Crimson Dragon: Birth of an Assassin (short story)
Hello everyone. I love to write, and I thought I'd share a short story that's sort of a prequel to a novel I hope to one day finish writing. I hope you guys enjoy reading it; any feedback and comments are encouraged. I really do want to know what people think of it, as I one day want to make a living writing novels
Her bright green eyes shimmered like jewels in soft sunlight. Such bright eyes, and yet she stared up at her father with a gaze as empty as the man she was destined to kill. Her father, who had brown eyes flecked with green, and hair as black as hers frowned, his jaw clenched tightly. He knew she didn’t want to do it. But he also knew it was time. She was 13 years old, and she was ready for her first solo. She could flee, he supposed. But if she did that, she’d be dead before sunrise. He’d told her that hundreds of times, of course. Still, he hoped the message sunk in.
“The contract is simple,” he stated flatly, still giving her that cold, unforgiving stare of his. “He’s the Captain of Cirdai’s City Watch. You will kill him in his home, unseen by anyone. Understood?”
“Is…is there anything else I need to know?” the little girl asked, nervously kneading her hands together as she spoke. Her soft voice was low, yet in the small quiet room, her father had no trouble hearing her.
“Smart question, Lianna. You may yet actually be useful at something. Yes. We want the Cirdai Watch to know exactly who killed Zane. You will paint our insignia on one of the walls in his own blood.”
“And…and I’m going alone?” Lianna stammered, her eyes not quite meeting her father’s. Vincent Lahar, head of the Crimson Dragon assassin wring, most feared organization of assassin’s in the three kingdoms, nodded.
“Yes you are. It’s time I stopped having to send someone to baby-sit you for every contract. It’s time to prove yourself a capable assassin.” Vincent shrugged his shoulders dismissively.
“If you fail, you will be caught and die. If you die, well…I won’t have to deal with you anymore, will I?”
Lianna didn’t answer her father. Instead she gazed down at her naked feet, her slender toes covered in dirt and grime from the cave floor.
“If they catch you, the City Watch, you know what will happen?” Vincent sneered, his lips curving into a wicked grin. “You will be brought to the King himself. He will order you tortured, until you tell him who you work for. But as you’ve no idea who hired us, the information will do little good. After you talk, he’ll have you tortured simply out of spite. And just when you are ready to beg for death, one of mine will find you, Lianna. Because Crimson Dragon has very long arms indeed. We have informants and agents who have infiltrated the highest levels of government in Cirdai, Ingrad, AND Mi’ilen. Your torturer will either end up dead, or he will be ordered to give you a rest for a bit. And then the real torture will begin.”
Vincent laughed coldly as Lianna’s face paled, an involuntary shiver creeping up and down her spine.
“But that’s not the end,” he went on. “Oh no, if you run, if you try to flee, I will find you. Before the cocks crow at dawn, you will be dead—because I have endless recourses. There’s no place you can go to hide; from the tiniest little village to the largest capital cities, I will find you. So do yourself a favor; complete the contract as you are told, and do not even consider trying to run from me.” Vincent knelt down to his 13-year old daughter’s level, putting his lips so close to her ear she could feel their warmth against her skin.
“I own you.” He stood to his feet, staring at her with soulless eyes. Lianna shivered again, unable to bring her gaze away from her dirty feet.
“Good. Go see Kai Linn for last minute practice. You depart in an hour. You will arrive by midday. You will kill Zane tonight, and flee town when the city gates are open in the morning.”
Lianna bowed her head. He walked to the desk in the chamber that served as his office, sitting in his high-baked oak chair. He removed a quill from its clay container and began to write something down in a small leather-bound book. Lianna understood that she was dismissed. She walked out of the room, into the long, narrow hall.
Though she called it a hall, it was really an interconnection between chambers in the cave that Crimson Dragon had called home for centuries. It was amazing, Lianna thought, that nobody had ever found their little hideaway. It was less than a day’s walk from Naldeen, the capital city of Cirdai. The cave was an immense collection of interconnected natural caverns buried deep in the mountains.
Lianna strode down the hall, which was lit by torches set into the wall every few feet. The orange-red flames flickered about, casting eerie shadows across the caverns. She walked by several chambers that marked either personal living quarters, personal offices of higher ranking members of Crimson Dragon, training areas for ranged weapons like crossbows and short-bows…in short, there was a chamber for just about everything. She glanced to the right and saw her own living quarters—really, her personal prison and literal hell. It was a small room, with only a cot, a small mirror, and a nightstand. A large wrought-iron door stood slightly ajar, beckoning her to enter, waiting for the moment when she would once more occupy the space within. She spent most of her days locked in there. She spent 8 hours a day sparring and practicing a variety of tactics for combat and training with weapons. The rest of the time, unless she was off fulfilling a contract, was spent within those tiny walls.
