by Isabella Norse
eBook ISBN: 978-0-9912371-0-4
Lillie, a young assassin, defies her Guild Master when she refuses to kill an innocent man. With her life now forfeit, she must find a way to save herself, the man she loves, and two thrones from destruction at the hands of an evil overlord.
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My breath caught in my throat as I fled down the servant’s staircase, pursued by bloody corpses. Well, not actual bloody corpses, but the memories of them. I would have almost preferred the real thing – I couldn’t outrun memories.
My bare feet slapped against the cold stone of the stairs and I careened off of the walls in my haste, bruising my arms. I was numb, as if the nightmare had drained all vestiges of warmth from my body.
The massive kitchens were lit only by the glowing embers of the fires that had been banked for the night. Their flickering light drew me closer with promises of warmth and safety. I stood on the hearth, as close to the coals as I dared, letting their heat soak into my body.
I rested my head against the mantel and closed my eyes. A big mistake – Lord Landry’s blood-soaked form once again appeared. I jerked my eyes open, bile rising in my throat. Even after all these years, the memory of the feel – and sound – as I slipped my dagger into his body made me ill. To make it even worse, I had to stab him three times before inflicting a fatal wound. Oh, I knew the mechanics well enough – I was thoroughly trained in human anatomy and well versed in the use of a blade. However, when the time came to use my years of training to actually take a life, my hand shook so badly that it impaired my aim.
I was an assassin. For years, I had specialized in the murder of pedophiles. At eighteen, I could no longer pass myself off as a child as easily as I once could. Vido, my guild master, felt that the time had come for me to prove myself with my first non-pedophile hit, which was how I now found myself serving as a maid at the royal palace, waiting to kill the heir to the throne.
In truth, I felt no remorse for the deaths of Lord Landry and his ilk; they were monsters in human form and deserved far worse for the crimes that they had committed. The only regrets that I felt were for me and the life that I was forced to live – a life not of my choosing. Although I had killed many times, it never got easier – each death took a piece of my soul. I was afraid that this death – the death of an innocent man – would destroy me completely, turning me into the soulless killer that Vido wanted me to become.
“You look like you could use a drink. Would you like some tea?” an unfamiliar voice asked close to my ear.
Startled, I whirled to face the speaker and looked into the bluest eyes that I had ever seen. Time stopped, my breathing stopped, and even my heart skipped a beat. Once I could tear my gaze away from those captivating eyes, I examined the rest of his face – fair skin, black hair pulled back in a queue, a roguish grin and, heaven help me, dimples. He was dressed in the drab grey garments that identified him as a servant, like me.
Time and somewhat ragged breathing resumed. I hoped that he had not noticed the lengthy pause as I studied him.
“You scared me!” I finally managed to say. “I didn’t realize that anyone else was here.” My hand flew to my chest as if to keep my heart from pounding its way out.
His eyes widened at my reaction. Placing his hands on my shoulders, he guided me to a nearby bench. Once I was seated, he pressed a cup of tea into my hand then rushed to the pantry. The muffled clinking sounds emanating from behind the door indicated that he was searching the shelves. Moments later he emerged with a triumphant grin on his face and a bottle in his hand. He uncorked the bottle with strong, even, white teeth and poured a healthy splash of something into my cup. Before I could ask what it was, I was overcome by fumes strong enough to make my eyes water – Southron whiskey.
“Are you crazy? Cook will have your hide if she finds out that you have raided her stores.”
“Not a chance. I have Cook wrapped around my finger.” He extended his pinky in demonstration as he slid onto the bench next to me. “Now, drink up. You need some color in those cheeks.” He reached out as if to press the cup to my lips.
He was right. I did need the drink. Yet, I balked at being told what to do by someone not much older than me. I tended to be somewhat contrary by nature. Apparently he saw the dangerous glint in my eyes and raised his hands in surrender.
“Sorry! I’m just trying to help. You got so pale I was afraid that you were going to faint.” He stared at me curiously. “Lillie, isn’t it? I’ve seen you around.”
I flashed him an apologetic look, took a big swallow of my tea, and choked as the harsh whiskey hit my throat. I waved away his attempts to assist me. I finally managed to croak “Yes, I’m Lillie.” As I wiped away the tears streaming down my cheeks, I cocked my head and surveyed him openly. “You’ve seen me? I’m afraid that I don’t recall seeing you.”
He grinned widely, dimples deepening. “You don’t? I’m crushed.” He bowed with a flourish, no mean feat considering that he was seated. “My name is Nef. I’m a stable hand – I’ve seen you when you come to visit the animals.”
Now it was my turn to grin. “How did you know my name? The animals didn’t tell you, I’m sure.”
He shrugged. “Simple. I asked. I am intrigued by the striking young woman who spends so much of her time with the strays.”
