First Kill

How do you kill with honor? When is murder not a murder?

In “First Kill”, assassin Kiam Miar will find out when his first assignment goes awry and he is faced with an ethical choice…as if assassins could have ethics.

And if he makes the wrong choice, he could not only lose his life but throw a good chunk of his world into chaos…

 

Knowing is not the same as understanding.

Seeing is not the same as witnessing.

Killing is not the same as murder.

Kiam Miar ran through the mantra in his mind as the bare-chested stevedores secured the heavy lines of the trading ship to the Calavandra wharf, their dark skins glistening in the heat of the midday sun. The men hauled on the ropes, singing a melodic chant to aid the rhythm of their work, pulling the ship into shore. He looked around, trying to appear jaded and unimpressed. The long stone wharves were noisy and hot and reeked of fish. Despite that—and his outwardly calm demeanour—Kiam was filled with a nervous excitement he was hard-pressed to contain.

The city of Calavandra hugged the steep hills surrounding the harbour that was the lifeblood of this island, the largest of the Trinity Isles and arguably the most dangerous. Some of the houses clung perilously to the slopes as if their foundations were fashioned from claws rather than the pillars or stumps of more traditional buildings. Mostly painted white to reflect the heat, with flat roofs that often housed gardens or washing lines, the city appeared a jewel from afar, more like a slum at close quarters. Kiam’s father, Galon Miar, the current Raven of the Hythrun Assassins’ Guild, once remarked that Calavandra was like the poor abandoned child spawned by an unseemly mating of Greenharbour and Talabar with none of the other cities’ wealth or culture to recommend her.

But whatever the city was for most men, for Kiam Miar it was something else entirely.

Somewhere out there, he knew, probably watching him even now as the ship docked, was the assassin charged with overseeing this final test. Kiam didn’t know if the man—or woman—would reveal himself at some point. He didn’t know if his mentor’s task was to help or hinder Kiam’s work.

He just knew he’d been given this job to prove he had what it took. His first kill, which—assuming he passed the test—would mean he was a fully-fledged assassin.

It would be his last kill if he failed. The Assassin’s Guild didn’t spend years training someone to kill silently and efficiently, move without being seen and hide the evidence of their work, just to cut them loose without any control or supervision if they didn’t make the grade. That his father was the Raven didn’t factor into it. If he failed in this task, Kiam knew his mentor had orders to take care of the matter without referring back to the Raven for his opinion. Galon wouldn’t hear about it until his son’s personal effects arrived in a small parcel along with a condolence note. In this heat there would be no question of shipping his body home. It would rot and putrefy long before it arrived in Greenharbour.

Kiam would succeed in this test or he would not be going home. Ever.

The task he had been assigned seemed quite straightforward. Somebody very wealthy wanted a young woman named Sofya the Siren killed. Kiam hadn’t been told his employer was wealthy. The mere fact the Assassin’s’ Guild had been hired to do the job was sufficient proof of that.

Poor people took care of their own.

Although he had been trained not to question the motive for a kill or judge the person soliciting another’s death, it was impossible not to wonder what this young woman had done to incur the wrath of someone sufficiently powerful, wealthy and angry, that they had passed a death sentence on her.

He supposed she was a mistress turned sour or a spurned lover. Despite the glamour of the Assassin’s’ Guild, truth was, they preferred to stay away from political assassinations. The bulk of their work, Kiam had learned at his father’s knee, was inspired by the basic human vices of avarice, jealousy and vengeance. Politics rarely entered into it.

Kiam had only the barest information to go on about his intended target. Sofya the Siren was twenty-one years old, supposedly. The description he’d been provided with was “pretty, dark-haired and fond of hanging out around the taverns of Calavandra where she makes her living as a working court’esa”. If Jondalup, the God of Luck, was on his side, she would not be hard to find and, given her occupation, not that hard to kill, either.

It was that which made Kiam cautious. An assassin’s first kill was meant to be a test of their wits, their skill and perhaps their ethics. Being sent to the Trinity Isles to kill a whore nobody would likely miss was suspiciously simple and left Kiam with an uncomfortable feeling in his gut.

It couldn’t be that easy. It was never that easy.

“First time?”

Kiam started a little at the unexpected question. The trading ship’s first mate was standing behind him. He hadn’t noticed the man coming up behind him, so busy was he, watching the stevedores and admiring the scenery.

