Declan O’Hara stepped outside into the dry heat and stretched. The sun hung heavy above him. He glanced up, blinking. It was still odd to see the sun so often. He was used to the cold drudgery of Stormsurge’s kingdom. As he brought his arms down, the small hairs on the back of his neck prickled and he started to swing around.
He was too late. His legs were swept out from beneath him, and he landed on his back. Groaning, he shaded his eyes and looked up to see Hadrian Hellqvist, another Shadowliege. Hadrian smirked down at him. The sun glinted off his dark chestnut hair.
“How many times must you be told to keep an eye on your surroundings?” Hadrian gloated. He stepped back, giving Dec room to get to his feet.
Dec jumped to his feet and glared at the older boy. Two years his senior, Hadrian was already an accomplished assassin, with several kills to his credit. “I wasn’t expecting to get jumped so early in the morning,” Dec told him. He ran a hand through his curling black hair.
Hadrian’s smirk widened. “You should always be expecting to get jumped.” He turned away. “And Alisa wants to see you.”
Dec’s blood iced. He took a deep breath and turned in the opposite direction. As he headed toward the training field and shed where their practice weapons were kept, he tried to keep calm. After all, he couldn’t remember doing anything to irritate or anger the older Shadowliege.
He saw her at once. She was standing at the edge of the field. A sword gleamed at her hip, and a pistol glinted in her hand. He swallowed. Heading into the shed, he chose a dull-edged sword. Buckling its scabbard on, he stopped to collect himself. Whatever it is, you can get through it, he told himself.
Alisa turned to face him when he stepped out of the shed. Seeing her up close without the customary black leather armor and hood of the Shadowliege guild gave him pause for a second. Her vibrant red hair was tied back and hung down between her shoulders. She tilted her head to study him, and he knew his cheeks were turning red.
“Hadrian said you wanted to see me,” he told her.
“I did.” Her voice was low and smooth. She tipped her head the other way.
Dec forced himself to stand still. It was one of the first things a Shadowliege learned: the art of stillness. His heart beat hard as he waited her out. Finally, she offered him a small smile.
“I told Balthazar I think you’re ready for a mission,” she said.
“Really?” His dark hazel eyes widened. At sixteen, he was one of the youngest Shadows the Guardian, Balthazar Gaspari, had in his guild.
“Really.” She frowned then. “Balt wishes for you to meet with him in his personal quarters. A word of warning? Go armed.” She pointed at his practice sword. “And not with that.” She turned away, and he took a deep breath.
This was it. This was what he’d been waiting for – the chance to prove himself on a real mission. Granted, the mission was taking out someone the Guardian thought deserving of death, but it was what Dec had been training for over the last two years. He was ready.
“You’d better get going – Balt doesn’t like to wait,” Alisa told him. He glanced toward her; she was going through a complicated-looking set of moves with her sword and not paying him any attention.
He nodded and set off toward the shed to put the training sword back. He didn’t have a sword of his own, but he could borrow one from someone. He returned the sword and its scarred scabbard, and then set off for Sceptre, the massive castle that housed the Shadowlieges and their master.
He found Masa Saito in one of the many sitting rooms. He was stretched out on a dark blue sofa, a book propped up on his chest. Declan approached and stood at the foot of the couch, arms crossed over his chest. Masa ignored him. Dec cleared his throat.
“What do you want?” Masa’s voice was rich and warm, and matched his dark eyes. He peered at Dec over the top of his book.
“I have to meet with Balthazar.”
Masa lifted an eyebrow. “So?”
“Loan me a sword.” Dec put some muscle into his voice.
The other Shadowliege chuckled. “I do not think that is how you ask for help.”
Dec sighed and dropped his arms. Sunlight slanted in the big windows that dominated the east side of the room. Masa offered him a knowing smile. “All right, fine. May I please use one of your swords?” Dec asked.
“I have a dagger,” Masa told him. He set the book on the sofa and eased himself to his feet like a cat. He was Dec’s height, and danger lurked in his every move. “I will get it for you. Wait here.”
