Thana has a huge reputation to live up to as daughter of the Serpent, who rules over Ghadid’s secret clan of assassins. Opportunity to prove herself arrives when Thana accepts her first contract on Heru, a dangerous foreign diplomat with the ability to bind a person’s soul under his control. She may be in over her head, especially when Heru is targeted by a rival sorcerer who sends hordes of the undead to attack them both. When Heru flees, Thana has no choice than to pursue him across the sands to the Empire that intends to capture Ghadid inside its iron grip.
A stranger in a strange city, Thana’s only ally is Mo, a healer who may be too noble for her own good. Meanwhile, otherworldly and political dangers lurk around every corner, and even more sinister plans are uncovered which could lead to worldwide devastation. Can Thana rise to the challenge—even if it means facing off against an ancient evil?
The Impossible Contract is the second book in K. A. Doore’s high fantasy adventure series the Chronicles of Ghadid, where a determined assassin travels to the heart of the Empire in pursuit of a powerful mark. Available November 12th from Tor Books.
Drum Chief Eken’s end of season party was unflinchingly raucous. The unfettered flow of date wine and the thunder’s erratic interruptions only encouraged the partygoers to an ever-greater volume. The wind puffed the sound and smell of rain through open windows and doors. A storm was coming; it was season’s end. All of Ghadid was celebrating tonight, safely indoors and away from the strong winds and violent rains. A mixture of excitement and relief pulsed beneath the too-loud conversation.
But Thana felt neither. Instead, she ground her teeth against the crowd’s onslaught, thrumming with a nervous anticipation that had nothing to do with the storm or the party. Balancing a tray of wine-filled glasses on one hand and holding a pitcher in the other, she threaded her way through the bodies, attuned only to the tone, not the content, of the words blowing past.
For this event, she’d borrowed a dull purple wrap that sucked away the warm undertones in her brown skin. It served its purpose in transforming her into just another background blur, as unexceptional as the other slaves. She’d even done her hair up in a common slave style, all tight black knots in uniform rows across her scalp.
Her gaze tracked the crowd and snagged on a figure in green conversing with one of the drum chief’s wives, his wrap cinched tight with a silver belt: her cousin Amastan. He wore his tagel higher than usual tonight, covering even his nose, but Thana would know her cousin’s build and stance anywhere.
She let out a breath of relief. He’d made it.
Not that she’d ever doubted he would. But there was always a chance, however small, that he could’ve been delayed, or worse, barred from entering the party. Then they would’ve had to scrap their plan, wasting the months of preparation and planning it’d taken to get them this close to Eken.
After all, this conveniently public spectacle afforded them their best—and only—chance to kill the drum chief.
It wasn’t personal. Not for Thana, anyway. The contract had sealed Eken’s fate. But it was personal for their employer, whose daughter the drum chief had dishonored—one among many, if the rumors were true. If Eken had been anyone but a drum chief, their employer would’ve approached the Circle for justice. But, although a drum chief wasn’t technically above the law, going the traditional route would’ve allowed Eken to turn the trial into a public spectacle and bring shame upon the girl’s whole family, while incurring little more than a small fine himself. The girl had suffered enough already.
Instead, a network of sympathetic ears had brought their employer to Kaseem, the broker of so many bloody deals, who in turn selected Amastan out of all the cousins. Only Amastan had previously demonstrated the precision and subtlety necessary to kill a drum chief. While the family’s contracts were now sanctioned—if unofficially—by the Circle, they’d still be exiled or even executed if they were caught killing one of the Circle’s own. Drum chiefs were fickle like that. Hence: months spent carefully assembling the pieces of their plan until each was exactly where it needed to be and nothing could go wrong.
Thana averted her gaze as she served the guests, only occasionally sneaking a glance to check Amastan’s progress. As she circled the room, she picked out other drum chiefs, their wraps rich and vibrant, their fingers glittering with rings. Ghadid had twelve drum chiefs for its twelve neighborhoods. Half of them were here tonight.
But one was still missing. The night was no longer new and Drum Chief Eken had yet to make an appearance at his own party. Where was he?
A sudden quiet settled on one corner of the room and oozed outward like spilled oil. Heads tracked its spread. A moment later, the crowd near Thana parted and two men passed by, one wearing a wine-red wrap and the other, bone white. The first was broad-shouldered but stout. His extravagant wrap hid most of his peculiar shape, its embroidery and hem of tiny bells pulling the gaze away from a bulging paunch. His equally lush tagel concealed his entire face but for a thin swath of dark brown skin around a pair of even darker eyes.
