Dawn arrives reluctantly in the port city of Kuendar, stretching pink and gold waves across the sky in a slow, lazy yawn. The air is still and heavy with the scent of brine, and the gray clouds overhead threaten rain. The ships in the harbor are stark shapes in the waters of the Dreiben Sea.
Apart from the sailors who are preparing for their day's journeys, I am the only one on the streets. In the summer, most people wake an hour or two after the sun rises, but not I. Though I am no longer a slave, have not been for a decade now, the habit of waking before dawn has not left me, and perhaps never will. There are some things that always stay with you.
Reshada often tells me I'm crazy to never sleep past sunrise, but I enjoy watching the sun peep into the sky, chasing away the darkness of night. The view isn't particularly lovely—Kuendar is rainy more often than not, so the sky here is a perpetual gray—but the daily ritual is familiar and soothing.
When I was a slave, ten years ago now, we were all forced into the fields before first light. I remember the blackness receding as something white-hot and painful to look at took its place. That was in a different city in a different kingdom, far, far away from here, where the grass was lush and plentiful and the dawn was a blazing glory of colors, instead of this pale pink trickle we get here. I don't remember much about slavery except for the fear of punishment, a deep-set weariness in the bones, and the sunrise we watched every morning working in the fields.
I'm not sure how long I stand in the middle of the cobblestone streets, breathing in the salty sea air and watching the sun inch its way further up the sky. With the rising of the sun comes the awakening of the city: vendors set up their stalls and prepare their wares, shop owners open their doors, and people trickle out of their homes and into the streets.
I stand there for a few minutes longer, then turn to walk back to the guildhouse, and that is when I see my brother again.
It has been eight and a half years since I have last seen him, but I still think of him sometimes—wonder what he is doing, if he misses me, if he regrets his decision all those years ago. I usually push these thoughts away, but the sight of him walking down the street in a crowd of people like he belongs there brings all the thoughts rushing back, crashing into me with a force so strong it's almost physical.
He was thirteen and I was nearly eight, and he was taking care of me after we escaped our master, Lord Theusian, who owned the plantation where we'd worked as slaves. The escape had resulted in the death of our mother. He was young and angry, and he grew still angrier every day. I was only a child and didn't understand his mood swings, why he raged sometimes, why he punched things and ended up harming only himself. I only understood that he eventually made a choice, and left me alone in the streets of a foreign city. This city, Kuendar.
He is back now, but I do not delude myself into thinking it is because of me.
He is far away, at the end of the street on the opposite side, but I would recognize him anywhere, even after all these years. Nobody else has hair like that—black as pitch, with a certain pattern of strands always sticking up.
It is to my credit that I see him long before he sees me. I wonder if this says something about our professions, and how good we are at them. As I think this, he seems to sense my gaze on him, and he looks up and freezes.
For a long moment, we stare at each other across the sea of people. The thief and the assassin.
Well, when he told me his decision, he called it "bounty hunter." He was joining the "bounty hunters' guild," he said, because he couldn't just do nothing about all the bad people in the world, and if I wasn't going to go with him, he'd have to leave me. But I call it assassin, because no matter whom he kills, it is still cold-blooded killing.
I let this thought flit through my mind as we walk toward each other. My brother is a killer.
He is much taller than I remember (of course, a voice that sounds suspiciously like Reshada says dryly in my mind, it's been over eight years), and much broader in the shoulders. His jaw is more pronounced, his cheekbones sharper, his eyes darker and colder. There is a faint trace of stubble on his face, like he's been too busy to shave these past few days.
How funny, that my brother shaves. He is a grown man now, twenty-two years of age.
He is a stranger.
"Sister," he says, and his voice is strange too. Deep and quiet, not at all what I remember. "It's been a long time."
"Brother," I return. This is what we have been reduced to, titles and nothing more. "How have you been?"
"I've been all right," he says. "And you?"
"As you can see, I've survived," I say shortly. He lowers his eyes to the ground. So the meaning is not lost on him.
I take the opportunity to study him. He's wearing a black silk tunic and black trousers—simple but elegant clothes of a man of a higher class trying to blend in with commoners. His hair is neat on the sides and messy at the top, his skin deeply tanned, his body lean.
Our mother named him Tagaderis, after her father Deris and her husband, my father, Tagad. When I was first learning to speak, I could only pronounce "Tag," and the name stuck. He's always just been Tag.
It feels strange to call his name now, though, for I haven't in so long. I cross my arms and stare at him until he speaks again.
"Have you lived in this city all this time?" he asks.
So he isn't going to talk about himself. "More or less," I say. "And you, I presume, have lived in many cities, done many jobs for your guild, killed many people."
Something like a flinch passes over his face, then is gone so quickly I would think I imagined it if I didn't know better. "More or less," he says, echoing my words.
I look away from him then, down the street to the docks and the sea. Sailors tie masts, load cargo, and shout orders over the soft crashing of the water. Children play in the mud (the endless rain means endless mud), and beggars look for dropped coins. "Why are you here?" I ask, though I face the sea and not my brother. "Surely it is not because of me."
He bites his lower lip but doesn't deny it. I suddenly remember that as one of his nervous habits. It seems he hasn't gotten rid of it, the way he has long since gotten rid of me. "I'm here on business," he says.
Of course. Business. Disappointment is stupid, but it courses through my veins anyway, like a rush of cold fire. "I see. I wouldn't want to inconvenience you, brother." I use the term coldly. "I will be on my way." I nod at him and move as if to walk past him, but he clears his throat.
Another sharp crack of disappointment, like the fierce whip of a slave driver. Nobody who knows me calls me Domiala. He never called me that before. I'm just Domi.
My feelings must show on my face, because whatever Tag is about to say seems to get lost in his throat. He swallows, and his face becomes a stoic mask again. "It was a pleasure to see you again," he says. I suppose these are assassin—excuse me, bounty hunter—manners. "Good-bye, Domiala."
"Good-bye, Tagaderis." I turn and walk away quickly before he does so first. I don't look back.
I'm in the entrance hall of the guildhouse next morning when we first hear the news.
The guildhouse is situated a few streets away from the market square and a few streets away in the other direction from Lord Halivere's mansion. Lord Halivere is the lord of the city, a duke come directly from the king's court in the capital city of Jauken. The king has entrusted to Lord Halivere the city of Kuendar, which is one of the kingdom's few port cities and a great source of income.
The guildhouse is a mansion that belongs to Lord Hemington, a baron who has distant relations to the king's cousin's wife. At first glance, Lord Hemington seems like any other noble—elegant, rich, and narcissistic—but in secret, he is a senior member of the Black Hand, the kingdom's most successful thieves' guild.
The Black Hand has bases all over the kingdom, and Lord Hemington's mansion is one of them. It is where I was taken by Lord Hemington himself after I attempted to pick his pocket when I was eight.
I was desperate. Tag had abandoned me, and I did not want to become one of the dirty beggars on the street. I decided to steal some money to help me buy food, and I chose someone who looked wealthy, someone who did not seem like he would starve with a few less coins in his pocket.
The person I chose who looked wealthy turned out to be Lord Hemington. He caught me, of course, but instead of having me punished, he brought me to his mansion and asked me if I'd like to join the Black Hand.
I learned later that the reason he did this was because he hadn't felt me pick his pocket. He'd only noticed his money pouch was gone when I coughed a little as I walked away with it—a horribly stupid thing to do (I fully blame Tag though; it was he who left me on the streets in the middle of winter, which had resulted in my developing a slight cold). I'd regret it if it hadn't led me to the Black Hand.
To Lord Hemington, anyone who could successfully pick his pocket had the makings of a true thief. To my eight-year-old self, Lord Hemington's proposal had simply been a blessing. Free food and shelter in exchange for a free—if slightly unethical—education? I would be an idiot if I didn't accept.
So I stayed with the Black Hand for the next eight years. They taught me how to read and write, taught me math and science and philosophy, history and geography. They also trained me: showed me how to pick pockets in a more efficient way, hide, move with as little noise possible, pick locks. How to keep a careful eye out for guards and all the best places to hide things in a room. How to differentiate between real and fake gold, and many other things. Also how to fight.
I've hand-fought before, often with Reshada, but I've never had a real weapons fight. I have used my knife plenty, but never on a person. Only on wooden posts, sacks of flour, fruit.
I do not know if I am capable of doing so, if I must. I'm sure my brother has no qualms though.
It is these thoughts I am contemplating when Reshada rushes through the doors of the mansion into the entrance hall. Reshada is six years older than me, but she looks so young people think she's my age sometimes (my real age, not the age everyone seems to think I am… which is always too low a number). Everything about her is black—her skin, her eyes, her hair. She's fierce and loyal and one of the best thieves I know, and she's the older sister I never had.
"Domi!" she exclaims upon seeing me. She's breathless, and I gather she's run all the way from the market square, where she goes every morning to hear the latest rumors. Rumors are too often proven true.
"What's happened?" I ask. It takes a lot to surprise Reshada. There must be big news today.
Never one to mince words, she says bluntly, "Lord Halivere is dead."
I gape at her. "Surely not."
"Oh, he is. They found his body in his study yesterday noon, and it's been announced this morning in the square. He was murdered, his throat slit. A very clean job."
