble came from its throat.

It was hungry.

Keeping her face still, Sonata raised a finger to her mouth and whispered, “Shhh.” She’d never been very good with animals, and this one would take a little more effort to subdue. She repeated the command, then waved her hand slowly a mere inch from its nose. The growling stopped. The dog licked its black lips, then closed its mouth. Its eyes glossed over as it stammered backwards, whimpering. “Good boy,” she said, then waited until the beast had retreated to its bed of lumpy fur in the dark corner of the room.

Sonata wiped sweat from her brow and breathed relief. That was close. It had been awhile since she had focused energy into a Casting. It was an easy trick, but under the circumstances, and under time pressure, a thing like that could have gone horribly wrong. Then the mastiff would have torn off her face, and she’d be dead. There was a fine line between the “arcane” and the “real” in Mirada; the energies sometimes failed the Caster, and when they did…

Sonata drove the thought from her mind, closed the door behind her, and slipped beneath the workbench. The shadows there would cover her presence. Hopefully. Some wizards were able to reach out with their minds and detect a presence unseen. But this wizard was not one of those Casters. He was a potion-maker and a right nasty one if the rumors were true. The twenty gold moedas in her belt purse for his death supported those rumors.

The old wizard returned. What disgustingly dry, cracked feet he had, Sonata noticed, as she watched him shuffle across the floor. At times like this, she wished she’d had a blow gun. A tiny feathered quill, dripping with hot yellow poison, from a nice defensive position, could end the dance right now. But she was not that kind of killer. She had to move closer.

The wizard mumbled to himself, some silly little song. Sonata tried to recognize the tune. The Breath of Adriana, she thought. “Her breath is still as sweet as the day she died,” was a line from the chorus, but the little man added something of his own to the melody.

The song itself was more of a Pontaboro tune, even though the falls themselves resided in the province of Viscano, just two miles south of Cragsport. It had been written long before Sonata was born, before anyone alive today for that matter. It was an ancient song, but still quite popular.

The wizard turned away and stepped over to the table of boiling potions, his back to Sonata. No better time than now, she knew.

She crawled slowly out from beneath the workbench. The knife that had been in her sheath was now in her hand, its black blade sharp and waiting. The wizard hummed his tune and fiddled with a knuckle bone fetish, fluffing the red and green feathers, sprinkling them with a sweet-smelling tan powder. Sonata stood and crept up behind him.

Before he could move, she thrust the blade against his throat. The song caught on his tongue. He stood as still as stone.

Sonata’s words were warm against the wizard’s ear. “Move… and die.”

∞∞∞

Sonata held the blade steady. She pressed it deeper into the wizard’s skin, not enough to cut, but enough to feel his pulse. He was scared. Good, she thought. Serves the old coot right.

She tucked the blade away, put her arms around the wizard’s shoulders, squeezed tightly, and gave him a big wet kiss on the right cheek. “Good morning, uncle.”

Borshen Galo released his breath and fell into her embrace. “Damn you, Sonata. Do that again, and I’ll order Fellfang to rip you to shreds. My heart is too old for these silly games.”

Sonata laughed, stole another kiss, and then released him. “I’m happy to see you too.”

Borshen turned to her, his lips curled in a dangerous frown. He raised a finger, as if he were about to cast a spell, his grey hair standing upright and rigid with static energy. He gritted his teeth and perhaps thought better of it, as Sonata took a chair and propped up her feet, sending a few coiled scrolls tumbling to the floor. “What’s for breakfast?”

Uncle Galo was old but not past-it. He spotted the falling scrolls and stuck his hand out, fingers splayed. The scrolls halted inches from the floor. The wizard lifted his hand and guided the old rolled papers back onto the table. He shook his head. “No breakfast for a bad girl like you.” He took the stool next to her, grunting as he sat down, old knees cracking. “You’ve been gone for a month.”

“Two months,” Sonata corrected.

Uncle Galo shook his head, his eyes fixed angrily on her face. “And you didn’t think it courteous to send word?”

Sonata bit a hangnail from her left hand and spit it onto the floor. “Delicate work. No time to chat. Besides, The Channels are lousy with spies and busy-bodies. It would not do to send word and let the wrong people know of our relationship… and of my mission.”

“Where did you go?”

Sonata pointed through the wall to her right. “North country. Agadano, to be exact.” She sat up and fished around in her belt purse. She grabbed a handful of gold moedas and dropped them onto the table. “Your death goes for a high price these days.”

