Some of our authors were asked to write a story based on one of their characters from their stories and with a chosen prompt word. Check out August Li today!
Author’s Note: This vignette takes place before the events of Ash and Echoes. At that time, as a member of the Order of the Crimson Scythe, Sasha did not identify himself by any name. The assassins of his order cast off all personal identity so they can assume any persona necessary to complete their missions. However, to avoid confusion, I will call him Sasha in this piece. Though he does not acknowledge it, he knows this is his given name. But that’s another story.
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Carrion birds rose in a squawking black cloud from the bare limbs of an ancient tree at the two assassins’ approach.
Sasha reined his bay gelding to a stop and turned to his companion. “That doesn’t bode well.”
The other assassin, an older man with dark hair tied in a ponytail and bulkier muscle than most of those in their order, pulled the black wrappings off the lower half of his face and nodded once. “Something is definitely wrong here. We should use caution.” He canted his head toward a broken and weed-encrusted stretch of fence at the side of the trail. Without speaking further, the assassins dismounted, secured their animals, and set off in opposite directions.
Taking care to remain silent as he waded through a sward of high, brittle grass, Sasha approached the remnants of a stone cottage where they were expected to meet an associate. Many of the birds they’d disturbed now perched atop the gravestones next to the crumbling building that might have once been a small temple. Sasha pulled his red hood farther over his face and replaced the wrappings over his nose and mouth as he crouched down to examine the ground.
The vegetation was bent and smashed down in places, which told him someone other than a member of their clan had passed this way. He followed a trail very few would have been able to detect. Whoever had been here knew his job and would have fooled anyone else by covering his tracks almost perfectly. Near a muddy path leading to the cottage, Sasha discovered a thin, razor-sharp wire stretched across the trail. It was nearly invisible unless the light hit it just right, but he could see where someone had ventured into the ferns and disturbed the lacy leaves to avoid it. Interesting. Farther ahead, he found a pair of iron leg-hold traps. Though papery brown leaves obscured their sharp spikes and pressure plates, neither had been triggered, and the trail led around them. The faintest hint of a footprint stood frozen in the sludge.
Sasha wasn’t surprised when he reached the cottage and discovered a deadfall trap—another expertly placed and standard tactic of his brethren—above the door. The unsettling thing was that someone had avoided everything his comrade had set up to protect her location. Few would know to look let alone possess the skill to bypass the hazards. Sasha triggered the trap and stood aside as heavy rocks fell in front of the door. He kicked them out of his way in case they had been coated in poison and drew his dagger before entering the building.
A small, austere camp had been set up inside—a bedroll, a cook-fire, and an open pack. Someone had covered all but one window with coarse blankets to hold in the heat. Grayish-yellow light fell across the dusty floor in broken shafts through the remaining window. After his eyes adjusted to the dimness, Sasha easily crossed a magical ward drawn on the stone floor and designed to paralyze any but one of the order, and it confirmed his suspicion—his colleague had been here at the agreed-upon meeting place, she had placed traps to protect herself, and now she was gone. A quick search of the collapsing cottage yielded a dagger kicked under a shattered table. Crimson Scythe did not leave their daggers behind. Sasha picked it up and stowed it in a loop at the back of his belt. When he discovered nothing else of use, he returned outside and found the man he had been traveling with crouched next to a patch of briars.
The older assassin looked at Sasha over his shoulder and shook his head. Moving nearer, Sasha was not surprised to see the twisted body of a small woman partially hidden by the bracken. She lay facedown, her arms stretched out and her legs bent underneath her, as if she had been crawling when she died. Her pale, stiff fingers still clutched a knife with a serrated edge, and blood covered it as well as her glove. Her red leather armor, as along with the tanned flesh beneath, was not only torn to shreds but burned black and crisp. Blood saturated the armor and the ground around it, settling into furrow in the rime. Chunks missing from the flesh indicated the birds had already been at the body.
“Who could have done this?” Sasha asked, his voice muffled by the cloth over his mouth.
“Someone who managed to find his way around half a dozen lethal traps and catch her by surprise,” the other assassin said.
“Took her by surprise? One of us?”
“Exactly.” The older man stood and brushed dirt and leaves from his knees. “We’re dealing with an extremely dangerous and well-trained person. One who might know we’re here and what we’re planning to do. One who might even be familiar with the order’s techniques.”
“What do we do next?”
“We must dispose of the body. We can’t have people getting it into their heads that the Crimson Scythe can be defeated. The terror we inspire is a large part of our power. Then we’ll continue on. We still have a job to do, and nothing can take precedence. We do not fail, no matter what lengths we must go to to ensure success.”
“Of course.” In his world, there was no time nor reason to mourn. Death was something familiar, something one stayed a step ahead of only through skill, but it always caught up eventually. Sasha knelt and turned the body over. The woman was young and had been quite pretty, of course. The order valued beauty as another weapon to use against their prey. Beauty could cloud the eyes and the senses, concealing imminent deceit and danger, just as honey to mask the bite of poison. Sasha pulled his sister’s eyelids closed and brushed a chunk of frozen mud off her chin. “May you walk forever in the shadows, sister. May your steps fall forever silent and your blade never miss. May your daggers be forever sharp. May you stand eternally at the shoulder of the Dark and Beautiful One, the Whisper Heard at the Last, and may the light never reveal you as you pass eternity in the Crimson Palace.”