Whatever I am about to say next gets choked off as I suddenly hear my brother's words in my mind again, over and over, like a chant. I'm here on business. I'm here on business. I'm here on business.
And what is an assassin's business, if not murder?
Reshada frowns at me. "Are you all right, Domi? You've gone pale. Well, paler than usual."
I ignore her; I'm still in shock. I can't believe the reason Tag came back to Kuendar was to kill Lord Halivere.
Lord Halivere is—was—not a cruel man. He dealt business fairly and efficiently, and while he did not actively help the poor, he did not antagonize them either. Unlike some other nobles, he didn't involve himself in shady businesses like the black market or the Black Hand, or any other thieves' guilds. Or the bounty hunters' guild, which calls themselves the Black Sword.
So much black, and Lord Halivere had no part of any of it. I have no idea why someone would pay my brother to kill him.
I can't even believe it was Tag who killed him. Tag, who at thirteen wanted to join the Black Sword to avenge our mother's death on corrupt officials and nobility in the four kingdoms. Tag, who had all these grand ideas about making the world a better place, deposing bad nobles and replacing them with morally better ones. Tag, who wanted to put an end to slavery.
Now he is a slave again—a slave to the Black Sword. They have told him to kill someone innocent of bad deeds, and he has done it. He is not a bounty hunter—bounty hunters kill criminals. He is an assassin.
I never had any doubt of that fact, but the proof still shocks me.
"Domi?" Reshada looks worried now. "Are you all right? You've been standing frozen for nearly a minute now."
"I'm fine," I say. "I'm just a little bit cold." This is a lie; I'm almost never cold, especially not in the summer. I don't think I've ever mentioned this to Reshada before, though, because she doesn't look suspicious.
"Perhaps you've caught a chill. It's nearing autumn now, and it's colder than it used to be in the mornings."
"I should be all right," I say, which is not a lie. I should be. I will be, eventually. Soon.
"I wonder who would kill Lord Halivere," Reshada sighs. "He's a fair man. I hate to think whom the king will replace him with; I've heard terror stories of horrible people in charge of other cities. Word is the king himself is coming to appoint Lord Halivere's successor."
"The king himself? Are you sure?" The king hasn't left the capital in years, though Jauken is no more than a two-day ride on horseback from Kuendar, or a day's sail.
"It's just a rumor. Lord Hemington's going to be very busy for the next few weeks or however long it takes to get Lord Halivere's successor settled down, so don't expect to see him around often."
I nod. I don't see Lord Hemington around that much anyway, though whenever I do I am happy to greet him. He did give me this new life, and he's like a father to me.
"Lord Halivere's guards were killed, too, in the same way as their employer. Whoever did this planned it very well. The city guards are investigating, but they haven't found any clues. They have no idea who did it or why."
I have a clue. I don't just have a clue; I know. However, there's no proof, and I don't think I could turn my own brother in, even if he is a stranger to me now. Besides, I'm sure he's far away from Kuendar already.
So I only shrug. Life has to go on. "Well," I say. "Are there are any new jobs coming in today?"
"Oh yes, I forgot to tell you. We have a new recruit. He was asking around late last night, wanting to know where he could find the Black Hand. He wanted to join. We've recruited him."
I frown. People usually don't join the guild, they get invited. "How old is he?"
"He hasn't said, but he looks a little bit older than you. Maybe eighteen or nineteen."
"How can you be sure he isn't a spy?" We've had spies before, some from the law enforcers and some from other, lesser thieves' guilds. They've all been dealt with immediately.
Reshada smiles grimly. "We aren't sure. So we've assigned you to be his mentor."
One reason the Black Hand is very efficient is due to its steady influx of new talent. Recruits, usually no older than ten or eleven, are trained for at least two years before receiving the standard guild tattoo, thenceforth becoming full-fledged members of the guild. Then they can begin doing jobs for clients, helping with guild business, and even mentoring new recruits, helping them become accustomed to the guild.
I've never mentored anyone before, let alone a young man older than me. "Are you sure it'll be safe? I'm not that strong. If he turns out to be a spy and he attacks me…"
Reshada laughs. "Domi, you're very handy with your knife, and you're an extremely fast runner. I don't think he could possibly sneak up on you, and besides, he won't be given weapons. We want you to watch him, determine if he's trustworthy or not. You're the best judge of character I know."
Is that so? I think. No one's told me that before, and I doubt it myself. I trusted my brother, didn't I?
But all I say is, "All right then. So you want me to train him?"
Reshada shakes her head. "Well, you will be helping train him a little, but mostly he will train with others, and only in a few basic things. We want you to observe him, maybe befriend him. Don't tell him anything you wouldn't tell a recruit fresh off the streets. Oh, and we've stationed him in that house we've rented near the northern docks. Don't tell him the location of the guildhouse."
"We're positive you'll be safe with him. When you see him, you'll know what I mean."
"So when do I start?"
She raises her eyebrows. "Right now."
Reshada accompanies me on the half-hour walk across the rich sector of the city to the rented house. Other than servants scurrying about on errands, we are the only people in the streets. Nobles and the wealthiest merchants can't be bothered to get their feet dirty, so they travel everywhere in carriages. Their drivers can't be bothered to look out for rabble like us, so we have to jump out of the way of several horses' hooves.
We finally come to the edge of the city, where manicured lawns and smooth paved roads turn into bumpy cobblestones once more. The heavy stench of fish oil and brine permeates the air, announcing the docks up ahead.
We turn down another street and reach the rented house, a small, shabby stone building that looks liable to fall over in the next thunderstorm. It belonged to a lone sailor before he was lost at sea a few years ago, hence the lack of proper management. Reshada gives me a wry smile as she unlocks the front door.
"The recruit's with Kina and Eredes right now," she says. "They're telling him about the guild—a brief version." Also known as an incomplete, we-don't-trust-you-so-we-won't-tell-you-anything-i nteresting version.
We step through the front door and walk up the stairs. Despite the way it looks from the outside, ramshackle and small, the house is actually quite large, and the inside has been fixed up a bit since the sailor died (though it's a pity the same can't be said for the outside). I walk out onto a balcony with Reshada, and looking down, I see into an atrium, where the recruit is.
He is far away, but my thief eyes have been trained to take in the smallest details, even from great distances. He has golden-blond hair and an athletic build, but when focusing, I see how relaxed his muscles are, how unassuming his face is, how his stance would make it easy for someone to pick his pocket or slip past him to the door without his knowledge.
He clearly doesn't have a whit of experience. No wonder Reshada thinks I'll be safe with him; I could probably have him trussed up before he realized it.
"Why is he here, anyway?" I ask. "Why does he want to join the guild? Where is he from?"
She shrugs. "He won't say. That's another reason we don't trust him."
"Why'd we let him in, then?"
"Because he looks like he has potential." I give her a blank look, indicating I don't believe her. After all, the guild rarely takes new, inexperienced people in so late. Reshada shrugs again, and since she never hides things from me, she adds, "Also, he's said some things that make us believe he has important connections. Of course, we don't know what those connections might be, but if he is trustworthy, he may be a valuable asset."
Now I understand. "So I have to try to get him to tell me why he's here, what his purpose is."
"And how can I do that? I may be a good judge of character"—I say this with dubiety—"but I'm not the friendliest person in the guild. I don't make friends easily." This is true enough. After eight years, the only people I trust in the Black Hand are Reshada and Lord Hemington. Maybe Ulrike—a girl a little older than me—because she's never been anything but nice to me, but I don't know her that well. I would trust Eredes if he didn't try to pick my pocket every time he saw me.
Reshada suddenly smirks. "I'm sure you can easily make friends with him. Just be your usual charming self."
I scowl, certain she's mocking me. I'm about as charming as a dead rat.
"Shall we go?" she says, and before I answer, she turns to walk down the stairs.
"I forgot to ask," I say, hurrying after her, "but what is his name?"
"Halle," she answers. "He says his name is Halle."
The skepticism in her voice makes it clear she doesn't believe it.
Kina, Eredes, and Halle look up as we walk into the atrium. Kina breaks off in the middle of her sentence, and judging by the glower on her face, it's a good thing we came in just now. The look on her face is suspicious as she stares at our new recruit, and I have the feeling she was ready to tie him to a chair and torture him for information on his past.
Eredes, as usual, has a lazy grin on his face. "Reshada! Domi!" he calls out as we approach. "It's nice to see you two here."
I slap his hand away from my pocket. "We're here on business," I say, and Tag says the same words again in my head: here on business. Here on business. I'm here on business.
Shut up, I tell him, like he can hear me.
"Recruit Halle," Reshada says, "this is Domiala, who has been assigned to be your mentor. She will watch over your training, and if you need help with anything, you can ask her."
"I'm Domi," I say. "Don't call me Domiala."
I forcefully shove the memory away.
"Hello, Domi," Halle says. He's taller up close, but my assessment of him seems correct—he has an easy smile on his face, like he thinks life is pleasant or something. His eyes are bright blue, and upon closer inspection, I realize there's something flickering in those eyes. Something like determination, or maybe anger. It's hard to tell.
Perhaps he does have an ulterior motive for joining the Black Hand after all.