Uncle Galo worked a long, thin finger through the money. He counted quietly. Sonata stared at him as he counted. Was that a smile she saw on her uncle’s face? It disappeared quickly.

“You took money to kill me?” he asked. “Are you joking?”

Sonata shrugged. “Mention your name in the right ear, and the coins just fall from the sky. I had to refuse a couple offers.”

Borshen leaned close, his expression now deadly serious. “You weren’t really going to kill me, were you?”

There was that smile again. Sonata smiled back. Despite his rough exterior, her uncle was a gentle man… at least now in his old age. “How could I even consider harming a hair on your cute little head?”

Uncle Galo huffed and stood quickly. He rubbed his chin vigorously as if he were shaving. “So, did you learn what I asked you to learn,” Borshen said, “or did you just discuss my death with fools?”

Sonata chuckled. “Oh, I like that one. You’ve been practicing your drama.” She smiled, but Uncle Galo didn’t return her mirth. She nodded instead. “It’s true, if we’re to believe the words of silly barmaids and kitchen waifs.”

“The truth being…?”

“Agadano is seeking an alliance with Pontaboro. If not militarily, then at least economically.”

“Which is just as dangerous.”

Sonata nodded. “There’re mumblings of a meeting to take place soon, high officials and other dignitaries of some weight.”

“Who? And when?”

Sonata shook her head. “Nothing on that.”

“That’s pretty slim evidence, Sonata. When I send you into the world, I expect a better return on my investment.”

She could see that her uncle was agitated by the news. “Well, would you have preferred that I had slept with a duke, or a king, to get more?”

They stared at each other. Sonata was not about to back down on this. She’d done enough, and she’d returned as promised with valuable information. What else could he want?

Uncle Galo blinked first. He leaned over and took his niece in his long arms. Sonata hugged him back cautiously. “It’s good to see you again, girl.” He tickled her back. “You’re all bones. You’ve lost weight.”

“Pickings are slim in the north. Hard meat and stale bread mostly. They save the finest food for the nobility.”

Uncle Galo nodded. “A weakness of the breed. I trust you covered your tracks well? It wasn’t a king or a duke that ordered my death, I pray?”

Sonata shook her head, lying. “No,” she said. “Just some sniveling little Caster you crossed in your youth.”

There were scores of those spread around Mirada, she knew. Borshen Galo was a name despised by Caster and nobility alike, for one reason or another. In his youth, Uncle Galo had been a battle wizard, raining fireballs down upon enemy ranks, and mixing lethal poisons for the Viscano archery corps, the kinds of poisons that left an army mad with psychic dementia. A slow, painful death; soul-wrenching convulsions. No one on the Pontaboro side of The Divide held any love for the wizard Borshen Galo, and hardly anyone north as well beyond the Sorrow Sea. In his middle years, his activities had grown more subversive and, by extension, more deadly. He’d tap into The Channels to gather information about rivals, then would use that information to crush them. He had a wild streak as wide as the Doro River, and as fierce as Adriana Falls. But as he aged, and as he had become, by default, Sonata’s surrogate father, he’d mellowed, almost to the point of being boring. Now, he used her, and perhaps others as well (he never divulged all of his dealings to anyone) to do his “dirty work.” The Viscano people loved him, however, and considered him a great patriot and statesman. Some of them, anyway.

“You should be more careful with your safety and security, uncle,” Sonata said, getting up to poke around his vials of potions and cups of powder. “A blind man could have slit your throat.”

“Nonsense,” he said, waving her away from his trinkets. “I’m perfectly safe. Besides, I have Fellfang.”

It was Sonata’s turn to laugh. “That old mutt? Clay in my hands.”

Uncle Galo grunted and yanked away a vial of blue liquid. “Don’t touch that,” he said, slapping her hand. “It’s valuable. And I told you never to vex my dog. He gets the vapors when you do that.”

Sonata didn’t argue. She was too tired to fight him over his unhealthy obsession with his potions and his dog. They meant more to him than anything else.

She blew him a raspberry and returned to her seat, looking at Fellfang as he lay on his fox fur bedding. The mastiff’s eyes were wide open, but his chest moved slowly as if he were dreaming on clouds. Sonata shook her head. How could something so ferocious look so innocent in repose?

Uncle Galo returned the blue potion to its holder, and said, “So, I assume your return means that you will fulfill your promise to the city?”

