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Mask of Shadows
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Sallot Leon is a thief, and a good one at that. But gender fluid Sal wants nothing more than to escape the drudgery of life as a highway robber and get closer to the upper-class and the nobles who destroyed their home.
When Sal Leon steals a poster announcing open auditions for the Left Hand, a powerful collection of the Queen’s personal assassins named for the rings she wears — Ruby, Emerald, Amethyst, and Opal — their world changes. They know it’s a chance for a new life.
Except the audition is a fight to the death filled with clever circus acrobats, lethal apothecaries, and vicious ex-soldiers. A childhood as a common criminal hardly prepared Sal for the trials. But Sal must survive to put their real reason for auditioning into play: revenge.
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The thick, briny scent of sweat-soaked leather seeped through my cloth mask. A guarded carriage rattled down the road upwind of me. I leaned out of my tree and caught a flicker of light from a carriage lamp. The carriage’s blue paint shone, gilded and mud-splattered.
I groaned. “Nobles.”
The branches beneath me creaked as footsteps scraped along the bark. I flipped a knife into my palm. The sentence for robbing nobles was hanging.
But only if they caught you.
“Lords, Sal! Where you at?” Rath burst through the leaves and tripped over my perch.
“Point of hiding is to stay hid.” I shoved him backward and yanked his mask down over his face. “What do you want?”
Rath tapped my nose with his baton. “You up to robbing Erlends?”
Erlends were stiff and cold as the lands they ruled and merciless as death. They’d hold a picnic at the gallows.
I tightened the knots at the back of my mask. “You up to keeping quiet?”
Rath slapped a hand over his mouth and nodded toward the carriage below us. I crept along my branch far as I dared, eyeing the coach’s window. If I had no shoulders, I’d fit through easy.
“This’ll be fun.” I shook my head.
This would hurt.
“Fun-fun?” Rath rubbed the stump where his little finger had been. “Or ‘you miss and we all get hanged’ fun?”
Rath huffed, scrambling out of my tree. His footsteps whispered over the deadfall, and a long, low bird whistle echoed between the trees. One call, one carriage, and one shot at meeting our quota.
Horses clomped over the dirt, carrying the soldiers closer to our nets hidden in the trees. Ten mounted and armored guards circled the coach. They looked right and left, but they never glanced up. I exhaled and tightened my grip on the branch. The carriage rolled beneath me.
We dropped the nets. The soldiers howled, spears and arms tangling in the lines, and the driver jerked the coach to a stop. Rath whistled.
I flung myself from the tree. My boots tore through the carriage’s curtain and took out a passenger with a sharp heel to the head. My shoulders scraped both sides of the window frame as I slid into the carriage. I waved my knife.
“Your money or your lives?” I asked, twisting round to the noble.
“Money.” The noble was barely older than me and half a head shorter, but she squared her slim shoulders and glared at me over wire-rimmed spectacles. She nodded to the unconscious servant I’d kicked aside. “For her too.”
I swallowed my usual command of “hush and drop your knives” and nodded. “Deal—jewelry, money, and all manner of fancy things in your lap.”
Finally, someone smart enough to know they weren’t winning this fight.
She yanked the rings from her fingers. I rid the servant of her purse with one hand and held my knife to the noble with the other. Clever as she seemed, I didn’t trust a noble not to plant a hatpin in my back. She cleared her throat.
“Problem, Erlend?” I glanced at her.
“No.” She stared at my knife. “And you may call me ‘my lady’ or nothing at all.”
I grinned and bowed. How Erlend of her—better than screaming and fighting though. “Of course, my lady.”
She shifted. Her jewelry was a puddle of silver in her lap, with her purse half-closed over crumpled paper. She’d laced her fingers together to hide her trembling.
“You missed one.” I lifted a small locket from her neck, doing my best not to scare her. Wasn’t like I enjoyed scaring people, especially not the ones being smart when I robbed them. Being efficient got the same results as being mean. “And I’m not going to stab you unless you stab me first.”
“You’re robbing me at knifepoint.” She jerked away. A sneer twisted her pleasant face into the Erlend expression I knew so well. “It’s not valuable.”
“It’s got real rubies.” I turned it over. Twisted-copper rose petals with inlaid ruby slivers adorned the front of the locket. I snapped open the clasp. Two portraits were glued inside—one of a child with chubby cheeks and the other of a woman veiled in blue who shared this lady’s long nose. I slid my knife into the sheath on my belt and dropped the necklace. “Take it off.”
Her hands flew to her throat. “It’s not valuable.”
“Shush. I’m not going to take it, but you need to hide it.”
Wouldn’t do for Rath to bust in and find the lady with jewels still around her neck. He’d laugh at me for days and take the necklace.
She fumbled with the clasp and hissed when her hair tangled in the chain.
“Quiet! Hold still.” A dark curl was knotted around the thin chain. I tugged it free, inhaling a deep breath of her rosewater perfume and stumbling over my words. “My boss finds out I let you keep this, he’ll take my hand.”