By evening, the two assassins arrived in the city of Crystal Springs, in northeastern Gaeltheon. They made their way to an inn where they were expected and passed their horses off to the stable hands. After burying their associate, they had changed out of their distinctive red and black armor, and had little chance to speak as the roads grew more crowded with merchants and travelers. They had ridden in relative silence, and now they followed the innkeeper without even exchanging glances. Their suite of rooms was reserved and paid for under the names of Lord and Lady Terrazano of Espero, and Sasha worried the proprietor of the establishment might wonder at the absence of a woman. The one who was meant to play the lady’s part lay in a shallow grave in a forgotten patch of woods twenty miles away.
Fortunately, expensive establishments like this knew to overlook the eccentricities of their wealthy customers, and the tall man with the thin black moustache and thinner hair merely smiled as he unlooked the door to their chambers. Candles, lanterns, and fires had already been lit, leaving the room warm and bright. Their host gestured toward some crates stacked near the door. “Many of your items arrived a few days ago,” he said. “We took the liberty of bringing them to your suite.”
“Thank you.” The older assassin affected an Esperon accent as he handed the man a generous tip.
The man greedily pocketed the coins and then stretched his hand to indicate a table between a fireplace and a bay window. “There’s wine, cheese, bread, and fruit. Shall I have a proper dinner delivered?”
“That would be wonderful,” Sasha said. “But please give us an hour or so to settle in.”
“Very good. Shall I have the servants fill the bathtubs for you?”
“Perhaps after dinner. We have had a long journey and would appreciate some time to relax,” Sasha said.
Their host bowed at the waist as he backed toward the door. “Excellent. If you should require anything at all, simply pull this cord by the door to ring the bell and one of our staff will be with you in moments.”
“Thank you again,” the older assassin said. Though he schooled his features to careful neutrality and pasted on an innocuous grin, Sasha could see his growing frustration in his posture and the curl of his fingers, and he was glad when the door finally closed behind the simpering innkeeper. The two assassins carefully checked the suite of rooms for traps. Sasha made note of every entrance, exit, and escape route before returning to the table by the fire.
Sasha set down the small pack holding his armor and weapons—those things he couldn’t risk handing off to a servant—and took a seat at the table while his associate opened a bottle of wine and poured them each a glass. Sasha plucked a fat red grape from a bunch on a silver platter and rolled it between his finger and thumb. “This mission is not going according to plan. The loss of our sister has put us in a very difficult position.”
The other assassin perched on the window ledge and rested an ankle on his knee. “This is a delicate operation, and one that has taken a long time to set in motion. The order does not fail, and we must proceed.”
“But how?” Sasha asked. “Our target, Tam Blair Cooper is a reclusive and suspicious man. He’s surrounded by guards at all times. If the order didn’t know that even we would have great difficulty getting into his estate, they never would have gone to the lengths they did to get us inside under false pretenses. I’ve never been on a mission that involved such complex planning. Perhaps we should contact the order. We may need to wait until they can send another female agent to assist us.”
“Cooper is a cad and a whoremonger, it’s true,” the other assassin agreed. “It’s his second greatest weakness, after his embarrassing and childlike fascination with magic.”
Sasha nodded. “Hence our disguise as wealthy dignitaries from the mage’s island of Espero, here to inquire about buying jewels. But our plans hinged on an attractive woman to lure Cooper away from his guards and back to his chambers… where I was to be waiting to make a quick end of him. I think we have no choice but to delay this mission until we acquire another woman.”
The older man sipped from his wine and made a soft sound of pleasure. “We cannot afford to do that, brother. Tam Cooper is practically a hermit. He’s throwing a grand party for his wife’s fiftieth birthday, and according to rumors, only because she insisted. We have no idea when another opportunity like this will arise. It could be years—years of the old codger sitting in a locked room surrounded by guards.”
“A locked room and guards has not stopped us in the past,” Sasha observed. “I prefer a darkened hallway and a few men in the middle of the night to this.”
“You have been well-trained to mingle effectively at every level of society,” the other assassin said. “The others have said you’re talented—remarkably so. Good at it and many other things.”
Sasha allowed himself to smile at both the compliment and the implied invitation. “I have taken all my training quite seriously, and I approved of our plan. But we have lost a major weapon in our arsenal: an attractive woman to lead Cooper away from the party and to a secluded place. Add to that someone who might suspect our presence. Our colleague wasn’t accosted by bandits, after all. What do you propose we do? Attack the man in front of a hundred guests and almost as many guards?”
“That would be suicide and a disgrace to our dark god. But we must adapt. We must change our plan to fit our current circumstances. The order has commanded us to complete this mission and complete it now. I don’t have to tell you they don’t look kindly on failure or excuses, so we need a new idea, and we need it within two days.”
“What about a prostitute?” Sasha asked. “We don’t need an assassin, only someone to lead Cooper away. A pretty face and breasts spilling out of a bodice.”
“An unknown makes me nervous. We would need to find a very sophisticated whore, one who can speak with an Esperon accent—and one Cooper will not recognize. By all accounts, the man is quite a connoisseur of the local slags.”