Sonata hesitated. What could she say? She knew this moment would come. She thought she had planned for it, considered the options, and settled on an answer. But now faced with it, she didn’t have the words. “I—I haven’t decided yet.”

Uncle Galo sighed. It was his patented “I can’t believe this” sigh, the kind he uttered right before going into a fit of rage and breaking glass. But instead, he just sat there, rubbing his weary eyes with thumb and forefinger. “Sonata, I need a person in the Night Guard. I need eyes on their operation.”

“Then get someone else to do it!” Her anger surprised her; all the pent-up frustration of three months of deliberation on the matter coming to light. “Hire somebody, for Adriana’s sake. You’ve enough clout, and coin.”

“That won’t be good enough.”

“I’m not your damned slave!”

She flew off the chair and turned to the terrace. She ripped open the glass door and a rush of fog blew into the room: the Breath of Adriana, moving strong off the crashing waters of the falls, blanketing Cragsport in a thick grey-white steam. She walked through it and looked out across the city.

Only the tallest spires could be seen: The Tower of All Saints Marching, Duke Ernesto’s private living quarters, the Night Guard watch tower at the North Gate. The sight of that brooding tower quickened her pulse again.

Before leaving on her little northern soiree, she’d promised to return and serve her term in the Night Guard. It was something most citizens of Cragsport were expected to do. Most of the young men, anyway. And, if able, young women as well. A two-year service, but she had stupidly agreed to the extended four-year term at Uncle Galo’s insistence. He needed eyes inside the Guard to ensure that his precious, and oftentimes illegal, potions made it safely to purchasers’ hands. Duke Ernesto had started increasing his inspections of mercantile activity; this extended even into businesses usually exempt from review: trade-houses, guilds, and even arcane activities like potion and fetish making. Uncle Galo was getting pinched from the top, taxes were increasing, shipments were being inspected and quite often confiscated. Sonata didn’t know what her presence in the Night Guard could do to relieve this pressure, but he had a plan. “You leave it up to me,” Uncle Galo had told her before she had left on her mission. “You just get in on your sword, and I’ll do the rest.”

But she didn’t want to serve. She hated the Guard, hated Cragsport in fact. The only reason she had come back was because she’d made a promise to her uncle, and a Galo always kept her promise.

Sonata felt the light touch of her uncle’s hand on her shoulder. She stiffened. She hated when he got soft and sweet. He was a decrepit old man, but he had the charm of a Lothario, and a silver tongue to match. “Sonata,” he said softly, “sweetheart, I need your help on this.”

She sighed. “But it’s four years, uncle. I won’t survive it. I’m too young anyway.”

“Nonsense,” he said, massaging her arm. “You’re seventeen. They take younger. And you’re the best sword in state, boy or girl. I should know. I paid for your training, didn’t I?”

There he goes, she thought, laying the guilt. What’s next?

“And have I not given you a home, good clothing, security, and warm food all these years?”

There it is! Sonata looked into Uncle Galo’s dark, pitiful eyes. What a jackass! But she couldn’t help smiling. At least he was a cute little jackass.

“You’re such a jackass,” she said.

Uncle Galo laughed, guided her back inside, then closed the door, leaving Adriana’s Breath to water the glass. “That’s a good girl,” he said. “You’ll love it. They’re your kind of people. You even know the captain.”

“Nathyn Sombrio tried to rape me.”

That ended their reconciliation. Uncle Galo’s expression turned sour again. He knew the truth, but he had never admitted it. Why, she didn’t know. Perhaps admitting the truth conflicted with his agenda. Attempted assault by the Duke’s Captain of the Guard was more than enough reason to forgo her service. She could bring the matter up before the Bailiff. But without character witnesses, without someone confirming her integrity, her honesty and forthrightness on the accusation, she couldn’t even bring the case forward. She’d failed already once. A second time would be near impossible.

“Well,” Uncle Galo said, “times have changed.”

Sonata doubted that, but left the matter alone. It was enough to remind Uncle Galo of the truth. He’d sleep fitfully tonight.

“So,” Uncle Galo said, changing the subject, “I’m glad you’re back. Come, have some coffee and a wheat muffin. Tell me about the rest of your trip.”

“I thought you said no breakfast for a bad girl.”

Uncle Galo shook his head. “You’re not a bad girl anymore.” He winked at her and shuffled away into the kitchen, followed closely by a groggy bullmastiff.

