“What’s with the mask, honey?”

Lyra sighed, and pushed a lock of her long black hair over her ear. “What’s the matter, never seen a Raikon before? It’s traditional.”

“Traditional? With shark on one cheek and the raccoon on the other are traditional? Oh, honey, I could tell you were an animal but that’s just perfect.” The man leaning on the street corner grinned a grin that said nobody who asked him for directions was getting what they wanted.

Lyra silently kicked herself. Her mask, wooden, stark white, and glazed, was often her first outlet for self-expression. When she’d woken up in that ramshackle North Kaiwa inn that morning, it had just cried out for something fierce on one cheek and something resourceful on the other. She should have just left it blank, but she was an artisan and whether in the family forge smelting platemail armor or the fletchery carving a bowstaff, the creative impulse wouldn’t be denied.

“You going to tell me the way to Leonidas’s or not?” Lyra said.

“Maybe…or maybe I’ll knock that mask off your pretty tan face so I can see where those blue eyes fit in.” The man pulled a shortsword out of a loose fold in his clothing and advanced.

The sword at Lyra’s side flashed into her hand. She’d made it herself, talked Father’s ear off about how she’d made it perfectly balanced and how a rapier of its cut and cross-section was used in combat. It glinted in the North Kaiwan sun as it arced toward its target…

…and the brigand easily brushed the weak and badly-aimed blow away. “Flashy, but you can’t actually use the damn thing, can you?” he chortled. “Just like that stupid mask.”

It was true, combat was not Lyra’s strong suit: the instincts that were natural in bringing an item’s potential out in the forge weren’t worth anything in battle.

“You give me everything you’ve got and let me have a little fun, maybe I’ll let you live,” said the brigand.

Lyra aimed another swing, but the counterattack was so fierce that it stumbled her backwards, landing painfully on her tailbone.

“So it’s gonna be that way then, is it? Fine by me, I get what I want either way.”

The brigand aimed a savage blow at Lyra, to which she held up her own blade in self-defense. The swords connected…

…and the brigand’s shattered so violently that several fragments drove into his skin and his arm fell limp and numb at his side. Wearing a horrified expression, he beat a hasty retreat, slinging anti-Raikon epithets over his shoulder as he did so.

“Hmph, that’s right,” Lyra said to herself, getting to her feet ant adjusting her mask. “Trying to come at me with a gutter-steel falchion and thinking I wouldn’t see the impurity seam! That’s what happens when you get cheap stuff from a cut-rate forge.”

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