City of Masks The Bone Mask Cycle Book 1
by Ashley Capes Genre: Epic Fantasy Adventure
When a royal conspiracy topples the noble House Falco, Sofia must take up the burden of her father's mantle and assume guardianship of his Greatmask. Yet the sentient bone mask, powerful enough to Compel those around her, will not speak, and Sofia, the first female Protector in a hundred years, is left defenceless.
Hunted by the king, she is driven from the palace and must fight for survival, alone in the cold streets of Anaskar. There, she crosses paths with Notch, a bitter mercenary with problems of his own. Accused of murder, Notch is trying to clear his name while hunted by the city's robed assassins, the very people who are now searching for Sofia.
To take back their city and cast down the tyrant on the throne, Sofia and Notch must face the blades of Anaskar's assassins, the rage of a mighty sea beast, and the mysterious Lupo, a man with a Greatmask of his own, who has masterminded vicious terrorist attacks on the city that spurned him.
Their struggle threatens to tear the city – and the kingdom - into shreds.
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.”
The Lost Mask
The Bone Mask Cycle Book 2
The enormous corpse of the Sea Beast has breached the walls and an invasion from across the sea is threatening. Cut off from the mysterious golden egg and bereft of the hope of ever seeing his family again, Ain remains in prison, at the mercy of the new king who obviously wants something from him.
Meanwhile, Flir and Luik struggle to contain the illness spreading from the Beast, as Notch and Sofia begin their desperate search for her father.
Charged with hunting down Vinezi, Flir and Luik find themselves thwarted at every turn while Notch and Sofia discover twisted magic is at work in the Bloodwood where the strange Sap-Born may prove to be the worst threat they have encountered yet.
The Ecsoli have taken Anaskar, raiding the city for bones of the Sea God and holding King Oseto captive in his own palace. Yet there he discovers an even greater threat in the form of his own Greatmask, who grows impatient for the Sacrifice.
Hiding in the blackened streets, Flir must deal with her uncertainty regarding Kanis while gathering a resistance force, where she discovers even her vast strength seems useless before the blue-cloaked Ecsoli.
Beyond the Wards, Ain heads home, ready to face the shame of failing at the Sea Shrine. Instead, he finds mysterious and deadly Darklings hunting his loved ones. In his desperation he makes a startling discovery about his Pathfinder heritage.
Meanwhile, miles distant, Sofia and her father struggle for mastery of Argeon and Osani as they race toward the city. A battered Notch finds himself making a similar journey, just as unsure if he will return in time to help the city in its darkest hour, as enemies pour through its broken walls.
War-hero Notch has abandoned his king and city to wage a war against his own guilt. With the giant Alosus at his side, Notch must search the Land of the Sun for ancient magic to bring a loved one back from the dead. But when he arrives in the city of vipers, Notch quickly finds himself entangled in a web of conspiracy and hidden motives as ruthless Houses vie for the soon to be vacant throne.
Far across the glittering sea, Notch’s home of Anaskar is still reeling after repelling a mighty invasion. King Oseto is forced to scatter his heroes across the world in a desperate quest for the last sea beast and its bones. With them, he will be able to forge new Greatmasks to protect his people and the fragile state of peace between nations.
Yet evil stirs in every corner of the lands. Reports of new, foul creatures and old foes alike are growing; and worse, the King fears that through his own weakness, he himself has unleashed the architect behind it all.
At last, Notch escapes the city of vipers and starts his quest to find Qu-Sitka, the only mage able to restore Sofia. Yet Casselli and the Prince have other plans for Notch and the mysterious bracers he bears, sending along an Inquisitor to watch his every move. And before he knows it, the power of the bracers begins to change him...
Across the sea, Flir finds herself prisoner and servant to the White Witch, where she must protect her friends and keep the witch from finding the bones of the last sea god – yet it is easier said than done. And even for a dilar, Flir knows she is overmatched.
Back in Anaskar, Seto is locked in his own struggle with not only a royal imposter sent to replace him but also his own conscience, while Ain finds himself stranded on an island with little clue as to where the Stones of Shali can be found... or if they will even allow him to save the Cloud.
Notch finally holds the answers he sought, along with an unsuspecting Sacrifice... but drawing all the pieces together will prove a greater challenge – especially when it becomes clear that the Fura Leones does not approve of such desperate measures.
In Renovar, Flir must find a way to salvage the bones of the frozen Sea God but Chelona has other plans for the mighty corpse, and trapped within her now is Seto, whose frustration can only build as he watches over but cannot warn his friends.
Equally troubling is the floating city of Ilesinya, which now hovers dangerously near Anaskar, seemingly poised to strike. Lord Danillo is drawing together his allies in a final gambit to defeat Chelona and her unstable creation, Zasemu, but none know her true plan... and when it becomes clear, all lands will face a threat like no other.
Ashley is an Australian novelist, poet & teacher. You might have read his epic fantasy 'The Bone Mask Trilogy' or maybe you're familiar with his other work, the fantasy/adventure series 'The Book of Never.' Either way, you can read more about his books and get access to giveaways and free books via his newsletter below :)
Ashley occasionally dabbles in film, is addicted to 80s cartoon shows and Studio Ghibli films, and finds himself constantly awed by the simple beauty of haiku. He is also convinced that 'Magnum PI' is one of the greatest TV shows ever.
What are some of your pet peeves?
One comes to mind immediately – it’s the person at a party or dinner (or anywhere online), who appears to very loudly, and with great importance, declare that they hate a certain thing. For some reason, it is apparently vital that everyone around them understand that they hate whatever it is that they hate, and I find that a little dull. Show me some passion about something you love instead!
Do you have a favorite movie?
This is a tough one – I used to say Rear Window by Alfred Hitchcock but I think at the moment, it’s Almost Famous.
From the soundtrack to the storyline, the fact that it’s just as much about writing as it is about music, the mentor-mentoree stuff, the performances (especially from Frances McDormand), and the humour, it’s pretty great from top to bottom... except for the dodgy band members, that is.
Do you prefer to write in silence or with noise? Why?
With music! I tend to use a lot of thrash and groove metal but just as often it’s OSTs of games and movies; I’ve found the Chrono Trigger soundtrack to be pretty ace at evoking certain moods, or Ghibli soundtracks, or something like Led Zeppelin works for me too, where I know the songs well enough that the lyrics don’t distract me.
(For some reason, the thrash metal is perfect for setting tempo that makes me feel like I need to type faster :D)
Do you believe in writer’s block?
Not precisely – when I’m struggling, I don’t image a block like a wall, I think it’s more a problem with my motivation, or perhaps I’m just burnt out. Working a day job then coming home and essentially going back to work can cause exhaustion quickly enough, so that’s probably the more likely culprit for me.
Other times I think things stall when I rush off into a new idea without taking a bit of time first, to be certain that I have an idea that contains an actual story, some sense of conflict, movement or change. Sometimes that stops me, but I usually take time off a project if my motivation ebbs, and work on something else for a while, which usually helps :)
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