Sonata watched them go. She shook her head, then whispered, “Don’t count on it, dear uncle.”

Before she finished her breakfast, Uncle Galo was giving her tasks. “I need this,” “I need that.” It was enough to drive a person crazy. He also wanted her to give Fellfang a walk. Sonata refused. He could take his own damn dog out for a pee. Uncle Galo wasn’t so old that he couldn’t walk down a couple flights of stairs. Besides, it would do him good to get down to ground-level and breathe air unburdened with fog and brackish river water.

Sonata finally agreed to run his other errands, after taking a warm, wet cloth to her neck and face. She had to at least get the grime of travel off her skin first. She would have preferred a full bath, but a modest scrubbing would do for now.

She took the stairs down to Flores Street and walked north through the morning throng of Viscano citizens. Uncle Galo’s apartment lay in one of the more affluent neighborhoods of Cragsport, right above the flower-and-café district. It was a rich segment of town, its people reaping the benefits of the province’s trade and military successes. Borshen Galo had acquired his wealth during the wars three decades ago. Now he lived a comfortable life above the bustle of the crowds. Most of them didn’t even know that a famed, and very dangerous, wizard lived just above their streets.

Sonata tried not to think of such things. The day was shaping up to be sunny and warm, and she wasn’t about to let thoughts of her selfish uncle ruin it. She pressed on through the crowd and breathed deeply.

Despite her disdain for Cragsport in general, there was one thing she liked about it: the people. All different colors and walks of life. Once outside the internal security walls of the wealthy districts, the streets teemed with the browns and blacks of Pontaboro expatriates and the bleach whites of the Corodana Islands. Coming to live with her uncle was wonderful, life-saving in fact, but she missed living in the heat of the sprawl, in the Boca do Dragão, the Mouth of the Dragon, as some called it.

Cragsport sat on a bluff overlooking the Doro River. The steep, obsidian-black escarpment on the bank had been bricked over centuries ago. Now, the east wall of the city, called The Jaw, rested in the river itself and protected Cragsport from collapsing.

To the west and northwest lay a ring of tall, sharp crags called The Dragon’s Teeth, and between them ran a single passage called The Red Road, so named because of its rough black granite purposely painted red at city’s edge to represent the bright crimson of the Dragon’s Tongue. Sonata scoffed at the pretension of the whole thing. Such architectural decisions and naming conventions had been made centuries before she had even been born, and reflected the arrogance of the Gregano Empire which had ruled Mirada ages ago and had made Cragsport its capital. There were no such thing as dragons, then or now, and certainly not one large enough to have died and coughed up a city in its death throes. What stupidity! For Viscano leaders to have embraced such fanciful nonsense was absurd. Men had made the city, men had named its parts, and men would eventually bring it down.

Sonata tipped a guard with one of the gold coins she had held back from her uncle, then passed through the gate from one district to another.

Now, she was home.

She’d grown up in these streets, knew them well, and had no trouble stealing from them. She loved them, she hated them. Sometimes, her feelings didn’t make sense to her. There was a time when she had cried every night thinking about them, when she had first left them to live with Uncle Galo. Those were tough months. Memories of her mother, memories of cold nights, hard rice, a dead baby brother. The thought of it all still chilled her. But she loved the people, and the person she had to visit first was Madam Carla.

Mirada’s finest brothel lay between a butcher shop and a wine distillery. You could eat, have a bit of night-time fun, and drink sloppy all in the span of thirty yards. It was a strip of road the locals called The Stop, Fuck, and Go. But there was no one as friendly, and as ruthless, as Madam Carla. Her exploits rivaled that of Uncle Galo’s. Her ladies were protected from any man that tried to leave bruises on her precious charges. No one could harm them, except Madam Carla herself of course, and she was not above using the crop.

“Sonata!” a very tall, emaciated Madam Carla said, her arms open wide to receive. “My girl!”

Sonata felt small in the madam’s arms, her face pushed deep into her flat, boney chest. It was difficult to breathe, but Sonata endured it. It had been Madam Carla who had helped her and her mother through many tough times.

Madam Carla pulled away, then poked a long finger into Sonata’s chest. “Nice tits, girlie. Cast off your disreputable thievery and come work for me. Your dark, porcelain-smooth skin would surely bring the boys to call. And it’d be consistent pay… something you don’t get in your current line of work.”

Sonata pushed the probing digit away. “Never. Not even in a dragon’s lifetime.”

