Authors: Mia Amano
The Elder had bad lungs, and the burning herbs helped treat chest infections. They also kept the mosquitoes away.
“Get up, girl.” Okuro coughed, and motioned to a low wooden stool beside him. “You’re not my student anymore. Come, sit by the fire.”
Amina nodded and perched on the stool beside the old man. Okuro looked at her with pale, rheumy eyes. He didn’t see much these days, but his sense of
was second to none.
He studied her for a long time, silent. Okuro then cleared his throat with a deep, hacking cough.
“Some students of mine saw you entering the Eratean camp, Amina. Now, I hear Jerik Garul’s army is on the move. They seem to be heading back over the border. What have you become mixed up in, former student of mine?”
Amina shifted uncomfortably on the hard stool. “Master Okuro, I was given a job, and I executed it. As you always told me, politics are not our concern. We can’t afford to ally ourselves with any cause but our own.”
Okuro closed his eyes, taking a deep breath. Then, he stood and started to busy himself with a teapot that was boiling above the fire. “You are correct to the letter, as always, Amina. We don’t become involved in the politics of other tribes and empires. The way of the Inue has always been to stand apart, and for that reason, our tribe has survived centuries of war. We have seen entire civilizations rise and fall.” He poured tea into two small cups and handed one to Amina. She held it to her face, breathing in the bitter, acrid scent. The aroma of Okuro’s tea reminded her of childhood. “But we also follow the creed of Imril, Taker of Life and Lord of the Void. And what does he teach us, Amina?”
Amina’s recalled Tarak Chul, and the way he had regarded her. He’d seemed amused, even patient, but she hadn’t missed the deep hunger in his black eyes. Sitting before Elder Okuro, in his small hut, the way once sat before him as a child, she started to feel the sting of regret.
None of her other kills had made her feel this way before.
There was an unfamiliar feeling settling in her chest. She felt a tightness, an emptiness.
What was this feeling?
“What does Imril teach us, Amina?” Okuro sipped his tea, and waited.
Amina’s voice hitched as she said the words. “He tells us that death is balance, and in all things, we must seek to find balance.”
“It’s not wrong to refuse a job, child.”
“I had no choice.” Amina shook her head, looking towards the floor, unable to meet Okuro’s eyes. She let her defenses down, allowing him to sense the raging storm of her
. She was torn. “Garul has links with the Emperor’s people. He knows of Mira, and her role in the Palace of Arches. He threatened to have her sent to the pleasure houses of Fortuna if I didn’t take this job.”
The Elder brought a gnarled hand under her chin, and gently lifted her head. “Even though your sister never had the heart for killing, she’s stronger than you probably think. Remember, Amina, that when our village went through the Black Famine, cut off from the rest of the world because of Eratean occupation, she chose to go into the heart of the Empire itself, just so we could survive. The packages she sends have kept us alive through these difficult times. Mira will survive, child. She is Inue, even if she does not appear that way.”
“I merely thought to protect her.”
“You did what you thought was right, but you did not truly think.” Removing his hand, Okuro reached for his cane and rose to his feet. “Let this be a lesson for you, Amina. In life, the training of an Inue assassin never ends. And those who think they know everything end up dead. Resist the temptation of ego, child.”
Amina’s mouth felt dry. Here was Master Okuro, her longtime mentor, chastising her in that gentle way of his. But his manner was brutality wrapped in silk.
“I still haven’t told you who I killed.” She glanced towards the doorway of the small hut. It was framed by an ornate, blackwood arch, carved in an intricate tangle of branches and leaves. At the centre of it all, the serene face of the goddess looked down on them, merciful and wise.
Okuro turned, and a flicker of a smile crossed his face. “From what my students have told me, I can easily guess who you think you’ve killed. But I don’t think you’ve ever tried to kill an Akuna before.” The old man turned again, leaning on his cane as he passed through the doorway. “You may have just stirred the viper’s nest, child of mine.”
Shouts echoed from outside, along with the flare of several angry
. Caught off guard, Amina rushed after the Elder, into the clearing at the centre of their village. Smoke rose from a chimney in the Great Hall, drifting into the thick canopy above.
