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Chapter 8 — Morning Swordplay

Sonata stood in stunned silence. How did he know? Then it became clear when a young and very pale girl stepped forward. “Estela!” Sonata whispered, her anger sparked anew.

The Corodana girl had snitched. Sonata should have known. The white bitch’s name meant “star” in the Old Tongue. Was she part of the Estrela Verde? Not likely. Women weren’t allowed in that assassin society. Could they assist them in any way? Sonata had never heard of such a thing, but there was much mystery surrounding Pontaboro assassins. Or was this simply the Corodana girl striking back at Madam Carla for the beating she’d gotten? Many questions. But Sombrio knew the truth. Part of it, at least.

“Murder?” Sonata said, looking straight into the eyes of Captain Sombrio. “Who?”

“State wizard Rollo Marco,” he said, “and your uncle, Borshen Galo.”

“That’s a lie,” Sonata said.

“Which? The murders or the kinship?”

Sonata hesitated, then said, “Both.”

Sombrio scoffed. “Come now, Lady Diamante. You were wise to hide the truth of your association with Galo. Had it been known, the world would have come after you to get to him. As just his assistant... well, who would care, right? But no more secrets, my lady. The truth is known, and you are under arrest.”

“But where are the bodies, Captain?” Sonata asked, putting her hands up and motioning around. “Where’s your proof? I am no expert of the law, but I think possession is an important part of proving guilt.”

That hit a nerve. “Marco’s body is secure, I assure you.” Sombrio stepped forward slowly, smiling. “As for your uncle, it’s only a matter of time. My men are digging, and digging, and digging. How long will it be, I wonder, before they hit something?”

Stay calm, girl, Sonata said to herself. He’s bluffing. “And how long will it be before I kill you?” Way to stay calm, girl.

Guardsmen pressed closer, circling, their swords drawn. Sonata shot glances at their faces. The men were scared. She could see it in their eyes. Good. Her legend had preceded her, or perhaps Captain Sombrio had finally shown her a little respect and warned them ahead of time. Either way, she and Fellfang had the advantage. Ten to two. Good odds.

“You may try if you like,” Sombrio said, feeling confident with his men close, “but don’t make that mistake. Come quietly, and you’ll not be harmed in any—”

“The only mistakes I’ve made were returning home this time,” Sonata said, “and letting you live that night.”

Sonata snapped the chain on Fellfang’s harness like a whip. It cracked free, and the dog leaped towards Captain Sombrio. Sonata pulled back on the chain hard, and it lacerated the nose of a guardsman behind her. The man dropped to the street, holding his bloody face, screaming.

She took a roundhouse swing with the chain, catching another man around his throat. She then pulled the chain towards her, and the man clutched his throat and stumbled to keep his feet. Sonata freed Freira and slashed his face open.

The rest of them were on her.

What fools they are, she knew, rushing her all at once. The sudden explosion of violence had surprised them, and now they were panicking by pressing in too quickly. How could anyone, especially a girl, do such a thing? That was the question Sonata saw in their desperate eyes; the answer confused them.

She pulled Chefe from its sheath and rammed it through the breastbone of another guardsman. He stooped, and Sonata jumped on his back, dodging a buckler and sword swing that nicked her arm. She gritted her teeth as the blade cut through leather and skin, then she flung herself over the charging men and into the street.

She could now hear Madam Carla’s girls screaming. They were doing their part to cause chaos, havoc, to bring people awake, to fill the streets with lookers-on. And Madam Carla had her teeth planted in the calf of a guardsman, a young blond-haired boy who looked no older than twelve. Sonata hated to do it, but she ended the scuffle with a stab through his side. The boy dropped dead. Then she cut Madam Carla’s bindings.

“By my word,” the madam said on dirty knees, “I didn’t see them coming. I’m, I’m so—”

“Don’t fret it,” Sonata said, catching a guardsman’s sword in the V of her blades. She cast it aside and pushed the man down with a kick to his gut. “Free your ladies, and get out of here. Now!”

