The Warlord and the Assassin: A Fantasy Romance Novella (3 page)

BOOK: The Warlord and the Assassin: A Fantasy Romance Novella
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In the corner of the tent was a wooden desk with folding legs. Parchment maps with rolled edges cluttered the desk. A man was bent over the maps, and as Amina entered, he lifted his head.

“Ah, Inue.” He didn’t refer to her by name, because she hadn’t given him her name. “You must be either very brave, or very stupid, to enter my camp alone. Entering the country illegally, on top of that.”
 

Jerik Garul, Lord of the former Eratean outpost of Varanada, gestured for her to be seated. Amina refused. Garul shrugged, his pale grey eyes sliding over her figure.

Amina resisted the urge to stab him in the throat.
 

“So. To what do I owe the pleasure?” Garul’s tone was mocking. He was a short man, with a broad, ruddy face that told of a love for the drink. He had the sort of features one might call ‘kind’, but Amina knew that looks could be most deceiving.

Garul was a petty tyrant who had presided over Varanada for the past five years, before Tarak Chul had driven the Erateans back over the border. He had ruled through fear, forcing the native Varanese into servitude.
 

Amina returned his look with a cold glare. “Your request is not as straightforward as I initially thought. I will need more time.”

“You failed?” Garul tapped a jeweled finger on the hard desk. He wore a ring bearing the twin dragon insignia of Eratea. “And here I was expecting good news. I take it then, that Tarak Chul is still alive?”

“He will die,” Amina assured him. “But he’s as formidable as the rumors say.”

This drew a low, guttural laugh from Garul. “A slave doesn’t become a warlord unless he’s exceptionally gifted. But the upstart needs to learn his place in the world. Don’t return here until you’re successful, Inue.”

Amina fought to keep her expression blank. She didn’t know Tarak had once been a slave.
 

“As I said, the task is more difficult than I thought. I will need until the new moon. You will hold off on your threat, for now.”

Garul bent to study something on his map. “That is disappointing,” he murmured, tracing imaginary battle lines with his finger. “I was told you were without peer in the art of assassination. But it is Tarak Chul, after all. Very well. You shall have until the new moon to ensure his death. I was hoping to deliver good news to the arriving reinforcements, but this will have to do.”

Amina glanced down at Garul’s maps, but he had covered them with one arm. “Remember, Inue. If Tarak Chul does not die by your hand, I will see to it that your sister is stripped of her status and sent to a whorehouse in Fortuna. She will be lucky to survive to her thirties.” He grinned, a lewd expression crossing his face. “I may even pay her a visit myself.”

Amina suppressed her rage, hating the man, but powerless in the face of his threats. When the Erateans had occupied Varanada, her sister had been training as an
ikana,
the most mythical and sought after of courtesans.

Ikana
were not prostitutes. They were to be seen and revered, but never touched.

Mira had never possessed the spirit of a killer. Unlike Amina, she was graceful and refined, a gentle soul.
 

She had left their village at the age of sixteen and entered the secret world of the
ikana
. When the Erateans came, she had caught Garul’s attention. After several months entertaining the high ranking officers of the Eratean army, she had impressed one of the Emperor’s envoys.
 

Mira had gone willingly to the capital, Adalan, to entertain the Emperor himself.

After she left, packages started to appear, delivered to Kotosh, an old Inue swordsmith who lived in Varanada Town. There were bolts of silk and precious gems and Eratean gold coins. Kotosh would deliver them to the village and they would be sold, to purchase grain and meat.
 

Mira’s packages helped the Inue tribe survive the Eratean occupation. For assassination was becoming a dying art, and the jobs were fewer and fewer, the commissions less generous.
 

Times had been hard in the hidden Chukol village.

And because of that, Mira was trapped inside Eratea, working as a glorified slave.

Amina hadn’t seen her for years. She wondered what had really become of her little sister, and she shuddered to think what the Erateans may have forced her to do.
 

“When this is done, Garul, you will return my sister to me.” Amina unleashed a sliver of her killing intent, forcing Garul to meet her gaze. She saw the briefest flicker of fear in his eyes, before it was quickly buried under a deceptively benevolent smile.
 

