The Emperor’s Mask Sample

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Chapter One

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TANE CARVER SPRINTED along the busy Porthaven waterfront, breaking through the linked hands of a goblin couple as he shoved his way past. He ignored the indignant cries behind him, only glancing over his shoulder to see if he’d lost his pursuer.

The dwarf was closing in on him.

Thorick Irondriver stood out even among the eclectic Porthaven rabble of gnomes and dwarves and sprites and ogren and more. He was no more than four and a half feet in height—average for a dwarf—but his shoulders looked near as broad across as he was tall, and the biceps beneath were as big as Tane’s head and covered in ugly black tattoos of iron spikes and wire. The tattoos stretched across his chest, too, exposed beneath a stained leather vest. Above a thick black beard and a twisted scowl of a face, his bald head was inked in the same pattern. He charged down the street in a straight line without regard for the people in front of him, and he didn’t need to shove them aside like Tane did—most got one look at the furious rail-engine of a dwarf bearing down on them, and cleared the way.

Tane gripped the stolen artifact tighter in his hand and pushed himself faster, weaving among the people on the street for cover. Irondriver was a mage, which meant giving him a clear sightline could only lead to pain. Not that he needs magic to break me in half. Spellfire, this had better work. It wasn’t the best plan he’d ever had, but stealing something—and making sure he was seen doing it—had been the easiest way to lure Irondriver out of his heavily warded black market workshop.

The alley he and Kadka had agreed on was just ahead on his left, a narrow path between low warehouses. Tane tried to shoulder past a lovely nine-foot ogren woman, and the impact shook his teeth like he’d collided with a stone pillar at speed. He bounced off, gripping his arm, and stumbled toward the mouth of the alley.

“Oh dear, I’m sorry,” the woman said in a melodious voice—just like an ogren to apologize to him for running into her—but Tane didn’t have time to answer. The heavy thud of Irondriver’s feet was close behind as he darted into the alley. It went perhaps forty feet back before turning sharply to the left, just a narrow space out of the way of the crowd. If things went badly, it was best not to have bystanders around.

Halfway down, Tane slowed and turned, holding up his hands. “Wait. I’ll give it back.”

The scowl across Irondriver’s thick jaw rose into a cruel smile. “Too late for that, thief. Shouldn’t have robbed me if you don’t want to pay the price.” He advanced on Tane, and pulled a short blade from behind his back. Mage or no, apparently he preferred to hurt people the old fashioned way.

Tane backed away slowly, and slipped two fingers into his waistcoat pocket to rub the battered brass watch case there. An old nervous habit. “For a man selling faulty artifacts to people who can’t tell the difference,” he said, “you’re surprisingly passionate about criminal justice.” He glanced down at the artifact he’d stolen: a brass tube just wide enough to fit a rolled charm, sealed on one end with a small button on the side. A flash-tube, devised to launch colorful flash-charms into the air—though it could be used with more dangerous charms as well. Illegal without a license, but hardly worth so much trouble. “I wonder: if I press the button, do you think this thing would work, or explode?” He pointed the open end at the dwarf.

Irondriver hesitated, flinching, and then narrowed his eyes. “It ain’t even loaded.” He furrowed his heavy brow. “Who are you, then? Someone send you after me?”

“A client didn’t care for your work on her stove. Specifically, the fact that the glyphs overheated and burned half her house.” If Tane backed off much further, he’d be against the wall where the alley turned. He was far enough from the street now. This was the place.

“So the bitch shouldn’t have tried to buy cheap. The price I offer, they ain’t all going to be perfect.” Irondriver shrugged his massive shoulders. “Should have paid someone bigger to come after me, too. Talking’s done, thief.” Tossing his knife from hand to hand, he started forward once more.

This time, Tane didn’t retreat. Instead, he reached into his pocket and crushed the seal on the charm inside.

A translucent dome shimmered to life around Tane and Irondriver, glowing a faint silver-blue.

Irondriver glanced back at the silvery barrier just behind his shoulder, and laughed. “Too late to keep me out now.”

And finally, Tane allowed himself the smile he’d been holding back. “Oh, it’s not meant to keep you out.”