She kept walking, her destination straight ahead. She followed the winding stone halls, until they emptied into a magnificent chamber of immense proportions. A large embroidered rug covered nearly the entire space of the floor. The ceiling stretched so high into the darkness the torchlight did not reach it. Lining the walls of the vaguely round room were racks and racks of weapons; swords, knives, daggers, Shurukin—which were known as throwing stars or ninja stars by the public—hand axes, throwing axes, halberds, spears…just about any weapon imaginable. There were also the training weapons, wooden swords and daggers that Kai Linn used to teach the unskilled ranks of Crimson Dragon how to fight.
In the very center of the chambers, sitting cross legged on the floor, was the man who’d taught her everything she knew. Kai Linn was dressed in long brick red robes, tied at the waist with a black sash. At his hip was a long katana, sheathed in a scabbard that made the embroidery on the rug beneath her feet look plain.
Intricate patterns of gold and silver were interwoven into the scabbard, and small white gems studded the center. It was made of leather, she was sure, but the leather was covered in some very soft and no doubt very expensive fabric. The hilt of Kai Linn’s katana was gold plated, the very end shaped like a serpent with inlaid rubies for the eyes.
Lianna, in contrast, looked like a little beggar girl clad in her thick woolen gown and bear feet. Kai looked up, opening his dark chocolate brown eyes. His deeply lined face broke into a wide smile when he saw who was standing before him. He stood to his feet, nodding his head towards her. Lianna bowed, folding at the waist, before straightening up.
“Ahhh, if it is not my favorite pupil,” he spoke in a deep, thickly accented voice. Lianna could not place Kai Linn’s accent; she’d never heard anything like it before. Rumor had it he came from a place across the sea, but nobody—not even Kai himself—had ever confirmed the theory. Nobody even knew for sure if there was anything across the sea.
“Your father tells me that you are off on your very first solo contract,” he continued, placing a leathery hand on her shoulder. That is a big step for an upcoming assassin. Today, in preparation, you will train not with wooden toys-” Kai snorted as he turned towards one of the many racks lining the walls. “-and instead you will work with your real weapons.”
Kai reached out, removing a short sword and two daggers from a wooden shelf. Lianna recognized them; they belonged to her. Every assassin was given their own weapons that they alone used. You practiced with your weapons; you took care of your weapons, polishing them, sharpening them, keeping them in working order. You killed with them, cleaned them, and most importantly, you respected them.
Lianna stepped forward to retrieve her daggars and short-sword from Kai Linn. She noticed, probably for the millionth time, the missing finger on his right hand. Legend had it that he had removed it himself a long time ago when he was very young. As the tale went, he had failed Crimson Dragon in some way, messed up during a contract. She didn’t know the details, it seemed nobody did, but Kai Linn had supposedly removed the finger himself as penance for his error. On that same hand was the tattoo that marked all members of the assassin wring: a large dragon wreathed in flames with wings outstretched and mouth gaping open ready to breathe endless flames. The tail of the dragon wrapped around his wrist up to his forearm.
Lianna took her weapons, buckling her belt at her waist, and making sure her scabbards were sheathed and in place. Kai handed her five throwing knives and a pouch of Shuriken as well. She fastened the pouch beneath her writs under the sleeves of her gown. She was ready.
“I want you to try to kill me,” Kai told her seriously. “Give it your best; treat me as if I were a real enemy trying to kill you. Treat me as though I were a contract, ready to slay you so that I may live. Come at me with everything you have learned, Lianna.”
“But I don’t want to hurt you.” Her voice wavered; though she’d done this before, she always hated it. She was afraid she might accidentally hurt the one person that seemed to genuinely like her. Vincent…he beat her whenever she so much as breathed wrong around him. Everyone else seemed to ignore her; but Kai Linn was always kind, always friendly to her. If she accidentally killed him, she didn’t know how she would be able to cope with it. Of course, she didn’t know how she was able to cope with the numerous lives she’d already taken. The truth was, she didn’t. The souls of the dead haunted her dreams every night.
“IF you actually manage to kill me, which you won’t, my spirit shall not hold a grudge Lianna. You must train to kill; therefore, you cannot hold back. Now come, young girl, and let us see just what I’ve managed to teach you!”
And so Lianna did as he said. She drew her short sword, holding the three and a half foot blade in her right hand, green eyes watching Kai Linn’s every move. She was in full assassin mode now, and like a wolf smelling blood, she became the merciless killing machine she had been trained to be.
She darted forward with speed that a praying mantis would envy. Lianna rushed, looking as though she were going to try and barrel straight at Kai like a beast. At the last possible second, however, she threw herself forward, shoulder slamming into the ground as she rolled into a kneeling position. Her blade flashed forward as she tried to eviscerate Kai, slicing open his stomach. But the 70-year old man was deceptively fast as well. He was old, but there was a reason he’d been training young assassin’s most of his life. He easily deflected Lianna’s weapon with the blade of his katana, parrying to the left. He then slashed in an upward strike, attempting to catch Lianna across the chest. She couldn’t block his sword—it was too close, he was too fast. There just wasn’t time to try and bring her own weapon into position to parry. Instead, she flung herself sideways, narrowly avoiding the wickedly sharp sword. She was now just to Kai’s right side—but she didn’t get the chance to go on the offensive. With almost wraith-like speed, Kai Linn turned, flicking his arm forward, sending the edge of his blade sailing towards Lianna’s exposed throat. She darted backwards, only to catch the flick of his left hand. Lianna jumped left just in time to avoid a small knife that clattered against the wall, bouncing to the floor.
