Assassin's Heart(4)

By: Sarah Ahiers



“It’s fine.” I exhaled. “She knew I had the antidote.”

“She?” He stood. “Your mother did this?”

I waved a shaky hand at him. “She’s been testing me on poisons again. I should have expected this.”

When I was seven, I told my mother I hated poisons. Poisons meant distilling herbs in darkness, meant mixing things but not making a mess. Poisons meant death.

My oldest brother, Rafeo, said poisons were an important skill and that I should be proud I had such an affinity for them, because many did not.

He was only trying to make peace, but I didn’t feel pride over poisons. I was proud of the feathered mask I’d sewn for Susten Day and how I’d only pricked my finger on the needle once. And that the wooden horse I’d carved had a flowing mane.

Mother had not been happy. My attitude was more proof I wasn’t the daughter she wanted, that I wasn’t the proud Saldana girl-child she felt she deserved.

Mother took the mask away.

After that, I stopped playing with embroidery needles, costumes, and childish toys, and instead focused on things that made her proud: knives and poisons and masks crafted from bone.

I unhooked my water skin and poured the tainted liquid onto the street. I’d be filling my own water from here on. Lesson learned, Mother. Again.

My hands wobbled as I restrung my water skin. Maybe next time she’d pick something less violent. Or maybe I could convince her now that I didn’t need a next time. I could find an antidote under pressure. Even if I’d almost died this time, and would have without Val.

“That’s crazy,” Val said. “Your Family is crazy.”

“It’s not any crazier than yours. It’s her way of making me a better clipper. Also, in the future, you shouldn’t open vials with your teeth. You could accidentally poison yourself.”

He stared at me, expression unreadable behind his mask. “That’s what you got out of this? That I could have poisoned myself while saving your life?”

His bravado would’ve been worthless if he’d died. “I’m just looking out for you.”

He exhaled, the air hissing against his mask. “Fine. Is there anything else I can do for you?”

His anger rolled off him like steam, but I’d learned long ago the best way to disarm Val’s anger was to ignore it.

“Yes, actually.” I slowly shifted my seat and pulled a gold coin from another pocket. I handed it to him, my entire arm still shaking from the remnants of the poison. “Mark my kill for me, please.”

The coin had been stamped with the crest of the Saldana Family. Murder was illegal in Lovero, unless one was a member of a Family. As disciples of Safraella, pledged to Her dark work, all clippers were exempt and could accept assassination contracts.

“You know Estella doesn’t want us marking kills,” Val said.

It had always been a tradition for the Families to mark their kills. But two years ago my aunt and uncle, our Family priest, and Rafeo’s wife had died in a plague outbreak. Only by Safraella’s grace had we all not caught the contagion.

The head of Val’s Family died in the plague, too, along with other Da Vias, and afterward Estella Da Via had taken over and told the Da Vias to stop marking kills. She thought it was an antiquated way of worship and that the murder was enough.

My mother thought Estella was just a miser and wanted to keep the gold in their Family. Luckily, even though the Da Vias had the most money and members, no one wanted to see them as the first Family. The Saldanas tried to keep the entirety of the nine Families in mind when making decisions. The Da Vias cared only about themselves.

“I’m not asking you to mark your kill. I’m asking you to mark mine.” I paused to catch my breath. “For me. Surely your Family head won’t begrudge you that.”

“My aunt makes her own rules for the Family.”

“You asked if you could help. Never mind. I’ll do it.” I pushed against the wall, trying to get to my feet. My legs wobbled, and only my grip on the stonework kept me upright.

“Lea, don’t.” Val gripped my arm. I clutched his shoulders and slid my fingers down his biceps as he lowered me back to the ground. “I’ll do it. Just don’t hurt yourself.”

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