Assassin's Heart

By: Sarah Ahiers

one


I SQUATTED QUIETLY ON THE SLOPED, TILE ROOF OF A bordello, cloak pulled around my body for warmth, bone mask secured against my face. Below me, a man stumbled across the flagstone street like a drunkard. It had taken him long enough to finish his overpriced dinner.

The man bumped into a water barrel. He removed his expensive leather hat with its elegant stitches and dunked his head into the barrel. The rainwater darkened his silk collar. I scowled beneath my mask. He shouldn’t treat his silk so poorly. The man shook his hair like a shaggy dog, the water flashing in the light of the sweet-smelling oil lanterns outside the bordello.

Below, passersby took a single look at the man and veered away, pretending not to see him or his altered state. Good. My job was always easier when everyone followed the unspoken rules of the night.

Behind me, the light from the full moon dimmed. Even though it lasted less than a second, hardly noticeable to most people, my life could depend on noticing the details of my surroundings.

Someone was trying to get close to me. It was all the warning I needed.

Beneath my cloak, I freed a dagger small enough to be concealed in my palm and sleeve. I needed to be steady and calm. Panic was for amateurs and led to injury or death.

I inhaled deeply, shifting my weight from heels to toes. My fingers tightened around my knife.

A single second could be the difference between life and death. I knew better than to hesitate. I sprang backward and twisted toward the creeping figure.

I took in everything I could with my first glimpse of the attacker: a man, tall, dark cloak, dark leathers, bone mask blank of features except for eyeholes.

He dodged left, his cloak flaring wide with his movement, defensively camouflaging his shape. A trick that would work better if he’d been faster. I’d already seen his torso, his limbs, his head. The cloak wouldn’t distract me.

I slid a foot behind his ankle, hooking his leg. My fists met his chest and I shoved.

He fell to the roof. Only my quick grasp of his cloak prevented him from thumping against the tiles. A fight it may’ve been, but neither of us wanted to draw attention. That would’ve been unprofessional.

His hazel eyes watched me, expression unreadable beneath his mask. The right half was the white ivory of the bone, the left decorated with dyed red squares in a checkered pattern.

I held the knife to his throat, the sharp edge pressed against the rough hairs on his skin. Someone needed to shave.

There was a moment of quiet stillness as he thought over his next move. The excitement of the fight coursed through my veins. I smiled beneath my mask. I’d already won.

“I yield, Lea.” He held up his hands in defeat, his voice muffled behind the mask.

I slipped my knife into a pocket on my sleeve and offered Val my hand. It took all my weight to pull him to his feet.

“How do you always know?” He brushed dust off his legs and flicked a leaf from his cloak.

“You blocked out the moon again.”

He pushed his hood off his head and the moonlight turned his short blond hair silver. I tried not to stare, even though his leathers wrapped tightly around him, straps clinging to his arms, buckles firmly gripping his chest and body, highlighting his muscles, which I knew, like mine, came from working hard almost every night.

Of course, it wasn’t just the leathers that made him look good. No one could say Valentino Da Via was not attractive as hells.

“You should know better than to try to sneak up on me,” I said.

“One of these days I’ll surprise you.”

His face was covered by his mask, but I could picture the smirk on his lips, the playful challenge in his raised brow.

I laughed. “One of these days I may let you.”

I returned to my surveillance of my mark. The man had moved only a few steps from the barrel, arm against a wall as he caught his breath.

Val took a casual seat beside me, left leg tucked beneath him, the other bent at the knee against his chest. Unprepared and lazy.

I nudged him with my shoulder but said nothing. He hated it when I corrected him.

I could smell the oil he’d used to clean his leathers. His body heat pressed against mine, and warmth, with a thrill of something like lightning, spread through my chest.

“Have an early night?” I asked. A robed woman emerged from the door beneath us and shouted at the man before she returned inside. He had to know he was a spectacle if a prostitute took time to scold him.

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