Lianna feinted a leap forward, and instead jumped to the right, then to the left once more, getting steadily closer to Kai. A slight flick of her own wrist and a throwing star sailed towards Kai. She didn’t wait to see if it connected, instead she darted forward, acting as if she were going to thrust her sword forward. Instead, she leapt high into the air, landing behind the old man, and brought her short-sword at his throat.
Her throwing star missed, cleanly deflected as Kai used his katana to knock the cylindrical weapon to the side. He watched as Lianna bounded forward, saw her jump into the air. When she landed, he knew what was coming. Lianna was sure she had him, but Kai was a step ahead already. She brought her blade forward, and felt her wrist bent downwards, her fingers reflexively releasing her blade. She felt her body flung through the air, and slam into the stone floor. Stars flashed before her eyes as she lay on her back. When she finally regained her focus, she was staring up at Kai Lin’s blade, the point pressed between her eyes.
“Very good, very good indeed Lianna,” he said softly.”
“But I failed,” she told him.
“Failure to kill me is not failure to learn, Lianna. None have yet succeeded in killing me. You have lasted longer than you ever have yet. I consider that a success.” With that, Kai carefully sheathed his blade, and held out a hand. Lianna grasped it, and he pulled her to her feet.
“You will be fine, Lianna. You will survive. You are more than capable. Trust in yourself, and you’re first solo contract will go well.”
“Thank you, Master Linn,” Lianna told him, bowing.
“Take care, Lianna. I look forward to your return.”
Lianna was staring at the gateway leading into Naldeen. The city walls were impressive, made of white stone so high the archers atop looked like ants. The gate itself was made of sturdy wood reinforced with iron. Currently, it was slid to the side, allowing entry into the capital city. Four guards, two on either side of the entrance, were clad in breastplates and boots plated with iron, protecting their shins. They weren’t dressed in full body armor as knights were; instead, they wore iron bracers, and thick coils of chainmale beneath their breastplates. They wore helms that covered their heads and cheeks, but not their faces and necks. They wore stern looks, watching as various people trickled into the city or out of it, following the dusty dirt road that lead to various places in the kingdom.
Lianna had just treaded through miles of forest that separated the rolling hills of the plains from the mountain range where Crimson Dragon lie hidden. For the trip through, she wore a cheap wool overcoat and tunic; forest travel had a tendency to tear clothes. Once she reached the edge of the forest, she changed into a more appropriate magenta tunic with a dark green hood cloak she kept pulled over her head. She wore her short-sword openly at her hip; her other weapons, however, were hidden in various locations on her body. Strapped to her shin, covered by the tall leather boots she wore was one of her slightly curved daggers. The other dagger was strapped to the back of her waist, hidden by the cloak she wore. She had her throwing knives and shuriken as well, also hidden from view.
Many people carried swords for traveling between cities; that was nothing. Had she openly wore as many weapons as she was carrying, however, that would’ve caught the guards attention. As it was, they barely bat an eyelash as she loped through the gateway, stepping into the city.
Naldeen was the capitol of Cirdai; therefore, as one would expect, the city was massive. There was the large wall that protected the city of course; but inside the walls were miles of farmland. Closer to the heart of the city was the urban landscape, with rows and rows of houses, bakery’s, blacksmith’s, and a wide variety of other shops. And that was before the town square, the very center of Naldeen, where all the real action took place. In the very center of town was the bazaar; this area housed rows upon rows of stalls selling everything from flowers, to bread, pastries, fine wines, clothes, dyes, fish imported from other cities, weapons…anything you could think to buy, you could find in the very heart of Naldeen—and probably things you wouldn’t have thought of too. If you were to keep traveling north from the town square, you would come to a second tall set of walls, with yet another large iron gate. THIS gate, however, was nearly always shut. You could see the miles of grassland leading up a large lengthy hill; and atop that hill was the castle where the royal family of Cirdai lived; this inner sanctum was also where the various nobles in Naldeen lived; the very rich, upper class. Atop the hill, the castle itself was surrounded by smaller but no less sturdy walls, lined with archers waiting to shoot anyone that didn’t belong.
It would be in this area, Lianna knew, that Zane Lozen, captain of the City Guard would live. And, unfortunately for her, few people other than the nobility were allowed to enter that area. It was sealed shut, the gate only opened when one of the lucky few who lived there wanted to leave and visit the bazaar.
On the other hand, Lianna was dressed in classy enough clothes to pass for a merchant. That had been her plan of infiltration. She carried with her a small bag of goods that Cirdai would consider exotic; luxary items from the country of Mi’ilen. In particular, there were jewels set in dragon-scale bracelets, dragon-hide gloves and boots, and a few other items one normally wouldn’t see in Cirdai.