Thana had worked in his household for three weeks already. She would’ve known Drum Chief Eken’s wide-legged stride and shape anywhere. The other man, though, was a mystery. White was inappropriate for a celebration and Thana doubted he was in mourning. Everything about him yelled foreigner, from his loosely wrapped tagel, to his lighter, almost golden eyes and sand-pale skin. He ignored the greetings flung his way as the drum chief led him through the room, all the while trying to engage Eken himself.
Mutters nipped their heels but sputtered out when Drum Chief Eken signaled for the party to continue. The conversations started and stopped and started again, like a tired mule failing to pull its load. Thana caught snatches of worry and confusion as she resumed circling the room.
“—audacity to be seen in public with—”
“—was always saying Eken’s a shards-cursed imperialist—”
“—of the Empire doing here?”
Thana kept her expression blank even as worry tightened her chest. Rumors had circulated in the few days about the Empress’s man who had arrived along with the year’s first caravan. Who was he? And why had he come all this way from Na Tay Khet to their city on the edge of the Wastes?
Now he was here, at Eken’s party, in the company of the drum chief himself. The implications were unsettling, but they had nothing to do with her contract. Thana wouldn’t let his presence distract her.
“It’s true, then.”
The voice came from beside her. Thana smoothed over her jerk of surprise with a smile and offered the speaker a glass from her tray. A tall man stood at her elbow, thin but strong like a palm, his dark red tagel almost as loose as the foreigner’s. His eyes, though, were as dark as midnight. As he studied Thana, she realized he’d spoken to her. He raised his hand, refusing the wine.
“Sa?” prompted Thana.
The man turned his gaze back to Eken and folded his arms. “The fool has finally arrived.”
As much as she might want to, Thana couldn’t respond. Legally, the fool was her master and agreeing with the man could see her whipped. So she kept silent and moved away to fill an empty glass. When she glanced back, the tall man was gone.
Meanwhile, Eken had shed the man in white and joined his wife. Amastan greeted the drum chief and pressed his closed fist to his chest. Eken mirrored the gesture, then laughed at something Amastan said, his whole body heaving with the motion.
Keeping one eye on their exchange, Thana weaved through the crowd. She handed out glasses of wine and topped off empty ones as she went, smiling blandly at each passing thanks. Soon, her tray was half-empty. She paused long enough to rearrange the glasses.
Amastan was explaining the history of glasswork to Eken as Thana approached. She twisted the top of one of her rings beneath the tray, then offered her tray to the drum chief. Fully engrossed in Amastan’s words, Eken reached for a glass. Thana turned the fuller side toward him and, as she brought her hand back, tipped her ring over the glass that’d soon be nearest him. Fine white powder fluttered into the date wine, dissolving instantly.
With the smallest metallic clink, barely audible even to Thana, the ring’s cap settled back into place. Thana gave the drum chief her blandest smile, but he took the poisoned glass without even a glance her way. Then she continued on, offering wine to the next guest. She didn’t dare linger to see if the mark drank the poison. That was Amastan’s job.
Thana glided across the room, her thin smile belying none of the thrumming nerves beneath. This may have been her third contract with Amastan, but it was by far her most important. No one was beyond the family’s reach, but killing a drum chief wouldn’t come without consequences if they screwed up. Over two decades ago, her mother had killed a drum chief and almost ended the family. But her mother hadn’t been under contract and they were. As long as she and Amastan stayed within the confines of the contract, everything would be fine. They’d be fine.
Thana welcomed the nerves. They were a part of the work. That’s what keeps you alive, her mother had said time and time again. Nerves and anxiety were encouraged. It was the calm you had to be afraid of. Complacency got you killed.
The nerves were well-earned: in the next few moments, all their work would come to fruition. Thana had spent months living among the slaves, while Amastan had spent that time gathering facts and rumors. In the next few moments, they’d either become legends in her family’s history or cautionary tales of failure.
Despite the tension of the moment, she couldn’t help but feel a spark of jealousy. If they succeeded—and they would, they had to—all the credit would go to Amastan. This was his contract, after all, even if she’d put in half the work. More, if she was being honest with herself, since she’d been the one playing a slave. Amastan would be the one remembered for killing a drum chief, not her. And he didn’t even want the prestige.
Thana took a breath and pushed away her jealousy. In its absence, the nerves came roaring back. It was out of her hands now. She had to trust they’d chosen the right kind of poison, that Amastan had calculated the correct dose, that she’d ground it fine enough, that the mark had drank all of it, that the timing had been right, that no one had seen, that Amastan kept their mark engaged, that—
The storm broke, rain pounding against the roof and drowning out the crowd, the air suddenly laden with it. For a moment, Thana couldn’t hear anything but the rush of rain. That moment soon passed, but the din worsened as people shouted to be heard above the roar. Slaves rushed from window to window, closing the shutters before the spray could dampen the drum chief ’s guests. As each window was closed, the storm was further muffled, until its rage was only a distant scream.
