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Emperor’s Edge Book III — Deadly Games

Deadly Games, Book 3 in The Emperor’s Edge series, is officially out. You can grab it at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, iTunes, or Smashwords, or read the first chapter right here to give it a try:

 Chapter 1

In the predawn light, Amaranthe Lokdon charged up the worn travertine steps of the ancient stadium. Her thighs burned, her calves ached, and sweat streamed into her eyes.

“Idiotic,” she muttered to herself between strained breaths. “Deranged…masochistic.”

A dark, round shape blurred out of the shadows. Instinctively, she lifted her hands and caught the heavy, sand-filled ball to keep it from slamming into her chest. Barely. She wobbled, the weight threatening to knock her onto the stone benches, but she compensated and continued upward. With a last burst of energy, she hurled the ball back to the shadowy figure that had appeared at the top of the stairs.

Amaranthe kept her hands up, thinking he might throw it again, but he propped it against his hip and waited. Legs trembling, she reached the top step and forced herself to stand up straight instead of collapsing in a sweaty, exhausted heap.

“Dedicated,” Sicarius said.

“What?” she asked when she caught her breath. Stars still lurked in the deep blue sky, and she could not make out his face, but it would not have hinted at his thoughts anyway.

“Your list,” he said.

Amaranthe waited for him to expound. He did not.

“You think I’m dedicated for being here, an hour before dawn, training with you? Even though I told everyone to take the week off because we’ve been working so much lately?”

“Yes.”

Figuring her pride had kept her on her feet a respectable length of time, she sat down on the closest bench.

“You don’t think I should be following my own orders and enjoying a relaxing week? I could be sleeping in or maybe planning for a day at the beach. It is summer, after all, and the weather is finally good. Yet I’m here with you, torturing myself. You don’t think I’m crazy?”

“In general, or for training?”

She scowled suspiciously at him.

A clank drifted up from the sand-covered floor of the arena below. A yawning man in city worker’s overalls shambled out of a maintenance door carrying a lantern. He headed toward the towering machine that controlled the Clank Race, a steam-powered obstacle course with a tangle of climbing walls, swaying nets, rocking platforms, and swinging axes. The contraption occupied half of the arena floor inside the running track, and boxing and wrestling rings took up the other half. The worker patted his pockets, cursed, and walked back inside.

“The athletes will show up soon to start training,” Amaranthe said. As a junior, she had competed in a smaller version of the Imperial Games, and she missed training for something as innocent as medals and honor. “I suppose we should go.”

“Yes.” Sicarius offered a hand.

Surprised, she gazed at it for a couple of seconds before clasping it. He pulled her to her feet gently and held the grip for a moment.

Amaranthe swallowed. A couple of months earlier, he had admitted he cared for her, but he had also said it would be a bad idea for them to act upon such feelings. Outwardly, she had agreed with him; inwardly, she kept hoping he would be overcome by emotion—or she would settle for lust—and tug her into his arms for a passionate kiss. Unfortunately, she could not remember having too many men overcome by lust because of her presence. Perhaps it was because she always wore her hair in a practical bun and donned utilitarian clothing more suitable to mercenary life than an evening out. Anyway, Sicarius wasn’t the type to be overcome by…anything.

He released her hand without a word and led the way down the steps. Amaranthe trailed him, wondering if she had imagined that pause. They followed a railing toward steps leading down from the elevated tiers of seating.

Sicarius stopped before he reached the stairs. A young woman climbed into view, blond hair and freckled skin illuminated by a pair of gas lamps burning on the landing. Though she wore the loose white togs of one of the athletes, she clenched a short bow in one hand and had an arrow nocked with the other. Her head turned from side to side, eyes searching the arena below.

A throwing knife appeared in Sicarius’s hand.

“Wait,” Amaranthe whispered, slipping past him.

Fear whitened the woman’s knuckles where she gripped the bow—this was no hardened bounty hunter.

Amaranthe held her hands out, palms up, and walked toward the landing. “Greetings.”

The bow jerked in her direction.

Amaranthe dropped to her belly, wincing as the hard edge of a travertine step rammed her chest. A clink sounded as the arrow skipped off the railing. Amaranthe sprang to her feet, hoping to reach the woman before she could reload.

Sicarius was already behind the woman, a knife pressed against her throat. The bow clattered to the stone floor.