A crowd had gathered in the middle. Amina recognized several of her fellow Inue, standing with their weapons drawn. And in the centre of the cleaning stood a ghost.
Tarak Chul grinned as he saw her emerge, meeting her gaze. He stood back to back with another man, who stared at her with the coldest eyes she had ever seen. Tarak was clad in the loose, black robes of the Akuna, brandishing a large crimson blade. His wild, black hair framed his hard, angular features, his dark skin standing out amongst the pale complexioned Inue. He was the most glorious thing she had ever seen. Amina felt a strange surge of relief. The poison hadn’t killed him. But how was that possible? And how had they found Chukol village?
Amina hadn’t sensed them at all.
Apparently, Elder Okuro had.
“How did you know where to find us, half-breed?” One of the Inue, an assassin in training called Serik, stood with his longbow raised, an arrow pointed at Tarak’s accomplice. The strange dark haired man just stared back with an expression close to disdain on his pale face. “And you dare bring an outsider to the village?” Serik pulled the bowstring back, arrow cocked, ready to fire.
Elder Okuro raised his hands in a placating gesture. “Now, now. Let us not rush to violence. If the Warlord of the Akuna knows where we hide, we would already be dead, if he wished it. Ando, Serik, stand down.” The softness in the Elder’s voice was gone, replaced with the ring of authority.
Amina ignored Okuro’s words. In three swift steps she had crossed the clearing, a throwing dagger appearing in her hand. “What do you want,
Tarak lowered his blade, the smile never leaving his face. Amina realized, though, that it didn’t quite reach his eyes. “Funny you should ask that, little Inue. I came here because of you.”
“Don’t call me that, Akuna savage.” Amina threw the knife. It thudded into the ground at Tarak’s foot. Another one appeared in her hand. His companion moved beside him in a blur of motion, his curved blade gleaming in the morning light. He unleashed a little of his killing intent and the clearing was suddenly filled with an oppressive silence.
“Amina!” Elder Okuro’s hoarse voice echoed through the stillness. The old man moved between them, seeming to forget that he now used a cane. “Put the knife down.”
For an endless moment, she was trapped by Tarak’s dark gaze. Maybe she was imagining things, but his black eyes almost seemed to glow with a trace of red.
Amina’s heart began to race, her palms becoming damp with sweat. She took in the strong lines of Tarak’s face and the elegant column of his neck. Her eyes traced down to the visible hint of his dark chest, broad and smooth and muscled, before it disappeared beneath the fabric of his robes.
Arousal swept through her.
“Amina!” Okuro’s rebuke cut through the tension, and Amina blinked, lowering the knife. Tarak gestured to his companion, who also lowered his sword.
Then Tarak Chul, Warlord of the Akuna and conqueror of the Western Borderlands, stood before Elder Okuro and executed a perfect Inue bow. “My apologies for the unexpected visit, Elder. But the Erateans are on the move, and there was no time to send word to you beforehand. We do not bear you or your people ill will. My fight is only with the Empire. I merely come to you with a proposal.”
“It seems we have an enemy in common then,
.” Okuro returned the bow, but his was deeper. Amina blinked. The Elder never bowed for anyone. “Allow me to gather the other Elders, and we will talk.”
“This humble soldier appreciates your time. While we wait, I need to talk to your Amina. In private.”
With a swiftness that belied his age, Okuro spun and pointed his cane at Amina. “I forbid you to kill him, Amina. The rest of you, leave this place.”
There was no doubt as to who was still boss in the hidden Chukol village.
The ancient paperberry tree had a trunk so wide it would take twenty grown men, arms fully outstretched and linked, to encircle it. Amina stood to one side, next to a mass of gnarled roots. She’d chosen this place because it was quiet and familiar. She’d spend countless hours here as a child, listening to the birdsong and wondering about the life of the tree. It was ageless and unshakeable, and her existence was merely a blink in its interminable life. It would be here long after any of them were gone.