_____

Kadka crouched atop the low brick warehouse on the south side of the alleyway, waiting for Carver to give the signal. As usual, he was talking too much. Which was often amusing, but there was a mage to fight, and waiting on a rooftop was almost as boring as watching closed doors at the University. There was a reason she wasn’t a guard anymore.

The tattooed dwarf advanced, tossing his knife back and forth.

A shimmer of silver, then, and the shield was up.

There it was. The signal.

Kadka backed off a few steps, launched herself into a run, and vaulted over the side of the roof, snarling for effect.

Irondriver looked up at the sound, saw her falling. His eyes widened, and he started to turn. Too late. She passed easily through the shield and hit him hard from near twenty feet up, sending him sprawling to the ground on his back. His knife flew free of his hand, skittered across the ground, and struck the inside of the shield with a silver flash.

Even with the dwarf to break the momentum of her fall, the impact still knocked Kadka to her hands and knees. She and Irondriver both gained their feet at the same time.

Kadka flashed Irondriver a sharp-toothed grin. “Should have sent someone bigger, you said?”

He stared at her bared teeth. “Half-orc,” he spat, somewhere between disgust and fear. His eyes went to Carver, and then back to Kadka again. “You… you’re the Magebreakers, ain’t you?”

“I hate that name,” muttered Carver.

“Is not wrong, though,” said Kadka, still grinning. She took a single step toward the dwarf.

Irondriver turned and ran.

Or tried to.

He hadn’t gone more than two feet before he struck the translucent barrier. A flash of silver sent him stumbling back. Carver had scribed the charm and commissioned it from Bastian—a reversed shield, made to keep things in rather than out. Kadka never understood much when he talked about magical theory, but he’d been clear enough that it wouldn’t last long.

Which was fine by her. A time limit made things more interesting.

Irondriver broke right, going for the knife he’d dropped. She moved to intercept, kicking the blade away and tackling him against the shield. He grabbed her arms, pried them off with an angry grunt. He was stronger than she was used to—ogren aside, there weren’t many in Thaless who could grapple with her.

A pleasant surprise. She laughed as he shoved her back.

Taking advantage of the space he’d created, Irondriver started to chant in the magical language Carver called the lingua. He was already raising a hand. Kadka regained her balance and charged. A fist to the throat usually stopped a spell, but she could already tell she wasn’t going to make it.

“Hey!” Carver’s voice, and then a brass tube struck Irondriver in the side of the face. The dwarf’s head snapped to the side, and a wave of silver force surged high from his outstretched hand, striking the ceiling of the shield-dome over Kadka’s head. The artifact Carver had thrown clattered to the ground.

Kadka was on Irondriver before he could open his mouth again. She wrapped her leg behind his and shoved him hard; he toppled backward to the cobblestones. Following him down, she landed with her forearm across his throat, cutting off his breath and his voice. With her free hand, she pinned one of his heavily muscled arms to the ground. Irondriver clawed at her eyes with the other, his face flushed red beneath the iron-black tattoos on his scalp.

A moment later Carver was beside her, putting his full body weight against the grasping hand to hold it down. “Inside his vest, right side. I saw him tuck it away when he was showing me his wares.”

Kadka nodded. “No spells,” she said to Irondriver, and lifted her arm from his throat.

“Bitch,” Irondriver croaked, and immediately began to mutter in the lingua.

She grinned. She’d been hoping he’d do that.

She slammed her forehead against his face, and felt something crunch. Blood gushed from Irondriver’s broken nose; he kept chanting in a choked, gurgling voice. Kadka headbutted him again, and this time his eyes rolled back and he went still.

A moment later, the shield flickered out of existence.

She glanced at Carver with a grin. “Told you: is more time than I need.”

“Can’t argue with results.” Carver’s eyes went to her forehead, and he made a face. “A bit… messy, though.”

Kadka rubbed her brow, and her fingers found blood, warm and sticky. But not her blood, which was the only thing that mattered. She wiped an arm across her face to clean the rest away, staining the white fur on the back of her hand red. “Messy is what works, sometimes,” she said. With her other hand, she dug inside Irondriver’s vest until she found a coin-sized badge etched with glyphs, and held it up for Carver to see. “This will get us into workshop?”

