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(You can find Chapter 1 HERE.)
The clamminess of the dagger’s hilt made Drinith’s palm itch as she waited behind the door for the man coming to murder her. She felt none of the readiness Gelasin had claimed to see in her. Stripped of her mail shirt, her tunic felt flimsy. Her heart leapt wildly at every swoop and swoon of the wind beyond the palace.
Another young woman with a cloud of red and gold hair, her living reflection, lay in her bed, creating an eerie sense of disembodiment. The candlelight made the cyan gem shine like a star against the green-black night of her forehead. A sheet of red silk molded around her sprawled body, drawing the eye with its vulnerable nakedness. Beneath the massive pillows, however, the girl held an axe.
How could her handmaid, Jarma, display such remarkable calm knowing all the while an assassin drew near? She had disguised herself as Drinith so that the assassin would assume it was she who lay in the bed. If only Drinith could check her nerves as easily as her friend did and quell the flutter in the pit of her stomach. If she failed this test, both of their lives would be forfeited. It would have been easier to face the assassin alone.
This scheme was the height of folly. She should have never agreed to it.
But it was too late now to send Jarma away. The bright yellow light spilling through the long windows had already darkened to the burnt orange gloom of a Crevast night. The assassin could arrive at any moment.
Her whole body reverberated with the urgent throbbing of her heart. She needed to calm down. She practiced her moves—her dance, as Gelasin dubbed it.
Something flickered in the corner of her eye; a pair of curved shadows bit into the stripe of light beneath the doorway before it disappeared. She held her breath as the handle silently rotated downward. She stepped back as the door gently swung open with nary a creak. Her heart thumped so loudly in the silence an absurd panic gripped her lest her would-be murderer should hear as he drifted into the room with all the softness of a shadow. Hunched and cowled, he raised a stiletto in his left hand, its needle-like blade pointing downward, ready to strike the sleeping girl.
The multiple shifting shadows of the dagger cast by the encircling candles crept up the blood-red silk to close on Jarma’s chest like the hooked fingers of a massive claw. Still feigning repose, she shifted slightly and emitted a soft sigh. If Drinith didn’t strike now, it would be the last sound her friend ever made. Tightening her damp grip on her knife, she plunged forward.
Alerted by her soft intake of breath, the assassin swerved around. His knife flicked upward as he swallowed the gap between them in a single precise leap. He stabbed twice with the whole force of his body where her torso should have been, but she had already swerved clear. He swept the blade after her, but she had stepped inside its arc and clamped her arm over his elbow. She had no time to savor the chagrin, briefly betrayed by the candlelight, on his blue-black face. His second dagger flicked out at her from beneath his arm like a striking snake, but she was ready for it. He yowled as she drove her knife through his hand, impaling it into his forearm, forcing him to drop his weapon. Her blade had penetrated deeper than she had intended; she had only meant to cripple his hand. She yanked her knife free and drove it at his neck, chasing the moment of victory Quiescat had foreseen. The assassin slapped at her with his wounded hand. He twisted clear and jammed his knee into her stomach. Winded, she lost hold of his arm, but she fastened onto it again before it could slip free. Bright pain jabbed her side. Ignoring his bloody slaps, she stabbed his arm three times, cracking bone, snapping the tip of her blade. She threw herself upon him with a violent roar. Her dagger made a loud crunch as it rammed into his chest. As he flopped back, the blade pulled her forward and she toppled with him. The floor slammed her blade deeper, sinking it all the way to the hilt. She rolled off him as Jarma dropped her axe on him. Blood spurted from the assassin’s neck as his severed head rolled across the floor. It came to a stop at an awkward angle, eyes gazing up at Drinith in bewilderment until the last vestige of life drained away. Warm blood greased Drinith’s tunic. She assumed it was all her assailant’s until a sharp pain in her side reminded her otherwise.
Continue to CHAPTER 3.
Fatal Shadow is available for pre-order on Amazon.
Seven assassins, foiled by the watchfulness of the princess’s retinue, had previously failed to kill Drinith of Kaplar. Now, somewhere in the palace of her host, the Aether Emperor, an eighth crept unchecked toward her bedchamber. In a premonition, Quiescat had seen the man flitting between shadows in dimly lit corridors as he moved inexorably nearer her door, his bland, blue-black countenance rigid with concentration, the blade of his dagger as black and cruel as his purpose. Quiescat had already witnessed every blow of the impending struggle. He had seen her standing blood-spattered over the corpse of her would-be killer. But the vision gave Quiescat little comfort. The child he had raised from a baby was about to face a consummate killer in single combat, and the exiled Oracle of Godsdoor could do nothing but wait and pray his prescience proved true.
