Authors: T C Southwell
Tags: #Literature & Fiction, #Science Fiction & Fantasy, #Fantasy, #Epic
The Queen’s Blade VI
T C Southwell
Published by T C Southwell at Smashwords
Copyright © 2010 T C Southwell
Smashwords Edition, License Notes
This e-book is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. This e-book may not be re-sold or given away to other people. If you would like to share this book with another person, please purchase an additional copy for each recipient. If you’re reading this book and did not purchase it, or it was not purchased for your use only, then please return to Smashwords.com and purchase your own copy. Thank you for respecting the hard work of this author.
Table of Contents
Blade sat at the back of the taproom and watched the patrons. It had always been one of his favourite pastimes, since he had no real life of his own, to watch others conduct theirs. He had not been able to enjoy this at the palace, where he seldom mixed with the courtiers except at official functions. He found their society, in the case of the nobles, pompous and self-serving, and in the case of courtiers annoyingly ingratiating. Here, there was fresh amusement to be had every night as people's lives unfolded in secret trysts and rowdy arguments, dramas of love and hate played out upon a shoddy stage.
In a dark corner, a nobleman's daughter met her lover, a poor merchant's son. Although she wore plain clothes, her air of assurance and scornful looks gave her away, while he, although clad in quite fine clothes, always wore the same ones. She was plain and he was handsome, which explained their attraction to each other, he for her money and she for his looks. If her parents allowed them to wed, it would be a disaster. He would be unfaithful, and she would grow to hate him. Blade wondered if all relationships were so ill considered, and, while exciting at the outset, soured as soon as the participants' true motivations became clear.
Blade turned his attention to a married man and his mistress, a former whore who had yet to shed the remnants of her tawdry garb and coy looks. They spent many time-glasses in a room upstairs, and returned smiling and sweaty to swill down tankards of ale. They would be content until she lost her looks or fell pregnant, or when she realised that he had no intention of leaving his wife.
The assassin sipped his wine and let his gaze wander to one of the serving girls, a particularly attractive wench with raven hair, dark blue eyes and milky skin. Two young men courted her, one a blacksmith's son whose muscles strained at his shirt, the other a slender, handsome merchant. Blade wondered who she would choose, for she flirted with both but tolerated no advances. Two nights ago, she had brained a carter with a tankard when he grabbed her, which had amused Blade greatly.
The assassin's gaze flicked to a solitary man in a far corner, whom he suspected of being one of Chiana's spies. The fellow had no friends amongst the patrons, and spent most of his time picking his teeth or fingernails. Blade had not caught the man watching him, but whenever he looked away he sensed eyes upon him.
A shout made him glance around at the attractive serving girl, who struggled with a husky, broken-nosed patron. The blacksmith's son leapt up and rushed to her aid, as did the merchant. The drunken patron went down under the muscular youth's hammer blow, but his friends sprang to his aid as the girl slipped from harm's way. A brawl formed in the centre of the taproom, irate patrons joining in as their tables were upset and tankards emptied onto the floor.
The fracas spread to every corner of the room, and, as the men near Blade jumped up to join in, he leant back and tugged open his collar to reveal the tattoo at the base of his throat. A man reeled from the fray and collided with Blade's table, his eyes lighting when he spied the slender man who sat at it. He lunged at Blade, then spotted the tattoo and recoiled, his face twisted with a mixture of disgust and hate. As he swung away to re-join the fight, Blade glanced around for the regulars he had been studying.
The handsome youth led his lady love to safety, fending off fighters who tried to drag him into the melee. He succumbed, and the girl reached the door without him. There she gazed into the punching mass with grave concern, biting her lip. The married man had already been knocked out, and his lover knelt beside him, trying to coax him back to consciousness. The spy had vanished, probably out of the door next to which he had been sitting, wisely quitting the situation. Blade sat at the back of the taproom, and would have to cross it to reach the door, something he was reluctant to attempt. Although most common men would not seek to engage an assassin in combat, many still found the challenge irresistible.
Blade ducked as a tankard sailed over his head and clattered off the wall behind him, then jumped up as two combatants, locked in a grunting, clothes-tearing wrestling match, collided with his table, upsetting it. He retreated into the corner with his cup of wine, hoping no one would spot him in the shadows. For several minutes he was unmolested, then a man staggered from the fray and collided with him, slopping his wine over his wrist. Blade cursed, and the man turned and swung a punch at the assassin's head, hitting the wall behind him when he ducked.
The patron howled and clutched his hand, attracting the attention of the two men who had sent him staggering into Blade. They noted the tattoo and grinned, thrusting furniture aside to reach him. The man with the bruised knuckles lunged at Blade, clearly intent on tearing him limb from limb. Blade dropped his wine cup, took two quick, light steps back and leapt, kicked the man in the chest and sent him staggering backwards, to crash into a table and lie still. The other two growled and glared as they approached, their fists raised.