Amaranthe flung her hand out, saying, “Don’t,” but Sicarius had already paused, waiting to see what she wanted to do. A few months ago, he would not have. He simply would have killed someone—anyone—who dared lift a weapon in his direction.

Amaranthe straightened her shirt and walked forward. “Care to explain why you’re shooting at the shadows? In particular, the portion of shadows I was occupying?”

Rings of white shown around the young woman’s blue irises. She opened her mouth a couple of times but did not manage to speak. She could not be more than eighteen or nineteen, and with that pale skin she was not likely a Turgonian.

Amaranthe waved a hand toward Sicarius to suggest he could loosen his grip. He did not.

“He’ll only kill you if you don’t talk,” Amaranthe said.

“Accident,” the woman whispered, a faint lilting accent marking the word. “I was tense. My sister…someone took her.”

“Oh? Like a kidnapping?” Eagerness thrummed through Amaranthe, revitalizing her tired limbs even more than being shot at had. Was there some trouble afoot? Something her team could handle? Something that could earn them attention—good attention?

“Kidnapping.” The woman started to nod but winced when the movement drew blood. Sicarius kept his knives sharp enough to split the hairs on a flea.

“Let her go, please,” Amaranthe told him. “I do believe that’s a client.”

Though Sicarius had drawn the woman back into the shadows, to stay out of the light on the landing, Amaranthe had no trouble reading the cool expression he leveled her way.

“What?” she asked him. “It’s not as if you were going to spend the week sunbathing at the beach.”

Sicarius released the woman, but he did not put away his dagger. As soon as she was free, the girl clasped a hand to her throat and lunged away from him.

“We might be able to help you,” Amaranthe said. “My name is Amaranthe. What’s yours?”

“Fasha,” she said, still holding her hand to her neck. She eased closer to Amaranthe while throwing uneasy glances at Sicarius. “Are you…athletes?”

“We’re swords for hire,” Amaranthe said.

“Mercenaries?” Fasha tensed. “Lowlife dung-crawlers that work for the highest bidder? How do I know you’re not the people who took my sister?”

“We don’t work for the highest bidder, and I’m reasonably certain I haven’t mingled with dung lately. You?” Amaranthe raised her chin toward Sicarius.

He said nothing.

“He hasn’t either,” Amaranthe said. “He’s quite fastidious.” When neither person commented, she cleared her throat and got back on topic. “We work for the good of the empire, taking on missions that the emperor would approve of in the hopes of—” getting the cursed bounties off their heads, she thought, “—winning his favor. In fact we—”

Whistling came from the arena. The worker had returned, a box of matches in hand, and he was veering toward the furnace.

“But perhaps we should discuss it elsewhere,” Amaranthe murmured.

She led the way into the shadows outside the stadium. Despite her criticism of mercenaries, Fasha picked up her bow and followed. Sicarius disappeared, but Amaranthe trusted him to stay nearby. More than anybody, he knew how good she was at finding trouble.

Voices sounded—two male athletes walking past the stadium a few dozen meters away. Amaranthe chewed on her lip. The idea of a mission excited her, but it would be foolish to linger at Barlovoc Stadium after sunrise. Though a week would pass before the Imperial Games themselves started, enforcers were already patrolling the barracks and training areas to keep the peace amongst the athletes. That thought made her wonder why Fasha had not sought out the law for help.

“Can you tell me what happened?” Amaranthe asked.

“My sister and I are here from Kendor to compete. This is the first year your Games have been open to outsiders.”

Amaranthe nodded. She had read the article in The Gazette and knew Emperor Sespian was responsible for that. Though monetary rewards had never been a prize in the empire’s biennial competition, every young citizen dreamed of competing and winning. Also there had been instances of superb athletes sweeping the events and being granted a ticket into the warrior caste, something usually reserved for outstanding wartime performances. A foreigner would not be eligible for that, but the newspaper article had mentioned a citizenship prize for those who wished it—an offer that had traditionalists grumbling in cider houses across the city.

“She didn’t come back to the barracks last night,” Fasha went on.

Amaranthe’s shoulders drooped. That was it? The girl had only been missing for a few hours? “Maybe she found a handsome young man and spent the night with him.”

