|Product dimensions:||5.50(w) x 8.50(h) x 0.49(d)|
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The Cities Below
By Jen Colly
KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.Copyright © 2016 Jen Colly
All rights reserved.
Morley twisted the hilt of the dagger into his fist as he scanned the wide hall behind him. Still empty. The eerie quiet should have helped, made him more comfortable with his stealthy approach. It didn't. The plush red carpet, dim lights, and massive framed paintings made him feel like he traipsed through a tomb. He shouldn't be here.
Inset beneath a deep arch trimmed in gold, he found the door, framed with pillars and a mock roof overhang. He approached the door, stood close enough for his nose to touch the white wood. Bolts and locks no doubt secured the door from the inside. He didn't need a key.
Drawing in several long, deep breaths, he struggled to transform, to shift into his Spirit. When the change finally washed over him, he disappeared, completely invisible. A ghost. In this form, he took a single step and easily passed through the door.
He could only manage that single small feat. On the other side of the door, he couldn't hold his Spirit, and he appeared, reaching out to the door to steady his wobbling muscles. Exhausted, Morley panted for breath. His body had never tolerated the change well.
At least he didn't have to worry about disturbing his target. She lived alone, and at this time of day, should be sound asleep. Creeping past her expensive furniture and fancy knickknacks displayed on random, useless little tables, he ventured farther into her home. The glass double doors to her bedroom were closed, and as he eased one open, he caught a glimpse of the sleeping woman. Arianne. The lady of Galbraith.
He'd never killed anyone before, didn't know exactly how he'd do it, only that it must be done. Personally, he didn't care one way or another. The last royal left in the city, her death would end the bloodline. When gone, another stuffy aristocrat would take her place. Nothing would ever truly change for those of his lower class, but he wasn't here for a change. He was here to do a job.
Morley edged toward her bed. Fluffy pillows, more than he'd seen in his lifetime, lay piled near the top of her bed. Several smaller, purely decorative lacy pillows surrounded her. Yep, he was jealous. He'd gone without luxuries most of his life, often counting himself darn lucky to have a door to temporarily shut out the rest of the world. Soon, using the money he'd get from this job, he could finally purchase his freedom. No longer a servant, he'd walk away from this city with the shirt on his back and enough money in his pocket to buy a decent life somewhere else.
The lady lay curled on her side facing him, a downy white comforter tucked under her satin-clad arm. Vampires didn't die easily, a gift to his species from whatever god had created them, but if he drove the blade directly into her heart, she'd be dead in a few minutes. Unless, of course, she'd just fed.
Roll her onto her back. Stab her. It would be that easy. Again he twisted the dagger in his fist, readying himself to finish the deed swiftly. His knees touched the edge of the mattress. Weapon raised in the air, he reached out to move her.
A heavy body crashed into him, tackled him solidly from shoulder to hip. He landed on the floor hard, his breath momentarily squeezed from his lungs. What the hell?
Face smashed into the carpet, he couldn't see a thing. The sharp jab of a knee ground into the center of his back. Morley tried to lift his head, to take a look at the man he hadn't realized was in the room, but the man planted his forearm across the back of his neck, reunited him with the thick carpet.
Covers rustled, followed by a soft gasp; then a sleepy feminine voice called out into the darkness. "Are you all right?" Lady Arianne was awake.
The man kept him pinned to the floor and didn't answer her, and all Morley could see was the carpet, his fallen dagger, and chair legs. The soft snick of a bedside lamp switch flooded the room with a mellow light, and a pair of bare feminine feet padded into sight.
"My lady," Morley said, the words a labor with the weight of the man on his back. "I meant you no harm. Please, have mercy on me."
"Mercy?" The lady reached down to retrieve his dagger from the floor. "You Spirit into my bedroom at midday with a knife in your hand, and you dare to beg me for mercy?"
He tried again, not above begging. "Please. The knife was just ... I would never —"
"Enough," she snapped, and the harshness of her tone stunned him into silence. The man above him shifted, and Morley suddenly realized that the single word, sharp and final, had been meant for the brute on top of him.
Morley cried out as the burning pain of a knife sliced deep into his side, and then the blade twisted cruelly as it left his body. The gaping hole was draining a good amount of his blood, and with it, any remaining strength.
"No need to kill him," she said to the other man. "The captain is on his way."
Within seconds his body had lost the ability to fight, his muscles weak, unresponsive. His wound throbbed, and he longed to curl up where he lay. The man shoved him as he stood and backed away, leaving Morley sprawled on the floor, his blood seeping into the lady's carpet.
Morley wouldn't die from the wound, and that was the point of a bleeding. Drained and weak, his body would put every ounce of strength into repairing itself from the inside out, and unless he fed, he would remain in a debilitated state. But this man had twisted the knife as it left his body, and the act felt personal. Whoever this man was, Guardian or servant, he was vicious.
"Give me the knife," the lady commanded his attacker in a hushed voice. "Now go."
The door burst open, and the rush of multiple footsteps shook the floor beneath him. Guardians surrounded him, hauled him to his feet, secured and stabilized him.
