Knight Assassin by Rima Jean
Seventeen-year-old Zayn has special powers she cannot control—powers that others fear and covet. Powers that cause the Templar Knights to burn Zayn's mother at the stake for witchcraft.
When a mysterious stranger tempts Zayn to become the first female member of the heretical Assassins, the chance to seek her revenge lures her in. She trains to harness her supernatural strength and agility, and then enters the King of Jerusalem's court in disguise with the assignment to assassinate Guy de Molay, her mother's condemner.
But once there, she discovers Earic Goodwin, the childhood friend who still holds her heart, among the knights—and his ocean-blue eyes don't miss a thing. Will vengeance be worth the life of the one love she has left?
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By Rima Jean, Tracy Montoya
Entangled Publishing, LLCCopyright © 2014 Rima Jean
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Zayn kept her eyes lowered as she walked, her heart thumping. She could feel the disapproving stares of the villagers like needles along her spine. Quickening her pace, she prayed her body would cooperate today.
Please. Not now. Don't let it happen now.
The basket against her hip slipped in her sweaty grip, and she paused to shift it. She tugged at her headscarf, carefully tucking any errant strand of hair back beneath the cloth. Lifting her gaze just a fraction, she saw Maha, the baker's wife, standing alone in front of her husband's house, and exhaled in relief. Bread was the last item on her list. She could rush home after this and be done with the people of Rafaniya — for now.
"Good day, Madam Maha," Zayn mumbled, staring at the ground.
"Good day, Zayn." The woman's tone was polite but cold. "You've come for bread this morning?"
"Yes, madam." She raised her head sharply upon hearing someone exit the house and saw Maha's daughters sit on stools nearby, their eyes on Zayn. Jahida and Basmah were around Zayn's age, and they'd made their contempt of Zayn very clear in the past. They smiled venomously at her now.
"Good day, Zayn," they said in unison, their voices honeyed.
The buzz in her ears was like a sea of approaching locusts, soft at first, growing louder by the second. Her vision shimmered, as though the world had been sprinkled with stardust. The blood surged in her veins, rushing, flowing, filling.
Oh God. Please, not now. Zayn clenched her jaw, panicking. She could not control it, regardless of how hard she tried. It consumed her in waves.
"Basmah," Jahida said to her sister, watching Zayn through the corner of her eye, "have you heard the latest gossip?"
"No, what is it?" Basmah widened her eyes in mock excitement.
The sound in Zayn's head was a roar now, the shimmer edged with a greenish haze. She could feel the basket breaking between her fingers, even as she loosened her grip.
"Rumor has it that Sharif intends to marry Zayn," Jahida said, a hand on her chest. "Can you believe it? The village headman's son, marrying the daughter of a —"
"Hold your tongues, you two," Maha barked at them as she carried the bread from the house to Zayn.
It was too late. The basket, made of sturdy willow shoots, crumbled like brittle leaves, crushed between Zayn's arm and her body. Lost within this strange, urgent burst of strength, she could only turn and run. Even as she tried to stop her feet, she could feel them struggling to fly. The laughter of the girls echoed in her head, and her heart seemed to stop beating altogether. The world was a blur of motion, a passing flash.
The tiny home Zayn shared with her mother, Miriam, came within view, and suddenly, the roar softened to a buzz, the blinding light dimmed back to a shimmer. As Zayn collapsed in the dirt beyond the fence, her body loosened, as if casting all its energy back into air.
"Zayn!" Miriam ran from the house and fell to her knees, pulling her daughter into her arms.
Zayn sobbed into her mother's shoulder. "I'm sorry, Mama. I tried, truly I did."
Miriam's fingers danced along the edge of her daughter's headscarf. "It happened again?"
Zayn nodded miserably. "I just don't know how to stop it."
Silence and the gentle caress of fingertips, then: "I wish I knew what to tell you, my love."
Lifting her head to look at her mother, Zayn whispered, "Make it go away."
"No." Miriam's eyes were black and lustrous. "I can't. And in any case, you should learn to control it, not destroy it."
"But how?" Zayn wailed. "It's like trying to control the rain. I can't even begin to understand how to control it."
Miriam stared at her hands, considering. They were small, feminine hands that were darkened and callused from a lifetime of hard, manual labor. "Maybe ... I can help."
"Truly?" Zayn's heart fluttered with hope. "But how?"
"I don't know," Miriam said with a sigh, rising to her feet. "Let me think on it. Maybe in a few days, we can try."
Zayn stood, wiping the tears from her face with her headscarf. She had no idea what her mother meant or how she could possibly help Zayn. Perhaps there were herbs Miriam could give her that would cure her of this affliction. She would try anything.
"Now," Miriam said with a quirk of her mouth, "I will go and get us some bread."
"Don't go," Zayn begged, reaching for her mother's arm. "We can make do without for a couple days. Then I will go with you."
"Very well." Miriam's expression was tender. "Don't be ashamed, Zayn. Never be ashamed."
A single nod was all Zayn could offer in response. Because she was ashamed of herself, of her eerie fits of power. Maybe her fellow villagers were right in hating her, in fearing her.