Sasha popped the grape into his mouth and crushed it between his teeth. His older and more experienced comrade was right—they needed to devise a way to complete this mission and end the life of Blair Cooper. Years ago, Sasha had realized he could either excel with the gifts and the circumstances fate had handed him or he could perish. Death was not an option; death was failure, and he would not fail. As he cut a slice from the loaf of bread and smeared butter across it, he considered what he knew about their target. Cooper was as wealthy as he was cruel. He owned about a dozen crystal mines, and he pressed the local population to toil in them under horrific conditions. Even children dug for gems, because Cooper made sure families had no other means to earn a living. And he paid them next to nothing. Still, no one had hired the Crimson Scythe to avenge exploited peasants. Likely their benefactor was another wealthy landowner or noble who desired control of the crystal mines for himself. Conveniently, Cooper, for all his propensity toward fornication, had no legitimate children.
But none of that mattered to Sasha and his companion. They had only one concern: leaving Cooper’s corpse to stiffen and escaping before anyone knew who had done the deed. Sasha was having a hard time conceiving of a way to accomplish it.
A knock on the door interrupted his thoughts, followed by half a dozen maids with platters and tureens. After they departed, Sasha and his associate ate, bathed, and went to bed, where they found many creative ways to distract themselves from their worries. Even sated and relatively safe, Sasha slept lightly and kept his dagger close, as the image of his dead associate appeared again and again behind his eyelids.
The next morning, after breakfast, they opened the crates that had been delivered to the room—things provided by the order to help them on their mission. Several packages contained the expected weapons, poisons, and powders, while others held clothes for Sasha and his companion. The older man had intended to play the part of the Esperon noble, and Sasha, a servant. Despite the other assassin’s superior experience, the leaders of the order recognized Sasha’s talent for dispatching a target quickly and quietly. Sasha wanted that kill. He’d completed some difficult and impressive jobs, and he was making a name for himself within the order, but he wanted this success added to his list of accomplishments as it would lead to more challenging and lucrative work. An assassin was only as good as his last kill, and many within the order had short memories.
The older assassin pried open the last wooden box and lifted something wrapped in white cloth. Sasha watched as he revealed a magnificent gown made of black and burgundy silk. Without speaking, the assassin unpacked a bodice beaded with tiny crystals that caught the morning light, gloves, a gemmed belt, heeled black boots, and enough jewelry to buy a small island. He laid tiny, delicate daggers designed to be strapped to ankles or hidden in a corset on the table next to the remains of their ham and eggs. For a long time, he sat staring at them with his hands folded in his lap. Finally he looked up and met Sasha’s eyes. “I have an idea.”
Sasha winced in pain as his colleague pressed a knee to the small of his back. He gripped the edge of the table and sucked in shallow puffs of air but still felt like he’d pass out from the intensity of it all. “I don’t know how much more of this I can take,” Sasha gasped out. “Aren’t you finished yet?”
“Almost there. Just… just a little more. After your training and all you’ve endured, I’m sure you can take this.”
Sasha grunted as the other man gave the laces on the bodice a final tug. It felt like his guts were being crushed, and he couldn’t fill his chest with air as he stood upright and turned to face his associate. “This plan is doomed. We can’t go through with this.”
“Nonsense. You’re small. Your measurements are perfect to fit into these clothes, and you’re beautiful. You’re trained to watch a person’s every movement and facial expression, trained to mimic body language to achieve the desired effect, trained to elicit your chosen reaction from others. You know how women move, how they use their lips and eyes and entice men. You can replicate it.”
“Training can’t negate the physical form, though,” Sasha argued. “I’m a man. I might be able to pass as a woman from a distance, but up close? And one alluring enough to tempt a man away from his wife’s birthday party?”
The other assassin took Sasha’s hand and guided him into the bedchamber they’d been sharing and stood him in front of the full-length mirror. “Look at yourself. You’re young.” He traced his fingers down Sasha’s arm. “You have long, slender limbs. A graceful, elegant neck. Lips like nothing I’ve ever seen. Your skin is soft and smooth.” He moved his hand to Sasha’s waist. Sasha followed the motion with his eyes, amazed at the way his waist dipped in between the bottom of his ribcage and his hipbones. The other man could almost encircle it with his hands. Beneath it, his legs were long and graceful. Surprisingly, the knee-high boots with the buckles on the outsides fit him comfortably. The heels added a few inches to his stature, but not so much that he’d tower over other women.
“What about my voice?” Sasha asked. Other men might be threatened by playing the woman’s part, but that didn’t bother Sasha. He’d assume any role necessary to complete his task, but he didn’t like going into a dangerous situation without the full use of his skills, however. In these clothes, his movements would be restricted, slowed. He would be at a disadvantage, but he wouldn’t admit weakness or doubt—not even to a colleague. Instead, he arched a brow to elicit an answer to his original question.
“It’s husky, intriguing. Besides, if you do your job right, you shouldn’t have to say much to lure Cooper out of his banquet hall. You know how to move your hips and your waist. I can attest to that after having you underneath me the past two nights.”
Sasha shook his head. He knew this was their best option, and he was impressed when he looked at himself in the glass. Still… “I have a cock.”
The other assassin chuckled. “Worried something will come up at an inopportune time? Maybe we should take care of that.” He kissed the side of Sasha’s neck as he reached around him and stroked him until Sasha’s seed splattered against the mirror.
Afterwards, they cleaned up and finished dressing. Sasha put the black and burgundy shift over his restrictive undergarments and suffered through his companion lacing him into the beaded bodice overtop. He put on the black gloves and accentuated them with rings and bracelets. He chose a collar-style necklace of three strands of black pearls and a large amethyst at the center that would cover his Adam’s apple and make his neck appear even more svelte. A subtle amount of kohl around his eyes and some wine-colored balm on his lips completed the ensemble. Instead of the wig his companion had procured, Sasha adorned his short hair with a pair of jeweled barrettes and let the long lock in the front fall across his right eye. He used some wool from one of the pillows to pad his chest, but not to excess. He knew from experience that an angular, elegant woman could captivate a man’s attention as well as a curvaceous one.