"You're quite young to be in a thieves' guild, aren't you?" Halle says. It sounds like an offhand comment, but I've learned over the years to overanalyze everything other people say; after all, the habit may save my life one day.
"You can never be too young to be a thief," I tell him. "Nor too old, which is why we have accepted you this late." I turn to Kina, who appoints trainers to new recruits. "When and where will he commence his training?"
"He will begin this afternoon," Kina says. "Here."
"Excellent," Reshada says, which is our cue to leave. As I turn for the door, I have to slap Eredes's hand away from my pocket again. I glare at him, and he winks back. Some things never change.
The next two weeks pass very slowly. Usually, I have plenty of spare time, and I spend it doing minor jobs for the guild or adding to the guild's funds (translation: stealing things). However, after Halle arrives, my whole schedule is changed to center around his needs. His needs are extremely boring.
I miss doing assignments, real field assignments and not help-and-spy-on-the-new-recruit assignments. The big jobs are always done with at least two other people, and are more complicated—we have to plan many things out before we act. Small jobs are solo assignments.
A small job is when someone goes to the Black Hand and pays somewhere between twenty and fifty silvers for one of us to steal something. Usually our clients want their neighbors' things, or a rare item they can't get themselves. More often than not, clients want these things for revenge or blackmail purposes.
Big jobs involve more complicated heists (and expensive rewards, usually a few hundred gold coins total for the completed task). I am assigned around four or five of them a year, and those are always the most exciting times of my life. One job involved Eredes, Reshada, Ulrike, and me breaking into the house of Lord Pendara—the king's chief advisor—in Jauken. Our client had wanted us to steal three rare paintings, a vase crafted by the Medrad artisans of the southern jungles, and Lord Pendara's pet dog.
I liked that dog; it was fluffy and soft and let me use it as a pillow. It whimpered piteously when I left it with our client.
The Black Hand draws the line at people, though, even slaves (in other cities, of course. Kuendar has no slaves). When one client promised to pay us six hundred gold coins for two of an earl's favorite slaves, we refused. Those jobs are left to the Black Sword.
It makes me glad; I wouldn't be able to complete that assignment. Having been one myself, I couldn't treat slaves as possessions.
So my life was never dull, with all the breaking and entering and thieving I did for my guild. That is, it was never dull until I was assigned to Halle.
Halle himself isn't dull; he's actually quite friendly. It's following him around all day that's dull.
Halle is something of an enigma. When I watched Kina test his strengths and weaknesses that first afternoon, I realized he was excellent with a sword but terrible with a dagger, good at long-range weapons like the bow but absolutely useless when it came to hand-to-hand combat. When I volunteered to fight him, I knocked him down with my knee in his stomach within ten seconds.
"Pathetic," Kina spat. She didn't trust him, still doesn't though it's been two weeks now. It takes a long time to earn her trust. I'm not sure how I managed it… perhaps by leaving her alone.
I don't talk to Halle much, other than to answer his questions about the guild (I tell him as little as possible) and ask after his health. I've never purposely tried to make friends before, and it's much harder than it sounds. When I'm not fighting him as part of his training, I'm telling him the difference between my dagger and the small blade I use to pick locks, or how to angle his body when I punch him so that if I manage to hit him (which I always do), it bruises less.
Sometimes I pose questions of my own, and he answers them very vaguely. With my supposedly superior deducing skills, I figure out he is eighteen years old, almost nineteen, very well educated, speaks all three dialects of the common tongue and even the language of the Medrad natives in the south, and hates eating vegetables if they're not cooked in oil.
All of this points to him being a noble or at least wealthy (the poor usually can't afford to buy oil, and if they had oil, they'd use it to cook their scarce meat), but that doesn't make any sense. Why would anyone wealthy want to join a thieves' guild?
Still, Halle seems to mean us no harm. Sometimes I think I see strange emotions flashing in his eyes, but then they are gone so quickly I think they may have been a trick of the light—his blue eyes reflect light anyway. Toward the end of the second week, we are joking with each other like we are friends. Of course, he doesn't know much about me other than my name, and I don't know much about him, but we are friendly with each other.
Reshada better be proud.
Three weeks after Halle arrived, three boring weeks of no jobs at all, Reshada bursts into the guildhouse the same way she did that morning when we learned of Lord Halivere's death. "Domi!" she says upon seeing me. "The king himself is coming to Kuendar to appoint Lord Halivere's successor. It's been announced in the city square today."
This is startling news. King Rothemus has not left Jauken in… it has to be five years now. Last time he visited another city in the kingdom was a year or two after I joined the Black Hand, around the time I finished my training, received my tattoo, and became a full-fledged member of the guild.
"Why did it take him three weeks to come?" I wonder. "It's only a two-day ride on horseback, three if you're a bad rider."
Reshada shrugs. "I heard rumors that there was court business to attend to, and also some mix-up regarding Lord Halivere's successor. I think the king was looking for someone to be appointed and couldn't find the person he wanted, so it took him a while to decide on someone else. Of course, that's just rumor."
Well, rumor has been trustworthy lately, considering three weeks ago I thought the rumor of the king coming to Kuendar was an impossibility.
"Also, I'm pretty sure he'll come by ship. It'll be safer and faster that way."
"So when is he to arrive?"
"Sometime this week or next week. He'll need time to gather his guards, assign new posts, and things like that. I heard he might be staying for a week. You know what that means for us."
It means we have to go through the guildhouse in Kuendar and hide any evidence of our guild's colorful history, in case the king happens to visit. I don't think it likely that King Rothemus will enter a dead sailor's house, but the guildhouse must look flawless, because the king will likely pay a visit to Lord Hemington, his cousin's wife's something-or-other.
Still, it is best to be safe than sorry, so Halle, Eredes, and I make sure the dead sailor's house looks just like that—a dead sailor's house.
"So will I ever know where the guildhouse is?" Halle asks. He's been asking this question more and more recently.
"Eventually," I tell him.
"How long until new recruits are trusted with that information?"
"Until they are deemed trustworthy," I say smoothly. Actually, new recruits in Kuendar are usually brought to the guildhouse right away. I was deemed trustworthy right away, though—I was eight, after all. This is something thieves must remember: every good lie should have a grain of truth in it. This might help you in difficult situations, like, say, trying to answer the question, "Who are you, what are you doing in my house, and why are you holding my jewels/secret documents/cat?"
Halle believes me. "And how long does it take to be deemed trustworthy?" he wants to know.
"As long as it takes to prove yourself." It is Eredes who answers this time.
"Let me prove myself now. I'll do a job." Kina and I have told him about our assignments, though I tell him in a conversational way and Kina tells him in a "you'll never get to do this sort of thing, you untrustworthy sneak" way.
Eredes bursts out laughing. "You? Go on a job? It takes Domi hardly twenty seconds to knock you down. Granted, it's an improvement from ten seconds, but still…"
Halle doesn't even look embarrassed. "She was trained for this for years. I've only had a few weeks."
"Yes, and it was years until she was allowed on a job. Stick with us for two more years and if you survive, perhaps you'll be allowed a chance."
"She was a little girl then. I'm grown."
I'm surprised; I never told him I was a little girl when I joined the guild. Of course, it's not hard to figure out seeing as it's well known I've been part of the Black Hand for many years now, but still, I didn't think he'd notice or think about it. Perhaps I should pay more attention to what he's paying attention to, not just to him.
As soon as I think that, I have to resist the urge to smack myself on the head. Of course that's what I should do, should have been doing all along. For someone with supposed good judge of character, I was quite dense. To judge someone, you have to do it through not only your eyes, but theirs, too.
I resolve to do a better job on my assignment from now on. If Halle turns out to be a spy and I didn't know, I'll have failed my guild. And I can't do that; they're my only family now.
I push Tag out of my mind.
Of course, Halle's request for a job goes unfulfilled, and the next few days pass as they did the last few weeks, with only one difference: I'm paying special attention to what Halle seems to find important.
When I do this, I realize right away that something is not quite right. He is friendly and polite, he doesn't lose his temper when Kina sneers at him, and he seems to answer my questions truthfully. He works hard in his training and doesn't seem to harbor ill will toward any of us.
However, upon closer inspection, I see that the flickering in his eyes really is pent-up emotion, not just a trick of the light. His face is always friendly and open, but the eyes give him away. Sometimes, when we are talking about the most random things, he stiffens the tiniest bit before relaxing. I never noticed before because I was always analyzing his questions and the way he acts during training and supper.
It is odd, though. If Halle means us no harm, why is he acting like this? Why is he even here in the first place?
I brood over these questions and try to match them up with Halle's behavioral patterns, with no luck. I do this so often, I start pushing my notice of my surroundings to the back of my mind, instead of constantly keeping a vigilant eye out. This is why the second time I meet my brother again, he sees me before I see him.
It is something of a nasty shock when I bump into someone, say "excuse me," look up, and realize I'm looking into Tag's face.
"Oh," I say, and I resolve that will be the most surprise I will ever show in front of him from now on.
He inclines his head. "Domiala."
I return the gesture. "Tagaderis."
Well, a voice that sounds like Eredes says in my mind. This is awkward.