Madam Carla bleated like a goat. Sonata winced. The mistress had the most annoying laugh in Cragsport; skull-rattling, in fact. One wondered how any man could endure a moment of it, but then, it wasn’t Madam Carla they came to see.

Sonata looked around. It was early morning, so there weren’t too many ladies in attendance. There was a blonde she recognized, and a brunette. A sallow-skinned Corodana lay sleeping on a couch, her exposed shoulders lined red with whip marks. Madam Carla’s work, no doubt. What had the girl done? Sonata wondered. Come to work in this? Sonata shook her head slowly. Not even if she were starving.

“Come in, come in,” Madam Carla said, pulling Sonata along. “Talk to me. You’ve been gone too long. Off killing things, I assume?”

“Just a little northern travel,” Sonata said. Then she whispered, “For Uncle Galo.”

Very few knew that she was the wizard’s niece. He preferred it that way. Sonata couldn’t decide if it was because he didn’t want his notoriety to follow her, or if it was because, if she died in the line of duty, he didn’t want the trail to lead back to him. Through his myriad connections, Uncle Galo had secured her name change. She was a Diamante from then on. It was an ancient and rarely used bastard surname, and quite appropriate for her line of work. She was no jewel thief, though many of the trinkets she acquired were just as precious.

Madam Carla sat her down and offered tea. Sonata accepted out of politeness, but said, “I’m sorry, Madam, but I cannot stay long. I’m here on official business.”

Madam Carla’s expression changed. Her smile disappeared in a scowl. “That rake of a man! Can’t he give you five minutes of freedom?”

Sonata sipped and smiled. “You know my uncle.”

“What’s he need this time?” Madam Carla asked.

Sonata set the tea cup down, cleared her throat and said, “Some hair.”

Madam Carla balked. “Hair? What for?”

Sonata shook her head. “It’s for some potion he’s planning.”

“I just bet.” Madam Carla leaned into the hallway and yelled, “Estela!”

A moment later, the pale Corodana appeared. Sonata looked at her. The foreigner’s eyes were radiant, deep inset blue with specks of gold. The Island people of Corodana were so beautiful. Some considered them ghosts, walking dead, and feared them. Madam Carla’s clients loved their exotic nature. Sonata herself couldn’t help but feel a touch of warmth in Estela’s presence.

Estela peered at Sonata. It wasn’t a friendly stare. Perhaps she was still smarting from the whipping she’d gotten. Sonata suddenly felt uncomfortable. She looked at her tea.

“Bend your head!” Madam Carla ordered. The Corodana reluctantly did so, letting her fine white locks cascade over her face.

Madam Carla took a small knife from her pocket and grabbed a lock. Estela winced at the madam’s casual harshness as she carved away at the bright strands. “I’m sorry, miss,” Sonata said, trying to be supportive.

If she could, Sonata would close down every brothel in Cragsport. The idea of them disgusted her, but what could she do? The practice was so ensconced in the culture, so accepted even at the highest levels of government, so institutionalized, the mere thought of its eradication sent a ripple through the state. Religious groups and even past dukes had tried to curb the practice, and some succeeded for a time. But it always crept back into place.

But without Madam Carla, Sonata and her mother would have died on the streets many times over. Often, Madam Carla allowed her mother to work here as a maid and cook. In the deepest winter, a madam’s hospitality was the only thing between them and death. Sonata would never forget that.

Where had Uncle Galo been during all this turmoil and discontent in her life, Sonata had wondered more than once. Why had he allowed his own flesh and blood to live in squalor, moving from place to place, not knowing when the next meal or bed would come? Part of his time, Sonata knew, had been spent on The Divide in battle against the Pontaboro. But for the last five years before mother had died, he had lived in Cragsport and had been more than capable of helping. But there was some history between him and his sister that Sonata didn’t understand, and Uncle Galo refused to explain.

Madam Carla tucked the knife away and patted the Corodana on the head. “Run along now, Estela, and earn your keep.”

The girl bowed and left quickly.

Madam Carla wrapped the cuttings in a small cloth and handed them over. “My money?” she said, leaving her hand out flat.

Sonata dug in her bag and took out two coins, one silver, one gold. Madam Carla looked at them with insult. “That’s all?”

Sonata shrugged. “Take it up with uncle. That’s all he gave me.”

Of course that wasn’t true, but business was business. As much as she loved Madam Carla, no one deserved two gold coins for a few measly locks of hair.

