One young girl holds the fate of a city in her hands. If she fails, it spells her doom—and the end of her world.
Twice in the history of the city of Amenkor, the White Fire had swept over the land. Over a thousand years ago it came from the east, covering the entire city, touching everyone, leaving them unburned—but bringing madness in its wake, a madness that only ended with the death of the ruling Mistress of the city.
Five years ago the Fire came again, and Amenkor has been spiraling into ruin ever since. The city's only hope rests in the hands of a young girl, Varis, who has taught herself the art of survival and has been trained in the ways of the assassin. Venturing deep into the heart of Amenkor, Varis will face her harshest challenges and greatest opportunities. And it is here that she will either find her destiny—or meet her doom.
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The Skewed Throne
Over one thousand years ago, a great fire swept through the city of Amenkor. Not a fire like those burning in the bowls of standing oil that lined the promenade to the palace, all red and orange and flapping in the wind that came from the sea. No. This fire was white, pure, and cold. And from the legends, this fire burned from horizon to horizon, reaching from the ground to the clouds. It came from the west, like the wind, and when it fell upon the city it passed through walls and left them untouched, passed through people and left them unburned. It covered the entire city—there was no escape, it touched everyone—and then it swept onward, inland, until it vanished, nothing more than a white glow, and then nothing at all.
It is said the White Fire cast the city into madness. It is said the Fire was an omen, a harbinger of the eleven-year drought and the famine and disease that followed.
It is said the Fire murdered the ruling Mistress of the time, even though her body was found unburned on the wide stone steps that led up to the palace at the end of the promenade. There were bruises around her throat in the shape of hands, and bruises in the shape of boots on her naked back and bared breasts. There were bruises elsewhere, beneath the white robes that lay about her waist in torn rags, the robe held in place only by the angle of her body and the gold sash of her office. There was blood as well. Not gushing blood, but spotted blood.
But the legends say the Fire killed her.
Fire, my ass.
Tucked into the niche set high in a narrow corridor of the palace, I snorted in contempt, then shifted with a grimace to ease a cramped muscle. No part of my body moved out into the light. The niche sat at the end of a long shaft that provided airflow into the depths of the palace.
Any blind-ass bastard could tell what had really happened to the Mistress. And the blind-ass bastard who killed her should have rotted in the deepest hellhole in Amenkor. There were quicker ways to kill someone than strangulation. I knew.
I drew in a slow breath and listened. Nothing but the guttering flames of the standing bowls of burning oil which lit the empty corridor below. The airflow in the palace was strong, gusting through the opening at my back. A storm was coming. But the wind took care of the smoke from the burning oil. And other smells.
After a long, considering moment, I slid forward to the edge of the niche and glanced down the corridor in both directions. Nothing. With one smooth shift, I slipped over the lip of the opening, dangled by white-knuckled fingers for a moment until steady, then dropped to the floor.
“You, boy! Help me with this.”
I spun, hand falling to the knife hidden inside the palace clothing that had been provided the night before: page’s clothing that was a little too big for me, a little loose. But apparently it had worked. I was small for my age, and had no breasts to speak of, but I definitely wasn’t a boy.
The woman who’d spoken was dressed in the white robe of a personal servant of the Mistress and carried two woven baskets, one in each arm. One of the baskets was threatening to tip out of her grasp. She’d managed to catch it with the other basket before it fell, but both baskets were now balanced awkwardly against her chest, ready to tip at the slightest movement.
“Well, what are you waiting for?” Her face creased in irritation and anger, but her eyes remained focused on the baskets.
I straightened from the instinctual crouch and moved forward to catch the basket before it fell. It was heavier than it looked.
My hand brushed the woman’s skin as I took the basket and a long thin slash of pain raced up my arm, as if someone had drawn a dagger’s blade across my skin from wrist to elbow. I glanced at the woman sharply, tensed.
The woman heaved a sigh of relief and wiped a trembling hand across her forehead. “Thank you.” After a moment to catch her breath, she motioned to the basket again. “Now give it back. Carefully!”
Relief swept through me. She hadn’t felt the contact, hadn’t felt the slash of pain or anything else out of the ordinary at all.
I set the basket back into the woman’s arms, careful not to touch her skin again, the woman grunting at its weight. Then I stepped aside and let her pass.
She huffed out of the corridor, vanishing around a corner.
I watched her receding back, then my eyes narrowed. I wasn’t supposed to run into anyone, especially not one of the true Servants. No one was supposed to know I was here.
I’d have to be more careful.
I fingered the knife again, considering, then turned away, moving in the other direction, shrugging thoughts of the woman aside. She’d barely glanced up from her baskets, too intent on not dropping them. She wouldn’t remember meeting a page boy. Not inside the palace. And there wasn’t any time to spare, not if I was to get to the Mistress’ chambers before dawn. I was in the outermost portion of the palace, still needed to get to the linen closet with the archer’s nook, get past the guards at the inner sanctum...
I shook my head and moved a little faster down the narrow corridor, running through the mental image of the map of the palace in my head, reviewing the timing. The incoming storm prickled through my skin, urging me on. I reached into an inner pocket and fingered the key hidden there.
I had to get to the Mistress’ chambers tonight. We’d waited too long already...had waited six years hoping that things would get better, looking for alternate solutions. Six long years since the Second Coming of the White Fire, and since that day things had only gotten worse. Legend said that the first Fire had cast the city into madness. The second Fire had done the same. A slow, subtle madness. And now winter bore down on us, the seas already getting rough, unsuitable for trade. With the mountain passes closed, resources low...
As I turned into a second corridor, I frowned, with a hard and determined expression. We’d tried everything to end it. Everything but what legend said had worked the first time the Fire came. Now there was no choice.
It was time for the Mistress to die.