Waking in Anaskar Prison, covered in blood and accused of murder, nobody will listen to Notch’s claims of innocence until he meets the future Protector of the Monarchy, Sofia Falco.
But Sofia has her own burdens. The first female Protector in a hundred years, her House is under threat from enemies within, the prince has made it clear he does not want her services and worst of all, she cannot communicate with her father’s sentient mask of bone, the centuries-old Argeon. Without the bone mask she cannot help anyone — not herself, and certainly not a mercenary with no powerful House to protect him.
Meanwhile, far across the western desert, Ain, a young Pathfinder, is thrust into the role of Seeker. Before winter storms close the way, he must leave his home on a quest to locate the Sea Shrine and take revenge on the people who drove his ancestors from Anaskar, the city ruled by the prince Sofia and Notch are sworn to protect, whether he wants their help or not.
What Inspired You to Write Your Book?
Two things inspired me – one was during a trip to Italy (which I was very lucky to be able to take) when I saw the beautiful cliffs of Amalfi and had the idea of a city built on the slopes of a mountain and the other was the 'wrong man' starting point that so many great Hitchcock films start with.
How Did You Come up With Your Characters?
I think most of my current characters have tiny parts of dozens of other characters I've written over the years, and fragments of people I meet too. The characters in 'City of Masks' are among my favourites because they were so fun to write because they each draw on powerful archetypes and that makes them recognisable – but I also tried to have them true to the environment around them and hopefully to surprise each other.
The chill of prison bars against his temple did little to ease Notch’s headache. Decades of dank didn’t help either, nor snoring from another cell, where someone was impersonating a bear. Or dying. In the poor light it was hard to tell.
Notch squinted. Noon sun barely crept through the small, grated windows on his side of the building. Even cells across the way were shadowed. Sunlight, in addition to a piece of bread and some water, were high points, while the straw ‘bed’ and stale body odour of criminals were typically unpleasant. Worse places than Anaskar City prison existed. At least he hadn’t been beaten yet – a twinge in his shoulder reminded him how much some guards enjoyed their work.
His cellmate raised his voice and Notch turned. The man had probably been speaking for some time; his drawn face was expectant. Years of imprisonment had washed out his Anaskari tan.
Notch leaned against the bars. “What is it, Bren?”
“Did you kill her, truly?”
Bren nodded. “Innocent then.” He knelt in the corner, his fine coat of blue long since gone to grime, his face pressed against the stone wall. “Listen to this one.” He scratched at an armpit with some vigour. “It’s hard to see but I think it says ‘death to the Shields of Anaskar’ and it’s got a signature, but I can’t make it out.”
Notch grunted. Nothing special for a convicted man to write; since waking on a pile of old blankets that morning and meeting his cellmate, he’d heard a dozen similar sentiments. Through Bren’s meandering introduction, Notch had winced, probing his body. Both arms and chest were heavily bruised and his head so fragile he wouldn’t be surprised to learn a wagon rolled over it last night. Possibly twice. He wasn’t drunk, though the smell of ale was on his breath. One damn drink, that was all.
And there was blood.
His leathers and tunic were splattered a dark red. Not his own blood, the City Vigil told him as much when they hauled him off the street, as if he couldn’t figure that much out. But whose? His own memory was unreliable, which made no sense. He hadn’t been drunk, truly drunk, since right after the war. When he bore another name. A name he left on some tavern floor, after making a convincing go of drinking the memories away. A good bath did for the sand on his body, but the blood-soaked sand in his mind? No amount of ale had washed that away.
And now the Vigil were telling him he’d been so intoxicated he had to be dragged to the prison?
“The Shields probably caught him doing something bad, that’s why he wrote this,” Bren continued, tapping on the wall. His too-bright eyes looked up at Notch.
“I’d say so.”
“Like us, Notch. We’ve done bad things, we have.”
“So you keep saying.”
Bren laughed, its shrillness cutting through Notch’s skull. If it hadn’t been unsettling, Notch would have thumped him, but there was something wrong with Bren. Any fool could see that.
“The guards say you’ve got a few days. That they can’t hang you sooner, because there’s too many in the queue. Waiting to hang.”
A moment of quiet fell between them. Distant voices drifted from beyond the prison walls. Notch clenched his jaw. He should have been out there. On his way to another job. The Blue Lady, a fat merchant ship, would have sailed with most of his possessions on board.
His father’s sword.
No chance of seeing it again. He wrapped his hands around cold bars and squeezed.
“The guards say it too, the guards say you killed her,” Bren said, unperturbed.
He crept forward. “So?”
“So I don’t remember.” He frowned. “But I wouldn’t harm a child.”
Bren grinned, as if he thought it all a joke, and went back to the wall. A scraping sound followed. “This one says ‘down with the Shields’ and has no name. I wonder how many people have been here before us, eh Notch?”