"Excellent timing, Captain," she said.
The captain, a beastly sized man, surged toward her only to stop short when he saw the lady held a bloody knife in her hand.
"Are you hurt?" the captain asked as he took the knife from her hand. Lady Arianne faced him, her mauve satin nightdress sweeping the floor, black hair curling around her arms in loose waves.
She shook her head, proud and seemingly unaffected. "No. I am unharmed."
"My lady," Morley begged again. "Please let me speak."
Chin tipped, shoulders squared, she might as well be wearing her crown with an army at her back. The woman was fearless. "Is there anything you have to say that could make me believe you had no intention of murdering me?"
"I didn't follow through."
"The end result matters little when the intention is clear. Guardians, take him away," she ordered. "Captain, a word."
The Guardians dragged him away, across the plush carpet and out the door. It was late, and as they passed through the larger well-traveled corridors, no vampires roamed about. All was quiet.
The two men hauled him down the old stone stairway to the jail beneath the arena. He wanted to struggle, to fight. No use. His strength depleted, he could barely pull his feet beneath him for the next step. Even if he'd had the ability, one man would never triumph over two Guardians. Decades of training had made them terribly good at their job.
With a jarring halt, they paused before a cell. The end cell. Three walls of iron bars, one solid cement wall. This was the cell reserved for those with an execution date.
A hard shove to his right shoulder sent Morley toppling into the jail cell and rolling across the floor. Dirt-coated stone dug into his knees and forearms as he tried to stop the momentum. With a heavy squeal, the door shut, and the Guardian's key slid the lock home before he could scramble to his knees.
"You've got about twelve hours to live," a Guardian said, no longer concerned with him as they walked away.
The crunching of the scattered gravel grinding into the dirt followed them. The fading sound left behind a strange emptiness. He didn't bother attempting to stand. What was the point when his death crept closer minute by minute? He crawled to the only wall, collapsed with his back against the cold cement, head on his knees, and arms curled around his legs.
He should have known he'd end up here, most with his talent did. High-priced jobs were always on the table for those rare few with the ability to take their Spirit form and disappear momentarily.
Like an idiot, he'd jumped at the chance to rake in the cash. What did he have to show for his efforts? A gaping hole in his side and a death sentence.
The initial silence had gone, replaced by the misery of prison. Dripping water hit the floor somewhere to his left, feet shuffled to his right, and the occasional moan echoed off every wall. The plunk of a stone hitting the floor nearby brought his head up.
He wasn't alone. A lean man sat inside his cell. Morley glanced around frantically, certain the man hadn't been here a moment ago. The slashing angle of a shadow covered the top half of his body, but he was real. With an arm casually propped on his knee, the man seemed completely at ease in this filthy place. He tossed another stone.
"You had a job to do, and you failed," the man accused. "Lady Arianne should be dead."
"How did you know?" Morley asked, squinting his eyes in an effort to see through the darkness.
"Jefford Morley," his cellmate said, a smooth arrogance in his voice. "You'd better talk."
Who was he? This was not the same man who'd put him up to the job. Perhaps a Guardian had been planted in here in the hopes that he would tell a fellow villain what he might not reveal to the Guardians. He scrubbed his hand over his face. "I don't know anything. How could I help her?"
"Who says I want to save her?"
Ah, now it made sense. Another assassin. Morley laughed, though the wound at his side kept his amusement brief. "You won't be doing much of anything sitting in here with me."
The man leaned to his left and into what little light the cell offered, and Morley strained to catch a glimpse of his face. No luck. His short beard and wild mass of curling chin-length hair kept him hidden.
"I'm only visiting. Friend." He drew out the last word, and recognition snapped through Morley like a whip. Morley's cellmate could only be one man.
"You're Bruis's son. Keir," he announced, his throat tightening. "Guardians hauled you away. I saw it. You killed old Bruis. Thought you were dead. Should be."
Keir sent him a level stare. "You're Legard's servant. What did he offer you?"
"No, not Legard. Please, my master had nothing to do with this," Morley sputtered. "A man cornered me down on Shar, where the Legards have their clothes laundered. I'd never seen him before, I swear. He offered me enough money to buy my freedom from Legard."
"Is that so?" Keir tossed a stone, then another. "I'd like to find this man."
"What I know is useless. Brown eyes and a square chin were all I could see beneath his hood. He could be anyone. Even if you found him, I doubt he'd make you the same deal." The instant the words left Morley's mouth, Keir laughed softly. Morley sucked in a quick breath. He'd been wrong. "You don't want a deal. You're the unholy thing killing men in their sleep."
Keir leaned forward. A sinister grin split his lips. White, fanged teeth flashed in the dark. Trapped inside a cell, weak with the loss of blood, Morley had no escape. What was in Keir's hand? Was it a ... knife?
* * *
Heavy footfalls of a Guardian approached, and Keir vanished. He'd easily taken his Spirit form, moving freely without being seen, even among his own kind. The only downfall of using Spirit was the chilled air it created around him. It would tip off the Guardians to his presence. Backing away from Morley, he tucked his invisible self into the far corner of the cell.