You are going to be dead by the end of the week, you idiot, he told himself crossly, if you don’t start acting more like an assassin and less like a tourist.

“First time visiting Calavandra?” Of course the First Mate meant that. He doesn’t know who you are or why you’re here.

As a matter of fact, it is.”

“It was a good crossing, yes?”

It had been uneventful, at least. “I suppose.”

“You tell your sister that when you get back home, won’t you? You tell her we do good work. Reliable, like.”

“My sister?”

“Luciena Mariner.”

For a brief moment, Kiam didn’t know what to say. His passage had been arranged on this vessel by the Guild. It had been booked under the false name he was using—Peryn Drake. And yet this man had recognized him as a member of the extended Wolfblade clan.

Luciena Mariner was the owner of this ship and probably half the vessels currently docked in Calavandra at the moment. She was also the stepdaughter of one Marla Wolfblade, who happened to be the sister of the High Prince of Hythria, the mother of the Hythrun heir, Damin Wolfblade, and who was, until quite recently, married to Kiam’s father, Galon Miar, making her his stepmother, too.

Few people knew that, however. Kiam was twelve when Marla married his father, and while he and his sisters had been welcomed into the Wolfblade family without reservation, his apprenticeship to the Assassins’ Guild meant his time at the palace had been limited. And while it was no secret one of Marla’s stepsons was an apprentice assassin, Kiam didn’t think he’d attended so many public functions as a member of the royal family that his face was well known.

Which meant this was a test. One of many the Guild had in store for him.

“Don’t I wish I was related to Luciena Mariner,” he said with a rueful smile. “I’d be travelling in much grander style than this old bucket, reliable and all that she is.”

“Are you sure?” the mate insisted. “You look a lot like one of her brothers.”

“I think I’d remember something that important if I was. How long until we can disembark?”

“Dunno,” the mate said with a shrug. “Depends on the customs men. Maybe an hour or two.”

“Then I shall spend my time imagining spending the fortune I’d have if truly was related to someone as obscenely wealthy as Luciena Mariner.”

The mate opened his mouth to respond but it quickly turned into a bellow of anger when he spied the crew tasked with tying up the ship apparently not performing the undertaking to his satisfaction. As he stormed off, yelling at the sailors in the bow, Kiam turned back to study the wharf.

First test passed, he decided. The mate had obviously been tipped off about his true identity and the Guild wanted to know if he would give it up if he were recognized. What else they have got in store for me? he wondered.

He had a couple of hours, he guessed, before he found out.

***

Where he might find Sofya the Siren was disturbingly easy to discover. Kiam merely asked the innkeeper where he took a room if the man had ever heard of her.

“Everyone has heard of her,” the jovial Calavandran chuckled. “She usually hangs out at the Bull’s Balls.”

“You have a tavern called the Bull’s Balls?”

“Doesn’t everywhere?”

Kiam paid the man, threw his bag in the small, modest room he’d rented, and then headed back outside to find the tavern. It was some way from the wharf, he discovered, contrary to what he had been told before leaving Greenharbour about Sofya the Siren’s fondness for dock taverns, but it was a minor detail hardly worth quibbling about. Of more concern to Kiam was the number of Xaphista’s priests who seemed to be preaching on almost every corner about the perils of sin and the foolishness of those who refused to acknowledge that there was really only one true God and all the others were simply figments of their believer’s imaginations.

Kiam knew that to be a lie. His stepbrother, Damin Wolfblade, had actually met the God of War, and Wrayan Lightfinger, family friend, legendary thief, and head of the Greenharbour Thieves’ Guild, had spoken with Dacendaran, the God of Thieves, on any number of occasions.

There were gods aplenty, he knew. They were capricious, quite venal at times, and always trying to get one up on the other gods of the pantheon. Xaphista’s method was, it seemed, to simply pretend the others didn’t exist.

He reached the Bull’s Balls just on dusk. There was a preacher outside who carried a staff bearing the sun intersected by a lightning bolt. The man blocked Kiam’s way as he tried to enter the tavern, where the smell of something spicy and delicious was beckoning.

“Are you an evil one?” the priest asked. He had a wild-eyed look that made Kiam wonder if Xaphista’s followers found their faith in the bottom of a mushroom pipe.

