The story of a “river rat” who infiltrates aristocratic society, determined to grift her way to a better life for her and her sister, The Mask of Mirrors is a debut fantasy—sort of. Author M.A. Carrick is actually the pseudonym for two authors: Alyc Helms and A Natural History of Dragons’ Marie Brennan. Read on for more!
The Rook & Rose trilogy begins with The Mask of Mirrors; here’s a brief description for some context:
Renata Viraudax is a con artist who has come to the sparkling city of Nadezra — the city of dreams — with one goal: to trick her way into a noble house and secure her fortune and her sister’s future.
But as she’s drawn into the elite world of House Traementis, she realizes her masquerade is just one of many surrounding her. And as corrupt magic begins to weave its way through Nadezra, the poisonous feuds of its aristocrats and the shadowy dangers of its impoverished underbelly become tangled — with Ren at their heart.
Take a look at the full gorgeous cover, being revealed here on io9 for the first time—illustration by Nekro (@nekroxiii on Twitter and Instagram), design by Lauren Panepinto—followed by an excerpt that introduces us to Ren in full faux-noblewoman mode, as well as the mysterious, gifted swordsman known as the Rook.
Suncross and Lacewater, Old Island: Suilun 4
Before she could think the better of it, Renata stepped forward. Her shoe came down on the blade of Mezzan’s sword just as the Rook crouched to pick it up.
“As I understand it, Altan Mezzan gave the actor a chance to defend himself in an honorable duel,” she said. “Surely you can do no less.”
The Rook straightened slowly. Even close enough to touch, she could make out almost nothing through the darkness of his hood. The deeper shadows of his eyes, the line of his jaw; like the stars, she saw more when she didn’t look directly. Then a glimmer of a smile came into view.
In two hundred years, no one had unmasked Nadežra’s outlaw. Seeing him now, Ren was certain the hood was imbued to hide his face. The Rook could have been anyone: old or young, Liganti or Vraszenian or Nadežran. His voice sounded masculine, but who knew where the magic ended?
Though she couldn’t see his eyes, she felt him assessing her, as surely as she was assessing him.
The Rook said, “I could do less…or a good deal more.” Their audience was growing as people crowded to watch the scene, but his murmur was for her alone. Then it lifted up with mockery, for everyone to hear. “But if I’m to play at noble games, shouldn’t I get a noble’s reward for my trouble?”
She bent to pick up the sword, letting it dangle from her gloved fingers. “What sort of reward could a man like you want?” It took every ounce of deceit she possessed to make the question sound dismissive. What Mask have I offended, meeting the Rook as a noblewoman?
“A man like me wants for little.” The hood dipped to the sword in her hand, then rose once more. “But as they’re such a treasure…I’ll take the alta’s gloves.”
Her fingers tightened on the sword’s hilt as the onlookers gasped. Most of those watching were common Nadežrans who cared little for Liganti ways; a few of them laughed. The nobles of Sibiliat’s party didn’t. People of quality were not properly dressed in public without their gloves. By their lights, the Rook might as well have demanded she strip.
“A fair duel,” Renata said, wrapping her hand carefully around the blade so she could offer the sword hilt-first. “And if you win—then a single glove.”
Her tone implied doubt. Inwardly she prayed, I hope you’re as good as the stories say.
“Agreed.” The Rook took the hilt, sliding the flat of the blade along her palm like he meant to cut his prize away early. “I trust you’ll remind me of the rules if I stray. You nobles make simple things so complicated.”
Flipping the blade, he tossed it to Mezzan and drew his own.
Mezzan caught it, his previous swagger returning. “I’m more than able to school muck-fucking scum like you. Don’t worry, Alta Renata. I’ll hand you his hood when I cut it off.”
The Rook murmured, “She can make gloves out of it. Uniat.” His blade swept down and up to a high stance as he spoke the opening challenge. Mezzan’s grin slipped. The Rook might claim ignorance of noble rules, but he knew the proper terms and forms for dueling.
“Tuat,” Mezzan spat in answer to the Rook’s challenge, and barely finished cutting his own salute before he attacked.
Ren hastily retreated. Within two heartbeats she knew she hadn’t gambled foolishly: The Rook dropped immediately from the straight-armed Liganti stance into the lower Vraszenian one and met Mezzan’s charge without flinching, parrying the nobleman’s thrusts with a few quick angles of his wrist. And he respected the rules of the game, passing up an opportunity to stomp on the arch of Mezzan’s foot, the way Ren would have done in his place.