She heard Fellfang bark. More guardsmen arrived. From where she didn’t know. She turned and raced to the bay of her dog.

Her dog. She’d never made that claim in her life. Fellfang had always been her dog, but it had always been more Uncle Galo’s pet than hers. But things had changed. Fellfang was hers now, and she his. She would not let him die this way, butchered like a spring lamb.

Guards had circled the mastiff, but the beast was holding his own, snapping at anything that came too close, biting at swords and bucklers and leather boots. One of the guardsmen had a chain and was waving it around, preparing to strike. Sonata swung Freira over her head, and like a dervish, tore into the men with savage precision.

A head lolled forward as Sonata severed it from its spine. Chefe went through the throat of another before the guardsmen tore themselves away from the dog and braced for this new threat. They were faster than she anticipated, their bucklers up to protect their chests, their swords forward.

This small reprieve, however, gave Fellfang a chance to strike. He sunk his fangs into the leg of the man with the chain and brought him down screaming. Fellfang shook his massive head and crunched through bone, tearing away a chunk of cloth, muscle, and flesh.

Three men attacked Sonata together, their blades held firm before them. These guardsmen were decent fighters, their posture excellent, their movements capable. Sonata held her swords high and turned carefully as each took a position around her.

One struck, throwing himself forward, the tip of his sharp blade aimed towards Sonata’s chest. She tapped it aside, rolled, and came up in front of the second guardsman who smacked her back with a buckler to her right shoulder. She stumbled, but kept her feet, swung Freira down, and caught the buckler square. The shock of the blow tore the shield from the man’s hand. He paused a moment, long enough for Sonata to knock his sword aside and expose his chest to Chefe. She thrust quickly and caught a seam between the links. The man groaned as the sword bit through steel, leather, and ribs and punctured his lung.

Something swiped her legs, and Sonata went down. She gritted her teeth in pain as her hip found cobble. Chefe slipped from her grasp. She reached for it, but a boot pushed it aside, then came up and struck her in the chin. She fell back, Freira held up and forward. A sword slashed downwards, towards her face, but Sonata blocked it, kicked up and into the man’s codpiece. The blow didn’t hurt him, but it pushed him back enough to give Sonata time to recover. She grabbed Chefe and rolled.

The third guardsman was on her, swinging his sword in fine, precise measure. She matched him swing for swing, using Freira for the heavy work, Chefe for simple blocks and counters. The man used his buckler in much the same way. Sonata noticed that he had sharpened the edge of his shield. A useful modification, she thought, and something she stored away in her mind for later consideration. One could learn even from a vanquished foe.

He wasn’t vanquished yet, but Sonata was toying with him, playing to his strengths, which were many, but knowing them, anticipating them, and using them against her opponent were things she had learned in the past few years. The swordsmen of Agadano were excellent in this regard. She’d learned a lot in their company.

The guardsman swung his buckler at her throat. Sonata let it nick her. Close call, indeed. Another inch to the right and he’d have severed her artery, but she knew what she was doing. The edge of the shield tore through her skin. Blood oozed. Sonata screamed and fell to the ground. The man hovered over her, smiling, as if she were fallen prey.

“You’re not so tough,” he said, then pulled back his arm for the final swing.

Sonata thrust Chefe upwards and deep into the man’s backside.

He dropped his sword and buckler, a strange, vacant stare on his face. She smelled bowel as Chefe bit deeper. Blood drained down the guard’s pant leg and pooled at his feet. He slumped over, and Sonata pulled away just in time.

She came up and saw more guardsmen circling, scores of them, too many to count. Some had crossbows, others blowpipes. She slumped her shoulders and drew a long breath. No use. Even if she killed dozens, there’d be more.

But what worried her most was only ten feet away.

Captain Sombrio stood quietly, sword in hand, the blade resting on his shoulder. Beneath him lay Fellfang in a lifeless heap.