To anyone who saw her, Lianna would appear to be a high class merchant. The nature of the items she carried would probably allow her entry into the upper class area of Naldeen; and with that, access to Zane’s home.
Lianna followed the dirt path as it turned to cobblestone, her footfalls blending in with that of the hundreds of other people as they went about their business. Peasants came and went, on their way to the market, or to the church, or to the town well…some returning with arms full of goods. The occasional guard patrol stalked down the road, talking animatedly with one another, glancing at passers-by every now and then just to make sure they weren’t up to no good. Lianna kept the hood of her cloak up; she didn’t stand out because many people did the same. Not everyone who entered Naldeen wanted their faces seen; this was a large city, after all, and some people were hiding from loan sharks, others from the law. Being a big city, there was a big underground, including a black market that was largely ignored as long as they weren’t too blatant with their dealings. Because of this, Lianna was by far not alone in keeping the hood of her cloak pulled low over her face.
As Lianna walked the streets of Naldeen, her thoughts turned to her life in Crimson Dragon—or lackthereof. She was nine when she first took a man’s life. Her father had made her kill him; he had betrayed the order, and had to be executed. She still remembered the look in the man’s bloodshot eyes as she slit his throat. That look haunted her the very night she slew him; and every night thereafter. Since then, she’d killed countless others, all in the name of Crimson Dragon.
Vincent was known across the land, although not by name; he was known as Red Dragon. He was possibly the most feared man in the world. People had every reason to fear him. If his own daughter wasn’t safe from his cruelty, then who was?
Lianna hated her father. Yet, she also longed for his acceptance. That made her hate herself even more than him. She longed for death, but lacked the courage to put an end to her own life. She didn’t want to kill, but she didn’t want to face her own fate by refusing even more. She was a coward at heart; she knew that—even accepted it. She also knew that there was probably a very special place in hell reserved just for her, where all those she’d slain would have a chance for vengeance. Though the sky was clear, without a trace of a cloud and the sun beat down on her, beads of sweat clinging to her forehead, a chill overtook her at the thought.
She was at the gate into the inner sanctum, where the rich and privileged lived. Two guards stood at this gate, one man wiping his brow with a gloved hand. He was in deep conversation with the other guard.
“You would think, after all this time, I would qualify to join the Dark Riders. I have cavalry experience, I’m damn good with a sword if I do say so myself, and I’ve served Lord Lenus with the utmost loyalty for over 10 years damnit!”
The other guard, a blonde haired man with thick bushy eyebrows chuckled at his friend.
“You, a Dark Rider? Yeah, you’re good with a blade, I’ll give ya that much, but you couldn’t hit the damn city wall if I gave ya a hundred fuckin arrows to do it with!”
“Stop exaggerating. Okay, so I’m not the best shot with a bow. I can learn, I thought that’s what training is for.”
“But the Dark Riders are an ELITE group of knights. A, you aren’t a knight. B, even if ya were friend, if you don’t show some natural talent with a bow, ya can’t be one of the Dark Riders. They specialize in cavalry, yeah; but they are supposed to be masters of horseback archery. If ya can’t shoot a bow well enough to hit the effing castle from 10 feet away, ya sure as hell can’t be a Dark Rider.”
“Excuse me Sirs,” Lianna spoke in her soft voice, gently interrupting the two men. “I need to get through if you don’t mind.” The first man turned to face her. Unlike his friend, he had long thick blonde hair and bright blue eyes. He sighed, shaking his head.
“Why does every damn person think they need to get through to the Government District? Look unless you’re a noble, or a knight, or a high ranking public official, or a member of the Royal family, of which you are neither, then you belong just where you are, on this side of the fence.”
“But I do belong on the other side of the fence,” Lianna told him, eyes glittering. I’m a traveling merchant, selling very…unique goods.”
“I don’t care what you’re selling, you can sell it in the bazaar. Over THERE.” He pointed towards the town square.
“But my goods are too expensive for these peasants,” Lianna pressed in a silky, almost seductive voice. She reached into her bag, and withdrew a small bracelet. It was silver, plated in dragon scales as scarlet as the sunset, with 3 large sapphires inlaid in the top. Both guard’s eyes widened in surprise.
“Mind if I take a look at that?” The dark haired guard asked in awe.
“Look with your eyes, not your fingers,” Lianna told him matter of factly. “That is, unless you’re interested in buying…”
“Lady, I couldn’t buy that with a full year’s worth of pay.”
“That’s too bad,” Lianna told him with a slight shake of her head. “Now, do you see why I want over there.”
“We get your type every now and then, the merchant with exotic goods he or she’s just itching to dump. Well I suppose we can let you in.” The blonde haired guard nodded to his friend. Together they gripped large handles built into the gate and pulled it open just enough to allow someone entry.
“You listen here,” the blonde told her, “you set up in the park. See those tall buildings over there?”
Lianna gazed at a ring of towers and stone buildings at the foot of the hill beneath the castle itself. She nodded.