We are standing near the end of a street in the middle-class sector of the city, a few minutes away from the marketplace. There is a light drizzle falling around us, but this is considered good weather in Kuendar. People even frequent the streets during thunderstorms.
"Have you been in Kuendar all this time?" I ask, though I already know the answer to this question.
Tag shakes his head in response.
His lack of a verbal response irritates me. I cross my arms over my chest and give him my best blank look. "Did you enjoy cutting Lord Halivere's throat open?"
He winces a little. I'm just glad he didn't answer in the affirmative.
I cut him off. "Why did you do it? Lord Halivere was not a bad man."
The expression on his face disappears, replaced by an emotionless mask. "I was paid a thousand gold coins for his death."
I am horrified and, despite myself, impressed. I'm not sure, but I don't think I earn that much in a year. No wonder the members of the Black Sword always dress so fancily.
I also take note of how he said I, not we. I suppose the assassins operate alone; after all, if they're very good at killing, perhaps it's best to keep them apart. If Kina and Halle were in the bounty hunters' guild, one of them would probably be dead by now, and it wouldn't be Kina.
"So you're rich then, brother? What do you do with your blood money?"
Another twitch of his face, like he's fighting down an expression. I think I see a hint of anger. Good. "That's none of your concern, Domiala," he says.
This is ridiculous. This whole situation is ridiculous. "You're right," I say. "It's none of my concern." I am fed up with talking to this stranger, this assassin who was once my only relation. "Have a good day, Tagaderis."
He turns his body so he's blocking my path. "Wait, sister…"
I give him a dark look. This better be meaningful or important. "What?"
He pauses, scratches his head. "What have you been doing the past seven years?"
I can't believe it. He is asking after my wellbeing now?
"It's been eight years, brother," I practically spit at him, "and I told you already. I've been surviving."
"It's just… you look well-fed. Did someone wealthy take you in as part of his household?"
So he thinks I'm a servant. "Yes, someone wealthy took me in." What I do in the wealthy person's household he can assume for himself; he doesn't need to know anything.
Tag looks at me strangely, and I suppose it's because I'm not dressed like a servant. I don't care. "Why are you asking now? Why are you in Kuendar again, anyway?"
He just shakes his head. "You don't want to know." And then before I can reply, he melts away into the crowd.
I silently curse myself. I'm a thief with sharp eyes; I should know better than to let someone disappear right in front of me like that, and so quickly, too. It's too late though: Tag's gone.
I've just turned to walk in the opposite direction when another person's appearance surprises me. It's Halle this time, which makes me wonder just how terrible my thief sixth sense has gotten lately. It must be the lack of jobs.
"Who was that?" he asks, nodding in the direction Tag disappeared off to.
I consider lying, but I don't think the truth will hurt. After all, this was just a chance encounter; I'm sure I'll never see Tag again. "My brother."
"I didn't know you had a brother. He doesn't look much like you," Halle is saying, but I don't hear him, because a realization has suddenly struck me like a hammer, a swift and heavy blow that renders me immobile.
Tag's an assassin; assassins never go anywhere randomly. This was not a chance encounter. Tag's here on business again.
An assassin is in Kuendar on business, when the king is due to arrive any day.
Tag's here to murder the king.
I break all my speediest running records on my sprint back to the guildhouse. I have to tell someone. Reshada, Lord Hemington—wherever he is—Eredes, Kina, the city guards. Someone needs to know, so the king can be protected.
King Rothemus has been on the throne for as long as I can remember, and like Lord Halivere, he is very just. He keeps good trade agreements with the other three known kingdoms and has even forged tentative alliances with the nations of barbarians in the islands of the Finatide Sea. He executes criminals in the capital, but only after they have been extensively tried and found guilty of horrible charges. He doesn't like slavery but thinks it's a necessary part of keeping our kingdom's economy stable. (Even I, a former slave, have to admit that while slavery is a horrendous practice, without it, our kingdom would suffer greatly.)
King Rothemus is always protected by many loyal guards, but who knows what his protection will be like after he leaves the capital for the first time in many years? There's another rumor floating around that the king is going to address the people of the city himself in the city square. If that's true, it'll be a large crowd and a raised target—perfect for an assassin, and so easy Halle could probably do it.
I do not want King Rothemus to die, and especially not at the hands of my brother. Like Reshada says, who knows what person will step up next? If someone horrible is appointed in Lord Halivere's place—well, Kuendar is only one city in the kingdom. If someone horrible becomes king… that could be disastrous.
I imagine it as I run: Tag's hand twitching, the king falling lifeless to the ground, a fight for the throne, a terrible king enslaving his people and attempting to go to war against the other kingdoms.
I think King Rothemus has a son, just one heir, but he's still young, around my age, I heard. The king's council will clamor to appoint someone else as temporary ruler until the prince is of age, and then a political catfight will ensue.
That cannot be allowed to happen.
I don't have great love for my king, but I think trying to assassinate him is a very bad idea. After all, the Black Sword is technically the kingdom's only guild of bounty hunters, the people who hunt down and kill criminals typical law enforcers can't deal with. However, they accept any jobs as long as their clients can pay, so I think that makes them assassins.
The Black Sword is often associated with the Black Hand, which is the most powerful thieves' guild in the kingdom. While we don't do anything to really harm people, we are definitely not legal. The capital mostly turns a blind eye to us because of our harmlessness, and to the Black Sword because the bounty hunters are hired by the capital too. We do worry about spies, but we're definitely not against the king.
However, if it is found out that a member of the Black Sword assassinated the king, I don't think the capital will ignore us anymore. If Tag succeeds, it could mean the end of my guild, too.
Thinking this makes me screech to a halt. Another realization has struck me. The thieves' guild and the bounty hunters' guild, while not allies, are not enemies either. We do not interfere with each other's business.
If the Black Sword finds out it was the Black Hand that ruined one of its jobs… well, all I can say for sure is that they are very accomplished assassins.
I can't involve my guild. I'll have to do this myself.
I curse loudly, attracting several startled looks. I can only imagine how I look to passersby—a girl running like a murderer is chasing her, then suddenly stopping and employing phrases men twice her size would not use in public.
If there is one thing thieves hate more than being caught, it's being the center of attention. I lower my eyes and relax my facial muscles so that despite my outburst, I look like a young, somewhat dull-witted girl. The interest fades, the stares quickly disappear.
"Amazing," Halle says. I nearly jump; in my panic, I didn't notice he was running after me. So Halle can run fast, since he managed to catch up with me. I add that to my mental list of things I know about him.
"I've never heard a girl swear so fluently," he muses. "All the girls I know look faint every time someone utters so much as a single curse word."
Yes, he must be noble. Only noble women wouldn't be able to stand profanity.
"What happened, Domi?" he asks. "You just suddenly ran away. I had a hard time catching up to you."
"You run pretty fast," I mutter. Since I can't even tell Reshada what I've discovered, I definitely can't tell Halle. I've decided I like him, but I don't trust him.
"So I've been told. Did something happen?"
I rack my mind for a good excuse, but come up blank. The shock must have taken away my creativity. "I… just remembered there was something that needed to be done. And then I stopped because I remembered I already did it."
I don't think Halle believes me—it was a barefaced lie—but he nods anyway. "Oh, all right," he says. "So… that was your brother?"
The mention of Tag brings all my feelings of desperation back. "Yes," I answer shortly. "We aren't close."
A funny look crosses Halle's face; it's another one of those expressions I can't read, like he's on the brink of some understanding, but I can't fathom what. "Does he live in Kuendar?"
"No. Halle, I have to go. I'll see you later, all right?"
I'm off and running again before he can reply.
Back in my room in the guildhouse, I sit on my bed and try to come up with a plan, but the insides of my head are a swirling, jumbling mess.
All the thieves who live at Lord Hemington's mansion have their rooms on the top floor, all next to each other. The men and boys live on one side, the women and girls on the other. The recruits, all children, live two to a room, and the full-fledged guild members get their own rooms.
My room is at the end of the hallway, a large square space with wooden paneling and blue-painted walls. A mahogany wardrobe and a gilded mirror sit in the corner, and the wide windows on the side give me a good view of the streets below.
Today, however, I do not want to see the populace, so I draw the curtains (red silk, spoils of a job I did when I was twelve) shut and lie on my bed, which is so big it could fit three other people and still have room to spare. I can almost lie on it sideways, but I don't. Instead, I contemplate.
Why is it always Tag doing these jobs in Kuendar? Does he ask for them, knowing I might be here? I dismiss this thought quickly. Still, is he really that good of an assassin, to be given the job of killing the king?
Am I even sure he's here to kill the king? It's just an assumption, though my assumptions usually prove correct. I think of Tag, his face dark, saying you don't want to know, and shudder. I'm sure.
So what am I supposed to do about it?
Three hours later, the sun is starting to sink in the sky as I leave the guildhouse. Sunset is stronger than sunrise; it's made of reds and purples rather than oranges and pinks, but the colors still bleed out in the gray sky like a half-healed wound.
It's just past suppertime, when everyone is either heading home or already there, readying for bed. A perfect time to scout.
I head instantly for the sector of the city where the middle-upper class lives, a fifteen-minute walk from the guildhouse. Once there, I look for the inns.
