Read Poison Dance Proofreading Epub Online

Authors: Livia Blackburne

Tags: #Fiction, #Fantasy, #Assassins

Poison Dance Proofreading Epub (5 page)

BOOK: Poison Dance Proofreading Epub
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After a while, she finally spoke. “Your father. Why did you kill him?”

That hadn’t been the question he’d expected. Though from the vulnerability in her eyes, he would have thought it was him questioning her rather than the other way around.

“It’s no big secret,” he said. “My Da didn’t handle his wine well. Took out his frustrations on me and my sister. One day he hit her too hard, and I fought back.”

The answer didn’t seem to surprise her. “What became of your sister?”

“She died.”

Thalia nodded slowly in understanding. “That’s why you wish you’d killed him sooner.”

James laid the tunic aside. The memory was an old one, numb like a wound calloused over. “I just make sure I don’t make the same mistake again.”

Thalia hooked a finger under her collar and drew out a thin gold necklace that James had never noticed before. She examined it, brows furrowed, tilting the links to the light. “I’ve promised myself I wouldn’t hesitate. That I’d do anything.”

“Why do you want to kill Hamel?” he asked.

She raised her eyes, doubt in her gaze.

“Alvie says you lost your sister. Was that Hamel’s doing?”

She was silent again, no longer staring at the chain in her hands but at a spot on the floor beyond it. James waited.

“Tess was four years my senior,” she finally said. There was a sad note to her voice, but a measure of relief too, as if she were delivering a long suppressed confession. “Our parents died before I learned to walk, so in many ways, she was a mother to me. She taught me to dance. . . .” Thalia trailed off with a wistful smile. “She was beautiful.”

After a moment, she continued. “We grew up with the caravans, but we were fascinated by life in the cities. Tess especially. When I was old enough to travel with the caravan myself, Tess came to live at Forge. It wasn’t supposed to be a long trip. She just wanted to see what it was like. She danced at the Silver Plough to pay for lodging, and I visited her when the caravan passed by.”

Thalia drew a shaky breath. “Lord Hamel came often to the Silver Plough. At the time, we didn’t know who he was. We knew he was rich, and we knew he liked Tess. I suppose she should have known better. She never had any interest in him, but she accepted his gifts. He started to get more possessive, demanding her time. In the meantime, Tess had become close with a young man. Hamel found out about them.”

Thalia suddenly raised her eyes to James, and an edge of bitterness entered her voice. “Funny how a man’s mind will work. If Tess had accepted Hamel’s overtures, he probably would have tired of her in a few months. But because she chose someone over him, Hamel became obsessed. He cajoled her to leave him. Then it became threats. Tess was worried, but still, she did nothing. The caravan was far off, and she didn’t want to leave her lover.”

Thalia closed her eyes for a moment, her eyes moving beneath her translucent lids. “They found her dead outside The Silver Plough. Her lover’s body washed up in the river a few days later.”

She was still fidgeting with the necklace, weaving the chain absentmindedly between her fingertips. James stepped closer and took it between his fingers. It was made of delicate gold, with links in the shape of leaves. James could tell it was valuable, far beyond the means of a girl like her.

Thalia opened her eyes. “This was hers,” Thalia said. “A family heirloom. Our father gave it to her before he died.”

“It’s beautiful.” He held the necklace one last time to the lamplight before letting it drop. “Are you sure it was Lord Hamel who killed her?”

She nodded, her voice quivering with fury. “He boasted of it afterwards. About how he’d taught the uppity dancing girl a lesson.”

“And now you want to take your revenge.”

“It’s all I’ve lived for since she died.” Thalia looked to her hands, and with effort, composed herself. “I shouldn’t have kept this from you. I’m sorry,” she said. “But I’ve told you everything now. If you’re still willing to help me . . .” She was pleading with him. Begging, really, her desperation naked on her face.

James turned away from her. It had been a foolish venture from the beginning. Even with the promise of trade with the caravans, the idea of training a girl to bring down a nobleman was preposterous. Thalia had misled him about her mark, and James had no way of knowing if she was lying now. But he didn’t think she was lying. . . . He hoped he wouldn’t regret what he was about to say.

“You can still get to Hamel,” he said.