“No. She’s been training too hard for this. She may celebrate after it’s all over, but for the last week she’s been in bed early and up before dawn to train. Keisha is good. Very good. She’s won every race back home. She even beats the men in anything over a hundred meters. She’s utterly serious about winning here.”

“Did you try going to the enforcers?” Amaranthe asked.

“Yes, late last night. I returned from my evening run, and Keisha wasn’t in our room. Right away, I knew something was wrong. I went to the men who guard the barracks, but they were derisive. They said nothing got past them. And they threatened to throw me in jail when I mentioned…”

Amaranthe straightened, her interest returning. “The Science?”

“You…know about the mental sciences?”

“My team has had run-ins with practitioners before.”

“Oh!” Fasha’s clothing rustled as she brushed Amaranthe’s shoulder with a pat made clumsy by the darkness. It was an enthusiastic pat though. “Maybe you can help. The enforcers told me it’s forbidden to talk about magic—that was their ignorant word for it. Two breaths later, they told me magic doesn’t exist. If it doesn’t exist, why would it be forbidden to speak of it? Ignorant heathens.”

“Yes, the empire’s stance isn’t entirely logical,” Amaranthe admitted. “What did you actually sense? Are you a practitioner yourself?”

“No, but there’s a shaman in our tribe, and you come to recognize the Science being practiced when you grow up around it. I sensed…a definite residue. I believe something was done to my sister so she’d be easy to steal away.”

Amaranthe tapped her fingers against her thigh. “I’d like to see your room. I used to be an—” she stopped herself from saying enforcer, since that might not breed confidence in the girl, “—an investigator. Is it private, or are there others staying in there?”

“We paid for a private room.”

“Any windows?” Amaranthe supposed she would have to admit she was a wanted woman at some point and that she could not stroll past enforcers without risk of being recognized and captured—or shot.

“No, it’s a little room on the inside of the building.”

“Near a backdoor, by chance?”

“No….” Fasha sounded puzzled. “Does it matter? We can bring guests in.”

“My comrade and I are wanted by the law.”

Fasha’s lips formed an “Oh,” but no sound came out.

Amaranthe eyed the brightening sky. More and more athletes were on the road leading past the stadium, and the barracks would be an active place. “Don’t worry about it. I’ll think of something. Let’s go.”

Amaranthe had taken only a few steps when a dark figure appeared at her shoulder. She jumped despite the fact she ought to know better by now.

“We’re going inside the barracks?” Sicarius asked.

Now Fasha jumped and sidled several steps away. The brightening sky revealed Sicarius’s unexpressive angular face, his fitted, black clothing, and the variety of daggers and throwing knives adorning it. Fasha fingered her bow.

“It’s fine,” Amaranthe said. “He’s my most trusted ally.”

“That’d be more comforting if you hadn’t just admitted to being wanted by the law,” Fasha said.

“You didn’t think you’d find a Science-savvy mercenary team in the empire without a few eccentricities, did you?” Amaranthe asked.

“The barracks,” Sicarius repeated, cutting out whatever reply Fasha might have made.

“I’ll sneak by the enforcers and check it out,” Amaranthe told him. “I won’t be long. You can wait outside. If they try to drag me off to Enforcer Headquarters, you can be nice and provide a distraction so I can slip away. A non-death-causing distraction.”

“The last time you went into the enemy camp while I waited outside,” Sicarius said, “someone threw a blasting stick at me.”

“As I recall it was at the position you’d recently vacated, but, thanks to your hyper-vigilance, fast reflexes, and quick mind, you evaded the attack and were long gone when the cliff top crumbled.”

Amaranthe smiled, hoping to tease a light response out of Sicarius, something that might show Fasha he had a side that was not entirely dark and scary.

Birds twittered in the branches of trees lining the road. Thunks and whistles of steam came from within the stadium, signifying the Clank Race gearing up.

Finally, Sicarius spoke. “I see. Your plan is to flatter your way past the enforcers.”

Amaranthe’s smile did not fade. “If the plan doesn’t work, maybe so.”

She left Sicarius to the shadows and led Fasha to the athlete complex, a mix of permanent structures and brightly colored tents set up to house visiting competitors from across the empire. Men and women jogged or bicycled past, some heading off to train, others stopping at the food pavilions first. A steam carriage chugged past, rumbling up a circular drive to the majestic travertine lodge reserved for warrior caste athletes. Enforcers guarded the front door of the women’s barracks. Amaranthe mulled over how to get in and out before full daylight came, making it easy to recognize faces.

