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Chapter 1 — A Thief in the Mist

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.”

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