A cautious hope lit up in her eyes. “I can?”

“You say his bodyguards took your blade. Did they take anything else? Your hairpins? Jewelry?”

She shook her head.

“It’s harder to deliver venom without a blade, but any sharpened object will do. I can teach you.”

“Thank you.” She was tentative, as if she were afraid he’d take it back.

“It won’t be easy,” he said.

“I know.”

There wasn’t much more to say after that. James finished his stitching and folded his tunic while she stayed silent, lost in her thoughts. After a while, he noticed that her breathing had steadied. Thalia was asleep, her head leaned back against the wall. The obstinacy was gone from her face when she slept. He moved to wake her up, but stopped when he saw the circles under her eyes. Instead, he gathered her up and lifted her off the floor. She stirred and looked at him with a mixture of befuddlement and alarm.

“It’s all right,” he said. “Get some rest.”

He laid her onto his cot, and she turned onto her side, watching him. “Do you think of her, when you see me?” she asked softly.

“What?”

“Do I remind you of your sister?”

He took a long look at her. Moira had been thin like Thalia. Younger, of course, with all the angles and bones but none of the roundness of womanhood to fill her out. She and Thalia shared the same large eyes, though Moira’s had been blue.

“If she had been more like you, she might still be alive,” he said.

He turned away and rolled his cloak out on the floor. When he looked at Thalia again, her eyes were closed, and her breathing had regained its steady rhythm. Her hands were curled up by her cheeks, and he once again noticed how fragile her frame was.

James wrapped himself in his cloak and blew out the lantern.

     

*
   
*
   
*

She started spending her nights in James’s quarters. They didn’t necessarily speak much when she came, but she seemed to find comfort in his company, and James found himself waiting for her arrival every night. Sometimes, she would show up after her work was done at the Tavern. Other nights, she appeared much later, disheveled and still wearing her face paint. They never mentioned where she’d been. What was the point? Hamel had taken a liking to her, and she encouraged his advances even as she counted the days until Alvie’s return.

More than once, James wondered why he never turned her away, and why he watched her give herself to the nobleman night after night while he himself stayed back. Not that Thalia would have refused James if he’d tried. She’d been willing enough—or resigned enough—that first time. But there was a wrongness to it that stopped him.

After the first night’s exhausted slumber, Thalia slept more fitfully, squirming and talking in her sleep. One night she woke up screaming. James covered her mouth so she wouldn’t wake the blacksmith’s family and held her until she remembered where she was. Gradually, her breathing slowed and her taut muscles relaxed.

“I can’t get the feel of him off my skin,” she whispered. Her back was to him, and she clutched his arm tight around her, staring out at nothing.

“You don’t have to keep returning to him,” he said. “Disappear for a few days. Come back when Alvie gets you the poison.”

She reached for Tess’s chain around her neck, clutching it like a lifeline. “The moment I leave his sight, he’ll fix his eyes on someone new. It’s only a few more days.”

Meanwhile, James looked for customers to buy Alvie’s spices. Rand had some connections with merchants, and James knew a few minor noblemen. It was a trick to make plans without arousing suspicion. Gerred had followed through on his plans to pair James, Rand, and Bacchus with different men during their jobs, and these ill-disguised informants used the pairings as an excuse to sniff around the Scorned Maiden even when they weren’t working. But despite all this, James had no trouble finding buyers. Everybody wanted forbidden goods. It was just a matter of getting them into the city, and for that, they had a solid plan. The city walls were tall, slightly taller than three men, but scalable. They would bring the goods in at night, out of view of the Red Shields.

Three days before the handoff, James and Rand scouted the city walls. Rand had found a stretch where trees obscured the watchtowers from view. They stood a few paces off the road and surveyed the surroundings.

“Guards come by twice an hour at night,” said Rand.

“Plenty of time, then,” said James. He put his shoulder next to the wall and looked to the watchtower. He sometimes glimpsed the guards on duty when the wind stirred the trees, but in the cover of night, they’d be completely hidden. On the opposite side of the wall, he could hear the murmurs of a crowd. “What’s on the other side?”

“Shops. They should be empty.”

“Good. Let’s try scaling it tonight.”