“You can’t see it from here, but they surround a large park; there’s a fountain, trees, a few benches. Other merchants like you, who’ve high class goods to sell, set up there. You don’t go bothering the citizens who live there; just set up and wait for them to come to you. If you go pissing them off, you might end up spending the next year of your life polishing every last piece of a Knight’s armor.”
“Got it. Thanks.” Lianna offered a smile as she pushed her way through the gate, into the government district; what she thought was a sugar coated way of saying elitist district.
Lianna made her way down the marble path leading towards the square of the government district, already planning her next move. She would need to find out just where Zane Lozen lived. Then, she’d have to get some information about the man, whether or not he had servants or guards. In short, she’d have to begin stalking her prey…
The best way to gather intelligence was not to go around asking everyone you see questions. Lianna understood this; instead, she chose a more passive approach. She made her way to the park the guard had described—and it was astonishingly beautiful. Though surrounded by large towering buildings where the richest in Naldeen lived, it still managed to have that touch of wilderness. The man-made lake was in the center of the park. Several leafy oak trees were planted, their massive frames jutting from the soft grass. The benches were made of wood, expertly stained and obviously cleaned regularly.
Lianna removed a blanket from her pack, unfolded it and set it on the floor beside one of the benches. Somewhere above her a bird chirped while she worked, cawing as she removed the items she was selling. There was the bracelet she showed the guards. Then there was a hand-crafted necklace inlaid with dragon-scaled like the bracelet. There was a golden bow from Ingrad—a trophy awarded to the annual winner of their archery competition. The world’s finest archers hailed from Ingrad; it was said no other could match them. Fully functional as a weapon, the bow was crafted from solid gold, encrusted with jade and emerald, with intricate designs expertly carved. Though it could be fired, these bows were never actually used in combat; the winners usually mounted them on their walls as trophies. Lianna found herself wondering if this bow was taken from someone Crimson Dragon had killed, and the thought made her tremble as she set it on the blanket.
She removed three white fur coats; these were made from Albino tigers found only in the northern regions of Ingrad. Then there was a bottle of the finest wine from the vineyards of the Mi’ilen monks. This particular bottle was almost a century old. Finally there was a ceremonial dagger, crafted entirely of silver, with exotic patterns of swirls, dots, and spirals carved into the hilt and blade. This would also be from Mi’ilen, the ceremonial sidearm for the Noble Shield—a unit akin to her own countries Royal Guard.
Once she removed her goods, Lianna sat on the bench and waited. She watched as men and women passed by, dressed in fine clothes made of silks, velvet, and other high class materials. The occasional knight walked along the cobblestone path, headed for the castle dressed in full armor. A time or two Lianna watched members of the City Guard as they patrolled the area, not really paying much attention to their surroundings. Here in the Government District, after all, trouble was unexpected.
It didn’t take long for her presence to start drawing attention. An older woman, probably in her 40’s with long curls of silver-blonde hair and thinly lined face walked over to her, offering a smile. She spoke, however, in a clipped tone that suggested she’d rather not spend too much time in the presence of a mere “merchant.”
“Hello there,” she said, gazing at the pile of items on the blanket. “And what is it you are selling?” Lianna offered her most prize-winning smile, absolutely gushing as she answered.
“Well, you are my first customer today, and a very beautiful one at that! They always say the women of Cirdai are the fairest of the three kingdoms. I have much to sell, My Lady, but I doubt you would be interested in much of it.” Lianna held up a hand as the woman started to speak.
“But I do have something I think would only add to the spark of light you positively radiate. Look at this!” She withdrew the bracelet, the dragon-scales glimmering in the sunlight. The rubies seemed to burn like hot embers as she held it in her hands.
“That is astonishing,” the noble-woman said, taking the bracelet in her hands. She ran her fingers along the scales, admiring the jewelry. “How much is this?”
“For you, My Lady? Only 250 gold.” The woman raised an eyebrow, looking from Lianna’s bright eyes and back to the bracelet. She sighed wearily.
“Even for something as fine as this, 250 gold…I mean, silver coins would be understandable, but gold?”
“It’s from Mi’ilen you know, crafted from—”
“I know dragon-scale when I see it,” the woman interrupted.
“You know…I might be able to lower the price, just between you and me. I don’t have to tell my manager.”
“Manager?” The woman’s eyebrow shot up again.
“Oh yes, I’m part of the Kal-Taran Merchant’s Society,” Lianna lied. “We operate, of course, from the capitol city of Mi’ilen, Kal Taran.”
“I see…well how much could you lower the price. I do love this bracelet.” The woman pressed her hand to her chest as she spoke, clearly imagining herself showing off to all the other Ladies and Lords she associated with. Lianna leaned forward—but, and this was key—she did not make contact with the woman. The nobility, they didn’t actually want to touch peasantry, or anyone else that wasn’t of Noble blood, for that matter. It would have insulted her. Instead, she leaned close enough that her lips were hovering next to the woman’s ear. In a low, conspiratorial whisper, Lianna spoke “I could go as low as 200 gold; but no less.”
She leaned back, offered a small wink as though they were the best of friends, and held out her hand. The woman smiled back, her eyes lighting up, and she counted out the money from the purse that hung around her waist.