“Well, then, I guess we’re done here, aren’t we?” Madam Carla snatched the tea cup from Sonata’s hand. “Tell Borshen Galo I’m going to slit his throat one of these days.”

“With pleasure.”

Sonata knew she meant it, but Madam Carla was not in a position to do anything of the sort. More likely, it would be Uncle Galo who would bring Madam Carla’s business down. But a woman in her position had to maintain the illusion of power and strength. It would not do to let her “girlies” think her weak.

Sonata stole a kiss on Madam Carla’s cheek and then stepped out onto the porch. “Glad to see you again, sweetie,” she said.

Madam Carla nodded. “Stay out of trouble, girlie. Drop by again soon.”

Sonata turned into the street, ignoring the stares of two guardsmen walking past her.

She didn’t want Nathyn Sombrio to know of her return… yet.

Sonata’s next two stops were less eventful. Uncle Galo wanted some fresh bones and twenty strips of Rock Lizard jerky for Fellfang. She liked the jerky herself. It had a smooth, smoky taste, and though it was dried solid under the hot Mirada sun, a little time on the tongue and it was as soft as ground beef. The vendor for the jerky tried to double the price, thinking that she was some naïve little girl too stupid to know the difference. For his troubles, she pocketed two pork pies and a rasher of bacon as he attended another customer. When he returned to her to settle the sale, Sonata scratched the skin of her throat with the edge of her knife and urged the man, in her most pleasant voice, to reconsider the price. He did.

She then collected soup bones from an old woman who ran a food stand on the corner of Borando Street and the Dragon’s Tongue. She was a deaf mute with a swollen eye too painful to look at. Sonata had purchased plenty of food from her over the years. In fact, Uncle Galo insisted upon it, even though there were other food vendors much closer to his home, and ones owned by ladies far more comely. He apparently had a secret history with this woman as well.

She tipped the lady with a silver piece and took the bones politely, putting them in her side pouch. Fellfang loved them. Small, round, hard, and good for his teeth. The marrow in the center was soaked with chicken and kernel broth. Sonata’s stomach grumbled. She was hungry again. Obviously the coffee and muffin weren’t enough.

She tore off a strip of jerky and wrapped it around her tongue. The strong flavor of salt and spices hit her throat as she tapped gently on the door of her last stop, then walked in. She stopped chewing when she saw a cloaked figure standing over the bloody body of the shop’s owner, Rollo Marco.

The figure was a man, and a strong one. She could tell by the broad shoulders and the way the black shirt bulged at his arms. She could not see his face for it was covered by a hood attached to the shirt and crimped beneath the chin with a stone clasp. An unsatisfied customer, probably. That was not unusual for practicing wizards. But few ever took a beating like the one Marco appeared to have gotten. And few, even one as strong as this man, could penetrate the warding spells cast for protection. Uncle Galo worked in the shadows, unseen and secure. Rollo Marco worked in public.

Sonata gulped the jerky down and said, “Am I interrupting?”

The man started. She could still not see his face, for it was tattooed completely with green and red starbursts, one overlapping another, making a large mural of color split down the center of his face by the tattoo of a silver dagger. The dagger’s blade ran the length of the man’s nose, its tip reaching the dimple on his chin. Sonata’s eyes grew large. She knew the pattern well, and she knew the kind of men who wore it.

“Get out!” the man hissed and bared his pearl-white teeth like a beast. They had been filed to fine points.

Sonata’s voice wavered, and her hand shook as she drew her dagger. Gods give me strength. “I don’t think so.”

The man hissed again and drew two silver blades from his belt. Their tips were smeared with gore and blood, and he waved them back and forth in front of his face. “I said get out!”

Sonata shifted her blade to her left hand and made a fist with the other. She held them forward like a prize fighter and moved to the right, leaving the door open. Perhaps the man would flee. She hoped so. “You don’t listen very well, stranger. Perhaps it’s the hood.”

The man leaped at her, criss-crossing the blades like scissors and aiming for her throat. Sonata ducked and felt hairs tear from her head. She rolled and came up against a pile of bottles. She kicked them away and stood up. The man came at her again.

It was clear that he wasn’t going to leave. She had obviously interrupted something important; important enough to do in the middle of the day, and in eye- and ear-shot of a busy street. This man cared little about his own safety.