He pushed aside the staff. “Get out of my way, fool.”

The priest glared at him but stood aside. “You may pass. You are a sinner, obviously, but not an abomination.”

Kiam stopped and looked at the man curiously. “Abomination? Oh, you mean Harshini?”

“Wash your mouth out, sinner, lest their evil seek you out for speaking their name.”

“How do you know I’m not Harshini?”

“You touched the staff. It caused you no pain.”

“Have you ever found a Harshini?”

For the first time, the priest seemed a little uncertain. “Well…no.”

“Then how do you know it works?”

“Xaphista has spoken.”

“Pity he didn’t tell you to piss off, old man,” a woman remarked behind Kiam.

He turned to discover an attractive Fardohnyan woman standing behind him. She was dressed in a blue bodice designed to draw attention to her impressive bosom, and a diaphanous blue skirt that left her midriff bare. She wore a polished garnet in her navel and a slightly tarnished silver collar around her neck, denoting her as a court’esa.

The court’esa beamed at Kiam. “Ignore him. His god is a fool and attracts like-minded followers. Are you new in town?”

A little bemused, Kiam shrugged. “Does it show?”

“Shines like a beacon, sweetie. You’re Hythrun, yes?”

“Yes.”

“Then come on inside and let me show you a good time.” She took his arm and made to lead him inside. Xaphista’s priest turned his attention to another potential patron. With some reluctance, Kiam shook free of her grasp. She was very pretty. At another time…

“I’m sorry; I can’t.”

The woman smiled at him and then stretched up on her toes to nuzzle his ear. Only she didn’t nuzzle him. She whispered impatiently, “The Bull’s Balls rents rooms by the hour, you fool, and if you go in there without a court’esa, you might as well pin a sign on your head announcing who you are and why you’re here. Unless you want me to send you back to the Raven in a funereal urn, you’ll smile and look lusty and buy me a drink, lover boy.”

She pulled back from him and smiled as if nothing was amiss. “So…ready from some sin, then?”

This wasn’t another test, Kiam realized with shock. This stunning Fardohnyan court’esa was his mentor.

“What…what do you prefer,” he asked, hoping his surprise wasn’t reflected on his face, “white wine or red?”

***

Her name was Teriahna. Although she didn’t seem to be much older than him, Kiam knew she had to be an experienced assassin to be given the task of supervising his first kill. She led him to a dark booth at the back of the taproom, ordered wine and a bowl of the delicious spicy stew he could smell outside in the street, and then sat in his lap so they could talk in private. The tavern was filled with similar booths, not all of which were full this early in the evening. The Bull’s Balls rented rooms out the back apparently, but patrons could sit at the booths as long as they liked, provided they ate and drank and paid their tab on the way out.

“Your target’s not likely to get here until closer to midnight,” Teriahna told him, as she settled herself in his lap and nibbled his earlobe, making it both impossible for anyone to overhear them and for Kiam to concentrate on what she was telling him.

“You know her?”

“Everyone knows her.”

“Why don’t you do the job, then?” he asked as she picked up his hand and placed it on her breast.

“Wasn’t my job to do. Can you at least try to look a little bit interested?”

He wrapped his arms around her a little bit more enthusiastically. “I…er…. Sorry…”

“What’s your plan?” she whispered into his ear like a lover.

“I don’t have one yet.”

“She’ll be here at any time. Don’t you think it’s time you started making a plan?”

Teriahna was right, but Kiam wasn’t being entirely honest. He did have a plan of sorts. What he didn’t have was an escape route if things turned to custard. He glanced around the room, noting the exits and the windows. They were too narrow to afford an escape, but the clientele in the Bull’s Balls was sufficiently determined to mind their own business that one could hopefully leave by the front door without causing too much comment, even if they were covered in blood.

“What do you know about her?”

“She’s a whore.”

“So are you.”

“The difference being that I have worked my way up in the world, young man. Sofya the Siren seems determined to work her way down.”

“What do you mean?”

“I mean she’s only recently taken up the life of a court’esa, according to the local gossips. Very scandalous affair, apparently.”

“Why scandalous?”

“Because not so long ago, our girl was the very proper and righteous daughter of one of the ruling houses of the Trinity Isles.”

“Why did she leave a life of privilege for a life on the streets?”