“Bastard!” Sonata screamed. All she could see in her mind’s eye were her blades carving Sombrio like a roast for what he had done. Her face boiled; her heart raced. No tears. Not here.

Sombrio raised his hand. “Peace, Sonata,” he said. “Your canine is very much alive; I assure you. He sleeps soundly in the Bosom of Lorena and dreams of rabbits and rodents. You’re not the only one who knows a little magic.”

Sombrio snapped his fingers and Fellfang stirred, his muzzle twitching as deep breaths escaped. He remained sleeping, however, as comfortable and as unflustered as if he were sunning on Uncle Galo’s terrace.

Sonata calmed. “If you harm him, I’ll—”

“You’ll what? Kill me? If I had a gold coin for every time I heard that... well, I wouldn’t be here. But here I am, as alive as you. And you’re in no position to make demands, Sonata. Lay your swords down, and no harm will come to you, or your mutt.”

Sonata shook her head. “That’s impossible. If you knew me at all, Nathyn, you’d know that.” She whipped Freira through the air to freshen the steel. Chefe dripped blood. Sonata held the half-sword before her and watched deep crimson run down its fuller. She was proud of her little sword. It had done its duty once again. She whipped it several times until the blade was clean. Then she tucked it away. This was Freira’s battle.

Sonata bent her legs. She held the rapier forward and waited.

Captain Sombrio smiled. “I see. So it’s this way, eh?” He stepped away from Fellfang, removed his sash, prepared his blade.

Duels were technically forbidden in Cragsport, but nobody would question the Captain of the Guard’s right to handle a criminal any way he saw fit.

Criminal? Sonata chewed on that word as they circled each other. Am I a criminal? Am I guilty? The answer to both was yes. She was a criminal. A thief, a murderer. By strict interpretation of Mirada law, she was guilty and could stand trial for all the things she’d done in her life, with execution a distinct possibility. Yet law and reality were often two different things in Mirada. Perhaps someday she would pay for her crimes. Not today, however, and not for what had happened to her uncle. She was innocent of that crime, no matter how guilty she felt about the circumstances that led to it.

Sonata dodged to the left and parried a thrust. “Nice,” Sombrio said, recovering. “You’ve learned something since our last meeting.”

“I’ve learned more than you know,” Sonata said, shifting her weight from her left to right foot. She attacked, driving Sombrio backwards, but with no penetration. He was quicker than she imagined. “Working these streets has dulled your speed, Captain. Need a respite?”

Sombrio chuckled. “Your concern for my health is touching.”

“My concern lies only in your death, Captain,” Sonata said, getting past Sombrio’s guard and nicking his left hand. “A death a long time in the coming.”

The cut surprised him, though he tried hard to hide the truth. Behind his beard, Sonata could see his jaw muscles tighten. He shifted his rapier to his right hand, then attacked, swinging the sword wildly through the air, cutting the pocket on her right breast. “Still fighting the old battles, I see.”

Sonata nodded. He’s strong. “Only ones unresolved.”

He came at her again, thrusting and cutting, sliding his blade down Freira to slice her fingers. Freira possessed little protection. Sonata preferred it that way. Excessive furniture on a sword was too cumbersome, and with hands smaller than an average man’s, she needed speed and agility. Besides, if an enemy blade got in that close, she deserved to be cut.

Pain leaped up her arm as Sombrio’s blade cut between her thumb and index finger. “Touché,” she said. Now it was her turn to hide surprise.

Sonata resisted the urge to pull Chefe. She wanted it badly, but that was against the rules. Doing so would allow her opponent to employ other weapons as well, and he had dozens gathered round. Instead, she chose to drop and roll.

It was a tactic she’d learned from an Agadano thief, best employed with daggers, but the principle was the same regardless. Allow your opponent to close, let your guard slip, then roll forward beneath his swing.

