Read Poison Dance Proofreading Epub Online

Authors: Livia Blackburne

Tags: #Fiction, #Fantasy, #Assassins

Poison Dance Proofreading Epub (2 page)

BOOK: Poison Dance Proofreading Epub
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“Of course,” said James coolly. Around him, the other assassins settled, and the tension dissipated a notch.

Again, a long stare from Gerred. Then, he cleared his throat. “The job today is for Lord Hamel. An associate owes him money.” He handed them a name and address on a parchment. James took it, since Bacchus couldn’t read. James himself had only learned to do so after he’d noticed all the leaders in the Guild were literate.

Gerred gestured toward the parchment. “You know him, don’t you?”

“Name looks familiar. He still hasn’t paid up?”

Behind Gerred, Lord Hamel cleared his throat. “He’s owed me money for several weeks now.” The nobleman spoke with an elegant diction. “Be more persuasive this time, will you? I don’t imagine that will be a problem for the two of you.”

Bacchus snorted. “It won’t.”

They took their leave. Most of the city had gone to sleep, and the streets were quiet. After they had gone a few blocks, Rand materialized from the shadows and fell in step with them. “Any news?” he asked.

“Clevon’s dead,” said Bacchus. “Gerred ’fessed up.”

 
Rand cursed under his breath. “Think Gerred’ll take over?”

“Seems he already has,” said James.

Their conversation fell off as they reached the man’s house. James nodded, and the three of them moved in.

The door was in such disrepair that it swung open with a single kick from Bacchus. James watched as the other two dragged a disoriented man out of bed. Their victim was still blinking and shaking his head when they dumped him in front of James. Rand pulled him to his feet and held him firmly by the arms.

“One hundred coppers, due three months ago,” said James. “You remember, don’t you?”

As the man came to his senses, he started to gibber about his health. James exchanged a glance with Bacchus, who rolled up his sleeves and moved closer with a grin. Bacchus enjoyed this type of work.

James watched him deliver the first few blows. Beatings had to be done, but he didn’t take pleasure in them. After a while, he caught Rand’s eye. The redheaded man nodded. He would keep Bacchus in line, and James was free to go home and check on the dancing girl’s other warning.

James lived in a single room with a sloping ceiling, tucked above a smithy. Its location meant that he got some extra heat in the winter from the forge below, though it was sweltering in the summer, and the blacksmith’s hammer constantly echoed through the walls. The noise was a boon tonight, since it hid sounds of his return. He climbed the stairs quietly and timed the turn of his key to a hammer stroke. Then he threw the door open.

A man was by his bed, sliding his hand under the mattress. In the moment the intruder stared dumbfounded, James closed the distance between them, dodging the man’s hasty punch. James threw a solid blow to his stomach, and when the man doubled over, brought the hilt of his dagger down over his head. The intruder crumpled to the ground, stunned. James checked him for weapons. He found three daggers—one at his waist and two on his shins, which James tossed into the corner. The man stirred, and James ground his knee into his throat.

“Who sent you?” He kept his voice soft, speaking between the rings of the blacksmith’s hammer. “Don’t lie to me.”

The man hesitated, eyes rolling in confusion. James repeated the question, opening two slashes on the man’s cheek for emphasis.

“Gerred.” The man’s voice was tinged with panic.

Somehow, James wasn’t surprised. “What did he want?” he asked.

Another hesitation, which disappeared when James moved the knife closer. “I was to look for letters, money. Anything to see if you were gathering folk to you, with Clevon gone.”

James flicked his knife across the man’s throat, just hard enough to draw blood. The man cursed at him, and James dragged him to his feet.

“Let’s go pay Gerred a visit.”

     

*
   
*
   
*

To some extent, the bad blood between James and Gerred was Bacchus’s fault. Bacchus had been just as reckless with his insults during his early years as he was now. One day, a few years after Bacchus had joined the Guild, an older assassin named Nathaniel lost his temper and took a swing at him. But there was a reason Bacchus could afford to be so freely offensive. Within moments, the younger assassin had Nathaniel pinned against a table, a manic grin on his face as he tightened his grip on the older man’s throat. Other Guild members broke in between the two fighters before any blood was shed.