“What does it matter?” Teriahna asked, the teeth nibbling at his ear and sending shivers down his spine at odds with her tone. “Your job is to remove her, not offer employment advice.”

“Is it her family who wants her killed?” He said it low and carefully, nuzzling at Teriahna’s ear for the benefit of anyone who might be watching them. She reacted immediately, pulling away from his embrace to glare at him.

“It’s not your concern who or why. Didn’t they teach you anything?”

“I need to know if there are likely to be any repercussions. I haven’t passed this test, I believe, until I get home in one piece without any adverse consequences to the Guild.”

His answer seemed to satisfy her. “Then the answer is, I don’t know. I haven’t been here in Calavandra much longer than you, truth be told. I don’t know what will happen when you…take care of her.”

Across the room, a cheer went up, but with Teriahna blocking his view, he didn’t know what had so enthused the other patrons of the Bull’s Balls. Kiam was aware of it, as he was aware of everything going on around him, but he assumed it had something to do with the dice game going on near the bar.

“Then, don’t you think, before I…take care…of anyone, it would be wise to… Gods, is that her?”

Teriahna had moved slightly and Kiam had discovered the reason for the cheer.

Sofya the Siren had arrived.

Kiam found himself almost unable to breathe. She was a slender girl with flawless caramel skin and eyes the colour of a midnight storm. She was dressed in a light shift that left nothing to the imagination about what might lie beneath, only three clusters of strategically placed cheap glass beads offering any sort of modesty. But it wasn’t her dress that stopped his heart, momentarily, or her peerless beauty.

“What’s wrong?” Teriahna hissed when she realized he’d been struck dumb by shock.

“I… I know her.”

What?”

“I know her,” he told his mentor in a low, disbelieving voice. “Only, when I knew her, she was Sofya Kannangara, daughter of Grem Kannangara, the Symposiarch of Calavandra.”

“How did you meet… Oh, of course.” Your stepbrother is heir to the Hythrun throne. She didn’t say the words, but Kiam could almost hear her thinking them. “Will she remember you?”

For a moment, Kiam didn’t know how to answer. His mind was too clouded by memories for him to think straight.

They were both fifteen when he met Sofya the first time. Her father had come to Greenharbour to discuss trade terms with the High Prince—or, rather, his sister. Princess Marla ran the kingdom in her brother’s name. Everyone knew that, even if nobody said it out loud. Marla had invited Symposiarch Kannangara to Greenharbour to discuss the growing problem of Trinity Isles pirates—or, as the Trinity Islanders preferred to call them, traders of opportunity. He’d brought his daughter with him and it was love at first sight for both of them.

The talks were intense and quite fraught at time. For two glorious weeks, Kiam and Sofya had been ignored by adults too consumed with weighty matters of state to notice what the young lovers were up to.

His stepbrother, Damin Wolfblade, discovered what was going on before Sofya’s father found out, fortunately—although Kiam was gutted at the time. Damin arranged for Sofya to leave Greenharbour for a tour of the famous horse stud at Warrinhaven and for Kiam to return to his training at the Assassins’ Guild before anyone else noticed they’d fallen madly in love.

He’d expected some sort of punishment when he returned to the Guild for endangering the negotiations with his teenage lust, and for Sofya to receive an even more dreadful punishment. Trinity Islanders—unlike the Hythrun—considered a woman’s virginity a prize above all others. It was a tradable commodity when looking for a wife. At best, had her father learned about their romance, she would have been whipped within an inch of her life. She could have been put to death if Grem Kannangara considered the insult to his family’s honour sufficiently dire.

It might, in the worst case, have set Hythria and the Trinity Isles at war.

But Damin—the Gods reward him—had never said a word to Kiam’s father, Princess Marla, Grem Kannangara or anyone else. For that alone, Kiam would be Damin Wolfblade’s loyal servant until the day he died.

“She might remember me,” Kiam said, when he was able to find his voice again. I know I’ll never forget her.

“Then I’ll get out of your way,” she said, rising from his lap. Without warning, she slapped his face as hard as she could, stinging his cheek and making his eyes water. “I don’t do things like that!” she announced so loudly, everyone in the tavern turned to stare at them.

As soon as she was sure she had the attention of the whole tavern, Teriahna swept up her skirts and stormed out of the tavern, leaving Kiam alone in the booth, with everyone laughing at him.

