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Authors: Livia Blackburne

Tags: #Fiction, #Fantasy, #Assassins

Poison Dance Proofreading Epub

BOOK: Poison Dance Proofreading Epub
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Contents

Chapter One

Chapter Two

Chapter Three

Chapter Four

Chapter Five

Chapter Six

Chapter Seven

Epilogue

Note from Livia

Midnight Thief Excerpt

Acknowledgements

POISON DANCE

©2013 Livia Blackburne

ISBN-13: 978-1-940584-01-0

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James is skilled, efficient, and deadly, a hired blade navigating the shifting alliances of a deteriorating Assassin’s Guild. Then he meets Thalia, an alluring but troubled dancing girl who offers him a way out—if he’ll help her kill a powerful nobleman. With the Guild falling apart, it just might be worth the risk. But when you live, breathe, and love in a world that’s forever flirting with death, the slightest misstep can be poison.

Chapter One

I
T
was the way she looked at James that caught his attention. The young woman didn’t avoid his eyes like the serving lasses who hurried away after handing him his ale. Nor did she gaze at him coyly through her lashes like a dancer hoping for extra tips. This girl met his eyes straight on, and there was a quiet confidence in the way she held herself. She must have been watching James as he ate, because she came to him as soon as he stepped away from his table. She brushed her fingertips across his elbow.

“I would speak with you,” she said, holding his gaze. The girl was tall, with auburn hair pulled back from a delicately featured face. She wore no makeup, and a loosely woven homespun dress hid her slight form from view. The skin of her hands and wrists was pale, almost translucent where they escaped her sleeves. She turned and walked away.

Despite her plain attire, the girl was attractive, and her request intriguing. James followed, though he did look back to make sure all was well at his table. Rand and Bacchus were engaged in a loud debate over which tavern had the best lamb stew. They hadn’t yet noticed the girl.

She weaved gracefully between drunken revelers to a corridor that opened off the tavern’s cask-lined back wall. The Scorned Maiden had filled up by now with after-supper patrons, and heat from the crowd made the air damp and heavy. James followed her halfway down the corridor’s length—far enough for them to be hidden in shadow but still within earshot of his companions. Then he stopped.

“We speak here,” he said. Years in the Guild had taught him to take precautions.

She hesitated, glancing down the corridor in both directions. Then she slowly nodded. As she moved closer, he loosened the tie that bound one of his daggers to his arm. The knife dropped into his hand. The girl caught the glint of metal and flinched.

“Just being careful,” he said, making no effort to sound reassuring.

She pulled her gaze away from his weapon and did a respectable job of wiping any fear from her face. When she spoke, her voice was cautious but steady. “I’m not foolish enough to lead you into a trap.” Her speech lacked the rolling cadences common to Forge’s peasants, but James couldn’t place her accent.

Now that they were standing closer, he recognized her—the way she tilted her head and the graceful flow of her movements. Occasionally, her eyes caught the light from the dining room, and James saw that they were dark green. “You’re one of the dancing girls.” He hadn’t recognized her without the costume and eye paint.

“And you’re an assassin,” she said.

He took his time answering. It was no secret that he was a member of the Guild, but it wasn’t something usually announced on first meeting. “I may be.”

“I would retain your services.” Her tone was serious. She believed herself earnest, at least.

He gave a low chuckle. “Many think they would. But few have the coin, and even fewer truly have the stomach for it.”

“I have enough coin.”

“And how does a dancing lass come across so much money?” He dropped his eyes to her shapeless dress. “Unless your trade is not purely dancing.”

She flushed now, her nervousness replaced with anger. “My business is my own. Will you take my coin or not?”

It raised his opinion of her, that she didn’t meekly accept his insult. Nevertheless, he couldn’t help her. “It doesn’t work that way. I take orders from my guildleader.”

“But do you have to? I could pay you well.”

“I don’t need the trouble.”

The sounds of conversation in the dining room had died down, and James heard a talesinger’s theatrical voice projecting over the crowd. He turned to leave, and she took his arm. “You have a job tomorrow, don’t you?”

That stopped him. To know that he was in the Assassins Guild was one thing, but to know what he was doing the next day . . . “What of it?”

“If there’s anything in your quarters you’d rather keep hidden, move it somewhere else before you leave. And you may want to return early.”

He studied her face for any signs of deception. “I’ll keep that in mind.”

“And one more thing,” she said before he could turn away again.

“What?”

“The rumors are right. Your guildleader is dead.”

     

*
   
*
   
*

Bacchus wore a wide grin when James returned to the table. “Not bad. Though I didn't get a good look at her.” His cheeks were red over his thick black beard.

“Couldn't, with that flour sack she was wearing,” said Rand, scowling at his mug. While Bacchus could forget his troubles as soon as he entered a tavern, Rand didn’t have that gift. And with rumors of the guildleader's death flying around, they'd had plenty to worry about.

“It was the redheaded dancer. The one who performed earlier today,” said James.

Bacchus raised his eyebrows and peered over the crowd. “That was her? Lass must be blind. Or have a fancy for scarecrows.” He gestured dismissively with a brawny arm toward James's lean form. James didn't bother to reply. Bacchus knew well enough that James could outfight him two times out of three.

“She told me Clevon’s dead,” said James.

That sobered even Bacchus up. “How does she know?”

“Says she overheard some men talking. Didn’t know their names, but from her descriptions, it sounded like Gerred’s crew.”

Rand whistled darkly. “There’ll be trouble if she’s right.”

The last time a guildleader had died was twenty years ago. Then, a much younger Clevon had fought his way to the top, leaving much of the existing Guild dead. It had been before James's time, but nothing he’d heard made him wish he'd been there. Across the table, Bacchus shifted, reaching for his weapons as if he expected assassins to materialize out of the walls.

