Drakon heaved himself through the open third-story
window. His black cloak flowed about him, concealing him in shadow. His muscles
quivered from the rapid ascent. Below, the clamp of boots and a muttered
conversation passed beneath the window and then receded.
Another close call.
This made the fourth such encounter of the night. He
lived by a rule: two close calls and he would abort a mission. Each time he
ignored this simple rule, something untoward happened. His survival instincts
screamed for him to turn back and return another night but time was short, and
he was dangerously close to missing his deadline. The manor grounds were an ant
colony of activity, and it took him longer than expected to make it this far.
Seconds dripped by, increasing his chances of being discovered.
Discovery meant death.
Silently, he settled into the wooden floorboards. No
groan of protest announced his entry. Crouching, Drakon pulled the cowl of his
cloak lower and drifted wraith-like into the chamber. A breeze swept inward. The
cool, crisp air did nothing to purify the overwhelming stench of incense
hanging in the bedchamber.
A light orb floated overhead, casting the chamber in a
warm yellow glow, elongating the shadows in which Drakon hid. Art canvases of
all sizes hung on the stone walls, ornate furniture adorned every square inch,
and a massive four-poster bed overflowing with furs stood at the chamber’s
Drakon curled his lip in disdain. The warden’s blatant
show of wealth was in contrast to the poverty of the people he lorded over.
Another warden charged with the well-being of commoners lining his pockets from
the people’s labor. He hadn’t expected much humility from a noble, and even
less from a mage such as the Jenna City Warden.
Drakon’s orders from the king were clear. The warden
was to appear to have died of natural causes. Drakon wasn’t privy to the
transgression the man committed to garner himself a spot on the king’s kill
list. The reason was inconsequential. He didn’t care, nor did he mete out
judgments. The Royal Council dealt with such things. He was but the gnarled
hand of death employed to dole out the punishment. Drakon recalled the death
and poverty he witnessed while traversing the Commoner District of the city and
grimaced. He would enjoy killing this warden.
The bedchamber was empty, as Drakon knew it would be. He committed his mark’s
routine to memory. The warden was middle-aged, but his habit of nightly
drinking and debauchery was legendary throughout the Kingdom of Somorrah.
Drakon’s gaze searched the chamber for the warden’s
favorite vice. There. A pitcher and glass sat on a table next to the bed;
remnants of red wine stained the bottom of the glass. Drakon removed a vial
from his cloak. A colorless, odorless liquid sloshed within its clear container.
He would add one drop into the glass, and the deed would be done. He would send
word of the mission’s completion to the king. Afterward, he might take an
overdue leave of absence.
He moved toward the table. Laughter and shuffling
footsteps from outside the closed door froze him halfway across the chamber.
The doorknob turned, and the door banged open. Drakon threw himself into the
shadows of a wardrobe. Sounds of merriment drifted into the room and then were
muted as the door snicked shut.
The warden was early. Drakon hadn’t expected him until
nearer to dawn. He cursed inwardly. He couldn’t wait in the shadows until the
man passed out. The king made his instructions all too clear. The warden was to
die before sunrise. Drakon gritted his teeth. He would have to improvise. He
hated improvising. It reduced his chances of an undetected escape, but what
other choice was there?
He pocketed the vial and pressed against the wardrobe.
The warden, red-faced and inebriated, stumbled on unsteady legs toward the bed,
hauling a struggling woman behind him. He was small and slender, manual labor
having never sculpted the muscles of his body. Like all wardens, he was also a
magical mage. The man’s diminutive physique was no indication of his power.
Alabaster skin inked with tattoos peeked from the
warden’s robes, testaments of his magical aptitude. Only his face was unmarred.
Each tattoo was a rune etched to guard the warden against the harmful effects
of drawing the goddess’s power. Such power came with a price, and the wardens
protected themselves with the tattoos.
The warden’s hair was a dirty blond, and his skin was
pale but not an unearthly translucent. A mage’s hair, eyes, and skin lightened
with their growth in magic. This mage wasn’t as strong as the others Drakon killed.
His tongue prodded a void a molar once occupied as a reminder of past battles
against magical enemies. Thank the goddess for small mercies.
A sob drew his attention to the woman the warden
dragged in tow. She was waif-like. Oily black hair concealed her face, and her
chestnut skin identified her as a commoner. Her threadbare dress was torn at
the neck and thin enough to see through. She was probably a slave. He resigned
himself to the possibility of collateral. From the look of her, death would be preferable
to her current lot in life. He could give her that escape, at least.
The warden yanked the woman forward. She struggled all
the more, whimpering and pleading for release. The warden cursed and slapped
her hard enough to snap her head back. The blow whipped her face toward Drakon
and freed it from its curtain of dirty hair.
Drakon’s eyes flared. A face smooth with youth was
decorated with black and blue bruises and a split lip. Terror-filled eyes
glistened with tears and, more disturbing, resignation. This was no woman as he
initially believed. It was a young girl.