The Guardian glanced left and right as he sped through, no doubt rushing his turn to check on the prisoners. He'd just passed the cell when his steps faltered in mid-stride. He backtracked, leaned closer, and studied the man on the floor.
"Quint! Morley's dead!" He yanked the keys off his belt, fumbled through them. The cell door swung open just as Quint came racing down the narrow aisle, his freckled face flushed.
"It's the same knife. Red rose on a white hilt. It's him," the Guardian whispered, glancing over his shoulder. "But he's never killed in the dungeons."
"Or slit a throat." Quint motioned the Guardian into silence and brought a radio to his lips. "Captain? We have a situation in the jail."
The radio buzzed briefly before the captain's steady voice broke through. "Go ahead. What is it?"
"Cancel the execution. It's already happened."
"What?" the captain roared. "Who killed him?"
Quint stared down at Morley's corpse. "I don't know, but he was killed with a very familiar knife."
Ten seconds of silence suddenly gave way to the captain's controlled voice. "I'm about to enter a council meeting with an unexpected guest from Balinese. I can't leave. Handle it, Quint."
"Yes, sir." Quint clipped the radio to his hip. "Seal the jail. No one goes in or out, including Guardians. I want a full head count first, Guardians and prisoners, then a thorough search."
For nearly half an hour Keir watched the Guardians methodically check the jail from cell to cell, top to bottom. The captain's second in command possessed an altogether entertaining tenacity when thrown into action. Keir hated to walk away, but the lady waited.
In his invisible state, he sent Quint a mock salute, then turned, moving through the jail without giving his path much thought. He'd been here time and again, and he'd be back. Blocked walls, iron mazes, and wasting life. Home, sweet home.
Keir skirted along the walls, keeping the cooler air of his Spirit clear of the Guardians. Often that chill could be felt nearly two feet away from his location. Being captured was not part of his plan. Best not to take the chance.
The stairs carried him away from the prison to freely search for Morley's intended target. Galbraith was an oddly constructed city, the cylindrical structure diving deep into the ground with a dozen levels. Originally designed to separate nobility from the lower classes, it remained true to its purpose. The layout made finding Lady Arianne a simple task.
As Keir had just eliminated the need to execute Morley, the lady had no reason to make an appearance at the arena. Tonight being Monday, he scratched the chapel off his list. It wasn't mealtime, which excluded the dining hall. By process of elimination, if she wasn't in the council room, she'd be home.
Still cloaked in Spirit, Keir paused not far from the closed and guarded doors of the council room. Relentless bickering seeped through the doors. He cringed and turned away. Her home waited two floors above.CHAPTER 2
He'd studied her, knew her habits. Out of the public eye and away from a herd of councilmen, the captain was her only companion. Lingering near the far wall in Spirit, Keir watched the doorknob turn. He had been right. She'd come home. Captain Wolfe Rye held open the door and stared down at Lady Arianne from his impressive height as she breezed into her home.
Sliding the lock into place, the captain turned to her, scowling. "You better know what the hell you're doing."
"You want to play the father figure? Fine." She spun around and glared at him, her perfect pearl earrings swinging under the quick change in momentum. "Oh, wise one, what should I have done differently?"
Wolfe retreated to the blush pink settee, sank down into the cushions. Eyes squeezed shut, the captain let his head fall back. "That's not what I'm trying to do."
"Oh, yes you are." Arianne tipped her chin up. "You have that I know best tone."
The captain gave his thick, short beard a choppy scratch. "Listen, I'm not saying you did anything wrong, but you've got to stop and think before you make these kind of changes."
Keir had heard enough. If they planned on bickering all night, he might as well show himself. Releasing his Spirit, he appeared in the lady's flowered pastel chair, comfortably reclined and not a dozen feet from her.
"Leaping before you look again, Lady?"
Arianne squeaked and jumped back. Captain Rye reached for his gun. Recognition lit the captain's eyes, and instead of his sidearm, he grabbed a pink pillow and whipped it at him.
"Keir!" the captain bellowed. "You're an ass, you know that?"
"I'm only keeping you on your toes." He scooped up the pillow and tossed it back to the settee.
"I hate your surprises." The lady pressed her hand to her stomach. Then, as if she'd just seen him for the first time, lifted an eyebrow and inspected him from head to toe. "You look rather lowbrow."
"Not a fan?" He combed his fingers through his wild and wavy hair to regain some order. "It's not like we'll be seen together."
"I suppose not," she relented.
He shrugged. "Seemed appropriate for a prison visit."
Her eyes flashed wide. "Wolfe told me that the assassin died in prison, but ... It was you?"
"You didn't tell her?" he asked Wolfe.
"No. We've been busy. The how of his death was just a detail at the time."
No reason to deny the facts. "Yeah. My hand, my knife."
Excerpted from Bound by Jen Colly. Copyright © 2016 Jen Colly. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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