You’ll never find a knot you can’t unravel.
The soothsayer’s words from years ago sent a shiver down Azurha’s spine. The last time she’d heard them was the day she’d slit her master’s throat. It did not bode well for this job.
She’d barely been more than a child when an old crone had approached the home of her master, promising to tell him of his future. Her master had shoved her out into the street, claiming
he made his own future and didn’t need to listen to old woman’s rants. Feeling pity for her, Azurha snuck outside to offer her drink of water, never knowing how much the soothsayer’s words would come to haunt her.
That felt like a lifetime ago. Since then, she learned pity could be a liability in her occupation.
She strolled along the market and pretended to read the inscription on one of the columns that celebrated the Deizian victory over the Alpirions at the Battle of Silbus. The ore deposits there had magnified the Emperor’s magic, collapsing the ground from underneath the Alpirion army. It was the same battle that had turned her parents into slaves. She didn’t need to be reminded of that.
Her mind focused on the conversations around her. Her contact had told her he would find her by using a distinct phrase that would not seem too out of place in a market. She edged closer to the fishmongers.
To her left, a middle aged Elymanian woman crept alongside her and murmured, “Fresh fish tastes better after the Spring Equinox.”
“Yes, but pork is always pleasant when it’s freshly killed,” she replied.
The woman looked up at her, her hands shaking, and nodded. The scent of sweat that clung to skin revealed her to be a member of the lower classes dressed in a gentlewoman’s clothes. An old ruse, but one Azurha readily saw through. She followed the woman through the crowded market and up the hill where the wealthier merchants and government figures lived. Elaborate mansions replaced the simple homes below, becoming more ostentatious the higher they climbed. Some of the chill eased from her body. At least she would be guaranteed a nice sum of money for this job.
The woman glanced over her shoulder and entered the gate before disappearing into the shadows behind an extravagant Deizian chariot adorned with elaborate gold filigree. Apparently, the lord of the house wasn’t satisfied with the fact it required neither wheels nor horses to fly over the streets. He needed to proclaim both his possession of magic and his station in the gaudiest way possible.
Azurha’s gut clenched as the soothsayer’s words echoed in her mind. She straightened her tunic and brushed her hands over the two daggers concealed beneath the fabric. Her keen eyes surveyed the wealth of her prospective employer. Marble statues of the gods aligned the walls of the garden. A glance further down the colonnade showed another courtyard with a gurgling fountain. Two courtyards was a symbol of wealth in this town, and the masts of the airship that rose over the roof signaled this was the home of a powerful Deizian. She needed to watch her manners. Any perceived insult could end in unnecessary bloodshed.
The woman opened the door to a room on the other side of the courtyard, and the color drained from her face. She waited for Azurha to enter. The tremor in her hands intensified.
When the doors closed behind her, Azurha checked the room for any possible traps. Not seeing any, she then searched for escape routes and alternative weapons. It was one of the first lessons Cassius taught her when he took her under his wing—an assassin was always prepared. He’d been a strict teacher, but what she learned from him had proved invaluable. And he’d given her freedom by teaching her the business, an occupation where she could support herself without selling her body.
Voices echoed from the courtyard, and the door inched open. Azurha crouched behind an urn. Her fingers wrapped around the hilt of a dagger, ready to draw it if needed.
“I hope your trust is well placed,” a man’s voice said. His accent was a mixture of Elymanian and Deizian. Her prospective employer.
“I trained her myself, Pontus. She is as deadly as she is beautiful.”
Azurha almost dropped her dagger. The last time she’d heard that voice was two years ago, as he boarded an airship that had been attacked by the Barbarians. A cosmic storm had weakened the barrier long enough for them to slip through the shield that protected the Empire. They’d left no survivors, and her heart had ached for months when she leaned of his demise.
She stepped out from behind the urn. “Cassius?”
The familiar face grinned at her, although time had added more wrinkles and the sun had bronzed it far more than she’d remembered from their life of hiding in the shadows. He stretched out his arms to welcome her. “Little Rabbit.”
She crossed the room, her emotions warring with each step. Part of her was overjoyed at seeing her mentor after all these years, the man who’d been her rock during those early dark days when she battled the demons of her past, but her heart reminded her of the months she’d spent grieving him.
When she got close enough to touch him, she slapped his face. “I thought you were dead, you asshole.” Then she wrapped her arms around him in a fierce hug.
Cassius returned the hug. “I guess I deserved that.”
“Are you sure she’s stable enough for my needs?” Pontus asked. He ran his finger along the purple border of his fine linen tunic as if to flash his wealth before his two plainly dressed guests.
“I wouldn’t have recommended her if she wasn’t,” Cassius replied.