“Of course, Inue. Kill Tarak Chul, and the
ikana
will return, without a scratch. The Empire would owe you at least that much, if you delivered his head.”

Fighting her revulsion, Amina nodded. “It will be done. But if any Eratean harms my sister before then, I swear to Imril that I’ll wear the death mask and come for you, Jerik Garul, and I will make sure your death is a slow and painful one.” To prove her point, she bent over the desk, a blur of motion, and held the tip of the short sword to Garul’s fleshy neck. He swallowed, and nodded.
 

“Just get it done, Inue, and no harm will come to her,” he rasped. “I have to tell you, however, that this is out of my hands now. The Empire has ordered it. And you cannot win against the Empire.”

CHAPTER THREE

The streets of Varanada Town were eerily silent in the heat of the day. A night had passed since Amina’s meeting with Jerik Garul, and she had returned to Varanada, seeking another way into Larion Fortress.

She had exchanged her assassin’s garb for a light, cotton sundress dyed the color of almost-ripe strawberries. A wide-brimmed straw hat concealed her characteristic Inue markings.
 

The Akuna hadn’t occupied the town. Instead, they remained camped on the eastern side, where the forest ringing the town gave way to mountainous terrain. They had the height advantage from up there, able to see beyond the Arama forest to the Varanada Plains. It was a strategic position.
 

The native Varanese stayed out of sight, suspicious and wary. War had visited them too often in recent times.
 

Amina ducked into a narrow alley in the pleasure district. An uneven, cobblestone street snaked up the hillside, past darkened shopfronts adorned with hanging lanterns. The buildings and streets were ancient, built long before the Eratean Empire had come into existence.

She stopped at an ordinary looking entrance, over which hung a faded sign. A simple lotus insignia was painted on the sign, in white.
 

Amina pushed open the door, entering an airy, white room. Lush, canary blue drapes graced the windows. On a round, polished table in the centre was an extravagant spray of white orchids.
 

“Hello, can I help you?” In a cloud of rose perfume, the Mistress of the house swept into the room. She truly Varanese, her silver-gold hair swept up in an elaborate bun, her pale blue eyes lined with shimmering pearl dust. She smiled at Amina, taking in her simple, faded red dress and plain leather sandals. “Are you lost, dear?”

“Mistress Rial, I presume?”

The woman called Rial stiffened, her expression wary. “And who is asking, dear?”

“I’m Amina, Mira’s sister.”
 

“You’re Mira Sato’s sister?” Rial crossed the floor, drawing close to Amina. “Have you had word of her?”

“She’s in danger, Mistress, and I need your help.” Amina removed her hat, revealing the scars that marked her as an Inue assassin and her dark, close-cropped hair. Rial’s eyes widened.

“I didn’t know Mira-chi’s sister was a-” She blinked, as if afraid that she might have offended Amina. “I mean, never mind. There’s definitely a resemblance, but at the same time, you’re like chalk and cheese.” She shook her head. “If Mira-chi is in danger, then I’ll do anything to help. She was a favorite pupil of mine. Such a talented girl. I do hope nothing happens to her. What is it you need, Amina?”

“You need to make me an
ikana
, Mistress Rial, just for one night. Then you need to find a reason to send a group of
ikana
to Larion Fortress. Think of it as a peace offering from the Varanese to the Warlord. I need to get close to him.”

Rial narrowed her eyes, the pearl dust surrounding them shimmering in the bright morning light. “What does this have to do with Mira-chi? I cannot offer my precious girls to an Akuna devil, especially Tarak Chul!” She shuddered. “Ourephos knows what he would do to them.”

“The situation is complicated, Mistress.” Amina took a step forward, taking advantage of the reputation of the Inue assassins. Although she much shorter than the Mistress, Rial shuffled back, her pale hands trembling. Even to a non-warrior, Amina’s
qwi
could be frightening. “You had better believe me when I say that if you don’t help me with this, harm will come to Mira. And I tend to hold grudges against those who directly or indirectly cause my family harm.”

Rial swallowed, and clasped her hands together to stop them from trembling. “I understand.” She took a deep breath, casting a critical eye over Amina. “You’re a bit short for an
ikana
, but with enough makeup and a decent wig, those Akuna devils won’t be able to tell the difference. I will help you, Inue, on one condition. You must make sure no harm comes to my girls. They’re
ikana
, not common whores. Remember that.”