The warden slapped the girl again. The crack
ricocheted off the walls, and she slumped dazed into the warden’s arms. Having
subdued her struggles, the man dragged her to the bed and flung her across it.
She curled into a tight ball and whimpered. The warden grabbed her thin ankle
and yanked her toward the edge of the bed.
“Quit your yammering!” He climbed atop her, clasping
her wrists in one hand. “You should be honored that I would bring a smut like
you to my bed!”
Blood pounded in Drakon’s ears. Unbidden, dark
memories rushed to the surface of his mind.
A slave child. Powerless. Drakon blinked and shook his
head, trying to dislodge the memory.
Nausea rolled through him. His blood heated in his
Hay scratching tender skin.
With effort, he forced the memories back, slamming the
door on their mental prison. Yet, the rage left in their wake had Drakon
darting silently from the shadows and toward the warden, who tore at the girl’s
clothing, before he realized he was moving.
The warden stiffened with awareness, some part of his
inebriated psyche realizing they were not alone.
Too late. Drakon’s blade slipped in the hollow at the
base of the man’s skull. The body jerked. Drakon twisted, severing the spine,
and yanked the dagger free. The body slumped forward.
Blood gushed from the wound, coating the bed and the
startled girl beneath. He pushed the body aside and freed her.
Wide, oddly ancient eyes––much too knowing for a
child—peered back at him from a tear-streaked face mottled with bruises. She
sucked in a deep breath, a preamble to a scream. His hand clamped over her
“Do. Not. Scream. I won’t harm you, but you will
remain silent.” He stared into her shining, unblinking eyes.
“Nod if you understand.”
She nodded slowly, and he peeled his hand away, ready
to place it back. She didn’t scream but sat up and eyed him with caution. He
grabbed an unsoiled coverlet from the bed and tossed it at her.
“Cover yourself and get out of here. Tell no one of
what you’ve seen.”
Even as he uttered the command, he knew he was being a
fool. The only way to ensure her silence was to kill her, but he couldn’t bring
himself to kill an innocent. No doubt, her short life was filled with
atrocities for which this night was but a culmination. Her petite frame
trembled beneath the coverlet.
No. Drakon was not so far gone that he would kill a
slave girl. His soul was black and withered, but he had not delivered it to the
pits of Targarius. Not yet.
The girl’s throat worked. “Th–thank you.” Her voice
was an unsteady whisper in the quiet chamber.
He cleared his throat. Her thanks unsettled him for
reasons he didn’t want to acknowledge. He turned, focusing on the warden, and
grimaced at the mess he had made. Blood soaked the bed beneath the corpse and
pooled on the floor. A frozen mask of surprise rested on the man’s face. His
pale-blue eyes locked on the nothingness of death. Already pale skin drained of
its color as blood leaked from the body.
Drakon took in the tattooed runes on the warden’s
skin. All that power and useless against a simple dagger. In the mage’s
assurance in his magical superiority, he never suspected or spelled against
nonmagical attacks. It was the way of nobles—arrogance above intellect.
Drakon sighed. The man’s death would never pass for
natural causes. His moment of untethered emotion destroyed weeks of planning.
The outburst he exhibited was out of character. His lapse of control annoyed
him, but he couldn’t dwell on it. He had to plan his next steps, or they would
be his last.
There was only one recourse left to him. He would
remove himself from the city before the warden’s body was discovered. But
before he fled, he would retrieve the other reason he was eager for this
mission. He bent over the body, rummaging through the folds of the robes.
“Where is it?”
He rolled the corpse on its stomach and patted it
down. He cursed. Nothing.
The warden always carried an object of power when he
visited Sura City. Indeed, this mission excited Drakon for this reason. Desire
to own such an object clouded his logic. In hindsight, it went to reason the
warden would travel to court with additional protection. Nobles and commoners
alike distrusted the king and the royal mage. The Jenna Warden would’ve been a
fool not to travel with safeguards. However, the man wouldn’t carry such items
in his dwelling.
He should have understood this sooner.
Drakon stood with a grunt of frustration, wiped his
blade on his leathers, and returned it to its sheath. If the mission went
according to plan, he would’ve had time to search the chamber. As it were, he
would be leaving without his prize.
He spared a glance at the girl. Shock had yet to
release her from its grasp. If the warden’s guards found her, they would
sacrifice her in Drakon’s stead. He hoped she didn’t waste his gift of mercy.
She would live or die by her action or inaction alone.
He sprinted to the window and glanced out. No sentries
stood guard or moved across the grounds. That was good, and no one would enter
the warden’s chamber until the maid arrived for the morning cleaning. Drakon
would be long gone by then. As if summoned by the thought, a creak sounded from
“Rainore? What the devil is taking so long? Finish
A slender man, clad in nothing more than skin and his
mage tattoos, stopped mid-stride into the room. His pale-blue eyes locked on
Drakon’s cloaked figure, widened, and then flicked to the body cradled in a
crimson stain on the bed.