Slouched in his seat, wringing his sweaty hands, he stared at the dragon amber tiles covering the bedroom floor. He was only vaguely aware of the Crevast, the void between worlds, howling for his attention beyond the long windows. The aging warrior, Gelasin, couldn’t be ignored so easily. Quiescat kept glancing up at that tense knot of bone and sinew wrapped in drum-tight green-black skin and battered armor. His lean mouth always verged on an insolent smile, owing to the rugged, matte black scars in his cheeks where his honor tattoos should have been. Leaning against the wall, his arms folded, he appeared to be the very embodiment of smug indifference.
“How can you stay so damnably calm?” Quiescat whispered. “Our princess’s life is in danger.”
Gelasin arched an amused eyebrow. “I have faith in you,” he said with a whiff of sarcasm. “And I’ve faith in her. She must prove to her prospective subjects and allies that her right to rule extends beyond an accident of birth. Thanks to you, she’s ready for the assassin’s every move. She faces more of a dance than a battle.”
Quiescat snorted. “Don’t thank me. I never should have agreed to this escapade.”
Gelasin’s eyes narrowed. “You’re not questioning your vision, are you?”
“No.” Quiescat massaged the aching stiffness in the back of his neck. He knew his prevision was true.
Unfolding his arms, Gelasin straightened. “Are you certain she’s safe this time? The sequence of moves I worked out with her is specific to the attack you described, down to the wielding hand that the assassin favors. She’s not wearing her mail shirt precisely because, according to your vision, it was an unnecessary burden. If you’re wrong…” He gripped the hilt of his sheathed dagger and stared at the door. His whole body compressed as if ready to pounce toward it.
The sudden tension in his demeanor tempted a smile from Quiescat. The renegade, having so often pooh-poohed his misgivings in the past, now turned to him for reassurance. “She will win. The vision is certain.”
Relaxing, Gelasin folded his arms and rested back against the wall, but he kept glancing at the door. “It wasn’t just symbolic or something?”
“It wasn’t allegorical,” Quiescat said wearily. He missed the ambiguity of cryptic dreams, but such things were the poetry of youth. His prophetic glimpses had turned prosaic long ago. Since Godsdoor’s fall, his visions had become limited to fixed points nailed into a dark and uncertain future. After tonight, only one would remain: the moment of his death. It, too, drew close. He had replayed it so many times, it no longer inspired fear, but only a gnawing sense of loss and failure. He could see nothing beyond it. It might be a blessing. Never mind the recovery of her throne; the odds were stacked against Drinith’s very survival, and he didn’t want to contemplate her death.
Could his prophetic insight fail? Could she die tonight? Prescience was a fickle gift, prone to misinterpretation. No, he couldn’t be mistaken. She still lived in his final vision. Unless her presence was an illusion, a trick of some kind, the sort Fate loved to play.
Gelasin pursed his lips. “She’s not alone. Jarma’s in there with her. Between the two of them… You saw Drinith kill him.”
Quiescat winced, nodded.
“I slew my first man when I was fourteen,” Gelasin said. “Drinith’s almost nineteen.”
Quiescat shook his head in disgust. “I’m nearly fifty and I’ve never killed anyone.” That is, not in hand-to-hand combat. Quiescat had caused far more deaths than the warrior ever had or would. His prognostications had divided families, started wars, pitted kingdoms and empires against each other. Yes, his words had possessed the power to kill until the tyrant Magian the Infinite had driven him from his temple.
Gelasin gestured with his forefinger and thumb at the pits in his cheeks. He smiled. In the dull light, they became two jagged black holes in his face. “You didn’t get what once adorned these cheeks until you had killed in the service of the Emperor of Kaplar.”
When Quiescat first encountered Gelasin, the warrior had scorned that same emperor. He had deigned to join Drinith’s retinue only because his detestation of Magian eclipsed even his hatred of her father, Hemrath. The subsequent years as her protector had inspired a change of heart, a nostalgia for the life he had forsaken, and a fierce loyalty to the heir of his former liege. It made his reckless urgency to thrust her in harm’s way even more infuriating.
The fault didn’t lie with Gelasin. He acted according to his nature. Quiescat could have stopped this. He should have. He still could.
“I weary of this,” he declared, slapping his hands on the armrests.
A sudden clamor from the neighboring bedchamber transfixed him mid-rise. His fingers dug into the padded leather, but he remained frozen in a pained hunch, terrified that anything he did, no matter how slight, might sabotage his vision as his princess fought for her life.
Fatal Shadow is available for pre-order on Amazon.
Read Chapter 2 HERE.