“Of course.” Amina raised an eyebrow. “Don’t you worry about that, Mistress Rial. Any Akuna who tries the slightest indecency will be granted eunuch status by my hand.”

~~~

Tarak sighed as another Varanese merchant knelt before him, too afraid to speak. He waved his hand in frustration. “Get up, Master Erion. I don’t care much for formalities here. And as much as I’m sure your silks are of fine quality, you would be better off sending them to the east. My countrymen are starved for such things. I’m sure you make a nice profit selling them in Lon San.”

The man called Erion lifted his head. “But Lord Chul, it is customary to offer tribute to the Lord of Larion Fortress. I would not wish to risk your displeasure by withdrawing my offer.”

He bowed again, his tousled, sandy hair falling across his face. Erion held his feathered, velvet cap in one hand. Tarak saw his knuckles had turned white from gripping the cap so tightly.
 

“There’s no need for tribute here.” Tarak’s words were clipped, his impatience rising. “I’m not some petty Eratean Lord, coming to suck the last drop of blood from you, merchant. What need do I have for silks?”

Tarak stood, pushing back the simple wooden chair. On his desk were piles of documents; ledgers, reports and titles. He had spent the morning trying to understand what exactly the Erateans had been doing in Varanada. Apart from collecting taxes and tithes and growing fat off the backs of the Varenese, he wasn’t sure if they had done anything at all.
 

Rounding the desk, Tarak moved to stand before Erion. The man shrank back, and Tarak sensed fear threading through his aura.
 

“Relax, Master Erion. There is no offense for not giving a tribute. The only favor you can do for me is to tell this to the rest of your guild. We are not here to rule you. My only interest is in driving out the Erateans.”

Erion stared at Tarak in disbelief. “You require nothing from us?”

“Correct.” Tarak patted the man on the shoulder. Erion grimaced, but at least he didn’t flinch. “Now if you’ll excuse me, I have other matters to attend to.”

The man nodded, offered Tarak another flourishing bow, then retreated from the office with small, nervous steps.
 

Tarak paced across the room, stretching his stiff body. This was the part he hated the most. The bowing and scraping. The bureaucracy. He looked forward to the day when he could leave Varanada to be governed by its own people and return to Akuna. He missed the forbidding, snow-capped peaks of his homeland.
 

Suddenly, the small room seemed cramped. Tarak craved the outdoors. He wanted to move, to train.
 

He needed to spar.
 

Tarak was a fighter. Long hours spent in the office were stifling to him.
 

He’d chosen this small, officer’s room to the side of the Great Hall to receive his guests. The great hall was still adorned with Eratean banners. Then there was that ridiculous throne like chair in the centre. He didn’t see any point in all that pomp and ceremony.
 

More Eratean bullshit.

As Tarak returned to his chair, the door opened and his assistant, Vicson, appeared. The normally composed Vicson seemed flustered. “Some
ikana
are here. They wish to see you, Lord Chul.”

“Send them back,” snapped Tarak. “I don’t have any desire or use for courtesans I’m not allowed to touch, Vicson.”

“Er, they’re rather stubborn, milord. They say they won’t leave without seeing you, and our men don’t want to er, manhandle them. The short one in particular, she’s quite insistent.”

Tarak swore in Akuna under his breath. “Fine, Vicson. See them in.” He sighed. The last thing he wanted to do right now was pretend to be entertained by some painted ladies with their cloying silks and perfumes. “Let’s make this quick.”

~~~

Amina gritted her teeth as she entered the room with the other two
ikana
. They were named Arin and Talia, and they were twins. Long limbed and graceful, they made her feel boyish in comparison. For the entire carriage ride to Larion Fortress, they’d sat across from her, silent and wide-eyed.
 

They had no idea why the Mistress had sent them to entertain the Warlord.

Amina shuffled forward, her feet aching from wearing those damned wooden sandals. She felt constricted in the narrow dress that reached her ankles. It was embroidered with delicate, white butterflies. She felt awkward and clumsy behind the other two girls, who moved as if they were floating.
 

BOOK: The Warlord and the Assassin: A Fantasy Romance Novella
10.17Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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