Tag wouldn't want to draw attention to himself by staying at one of the wealthiest inns, but he would stick out like a sore thumb if he stayed at one of the inns in the poor sector of the city—besides, that would be too far from Kuendar's city square, where the king might or might not make a speech. Tag would look best here, in the middle-upper class sector. I don't allow myself to think he's staying at one of the Black Sword's bases in Kuendar, because if he is, I have no idea where to find him. I don't even know if the Black Sword has bases in Kuendar, but since we have bases everywhere, I think it's safe to assume they do too.
I've dressed in clothes slightly fancier than my usual, which look normal in this part of the city. There are no beggars in the streets here, and the roads are paved like they are around the guildhouse.
I walk around and try four inns, with no success. None of them have any recent guests that match my description of Tag.
I decide to try one more inn before going back, for it's almost dark out now. "Good evening, sir," I say to the innkeeper at yet another establishment, and I repeat the words I've been saying for the past hour. "Has my brother arrived yet?"
The innkeeper is a man around Lord Hemington's age, with fine dark hair streaked with gray. He has a friendly look about him.
"Your brother?" he echoes. "What does he look like?"
"Oh, he has black hair, brown eyes, and sun-darkened skin. He's a tall young man who usually wears black. He was supposed to arrive last week, but I think he got delayed in the capital," I say. I roll my eyes jokingly for good measure. "Mother's very cross with him; we've been waiting to see him for such a long time!"
"Oh, that young fellow," the innkeeper says. "Yes, he arrived last night, though I'm afraid he's just gone out. Would you like me to leave him a message?"
My heart leaps into my throat, and I have to swallow before I can answer. "Oh, no, please don't; I want to surprise him. Can I just have his room number?"
"Room 215," the innkeeper tells me. "It's on the second floor."
"Thank you," I say cheerfully. "I'm going to find his room now so I won't have to look for it when I come back. Do you know when he'll be back?"
"Not for some time, I believe."
That relieves me. "All right, thank you. Remember, don't tell him; I want to surprise him."
The innkeeper nods and smiles and waves me away. I head across the common room and out of habit, my eyes dart around to look for quick escapes and hiding places. If the fire roaring in the grate were put out, or the plush upholstered armchairs moved to a different angle so they didn't block the door as much…
I walk up the stairs to the second floor and find Room 215. I rap on the door, and there is no response. Good.
The door is locked, of course. I would be disappointed if it weren't. I rap on the door again, this time more sharply with my knuckles, and find that when knocking on the side of the door where it meets its frame in the wall, the sound is duller. I knock again, listen closely, and nod to myself. The door is bolted shut on the inside, impossible to open from the outside unless you have its exact key, or you're willing to sacrifice the lock. And possibly the door.
I didn't bring a crowbar, and there's no way to open the door without making it obvious it was broken into anyway. I retreat, see where the room is in relation to the rest of the hall, review the floor plan of the inn I memorized on my way up the stairs, and leave.
I bid the innkeeper farewell and head outside. It is dark out now, which will hide my actions from prying eyes.
I walk to another side of the inn, which is surrounded by a courtyard filled with low, scraggly bushes. After making sure no one is around, I make my way up the fence and vault over, landing in a crouch. Straightening, I look up at the inn building. Then I begin to climb.
The building is made of bricks and mortar, but the mortar has crumbled away over the years, making the bricks perfect handholds. I pull myself up slowly—I want to do this quickly, but I have to give myself time to press against the shadows if someone comes, and I have to be quiet too.
I have climbed up the wall where I calculated Tag's room to be. Tag's careful: his window is locked, but then again, that's why I brought my knife. I perch on the window ledge and slip my knife out of my boot. With a jimmy and a click, the window opens, and I pull myself through.
His room is abnormally neat, especially so if you've been in Eredes's room before. The bed sheets are folded, the chair pushed into the desk, not a single hair in sight. A lamp flickers on the wall.
The only sign this room is occupied is a black bag in the corner, half-hidden by the table. If I were coming in through the door, I would miss it if I didn't make a careful inspection of the room.
I immediately cross the room, fall to my knees, and open the bag.
Weapons. Many, many weapons. Sharp knives with serrated edges, daggers with wicked curves to their blades, small darts that are probably poisonous due to their steel encasing. There are also glass vials wrapped in cloth, some filled with clear liquids that look like water and some filled with liquids of strange swirling colors, and little pouches of powder. I sniff one. Ground belladonna roots.
What in the world is my brother doing with all these instruments of death? Is he planning to murder a whole sector of the city or something?
I close the bag again, leaving it in the position I found it in, and go to the closet. Pushing aside a long black coat reveals a hand-and-a-half sword, a spear, a longbow, a smaller curved bow, and a sheath of feathered arrows, as well as a safe.
There must be documents in the safe. There's a padlock on it, which my knife won't take care of, but I have come prepared. I reach into my boot for my lockpicking tools, and that's when I hear it.
Footsteps in the hall.
I can't be certain it's Tag, but if it is…
I'm just getting ready to jump up and run back to the window when I hear a voice. "'ey, where did ya go tonight?" The voice is slurred, unsteady. A drunk.
Despite the possible danger I am in, I have to smile. So the middle-upper class has its share of drunks, too.
And then Tag's voice, cold enough it makes my blood freeze: "That's none of your concern."
That's none of your concern, Domiala.
Yes, none of my concern, that's why I'm here in your room, looking through your closet, Tagaderis.
"Just wanted ta know," the drunk mumbles, and from the shuffling of his feet, it sounds like he's moved. Sure enough, Tag snaps, "Get out of my way."
"C'mon, I like your doorway," the drunk says, and I waste no time. I drop to my knees again, pull out my lockpicks, and start working on the padlock.
I've just opened the safe to find a thin manila folder when I hear a slam and a cry of pain. Great, Tag's hurting stupid innocent fools.
There's no time, so I rifle briefly through the folder. What I see is enough to convince me Tag's here to assassinate the king. The line the king and half his guard, including the captain, are arriving two days after you is a dead giveaway.
The drunk cries out again, and I realize Tag's pushed him, maybe kicked him, out of the doorway. Which means he's coming in any second now.
Quick as a whip, I put the folder back into the safe and click the padlock shut. I ease out of the closet, close the door, and race for the window.
The lock clicks, and the door to the room starts opening as I draw the curtains (ironically, they're also red silk) shut behind me. Clinging to the window ledge, I use one hand to lock the window and slam it shut at the same time Tag slams the door to his room shut, so the sound of the door should cover the sound of the window.
He hasn't heard anything, I'm positive of it. I haven't successfully completed so many jobs these last six years for nothing.
I take a moment to sit on the window ledge and catch my breath. Just as I am about to start climbing down, the curtains fly open.
It's dark out, but there's no way he can't see me right outside the window. Tag's face is priceless. It's a mixture of anger, shock, and…
If I'm not mistaken, he looks a little bit proud.
I do the only thing I can think of. I give him a cheeky grin and disappear from sight.
He's probably going to try and follow me, but he'll be too late. I'm furious with myself, and fury gives me motivation. Within ten seconds I have reached the ground; another ten seconds and I've scaled the fence around the courtyard. I think I see a figure run out of the inn, but by the time he turns in the right direction, I've already vanished into the night.
The king and half his guard, including the captain, are arriving two days after you. The king and half his guard, including the captain, are arriving two days after you. I repeat the words in my head as I run, like a mantra.
The king and half his guard, including the captain, are arriving two days after you. The innkeeper said Tag arrived yesterday. That means the king's coming tomorrow.
The king and half his guard, including the captain, are arriving two days after you.
That's the only sentence I remember clearly from Tag's documents, considering how little time I had to look at them. If only I'd had five more minutes, I could have memorized everything on those papers.
The king and half his guard, including the captain, are arriving two days after you.
I have a feeling I'm missing something here—other than details of Tag's plan, of course. I don't know nearly as much as I need to, and it bothers me. So the king will be protected by half his guard, including the captain. The captain of the guard must be hard to get by. How is Tag going to do it? How can he possibly succeed in the assassination?
Then I remember that he sensed someone had been in his room, that someone was outside the window. I've been trained by the best, I am one of the best, and he still sensed me. Clearly, he's one of the best, too. Maybe he can succeed.
I shake my head quickly, like that can dislodge the thought from my mind.
No, I vow. He won't. Not if I have anything to do about it.
Morning comes slowly as always, but today the sun takes an especially long time rising, as if it too senses what might take place and wants to postpone it as long as possible. As I pace the length of one of the docks in the harbor, I try to sort out my thoughts, but they are all muddled and refuse to cooperate with me.
"You're up early, miss," a grizzled sailor says as he climbs off his ship. His arms are loaded with boxes.
"I'm used to it," I answer.
"Good habit, waking before dawn. One gets more done when everyone else is asleep," he says, nodding in approval.
I look at the boxes in his arms. "Say, where are you going with those?"
"We're loading up on supplies before we leave at noon," the sailor explains. "We'd like to leave before the king's ship gets here and security is raised."
I raise my eyebrows. "The king's ship? When is the king arriving?"
"Early afternoon is what I heard."
I look more closely at him—the sailor's weatherbeaten face is lined and scarred, but I still see the high forehead and angular jaw of people from the capital city. He might know something I don't. "Do you know how long the king is staying?"