She was afraid of herself.
* * *
Shading her eyes against the sun, Zayn could see them coming, their forms shimmering in the heat. Her stomach clenched. They were coming for her, and she had no intention of going with them. So she stayed hidden in the grove, scooping olives into the basket around her waist. Near the house, Miriam prepared the fruit for pressing, as she had her whole life. When she saw the men approaching, she stood and wiped her hands on her skirt, quickly dabbing her face and tucking any stray strands of hair back into her headscarf. She called to her daughter, but Zayn pretended not to hear.
Zayn watched as the village headman, Mahmud, and his son, Sharif, approached her mother. They were both small, wiry men with dark, beady eyes and bad teeth. The only difference between the two was age, so that Mahmud had more belly and beard. She clenched her jaw — she would have to confront them, whether she liked it or not. She descended the stepladder and made her way back to the house, where Miriam had brought out tea for the men. Miriam smiled at her daughter carefully.
Zayn lowered her eyes and greeted the men politely. She felt Sharif's hungry gaze on her, and the hairs at the back of her neck stood on end.
"Good morning, child," Mahmud replied, leaning back in his chair and slurping noisily at his tea. "We come bearing good news for you." He peered at her over the rim of his cup.
Zayn continued to look away, removing the basket from around her waist. "Yes, sir," she replied with as little emotion as possible.
Mahmud smacked his lips and set his cup back on the tray. "My son Sharif has decided that he will have you for a wife," he announced, smiling. He waited for a reaction from her, and when there was none, he added, "Isn't it wonderful?"
Her vision grew fuzzy, father and son blurring together before her eyes. She heard only her own breathing, stuttered and quick. A rage blossomed in her chest. My son Sharif has decided that he will have you as a wife. They believed they were doing her an enormous favor, after all. She was a bastard, a child born out of wedlock, sired by a man her mother refused to speak of. As a result, whispers of whore followed Miriam like a shadow any time she interacted with the villagers.
And now? The village headman's son had taken pity on Zayn, the illegitimate child, the outcast's daughter, and decided he would grant her the gift of marrying him. Zayn wanted to throw her head back and laugh. She wanted to fling the tea in their faces, to rage at them for being so stupid. What a mockery this was! Sharif wasn't driven by kindness; he was driven by lust, by the desire to own her. Did they think she couldn't see that? Did they think she'd fall to her knees and kiss their feet for being so charitable?
The roar, the light, the rush of blood. She was transforming within her own body, against her will. No, please, not now! In her desperation, she swung around to look at Miriam, and the women locked eyes. If this happens now, my mother will pay the price. The thought pierced her heart, and like a gust of wind, the energy began to escape her body through her pores.
Mahmud and Sharif exchanged looks. "Zayn?" Mahmud said. "Did you hear what I said, child?"
The sound of her breath faded, and her vision crystallized. She looked again at Miriam, who sat stiffly, her face drawn. Zayn finally met the headman's eyes and said, "No." They stared dumbly, and so she raised her voice and looked at Sharif. "My answer is no."
"What do you mean, no?" Sharif spat, standing suddenly, his eyes blazing. "Don't you realize what I am offering you?"
Oh, she knew. He was offering her imprisonment in his household, in her veils, in her own body. Her docility would earn his approval, but he would always hold the sins of her mother over her head. No, thank you. She would not give away her final shred of pride, her last bit of freedom. Zayn smiled placidly, her anger draining from her. In an almost cheerful tone, she said, "I would rather die."
The silence that ensued crackled with tension so thick that Zayn felt a spell of dizziness. Sharif pointed a finger at her, his long, thin face contorted in a grimace. "Then maybe you should die!"
"Sharif!" Mahmud stood and laid a hand on his son's wrist. He glanced at Miriam sternly. "Your daughter is willful and impudent. God will punish her."
Miriam stood, her face entirely unreadable. "She is her mother's daughter, I suppose."
Mahmud nodded, as if Miriam were confirming something he had always believed. His eyes glinted with malice as he said, "And God will punish you both."
Zayn watched the men leave, feeling victorious. Miriam came to stand beside her and looped her arm through her daughter's. Zayn whispered, "Are you angry with me?"
"No." Miriam smiled. "I wanted you to make the decision for yourself. On the one hand, I don't want you to suffer for my mistakes. On the other hand, I know you will never be happy married to Sharif — to any of the men here."
Zayn rested her head against Miriam's. "I am happy here with you. We will be two old maids together." She felt her mother shake her head gently.
"You are meant for bigger things than this, Zayn. Much bigger things."
Miriam was speaking in riddles again, and Zayn felt a flash of irritation. "I will never leave you, Mama."
In response, Miriam squeezed Zayn's hand, then walked back to the basin to continue washing the olives. Zayn emptied her basket, tied it back on, and returned to the olive grove. Her sense of triumph dissipated, leaving an unsettled feeling in her chest. She wished Miriam would tell her everything and stop trying to protect her from the truth. She was seventeen years old, and she deserved to know who her father was, what had happened to him, and why she was ... different.