Nicely played, he thought, as he buried his face in his beer to hide his embarrassment.

Teriahna’s little show had the desired effect. As she slammed the tavern door on her way out, Sofya broke away from the group of admirers hovering about her by the bar and approached Kiam.

He leaped to his feet, wondering what she would do when she realized who he was.

“Whatever did you ask of her?” Sofya laughed as she approached him. Everyone in the tavern was watching them, waiting for his response. “I hear there’s not much a Fardohnyan whore won’t do.”

Kiam stared at her, unable to speak, his heart pounding, partly from fear she might expose him, partly from a remnant of the insanely intense feelings he’d once burned with for his first love.

He need not have worried. She stared at him as if he was a complete—if somewhat amusing—stranger.

“Come, tell us all where a Fardohnyan whore draws the line?” She glanced around her audience with a laugh. “We’re dying to know.”

Applause broke out, and some of the patrons cheered at her words. Kiam was gutted, not because she was teasing him, or making him the butt of her joke, or even that she didn’t recognize him.

This was not Sofya, he realized. It was her body, her smile, her lips that had once caressed his, but the soul looking out from those big dark eyes did not belong to the girl he knew. The girl he had loved.

Everyone on the tavern was staring at him, dumbstruck. Thinking he was a fool.

And right now, that was just fine by Kiam. He needed answers and he wasn’t going to find them here.

Looking embarrassed and humiliated—and not all of it an act—Kiam pushed his way past Sofya and ran from the tavern to the jeers and catcalls of the other patrons.

Teriahna was waiting outside, across the street. She said nothing, just stared at him for a moment, and then she turned and lost herself in the evening crowd on the street.

I’ve failed, Kiam realized.

It was obvious now why he’d been given this job. He thought his father unaware, all these years, of his romance with Sofya. But he must have known. Kiam doubted Damin had let it slip, but it explained why nothing had ever been said to him about it. The Guild was biding their time, waiting until they could use the information to their best advantage.

How fortunate for them that someone wanted Sofya dead just in time for Kiam to graduate to the ranks of a full assassin.

But that’s not Sofya. Kiam had no sound reason for his belief other than a gut instinct he had been trained to trust. Something was amiss.

Grem Kannangara loved his daughter, but given the life she was now leading, it was more than likely it was the Symposiarch himself who had commissioned the kill. If having a brief romance with the step-nephew of the Hythrun High Prince were a blow to the honour of his House, Sofya selling herself in the taverns of Calavandra would be a humiliation he could not abide.

Kiam turned and headed back towards the inn where he’d left his things, pushing past the people on the streets without really seeing them. A part of him remained alert for Teriahna. She might be willing to give him another chance, but right now, she probably thought he had no chance of completing this task and was already arranging to deliver the penalty for his incompetence.

He didn’t have much time, he figured, to either kill Sofya or find out what was really going on.

The only person who might know, he realized, was the man who had probably commissioned this kill.

Grem Kannangara, the Symposiarch of Calavandra.

***

Scaling the walls of the Symposiarch’s palace proved alarmingly easy. Someone should warn him about that, Kiam thought as he dropped silently from the wall to crouch in the shadows of the main courtyard in the family wing of the palace. The flat roof had made ingress ridiculously easy, and he’d been able to scan the entire palace unseen, crossing silently from one building to the next until eventually figuring out where Grem had retired for the evening. After that, all he needed to do was wait until the Symposiarch was alone.

He had dropped into the courtyard on that assumption. Across the small courtyard beyond the fountain, the doors to the Symposiarch’s sleeping chamber were open to the balmy night. He rose to his feet, about to reveal himself, when a knock at Grem’s door forced Kiam to blend back into the shadows.

Grem emerged from his bathing room, his hefty body wrapped in a towel, his head wet from his bath. He called, “Enter,” to whoever was outside the door, turning to face them as they entered. His whole body stiffened at the sight of his late-night visitor.

The sheer curtains prevented Kiam from seeing who the visitor was, but Grem’s obvious anger intrigued him. Who could possibly impose on this powerful man so late at night, cause him so much anger and not be executed for his temerity?

“What do you want?” Grem demanded of his visitor.

Clinging to the shadows, Kiam moved a little closer to hear the visitor’s response.