Intrigued? By me? “I’m pleased to meet you, Nef.” I extended my hand. Instead of shaking it as I expected, he grasped it firmly and raised it to his lips, pressing a warm kiss onto its back. The heat from his lips seemed to radiate throughout my entire body. Or, maybe it was just the whiskey.
Blushing, I struggled for something to say as I attempted to extricate my hand from his. “Um, what brings you to the kitchens at this hour?” My traitorous voice quavered wildly, revealing the impact that his touch had on me.
His eyes twinkled as he released my hand, then he yawned and stretched, the fabric of his shirt pulling taut and treating me to a tantalizing glimpse of the muscles lurking beneath its surface. “One of the horses wasn’t feeling well, and I have been taking care of her.”
I jumped to my feet. “Which one? What’s wrong? Can I see her?”
“Easy there.” He motioned for me to calm down. “It was Elah. She’s better now – which is the only reason that I was willing to leave her for a few minutes. What about you?” He pulled me into the dim light from the embers and stared far too intimately at the area of my groin. “Are you all right? Did you get burned?”
Only then did I realize that my sudden movement had caused the last of my tea to slosh into my lap. I shook my head and grabbed at his hand, urging him to his feet. “No, I’m fine. Please, let’s go to the stables.”
He sighed, gulped down the last of his tea and led me through the darkened room and into the courtyard.
Although the harsh Ramaldan winter was slowly loosening its grasp on the country, the nights were still cold and our breath made puffs of fog. The palace was silent, the only sounds the whistling of the guard as he made his rounds and the clinking of a chain as the watch dog scratched at an errant flea. A full moon peeked around a solitary cloud to light our path, causing the frost on the stones of the yard to glitter like gemstones.
I had thrown on my robe when I bolted from my room, but had failed to grab my slippers. The warmth from my feet melted the frost, leaving a trail of footprints behind me. We were about halfway to the stables when I stubbed my toe on a loose stone. Stubbing a toe at any time hurt – the fact that my foot was cold made it even worse. I swore in pain.
“What’s wrong?” Nef looked at me in consternation; glancing down, he noticed my bare feet for the first time. “Are you nuts? You’re going to catch your death of cold walking around out here with no shoes on!” Before I realized what he intended, he swept me off of my feet and into his arms, giving a startled whuff as my weight settled against him.
I felt it too. Heat bloomed from my shoulders to my thighs where they pressed against Nef’s broad chest. I glanced down, half expecting to see a glow like the one from the fires that we had left behind. Nope, no sparks – well, no visible ones, at least. And now I knew for sure. It definitely wasn’t the whiskey.
Nef grunted, shifting me slightly.
“Surely I’m not that heavy!” I grumbled.
“You, heavy?” He laughed, his teeth flashing white in the moonlight. “Not at all.” He dropped his head briefly to look at me, his expression hidden in shadow. “You are, however, very… unexpected.”
I fell quiet as I pondered that statement.
When we entered the stables, he sat me on the nearest flat surface, grabbed a rag from the stack reserved for cleaning tack and began chafing my feet to warm them up. Some people find having their feet rubbed soothing; being unbearably ticklish, I found it to be just shy of torture. Finally satisfied that I had suffered nothing worse than a bruise, he led me to the stall of the ailing horse.
Elah, an aging grey mare – and one of my special favorites – stood in the stall, her head hanging in exhaustion, sweat shining on her flanks.
“Poor baby! Are you feeling better now?”
At the sound of my voice, she looked up, stepped to the stall door and lowered her head for me to pet her.
Nef entered her stall and began to wipe her down. “The worst is past.” He swatted her affectionately on the rear. “Just a touch of indigestion. Someone left the feed bucket in her stall after filling her trough and she decided to help herself.”
“You silly girl! Haven’t I warned you about that appetite of yours?”
She rested her head against mine as I rubbed her muzzle and spoke soothingly to her. The last dregs of tension flowed out of her and she sighed, her breath warm in my ear.
Nef lay back on the pile of clean hay in the corner of the stall and watched with a smile as we girls visited. The next time I glanced over at him, he was asleep.
So handsome. Why had I never noticed him? I gave myself a mental shake. I couldn’t allow myself to become complacent.
I stayed with Elah until she too began to nod off. Now that I knew she was truly all right, I entered the stall quietly, covered Nef with the blanket that was lying on the hay near him, picked up the lantern and made my way back to the main building. In spite of his concerns and my lack of shoes, I was fine – I wasn’t nearly as delicate as my looks would have people believe. Although, I must admit it was nice to have someone seemingly so concerned about my well-being.
The least I could do in return was clean up the signs of our middle-of-the-night visit to the kitchens – just in case Nef wasn’t in as good with Cook as he thought. My efforts weren’t completely altruistic however; I was also postponing my return to my bed and the ghosts that awaited me there.
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