Instead of veering in that direction, she angled off the main road toward a pair of dome-shaped brick buildings: men’s and women’s bathhouses. Smoke wafted from the chimneys, signifying the floors and pools were already warm.

“You wish to bathe before investigating?” Fasha asked.

“I could use it.” Amaranthe plucked at her shirt, still damp from the stair-running session. “But, no.”

She headed for the entrance of the women’s bathhouse—no enforcers guarded those doors.

Steam wrapped about them as they headed in, obscuring visibility, but Amaranthe had visited the complex before and knew the layout. She slipped into the dressing room, found no one inside changing, and plucked someone’s white togs out of a niche.

“You’re stealing people’s clothing?” Fasha asked.

Already changing, Amaranthe thought about spouting some justification about it being for the good of the empire, but she never would have bought that from a thief when she had been an enforcer. Oh, well. “Sandals, too,” she said.

On the way out, she grabbed a few towels. She wound one around her hair, draped another across her shoulders, and handed Fasha a third. She found a satchel and hid her own clothing and her knife—the closest thing to a weapon she had brought for the morning training session—inside.

“Two lady athletes returning from the baths to change before breakfast,” Amaranthe said.

Fasha sniffed at her. “Let’s hope the enforcers’ sense of smell is as poor as their sense of magic.”

“Your Turgonian is quite good,” Amaranthe said instead of responding to the dig.

It occurred to her that this could be a setup. What if some early-rising enforcer had spotted Sicarius and her training and, knowing he could not take them on in the open, arranged a trap? More than one bounty hunter had attempted to get close by feigning an interest in hiring them.

“I’m the daughter of a chief,” Fasha said. “I’ve been educated.”

“What did you say your sister’s name is again?”

“Keisha.”

“And she’s how old?”

“Sixteen.”

“Why don’t you tell me more about your tribe and why you’re here competing,” Amaranthe said, heading toward the barracks.

Fasha’s brow crinkled, but she complied. Amaranthe listened to the story and asked more questions as they walked, seeking inconsistencies or hesitations that would suggest the woman was making it up as she went. Everything sounded plausible, though, and by the time they neared the barracks, Amaranthe decided she was being paranoid.

Two men with short swords and crossbows stood guard on either side of the front door. She did not recognize either—since Barlovoc Stadium was located on the southern end of the city, there was little chance of her running into someone she had worked with—but that did not mean they would not recognize her. Though her wanted poster did not decorate the city as profusely as Sicarius’s, it was out there.

Amaranthe adjusted her towel wrap and climbed the stairs. “You didn’t run here last year, so you don’t know,” she told Fasha, “but the sand on the track doesn’t feel very well packed. It might make it easy to lose your footing.”

“Uhm, yes, maybe so,” Fasha said. “Do you think…”

One of the enforcers grabbed Amaranthe’s arm as she tried to walk through the door. Cursed ancestors, she had hoped to at least get inside to snoop about before being caught.

“What are you doing with her?” the enforcer demanded.

Amaranthe blinked. “What?”

The enforcer, a young man who could not be more than a year or two out of the academy, pointed at Fasha while scowling so fiercely he threatened to snap a tendon in his neck. “She’s a Kendorian.”

Ah, of course. There must be quite a few annoyed with the new policy, allowing foreigners into the Imperial Games.

Amaranthe shrugged. “She’s running in the same events as I am.”

The second enforcer, whose rumpled uniform and bleary eyes might have meant he had been on shift all night, stabbed Fasha in the shoulder with a finger. “She was out here, spouting about magic last night. We ought to have thrown her in the wagon. And any imperial woman who colludes with her as well.”

Amaranthe groaned inwardly. She had never seen Sicarius laugh, and she did not want the first instance to come because she was foolish enough to get arrested for someone else’s crime.

Fasha lifted her chin. “I’ve done nothing wrong. You ignorant Turgonians should be ashamed of yourselves for heckling athletes.”

“Ignorant?” The first enforcer reached for the handcuffs dangling from his belt hook. “You—”

Amaranthe pushed Fasha back and glided between the enforcers. She lifted a hand to her lips  and whispered out of the side of her mouth, “I’m on it.”