James remained still, though it took some effort to suppress that same instinct to arm himself. “Gerred’s firmly Clevon’s second. Mayhap he’ll keep a hold on everyone this time.”

Rand snorted. “Mayhap Gerred’ll hand out sweet buns, kiss us each atop our foreheads, and nurse us each to sleep upon his ample bosom.” He pushed a carrot-colored strand of hair away from his eyes. “But I’ll not be closing my eyes while he’s around.”

“You know . . .” Bacchus lowered his voice below his usual bellow. “When Clevon took over the Guild, he was about the same age we are now.”

They’d all been thinking the same thing, but leave it to Bacchus to voice it. James scanned his peripheral vision to see if anybody could overhear them. By his companions’ silence, he could tell they were doing the same. Thankfully, the minstrel's singing kept their voices from traveling far. “I’ve no interest in being guildleader,” he finally said. “It’s like fighting to rule a privy. Ending up on top just puts you first to be pissed on.”

Bacchus roared in approval. “But the wallhuggers piss gold. Comes in helpful, even if it stinks.” The city’s noblemen, called such because they lived so close to the Palace wall, had recently begun to notice the Guild’s potential usefulness. More than one of the Guild’s senior men were in the noblemen’s pockets.

Rand cleared his throat. “We can argue all night about whether the headship is worth the fight, but we might not have a choice. Especially you.” He jerked his head in James’s direction. “You think Gerred’ll just take you at your word, that you’ll be a good obedient lad?”

Bacchus nodded in slow agreement, and James didn’t contradict them. He’d long been at odds with Gerred.

“There’s one more thing the lass overheard,” said James. “She also said that someone will flip my quarters tomorrow while me and Bacchus run the job.”

“Really?” The scowl dropped from Rand's face. “We can check that, at least.”

“You working tomorrow?” asked James.

Rand downed the rest of his ale. “I am now.”

Chapter Two

J
AMES
had been fifteen and covered in blood when he first met Clevon. A bar fight had gotten out of hand, and James had hidden in a nearby alleyway to avoid the Red Shields. But it wasn’t Palace soldiers who discovered him. Instead, a plainly dressed man with a sun-darkened face and unshaven chin had come into the alley.

“None of that blood is your own, is it, lad?” Clevon had asked.

James didn’t answer. The drunkard from the fight wasn’t his first kill—James had learned early on to strike first and strike hard—but the aftermath still wasn’t easy. He didn’t like the feel of someone else’s blood drying on his skin.

Clevon continued. “You’re fast, and you don’t hesitate. You were clear across the room by the time anyone even noticed the fool had been stuck.” Clevon reached into his belt pouch and pulled out James’s knife. “This your only knife?”

Leaving it in the man’s body had been beyond foolish. James gathered himself to fight.

“Never carry just one knife,” said Clevon. He studied the blade, rotating it so that it reflected light onto the alley walls. “But I’ll make you a deal. I give your knife back and hide you from the Red Shields—if you come work for me.”

That was how James had joined the Guild. Bacchus and Rand had come in around the same time. The rest of their cohort had either dropped out or died since then, but James found that the work suited him. He was good at it, and over the years he grew used to the feel of blood on his hands.

The job today was a routine one, which meant that James and Bacchus wouldn’t know the specifics until they spoke to Gerred. The Guild’s second-in-command held court in various locations—sometimes public, sometimes private. Today, he was in the back room of a carpenter’s shop.

The smell of sawdust and the soft crunch of wood shavings underfoot greeted them as they entered a room cluttered with tools and lumber. Gerred sat at the carpenter’s work table and acknowledged them with a nod. He was middle-aged, with a paunch that testified to his recent success, though anyone who mistook his girth for weakness did so at his own risk. A few of Gerred’s subordinates were scattered by the walls, and behind Gerred stood a man who was fast becoming familiar to James. The man wore the clothes of a commoner, but his bearing gave him away. He stood tall and looked at people as if they existed at his pleasure. It was Lord Hamel, one of the richest noblemen in Forge. He’d always believed in spreading his influence, and he didn’t restrict himself to legal means. Not for the first time, James wondered how much of his bread and butter came from Hamel’s coffers.

“We’re errand boys for the wallhuggers,” Bacchus muttered. For once, he had the good sense to keep his voice low.

James didn’t give any indication of hearing him, though he agreed. Talesinger accounts of the age-old Assassins Guild abounded with romance and mystique, but actually, the Guild’s current incarnation was pale ash compared to what it once was. A hundred years ago, Guild members had been feared and influential. Nowadays, they were just hired thugs who did unpleasant jobs for pay. James’s own jobs had become more menial over the past few years, though he suspected this had more to do with Gerred taking over job assignments than with the wallhuggers’ meddlings.

“Ho, Gerred,” James said. “How are things?”

Gerred had been writing in a ledger and put his pen down. James did have to give the man credit for being organized. Gerred’s meticulousness had brought a new efficiency to Guild operations. “We’ve got trouble with Red Shields coming after our men,” said Gerred.

“Is that so?” James let the question fall with an unfinished note.

Gerred gave them a probing look. “Clevon’s dead,” he said abruptly.

James briefly considered feigning surprise but decided against it. Gerred needed to know that he wasn’t able to hide as much as he wished.

“When’d you plan on telling us?” asked Bacchus.

“I told you just now, din’t I?”

There was a shifting of energy within the room, and James felt eyes settle on him, waiting for his next move. If the others were expecting a show, they’d be disappointed. James kept his expression carefully neutral. “When?” asked James.

“Six days ago. Red Shields. Three of them.”

“That’s unfortunate,” he said.

Gerred rubbed his knuckles and squinted at them. “Things’ll be shaky for a while. Can I count on your loyalty?”

BOOK: Poison Dance Proofreading Epub
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