“Sure.” Dec watched him leave. Masa was a man of his word, but also one of murder. All the Shadowlieges were. This was the life they had all agreed upon once darkening the steps of Sceptre. He moved to the couch and sat down. There were massive black bookcases on the west wall; he knew they were cold to the touch, like the obsidian ore they’d been carved from. There were those who spoke of a blacksmith living in the kingdom of Frostwild who could make weapons from the cold ore. Dec wasn’t sure he believed the tales; most said the weapons were always lethal, with an almost-magical margin of zero error.
He tilted his head away from the bookcases and looked at the massive mirror that held court on the north wall. He wasn’t sure why it was there at all; none of the girls he knew liked preening in front of it. They were too obsessed with their next mission, their next mark.
Masa entered the room and held out a gleaming, ornate dagger to Dec, who got to his feet. “You know you will not need it,” Masa told him as Dec took it. “Alisa is only toying with you.”
“Better to be prepared,” Dec said and shoved the dagger into a holster on his right side. Masa grimaced. “Don’t worry – I’ll return it as soon as I’m done,” Dec assured him and strode from the room.
The Guardian’s study was clear across the castle from the sitting room he’d just been in. Dec hurried. There was no sense keeping Balthazar waiting. He passed Lenka Horak in the hallway; her blue eyes glittered when she glanced up at him. He said nothing to her. If he could be honest with himself, she unnerved him in a way Alisa Gallo did not. Lenka was cold steel precision, with no room for emotions. Alisa could be icy, but he knew there was fire buried inside her.
He stopped outside the study to collect himself. This wasn’t the time to be nervous, but it was hard to keep his blood from rushing through his veins with such force. Just be cool. You’ve been waiting for this moment for a long time.
“Come in!” Balthasar’s voice thundered from within the room. Dec gulped and stepped in.
The room was much more ornate than Dec would’ve guessed. Balt spent much of his time prowling among his guild, watching their practices, and offering advice with his deep clipped voice, but the opulence of the room suggested he spent a fair amount of time here as well. There were two large couches, covered in plum-colored material that was laced through with silver and gold threads, creating intricate patterns on their cushions. Several framed paintings hung on the walls; Dec thought one of them might’ve been of IceFlame Castle, which lay deep into the heart of the Windswept Mountains to the northwest. Vases filled with blood-red flowers sat on bookcases crowded with books.
But the most impressive thing in the room was the man himself: the Guardian. Balt was studying him, his dark eyes piercing. “Sit,” he ordered. Dec dropped down into the only chair in front of the massive obsidian desk. Balt leaned forward. “Alisa told me you’re ready for a mission,” he said. His rumbling voice filled the room.
“Yes, sir,” Dec said, trying to keep his voice steady.
“We are not a military unit,” Balt told him. “I am not your commanding officer.”
“But you are the boss, the head of our guild,” Dec was quick to counter.
Balt pushed away from his desk and got up. He walked over to the wall where several swords hung, gleaming in the dim sunlight trickling in from a high window. Choosing one, he turned and showed it to Dec. “What do you think of this?” he asked, running a fingertip down the length of the blade’s edge.
“Beautiful,” Dec said.
“But?” Balt eyed him.
Dec reminded himself not to squirm. “I prefer the pistol.”
“Yet you brought a dagger,” Balt said, pointing the tip of the sword he held at the dagger on Dec’s lap.
Dec swallowed. “I have no weapons of my own yet. This one is borrowed.”
“From Masa. I recognize his markings,” Balt said, nodding. He put back his sword and sat back down in his chair again. Leaning back, he studied Dec some more, who now was sweating profusely and waiting for something terrible to happen.
“Why the pistol?” Balt finally asked.
Here at least was something Dec was comfortable with. “Cleaner. More efficient.”
“Louder,” Balt said. “And only more efficient if you’re a good shot.”
Dec was a good shot. He figured Balthasar knew it, too. The man knew everything that happened at Sceptre. Dec shrugged. “I like guns.”
Balt chuckled. He didn’t seem nearly so threatening here in his study as he did pacing up and down the practice fields, his stature and dark eyes menacing. He opened a drawer in the desk and took out a black envelope. Sliding it across the desk, he nodded. “Your first mark,” he said.