Sonata rolled twice, then came up in a squat and slashed at Sombrio’s knees. But she was halted in mid-swing by a boot against her head. She sprawled backwards, the pain in her temple arching through her head and down her back.

She heard Sombrio’s annoying laughter. “I know that move too, Sonata. Face it. You cannot win. I’m better than you, smarter than you, stronger than you. Give up, for once.”

Sonata jumped to her feet and reaffirmed her grip on Freira. Blood ran down her forehead and across her nose. “A Galo never surrenders.”

The streets had filled with people, watching, pointing, rooting them on. To them, it didn’t matter who won, so long as blood was shed and bones were broken. The bloodlust of the common citizenry never ceased to amaze. During Imperial times, duels were quite common, and in fact, encouraged. Now they were rare enough to garner everyone’s attention, a novelty, something to drive away the doldrums in their own lives. Sonata enjoyed entertaining them, but this matter was serious. She’d lost the initiative. Nathyn Sombrio was not afraid of her, and though he would never admit it, he respected her skills. He matched them.

He was right. She couldn’t win.

“How many other women have you raped over the years, Captain?” She asked loudly, changing tactics. “How many bribes? How many unsanctioned murders in our streets? Tell us all how Captain Sombrio keeps Cragsport safe and sound.”

It didn’t matter if these allegations were true. What mattered were the on-lookers. Their snickering, their whistles, their mumbling indignations, would be enough.

Sombrio stared at her nonplussed and circled to his left. He blocked a thrust and said, “Nice try. But your silly theatrics and bloviations won’t work.”

“Is that so?” Sonata said, raising her voice as Freira met Sombrio’s rapier with dwindling strength. “Then I wonder what they would say if they knew that their precious Captain of the Night Guard allows foreign assassins to roam the streets unfettered. And conspires with Pontaboro to steal important, ancient artifacts that rightfully belong to the Viscano people.”

That moved the crowd. Even above the distant roar of the Falls and their own clanging steel, Sonata could hear the crowd engage, banter comments, bark questions. Was any of it true? Again, Sonata did not know, but Uncle Galo had been right: no brother of the Estrela Verde could work in Cragsport without aid. Captain Sombrio knew... something.

Sonata looked at Fellfang. The dog’s sleeping form stirred, his paws stretching forward. She recognized the move. He was awakening. The fight had obviously lasted longer than Sombrio had anticipated. The sleep spell was wearing off, and he hadn’t planned for what to do afterwards. No one was guarding the mastiff. Sombrio’s men were standing quietly, watching the fight, but more and more were turning their attention to the restless, ever-growing crowd. It was never a good idea to let so many citizens fill the street so rapidly. Trouble was brewing.

Sombrio flung himself forward, no longer playing the sword’s dance. Time was slipping away. He wanted blood.

He swung steel, bringing the blade over his head and slashing down, slashing to the right, the left. Sonata met him as best as she could. Her arms and legs were growing weak, her chest pounding. She hadn’t had a workout like this in a long while. Engaging and dispatching basic guardsmen was easy. Facing a strong and very skilled swordsman was another matter entirely.

“That’s a lie,” Sombrio said, using both hands now to drive her back.

Sonata shuffled aside with each counter-swing. “Which? The rapes or the assassin?”

Sombrio snarled, but ignored the question. “You’re dealing with forces you don’t understand, Sonata. You might kill me, but you cannot win.”

So he was involved. He knew of the assassin and of the silver mask, and he knew enough to know—to some extent at least—the value of it. That was more than even she knew, and more than she was willing to know at the moment. Her life, and Fellfang’s, mattered more right now than a stupid silver mask.

No more play, she said to herself, and drew Chefe.

Her legs found new life. Her strength was returning. She pushed aside another sword thrust, and leaped forward, both blades leveled at her opponent’s chest.

But before they struck, a crossbow bolt flew across her face and plunged into Captain Sombrio’s left shoulder.

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