“It should,” said Carver, rising to his feet. “And the artifacts inside will be all the evidence the bluecaps need to arrest him. Fraud, negligence, illegal artifice.” He glanced down at Irondriver’s bloodied face and broken nose. “Better roll him onto his side, or he’ll choke on the blood before they get the chance.”

“Or we could just take him now.” A woman’s voice, and one Kadka knew. She stood and turned to see a slim brown-skinned half-elf entering the alley, dressed in a charcoal topcoat and trousers, black hair bound back from her face in a simple bun. Constable Inspector Indree Lovial. Even out of uniform, she had the air of a bluecap, a certain self-assured authority over the situation despite only now walking into it. A half-dozen others of various races and sizes flanked her, all in plainclothes, but Kadka knew a constable when she saw one.

“Ree,” said Carver. “How did you find us?”

“Finding people is my job,” said Indree. “And as usual, you left a trail of angry people behind you.” She glanced at the bloody fur on Kadka’s hand, and then tipped her head at the motionless dwarf sprawled on the ground. “Is it too much to hope that you had some reason for beating this man senseless?”

Carver spread his hands indignantly. “You say that like we don’t always have a reason.”

“What about last month, when you broke into that artificer’s house? She hadn’t done anything.”

“Was easy mistake,” Kadka said mildly. Carver and Indree could squabble for hours if she didn’t mediate. “Her sister sells dangerous spells with her name. We find one because we chase other first. You know this.”

I know it,” Indree allowed. “But that didn’t make it any easier to keep you out of a cell.”

“This is different,” said Carver, “Nobody’s framing Irondriver. If you come with us to his workshop, there’s proof—”

“You can explain later,” Indree interrupted, and motioned for two constables to see to the unconscious dwarf. Kadka stepped aside to give them room. “Right now, you two are coming with me.”

“Now?” Kadka raised an eyebrow. She liked Indree, but this felt wrong—it would have been far easier to summon them with a sending. Tracking them down like this implied she wanted to catch them off their guard. “Why?”

Indree let out a heavy sigh and rubbed the bridge of her nose. “Because,” she said, “you might be murder suspects.”

 

Chapter Two

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TANE FOLLOWED INDREE through the streets of the Gryphon’s Roost, surrounded in an escort of four plainclothes constables—two humans, a three-foot-something gnomish man, and a towering ogren woman guarding the rear. Kadka walked at his side, eagerly examining the opulent homes of the Roost.

Elaborate magelight lamps lined the road—unlit in the afternoon sunlight—and high gates loomed all along both sides. In front of every gate a pair of hired guards stood watch in expensive uniforms; behind every one was a massive estate, all open grass and elaborate hedges and elegant statuary. Each estate had an opulent manor house at the center, all of them unique in architecture and design—and yet somehow the same as all the others, in a fundamental way that Tane recognized but couldn’t explain. Horse-drawn carriages waited at the ready by most houses, or expensive ancryst carts with loud, ponderous engines. This place was so far removed from the cramped streets and joined brick-front homes of Porthaven that it might as well have been a different world.

“You’re obviously not taking us to Stooketon Yard,” said Tane, “so we must be going to the crime scene. Someone was murdered in the Roost? I can’t remember the last time that happened.” There was no district in Thaless more secure than the Gryphon’s Roost. The constabulary responded far more diligently to any hint of criminal activity here than they did in places like Porthaven or Greenstone, and every manor had hired guards and thorough wards. “What’s going on, Ree?”

“You’ll see when we get there,” said Indree, and increased her pace.

She was hiding something—he could tell. “You can’t really think we killed someone.”

“If I did, you’d be chained up in a cell right now. I only talked Chief Durren out of having you arrested by convincing him I’d learn more from your reactions to the scene, and those won’t matter much if you already know what you’re going to see.”

Tane raised an eyebrow. “Why does our reaction matter at all? Why would either of us have anything to do with a murder in the Gryphon’s Roost? We don’t exactly spend much time here.”

“Orcs are not so welcome in fancy houses,” said Kadka, peering through the bars of the nearest gate at the elaborate hedge sculptures beyond. She glanced at Indree then, with a slight frown. “Is this why? You think killer is orc?”