“Your answer, my lord,” the unseen man responded in a heavily accented voice. The man sounded like a Karien.

“What you ask of me is…impossible.”

“Nothing is impossible for those who believe in the One True God.”

“I cannot do what you ask…” There was an edge of desperation in Grem’s voice, something Kiam had never heard before. Grem Kannangara was a big, powerful man with a booming voice and a personality to match. This man verged on the edge of a quivering wreck.

“Do you need more proof of Xaphista’s power? Is not the fact that your only child currently dishonours your House with every breath she takes sufficient punishment for your reluctance to embrace the one true religion?”

“What you ask of me is too much. People will die.”

“Then I can only assume you enjoy the reports you receive daily, about your daughter’s stellar career as a whore.”

Grem’s expression was tortured. “What if I announce I now worship the One God… surely that will be enough?”

“The One God demands you deliver the Trinity Isles to him,” the Karien priest said—Kiam reasoned the visitor could be nothing else. “You must drive out every worshipper of the false gods. Only then will your daughter be released from her life of sin. I trust you will make the right decision, my lord, before pestilence or some drunken sailor your daughter is servicing for a pittance solves your dilemma for you.”

The priest left without waiting for Grem’s permission to depart. As the door closed, the big man collapsed to his knees and put his head in his hands, weeping silently.

Kiam was at a loss. He had never seen such a broken man.

But the reason he had been contracted to kill Sofya was beginning to make sense.

The One God was making a move on the Trinity Isles. If the Symposiarch closed the temples, killed or drove out all the nonbelievers and declared the worship of Xaphista the only true religion, the other islands of the Trinity Isles would follow. Grem had obviously refused and they were using Sofya to force his hand.

And that was why he had commissioned the Guild to kill her.

If Sofya was dead, the Karien priests could no longer use his daughter against him.

Does the Guild know about this? he wondered as he faded back from the Symposiarch’s sleeping chamber. He would learn nothing more there tonight. He was much more interested in following the priest, because once Kiam realized there was a Karien priest of Xaphista the One God involved, he also knew the reason Sofya didn’t recognize him.

***

Teriahna was waiting for Kiam in his room at the inn.

“Did you follow me here?” he asked, wondering if she was here to kill him for his failure or give him a chance to explain himself.

“When you arrived yesterday. You made no attempt to hide from me.”

“Would there have been a point?”

She shrugged. “Perhaps not. Where have you been?”

“Doing my job.”

“Then Sofya the Siren is dead?”

“You know she isn’t.”

“Interesting definition you have, then, of doing your job.”

“That girl in the tavern isn’t Sofya.”

“Assuming I entertain your absurd notion, who is she, then?”

“It’s Sofya’s body,” he said, “but I don’t know who’s inside it. I do know why she’s plying her trade at the Bull’s Balls, though.”

“Is this going to make any difference to how you kill her?”

“Absolutely.”

Teriahna rolled her eyes. “Oh, this had better be good, little man, because right now, I’m mentally composing my letter to the Raven about his son’s unfortunate demise brought about by his spectacular level of incompetence.”

He treated her to a winning smile. “So, you’re not here to kill me?”

“We’ll see. What’s this plan you have?”

“We’ll get to that. First, I have to know if you’ll help me.”

“Of course I won’t help you! It’s your test to pass, not mine.”

“But isn’t part of the test demonstrating my ability to use whatever I have on hand to get the job done?”

Teriahna scowled at him. “Not by getting me to do the job for you.”

“I don’t need you to do the job, Teriahna. I need you to be there to save Sofya when I succeed.”

***

The training to become an assassin took almost a decade and was only partly about the physical skills required to take a human life in as many different ways as one could imagine. The majority of Kiam’s training had been about mental discipline. It had been about learning to resist the probing of a Harshini with the power to take secrets from an assassin’s mind, even though nobody had seen a real Harshini for more than a century. It was studying human nature. It was about comparative theology. And it involved wading through a mountain of historical literature that rivalled what they had stored in the Sorcerers’ Collective Library in Greenharbour.

During his studies, Kiam had been particularly fascinated by the notion of miracles. Not because he wanted to work them, particularly, just that they existed at all. So, he’d read more than he needed to, about the various ways the gods had interfered with humanity over the centuries by working miracles, including accounts of soul transference between bodies, a trick favoured, apparently, by Xaphista. There were few recorded cases, and even those accounts seemed doubtful, but the possibility had intrigued him.