The finishing and most important touches were the two rings containing sleeping powder and poison and the daggers hidden in his boots, strapped to his left thigh, and secreted away in the panels of his outer corset. He would be expected to not only lure Cooper away, but also to end the man’s life. As unconventional as this mission might be, Sasha had no intention of failing. He had just finished preparing when a member of the inn staff appeared to inform them the carriage had arrived to take them to the Cooper estate.
Sasha rested his hand lightly on the other assassin’s arm as a courtier announced the aristocrats from Espero. Without being obvious, he scanned the room to gauge the reaction of those gathered in the torchlit, smoky hall. Many of the men and women exhibited clear interest, but Sasha deduced it stemmed from fascination with the exotic rather than suspicion. His companion had been correct—Sasha had observed women and their mannerisms enough to replicate them, and now he slipped into his role as easily and completely as he adopted any persona needed to complete a mission. As he walked across the hall, he moved from his hips, twined his torso, and arched his back to push his chest out. He stepped delicately in his heeled boots and batted his eyelashes subtly, and many of the men took notice—some of the women too.
Cooper and his wife stood at the far end of the hall, next to a laden table, flanked by ten heavily armed guards. Sasha took a quick inventory of their weapons and positions as they approached. The older assassin bowed, and Sasha held his full skirts out as he bent at the knees, finally understanding why women curtsied—bending at the waist would be impossible in these corsets.
Sasha let his companion make the introductions. He smiled and tipped his head when Lady Cooper remarked on his unique hairstyle. When Tam Blair Cooper took his hand and kissed the back, Sasha looked up at the older man through his eyelashes. The gesture worked well enough coming from a man, and Sasha had lured lovers to his bed with little else in the past. Cooper, probably at least ten of fifteen years his wife’s senior, a portly man with thick gray hair and a neatly trimmed beard, turned even redder in his full cheeks and across his bulbous nose. Sasha pulled his hand away, closed his eyes slowly, and smiled as he met Cooper’s gaze. He had him. As Sasha turned away, feigning disinterest, Cooper jerked as if to chase after him before reconsidering. Sasha’s companion added kindling to the fire by sliding his hand down Sasha’s back and giving his ass a soft pat.
The two assassins retreated to a secluded corner. After accepting wine from a servant with a tray, they leaned close to talk without being overheard.
“Well done,” the older assassin breathed in Sasha’s ear. “The man was salivating like a dog over a gut pile. I think he would follow you into the Shades’ Abode already. Most of the women here are attractive, but average. Country girls in expensive dresses are still country girls.”
“The sooner we get this over with, the better,” Sasha said. “Since the man is so reclusive, the order doesn’t have as much information as usual on the manor’s layout, but there should be a balcony off his bedchamber that I can use to escape when he’s dead. I’ll pretend to drink too much. That way my absence won’t be unusual, and you’ll have an excuse to come looking for your poor, drunken wife.”
“A brilliant idea. Shall we dance?”
Sasha looked toward the center of the room, where every color of fabric billowed as women twirled, and the beads on their garments twinkled in the firelight. The order had trained both of them to dance in all the styles the nobles enjoyed, and Sasha knew he was better at it than any of the party guests. When Cooper saw it, it would be like slamming the lid on his casket. With a curtsey to his partner, Sasha moved to the center of the floor just as the current dance ended. The musicians struck up a lively tune called “Fox Chases the Rabbit,” and Sasha took his place with the other women. One by one, the women danced between the two rows of men. Their partners—or another man if he was bold and she was unattached—pursued them to the end of the gauntlet, where the couple favored the audience with a dance. Sasha and his companion performed a display that was just the right side of scandalous. The wanted to attract attention, but not too much attention. It was a delicate balance, and everything had to be measured to the grain.
Sweating, feeling the heat in his cheeks, Sasha glanced at Cooper. The man watched him ravenously, but he wasn’t alone. One of the guards, a younger blond man with thick sideburns and eyes so blue Sasha could see them from where he stood, tracked Sasha’s every move. Clasping his companion’s hand, Sasha led the other assassin to the wall, picking up another glass of wine on the way.
When they had a bit of privacy, Sasha leaned in and pecked the other man’s cheek. “One of the guards has taken an interest in me, it seems.”
“I noticed that. It’s hardly a surprise, and it could work to our advantage. It might rouse Cooper’s jealousy. He might make his move faster if he thinks he has competition. But it won’t do to seem too eager. We need to play this just right. Come. Let’s move through the crowd until our opportunity presents itself.”
For the next hour or so, Sasha and his associate circulated the party, answering questions about the mysterious island of Espero. Sasha let the other assassin do most of the talking while he made a show of drinking too much wine, always keeping an eye on Cooper—and the blond guard who never seemed to let Sasha out of his sight. Sasha danced with several of the men, laughing a little louder after each song and showing his partner a little more attention. Every time he looked over his shoulder, his eyes locked with the blue eyes of the guard.
