Read Poison Dance Proofreading Epub Online

Authors: Livia Blackburne

Tags: #Fiction, #Fantasy, #Assassins

Poison Dance Proofreading Epub (4 page)

BOOK: Poison Dance Proofreading Epub
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“How often are they here?” asked James.

“Once a fortnight, perhaps,” said Thalia.

The back flap of a wagon opened, and a bald, stocky man stepped out. He had a face resembling a walrus, with a curled mustache in place of tusks. “Thalia!” he said.

Thalia responded with the first genuine smile James had seen from her.

Alvie pulled the dancing girl into an embrace. “Still here then, on your mad quest?”

“Until it’s done.” She spoke quietly, but something about her tone suggested that she was holding her ground in a long disagreement between the two of them.

Alvie’s expression became more guarded when he saw James. “You’re the buyer?”

“I can get your goods past the Red Shield checkpoints,” said James.

“You’re not afraid of the Palace?” The trader looked him up and down.

James smiled. “More marks against me won’t make a difference. But why would
you
take this risk?”

Alvie gestured in the direction of the city. “The Palace keeps our prices low by prohibiting us from selling to others. I travel far for those goods. I want to make my fair due.”

“I assume Thalia’s told you that we’re only planning one run. We don’t plan to be in Forge much longer.”

“Plenty of money in one run,” said Alvie. “And if things go well, there’s no reason we couldn’t continue this elsewhere.”

“Fair enough,” said James. “We’ll need to find buyers, but I’d like to see the wares first.”

“Certainly.” Alvie gestured to Thalia. “It’s in the fifth wagon.”

As Thalia disappeared behind the wagon, Alvie turned his eye toward James. “You know her well?”

“No. She sought me out.”

Alvie looked him over again. James suspected that this time Alvie wasn’t evaluating his abilities as a smuggler. He wasn’t sure what the caravaner could discern from his appearance, but whatever Alvie saw didn’t clear the suspicion from his eyes. “I’d ask your help in keeping her out of trouble, but I suppose that’s not your arrangement with her.”

James smiled, not missing the layers of questions behind the caravaner’s remark. “She’s not looking to stay out of trouble.” If Alvie wanted to know more about their arrangement, he’d have to get it out of Thalia.

“Are you involved with her?” Alvie asked bluntly.

“Why do you want to know?”

“We both stand to lose much if this venture goes wrong. Thalia says you’re trustworthy, but I need to know if anything’s clouding her judgment.”

James didn’t believe for a moment that the man’s concern was for business reasons. Not with the protective way he watched over the girl. James supposed there was no point in needlessly antagonizing the man. “She keeps her distance,” he said.

Alvie gave a quick nod, apparently satisfied, and looked to where Thalia was climbing out of the wagon. “She’s changed,” he said. “Since she lost her sister.”

The caravaner was watching him for a reaction. James gave a noncommittal shrug. “I just do what she pays me to do.”

There was a twitch of frustration in Alvie’s expression. He might have said more, but Thalia was already coming back with a large box. If she suspected she’d been the topic of conversation, she gave no sign of it. Alvie placed the box on the back of the nearest wagon and opened it. The smell of a half dozen spices filled the air.

“Cinnamon, saffron, curries from Minadel,” said Alvie. “I can give you some samples to show to your buyers.”

“That will work. I should have buyers ready in a fortnight.”

Thalia stood on her toes and kissed Alvie lightly on the cheek. “You’ll bring me the venom next time?” When Alvie stayed silent, she added, “If you don’t, I’ll just go forward without it.”

For a moment, it looked like Alvie was going to argue, but he gave a defeated nod and squeezed her tight. “Take care of yourself.”

     

*
   
*
   
*

Thalia danced again that night. Every time James watched her, he noticed something new. This time, it was the way she arched her neck when she bent to the music. It was a small detail, sensual and carefree at once.

“You bed her yet?” asked Bacchus. “If you’re not interested, I want a try.”

“Stay away from her,” he said, eyes fixed on the dance. Actually, James wasn’t sure why he hadn’t tried anything yet. He’d never been shy of women, and there were always some adventurous serving girls eager to roll with an assassin. But Thalia had made it clear from the beginning that their arrangement was purely business—going out of her way to wipe off her eye paint and rouge before she came to talk to him, refusing to sit on his bed. This was limited only to her off stage dealings. When Thalia was on stage, she was enchanting—all swaying hips and fluttering lashes.