It should have ended like that, with bruised pride and nothing else. But a few days later, James overheard Nathaniel making plans to ambush Bacchus. James had watched the first fight without interfering—he’d had no special love for Bacchus back then, thinking him unpredictable and dangerous. But James disliked Nathaniel even more than he disliked Bacchus. The older assassin was part of Gerred’s inner circle and all too willing to abuse his position. It was why Nathaniel had even dared plan the ambush—infighting within the Guild was against Clevon’s rules, but Nathaniel thought himself untouchable.

Nathaniel’s crew was successful in their ambush. They had Bacchus on his knees, spitting blood, when James intervened. As it was, they didn’t see James until two men were already down with their throats slit. James would have preferred not to kill them—it meant more trouble from Clevon later on—but he couldn’t have gone up against four if he’d held back.

When Gerred found out, he demanded that Clevon execute James. Instead, Clevon pardoned him. Gerred and James maintained an uneasy truce after that. With the old guildleader gone though, it seemed that Gerred was taking more direct steps.

The carpenter’s shop had emptied considerably by the time James dragged the bound and gagged spy through the door. The only people left were Gerred, Lord Hamel, and two men that James recognized as Hamel’s bodyguards. Gerred stopped talking when James entered. His gaze went first to James, then to his prisoner, lingering in particular on the cut across the man’s neck.

“Please excuse me,” Gerred said to Lord Hamel.

There was a touch of a smirk on Hamel’s lips as he led his guards past James and his prisoner. James got the impression that the nobleman was amused by the hint of internal trouble. As the door closed behind Hamel, James turned back to Gerred.

 
“I brought him back this time,” said James. “Next time, I won’t.”

Gerred sat back in his chair, showing no more remorse than if James had accused him of forgetting his birthday. “I needed to know the loyalty of my men, with Clevon gone.”

At least he hadn’t tried to deny it. “Next time you’re wondering about my loyalties, ask me.”

“You know that’s not good enough. If you had nothing to hide, you had nothing to worry about. If you did . . ” Gerred shrugged.

James dumped the spy onto the ground. A small cloud of sawdust rose up off the floor. “I won’t follow a guildleader who thinks he can sift through my quarters on a whim.”

Gerred’s eyes narrowed. “Careful, James. Do you realize what you’re saying?”

James stopped himself. He hadn’t meant to overtly threaten defection. “I’m willing to work under you, Gerred. If you treat me fairly, I won’t cause trouble. But I won’t stand for spies.”

Gerred glanced at the candle on his desk. It hadn’t yet burned half its length. “You were hardly gone an hour. Rather impressive, to finish a job and make it back so soon.”

“I work quickly.” James couldn’t quite dredge up the motivation for a more convincing lie.

“I’ll wager you did,” grunted Gerred, taking one last look at the candle. “You’re a good assassin, James, provided you do as you’re told. Finish the jobs you’re given, follow instructions. You’ve been running jobs with Rand and Bacchus for a while now. I think it’s time you pair up with some others. I wouldn’t want you getting stale, working with the same crew all the time.”

And of course, separating him from Rand and Bacchus would make it harder for them to cause Gerred trouble. The guildleader was watching James carefully now, seeing if he’d provoked a response. Briefly, James entertained the thought of drawing his blade. Gerred was good, but he’d slowed with age. In a fair fight, the odds would be on James’s side, but Hamel and his bodyguards were just outside. Somehow, James suspected that starting a fight was exactly what the guildleader wanted him to do.

He kept his expression carefully neutral. “Very well then. If that’s what you think is best.”

Chapter Three

B
ACCHUS
slammed his mug down on the table. “Now he wants to split us up? He’ll pair us with his lapdogs, mark my words. We won’t be able to do anything without him knowing again.” They were back at the Scorned Maiden, discussing the previous night’s events.

Rand nodded in agreement. “Gerred’s tightening his grip.”

James didn’t reply. They were right, and he had nothing more to add. Instead, he looked across the room to where the auburn-haired dancing girl was performing. The girl’s onstage persona was completely different from the way she’d presented herself two nights ago. When she danced, she was striking—animated, unreserved, and alluring. When the girl had approached two nights ago, though, she’d gone out of the way not to draw attention to herself.

Bacchus followed James’s gaze and whistled appreciatively. “You talk to her yet?” he asked James.

James shook his head. “Later.”