Sonata fell flat and swiped his legs, but he was too strong to bring down. He pulled his legs free and drove his boot heel into her face, knocking her back. She kicked up strong and took him in the crotch. She felt a bone codpiece. It stifled the blow, but he fell back anyway, growling like a leopard and slashing with his knives. She rolled and pulled up quickly, tasting warm blood on the side of her mouth.

The man jumped her again, but this time Sonata was ready. Out of the side of her left eye, she caught a glimpse of a green bottle. She grabbed it, broke it, and held the jagged edge forward. The man’s shoulder took it square, and he screamed. But his momentum took him right into her chest, and she exploded backwards, her back hitting the wall. She heard cracking. She didn’t know if it was her ribs or the dry boards behind her. She had little time to wonder.

They fell to the floor, the near dead weight of the stranger holding her down. His hands were now at her throat, his knives no longer in them. Had he dropped them? She wondered. This could be an opportunity. Her training had taught her a good defense against a bare-handed foe. Someone who had exchanged steel for flesh was desperate, grabbing straws. The bottle slash must have hurt him badly. He was too focused on his hands and their deadly work. He might be vulnerable in other places.

Sonata faked a gasp and stabbed at his back as he dug his nails into her neck. He wore a back plate of some kind, a panel of hard leather or thin steel. Her blade did little damage. But it didn’t need to. It just needed to distract him a little, give him a false sense of security as if she were flailing away with no result.

Slowly, Sonata worked a soup bone from her pouch and palmed it. “The Pontaboro will die!” she screamed at him through lips turning purple.

The stranger bared his teeth and hissed again. Sonata struck, jamming the bone into his mouth. She felt a meaty snap as his front teeth caved at the blow. Blood spattered her face. The man screamed and released her neck. She pulled her foot up and pushed him away. She skirted back, gasping for air, blade at the ready.

The man had had enough. He held a hand to his mouth. Blood trickled through his fingers. He staggered backwards, whimpering like a bruised dog. He threw a bottle at her. Sonata ducked; it shattered against the wall. She shielded her head from the shards. When she recovered, the man was gone.

She took a moment to catch her breath. Her throat ached. Her back too, but she felt no fractures. She coughed and wiped a spot of blood from her lips. She checked the rest of her body. No serious wounds.

Sonata gathered and stood. The door was wide open, and a crowd was gathering outside, peering in to see the nature of the trouble.

She went to the wizard’s side. He still lay there, eyes closed. “Rollo,” she said. “Rollo? Are you okay?”

His sunken face said nothing. Sonata checked his wrist and pressed her ear to his mouth.

Dead.

She looked to the door again. More people were gathering. She had to leave before the murder was pinned on her. No matter the truth, she was here and the real killer was not. That was enough in Cragsport for guilt. But she wasn’t going to leave until she got what she had come for.

She looked around the room. She kicked through bottles and other debris on the floor. Her boot freed a blade; one of the attacker’s weapons forgotten in flight. She picked it up. She gripped the handle and felt a surge of nausea. It passed. She dropped the blade, then picked it up again. It had good balance, and the edge looked freshly sharpened. A little bigger than she liked for a dagger, but it could have its uses. She secured it beneath her belt and kept looking.

She found the object she had come for wedged underneath Rollo’s wide belly. She pushed him up and pulled the object out. Sonata held it with both hands and stared through its eye slits.

It was a mask of pure silver.

∞∞∞

Sonata stared at the silver mask as Uncle Galo held it up to the light streaming through their terrace window. “What is it?” she asked.

The wizard’s expression did not waver. He stared at the bright sheen of the metal, tipping it back and forth, studying the eye slits and the shape of its nose cover. It was a complete piece of silver, not segmented or hammered together from separate parts. It covered only the top portion of the face; no mouth or chin piece.

Sonata had slipped into an alley on the way back and tried it on. It fit perfectly. Uncle Galo did the same. It fit him perfectly as well, and his face was squat, with flatter cheek bones and a sharp nose. Sonata tried to see if it changed shape automatically to fit his face, but it just seemed to fit. Strange. Usually these kinds of masks were made of cloth or wood and were used for balls and masquerade parties; one that could be held in place by a stick. Masks of more solid material like metal or stone held a firm shape and were made specifically for one person. A death mask, for instance. But not this one. This one did not appear to be a death mask. It was too vibrant, too shiny, too alive.

Sonata knew a little about masks. One of her mother’s many jobs had been seamstress for a theater on Brilliano Street. The work didn’t last long, but in the time she was there, Sonata used to help the ladies put on their costumes and masks. Masks were an important part of Miradan theater.