“Er, huh?” The enforcers shared perplexed looks.

“Watching the suspicious foreigner,” Amaranthe murmured. “She came to the track babbling about kidnappings and magic. As if either would happen at such a well-guarded venue.”

The wrinkled foreheads smoothed. “Oh. Of course, that’s right.”

“You gentlemen can’t go inside the women’s barracks,” Amaranthe said, “but I can. I can watch her and let you know if she does anything suspicious.”

“Yes, yes, right,” they murmured. “You let us know.”

They drew back and nodded for her to go inside. Fortunately, Fasha kept her mouth shut and did nothing to antagonize the men as they passed, entering an open bay dominated by two long rows of bunk beds. A few held slumbering figures, but most had been vacated. Women in various states of undress chatted and tended to their morning ablutions.

“That was embarrassing,” Amaranthe said, as she and Fasha walked down the aisle.

“That your people are so ignorant about magic?”

“That those enforcers fell for that. Academy standards must be slipping.” Amaranthe waved toward the bay. “Where’s your room?”

“Down there.” Fasha pointed toward a hallway at the end.

Conversations ceased as they passed. Amaranthe wondered if she had made a mistake coming in with a foreigner. She might have acquired information more easily if she chatted with people independently. One of these women might very well have something to do with the kidnapping. Another plot to oust outsiders?

The sound of running water came from latrines farther down the hallway. Amaranthe would check that direction later. The back door ought to be guarded similarly to the front, but perhaps someone could have escaped with a prisoner through a window, especially if some magic had rendered the prisoner unconscious. She shook her head, reminding herself she had not yet determined if anything was truly amiss. Even if Fasha’s sister had been a daughter of the warrior caste, the enforcers would not have started searching for her after only one night missing.

Fasha pushed open a door that lacked a lock. They walked into a simple room with footlockers, two narrow beds, and a chest between them doubling as a side table. Two tea mugs and a bag of nuts rested on top next to a low-burning kerosene lamp.

Amaranthe turned the flame up.

“I looked around to see if she left a message.” Fasha lingered in the doorway. “But I didn’t touch anything otherwise.”

“What did you sense exactly to make you think the Science was involved?” Amaranthe poked about, looking for anything out of place. She dropped to her belly to peer under the beds, and her towel wrap flopped off her head.

“It’s hard to explain. Like a residue in the air.”

One of the tea mugs was half full. Amaranthe sniffed the herbal concoction. “Is this hers or yours?”

“I’m not sure. They’re from yesterday morning, I think.”

“Hm.” That would be a slow-acting drug if it had taken all day to go into effect. Amaranthe wished she had more of a feel for what was and was not possible in the realm of magic. She might have to find Akstyr and come back to—

“Has anyone seen Anakha?” a woman asked in the hallway.

A black-haired, bronze-skinned Turgonian woman strode past the door, bumping Fasha without noticing. She strode out of sight, but Amaranthe followed her to the bay.

“Anyone?” the woman asked again. “Anakha? Tall woman with more muscles than the men.”

“Haven’t seen her since yesterday,” someone said.

“She never came to bed.”

Murmurs of assent came from others.

“Great grandmother’s bunions,” the original speaker growled and strode through the bay and out the front door.

Amaranthe returned to Fasha. “Have you heard of any other kidnappings?”

“No.”

“This Anakha, she’s Turgonian?”

“If she’s who I’m thinking of, yes. There’re only a few of us from outside of the empire.”

“Huh.” Amaranthe scratched her jaw. If this other missing woman had disappeared in the same manner as Keisha…it would stomp out her theory of this being a plot against foreigners.

She spent another ten minutes searching the room, hoping to find something that would justify this trip into the barracks, but she found nothing, not even dust balls. “I better get going. I’ll come back tonight or tomorrow night and bring one of my men.” Assuming Maldynado had not taken Akstyr to some week-long brothel experience to celebrate their vacation. Only Books had spent the night at their latest hideout. Even Basilard, not a notorious brothel-goer had been gone when Amaranthe awoke. “If you need help before then, you can find me in the locomotive boneyard. It’s near the tracks, two miles south of here.”

“You live in a…junkyard? Is that what boneyard means?”

“Temporary lodgings.”