As he engaged in dances and conversations, Sasha realized he was in a unique position—that of being simultaneously admired and dismissed. Many of the guests expressed fascination, but no fear, and that was new for Sasha. He understood that these fools thought he was no threat because he was a woman, and there was power in that. An idiot would present his back to someone whose hands he assumed were too delicate to wield a knife. Sasha had used the underestimation of others to his advantage before, but he’d never considered so utterly innocuous. Nothing mattered but efficiency and success, so he was more than happy to validate their opinions by making a show of relying on his “husband.”
Revelers grew drunker as the hour grew later. Cooper, his face the color of a winter berry, raised his goblet to salute the dancers and sloshed wine down his expensive velvet tunic. Soon after, some of the more staid guests began to make their excuses to leave. Sasha knew he had to make his move. A dart of his eyes in Cooper’s direction informed his colleague of his plan, and the older assassin found a lady to invite to dance. Sasha made his way toward his target, being sure to weave and sway slightly. He let his heel catch on the edge of a stone and gratefully accepted the arm of the man who offered him assistance. When he reached Cooper, Sasha raised his cup. “We’re very proud of our wine in Espero,” he said in a throaty almost-whisper, making Cooper lean in to hear him. “But I’m quite impressed with the local vintages. They are as complex and delicious as the crystals from your mines are clear and beautiful. I can hardly wait to get my hands on some of those jewels.” He lifted a hand to rub his thumb across his fingertips, and Cooper’s eyes followed the gesture. “But I apologize. Tonight is not for business, and surely you have underlings to handle such mundane details. Perhaps instead our gracious host might honor me with a dance?”
Cooper smiled wide, revealing gums studded with a few crooked yellow teeth. He slammed his goblet down hard on a table and took a few stumbling steps toward Sasha. Sasha held out his hand. One dance, a few moments of Cooper’s hands on the lithe muscles of his back, a few hot breaths on Cooper’s fat, sweaty neck, a graze of Sasha’s hand across his cross his groin, and a few words of innuendo should be all that would be necessary. Sasha was not one to complain, and he would do what he had to to complete a job, but he would be happy to get out of these clothes.
Just as he was about to hook his arm with Cooper’s elbow, the blond guard stepped between them, moving with a speed and grace Sasha had to admit was impressive. Cooper staggered back and caught his balance as the guard caught Sasha’s wrist in one hand and grasped Sasha’s waist with the other. “Perhaps I might have the pleasure of a dance.”
Sasha glanced at Cooper. “Is it typical here in Gaeltheon for the servants to pester the noble guests?”
Before Cooper could answer, the guard dragged Sasha to the center of the floor, his fingers digging into the flesh of Sasha’s arm, hurting and almost certainly bruising. As a soft, slow tune began—harp and flute accompanied by a sensual drumbeat—the guard pulled Sasha against his chest. His breastplate pressed against Sasha uncomfortably, but Sasha noticed it was chiefly ornamental—it left his neck and the sides of his ribs exposed, and it ended above his stomach. His fancy gauntlets above a cobalt silk tunic would do little more than glitter. An infantryman with a head wound would be able to exploit the gaps in this man’s armor, yet he moved with efficient strength and confidence. The dichotomy intrigued Sasha, so he let himself be led in a slow and intimate dance.
The guard guided Sasha to the edge of congregated dancers, toward the wall where the sputtering candles left the shadows thick. He moved his hands down Sasha’s back but stopped just above his hips. Spinning, he backed Sasha against the wall and trapped him with his larger body. Their eyes met. Though Sasha had been trained almost since he’d been able to walk and talk to school his facial expressions to elicit a desired response from others, most people sensed the danger he posed on some primal level, and he hadn’t yet learned to mask it. Few people could look him in the eye for long. This guard was the exception. He also had a unique ability to mask his emotions. Usually, the curve of an eyebrow or the twitch of a lip revealed a person’s every motive. This guard’s face was unreadable, but something burned in his eyes.
He leaned in and spoke near Sasha’s ear. “I’ve been watching you all evening. Thinking about you.”
“And have you drawn any conclusions?”
The guard dragged his lips along Sasha’s jaw. “Some. I would like to know more, if you would be amenable.”
Sasha considered. What could he gain by agreeing? More than by refusing? Possibly. This guard had been on him like black on a bruise all night. Sasha wouldn’t be able to anything under that sort of scrutiny. He had sleeping powder in his ring. A quick tumble and a glass of wine, and he could leave this man on floor of his chambers. If anyone came looking, they’d find him alive and assume him simply drunk and sated. Nothing would suffer except his career as a guard.
“I can’t deny a measure of curiosity,” Sasha whispered, and it wasn’t entirely a charade. Something boiled in this man, bubbling close to the surface but held in check by force of will. What would happen when that will was stripped away and nothing remained to bank that fire? Would he be dangerous? Danger had always fascinated Sasha, and he regretted this man lusted for him as a woman. He would only be able to go so far, and that was a shame.
The guard nipped the skin of Sasha’s neck. Again he grasped Sasha’s wrist and practically pulled him along. Most would have had trouble matching his long strides in heeled boots, but Sasha figured he didn’t have to feign delicacy anymore, not with the way this guard manhandled him. He couldn’t imagine how aggressive he would be if he knew Sasha was male and more than equal to his martial prowess.
They left the banquet room and entered a long hallway. It was open to the gardens on one side, and moonlight spilled between the archways and made the blue and ivory tiles glimmer. Despite the chill in the air, other couples had taken advantage of the seclusion. Many leaned against the walls kissing, and a few were clearly and vocally doing more. The scent of sweat and sex hung in the air, competing with the sharp scent of autumn flowers and frosty grass, but the guard barely acknowledged it as he pulled Sasha onward.
