How do you kill with honor? When is murder not a murder?
In "First Kill", assassin Kiam Miar will find out when his first assignment goes awry and he is faced with an ethical choice…as if assassins could have ethics.
And if he makes the wrong choice, he could not only lose his life but throw a good chunk of his world into chaos…
At the Publisher's request, this title is being sold without Digital Rights Management Software (DRM) applied.
|Publisher:||Tom Doherty Associates|
|File size:||906 KB|
About the Author
Jennifer Fallon is the author of The Hythrun Chronicles, and one of Australia's bestselling fantasy authors. She lives in New Zealand.
Read an Excerpt
By Jennifer Fallon, Tommy Arnold
Tom Doherty AssociatesCopyright © 2016 Jennifer Fallon
All rights reserved.
Knowing is not the same as understanding.
Seeing is not the same as witnessing.
Killing is not the same as murder.
Kiam Miar ran through the mantra in his mind as the bare-chested stevedores secured the heavy lines of the trading ship to the Calavandra wharf, their dark skins glistening in the heat of the midday sun. The men hauled on the ropes, singing a melodic chant to aid the rhythm of their work, pulling the ship into shore. He looked around, trying to appear jaded and unimpressed. The long stone wharves were noisy and hot and reeked of fish. Despite that — and his outwardly calm demeanour — Kiam was filled with a nervous excitement he was hard-pressed to contain.
The city of Calavandra hugged the steep hills surrounding the harbour that was the lifeblood of this island, the largest of the Trinity Isles and arguably the most dangerous. Some of the houses clung perilously to the slopes as if their foundations were fashioned from claws rather than the pillars or stumps of more traditional buildings. Mostly painted white to reflect the heat, with flat roofs that often housed gardens or washing lines, the city appeared a jewel from afar, more like a slum at close quarters. Kiam's father, Galon Miar, the current Raven of the Hythrun Assassins' Guild, once remarked that Calavandra was like the poor abandoned child spawned by an unseemly mating of Greenharbour and Talabar with none of the other cities' wealth or culture to recommend her.
But whatever the city was for most men, for Kiam Miar it was something else entirely.
Somewhere out there, he knew, probably watching him even now as the ship docked, was the assassin charged with overseeing this final test. Kiam didn't know if the man — or woman — would reveal himself at some point. He didn't know if his mentor's task was to help or hinder Kiam's work.
He just knew he'd been given this job to prove he had what it took. His first kill, which — assuming he passed the test — would mean he was a fully-fledged assassin.
It would be his last kill if he failed. The Assassin's Guild didn't spend years training someone to kill silently and efficiently, move without being seen and hide the evidence of their work, just to cut them loose without any control or supervision if they didn't make the grade. That his father was the Raven didn't factor into it. If he failed in this task, Kiam knew his mentor had orders to take care of the matter without referring back to the Raven for his opinion. Galon wouldn't hear about it until his son's personal effects arrived in a small parcel along with a condolence note. In this heat there would be no question of shipping his body home. It would rot and putrefy long before it arrived in Greenharbour.
Kiam would succeed in this test or he would not be going home. Ever.
The task he had been assigned seemed quite straightforward. Somebody very wealthy wanted a young woman named Sofya the Siren killed. Kiam hadn't been told his employer was wealthy. The mere fact the Assassin's' Guild had been hired to do the job was sufficient proof of that.
Poor people took care of their own.
Although he had been trained not to question the motive for a kill or judge the person soliciting another's death, it was impossible not to wonder what this young woman had done to incur the wrath of someone sufficiently powerful, wealthy and angry, that they had passed a death sentence on her.
He supposed she was a mistress turned sour or a spurned lover. Despite the glamour of the Assassin's' Guild, truth was, they preferred to stay away from political assassinations. The bulk of their work, Kiam had learned at his father's knee, was inspired by the basic human vices of avarice, jealousy and vengeance. Politics rarely entered into it.
Kiam had only the barest information to go on about his intended target. Sofya the Siren was twenty-one years old, supposedly. The description he'd been provided with was "pretty, dark-haired and fond of hanging out around the taverns of Calavandra where she makes her living as a working court'esa". If Jondalup, the God of Luck, was on his side, she would not be hard to find and, given her occupation, not that hard to kill, either.
It was that which made Kiam cautious. An assassin's first kill was meant to be a test of their wits, their skill and perhaps their ethics. Being sent to the Trinity Isles to kill a whore nobody would likely miss was suspiciously simple and left Kiam with an uncomfortable feeling in his gut.
It couldn't be that easy. It was never that easy.
Kiam started a little at the unexpected question. The trading ship's first mate was standing behind him. He hadn't noticed the man coming up behind him, so busy was he, watching the stevedores and admiring the scenery.
You are going to be dead by the end of the week, you idiot, he told himself crossly, if you don't start acting more like an assassin and less like a tourist.
"First time visiting Calavandra?" Of course the First Mate meant that. He doesn't know who you are or why you're here.
"As a matter of fact, it is."
"It was a good crossing, yes?"
