Assassin's Heart(8)

By: Sarah Ahiers



“Does Estella truly believe not offering the coin will not offend Safraella?” Yes, Family came before family for clippers, but allegiance shouldn’t ever come blindly.

“I don’t know what Estella thinks. And I’m not going to ask her.”

A waiter appeared and served the duck. The greasy skin of the bird crackled, still hot from the fire. The scent of fresh rosemary and olive oil floated past me, and my stomach rumbled.

I was tired, and not just from the poison. “Why are we even talking about this? I don’t have any sway over my father. And we both know your aunt is crazy.”

He reached across the table and squeezed my hand. Heat trailed down my body, and I squeezed back.

“That she is,” he said. “A man-hating old bat. But I suppose we have your uncle to thank for that.”

I pulled my hand away and drank my wine. “We don’t talk about Marcello Saldana.”

“Which is funny, because my aunt rarely shuts up about her hated ex-husband. But don’t let anyone else hear you speak against Estella so. She’s the head of our Family for a reason, and the others would not stand the insult, even from a Saldana.”

“You mean especially from a Saldana.”

He grinned.

We attacked the bird, talk subsiding. When full, I set my napkin on the table and watched Val as he finished off the wine in his glass. He smiled. I used to think Val was vain and spoiled and self-indulgent. Now . . . now I felt the same way, but there was something to be said for capturing a vain man’s gaze. And once I’d gotten close, it became apparent that much of that vanity was a shield he used to keep people away. The Da Vias were cutthroat, even in their own Family, and he had few people he could fully trust.

From outside our room a waiter’s voice crept past our curtain as he spoke to another server. “Mistress Da Via would like her duck more rare.”

We glanced at each other, and Val rubbed his eyes. “Damn it.”

I peeked past the curtain to the main room. Off to the right, at a table by herself, sat a woman heavy with child. I closed the curtain. “It’s your sister.”

Val groaned and got to his feet. He glanced out the curtain. “What is she even doing here? She’s going to have that baby any day.”

“Well, pregnant women do have to eat,” I suggested. Not that I had any love for Claudia Da Via. From everything Val had told me, she could be humorless and cruel. Which made it even more shocking, he’d said, when she’d wound up pregnant while unmarried. The pregnancy was fine, any Family would welcome an addition to the fold. But she’d refused to tell anyone who the father was, even when Estella had commanded her, except to say he was another clipper. It had become a bit of a scandal, everyone wondering who the father could be. Val thought it was probably someone from one of the lower families, a Gallo maybe, and that she was too ashamed to admit it.

“Do we wait her out, or sneak away?” I asked.

“If we wait, we’ll be here forever.” Val straightened his vest. “No, I’ll distract her while you leave quietly.”

I slipped back to my original room. Once there I watched through a gap in the curtain for the best time to leave unnoticed.

Val strode over to his sister and stood at her table. She looked up and scowled.

Claudia couldn’t find out I had come here with Val.

Families could never work together, because it would give the allied Families too much power over the others. But clippers almost always married other clippers. The marriage usually bought a generation or two of peace between their Families, a temporary halt to any feuding.

Val leaned closer to Claudia, both hands flat against the table. They spoke, but were too far away for me to hear what was said.

Clipper marriages were always carefully arranged. It would take months to decide which clipper would join which Family and who would pay a dowry. Sometimes a Family would lose money and a member, but these were usually the lower-ranked Families, and giving up so much often meant they gained status, and maybe an increase in rank. Everything was decided between the Family heads.

Of course, sometimes clippers married non-clippers. Rafeo’s wife hadn’t been a clipper, but she had been a cleaner, so she’d known what she was getting into. Cleaners were their own guild. They dealt with the aftermath of our duties, removing and cleaning bodies and notifying families of their loved ones’ demise.

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