Then the shouting started.
Thana turned, her face a mask of surprise as she fought a surge of panic. We’ve been found out, someone noticed the ring, the chief can taste poison, it was the wrong poison, Amastan slipped up—
Drum Chief Eken clutched at his own throat, his eyes so wide that the whites showed all the way across the room. His tagel had been yanked down and his lips were moving, but Thana couldn’t hear him over the crowd. Amastan waved one of the drum chief ’s wives over. No one else was responding to the crisis; the other slaves stood frozen in place, confusion and terror on their uncovered faces. Past the growing chaos, the man in white leaned against a wall, eyebrows furrowed as if this were a mere annoyance.
Froth spilled from the mark’s lips. Thana’s panic spiked, became paralysis. It wasn’t supposed to happen this fast. The mark was supposed to survive the evening, only to complain about stomach pains and die later that night. Even to the healers, it would’ve seemed as if he’d eaten spoiled meat. The contract required a quiet, inconspicuous death. But this—what was this?
Whatever it was, she wouldn’t let it ruin their contract. Thana shoved her tray into the hands of another slave and all but dropped the pitcher on a table as she rushed to Amastan’s side. Now was not the time to disappear. No one would notice the slaves who rushed to help, but they’d notice any who ran away. She couldn’t risk breaking her cover, not when the contract wasn’t done.
The mark’s wife helped Amastan guide him out of the room. Thana ducked under Eken’s other arm, spreading out his bulky weight and using her body to shield his features from the wall of staring guests. Even if the mark was dying, it was still disrespectful to let so many see his bare face, most of whom belonged to a lower class.
Once they were out of sight and in the hallway, the wife pulled over a chair and they guided the drum chief into it. He slumped, his shoulders heaving with each pained breath. He wheezed and hacked as he fought for air and he kept shaking his head like a stunned dog.
His wife turned on Amastan. “What in G-d’s name happened?”
“I don’t know, ma.” Amastan echoed her worry. “One minute he was fine, the next—” He waved at Eken.
A second woman joined them, the gold chain at her waist marking her as Eken’s senior wife. She went straight to her husband, her fingers finding first his wrist, then his neck. She tilted his head back and peered into his eyes before prying open his mouth and staring down his throat. She did all of this in the same perfunctory manner as an Azali examining his camel.
She stepped back, shaking her head. “He’s having an acute reaction to something he ate. Girl”—she snapped her fingers at Thana, who stiffened—“did you see him take any nuts of any kind?”
Thana kept her gaze averted but shook her head. “No, ma. Just the date wine that was served to every guest.”
“Then there must have been some pit in the wine.” The senior wife pinched the bridge of her nose, irritated. “The fool should’ve known better. The cores of some fruits make him very ill. Quick, girl—fetch a healer. We have little time.”
As Thana left the room, she made a circle with her thumb and forefinger on her hand nearest Amastan. He grunted and said something, but the noise from the crowd was too loud. She could only hope he’d seen her signal and knew to look for her coded note outside the slaves’ quarters later. They hadn’t been exposed yet, but the situation was getting away from them.
Thana grappled with what had happened as she slipped outside and down a side street, running through the pouring rain for the nearest healer. The possibility of dragging her feet crossed her mind, but it was just as quickly dismissed: if Eken died because she was too slow, all the blame would fall on her. No, their original plan was shattered. But Thana was still a slave in the drum chief’s household for a few more days. There was still a chance they could salvage this contract. Still a chance she could fix things.
When Thana returned with a healer, three of Eken’s wives waited outside his room. They let the healer through, but one of the wives blocked Thana from following. Thana caught only a glimpse of the senior wife and Eken inside, still alive. She retreated to the slaves’ quarters and wrote Amastan the promised note. Then she scrubbed the floor—and planned.
Only one course of action remained. They’d never get those months of preparation back, but Thana was still here, a part of the drum chief’s household. Just because the poison would be cleaned from his body didn’t mean he couldn’t still die quietly tonight. If anything, it’d be less suspicious than before. Eken was old and the reaction had weakened him. It wouldn’t be surprising if his heart gave out. Thana just had to make sure that it did.
It’d be risky, acting on her own. For generations, assassins in her family had traditionally worked in pairs. When a murderer had caught several of her cousins alone and unawares, that tradition had become a rule. Of course, her mother had been known to work on her own, but Tamella was a legend. Even forced into retirement, her name was still a whispered warning. Someday, Thana would reach the same level of notoriety.
But aspiration was one thing; action was another. Thana couldn’t wait for Amastan. She had to act tonight. If her mother could get away with working a contract alone, than so could she.