It had been uneventful, at least. "I suppose."
"You tell your sister that when you get back home, won't you? You tell her we do good work. Reliable, like."
For a brief moment, Kiam didn't know what to say. His passage had been arranged on this vessel by the Guild. It had been booked under the false name he was using — Peryn Drake. And yet this man had recognized him as a member of the extended Wolfblade clan.
Luciena Mariner was the owner of this ship and probably half the vessels currently docked in Calavandra at the moment. She was also the stepdaughter of one Marla Wolfblade, who happened to be the sister of the High Prince of Hythria, the mother of the Hythrun heir, Damin Wolfblade, and who was, until quite recently, married to Kiam's father, Galon Miar, making her his stepmother, too.
Few people knew that, however. Kiam was twelve when Marla married his father, and while he and his sisters had been welcomed into the Wolfblade family without reservation, his apprenticeship to the Assassins' Guild meant his time at the palace had been limited. And while it was no secret one of Marla's stepsons was an apprentice assassin, Kiam didn't think he'd attended so many public functions as a member of the royal family that his face was well known.
Which meant this was a test. One of many the Guild had in store for him.
"Don't I wish I was related to Luciena Mariner," he said with a rueful smile. "I'd be travelling in much grander style than this old bucket, reliable and all that she is."
"Are you sure?" the mate insisted. "You look a lot like one of her brothers."
"I think I'd remember something that important if I was. How long until we can disembark?"
"Dunno," the mate said with a shrug. "Depends on the customs men. Maybe an hour or two."
"Then I shall spend my time imagining spending the fortune I'd have if truly was related to someone as obscenely wealthy as Luciena Mariner."
The mate opened his mouth to respond but it quickly turned into a bellow of anger when he spied the crew tasked with tying up the ship apparently not performing the undertaking to his satisfaction. As he stormed off, yelling at the sailors in the bow, Kiam turned back to study the wharf.
First test passed, he decided. The mate had obviously been tipped off about his true identity and the Guild wanted to know if he would give it up if he were recognized. What else they have got in store for me? he wondered.
He had a couple of hours, he guessed, before he found out.
* * *
Where he might find Sofya the Siren was disturbingly easy to discover. Kiam merely asked the innkeeper where he took a room if the man had ever heard of her.
"Everyone has heard of her," the jovial Calavandran chuckled. "She usually hangs out at the Bull's Balls."
"You have a tavern called the Bull's Balls?"
Kiam paid the man, threw his bag in the small, modest room he'd rented, and then headed back outside to find the tavern. It was some way from the wharf, he discovered, contrary to what he had been told before leaving Greenharbour about Sofya the Siren's fondness for dock taverns, but it was a minor detail hardly worth quibbling about. Of more concern to Kiam was the number of Xaphista's priests who seemed to be preaching on almost every corner about the perils of sin and the foolishness of those who refused to acknowledge that there was really only one true God and all the others were simply figments of their believer's imaginations.
Kiam knew that to be a lie. His stepbrother, Damin Wolfblade, had actually met the God of War, and Wrayan Lightfinger, family friend, legendary thief, and head of the Greenharbour Thieves' Guild, had spoken with Dacendaran, the God of Thieves, on any number of occasions.
There were gods aplenty, he knew. They were capricious, quite venal at times, and always trying to get one up on the other gods of the pantheon. Xaphista's method was, it seemed, to simply pretend the others didn't exist.
He reached the Bull's Balls just on dusk. There was a preacher outside who carried a staff bearing the sun intersected by a lightning bolt. The man blocked Kiam's way as he tried to enter the tavern, where the smell of something spicy and delicious was beckoning.
"Are you an evil one?" the priest asked. He had a wild-eyed look that made Kiam wonder if Xaphista's followers found their faith in the bottom of a mushroom pipe.
He pushed aside the staff. "Get out of my way, fool."
The priest glared at him but stood aside. "You may pass. You are a sinner, obviously, but not an abomination."
Kiam stopped and looked at the man curiously. "Abomination? Oh, you mean Harshini?"
"Wash your mouth out, sinner, lest their evil seek you out for speaking their name."
"How do you know I'm not Harshini?"
"You touched the staff. It caused you no pain."
"Have you ever found a Harshini?"
For the first time, the priest seemed a little uncertain. "Well ... no."
"Then how do you know it works?"
"Xaphista has spoken."
"Pity he didn't tell you to piss off, old man," a woman remarked behind Kiam.
He turned to discover an attractive Fardohnyan woman standing behind him. She was dressed in a blue bodice designed to draw attention to her impressive bosom, and a diaphanous blue skirt that left her midriff bare. She wore a polished garnet in her navel and a slightly tarnished silver collar around her neck, denoting her as a court'esa.
The court'esa beamed at Kiam. "Ignore him. His god is a fool and attracts like-minded followers. Are you new in town?"
A little bemused, Kiam shrugged. "Does it show?"
"Shines like a beacon, sweetie. You're Hythrun, yes?"