“It’s a mask,” Uncle Galo said.

Sonata pushed him with her foot. She was in no mood for play. “I know what it is. Where did it come from? What’s its purpose?”

The wizard shrugged. “I don’t know. Rollo said he had a silver mask he wanted to drop. Said he got it from a Shiro Pirate. Rollo doesn’t deal in alchemical matters, or metallurgy for that matter, so he thought of me.”

Sonata stared at it again. It was beautiful. Very fine, very sheen. No scratches. In fact, Uncle Galo tried to nick it with a fingernail to check its purity. The nick appeared then faded away.

He grunted and dropped his hands. “Oh well, it doesn’t matter. It’s no good to me in its present form anyway. Once I melt it down, I—”

“Melt it down?” Sonata put her hand on the mask. “What do you mean?”

Uncle Galo shook his head. “I’ve no use for a mask, but I need the silver.”

Sonata pulled it from his hands. “No, no, no. You’re not going to destroy it. You’re going to get in your library, pore over those ancient books of yours, and figure out what it is.”

The wizard glared at her. “You’re giving me orders now?”

“Yes, sir, I am. I nearly got killed by a Pontaboro assassin for this thing.”

“That wasn’t my fault, girl. I had no idea there’d be trouble.” He pried the mask away from her, then said, “You’re sure of his markings?”

Sonata nodded. “Absolutely. Starbursts, silver dagger, filed teeth. He was a brother of the Estrela Verde. And by his strength, I’d wager a high-ranking member.”

The assassin’s “strength” still had her in pain. On the way back to her uncle’s apartment, she had to stop periodically to catch her breath. No broken bones, but purple bruises on the small of her back, a crick in her neck, and a puffy lip. Red finger marks still wrapped her throat. She needed that hot bath.

“Are you sure he was there for the mask?” Uncle Galo asked.

Sonata shook her head. “I can’t say for certain, but there was nothing else among Rollo’s things that seemed valuable enough to go to such trouble. I gave him ample room to escape.”

“The Estrela Verde rarely fail at a job,” Uncle Galo said, laying the mask down carefully on his workbench. “And you’re a girl. He couldn’t let your provocation go unchallenged.”

“Nevertheless,” Sonata said, growing more irritated by the second, “all things considered, we must assume that the mask was the object of his visit. Which means that the Pontaboro High Council must want it. Which means—”

“Slow down, girl.” Uncle Galo put up his hand. “You’re jumping to conclusions like you always do. Who knows why he wanted it? It’s not only the High Council that hires the Estrela Verde. Rich folk, religious sects, cults, guilds, wizards like me. All of us have resources and need for such services. It may have been lifted from a Pontaboro art collector. Some theater troupe may have lost it and rediscovered its location. Who knows?”

“Well, what we do know is that someone was willing to kill for it. That alone means it is worth more than a passing consideration.”

Uncle Galo shook his head. “No Pontaboro assassin can set foot in Cragsport without assistance. Someone opened the gate for him, which means someone in this city knows of this mask. Which means the longer it stays intact, the greater the chance for someone to come looking for it. Even if it’s magical, which it seems to be, it cannot withstand my flames. I say pitch it in the fire and be done with it.”

Sonata rubbed her face, trying to maintain control. Sometimes, she just wanted to reach out and strangle the old creep. He was just as curious about the thing as she was. She could tell by the way he kept looking at it. Why wouldn’t he admit it? He just liked pissing her off.

She took a deep breath and said, “Just give a look, please? Check it out. If it’s good enough for a Pontaboro goon, it’s good enough for us, no? It may be worth more than we can imagine. Please?” Then maybe I can get out of this thieving life once and for all.

She batted her eyes the way her mother taught her to do to influence a man. Galo was her uncle, certainly, and she had never felt any feelings of that kind for him, but no man could resist a soft wave of long lashes, so her mother had said. Sonata’s weren’t that long, nor were her eyes the most appealing color. A bright hazel is what she had.

“Very well,” he said, picking up the mask and rubbing his thumbs over it. “On one condition. Or rather, three.”

Sonata waited.

“First, get a bath,” he said, sniffing the air. “You stink. Second, go and fulfill your promise to me with the Night Guard. And third,” he pressed his lips together and whistled. Fellfang rose from his furs and trotted over. “Take my dog out for a walk and pee.”

Sonata gave in. But when it came to Uncle Galo, she always did.