“Like I said, I can’t tell you anything yet.” A familiar exasperation crept into Indree’s voice. “I need to do this the way I’ve been ordered to do it. No special treatment. It hasn’t exactly helped my career bailing the Magebreakers out of trouble every other week.”

“Don’t call us that,” Tane protested reflexively. “‘Magebreakers’ sounds like a penny dreadful from some basement ancryst press.”

Indree rolled her eyes. “Good luck stopping it. It’s already all over Thaless. My point is, you two haven’t been at this more than six weeks and most of the constabulary already thinks you’re a public menace. Half of Findel Avenue is still caved in from your little adventure underneath the bank last month.”

“That wasn’t our fault,” Tane protested. “We didn’t dig the tunnel. We were just trying to get Mrs. Dookle’s husband back for her. Which we did, by the way.”

“Yes, you did.” Indree’s scowl softened at the corners. “Which is part of why I keep defending you. But I won’t be able to do that if I’m demoted back to patrol constable.”

That was hard to argue with, and Tane knew how much Indree cared about her position in the bluecaps. “Fair enough,” he said. “No more questions. Lead the way.”

She pointed up the street to the next estate. “Come on. It’s just here.”

She led them to a huge wrought-iron gate that towered over even Kadka by her height again—large even compared to the ones that had come before. There was no family name on the gateposts, only a number—21—but a pair of guardsmen stood outside in uniforms of deep red and green that Tane recognized immediately.

House Rosepetal. The only sprite house with a seat in the Senate.

“Someone was killed here?” he said, peering through the iron bars at the vast grounds beyond. “The Rosepetals are a great house of the Senate! Who would—”

Indree turned a glare on him that he knew all too well.

“Right,” he said. “No more questions.”

The guards at the gate—two large human men—stood to attention as Indree came near. “Constable Inspector,” one of them said. “We haven’t let anyone in since you left, as ordered.” His tone was surprisingly crisp and formal for a hired man.

Indree nodded her approval. “Open the gates,” she said. “If anyone else comes asking around after we’re in, don’t let on that anything is out of the ordinary. And notify me if anyone shows unusual interest.”

One of the guards turned and laid his palm against a glyphed copper panel set into one of the gate pillars. The glyphs flared silver-blue—checking his Astral signature, Tane surmised—and then the huge gates began to swing inward with a great creak. Indree led them through, and the slight tingle of a minor ward ran over Tane’s body as they passed into the estate. Apparently the bluecaps had already added their names to the list of exemptions. On the other side, a long hedge-lined road led toward the manor house.

“Those weren’t Rosepetal guards, were they?” Tane said, glancing over his shoulder. “You’ve got constables on the gate in borrowed uniforms. And you’re all in plainclothes. The bluecaps must really want this kept quiet.” Now that he was looking, he noticed a dozen other men and women scouring the grounds among shaped hedges and magically-landscaped ponds and the like—also constables, Tane was sure, despite the lack of signature blue caps.

“Not just us,” said Indree. “Like you said, the Rosepetals are a great house of the Senate. This is a sensitive matter.”

“And Chief Durren assigned it to you?” Tane raised an eyebrow. “I thought you were on the verge of being demoted.”

“Lady Abena personally requested I lead the investigation. I suppose she trusts me, after the… the Nieris matter.” She swallowed there, and looked down. She and Tane had both lost a friend to the ex-chancellor’s conspiracy, but Indree had taken it much harder—she’d known Allaea all her life. “He didn’t like it, but the Lady Protector outranks the chief constable.”

“Is good woman, Lady Abena,” Kadka said. “Knows talent. You are best choice.”

“Thank you, Kadka.” Indree gave her a slight smile.

Kadka shrugged. “Is true. Most bluecaps I meet are stupid poskan—”

Thank you, Kadka,” Indree said again, and glanced pointedly at the constables escorting them.

Tane chuckled under his breath. Better change the subject. Kadka didn’t always take the hint, although she was improving. He gestured ahead. “Are we headed for the main house, or somewhere else on the grounds?”

The manor towered just ahead now, a four-story home with huge gabled windows along the roof and a great marble stairway leading to a front door large enough to admit a full-grown manticore. Everything on the Rosepetal estate was oversized, it seemed. Sprite homes were usually built to accommodate guests larger than their hosts, but this seemed like overcompensation.