"Then come on inside and let me show you a good time." She took his arm and made to lead him inside. Xaphista's priest turned his attention to another potential patron. With some reluctance, Kiam shook free of her grasp. She was very pretty. At another time ...
"I'm sorry; I can't."
The woman smiled at him and then stretched up on her toes to nuzzle his ear. Only she didn't nuzzle him. She whispered impatiently, "The Bull's Balls rents rooms by the hour, you fool, and if you go in there without a court'esa, you might as well pin a sign on your head announcing who you are and why you're here. Unless you want me to send you back to the Raven in a funereal urn, you'll smile and look lusty and buy me a drink, lover boy."
She pulled back from him and smiled as if nothing was amiss. "So ... ready from some sin, then?"
This wasn't another test, Kiam realized with shock. This stunning Fardohnyan court'esa was his mentor.
"What ... what do you prefer," he asked, hoping his surprise wasn't reflected on his face, "white wine or red?"
* * *
Her name was Teriahna. Although she didn't seem to be much older than him, Kiam knew she had to be an experienced assassin to be given the task of supervising his first kill. She led him to a dark booth at the back of the taproom, ordered wine and a bowl of the delicious spicy stew he could smell outside in the street, and then sat in his lap so they could talk in private. The tavern was filled with similar booths, not all of which were full this early in the evening. The Bull's Balls rented rooms out the back apparently, but patrons could sit at the booths as long as they liked, provided they ate and drank and paid their tab on the way out.
"Your target's not likely to get here until closer to midnight," Teriahna told him, as she settled herself in his lap and nibbled his earlobe, making it both impossible for anyone to overhear them and for Kiam to concentrate on what she was telling him.
"You know her?"
"Everyone knows her."
"Why don't you do the job, then?" he asked as she picked up his hand and placed it on her breast.
"Wasn't my job to do. Can you at least try to look a little bit interested?"
He wrapped his arms around her a little bit more enthusiastically. "I ... er. ... Sorry ..."
"What's your plan?" she whispered into his ear like a lover.
"I don't have one yet."
"She'll be here at any time. Don't you think it's time you started making a plan?"
Teriahna was right, but Kiam wasn't being entirely honest. He did have a plan of sorts. What he didn't have was an escape route if things turned to custard. He glanced around the room, noting the exits and the windows. They were too narrow to afford an escape, but the clientele in the Bull's Balls was sufficiently determined to mind their own business that one could hopefully leave by the front door without causing too much comment, even if they were covered in blood.
"What do you know about her?"
"She's a whore."
"So are you."
"The difference being that I have worked my way up in the world, young man. Sofya the Siren seems determined to work her way down."
"What do you mean?"
"I mean she's only recently taken up the life of a court'esa, according to the local gossips. Very scandalous affair, apparently."
"Because not so long ago, our girl was the very proper and righteous daughter of one of the ruling houses of the Trinity Isles."
"Why did she leave a life of privilege for a life on the streets?"
"What does it matter?" Teriahna asked, the teeth nibbling at his ear and sending shivers down his spine at odds with her tone. "Your job is to remove her, not offer employment advice."
"Is it her family who wants her killed?" He said it low and carefully, nuzzling at Teriahna's ear for the benefit of anyone who might be watching them. She reacted immediately, pulling away from his embrace to glare at him.
"It's not your concern who or why. Didn't they teach you anything?"
"I need to know if there are likely to be any repercussions. I haven't passed this test, I believe, until I get home in one piece without any adverse consequences to the Guild."
His answer seemed to satisfy her. "Then the answer is, I don't know. I haven't been here in Calavandra much longer than you, truth be told. I don't know what will happen when you ... take care of her."
Across the room, a cheer went up, but with Teriahna blocking his view, he didn't know what had so enthused the other patrons of the Bull's Balls. Kiam was aware of it, as he was aware of everything going on around him, but he assumed it had something to do with the dice game going on near the bar.
"Then, don't you think, before I ... take care ... of anyone, it would be wise to ... Gods, is that her?"
Teriahna had moved slightly and Kiam had discovered the reason for the cheer.
Sofya the Siren had arrived.
Kiam found himself almost unable to breathe. She was a slender girl with flawless caramel skin and eyes the colour of a midnight storm. She was dressed in a light shift that left nothing to the imagination about what might lie beneath, only three clusters of strategically placed cheap glass beads offering any sort of modesty. But it wasn't her dress that stopped his heart, momentarily, or her peerless beauty.
"What's wrong?" Teriahna hissed when she realized he'd been struck dumb by shock.
"I ... I know her."
"I know her," he told his mentor in a low, disbelieving voice. "Only, when I knew her, she was Sofya Kannangara, daughter of Grem Kannangara, the Symposiarch of Calavandra."
"How did you meet ... Oh, of course." Your stepbrother is heir to the Hythrun throne. She didn't say the words, but Kiam could almost hear her thinking them. "Will she remember you?"
For a moment, Kiam didn't know how to answer. His mind was too clouded by memories for him to think straight.
Excerpted from First Kill by Jennifer Fallon, Tommy Arnold. Copyright © 2016 Jennifer Fallon. Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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