“I was wondering,” Lianna said as the woman was about to leave, “With all these valuable goods, how conscientious is the City Watch? I mean, I’d hate to be mugged right here in the Government District.”
“Oh, that won’t happen, not here!” the woman gasped as if Lianna’s concerns were the most unfounded thing in the world. “The watch always looks out for our safety. We get the occasional petty theft or two, but not terribly often. Lord Lozen has really cracked down on the local underground, you know.” Lianna smiled to herself with satisfaction. The conversation, ever so innocently turned to her target, she could gently question this woman without appearing to be wheedling for information. Perfect.
“I’m sorry, I don’t usually come as far as Cirdai; who is Zane Lozen?” Lianna furrowed her brow as though confused.
“Lord Lozen,” the lady began, emphasizing the word “lord,” “is the head of the City Watch. He was appointed about two months ago. He actually managed to arrest the leader of those awful bandits, the Black Band. In fact, the man was executed just a few weeks ago. Several members of the Black Band have also been arrested and put to death since. I’m really surprised you didn’t hear of it. But then, I forget myself, you’re from Mi’ilen, and news probably hasn’t made it that far yet.”
“No it hasn’t,” Lianna told her. She figured she now knew who hired Crimson Dragon to kill him though, and why he was to be slain. The Black Bandits, Lianna knew, were merely highwaymen who robbed merchants and caravans on their way to and from Cirdai. They weren’t into murder, though they weren’t above beatings. It figured they would hire someone else to send a message for them, the cowards.
“I heard Lozen is really handsome,” Lianna remarked. “What does he look like?”
“Well he…” the woman paused a moment, looking over Lianna’s shoulder. She then lifted her hand, pointing. “You can see for yourself, he’s on his way over here right now.” Lianna turned, and saw a man in shimmering silver armor, an ornate breastplate bearing the seal of the Cirdai royal family. Like the rest of the city guard, his armor was light; shin-length iron plated leather boots, a breastplate, thick chainmail and greaves covering his forearms. He wore no helmet, but he did have a long black cape that swirled in the wind behind him as he walked, his sword swaying back and forth at his hip.
“I’d better get going,” the woman said, showing her right hand. There was a golden band around her ring finger. “My husband will be wondering where I am.”
“Nice to meet you, My Lady,” Lianna told her offering a bow. The woman gave a curt nod and strode away, leaving the scent of her perfume hanging in the air.
Zane Lozen, Captain of the City Guard slowly made his way over to her, walking at what could only be described as a very leisurely pace. This was clearly not a man in a hurry. He gazed down at the goods Lianna had placed on the blanket, swiping at an unruly strand of dark brown hair that fell in front of his eyes. His hair was quite long, down to his shoulders. He had the shadow of a beard, no mustache, and a hard, chiseled face. A thin scar curved beneath his chin, his heavy brow furrowing as he gazed at what Lianna was selling.
“Dragon scale,” he commented. He said nothing more, simply surveyed what was on the blanket. “Not bad, not bad at all.”
“Looking for anything in particular, My Lord?” Lianna asked, bowing deep. Zane’s eyes swept over Lianna, surveying her.
“Nothing you appear to have for sale, unfortunately. I’m Zane Lozen, by the way.” He did not hold out his hand, but he spoke in a respectful voice, and actually looked at Lianna as though she were human; that alone separated him from most of the other Nobility she’d met.
“I’m Elsaria Mei” she said to him, bowing again. To her surprise, Lozen took her hand, brushing his lips against it.
“Nice to meet you,” he said, turning his gaze back to her merchandise. “I don’t suppose you have a ring.”
“What sort of ring?”
“There’s this woman I’ve been seeing for the past year. I haven’t told her, but I plan on asking for her hand in marriage. I need a suitable ring, however. Nothing in Cirdai, I’m afraid, will do the trick. I want something unique, something that stands out.”
“I’m afraid I don’t,” Lianna said, her voice apologetic. “At least not that comes to mind.”
“Well, maybe next time,” Zane sighed, shaking his head. “I didn’t expect to be so lucky. I’ll have to take a trip out of town, maybe to Mi’ilen or Ingrad.”
“Is there anything else you might be interested in?” Lianna asked him, as any self-respecting merchant would. But the man shook his head.
“No, not unless you have a device that can magically make the Naldeen underworld vanish in a puff of smoke.” He smiled wryly.
“If I had something like that, I’d be living on this side of the gate,” Lianna told him, matching his smile. That made Zane laugh, and when he did, every soft line on his face seemed to light up.
“I suppose you would, Lady. Well, I’d better get back to work. I’m supposed to be on patrol, you know.”
“The captain, patrolling his own city? There’s something poetic in that.”
“I’ve always believed making others do your work for you is for the lazy or inept; of which I am neither.”
“I can tell. You know, just because I don’t have a ring with me right now…well, that doesn’t mean I might not come across one. I often deal in trades as well as money. If I come across something you might be interested in, where might I reach you?”
“Honestly? Just wander around for a bit, we’ll end up crossing paths at some point or another.”