She broke away from her resurrected mentor to assess her potential employer. Spurius Pontus Gurges, the provincial governor. Perhaps forty summers with a wiry frame and gaunt face, he was a man with blood connections to the Emperor and ambitions to match. Her eyes narrowed. She had no problems killing when paid well for it, but if the whispers were correct, Pontus wanted more than just a troublesome rival removed.
He scrutinized her in a similar manner. “You are right, Cassius—she is beautiful enough for my plan. I’ve never seen eyes that color, especially in a woman with such a dark complexion. But what of her skills?”
“She spent nearly seven years under my tutelage. She can kill a man in at least three dozen ways and slip out before she’s caught. I’m sure you’ve heard of her reputation. I’m not the only one who calls her Rabbit.”
Pontus turned his pale blue gaze to her. His brown hair betrayed the Elymanian taint in his bloodlines, but only the Deizians had eyes like that. “You’re the Rabbit?”
The corner of her mouth quirked up into a half smile as she nodded. “Three dozen is being modest.”
“I find your reputation to be largely exaggerated.” He turned his back to her.
The whisper of her blade filled the second of the silence before she pressed it against his throat. “You have doubts about my abilities?”
He tensed. His Adam’s apple bobbed against the blade, shaving the top layer of skin away. “I could have you arrested and executed for this.”
“You’d be dead before you cried out for help.”
Cassius crossed his arms and grinned. “You don’t want to anger Azurha, Pontus. She may prove to be a useful ally.”
“Fine, she has proven she is quick and silent. No need to continue this demonstration.”
Her mentor nodded, and she concealed the knife back under her tunic. “Just so we understand each other, Governor.”
She turned to her former mentor. “Although I wonder why you asked for me, I’m even more curious how you cheated death, Cassius.”
“What was the third rule I taught you?”
She closed her eyes and recalled her lessons during her first weeks with him. “Never believe someone is dead until you hear their heart stop beating.”
“And you were gullible enough to believe I was killed by Barbarians.”
“There wasn’t a body for me to examine.” A fist formed in her stomach. She’d been fooled by her mentor. “Why didn’t you contact me to let me know you survived?”
“As much as I’d love to continue this warm reunion,” Pontus interrupted, “I have more important matters to discuss. Shall we talk business?” He poured a glass of wine and sank into one of the cushioned chairs.
She declined the glass of wine Cassius offered her and sat in a chair across from the men. “Why did you summon me here?”
“I have a job for you. It will not be simple. I’d originally wanted Cassius for it, but now he tells me he’s retired from the assassination business.”
Cassius shrugged, holding his palms up long enough for her to notice the violet tinged to them. His tunic was well made, but simple, making him appear to be a typical middle-aged Elymanian plantation owner. “Sometimes a man finds happiness in the simple things in life. Like growing grapes.”
“Pathetic,” Pontus sneered.
“If your hands were smeared with as much blood as mine, you’d grab happiness however you could find it.”
Azurha glanced down at her own hands. She’d lost count of how many people she’d killed over the years. Despite his warning to harden her heart if she wanted to make a career of this, she still felt moments of remorse for the countless faces that stared up at her in death when she was finished with them.
Cassius caught her reaction and gave her a sad smile. He’d once told her he regretted turning her into what she was, but she’d laughed at him then. Being a killer was an improvement over what she had been subjected to as a slave.
She erased any emotion from her face. “What do you have in mind for me, Pontus?”
He leaned back in his chair and took another sip of wine. “First, I need to know what we discuss never leaves this room.”
“We survive on discretion,” Cassius replied.
“True. To reveal what we are would be suicide.” She wound one of her dark curls around her finger while the other hand rested over the hilt of her knife. “Who do you want dead?”
“I’ll get to that. Second, I need to know that you bear no loyalty to the Empire.”
She laughed. “As I’m sure Cassius has told you, I was born an Alpirion slave. I have no love for the Empire. As far as I’m concerned, you Deizians can return to the sun you came from and burn.”
“I told you she would be perfect, Pontus. Why would you doubt me after all these years?”
Her blood chilled. There was more to this meeting than she had first thought. How far did her mentor and the governor go back? “Are we going to talk in riddles, or are you going to tell me what you’re planning?”
Pontus raised a brow at her impertinence. “The latest news from Emona is that Emperor Decius will not live to see the next full moon.”
“If he’s already on his deathbed, why do you want me to hasten him to the afterlife?”
“I’m content to let nature take its course with him. The person I wish for you to kill is his son, Sergius.”
She bit her bottom lip. “Murdering a member of the Imperial family, especially the heir to the throne, is no simple task. No weapons are allowed inside the Emperor’s chambers. That is, if you can find a way to gain entrance at all.”