But she was a former river rat, and he was the Rook. He could be brutal when necessary—witness Egliadas’s broken wrist—but it was his flair that won him the hearts of the common folk. He danced out of the path of Mezzan’s thrusts with a little lace step, and when Mezzan made the mistake of rushing him, the Rook stepped in to meet it, locking them body-to-body in a brief, circling waltz. Only a swift tilt of his head prevented Mezzan’s spit from flying into his hood, and he let go just in time to avoid an elbow to the jaw.
The hood turned toward Ren. “Remind me, alta—are elbows permitted?”
“They are not,” she said, suppressing a laugh.
“I thought not.” The tip of his blade rapped Mezzan’s arm hard, right where the nerve ran between skin and bone. “Mind your manners, boy.”
The blow and the words were both calculated to enrage. But the increasing wildness of Mezzan’s attacks only left him vulnerable. Almost too fast for Ren to follow, the tip of the Rook’s sword snaked through the looping guard of Mezzan’s rapier and wrenched it from his hand. Metal grated as the hilt slid down the Rook’s blade; he twirled the trapped weapon in a full circle like a child with a toy, then tilted his hand so Mezzan’s sword flew clear.
It flashed through the open air and sank without a trace in the waters of the canal.
“I believe that’s Ninat,” the Rook said to Mezzan, who was gaping after his blade. “Do you submit?”
“I do not. Sibiliat, your sword!” Mezzan snarled, thrusting one hand out.
“But I thought being disarmed was a clear loss under the rules.” The Rook stepped back, placing himself by the wall of the bridge. “Alta, you’re the closest we have to an arbiter. Will you call Ninat?”
She pulled herself back into character, relaxing from the impassive posture she’d held during the duel. “Assuming the rules are like those of Seteris, then yes, to be disarmed is to be defeated. Ninat.”
Sibiliat hadn’t moved to help Mezzan. He took a step toward the Rook, hands curled into fists. “That rapier was imbued by the swordsmith Vicadrius herself. There isn’t another like it in Nadežra!”
The Rook sheathed his blade. “Then by all means, go after it.”
Renata saw the move coming. So did the Rook; she suspected he’d invited it. When Mezzan charged, the Rook faded out of the way and applied boot to ass. The kick provided the extra momentum needed to send Mezzan flying over the rail and into the canal.
“Though I believe it landed on the other side of the bridge. You might want to check there,” the Rook called down over the laughter and cheers from the onlookers. He hopped onto the rail and bowed.
Then he turned to Renata. “Now we see whether you, like our local nobility, will break the rules when it suits you. I believe you owe me a glove.”
The cheers around them turned to whistles and hoots. Bondiro had recovered enough to shelter Renata from the crowd’s view with his height. “I’ll give up my glove, alta,” he said, reaching to strip it off. “You shouldn’t be harassed by this kinless bastard.”
She stopped him with a crisp shake of her head. “I gave my word. I shall keep it.”
Stepping around Bondiro, she tugged on the fingertips of her left glove with clear, deliberate movements. Not flirtatious; cold. She needed the other nobles to sympathize with her, to see her as sharing in Mezzan’s troubles rather than enjoying his humiliation. Her glove slipped free, and she folded it into a small, neat package. Tess will kill me. Gloves were a pain to sew.
Renata held the folded glove up in her bare hand, for all the crowd to see. “Since you enjoy putting things into canals so much,” she said—and threw.
Perhaps he’d been expecting that, too. Or perhaps he was the Rook, and a two-hundred-year legacy of standing against the powers that ruled Nadežra was more than a match for a bit of pettiness. His hand shot out and caught the glove as neatly as if Renata meant for him to do it. Then he flipped it open and brought it to his lips as though it still covered her hand, breathing deeply.
“A shame to ruin a fine scent with canal water, don’t you think?” He tucked the glove into his coat and looked down to the canal, where Mezzan was splashing and sputtering. “Indestor. Next time you think to beat anyone, remember this night—and know that any injury you give to someone, the Rook will repay in kind.”
Three strides along the rail gave him enough momentum to catch the eaves of a roof and swing himself atop it. A heartbeat later, he was gone.
Excerpt from The Mask of Mirrors by M.A. Carrick reprinted by permission. Copyright Orbit.
The Mask of Mirrors by M.A. Carrick will be released in January 2021; you can pre-order a copy here.
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