Blade glanced around for a safe exit, then headed for the stairway at the back of the room. Several brawlers blocked his way, and the two men chased after Blade as he dived between the pugilists. The punching, reeling men shoved and elbowed the assassin, but were too engrossed in their battles to turn on him. Leaping onto a table to avoid a tight-packed bunch, he left his pursuers behind when they tried to wade through the group and became embroiled in it. Blade reached the stairs and climbed halfway up them, where he turned to survey the brawl.
After several minutes, however, his pursuers fought free of the mob and came after him again. Blade turned and trotted up the stairs, at the top of which was a short passage lined with doors, a window at the far end. Normally he would have gone straight out of the window, but, with only one good arm, it was not an ideal escape route. The nearest door was locked, and he moved on to the next as his pursuers reached the top of the stairs.
The men charged, yelling, and Blade trotted down the passage, deciding that the window may be his only option after all. Alarm prickled through him, then someone grabbed his arm and yanked, spinning him into the wall. The side of his head hit the wood so hard that he rebounded, and everything went black.
Storm glanced around as the Jashimari assassin's pursuers stumbled to a halt and eyed him, looking uncertain. He gestured to the assassin with a gloved hand.
"Do you want him?"
One of the patrons asked, "He's no fun now, is he?"
The other stepped closer, leering. "But you'll do just as well."
Storm reached under his cloak and drew out a curved blade, and the brawlers glanced at each other.
The first patron shrugged. "On the other hand, there's more fun to be had in the taproom."
"A wise decision," Storm murmured.
The men walked away, muttering and casting many suspicious, angry looks back at him. As soon as they vanished down the stairs, Storm tucked away the knife and took hold of the assassin's jacket, dragging him into his room. He locked the door and lifted his catch onto a chair. Grasping the assassin's chin, Storm raised his head to study his sculpted visage, whose clean lines and fine features possessed perfect symmetry and a strange innocence. The lamplight gilded high cheekbones and a narrow nose, and jet hair offset his pale skin. He looked no more than thirty, although he was said to be in his forties. Storm removed a glove and ran his fingers down the assassin's cheek to confirm his identity, smiling at its smoothness.
Drawing a cord from his pocket, he tied Blade's hands behind his back, then took the daggers from his belt and boots and put them on the table nearby. Returning once more to his captive, Storm gazed at him for several minutes, savouring his triumph. The legendary Queen's Blade, reputedly the deadliest assassin to have ever lived, at his mercy. He smiled, then stepped closer and slapped Blade's face.
The assassin woke with a gasp, his head jerking up. He looked dazed at first, then his eyes focussed on his captor. Storm met Blade's frigid gaze, unable to quell a shiver. Rings of dark, stormy grey encircled the ice-pale irises of eyes as cold as a midwinter blizzard. Blade jerked his arms and grimaced as the thin cord cut into his wrists, then tilted his head to study his captor.
Storm smiled. "It's good to finally meet you, Blade. Don't bother denying it, I have been given an excellent description of you, and have already ascertained your identity beyond question. My name is Storm." He stroked the well-trimmed beard that covered his chin. "I had not planned on acquiring you in this manner, but, as luck would have it, you came to me. Providence often shines upon me. I'm blessed."
Blade studied the tall, swarthy man clad in dark grey and black. "You must be the last Contara assassin. I wonder who they executed?"
"No, that was him. I was sent to kill you, not your wife. My client specifically requested that I perform my speciality, which is a slow and painful death. He paid dearly for it too, but then, he can afford it."
Blade's eyes lingered on the man's black hair and beard. "You're Cotti."
"Indeed I am. You're not the only one who's good at disguises. I've been waiting a long time for you. I would have had you at the Grilled Gander, but for that other business."
"I would have noticed you."
"Probably, but I made certain you didn't see me, just as you didn't notice the Contara assassin. He too, kept out of sight, but I saw him. We were almost sharing the same shadows. Of course, he made his move when the boy distracted you. I prefer to do my killing in private."
Blade looked away. "So, Dravis wants his revenge."
"I'm not saying it's Prince Dravis, but you've killed a lot of Cotti princes."
"And a king."
"Indeed. Your tally's impressive, and I really thought I would have more trouble with you. But surprise is a wonderful thing isn't it?"
Blade inclined his head. "Indeed. It's not the first time I've been jumped from behind. Few men have the courage to face me. Of course, it also helps that I'm injured, and a bit drunk."
Storm chuckled. "I'm afraid I've never been one for fair play. Nor do I care if you think me a coward. I can't be goaded."
Blade made a few swift mental notes about his opponent, switching tactics with well-practised ease. "Naturally, a good assassin wouldn't. It's never worked on me, either."
Storm nodded and wandered away a few steps, then swung to face Blade again. "Do you know, amongst Cotti assassins you're known as the Ice Killer. I heard about the fight you had with Ice. The account was most impressive. They expected you to die, of course. Your survival was another source of wonder."
"I find it hard to believe he was the best assassin in Jadaya," Blade said. "He was not that difficult to beat."
"Well, he might have been the best in Jadaya, but not in all of Cotti. I come from Anara, a city to the south."
"Clever Dravis. I should have killed him too, but no one knew where he was hiding. Kerrion wanted him dead. Still does, as far as I know."