“Ah, but if I don’t? Do you live around here in one of these very impressive mansions?”
“Actually I do,” Zane chuckled. “But It’s probably the least impressive building here. See that small little house, over by the base of the hill leading to the castle?” He pointed, and her gaze followed his, until she saw where the cobblestone became a dirt road. There were a few homes beneath the hill; his was indeed the smallest, although it was by far anything like the huts that the peasants lived in. It was two stories tall, made of grey stone, a fence made entirely of log surrounding the building. Potted flowers stood beneath the windows cut into the side of the house. It looked very nice—and best of all, it seemed too small to house a great many servants. Maybe one or two at most.
“You live rather quaintly for a Noble,” Lianna teased. Zane chuckled again, shaking his head.
“I’ve never been one to live in all the flair all the other rich people seem to strive for. I’d rather save the money I make, spend it elsewhere. Spend it on things more useful like a good horse.”
“Do you have a horse then? I don’t see a stable, but then, I probably wouldn’t from here.”
“I do, but it’s housed in the castle. One of the perks of being captain of the City Guard; my horse is considered essential to my service, as I may have to serve in war. All officers have them, and the Cirdai Military takes care of them. And on that note, I really must get back to patrol. A good day to you, Elsaria.”
“And to you as well, Lord Lozen.” Lianna watched as he strode off, resuming his watch over the City. As soon as he was some distance away, she sighed, shaking her head. He seemed like a nice man, a genuinely good person. And, he was going to marry.
Her thoughts turned to her father. She remembered the icy words he often repeated to her. You are a born killer, Lianna. You even killed your own mother. You’ve been an assassin since the day you were born, girl. If you are so heartless you can murder your own mother, you can work for me.
“I didn’t mean to kill you, Mom…” Lianna’s voice trailed off, her eyes glimmering with tears. She had just been a baby. Was she really that evil? To kill right from the womb. Her mother died to give birth to her; she took the woman’s life. And now, she was about to take Zane’s life. A future husband. A future father.
Lianna realized her hands were clenched into tight fists, fingernails digging into her palms. Tears trickled down her cheeks, falling into the soft grass. She sighed, closed her eyes, letting the bright sun dry her face. She was a killer. She was an assassin. She would do her job, even though every murder make her hate herself just a little more.
Night had fallen. Lianna hadn’t needed to pack up her bag; she’d sold everything. Not that she’d brought a lot—just enough to make a convincing merchant. She stashed the coins she made in an alley; she would fetch it on her way out of the city. It was time to make her way to Zane Lozen’s house.
She had hidden herself as dusk began to fall, making sure she appeared to have left. The merchant in the park was gone, people would notice. Nobody would think to question if she’d actually gone back to the other side of the gate.
Aside from the goods she had been selling, the bag she had been carrying contained a change of clothes. Robes and a cloak were not the ideal clothing for an assassin who would need to move quickly with little effort. Robes impeded movement. Cloaks impeded combat. Good for blending in with a crowd yes, but bad for combat. So, she had changed into a pair of dark nearly skin-tight pants and a dark blouse. They were custom-fit to follow every curve of her body, and colored to match the night.
Assassin’s wore clothes for a variety of reasons. Stealth, to blend into the environment, or to blend into the crowd. They even wore light armor, of stealth wasn’t an option. Her own ensemble was meant for stealth at night. Colored black to help her become one with the shadows. Skin-tight, so that the fabric didn’t rub against itself, making noise. Her shoes were also fabric, rather than leather, so as to disguise her footsteps. She wore gloves that covered her thumb and first two fingers, leaving the others exposed; perfect for gripping her Shuriken without having to worry about slicing herself open. In short, Lianna was dressed for death.
She crept along in the dark, clouds overhead casting the word below into shadow. The moon, thinly veiled, cast just enough light for her to make out the dark shapes of the mansions and houses ahead. Most of the stars were hidden by clouds; it was perfect for her. Little light meant she could move unseen if she was careful. And Lianna was the epitome of careful.
Keeping to shadows, moving past mansion after mansion, tower after tower, and house after house, she found herself standing in front of Zane Lozen’s home. She could see the flicker of candle-light through the windows. She gazed at the stone structure, considering her options. There was a small tree next to the home. She could climb it, maybe reach a second-floor window. Maybe. Then again, he was captain of the City Watch. Would he have a second floor window on that side of the house? She circled around the small oak fence; it was decorative rather than protective. She could step right over it, if she wanted to. Right now she didn’t. She moved to the tree, staring up at the second floor. Actually, there was a window, and the flicker of torchlight. His private room? Or maybe a guest room? A servant’s room?
Not one to make a move without careful consideration, Lianna continued to circle Zane’s home. There were no windows behind the house, one window on the other side, and four in the front—two on the first floor, two on the second.
The front door would be easiest, but would it be locked? Again, he was City Guard. He was probably at least a bit concerned for his own safety. Telling herself she knew it was fruitless, Lianna moved to the front door, tried to push it open. It wouldn’t move. She tried pulling. No luck. As she suspected, latched from the inside.