Amaranthe took the towels, prepared to create another bath-house-inspired costume, but, when she left the barracks, nobody stood guard at the top of the steps. She did not see the enforcers anywhere. A shout almost made her misstep and tumble down the stairs.

“Sicarius!” a male voice cried. “He went that way! Enforcers! That way!”

Amaranthe groaned. What was he doing?

* * * * *

The early morning sunlight brightening the city did not reach the alley where Basilard stood on a half-rotted wood stoop before a door. Gang graffiti marked the chipped and broken brick walls around it, and rusty bars protected a window closed off with oilskin rather than glass. A homeless man snored on a stoop farther down while a mangy dog pawed through excrement dumped on the ancient cobblestones. This old neighborhood was not on the city sewer system, as the smell attested.

Thanks to the knives at his belt and the scars covering his hands, shaven head, and face, Basilard doubted anyone would bother him. He was more concerned about dealing with the woman inside. A sign dangling from rusty hinges read Apothecary.

Basilard lifted a fist to knock, but paused. A bushy tuft of greenery sprouting from a crack caught his attention. Soroth Stick? Like dandelion and lizard tail, the Turgonians treated the plant as a weed, but he hopped down from the stoop and plucked several leaves. They made a tea that soothed cramps, and, given how much training the team did, such a beverage was often necessary for replenishing the body.

Since he did not have the foraging satchel he carried in the wilderness, he tucked the leaves into an inside pocket in his vest, with a mental reminder to wash them well before using them. Given this dubious locale, they had probably been peed on. By multiple species.

Basilard returned to the stoop, but he cast his gaze about, wondering if the grungy alley might host any other edible plants.

Stop it, he told himself. No more procrastinating. As grandpa used to say, “Cleaning a fish don’t get any more pleasant for having put the task off.”

He took a deep breath and knocked on the door.

A part of him hoped no one would answer. Not many of his people lived in the Turgonian capital, and he had not sought any out since Amaranthe and Sicarius had killed the wizard who had bought Basilard years ago. Nor had he had the freedom to visit anyone during his tenure as a slave. He had never come face-to-face with the Mangdorians that played a part in the city water poisoning a couple of months earlier, so this would be the first he had met since… He swallowed hard at the memory of a young man he had killed in a pit fight engineered by their owners. He had killed many in those forced battles, since it had been the only way to preserve his own life.

The sound of footsteps came from within. A lock thunked, and the door opened.

A stooped woman with graying red hair squinted at Basilard. An Eye of God necklace hung around her neck, and his breath caught. He had expected an apothecary, not a priestess. She peered up and down the alley before addressing him.

“You must be here for my herbs,” she said in heavily accented Turgonian. Her gesture encompassed his scars. “Come in, come in. My services are very affordable. I don’t use no magic though, so don’t expect that.” She glanced up and down the alley again.

Basilard guessed that meant she could use the mental sciences, but would not risk it if there was a chance the locals would find out.

He followed her into a one-room dwelling partitioned into sections for sleeping, meal preparation, and work. The pungent aroma of dozens—hundreds?—of drying herbs thickened the air. She gestured for him to sit on a faded sofa, and he ducked beneath bundles of leaves hanging from the ceiling to perch on the edge.

“What’s your problem?” She sat on a stool beside a desk piled high with flasks, tins, and tools. “You’re in pain from your scars? I’ve seen pin cushions less poked up.”

Basilard shook his head and touched the knot of scar tissue on his throat, the wound that had stolen his ability to speak.

“No voice? I can’t fix that. No herb can repair damaged vocal cords.”

He lifted his hands, but did nothing except hold them in the air at first. As soon as he signed, she would know he was Mangdorian. As far as he knew, the hand code his people used on the hunt—which Basilard now used to speak to his comrades—was not employed anywhere else in the world. He had brought pencil and paper, too, because there were few female hunters amongst his tribes, and she might not understand the code well. Maybe he should simply write his message. But she would find out he was Mangdorian sooner or later, since he had come to discuss their people.

He signed, I seek information. Do you understand me?

Her eyes widened, and she drew back so quickly she almost fell off the stool. “You’re Mangdorian?” She eyed his scars. “Those are knife wounds, aren’t they? Did someone do that to you…as punishment?”