Sighing, she climbed the stepladder and continued plucking the olives from their branches. She remembered the freedoms of her childhood all too vividly, how she used to clamber up this very same tree, barefoot and reckless. She gazed beyond the branches of the olive tree and focused on the silhouette of Montferrand Castle in the distance, high up on the hill. Within the Syrian hamlet of Rafaniya, Zayn and her mother made olive oil for the Franks — the people from the Kingdom of France — who owned the land. All of the villagers were serfs to the Franks, including Mahmud and his worthless son Sharif.
A bright yellow butterfly sat on a leaf near her hand, its wings trembling ever so slightly. She had it better than most women born to her lot, that was certain. She was trapped in Rafaniya, perhaps, but she had her mother, and she was free of the shackles of marriage. She would never allow a man to trap her in marriage as she was in womanhood — never. She may face hellfire for her errant ways in the end, but her life, while she lived, would be free of those shackles.
Resting her head against the gnarled trunk of the tree, Zayn closed her eyes. Mahmud and Sharif would make her pay for her insult, she knew. They would want to humiliate her before the village somehow, to make her look foolish. She would endure whatever they had in mind for only one reason: Miriam.
As long as they did not hurt Miriam, Zayn would endure her punishment.CHAPTER 2
A pounding at the door jarred Zayn awake. She sat up, blinking, her heart racing. Miriam staggered to her feet and covered her hair quickly, flashing her daughter a look. "Get up. Cover your hair."
Bam! Bam! Bam! The wooden door bowed with each blow, threatening to collapse. Miriam rushed to open it, but Zayn's gut impulse was to grab her mother and sneak out the window. Before she could do anything, Miriam had opened the door. Three Frankish knights stood outside, dressed in mail and wearing their swords. Even by moonlight, Zayn recognized the dark, handsome features of Guy de Molay. He's back. He'd grown up since she'd seen him last, but the cruelty in his eyes flickered just as brightly as she remembered. His thick black brows were drawn together, peaking at the ends. His lips curled over his teeth, and his nostrils flared.
Her gaze darted to the faces of the other knights. Was Earic Goodwin back as well?
"It has come to my attention," Guy said, "that there is a witch on my father's lands." He tilted his head to survey Miriam with interest, his gaze raking over her.
Zayn stepped between Guy and her mother. "What are you talking about? That's crazy." She was a few inches from him now; she saw the glaze over his eyes and smelled the alcohol on his breath. His eyes, a rich hazel, suddenly focused on her, and recognition lit them faintly. Zayn could feel her pulse in her throat. He can't remember me. More than five years have passed ...
"She's the witch!" Mahmud, the village headman, elbowed his way between the knights and pointed a gnarled finger at Miriam. "She casts the evil eye on all of us. She conjured the jinn, then had her child by one." His eyes left Miriam and pierced into Zayn. "Zayn is not normal. She behaves like one possessed and has always had unusual ... vigor. She is the daughter of a jinni."
If she hadn't been so terrified, Zayn would have laughed aloud. The daughter of a demon? Is that what the villagers truly believed she was? Or was Mahmud simply trying to take his revenge on her for refusing his son's proposal of marriage? "That's ridiculous." Her voice cracked as she spoke, and she felt Miriam inch closer to her.
Guy was still glaring at Zayn. "Unusual vigor, eh?" He flashed his teeth in a depraved grin. "I think I have encountered this bitch before. Zayn, is it? Ah yes, I believe I remember. Earic Goodwin's little Saracen girlfriend." His hand worked at the pommel of his sword. He looked again at Miriam. "Do you know what the punishment is for witchcraft?"
"I am not a witch," Miriam answered, her voice steady. "Mahmud is angry because Zayn will not marry his son."
"That's interesting," Guy said, "because as it turns out, the entire village believes you are a witch as well. There is no need for a trial, since it is unanimous." He turned his head slightly and addressed the other knights. "Let's finish this. Grab the witch."
Zayn heard the familiar roar, saw the brilliant haze. For the first time in her life, she and her body were in agreement. She felt it — whatever it was — course through her veins with each pump of her heart. In a haze of fury, she lashed out at the knights, her bare feet and hands meeting with wrought iron. One of the knights stumbled back, tripped over a stool, and crashed to the ground. Guy paused, apparently surprised by the blur of fist and foot that struck them with such force. Her limbs seemed to almost glow as she moved, repelling the knights with some otherworldly strength.
She whirled to a stop, panting, her eyes daring them to approach.
"Get up," Guy snarled at his men, turning to grab Miriam. He pulled her tightly against him, twisting her arms against her body. He drew a dagger and held it to Miriam's throat. "Submit, or I kill her now."
Zayn faltered, her heart clenched. She could feel her powers dissipating, fleeing her body as anger turned to fear. "Don't hurt her, I beg you."
Guy laughed, addressing his comrades. "Ah yes, I've dealt with this bitch before. She's a pretty thing for a demon-child, isn't she?" He thrust Miriam and the dagger to a redheaded knight, then yanked Zayn by the wrist.
Excerpted from Knight Assassin by Rima Jean, Tracy Montoya. Copyright © 2014 Rima Jean. Excerpted by permission of Entangled Publishing, LLC.
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