Dec took the envelope and with fumbling fingers opened it. This was what he’d been waiting for, training for. So why now did his heart race at the thought of knowing his first victim’s name, and race not with anticipation, but dread? The name on the small silver card meant nothing to him. He read it, slid it back into the envelope and set it on the desk.
“You accept?” Balt asked.
“I accept.” Dec was proud that his voice didn’t shake. He was ready for this. He wanted this.
“Meet Alisa at the armory.” Balt held up two fingers. “Two weapons, any two you want.”
Dec got to his feet, but realized the Guardian wasn’t done with him yet. He looked at his superior and swallowed. There was that glint of ice in his eyes the other assassins spoke of, the one that nailed them motionless to the floor.
“Two days,” Balt told him. “If you are apprehended, I expect you to turn your weapons on yourself. If you run instead of completing your mission, I will find you.” He paused, and leaned forward, resting his forearms on the desk. Dec couldn’t breathe. Balt’s voice was measured and deep and low. “I will find you. Dismissed.”
“Yes sir.” Dec grabbed the envelope, spun on his heel, and left the study as fast as he could. Once outside, he headed back down the hall toward the sitting room where he’d left Masa. Balt’s words filled his mind, and he finally stopped and took several deep breaths. He knew what would happen if he ran without doing the job. Shadowlieges didn’t leave the guild, or retire from it. They were hunted down like animals.
“You poor thing. You look as frightened as my first mark did.” Lenka was coming at him down the hall, her eyes frosty. She stopped, one hand cocked on her hip, her other fussing with her long blonde hair. “Word of advice? Do it fast, and don’t overthink it.” She reached out to touch his arm, and he forced himself not to recoil. “Oh, and don’t be late coming back. Balt will know if you’re over your time limit.” Her eyes glittered as she offered an icy smile, and then she continued on her way.
Dec inhaled and exhaled hard a few more times. Why was he so shaken? He’d wanted this. He wanted to be an assassin – didn’t he? He looked down at Masa’s dagger, his right fist curled around its ornate hilt. This was the life he’d chosen. Was that because there’d been no other life to consider, or because he really wanted to kill people for a living? He scrubbed a big hand down his face, and then squared his shoulders. It didn’t matter. The Guardian had given him an assignment, and he was going to get it done.
Masa was looking out one of the huge windows when Dec entered the sitting room. “I told you the dagger was unnecessary,” Masa said over his shoulder.
Dec shrugged and hanged it back to him. Masa eyed him, and Dec held up the black envelope. Masa didn’t smile, but his eyes took on some solemnness.
“They say the first one is the hardest,” he said, his voice quiet.
“It’s not?” Dec crossed his arms over his chest.
“It depends. For some, yes. For me, it was number eleven.” Masa took a breath. “She was a child, a bargaining chip between her father and his king. I removed the chip.” He met Dec’s eyes. “There will be a hard one for you as well, at some point. Remember your training.” Masa’s voice was still quiet, but laced with iron. He clapped Dec on the shoulder and moved past him, heading out of the room.
Dec watched him go, his mind reeling with what the other assassin had said. A child? Balt really asked his guild to kill children? Dec’s stomach twisted, and he closed his eyes. The assassinations were all to keep Pentallia balanced, to keep the power equally distributed between the kingdoms. He supposed he should’ve known children were part of that balance, but the thought had never occurred to him. Was this mark of his a child, too? Was Balt testing him, to see if he was really Shadowliege material?
Dec knew he was worthy. He’d known it the first time he’d held one of the beat-up practice swords and swung it at an opponent. But this did give him pause. It forced him to question the morals he thought he’d given up. It shouldn’t matter. If the kid is hanging up the balance of our world, then it should go. His stomach clenched again. He could tell himself that all day long, but the reality was that he didn’t think kids should be brought into the violence of the adult world.
He looked down at the envelope in his hand. The card within held the key to his future, whether he liked it or not. Squeezing his fist around the envelope, he knew what he had to do. He turned and leaving the study, headed toward the armory.
He was an assassin, and he would see the job done.