When he suggested that was what was happening there, Teriahna had laughed in his face.

But she had agreed to aid him, mostly, Kiam suspected, because she expected him to fail. When he did, she would be there to clean up his mess, first by killing Sofya herself and then coming after Kiam.

It was a risk he was willing to take, and not just because he really didn’t want to kill the first girl he’d ever seriously kissed. If the Karien priest succeeded in his plan to control the Trinity Isles by forcing Grem Kannangara to destroy the other gods’ temples—and their followers—the whole of Hythria was threatened too. He owed it to his stepbrother—Hythria’s future High Prince—to prevent that from happening if he could.

He sent Teriahna back to the Bull’s Balls to watch over Sofya. His instructions to her had been simply Watch her. You’ll know when I’ve succeeded.

Teriahna had shaken her head at his folly but left without a word.

Kiam headed back to the palace. What he was looking for should be there. Sofya was a princess and would have been guarded like the precious jewel she was. There was no chance Grem would have let her out on the streets of Calavandra where she might be corrupted before he could arrange a suitable marriage for her, so however the Kariens had gotten to her, they had likely done it in the palace itself,. That meant what he was looking for was probably still there.

Kiam roamed the palace roof for most of the night before he found it.

It was the Karien priest carrying a tray with a bowl of broth from the kitchen, across a courtyard to a locked basement door that alerted him. Arrogant to a fault, no priest carried his own food or waited on anyone else. The only reason a man like him would be taking a tray to someone late at night was because he didn’t want anyone else to know about it.

The priest seemed oblivious to the fact he was being followed. Kiam wasn’t sure if that was a testament to his assassin skills or the priest’s preoccupation with his own problems. He picked the lock silently and followed the man through the door, down a narrow dark staircase and into a dimly lit basement where an acolyte sat by a narrow stretcher, beside the desiccated body of an unconscious old woman.

“How is she?” the priest asked.

“Still alive. But barely.”

“She is dehydrating,” the priest said. “You need to keep her fluids up.”

“It wasn’t supposed to take this long.”

“The Symposiarch is a tougher nut to crack than we thought.” The priest put the tray on the stool beside the acolyte and began to roll up his sleeves. “I’ll see if I can get something into her. Take a break while you can.”

The acolyte rose to his feet and stretched for a moment, leaving Kiam with a dreadful dilemma. The acolyte had to pass Kiam to get out of the cellar, but he had been commissioned to kill only Sofya. He was hidden by the shadows now. As soon as the acolyte passed him, he would be discovered.

We don’t kill innocent bystanders.

It was one of the basic tenets of the Assassins’ Guild.

Well, that’s easy, Kiam decided, as he slid a long narrow blade from the side of his boot. Neither of these men is innocent.

He took the unsuspecting acolyte down silently as the young man headed for the stairs. The man didn’t know what had happened to him or make a sound as Kiam lowered him to the floor in the shadows, his throat slit from ear to ear. The priest remained oblivious to the danger. He was busy tending to the old woman, trying to spoon some of the broth into her slack mouth. This, he guessed, was the woman in control of Sofya’s body.

Hopefully, once she was dead, Sofya would not longer be possessed.

Whether his action would save Sofya or end her life, too, Kiam couldn’t say.

The blood from the acolyte’s severed jugular reached the priest a moment before Kiam did. The man glanced down at the floor, puzzled by the dark liquid pooling at his feet. Then he looked up.

Kiam drove the knife through his right eye and straight into his brain before he could react. The priest dropped as silently and as dead as his acolyte.

The woman on the bed had not moved.

Kiam looked down at her, wondering who she was. She must have known what they were planning. Perhaps she was a true believer. More likely she was an old whore who’d jumped at the chance to be young and beautiful again for a time.

Surely, she had known that even if they had succeeded, the Karien priests would never have let her leave this cellar alive.

Kiam felt a twinge of pity. He squashed it ruthlessly as he plunged his knife into the old woman’s heart, hoping it was enough to release Sofya from the spell that possessed her.

And hoping Teriahna would see the change come over Sofya at the Bull’s Balls and not decide the young woman still needed to die.

