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Chapter 3 — Surprises

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.


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.

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