“Why don’t you stop ogling her and think about how we’re going to live out the next month?” said Rand. A serving girl came to ask if they wanted more ale, and Rand shot her a glance that sent her scurrying away.

James let out a breath and turned back to Rand. He pressed his ankle against the side of his boot, and the knife he kept there pushed comfortingly back. “What are our options then?”

Bacchus cracked his knuckles. “I say the bastard’s lived out his time on top. Clevon was no genius, but he was honest with us, at least. Gerred’ll stab anyone in the back if it means more gold for him.”

“If either of you wants to fight for the top, go ahead. I’ve no interest in it,” said James. “We’ve been here ten years. We know how it works by now. Clevon lived a comfortable life, and Gerred still does. We all joined thinking someday we’d live like them. Only now we know how many rank and file want the same thing, and how many bodies we’d have to crawl over to get there.”

“We could outfight anyone in the Guild,” said Bacchus. The eagerness in his voice was hard to miss.

James shrugged. “Mayhap we could, but all it takes is one knife in the back. And all this for what? So we can be finished off by a Red Shield in ten years?”

Rand cleared his throat. “You’re forgetting that Gerred in’t exactly giving us a choice in the matter. It doesn’t matter whether we’re loyal to him or not. He’s already convinced you’ll fight to be head, and your conversation last night didn’t calm his fears, I’ll guarantee you that.”

While Bacchus’s thoughts were always written clear on his face, James had always found Rand harder to read. He was somewhat of a puzzle: closed-mouthed about his past and effective enough at his job, but he clearly didn’t love it like Bacchus did. And though they’d saved each other’s lives dozens of times, James realized he didn’t know what Rand really felt about the headship, or the Guild for that matter.

“You’re right, Rand. Gerred’ll likely not give us a choice about the issue—if we stick around in Forge,” said James. “But none of us has ties to the city. What’s stopping us from leaving altogether?”

Bacchus gave James a sidelong glance, comprehension dawning on his face. Rand looked impressed as well. As his companions chewed over his words, James’s gaze wandered back to the dancing girl. She’d put bells on her ankles and wrists now and shook them in time to the music. Light from the hearth, the table lamps, and the candle chandeliers played off her movements and gave her skin a reddish hue. A few times, he thought she looked in his direction.

“Not a bad idea,” Rand finally said. “I’ve always wanted to see Parna.”

“Set up there?” asked Bacchus.

“Or just travel for a while,” said James.

“We in’t got the coin,” said Rand, his scowl creeping back. “We’d need supplies, horses, better traveling clothes than we’ve got if we want to survive the winter.”

He was right. The forest roads were not friendly to travelers, and Parna would present its own set of obstacles once they got there.

Bacchus drained his flagon and slammed it down on the table, his signal that he was done talking for the night. “Too much worrying and too little ale. We can decide tomorrow.”

The music had stopped. James glanced around and saw that the dancing girl stood near the back of the dining room. Again, she’d changed out of her costume and into her homespun dress.

“Fine. We think about it,” he said, pushing back from the table.

Bacchus grinned when he saw where James was looking. “Don’t be up too late,” he said as James walked away.

The girl straightened as James approached. She looked him calmly in the eye, though she fidgeted with her fingers as if grasping and ungrasping an invisible ball.

“You were right,” he said.

Relief flickered across her face. Her expression was guarded, and she stood in such a way as to emphasize the empty space between them. James didn’t see even a hint of the coquettishness he’d seen from her onstage. “You caught someone then?” she asked.

He moved closer and lowered his voice. “How did you come to be so good at overhearing Guild secrets?”

He’d half expected her to put more distance between them, but she stood her ground. “I’m quiet. Men don’t notice me.”

“I doubt that.”

He had the satisfaction of seeing a flush rise in her cheeks. “Perhaps,” she said. “But they forget I have ears.” When he didn’t reply, she spoke again. “What now?”

“I owe you my thanks. I’ll hear you out.”

She glanced around the room, and her gaze settled on a group of men close enough to overhear them.

“Mayhap we can take a walk?” he asked, catching her meaning.

They headed to the door. She looked surprised when he held it open for her. James gave her a sardonic smile and waved her out. The air was brisk, just chilly enough to bring a cloak to mind.

BOOK: Poison Dance Proofreading Epub
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