While the decision set part of her at ease, it set the rest of her on edge. She was on her own. If she failed, all of Ghadid would learn her name and she’d be hunted. Her family and cousins were tolerated as a necessary evil, a vanguard against corruption and injustice, but only if Ghadid could pretend they didn’t exist.
G-d did not condone murder, even when it was for the greater good.
With only a few hours left to act, Thana got to work.
The storm lingered well after it was mere dregs, spitting at empty streets with little enthusiasm, its breath fogging windows. Thana hunkered under the eave of a neighboring building, gaze fixed on one window in particular, as dark as an eye. She’d shed the purple wrap in favor of a dark green one that blended with the shadows. Its lightweight fabric clung wet to her skin and rain ran through her knotted hair and down her face, but she didn’t move.
The evening had been trying, full of nerves and waiting. Although Amastan had instilled an appreciation for patience in her, she still hated sitting idle. Slipping away from the other slaves had been a trial in itself. Now she drew in calm with each breath, stilling her shaking hands. She could do this without Amastan. She had to do this without Amastan.
The lights in the other windows went out one by one. The wind picked up, whispering unintelligible promises to any who’d listen. A different kind of fear spread bumps along Thana’s arms. Guul were said to ride on the tails of large storms, feasting on the disaster and death left behind. Thana touched the cord at her neck, tracing her finger along the glass charms lying cold against her collarbone. But guul were creatures of the Wastes. They never came near Ghadid. Here, she only had to fear wild jaan.
Thana checked her rings and counted her knives. When the rain picked up in one last, petulant burst, she detached from the wall and slipped across the alley as little more than a shadow. Eken was expected to survive the night. A wife was keeping guard outside his room. But no one should be inside, no one by his side. At least, not while the healer was resting.
The rainfall masked the squeak of metal as Thana used her knife to unscrew the bolts of the window hinge. She caught the glass before it could fall and shatter, then climbed over the sill and into the room and its stifling darkness. She pulled the freed window back into place after her to keep the wind out.
She paused and took in the room, her sight already adjusted to the gloom. Damp footprints glistened behind her as she approached the long, low bed. The dry air would take care of those, storm or not. A man stirred in the bed, lips moving soundlessly, but his eyes didn’t open.
Thana’s fingers found and twisted the cap on one of her rings. She stopped next to the man’s head, comparing the face before her with the one she’d seen tagel-less at the party only a few hours before. It was the mark, all right. Drum Chief Eken.
She leaned over the mark and watched his nostrils flare and flutter, his lips part. Holding her own breath, she tilted her hand over those lips until white powder spilled and coated them. The mark grunted. Licked his lips. Resettled.
When the mark started to choke, Thana picked up the pillow beside his head and laid it across his face. At this, the mark started, hands reaching at and pushing away the pillow. Thana leaned in, imagining herself as unmovable as metal. She closed her eyes, feeling instead of seeing the mark’s progression from waking to confusion, followed by awareness and struggling. Thana fought back, willing the poison to work quickly. Although she was fast, she wasn’t strong like Amastan, and the mark could easily overpower her if given a chance.
For a heartbeat, she knew he would. The mark had hold of the pillow’s edges and was gasping for breath as he pushed her back and away. Thana gritted her teeth and shoved back with all her strength, but she wouldn’t last much longer. The mark thrashed, feet kicking air, body twisting away from her.
Thunder crashed, long and low and distant. Lightning illuminated the room, outlining the mark’s weathered and scarred hands as they clawed at the pillow obstructing his mouth and nose, the assassin’s pylon-straight back and tense shoulders, her mouth set in a thin, firm line.
The light was gone just as suddenly, and with it went the mark’s strength. He weakened by degrees as the poison worked, numbing his muscles, breaking his will, and slowing his heart beat by beat… by beat. He stopped resisting all at once, arms falling heavy back to the bed. But Thana didn’t relax, not until the breath she’d been holding burned like acid in her chest. Only then did she let go of the air in her lungs and the pillow in her hands. She stepped back, wary and weary and ready to be done. She freed a knife and waited.
But she didn’t need the knife. The pillow slipped to the side bit by bit, then all at once, revealing parted lips and open, sightless eyes. Thana shivered despite the room’s warmth. Three contracts, and she’d never gotten used to that sight. She hoped she never did.
Thana touched the charms at her neck as she muttered a prayer for the drum chief ’s jaani. She returned to the window, settling its glass back in place. But while there was still a small gap, she threw a pebble at the water cup near the bed. It teetered and fell and shattered. Someone gasped in the hallway. In another moment, they’d enter, see the mark dead, and send for a healer. But they’d also send for a marabi to quiet his jaani. No one, not even Eken, deserved to have their jaani go wild.
Thana vanished into the lingering storm before anyone opened the door.
Excerpted from The Impossible Contract, copyright © 2019 by K.A. Doore