Presently, the music stopped, and she came by their table. Her cheeks were flushed from the exercise, and the hair around her face was damp with sweat. She’d been in good spirits after visiting the caravan.

Thalia made a barely perceptible gesture toward a table in the corner.

“Over there. That’s your guildleader, isn’t it?”

James glanced over. “That’s Gerred.”

“And who’s that with him?”

“One of the noblemen he caters to. Goes by Steffen.”

Thalia shifted herself carefully so no one but James could see her lips. “And his real name, is it Hamel?”

He really needed to stop being surprised when the girl knew something she shouldn’t. James gave a discrete nod.

Her face took on a focus that he’d never seen before. “I need to speak with him.”

“Why?”

She hesitated a split second. “He has connections.”

Why was the girl flat-out set on diving into the messiest circumstances possible? “He’s dangerous,” he said.

“Please. Introduce me. Let me dance for them,” she said. Again, there was something in her eyes. The same fiery desperation that had been there when she’d first asked him for help. It bothered James how little he knew about her, but he was curious about her request, and perhaps it would be a good idea to stay close to Gerred.

“Just this once,” he said, standing up from his chair. He wasn’t sure whether the flash of triumph across her face bode well or ill.

Gerred looked to be in the middle of a long speech, leaning across the table toward Hamel as the nobleman listened with a half-interested expression. The guildleader shot James a look that was anything but welcoming. James pretended not to notice.

“Can I join you?” James pulled up a chair, knowing that Gerred wouldn’t turn him away once he was there, lest he give Hamel an impression that he didn’t have full control over his crew. But the look Gerred turned on him when he sat down was even more hostile than James had expected. Belatedly, he realized that what might have once simply been an impudent gesture from a young upstart was now being interpreted as an attempt from a rival to poach Gerred’s allies. Well, it was too late to back out now, and part of him enjoyed seeing Gerred off balance.

James turned to Lord Hamel. “Good to see you. Steffen, is it?”

Lord Hamel nodded amiably, though the spark in his eyes suggested that the nobleman was well aware of everything that had passed between the two assassins. Once again, James reminded himself not to underestimate this wallhugger.

“What brings you to the city today?” James asked.

“Just discussing some plans with Gerred.” Hamel did a respectable job of hiding his high-class diction, though he couldn’t quite lose his air of command. But then, perhaps he didn’t want to blend in too completely with the masses.

James nodded gravely. “There are always things to get done. Gerred’s the right man for the job, though. He’s done much to strengthen our Guild’s workings.” James had the satisfaction of seeing Gerred’s brow furrow slightly in confusion.

“I’m glad to hear it. It is said that the best measure of a man lies in the opinions of those he commands,” said Hamel.

 
“Wisely said,” said James, without a hint of mockery. “Tell me, Steffen. Have you been to the Scorned Maiden before?”

“Not for many years.” Hamel surveyed the surroundings in a way that made James aware of the ill-fitted window shutters and rotting ceiling beams. The smell of sweat and ale was strong tonight. “It has its charms.”

James took a long draught from his drink. “The ale is middling, but the dancers are some of the best in the city.” He raised a hand to Thalia. “A dance, to entertain my friend here.” He flipped a coin to the lute player in the corner.

Thalia danced well. James had never seen her so given to a performance, and she only had eyes for Hamel. The nobleman watched with an appreciative eye, and after a while James itched to cut that leer off his face. But Thalia was encouraging him, tossing her auburn hair and swaying her hips. Gerred scowled as well, shooting suspicious looks at James every so often. But seeing how pleased Hamel was, Gerred didn’t complain.

When the dance was over, Hamel waved Thalia over. She approached them boldly, her eyes sparkling with promises.

“What is your name?”

“Thalia.”

“Beautiful, Thalia. Truly beautiful.” Lord Hamel pulled up a chair for her, and Thalia joined them at the table.

Chapter Five

T
HALIA
was noticeably tired when she came to James’s quarters the next afternoon. Paler, if it was even possible, with circles under her eyes.

“Didn’t sleep well last night?” James asked. He didn’t bother toning down his sarcasm.