“Maybe just you, Bren,” he muttered, rubbing at his temples.
Bren prattled on. “I could deal with the Mascare too, you know. They aren’t so powerful. It’s just their precious bone masks. And their robes. All that crimson. They scare people, the faces. And the eyes too. Did you ever meet any, Notch, before you murdered that girl?”
He ignored the last bit. “I’ve seen the Mascare plenty of times.”
“And were they protecting ‘the city, the people and its history’ as they love to claim?”
Bren laughed. “Ever ask them why they won’t show their faces?”
“They aren’t very talkative, Bren.”
Bren stopped scratching and moved to a spot beneath the window, running a set of cracked fingernails over the stone. “This is my favourite. I think it’s the oldest one.”
The clank of a key in a lock did not deter Bren from his examination, but Notch took hold of the bars again, letting the man’s voice recede into the background. At the far end of their row, the guard, a scruffy man who’d made some effort to straighten his blue and silver uniform, led three figures toward the cell.
“Quiet now, Bren,” he said as the group approached, their footfalls echoing. A slender woman – a Lady no doubt – stopped before Notch’s cell. She was accompanied by a girl and a stony-faced man with broad shoulders, the orange tunic and gleaming breastplate of a Palace Shield in stark contrast with the prison keeper’s appearance. The woman’s hair was pulled back from her face, fanning down around her shoulders and covering the collar of an impeccably clean white dress. Bone earrings swung when she turned her head. A sneer that must have been permanent marred her otherwise smooth face.
Notch adjusted his grip on the bars. To come to Anaskar Prison in such clothing – she was either mighty vain or mighty important. Most likely both. Which meant trouble.
The girl stood in similar attire and shared the sneer but had trouble meeting his gaze.
“Here’s the mercenary, my lady.” The prison guard pointed with his key, making a low bow before scurrying off.
The woman took a single step forward, glaring at him. Her footfall clapped. “Your name?”
He blinked. Her distaste was like a battering ram. “Notch.”
The palace guard bristled and she waved a clean hand at him. “Bring the torch, Holindo.”
“Yes, my lady.” His voice was a rasp.
Behind him, Bren shrunk back into the corner. He did not resume his scraping.
The woman levelled a finger at Notch. “You will address me as ‘Lady Cera,’ or not at all. Now, do not move.”
“Can I ask why, Lady Cera?”
“Because if you do not I will have the Captain here gut you.”
Notch did as he was told. The impulse to wipe her face clean of its expression was strong enough that he had to school his features. Palace folk. Even before he’d taken to the life of a hired sword, they’d looked down their noses at him. ‘Mountain Family’, they’d say to each other and snigger.
When Captain Holindo returned, the soldier thrust the torch forward, catching Notch’s shoulder with his free hand. He narrowed his eyes but said nothing, only adding a crease to his brow. Did Holindo recognise him? Notch couldn’t place the man.
“Be still now,” the solider said.
The flames singed a little of Notch’s hair and he started to sweat. No-one moved or spoke, though the girl he took for Lady Cera’s daughter stared wide-eyed at the blood on his clothing.
“Well?” The Lady snapped. “Look. Is it him? Is that the man?”
“I… I think so, mother,” said the girl.
Lady Cera and her captain shared a glance before she addressed her daughter again, her tones becoming honeyed. “Dear, are you sure? This is the man they caught by her body, in the street on our way from the harbour –”
“It’s hard to tell. I didn’t see him that well.” She met his gaze. “I suppose it could be this man.”
Captain Holindo withdrew the torch. “We have other witnesses, my lady. You’ve done far more than enough by coming here; it will satisfy the Justice. Furthermore, your own daughter identified the prisoner, that’s enough for any man of law.” Such a long string of words strained the man’s voice, and for the first time Notch noticed a long, faded scar crossing his throat.
She gave a short nod. “Truly. I’ve had more than enough of this stench in any event. Take my daughter back to the palace.”
“Of course, Lady Cera.”
He ushered the girl toward the exit. Lady Cera did not follow. “I don’t know the whole truth of what happened. But you are a criminal, of that I have no doubt.”
“Mercenary, Lady Cera.”
“Do you think there’s a difference?”
“There can be.”
“Well, Notch the Mercenary, I will ensure you hang for this. The girl might have only been a pale-skinned, half-blood brat, but I can ill-afford to replace her.”
Notch sneered. “That all she was to you? Something to be replaced?”
She raised her arm but he stepped back.
“Fool.” Lady Cera spun and stormed off.
Notch spat. He was already going to hang, what did it matter if some bone-headed noblewoman wanted him dead? Bren shuffled forward and placed a hand on his shoulder. Notch had forgotten him. “She knows what you are. What we are.”
“You might be right,” Notch said, sitting on the floor and scratching at a new, disturbingly persistent itch in his hair. “But I didn’t kill that girl.”
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