He felt the old woman’s heart stop beating against the blade and withdrew it. Then he squatted down, dipped his silver raven ring into the blood pooling around his feet and, one by one, marked the foreheads of the priests and the old woman so whoever found them would know this was the work of the Assassins’ Guild.

Once that was done, Kiam stepped back out of the blood, took off his boots and his blood-soaked shirt, rolled them into a ball and carefully made his way out of the cellar, leaving no betraying footprints behind.

***

It was dawn by the time Kiam got back to his room. There was no sign of Teriahna. Kiam wasn’t sure if that was a good or a bad thing.

He desperately wanted to head for the Bull’s Balls to discover how Sofya had fared, but knew it was both a stupid and dangerous idea. His mission—theoretically—was done. He had killed the hag possessing Sofya, which meant Sofya the Siren was dead. He wasn’t sure if his father would see it quite the same way. Much of that, he supposed, depended on Teriahna’s report, and Kiam had no idea what she would say to his father about how he’d performed.

Assuming, of course, he had even passed the test and managed to get out of Calavandra alive.

That was his next priority. Kiam gathered up his few belongings and, after paying the innkeeper to swear he hadn’t seen the occupant of Room 7 for days, headed for the wharf. He’d checked the tides before he left Greenharbour and knew that if he got there quick enough, he could catch a “trader of opportunity” and be free of the city before the sun was all the way up.

He made it almost all the way to the docks before he was set upon by a couple of street roughs who threw a bag over his head and dragged him kicking and screaming into a dim warehouse where Teriahna was waiting for him.

***

The men pulled off the hood and Kiam looked around. Teriahna stood in front of him, dressed in the dark wool and leathers of an assassin rather than the court’esa’s outfit she’d worn up until now.

She seemed a lot more dangerous now.

“You know, I was almost prepared to let you live,” she said as he wiped away the gritty taste of the dirty hessian sack they’d thrown over his head. “And then you let a couple of street thugs overpower you.”

“I wasn’t expecting to get mugged on the way out of town.”

“You see, I struggle with that,” she said, frowning. “You’re supposed to be an Assassin. You’re meant to expect everything.”

“So, I failed, then?”

“You tell me,” Teriahna said. “You were sent here to kill Sofya the Siren. Instead, you kill a couple of Karien priests and an old whore, far as I can tell. Sofya is back in the palace, the Assassins’ Guild is being blamed for the death of two priests and you managed to get yourself mugged by a couple of amateurs. What would you call it?”

Kiam knew what he’d call it. It was enough to make him wonder if he could get out of the warehouse before Teriahna got to him.

How will she do it? A knife? Poison?

“Lucky for you, however, that you did mark those priests.”

Still mentally preparing to meet his doom, Kiam stared at her in surprise. “Lucky?”

“Apparently, Grem Kannangara knew the Kariens had possessed his daughter. You killing the men responsible for that and returning his no-longer-possessed only child to him has somewhat endeared the Guild to him.”

“Sofya is all right, then?”

“She will be,” Teriahna said. “Eventually. How did you know?”

“That she was possessed? She didn’t remember me.”

“An arrogant assumption, Kiam. And a dangerous one to base an entire plan on.”

“It worked, didn’t it?”

Teriahna nodded. “It worked. And in truth, you passed this test with flying colours. You killed Sofya the Siren without killing Sofya the Innocent. And you earned the gratitude of a very powerful man.”

“What about the mugging?”

Teriahna smiled. “I suppose you’re allowed one little mistake.”

“Thank you. For that. And for taking Sofya home. I won’t forget your help.”

“I won’t forget you either, Kiam Miar,” Teriahna said. “You’re a full-fledged assassin now, but one with a heart and a brain. That’s a rare thing in this business.”

“Do you think I’ll do well?”

“I think you’ll be dead before the year is out, actually,” she laughed. “But I will think of you fondly, nonetheless, and remember you to the God of War, whenever I remember to pray.”

Teriahna stepped forward and embraced him briefly. “Be well, Assassin Miar. We’ll meet again someday, I’m sure. In the meantime, remember the truth of our profession: knowing is not the same as understanding. Seeing is not the same as witnessing…”

“And killing,” Kiam finished for her, “is not the same as murder.”

 

“First Kill” copyright © 2016 by Jennifer Fallon

Art copyright © 2016 by Tommy Arnold

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