He had not expected her to guess he was not responsible for them, that he may not have violated God’s mandates of peace and pacifism. Could he lie to her? And avoid her condemnation? Maybe if she had been a simple apothecary, and not worn the necklace of a priestess as well. He could not lie to a holy servant. Besides, he told himself, this was a one-time meeting. Her opinion of him did not matter.

I was a slave, he signed. I was forced to fight for my life. Many times.

The priestess dropped her chin to her chest, clutched the bronze eye on her necklace, and whispered a prayer he had not heard in a long time, but one that he remembered well. It asked for God to pity him and give strength to his family because his actions had condemned him.

Basilard sighed. When she looked up, he signed again, I seek to help our people. I need information on a man who might have wronged Mangdoria somehow.

“How would you help our people?” She frowned. “By killing this man?”

He hesitated. I would rather not, but if he has committed crimes against us, I feel it would be my duty to act.

Her frown deepened, and he realized she was struggling to follow his words. Over the last few months, he had added signs to his people’s sparse hunting code, so he could speak more completely with Amaranthe and the others, but, of course, outsiders would not know the gestures he had made up.

I wish to do good, Basilard signed. If I…help our people, maybe God will forgive me.

The priestess straightened, her back as rigid as a steel bar. “God does not forgive killers. You have condemned yourself to the darkest circle of Ethor, young man. Nothing you can do in this life can make up for it. That you would even consider killing someone to avenge a wrong proves how far you have fallen.”

Basilard closed his eyes. He had just met the woman. Her opinion should not matter, but he knew it was a reflection of the same opinion his family—his daughter—would share should he ever return home. And it was an opinion he feared held far too much truth.

I need to know…. Have you spoken to any other Mangdorians in the city? Have you heard anything about a man called…

He grabbed his paper, knowing she would not know his made up sign for the name, and scrawled it for her. His fingers surprised him by trembling. Maybe he did not really want to know the answer. What would he do if his suspicions proved correct?

Still frowning, the priestess read the name. “Sicarius? The assassin?”

Yes.

Her lips puckered in disapproval, whether for Sicarius or for Basilard, he did not know. “What would you do with this information if I told you. Attempt to kill him?”

His heartbeat quickened. There is something to tell?

Her pucker deepened.

Basilard leaned forward. I must know.

“You should leave this place. The blood on your hands taints my home.”

Basilard gripped the sofa’s faded floral armrest so tightly his fingers ached. She watched his hand warily, perhaps anticipating violence from a man such as he. Condemned or not, he would not threaten an old woman. He forced his fingers to loosen. How would Amaranthe talk this lady into giving up the information? By giving her what she wanted? What did she want?

If he has wronged Mangdoria, he should be…dealt with. Our people cannot do it without damning themselves, correct? If I am already condemned, then I’m the logical choice to avenge the tribes.

In truth, Basilard did not want to pick a fight with Sicarius. For one thing, he doubted he could win. For another, he did not dislike Sicarius, not the way Akstyr and Books did. Sicarius was cold and impossible to know, and he expected everyone to train as stringently as he did, but Basilard had not found him cruel or vindictive. Hard but fair, he would say. But, that moment in the shaman’s cave, when Sicarius had destroyed that Mangdorian message before Basilard or Books could read it…. That had raised Basilard’s suspicions. Since then, he had thought often of the moment and wondered what the assassin was hiding.

“You do not treat your soul with respect,” the priestess said.

If nothing I do matters… Basilard shrugged.

“Very well. The rumor is Sicarius killed Chief Yull and his family.”

Basilard flopped back so hard the sofa thumped against the wall. Crumbled dust from the herbs drying overhead sifted down to land in his eyes. He barely noticed it. Good-hearted Chief Yull, the man Basilard had dreamed of working for as a boy, back when he had thought to become a forage leader and chef. Basilard’s gut twisted. And there had been sons. Young sons. Jast and Yuasmif.

He closed his eyes. Why had he snooped? Why had he asked for this information?

And, now that he had it, how could he do anything but kill Sicarius? Or die trying.

* * *

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[…] Challenge: Okay, I basically took Thursday to do nothing but read, and I devoured DARK CURRENTS and DEADLY GAMES, books 2 and 3 in Lindsay Buroker‘s THE EMPEROR’S EDGE series. I pretty much love […]

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