At the end of the hall, the man opened a door a pushed Sasha into a small room containing nothing but a dusty table, some wooden crates, and a chipped statue of the goddess Ix—a storage room. Sasha smirked. A true noblewoman would potentially be offended, and he wondered if he should mimic that. Before he could say a word of protest, the guard pressed him against the wall and kissed him hard, digging his fingertips into Sasha’s upper arms. Sasha kissed him back, not yielding control, wrestling with the other man’s tongue. The guard grabbed Sasha by the back of the neck and spun him, pressing his face into the stones of the wall as he rubbed his erection against Sasha’s ass. He pulled Sasha’s gown aside to suck and bite across his shoulder. Sasha liked being bitten, and his meticulous control slivered when he felt the man’s teeth break skin. A choked moan escaped him, and the guard caught his wrist and twisted his arm behind his back as he ground his cock against Sasha’s tailbone. Not even Sasha could prevent his body from reacting, but when the guard let go of his arm to hike up his skirts, Sasha knew he had to take charge of this exchange. He couldn’t let this guard discover the dagger strapped to his thigh—or anything else his gowns concealed.
Sasha broke easily and fluidly from the other man’s hold. If this surprised the guard, he gave no indication. They stood facing each other. The only light came from the crack beneath the door, and it barely allowed Sasha to discern the man’s silhouette. But it was enough for Sasha to evade when the guard reached for him again.
“Can we slow down?”
The guard’s heavy breathing was loud in the room. “No.”
Sasha snorted, imagining what might have happened if he’d really been a small woman untrained in combat. It doused any ardor he’d fleetingly felt, and he wanted to spit the man’s taste from his mouth. “I’m afraid I must insist.”
The guard darted to the left, moving between Sasha and the door. An expected tactic and one that didn’t worry Sasha. Silently, Sasha slid out the small knife concealed in a panel of his bodice and held it pointed upward, the blade flush with his wrist so the sharp edge wouldn’t catch the light.
With a hiss and an odor of burnt minerals, the small room erupted in orange light. Flames danced over the guard’s fingertips and illuminated a savage smile. A mage, then. The burns he’d seen on his deceased colleague made sense now. Sasha had been taught to face magic-users, but they were unpredictable and always proved a challenge. The close quarters with little cover wouldn’t make it any easier. Stepping to the side, Sasha moved closer to the heavy table, glad of the smooth marble top beneath his fingers.
“I know what you are,” the guard said with a snarl.
Sasha cast off his persona as he met the other man’s eyes. “And what am I?”
“Cursed in the eyes of the goddesses. One of the Cast-Down. The foulest of killers. A… I will not speak the name. I won’t dirty my lips. And a man in women’s gowns. Have you no shame?”
“The only shame is failure,” Sasha said. “It’s something I have yet to experience, and I have no fear tonight will prove an exception. Besides, you recognizing me as a man didn’t stop your cock from swelling in your pants. In fact, it probably caused it. Your master is a paranoid man. I can scarcely imagine how much he’s paying for the services of one so skilled.”
“Shut your mouth, you bastard! Not everyone can be bought!” The guard shot a gout of flame in Sasha’s direction, and Sasha crouched to avoid it. It hit the wall and blackened the stone instead.
Good. The man was angry, irrational. Emotion made people sloppy, and the key to fighting mages was distraction—avoiding their attacks until they used up their energy. To those ends, Sasha continued to poke where the guard was vulnerable. “If not coin, then what? Are you in love with Cooper? You’re fucking him… or he’s fucking you. Are you so desperate for a man’s touch that you’ll take any cock you can find?”
“You sick whoreson!” The guard’s next spout of fire came close enough to singe Sasha’s hair before Sasha wove to the side. It caught a clump of cobwebs in the corner alight, filled the room with smoke, and sent tiny spiders scurrying across the ceiling to escape. “He’s my father!”
“Yet his wife is not your mother,” Sasha mused. “Likely your mother is one of the slags standing in front of the tavern. Or are you fortunate enough to be the issue of a proper brothel whore?”
The guard abandoned sorcery, bent down, and charged with a howl of rage. Sasha dodged the tackle, and the other man barely avoided colliding with the wall. Sasha lifted his skirts and kicked him in the ribs before he could regain his footing. The guard landed hard on his side, his breath knocked out in a raspy gust.
Sasha drove his sharp heel into the man’s shoulder and overturned him onto his back. Flipping his dagger in his hand, he stood straddling the man before lowering himself down to sit on his groin. He stroked his knuckles down the man’s cheek. “It’s too bad. We could have had an… interesting time together. But you killed one of my brethren, and you’ve discovered my identity. I’m afraid I can’t let you leave this room.”
The man had seemed so close to passing out that Sasha didn’t expect the quick punch. Though he jerked sideways to avoid the brunt of it, the guard’s fist caught him on the side of the chin and knocked him back. Sasha might have kept his balance if not for the damned corsets. They restricted his movements too much, and fell on his shoulder. His enemy seized the opportunity to reverse their positions and stand over Sasha, a ball of fire dancing over his palm.