Cassius steepled his fingers under his chin. “You’re a clever girl, Azurha. I’ve taught you plenty of ways to kill someone without a conventional weapon. And as for gaining access to the palace, Governor Pontus has an idea for that.”
“Oh?” This should prove interesting.
“According to tradition, when a new Emperor takes the throne, the provincial governors send gifts of tribute in honor of his coronation. Usually, things like gold, fine linen, or rare spices. But nobles have also been known to make contributions to the new Emperor’s harem.”
Azurha shot up to her feet. After the hell her master had put her through, why would Cassius even consider her for this? “Absolutely not. I refuse to be a sex slave for the Emperor.”
She was almost to the door when Cassius caught her and pressed a blade just under her ribs. “Sit down and hear us through, Rabbit.”
Funny how quickly he could turn on her when it came to business. Every muscle in her body tightened while she weighed her options—kill them or agree to the plan. From what little she’d heard, this plan sounded like madness. She should kill them now before they coerced her into participating in it.
You’ll never find a knot you can’t unravel.
“Yes, please let me finish. My contribution to his harem is only a ruse to allow you close access to Sergius. From there, you can decide how far you wish to allow the games to proceed, so long as he ends up dead.”
“You will have earned the gratitude of the next Emperor.”
The air rushed out of her lungs. Just as she had suspected—this was far more than just an assassination. This was a political coup that would place Pontus on the throne as a surviving member of
the Imperial Family. “You already know I bear no love for the Empire. Why should I trade one tyrant for another?”
His laughter sounded too musical to be sane. “Because if you don’t kill him, one of the other ruling families will hire someone else to do it. Sergius spent far too much of his youth studying philosophy instead of warcraft. His ideas for what he wishes to accomplish during his reign are interesting at best. Most of us consider them far too radical and fear the Empire will crumble if he imposes them.”
“And how is this a bad thing? If the Empire falls, my people will be free once again.”
“No, amidst the chaos caused by his plans, the lowest among us will be the first to suffer. That includes the slaves. Sergius is weak. From what I’ve seen, his magic is not even strong enough to maintain the barrier against the Barbarians.”
Azurha let his words sink in. The Emperor’s primary duty was to maintain the magical shield that encased the Empire and kept outsiders like the Barbarians from attacking. If Sergius was really as weak as Pontus suggested, perhaps it would be a blessing for everyone if she killed him.
Cassius released her arm and stepped back. “Listen to what he proposes, and you will see Pontus has the stability of the Empire at heart.”
“If you can help me, Azurha, I will make sure you are properly rewarded. You’ll want for nothing the rest of your life.”
The hair on the back of her neck stood up. Her mind screamed at her to walk away. “And how long would my life be once I’ve served your purpose?”
“I give you my word that if you succeed, you’ll live to see your grandchildren playing around your ankles.”
The prospect of living a life of leisure overcame her hesitations. This could be her last job, the one that made her rich enough to buy a life of obscurity. “You’ll bear witness to this, Cassius?”
“On my life and honor.”
She snickered. “There’s no honor in you, but I know you jealously guard your life.”
“Then are you agreed to it?” Pontus leaned forward, greed dancing his cool blue eyes.
She settled back into her chair. “Almost, Governor Gurges. Explain your plan to me.”
“As I mentioned before, I offer you as a gift to the harem. As one of his concubines, you will have greater access to the palace in Emona than most members of the Imperial Family. When Sergius summons you to his chambers, you do what you do best.”
She exhaled slowly. She wouldn’t have to become the Emperor’s whore. It was all a cover. “And you think the Emperor will find me suitable to summon to his bed?”
“My dear, I’d summon you to my bed if I didn’t know how deadly you were.” Pontus stared at her as if he was picturing her naked. His cold smile made her skin crawl. “Of course, you’ll need appropriate attire for an Imperial concubine, which I will supply, as well as some instruction on how to please the Emperor.”
“Which you will supply, too, I assume?” She ground her teeth together.
“In theory only, naturally, unless you would like hands-on instruction.”
“I’d prefer not.” She turned to her mentor and searched his face. “Why did you choose me? Surely you know other female assassins.”
“Because you’re the one person that could carry it out, Rabbit.”
Could she carry out the guise of pretending to be the Emperor’s whore? Flashbacks of the pain and humiliation she suffered at the hand of her former master filled her mind, of her bleeding wrists bound above her head while he and his friends look their liberties with her. She belonged to no man now and never would.
Anger warmed her blood, and she swallowed the lump of doubt caught in her throat. She could easily kill the next man that tried to take advantage of her. Let them offer her to the Emperor. His blood would stain his sheets before the sun rose.
“When do I leave for Emona?”