Tarak had chosen to sit on one of the roots, which rose out of the ground like some kind of twisted, deformed limb. He had sheathed his odd, crimson blade and now sat staring at Amina with an intensity that made her uncomfortable.
She was used to concealing herself, to hiding in the shadows.
She wasn’t good at this face to face business. And she had never before encountered a man like Tarak Chul.
“What do you want from me?” she ground out, unable to hide the irritation from her voice. Because of Tarak, Elder Okuro had rebuked her, a fully trained Inue assassin, in front of the entire village. Because of Tarak, she’d lost face amongst her juniors.
“Amina.” Her name rolled off his tongue like honey, as if he were savoring it. “I finally know your name. Without that awful
getup, you’re actually perfect. The short hair suits you better than that terrible wig.”
Unable to help herself, Amina ran a hand through her shorn locks. She kept her hair short for convenience. She’d never bothered about her looks, never worried about what another might think, until now.
For some reason, Tarak’s compliment made her feel good. Annoyed, Amina tried to shake the feeling off. She wasn’t going to let the Warlord win her over with false praise.
Tarak stared up through the forest’s canopy, dappled light dancing across his face. “You know, the forest makes me feel claustrophobic. I need to see the open sky now and then. But apart from that, this is paradise. Your tribe have done well to keep the village hidden for so long.”
Amina reached for another throwing knife. “What’s your point,
? And how did you find us?”
“My friend is half Inue. He was given directions by a former teacher of his. And of course, his blood points him in the right direction. I’m merely an unwanted guest.”
“There’s a law that we’re supposed to kill outsiders. What are you planning, Tarak?”
“I want to get a certain predator off my tail. What will it take, Amina? I can’t afford to be looking over my shoulder, wondering when you’re going to slip in and try to kill me next.”
I don’t want to kill you
The thought slipped into Amina’s head, unbidden.
She froze in shock. A rare emotion threatened to overtake her.
Amina had never felt this way before.
As if sensing her indecision, Tarak rose, and came to stand before her, so close she could feel his warmth. His complex, masculine scent surrounded her. “Why are you doing the bidding of a man like Jerik Garul, Amina?”
A flare of anger coursed through her. She whipped out the small throwing dagger and pointed it at Tarak’s neck. “None of your business, Warlord.”
“Oh, but it is.” Tarak’s breathing was even, his expression composed. The way he was acting, one might think they were having a conversation about the weather, over tea. He didn’t act like a man who had a knife pointed at him. “Because last night, I was lying in bed, unable to move, paralyzed, because someone had injected me with a lethal poison. I think it’s my business to keep that kind of thing from happening again.” Tarak’s hand shot out, and before she could move, he was tracing the small scars over her cheekbones with his warm, callused fingers.
Amina shuddered. She knew she should draw away from his touch, but she was powerless to move. It was as if he had cast a spell over her.
“I’ll ask only once more, Inue. Why are you so bent on killing me?” Tarak’s obsidian eyes became hard, and his rough fingers gripped her chin, exerting just enough pressure to make her uncomfortable. “And let me tell you something while you’re thinking about whether you should answer my question.” Tarak tilted her chin upwards. Amina glared at him, tempted to stick the throwing knife in his throat.
“Aside from Kietesh and myself,” Tarak continued, “there’s now one other person who knows where your village is. My General Enkida is waiting on the northern slopes with a thousand Akuna warriors. They haven’t seen bloodshed for a while, Amina. Their urge to fight grows by the day. Anything happens to Kietesh or I, they will find this place, and they will come after you and your people. How many fully trained assassins do you have in the village these days? Fifty? One hundred?”
Amina shuddered. They were fewer than Tarak thought. She was one of only seven, and of the current generation, she had the most kills to her name.
Against an army of Akuna warriors, they wouldn’t stand a chance.
The point of the throwing knife wavered. Amina’s hand trembled. “You wouldn’t dare.”
Slowly, Amina lowered her arm. She closed her eyes and took a deep, shuddering breath. “You’ve well and truly backed me into a corner,
. Your reputation seems to be well earned.” When she opened her eyes again, Tarak was studying her face with great curiosity. He released her.