Eyes watering from the acrid smoke, Sasha rolled to his back and waited for his adversary to make his move. At the first twitch of the guard’s hand, Sasha rolled over backward, his skirts tangling around him, fabric ripping. He knew he might have only moments before the man recovered enough to cast another spell, so he scrabbled to his feet and threw his dagger. He struck the man in his shoulder, inflicting little damage but distracting him long enough for Sasha to crouch and pull both blades from his boots. The cool steel felt good in his hands, even through his gloves. He swiped one knife across his enemy’s knee, severing the tendon and making the man shriek and stagger before slipping in his own blood. In the most futile of gestures, he held up his arms to shield his face.
“Wait! Don’t you want to know why? Don’t you want to know why you’re killing a decent and generous man?”
“No,” Sasha said. “It makes no difference to me.” He stepped behind the guard, grabbed his hair, tilted his face toward the smoke-stained ceiling, and cut his throat. His blood poured out in a sheet, and he gagged and sputtered before falling facedown and going still.
Before leaving the storage room, Sasha did his best to straighten his garments and wipe the blood and soot from his skin. With his hair burnt and stinking and his lips and chin swollen from the guard’s punch, he had little chance of seducing Cooper, no matter how drunk the man was. He carefully pulled the gathered collar of his silk shift up to cover the savage bites and bruises the man had left across his collarbone and shoulder. Thank Thalil he’d chosen the collar-style necklace, or there would be no concealing the marks on his neck.
In the hall, Sasha found his associate reclining on chaise surrounded by a trio of older women. The way they scattered at the approach of the other assassin’s “wife” spoke to their aspirations, but Sasha had no time to be amused or tease the other man. He sat down and leaned in to whisper to his companion. “This mission is hanging by a thread. I just killed the guard who had been watching me. He was a mage, and he knew we were coming. An illegitimate son of Cooper’s, from what I gathered. Very well trained. He gave me a bit of a challenge.”
“Are you injured?” the other assassin asked, as a matter of practicality rather than concern.
“Not seriously, but it will be noticeable. It will raise questions. Seducing Cooper is impossible now.”
“Then we need a new plan, and quickly.”
“Agreed,” Sasha said. “I’m listening.”
After a brief pause, the older assassin said, “Follow my lead. We have one last chance.”
He stood and helped Sasha to his feet. Now that the thrill of battle was wearing off, the aches and pain were creeping in, and Sasha was happy to drape his arm over his brother’s shoulders and give him some of his weight as they approached the front of the room. When they reached Cooper, Sasha kept his head down and let his hair drape over his face to hide his wounds. From the dull throb and the heat across his jaw, he knew they were swelling, and he could still taste blood.
“There, there, dear wife,” the older assassin crooned, guiding Sasha’s head to rest against his shoulder before addressing the lord and lady. “I apologize for my presumptuousness, but I must humbly implore our gracious hosts to allow my wife to lie down… possibly for the night. I know it is an imposition, but I fear she will not make it back to the inn without being ill.”
Sasha darted his glance in Cooper’s direction. The man was ruddy with drink, and he had his hand far up the skirts of the chubby redhead on his lap… with his wife sitting in the next chair. The lady of the house rose and took Sasha’s hand. Unlike her husband, her pale eyes were sharp and clear.
“Poor dear,” she said. “What sort of hosts would we be to deny such a reasonable request. Come with me.” She turned to the older assassin. “I will get your wife into bed, my lord. I’ll see she has everything that is required.”
With a sincere thanks, the other assassin handed Sasha off. The lady’s arm was strong and steady around his waist as she led him from the hall. Despite her age and the silver hair piled in an elaborate bun atop her head, Sasha felt the strength in her body, as well as her cunning and confidence.
Halfway up a winding stone staircase, Lady Cooper let go of Sasha and stepped away. “We’re well away from prying eyes now, my dear. There’s no further need to pretend to require assistance. Follow me, and don’t dawdle.”
Sasha hid his surprise and followed her up the steps, his heels clicking against the polished marble.
On the third floor, she opened a door and gestured to the room beyond. “You should be quite comfortable here, my dear. It’s a convenient location. After all, the lord of the house sleeps just three doors down, on the left side of the hall, next to the painting of Fane battling the goddesses. A poor drunken woman sleeping nearby won’t worry him a bit. That’s the tragedy of being a woman, is it not? To always be assumed incapable of anything but embroidery or spreading our legs.”
“It is only a tragedy when one doesn’t know how to use it to one’s advantage,” Sasha said. “Only the greatest of fools think in absolutes and expect no surprises. The successful are those who know how to adapt, to work with what they are given.”
Their eyes met in the darkened hallway stinking of tallow, and the lady bowed her head. “I’m sure I wouldn’t know. I’m just a simple woman, certainly too simple and timid to stand in a cemetery and paint the red crescent on a mausoleum door. Now, rest well, and I will see you in the morning, dear.”
Guards, a darkened hallway, and a locked door after all. Sasha didn’t mind, though he wished he had something to wear other than the diaphanous nightdress Lady Cooper had provided. It was comfortable enough, and he could move in it, but it was white and would stand out in the darkness. He would have to strike before he was detected. In his bare feet, walking silently was simple.
Two men stood outside the room the lady had described. Sasha pressed his back to the wall as he leaned his head around the corner to watch them. They leaned against the wall, probably half asleep. Killing them would be easy, but immobilizing them would be better. It wasn’t a moral judgment but a logistical one. Done properly, the men would assume they had just fallen asleep. Neither would want to admit his lapse in duty, and they wouldn’t speak of it. Killing meant blood to clean up, bodies to hide, and questions to answer. The order taught its agents to favor efficiency.
