Assassin's Heart(6)

By: Sarah Ahiers



He groaned and faced me again.

I handed him a push dagger, a small knife that fit between the knuckles. “I think this is yours.”

He stared at the dagger, and then his eyes drifted up to mine. “When the hells did you lift that from me?”

I shrugged. “When you were helping me to the ground.”

“After you’d almost died from being poisoned?”

“Yes.”

He blinked a few more times, a sure sign he was organizing his thoughts. Val and I had an ongoing competition of lifting objects from each other, unnoticed. He was much better at it than me, so when opportunities came to catch him off guard, I took them, even if it was a little unfair using my poisoning to my advantage.

Val shook his head and laughed. “All right. You’re one up on me.”

I snatched his hand and pulled him against me, his body strong and solid. I tapped his mask where his lips would be. “Never underestimate me.”

He grabbed my shoulders and pulled me against him even tighter. We were so close I could almost feel his heart beating through his leathers as they creaked, could almost smell his skin. His warmth leaked into me, and I clutched his arms to remain steady.

“I never do.” He released me and sprinted away.

The race was on.

I climbed to the roof of the bordello. If Val beat me to Fabricio’s, he’d lord it over me the whole dinner.

I raced over the rooftops of the city of Ravenna, gaining speed, sliding across tiles. If anyone saw my movement, they would attribute it to their imagination, or perhaps the wine in their skins. Or, if they were smart, they would attribute it a member of the nine Families, and they would turn away. It was said that to lay eyes upon a clipper while they were about their bloody business invited death. We didn’t go out of our way to disprove the story. Fear made our jobs easier.

I reached a single-story building, dark behind its locked door. An art dealer, and the shop did indeed sell portraits, beautiful oil paintings with thin brushstrokes.

A hidden latch on the roof of the shop opened a secret door. I dropped inside.

There were many such shops within the Ravenna city limits, all hidden storage points for the Saldana Family. There were safe houses for the Da Vias too, though I’d never seen one.

They were a closely guarded secret.

Most were simple places where one could change from leathers into something more appropriate, say, for meeting one’s secret suitor for dinner. A few contained hidden entrances into a Family’s home, the place where we lived, where we dined together and slept and were tutored as children. Our literal home. If a Family found another’s Family home, there would be trouble.

Generations ago there had been twelve Families. Two of the three lost Families had been destroyed when another Family discovered their home. The current king, as a disciple of Safraella, had no authority over the Families and their relationships with one another. When he’d become king, he’d sworn an oath to remain unbiased in matters of the nine Families. If a Family wanted to war with another, the king could not intervene unless their feuding endangered people outside of the nine Families, the common.

All the Families were adversaries, of course, but some more than others. And sometimes it seemed the Da Vias and Saldanas were feuding the hardest, though maybe that was because we shared a territory.

I tossed my dirty leathers into a cupboard reserved for my things. My brothers Rafeo and Matteo also had cupboards in this shop, along with our cousin Jesep. We were the only active Saldana clippers, though my mother and father would take a job if needed.

Since the plague, Mother often reminded me of my duty as a Saldana woman, to swell our ranks with as many children as possible.

I slid into a red velvet gown with a low bodice fastened along the ribs instead of the back for the type of self-dressing I often had to accomplish. My dirty-blond hair fit snugly into a silk snood, netting it away from my face, and a pair of flat lambskin ankle boots finished my attire. Nothing too fancy, since it was only dinner with Val. And because the Saldanas couldn’t afford better at this time.

I slipped a dagger into my boot and secured a knife to my thigh. A clipper never went unarmed, even for dinner. I hung my mask and weapons carefully in my cupboard, then patted my chest, feeling the comforting weight of the key to enter our home around my neck. I never took it off.

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