“Inside,” said Indree. She led them up the stairs to another pair of guards, who threw open the doors at her order.

No telltale tingle of a ward prickled Tane’s skin as he passed inside, which was inconceivable for a Senate house. The Rosepetals could afford far better than the simple protections around the outer estate. They must have taken the house wards down for the investigation. It was the only thing that made sense.

There was no one inside but more out-of-uniform bluecaps, scouring the house with detection spells and divinations. The Rosepetals and their servants would already have been taken to Stooketon Yard for questioning. As far as Tane knew, both Elsa Rosepetal, the senior senator of the house, and her son Byron, the junior, lived on the family’s main estate. It was strange to think of either one sitting in a shabby interrogation chamber at the Yard. But maybe they aren’t. I don’t know who the victim is yet.

Following Indree through the house, Tane couldn’t help but note the juxtaposition of large and small occupying the same space: ornate nine-foot tall doors with smaller sprite-sized ones cut into their centers; a massive curving stairway to the upper floors with perches along the railing for the tiny and winged; a study containing a great oaken desk beside its miniature twin on a raised pedestal, so that whoever occupied them would be at eye level with one another. All of it was illuminated by silvery magelight—not the simple globes Tane had become accustomed to at the University, but chandeliers and wall sconces of sculpted bronze and artfully shaped glass. The manor had clearly been designed and decorated to show that the Rosepetal’s wealth and importance far outmeasured their diminutive stature.

On the third floor, yet another pair of guards met them outside one of the manor’s huge doors. It was closed—along with the smaller opening at its center—but Tane had glanced into some of the rooms along the hall, and it wasn’t hard to guess that this door led to someone’s personal chambers, just like the rest.

“No one’s disturbed the scene?” Indree asked.

“No one, Inspector Lovial,” answered one of the guards, a white-haired elven woman. “Only the diviners have been inside since you left, and they didn’t touch anything.”

“Good,” Indree said. “We’re going in.” She motioned them aside, and pushed open the door, holding it for Tane and Kadka. “Just me and the Magebreakers.” She smirked at Tane, there. “The rest of you, wait here.”

Tane stepped inside, with Kadka just behind. The door opened into a small outer chamber that lacked the rest of the manor’s concessions to the larger races. Save for a single full-sized chair against the wall, the furniture was all sprite-sized, sitting on raised platforms. A desk, a reading chair and book table, a reclining couch by one window, all small enough to seat a child’s doll. Recessed into one wall was a little bookcase filled with quarter-sized books.

“Looks empty,” said Kadka. “Like someone leaves too fast, forgets some things.”

She was right. It was the smallest room they’d yet seen, but even so none of the furnishings took up much space—it had a certain abandoned look to it.

“Probably hard to avoid when you’re a foot tall and insist on living in a house this size,” Tane said, still looking around. A painting of two dragonfly-winged sprites hung above the tiny fireplace—a younger man and an older woman with similar features. Byron Rosepetal and his mother Elsa, almost certainly. The room must belong to one of them. The victim. But which one?

There was no sign of a murder, though. He raised an eyebrow at Indree.

“He’s in the bedroom.” Indree pointed at the doorway across the chamber. “Go ahead.”

He. So it’s Byron. With growing unease, Tane strode through the next doorway, Indree and Kadka just behind.

He wouldn’t have thought so much blood could come out of a man so small.

Byron Rosepetal lay on his small bed on a dais at the far side of the room, but he was unrecognizable as the man in the painting above the fireplace. A bronze spike had been driven down through his face, pinning it against the pillow. On a larger man, it might have left the facial features intact, but a sprite’s head was small enough that the inch-wide spike had crushed it almost from ear to ear. Some death-spasm had crookedly unfurled one dragonfly-like wing from his back, its natural iridescence masked by the matte wine-red of dried blood. The same color stained the sheets and the mattress and the dais, running over the edge to pool on the floor below.

Tane’s stomach heaved, and he looked away.

But not before noticing one last detail: the spike through Byron Rosepetal’s face wasn’t a spike at all.

It was sculpted into the shape of an archaic mage’s staff, with a crown encircling the head.

The sigil of the Knights of the Emperor.

_____

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