Lianna felt a pang of disappointment. Still, she moved back to the tree, and began to climb.
Climbing trees could be dangerous. One false move, one misstep, and you could break a leg or ankle. Hell, if you landed wrong you could kill yourself. Even a tree that was relatively small like the one she was climbing now was not without some risk. But Lianna felt no apprehension. She wasn’t afraid of heights. She wasn’t afraid of failure, because she wouldn’t fail. She trusted her skill and training.
She could see inside the second floor window. Carved into the stone of the house, it was wide enough for a person to squeeze through with a little effort. The tree was close enough, that with a little luck, she could jump over to it, grab the edge, and pull herself inside. Taking a deep breath, she threw herself forward, reaching out as far as she could. She just managed to grasp the lower ridge of the window with the tips of her fingers. Adjusting her grip, she slowly eased herself upwards, pulling her entire body up to the window.
Lianna wasn’t stupid. She peered inside before jumping inside. She saw what looked to be a sitting room, lit by a torch on the far wall. There was a table with a floral center, 3 wooden chairs, and a few paintings adorned the walls. Nobody was in sight, so she let herself in.
The damned floor! As soon as she set foot inside, a loud creak echoed throughout the house. Damn wood! She hated multi-level buildings, because something always creaked, no matter how stealthy you were. She expected someone to come rushing in, and her right hand immediately went to the short sword now strapped to her back. Luckily, no one came. Relaxing, she continued to creep across the room, coming to a doorway that stood open, emptying into a hall.
Step by step; no more creaking. She was so silent she could’ve snuck up on a mouse. Into the hall, looking left, than right. She saw nothing. Frowning, she took the right path, which lead to another door at the end of the hall. It was shut. She pressed her ear to the wooden door, and heard soft, rhythmic breathing. Someone was asleep.
She pressed her hands to the door, turned the knob, gently eased it open every so slowly. She peered into the room. Soft candlelight lit the small space, illuminating a man lying on a medium sized bed, wool blankets pulled over his body. The long brown hair, the chiseled face…it was Zane.
Her heart was pounding in her chest. She felt the familiar pang of guilt just before completing a contract. She hated what she did; she loathed being forced to kill. But she continued to do it, time and time again. She could run, but was too afraid. Vincent would find her. And death…that was something she was not ready to face, nor the spirits of all those she’d already slain in her short time in this world.
She swallowed, small balls of sweat beading on her forehead. She closed the door behind her. She moved with such grace she appeared to glide across the floor, until she was leaning over Zane. Why was it that everyone looked so damn innocent when they were asleep?
She reached behind her, gripping the dagger strapped to her waist. The blade barely made a sound as it slid from the leather sheathe, the naked blade reflecting the light, casting wicked glows across the walls.
Her breath caught in her throat. Tears began to well in her eyes. She saw the man she killed when she was nine years old, the man telling her not to do it, begging her not to end his life. She saw the horrific look on his face, the realization in his bloodshot eyes that his life was about to be forever snuffed out.
Her hand trembled violently. She was shaking more than her heart was pounding, and that was saying a great deal. A single tear slid down her cheek, and a heaviness weighed upon her, as though all the sand in the world were pressing down upon her chest.
And then Zane’s eyes fluttered open. In the second it took for him to register Lianna’s presence in the room, she acted. It was quick, it was deadly, and he wouldn’t have felt a thing. At least, that’s what she told herself as the blade shot out, slicing his neck from ear to ear. Blood sprayed into the air, his eyes wide as he struggled in vain to catch his breath. And then he was dead; he never even had a chance to pull himself off of his cot.
Lianna stared into his lifeless eyes for a long time, blood still smearing her dagger. She took a deep breath, held it in, released it slowly. She wiped her dagger across his blanket, cleaning the blood from the blade before sheathing it. She gently stroked his cheek, her fingers gliding across his face as she pulled shut those blank eyes.
Then she dipped her fingers in the man’s arterial spray, and painted the insignia of Crimson Dragon across the wall over his head. It was over. Zane Lozen was slain, and she successfully completed her first solo contract. And she felt empty inside.
Lianna sat in the branches of the tree next to Zanes house. She wanted to vomit. She felt sick, not to her stomach, but in the soul. She could still see his eyes staring at her, accusatory and hateful. She would be seeing that face tonight, she knew, in her nightmares. He was yet another soul that would haunt her restless nights and taunt her in her dreams. She sobbed, shoulders heaving, as she took great deep breaths of the cool night air. She cried for Zane, for his future wife who would probably never know just how much he’d loved her. She cried for the countless lives already changed by her hand; those she killed, and the families of those she’d killed. She cried for her mother, how she died simply to give birth to a daughter.
Lianna would leave town tomorrow morning. His body would likely not be discovered until that afternoon. She would be long gone, returned to her cage, until Vincent was ready to once more unleash her. And when he did, when he forced her to kill yet another, she knew one more piece of her soul would die with the target. She would bear his life on her conscience, and another face would haunt her nightmares. This was her life, and there was nothing she could do to change it.