"Just a day, miss. He's leaving again tomorrow morning; there's urgent business in the court to be taken care of. That's what everyone says."
Just one day. The king is staying in Kuendar for only one day. That gives Tag today and tonight to murder him.
I know what I have to do.
"Thank you, sir," I say. "May a favorable wind be always with you." It's a common saying sailors use, same as "good-bye" or "have a good journey."
"Thank you, miss," the sailor says, and he walks off the docks and into the city. I suppose he'll be going to Alla Mae's convenience store; it's the only one open this early.
The king is arriving this afternoon. I repeat this to myself as I head back to the guildhouse, trying to formulate a plan.
I'm at the northern harbor when the royal ship sails in. I'm not the only one; there's a huge crowd of people, rich and poor alike, who all want a glimpse of the king. The city guards have to cordon off sections of the docks so that the king and his guards won't be stampeded when they step off their ship.
The ship is unlike any I have seen before, and living in a port city, I've seen my fair share of ships. This vessel looks almost like an expensive toy boat—shiny, smooth, and gleaming with hundreds of sails, the sort of carefully crafted toy only nobles could afford to buy for their children. This vessel looks too perfect to be tainted with seawater.
The first people to step off are, of course, guards. There are dozens of them, and I know any chance of assassination right now is nonexistent. There's no way anyone—no matter how skilled—can get through the sheer mass of bodies.
I see the captain of the guard step off the ship right before the king does. He's a tall, heavyset man with broad shoulders and a thick brow that makes him look like he has a permanent scowl on his face. I've heard of the captain from Lord Hemington—his name is Rolan, and apparently he's an ambitious man whose chief duties are protecting the king and crushing weaklings underfoot. Possibly not in that order.
A mass of guards swarms up the moment the king appears, definitely blocking any arrows that might go flying at the monarch. I've never seen King Rothemus in person before, though I've seen paintings and other renderings. The man looks almost ordinary—tall and brown-haired, wearing a fine woven cloak and silk tunic. He could be any other noble, except for the circlet of gold upon his brow.
Behind the king appear a few advisors—I see Lord Pendara, the chief advisor, and I wonder how he is faring without his pet dog.
I expect the crowd to grow louder at the sight of the king, but to my surprise, almost all sound dies. We all bow our heads respectfully, even the beggars, and I think, even now my city can surprise me.
I don't expect the king to say anything to us, but he does. His voice, deep and powerful, though not loud, carries easily through the throngs of people. "Citizens of Kuendar," he says. "I thank you all."
Everyone applauds. Some people even cheer and I think I hear one or two hoots. I realize with no small degree of surprise that the people love their king.
Why did I not realize this before? It must be because I'm always with members of the Black Hand, who don't have much opinion on anything royal, other than "breaking into the castle was fun."
The king and his advisors are hustled off by the royal guards and several city guards. Some people try to follow the king but the guards shoo them off. Slowly, the crowd disperses.
A few guards—many guards, actually, but only a few compared to the huge number that left with the king—stay back to watch the ship, and I'm certain there are more of them still on and inside it. Sailors go back to their work, and no one else lingers.
No one except me and Tag.
I notice him as I turn to get a better look at the royal sailing vessel. He's dressed more plainly in a cotton tunic instead of silk (though still black), and he's half-concealed behind some barrels near another ship. As if sensing my gaze, he looks up at me and smiles.
I give him my sweetest smile back, which is equivalent to saying I don't grimace as I turn the corners of my lips up. Then I hurry after the king.
The king and his guards are staying in the city hall, which is very close to the late Lord Halivere's mansion and not too far from the guildhouse. This is good news for me; I can scout more easily.
On one side of the city square stands the city hall, a proud stone building with five floors and an arched ceiling. It's where citizen records are kept, where Lord Halivere used to go to work every day until he was murdered. It's also surrounded by guards on all sides.
"Sorry," one of them says to me as I walk up to the entrance, "but no one is allowed inside while the king is here."
I give him my best innocent look. Believe it or not, I'm good at innocent looks… fake ones, anyway. "I know that. I just want to ask a question."
"Well, what is it?" the guard demands.
"When is the king leaving? My brother has been living here for a while now, and he wants to apply to become a citizen," I say. Funny how I'm always using Tag as an excuse, seeing as I wouldn't even be here doing this if it weren't for him.
"The king is leaving tomorrow morning," the guard tells me. "You can come make your appointment then."
"Oh, but the weather's been favorable lately"—he looks dubiously at the overcast sky, so clearly he's not from Kuendar—"and he wants to visit the capital while it lasts, so he wants to make the appointment as soon as possible. When is the king going to be leaving this afternoon? I'll come make the appointment then."
The guard eyes me impatiently, like he's getting tired of my jabbering. "The king's going to be accepting visitors who are lords of the city all afternoon." His pointed tone meaningfully reminds me I'm not a lord of the city. "You can come back at suppertime."
"Where's he going at suppertime?"
The guard waves me off. "Lord Halivere's mansion. Go now! You shouldn't linger here."
It still amazes me sometimes how people automatically don't count me as a threat because I'm young, and a girl. It's a wonderful advantage though, one I'm grateful for. If I were Tag, the guard definitely would not be telling me all this, no matter what excuse I gave for wanting to know.
I thank him and am about to leave when the city hall's front doors open, and another guard walks out. I hear voices drifting out behind him before the doors swing shut. One of them is the king's.
"—he must be here, it's his city—"
"—would have appeared if he wanted the position—"
"—Rolan says we leave tomorrow no matter what… it's dangerous for him—"
"What's this, Lon?" the guard that just appeared says. "Didn't Rolan tell you no people by the entrance at least five times? Do you want to be punished?"
"I told her to leave already!" Lon's turning red, whether from anger or embarrassment or fear of punishment I can't tell. I wave and quickly duck away before I get in trouble.
Once again, the rumors are true. The king's looking for someone to replace Lord Halivere and can't find the person. I wonder who it is. Maybe Lord Hemington? I haven't seen him around lately.
I do hope it isn't Lord Hemington. If it is, and he accepts, I'll see him around even less. And who would oversee the guildhouse?
More importantly, though, the captain of the guard, Rolan, ostensibly knows that there's danger in Kuendar. I don't know how he knows, but it's good that he does. Dangerous for him, that voice (Lord Pendara's?) said. Because if someone tries to assassinate the king, Rolan's going to be the first one throwing himself at the would-be assassin.
I try to picture the powerful-looking captain of the guard in a fight with my brother. Who would win? I can't imagine. Rolan's heavily built and he's got years of experience, but Tag has youth and his abilities as a professional killer on his side.
I hope it doesn't come to that. I may not know Tag at all anymore, and I am trying to stop what he's planning, but he's still my brother, if only by blood. I don't want him to die, which he will if anyone finds out he murdered the king.
Which he won't do, because I'm now all the more determined to stop him.
By late afternoon, a miracle has happened: the clouds have cleared up and the sun is shining brightly, like the skies over Kuendar are happy that the king himself is here. I feel like the weather is mocking me.
I hurry back to the city hall from the guildhouse, and on the way, I see Halle. With all that's been going on with Tag and the king, I've forgotten all about the new recruit I'm supposed to mentor. "Halle!" I call out.
He jerks to a stop like he's been struck by a noble's carriage and turns to face me. "Domi!" he says, but his smile doesn't reach his eyes.
I frown. "Are you feeling ill, Halle?" He looks ill. There are dark bags under his eyes like he hasn't slept well, and his face is pale, even in the sun.
"Just tired," he says.
I'm sure there's more to it than that, but I don't pry. Maybe Kina's caustic words are finally getting to him. I make a mental note to talk to her about it; Halle's really not that bad.
"I have something to do," he says. "I'll talk to you later, all right?"
"All right," I agree. I watch him leave and shake off the feeling that I'm worried about him. I must reserve all my worry for the issue at hand.
I watch the city hall from afar this time, and after fifteen minutes or so, a large number of guards gather around the entrance. The king, the captain of the guard, and the chief advisor walk out, and together, the group leaves the city square and heads into the rich sector of the city, down the street in the direction of Lord Halivere's mansion.
I follow at a distance, keeping an eye out for Tag or any other shady-looking person. The city's people respectfully make way for the king and his entourage, and while King Rothemus does occasionally nod or wave at the populace, he's so surrounded by guards there's no way anyone can slip a knife between his ribs or shoot an arrow at him without hitting someone else first.
The group moves slowly because it's so large; it takes fifteen minutes to walk down two streets. However, nothing's happened so far, and we're nearing Lord Halivere's mansion, so I'm almost starting to relax until I see Tag.
I instantly shift position and pull my cap lower over my head. I don't think one cap will disguise me, but it might buy me some time.
Tag's on the other side of the group, in the middle of a crowd of middle-upper class citizens. He's dressed and acting just like them, walking at a leisurely pace and sneaking glances at the king's entourage. I'm probably the only one who notices the way his eyes dart around to take in trajectory angles and the number of guards in certain formations around the king.
Hunching my back and sticking my hands in my pockets, I leave my side of the street and cross over to Tag's. He's so concentrated on his mental calculations he doesn't notice me step in place behind him and wait.