There was a sound of boots on gravel. The two of them rushed to the road just in time to see Gerred come around the bend. The guildleader approached slowly, eyes taking in everything—the walls, the rope in James’s hand.

“James, Rand,” said Gerred with false friendliness. “I heard talk that you might be here.”

James and Rand exchanged a look. It was too late to lie. “We all have our side pursuits, Gerred,” said James. “It has nothing to do with you. You have my word.”

“Your word?” Gerred’s tone was still mild, though there was a dangerous glint in his eye. “I expect openness from you. None of this skulking around doing who knows what. You owe me that much.”

“We owe Clevon a great deal,” said Rand. James shot Rand a warning look. It was unlike him to lose control. But though Rand’s face was flushed, he seemed to be reining himself in.

Only a slight hardening in Gerred’s expression acknowledged the insult. “Don’t be ungrateful, boys,” said Gerred. “Don’t take what you have for granted.”

Chapter Six

R
AND

S
remark about Clevon had been a mistake. Few things threatened Gerred more than a comparison to his predecessor. But what was done was done.

When Bacchus heard what had happened, he wanted to ditch the plan and attack Gerred. In the end, though, James and Rand prevailed with a more cautious approach. Gerred didn’t trust them, but he was a careful planner and slow to act, and they only had three more days until the handoff. So they laid low and kept their routines the same, doing their best not to push Gerred to action.

In the meantime, James inspected Thalia’s jewelry. He picked a pair of two matched silver pins as long as her hand. He filed one to a sharp point and left the other one blunt.

“Coat the blunted one with poison and leave the sharp one clean,” he said. “This way, you won’t poison yourself if your hairpin grazes your scalp. When you’re ready to use them, pull them out together. Get used to holding them like this.” He pressed them into her palm so that the sharpened pin protruded slightly farther than the poisoned one. “From here, aim for the throat, just as you did with the dagger.”

She did as he instructed, slowly angling the hairpins toward his neck. With the fluid motion of habit, James intercepted her hand and grasped the base of her palm, slowing and guiding her motion until the sides of the hairpins pressed cool against his throat. Their eyes met.

“Are you sure you want to do this?” he asked. “You could forget about Hamel. Come with us when we leave.”

Indecision flashed across her face, but then she shook her head. “I can’t.” When she saw his frustration, she gave a wan smile. “Who knows? Perhaps I can kill him and escape.”

He stayed silent, biting back words. “Perhaps,” he said finally.

She looked into his eyes, silently acknowledging the doubts he hadn’t said. Then she took his face in her hands, drawing it down toward her own. Tentatively, almost shyly, she kissed him on the edge of his jawline, his lower lip, the corners of his eyes. Then she stepped back.

He allowed his gaze to roam over her, from her pleading eyes to the curve of her cheeks. He saw her collarbone, the hollow at the base of her throat, her breasts beneath her gown. She was completely still except for the rising and falling of her chest. There was no calculation in her expression, just an acceptance of whatever he would give.

James let out a breath he hadn’t known he’d been holding and pulled her close.

     

*
   
*
   
*

The night before the handoff, James, Rand, and Bacchus ate at the Scorned Maiden. Hamel was there as well, with Thalia at his side. James sat with Rand and Bacchus at their usual table, keeping his back to Hamel and Thalia so he wouldn’t see them together. His friends must have noticed Thalia’s comings and goings from James’s quarters by now, just as they had noticed her growing favor with Lord Hamel. They didn’t ask any questions, and James offered no explanation.

Gerred came in after the dancing finished, flanked by two of his men. James saw him first and signaled to Rand and Bacchus. The guildmaster planted his feet just inside the door, face dark, and swept his gaze over the room. Then he took a meandering path, first dropping by Hamel’s table to say his greetings before approaching the three of them.

“It’s the trade caravans, is it?” said Gerred. There was no pretense of friendliness this time.

“Fixing to pick up some extra coin? Buy yourself some allies?”

So Gerred’s spies earned their pay after all. “Nothing like that, Gerred,” James told him. “The extra coin, yes, but it’s for our own purposes. Nothing to do with you.”

Bacchus spat on the ground. “If we wanted to give you trouble, we wouldn’t have to buy help to get it done.”

BOOK: Poison Dance Proofreading Epub
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