Sasha crept along the wall until he stood only a few feet from one of the sentinels. He took a vial of poison from his sleeve and pulled the cork loose with his teeth. Then he poured some of the liquid onto his billowing, lacy cuff. In a single motion, he grabbed the soldier by the back of his gorget and pressed his sleeve over his face. In a heartbeat, the man lost consciousness. Sasha held him and guided his limp body to the floor. By the time his companion noticed the soft scrape of his armor against the stone, Sasha was back on his feet. The other guard turned, and Sasha hit him in the throat with the side of his hand. The man doubled over, trying to suck in air, and Sasha struck him in the back of the head with the pommel of his dagger. He fell with less finesse than his comrade, and he would have a horrifying headache in a few hours, but he wouldn’t trouble Sasha further.
The lock on Cooper’s door was simple and easy to pick. Beyond it, the man snuffled and snored, drool speckling his chin, in a massive bed with posts the size of tree trunks. His breath reeked of wine and his body smelt of old sweat and the whores he’s probably bedded earlier. Sasha watched him a few moments as he shifted his tiny dagger from hand to hand. The old fool wasn’t worth his steel, and an ambiguous death would mean an easier departure tomorrow. Sasha replaced the dagger in the sheath strapped to his thigh and picked up a brocade pillow trimmed in crystal beads. He pressed it over Cooper’s face and held fast as the man spasmed and his limbs drummed against the thick feather mattress. When he finally fell still and his piss wet the sheets, Sasha replaced the cushion near the carved headboard, went back to his room, got into bed, and stayed there until the household servants arrived to rouse him for breakfast.
The mood was somber in the manor as Sasha and his companion prepared to depart. News of the lord’s unfortunate fate had spread quickly.
“I’m sorry for your loss, my lady.” The older assassin bowed to Lady Cooper and kissed the back of her hand.
“Most gracious,” she said. “I only wish my late husband had led a more wholesome life. If he had, he might be with us today.”
She turned to Sasha and took his hands in both of hers. Her light blue eyes twinkled as she offered him a smile. “My dear lady. I cannot express to you what a pleasure it has been to have you spend the night in this house.”
“The pleasure was mine,” Sasha, dressed in a more functional gray dress, said as he squeezed her fingers.
“Everyone was very accommodating,” Sasha answered. “Having one’s needs so dutifully monitored was… a pleasant surprise. And a welcome one.”
“I couldn’t be more pleased about how smoothly everything went, for both of us.” She released Sasha’s hands. “I doubt we will see each other again, and that is a shame.”
“Well, we can be persuaded to return. If there is a need.”
“I hope there will not be,” she said. “But I am now in control of the crystal mines, and I don’t plan to allow that to change. Please, if I can provide you with a piece of jewelry to complement one of your lovely gowns, I’ll be happy to do it. As a gift.”
Sasha smiled. “I truly hope there will not be a need for that anytime soon.”
The two assassins took a carriage back to the inn, where they packed their things and retrieved their horses. It felt good to be back in his leather with a heavy black cloak overtop to hide the distinctive armor.
After riding into the afternoon, Sasha and his companion stopped to feed their animals and have a simple meal.
“You did well,” the older assassin told Sasha as they sat together on a fallen tree. “Nothing went as we expected, but you adapted and completed the mission. I’ll make sure our leaders know.”
“I appreciate that.” Sasha shook his head as he looked at the cold sausage and hard bread in his hand, his appetite for them gone. “Lady Cooper’s troubles might not be over. Who knows how many bastards her husband trained and installed in his personal guard?”
“Perhaps she’ll have need of our services in the future. She can certainly afford us.”
“As long as I don’t end up in a dress again,” Sasha grumbled.
His companion nudged him in the ribs with his elbow. “But you looked so fetching.”
Sasha sighed. “I’m glad I only need to dip my toes in that world. Can you imagine living like that? Never knowing who to trust. Always watching your back. Scheming and planning all the time.”
“Is our lot so different?”
“As different as the coldest night and the brightest summer afternoon,” Sasha said. “We are given a target, and we kill. It’s simple. We can trust our brothers and sisters, and the rest of the world is of little consequence. In many ways, it’s more honest. I know what I am. I don’t have to deceive myself or anyone else… unless it’s part of the job. But when it’s finished, I can cast that off. At least I have no need to lie to myself.”
“You should know not all of our order sees it as you do.”
“I might not have had much choice, but I like this life,” Sasha said. “I’m good at this. For better or worse, our daggers shape the course of the future. Perhaps Lady Cooper will improve the conditions for the workers in her mines.”
The older assassin rubbed his palm over the stubble emerging on his chin. “Such idealism will only lead to disappointment, my young friend.”
“I know, and I know people are flesh and blood, and flesh can be cut and blood can be spilled. But those actions have repercussions we cannot predict.”
“Best not to think to hard on that.”
“Probably,” Sasha agreed. “Let’s mount up and ride for a safe house. I need a proper bath and a good tumble, if you’re willing.”
“Always. I look forward to it.”
Sasha smiled and said no more, but as they rode with the snow swirling around them and their horses kicking up chucks of frozen mud, he wondered about how his presence might make the world different than if he’d been absent.
Would there be a moment when drawing his dagger—or not—might change the course of history? It might be vanity or arrogance, but he sensed that moment waited somewhere in his future. For now, he could only make himself ready to meet it, and so he dug his heels into his horse’s sides and urged his mount toward the erratic clouds on the horizon.