The opportunity comes when the king's group shifts to turn down a side street. Some people in the crowd around me do the same thing, turning and moving and therefore brushing against each other. I quickly reach out my hand like I'm simply stretching and pull things out of Tag's coat pockets.
The thin knife cuts me as I grab it by the blade, but I ignore the small trickle of blood that runs down my palm. I've also gotten a small handful of poison darts and a leather pouch.
Tag's turning too, so I shove the things in my own pockets and duck behind a tall man with a long, sweeping coat. I hope the garish red color of the cap stands out so much Tag won't think it's me underneath it. Another lesson on being a good thief: sometimes standing out is the best way to hide. Hiding in plain sight.
Sure enough, Tag's eyes don't hesitate. I can almost feel his burning gaze, but it doesn't stop on me. When I dare peek out from under my cap, I realize he's gone.
I almost curse out loud. I spin around and see him walking closer to the king, still in the middle of a crowd. I go through a mental checklist of other weapons he could have—a knife in his boot? He wouldn't be able to throw it. Something else I missed in his pockets?
And then it hits me, and I do swear out loud. Tag's wearing a long black formal coat, the sort the middle-upper class wear. He must have pockets inside his coat.
I fully blame Lord Hemington for making me dress like a proper lady outside the guildhouse—ladies' formal coats don't have pockets on the inside, so I didn't consider the possibility until now.
I start running, but there's too many people everywhere and it's like trying to run through half-frozen water, slow going and always crashing into chunks of ice (in my case, people). My only coherent thought is that I must reach Tag before he reaches the king and knock him down, subdue him somehow. I've got his knife with me…
The next few seconds seem to take an eternity to pass. When I'm doing something interesting or exciting, time just flies by like an arrow making its way to the bulls-eye of a target. I blink and hours have gone by.
This is the exact opposite. Here I'm trying to run but I'm pushed up against too many people, unable to move faster than a quick walk, and only succeeding in annoying people as I bang into them in my haste. I'm too far away to do anything, and all I can do is watch…
I see the king's entourage, a large sprawling group of navy-uniformed men with the king, the captain of the guard (Rolan, a detached part of my brain whispers to me, the captain of the guard's name is Rolan), and Lord Pendara in the center. I see how they turn, how the guards shift their bodies so they won't bump into each other, how they all do the same thing in such a coordinated way the entire mass looks like a crawling giant blue beetle.
I see how the synchronized turning leaves the gaps between each guard slightly bigger, and I see the position in my head as clearly as if I'm standing in Tag's spot: the exact angle at which you can throw something and, if you've got miraculous aim, reach the center.
I see Tag, reaching inside his coat, then stretching an arm back almost lazily, like he's tired and wants to relax his muscles. I see his wrist flick, and something so tiny my thief eyes can barely see it—a poison dart—goes hurtling toward the royal procession, flashes by the spaces between the guards—
—makes an arc through the air, and buries itself in the captain's throat.
Rolan falls like a sack of bricks. One moment he's walking next to the king, face impassive and eyes assessing, and next moment he's on the ground, blood pooling from his neck.
I don't need thief eyes to see he's dead.
Instant chaos. If you ever need pandemonium so complete it couldn't possibly get any more hectic, kill someone walking right next to the king, protected by hundreds of guards around them. It works beautifully.
The king's guards are all so shocked for one second that none of them move. Then they react. There's roaring, shouting, pushing, as the guards, undisciplined without their leader, scramble to form a tight barrier around the king and Lord Pendara still in the center. The people in the streets have realized something's gone wrong, too. Everyone seems frozen, and then a lady stepping out of her carriage faints at the sight of the blood pooling around the captain's dead body.
People start yelling in alarm. A few women scream, and a servant's dog starts barking. I see a carriage driver trying to control his horses, which are shaking their heads and shifting in unease at the sudden onslaught of noise.
Like I said. Instant chaos.
Only I stand motionless in the middle of it all. I'm unable to move, really; I'm frozen in shock and horror and the beginnings of realization. A sentence is repeating itself in my head, over and over, like one of the brightly colored speech-imitating birds of the barbarian islands.
The king and half his guard, including the captain, are arriving two days after you.
I am such a fool.
I am such a complete, utter, total fool.
I don't know how long I stand there, stock-still in the middle of the street, but I do know that eventually, most of the remaining guards stationed at the docks have arrived, as well as most of Kuendar's city guards. Some guards pick up their dead captain's body, and the even-larger group finishes escorting the king to Lord Halivere's mansion.
Blood has seeped into the cracks of the cobblestone street, staining the pavement a dark red. It's not a lot of blood—the poison dart was small—but from the way people are screaming and panicking, you'd think there was a lake of it.
The guards that haven't left with the king's group are talking about barricading the streets: they think the assassin must still be here somewhere. But I don't have to look around to know that Tag's gone, and won't be back. Good assassins are like thieves—they know when to run, when to hide, when to disappear.
I finally move, turning away from the scene and walking to the end of the street, opposite the direction the king left in. I have no part in this anymore; my job here is done. I didn't fail—the king is still alive.
Fool, I think.
People are streaming away from the scene of the crime, some of them still in hysterics. Several times they are stopped by guards, but it's clear none of these scared citizens had anything to do with the murder—the attempted assassination of the king.
I laugh quietly to myself.
I reach the end of the street, where a guard takes one look at me—a young, wide-eyed girl in a bright red cap—and lets me leave. The people on the next street over are panicking, too, because they hear the screaming.
I push my way through the crowd, my mind still stuck on what just happened. I feel foolish, angry, horrified, surprised, and… relieved. I'm relieved.
It's over. The king's going to live.
This has nothing to do with me now. I can go back to the guildhouse and completely focus on figuring out what Halle's up to. I won't be seeing Tag again.
At least, this is what I am thinking, right up until the moment he says in my ear, "Good try, sister."
The sun is starting to sink in the sky, spreading its golden rays in one final good-bye before it retires for the night. Its light does not reach the alleyway where Tag and I now stand, so his face is half in shadow. I lean against the slanted wall of a run-down tenement and wonder if he's dragged me here to kill me.
Technically, he didn't drag me here; I went with him. Though in retrospect, perhaps that wasn't the smartest idea.
He hasn't said anything yet, other than the initial words that scared me half to death. Honestly, I think I'm getting much too rusty. He shouldn't have been able to sneak up on me like that, no matter what state I was in.
I observe his face—it's aloof as always, but there's something else there. I can't tell what it is.
Then he speaks. "I'm impressed, sister," he says.
That's not at all what I expected. "What?"
"You heard me." He runs a hand through his hair, making it stick up even more. "You're very skilled. You said someone wealthy took you in; I suppose he's a member of the Black Hand?" Seeing my startled look, he explains, "The Black Hand is the only thieves' guild that periodically takes in young new recruits."
I shrug. There's no use denying it.
"He's taught you well." Tag squints at me; so he's not the only one having trouble seeing properly in the dark. "That was you outside my window, wasn't it?"
I raise my eyebrows. "What do you think?"
"I didn't even notice you picked my pockets until I reached for a dart and found nothing," Tag says. "Of course, if you'd known I had more… I'd be interested to see if you could steal something from the inside of my coat without my noticing."
"The captain," I say.
"What about him?"
"Why did you kill him?"
He frowns, like my question is irrelevant. "A thousand two hundred gold coins," is his answer.
"So he's worth more than Lord Halivere, huh?"
"Yes." Tag cocks his head to one side and studies my face. "If it makes you feel any better," he says, "Rolan was an odious man."
Thinking of Lord Hemington's description of the late captain, I don't doubt it. "Still," I say, "what gives you the right to take his life? And what about Lord Halivere? Lord Halivere wasn't an odious man."
Tag only sighs. "It doesn't matter anymore, does it? They're both dead, like my clients wanted."
I clench my teeth and my fists. I don't know what to think. My brother doesn't seem to want to kill me despite my knowledge of his involvement in Rolan's murder, which I imagine I'm grateful for, but I can't condone his blatant disregard for human life. Does he really think a man's life is worth a thousand gold coins?
"I thought you were here to assassinate the king," I hear myself saying.
Tag lets out a surprised bark of laughter. "The king!" he repeats, shaking his head.
I was so convinced of it before, and now he makes me feel ridiculous for ever having thought it. "Well, it was well known that the king was coming, but not the captain of the guard," I say lamely.
"Just because we're assassins doesn't mean we're suicidal," he says, still laughing a little. "If we killed the king… the capital wouldn't let us thrive right under their noses anymore."
"The Black Sword's based in the capital?" Well, I've learned something new.
Tag smiles. It makes him look friendlier. "Now, I can't tell you that. Although that is a good cover: everyone will assume the dart was meant for the king, and the assassin missed and hit the captain instead. My client, who's well-known for hating the captain, won't fall under suspicion."
I wonder who his client is, but I know he won't tell me. I often don't know the identities of my own clients. Instead, I ask something that's been bothering me. "Why do you have so many weapons in your room?"
"They're not all mine."
My curiosity is understandably piqued. "So whose are they?"
Tag shrugs. "I can't tell you that. I'll tell you, though, that the Black Sword supplies clients with weapons if requested." Before I can process this, he adds, "Speaking of which, can I have my things back?"