“I don’t want to talk about it.” There was a brokenness to her tone that might have stopped him under different circumstances, but he wasn’t feeling charitable. All he could see was Thalia under Hamel’s arm, smiling and laughing as the nobleman pulled her even closer. Hamel’s lips against her hair as he whispered in her ear. And to add insult to injury, she was now back in her homespun gown with her makeup removed, playing the innocent.

“I didn’t think you had it in you,” he said.

She didn’t say anything, just turned away from him so that her hair hid her face from view. James’s anger boiled over. He grabbed her wrist. Too forcefully, and she gasped.

“Did you go to his bed?”

“What is it to you?” she said.

Part of him had still hoped she’d deny it. James’s lips curled in disgust. “You really are dedicated, aren't you? If you’re planning to use Hamel to reach your mark, you’re playing with fire. One wrong step with him—”

It seemed that something snapped in her, because her timidity fell away. Thalia whipped her head up, eyes ablaze. “Don’t be blind, James. Look at me. Do you think I enjoyed it?”

They were almost nose to nose, and her voice was threatening to crack. It was enough to make him pause. He pulled back and took in the hollow hopelessness of her face, the pallor of her skin. She watched him, eyes wide. Then Thalia seemed to gather herself. She stood up on her toes, eyes half lidded, and touched her lips to his. He knew she was just trying to distract him, to give him what she thought he desired. For a long moment, he stood unmoving against the pressure of her lips, but finally he tilted his face ever so slightly to meet hers.

This was the signal she was waiting for. Thalia pressed into him, urgent now, and a rush of heat filled James. Her lips were soft, her breath warm. He’d known he wanted her, but hadn’t realized how much. Thalia’s body was strong but pliant, just as he’d imagined, her restless fingers finding purchase in his arms and his shoulders. He buried his fingers in her hair, his frustration adding a savagery to his movements as he bore her toward his bed, sliding his hands down her back to pull at the lacing of her gown.

Only to see, in his mind’s eye, Hamel doing the same thing hours earlier.

He pushed her away. She gasped and fell onto the bed.

“What are you doing?” His voice was hoarse, and he struggled to catch his breath.

Slowly, she came to her senses. Her cheeks were flushed, her eyes uncertain. “I don’t know,” she whispered. “I’m sorry.”

He stepped away from her, putting space between them. “No more secrets, Thalia. What are you really trying to do?”

She opened her mouth, but no sound came out. For a long time, she stood there, caught between speaking and silence.

“Hamel is my mark,” she finally said. She watched him, her back straight, bracing herself for his reaction.

“Hamel?” For a moment, that was all that came out of his mouth. “You're mad,” he finally said. “You told me that your mark was
not
very powerful.”

Her chin lifted slightly. “You wouldn’t have helped me otherwise.”

“You’re right. I wouldn’t have. He's likely been trained in combat from birth. He goes nowhere without his bodyguards. Even if you get a weapon past them, even if you kill him and escape, Hamel has so many connections, even in the city. If the Red Shields don’t get you, then the Guild will.” He stopped, remembering where she had just come from. “Wait, did you . . .”

She deflated at his question. “His bodyguards took my dagger before they left us alone. I told them I kept it to protect myself against drunk patrons, but they’re watching me now, and they’ll be searching me even more carefully in the future. There’s no way I can get a knife past them now.” She stared past James, eyes bleak. Then she resolutely shook her head. “It doesn't matter. I've come this far. I'll find another way. I have to.”

     

*
   
*
   
*

If Rand or Bacchus noticed that James and Thalia avoided talking that night, neither of them mentioned it. His two friends spent the evening pricing Minadan spices while James looked on. Thankfully, Hamel was nowhere to be seen, but James wasn’t naïve enough to think that this respite would last long.

He left the tavern early and returned to his quarters. It was quiet—no noise from the blacksmith’s family through the walls. He allowed himself to light an oil lamp so he could mend a tear in his spare tunic and had just sat down on his bed when there was a knock on the door.

It was Thalia.

After a long moment, James stepped aside. Her face was downcast as she walked in, and she sat against his wall the same way as when she’d visited him the first time. Back then, she had been trying to keep him at a distance. Tonight, the act felt more like an apology. Neither of them said anything, and James returned to his mending.

BOOK: Poison Dance Proofreading Epub
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