I'm very well aware he could decide to kill me with his weapons after I hand them back to him, but I don't think he will. I am, after all, his sister, and he's already had plenty of chances tonight. I give him back his knife, most of the poison darts (after all, who knows when they might come in handy?), and the pouch. "What's in there?" I nod at the pouch.
"See for yourself."
I open it and peer in. "Crushed oleander leaves."
"You know your poisons well."
I hand him the pouch. "So who wanted the captain dead?"
As I predicted, he raises an eyebrow. "You know I can't tell you that."
"Well, what about Lord Halivere then?" I press. "I didn't know Lord Halivere had enemies in the capital. Who paid you to kill Lord Halive—"
My words are cut off as something suddenly flies out of the dark and tackles my brother. My heart flies into my throat—it's a shadowed figure, a person, and he's pummeling Tag, slamming his skull into the ground, beating at him with fists. But Tag's recovered quickly from the surprise and now he hits back just as hard, and I stand there, shell-shocked, my brain running a mile a minute: The king's guards have found him. They're going to execute Tag for killing the captain. I'm going to be executed too as an accomplice.
Even as my mind thinks these things, I know they're not true. The king's guards would have surrounded the alley, blocking all chance of escape, before apprehending him. The person fighting Tag right now looks inexperienced, clumsy, his fists landing blows more because of anger than skill. This isn't a guard—this is someone with a vendetta.
I'm aware I should help Tag, but he isn't a professional assassin for nothing: he's already got his attacker under control, and even as I watch, he feints to the right, trips his assailant to the left, knocks him down and pins his hands behind his back, then flips out the knife I just returned him and holds it to the man's throat.
It's almost completely dark in the alley now, but I see the man's hood fall back a little, I see the flash of golden-blond hair, and my stomach drops to my knees. So that's why the fighting style looked so familiar. I've seen it before, almost every day for the past three or four weeks.
"Don't kill him," I say.
Tag's not even breathing heavily from the fight. "Why not?" He digs his knife deeper into the man's throat, and a line of blood wells there.
"Because I know him." I walk up to them and push the struggling man's hood back. Bright blue eyes stare at me in rage, despair, and hate.
"Hello, Halle," I say.
I've never seen Halle so unhinged before. The closest he got was earlier this afternoon, when he looked ill. Now he looks like a madman escaped from the insane asylum—his hair is everywhere, his face haggard and pale, his eyes crazed.
"Domi," he mutters in acknowledgement, but his gaze is fixed on my brother.
"You know this lunatic?" Tag says, but the knife recedes a little.
I stare at Halle. My mind is whirring, shaping puzzle pieces together. I'm on the brink of an epiphany here. "He's a new recruit in my guild."
"Really." Tag's smile is full of scorn. "My opinion of your guild has just dropped several notches. The Black Sword doesn't accept madmen."
Halle's face contorts in rage. "Assassin," he spits. Tag's response is to dig the knife in harder.
It all clicks together then, the pieces falling into place, forming a clear picture. "Ah," I say slowly. "I see."
"What did I do to him?" Tag wants to know. "If he wanted to kill me, he should have made a better plan."
"He's Lord Halivere's son," I say.
Halle jerks in surprise, but doesn't say anything. Tag's face registers astonishment for a brief second before the expression disappears. "I didn't know Lord Halivere had a son."
"Neither did I."
"Why is he in a thieves' guild?"
I shrug. "Probably to see if he can get information about his father's murder."
Halle's breathing has slowed, and now he glares balefully up at my brother. "Are you going to slit my throat, too, assassin?"
"My name is Tagaderis," Tag says. "Not assassin."
I see something black and furious flash in Halle's eyes before he turns his head to me. "Domi, I can't believe… you… I can't… how long have you known he's my father's killer?"
I just look at him. I don't really know what to say. Of course it was wrong of Tag to kill Lord Halivere, but it's not like I knew Halle was Lord Halivere's son until now.
I voice this thought.
Halle shakes his head in disgust. "So you'd let a murderer walk away, just because you know him? Just because he's your brother?"
He's never spoken to me with anything other than friendliness before, and I'm oddly hurt. I scowl and look away from him, and remind myself he's never been my friend. He's only been pretending.
Tag looks thoughtful. "Halle," he says. "Halivere. I see."
"That's not his real name," I mumble.
"How do you know he's Lord Halivere's son?"
I tick the reasons off my fingers. "The Black Hand's been wary of him for some time now, so I've been watching him. He seems like a noble, and it doesn't make sense for a noble to suddenly join a thieves' guild—which he did the day after Lord Halivere's death. He's been acting a bit strange, too. I also overheard the king talking about how he's looking for someone to take Lord Halivere's position, but he can't find the person, though the person's supposed to be from Kuendar. What better person is there to take Lord Halivere's place besides his son? And he jumped at you when you mentioned Lord Halivere."
"I see now, too." Tag looks closely at Halle's—or whatever his name is—face. "He has a resemblance to Lord Halivere. The late lord looked like this, too, when I held a knife to his throat."
Halle makes a choking sound and struggles in Tag's grip, to no avail. I don't know what's more disturbing: Tag's comment or the fact that I find Tag's comment amusing.
"Don't kill him, Tag," I say. "You've done enough killing for a lifetime. Let him go."
Tag looks at me funny, and I realize it's the first time in eight years I've called him Tag, not brother or Tagaderis. I also realize, suddenly, that it means he hasn't had a sister in eight years. He hasn't had a family in eight years, and he doesn't know what it's like anymore; he doesn't know what it's like for others to lose their family members.
No wonder killing people doesn't bother him.
"All right," he says slowly, rolling the words on his tongue. He drops his prisoner suddenly, then raises his knife and slams the hilt across Halle's forehead. Halle crumples instantly to the ground.
"What are you going to do with him?" I ask, as Tag picks him up and slings him over one shoulder. Tag's not big for his age, and Halle's not exactly small, but Tag manages it.
"Take him with me," he answers. Seeing the horrified look on my face, he adds, "I'm not going to kill him. Or even torture him. I have memory-altering potions that will erase his recollection of the last few days. He can't be allowed to remember my part in his father or the captain's deaths, but he'll be well enough to be instated as the new lord of the city in no time. Though I don't know if Kuendar will be safe in the hands of someone so deranged."
So Tag's leaving Kuendar now. I don't know why I feel so disappointed; it's not like he's done anything to endear himself to me in the past month. He abandons me for eight years, then shows up to kill people. Why in all the kingdoms would I miss him?
It must be the blood we share.
I school my features into a neutral expression. "Good-bye, brother," I say. "Have a good time with your guild. I hope you only kill people who deserve it from now on."
Tag's face softens, and a strange expression flits across his face. It's almost… fond or something. "Perhaps so. Maybe I'll visit you sometime." He starts for the mouth of the alley, dragging Halle behind him. "Good-bye, Domi. And good luck in your future endeavors." And then he's gone.
I stare after him even though the dark has swallowed him up immediately. Domi, I think. He called me Domi.
I can't forgive.
But maybe I can forget.
The new Lord Halivere—whose name is actually Calen—is appointed at the end of the week. The citizens love him right away: he's young, handsome, and able, dealing with people and papers alike with the same surefooted skill as his predecessor, and he's kind to the people too. If anyone notices any confusion he has over the past week, and how he received his position, they don't say anything.
Many people didn't know Lord Halivere had a son, but apparently he's been kept a secret from almost everyone in the kingdom except the king, due to possible harm he might incur from his late father's enemies (though no one seems to know who those enemies were). He was going to school in the capital, disguised as the son of a marquis, where he learned his fine manners and political shrewdness.
Reshada accepts my explanation of Halle's disappearance with little questioning. I know she doesn't believe the weak excuse I gave her—that Halle was a noble who just wanted to experience life in a thieves' guild—but she trusts that I took care of the situation and that Halle's no longer a problem.
I see Halle—Calen—once, when walking in the streets. He's surrounded by other nobles, and they're discussing something as I pass. He glances in my direction, and for a moment, he looks unsure. Confused.
Then the blankness passes and he nods at me. I nod back. Why wouldn't I? He's the lord of my city, and I'm just another citizen.
Kina, Reshada, Eredes, and I finally get to go to the capital on a job again one day. The target is the mansion of an earl whose ambitions far surpass his rank. Lord Hemington has told me about this man before: he's cruel and he owns slaves, and whips them too.
I'm in the man's study, taking a little too much pleasure in pulling documents out of his desk and ripping them into little pieces, when the sound of a cleared throat stops me. I whirl around, reaching for my knife, and see Tag.
"Looking for the earl?" I say.
"Yes, but he doesn't seem to be here," he says.
"Shame." I give a last sheath of papers one final yank, tearing it in two, and throw it to the ground. "What do you say we go look for him, Tag?"
The smile on his face is unguarded. "I'd love to, Domi."
A/N: If you've taken the time to read the whole thing, I'd appreciate you taking an extra minute to review. :) Constructive criticism would be greatly appreciated.
BTW, I have plans to turn this into a series, but I have no idea if and how that'll work out. And sorry for the crappy title/summary. If anyone has a better idea for one, please tell me. In a review. ;)