Chapter 1

 

I SHOULD have been dead by now.

A wall of stone blocked the tunnel entrance. Instead of colliding with rock, I walked through the illusion, leaving the dark cold Sardonen desert behind. My arrival activated the string of flickering lights overhead.

I had to be crazy to come back.

Thin, brittle bones protruded from the hard-packed earth. They lined the walls from the dirt floor up to the tunnel’s ceiling. Skeletal fingers reached for me, clawing their way free from their rocky prison with each tremor and landslide that had plagued this world for hundreds of years. They caught on sleeves and pant legs wherever the passage narrowed, drawing the living to the deceased one thread at a time.

It was a barbaric way to dispose of our dead. In an age of disintegrators and molecular recyclers, the masters of the Assassins’ Guild held steadfast to their traditions; tradition taught lessons to those who came after.

Like me. I’d learned this lesson: Assassins who erred died young.

I swear, under penalty of death, to uphold the rules of the Guild, to protect its secrets, to defend the defenseless, to take a life only when deemed necessary by the Guild Leader, or in self-defense, or in defense of the Guild, to fulfill the contracts I accept…. Until now. The oath echoed in my head, pounding against my brain in painful pulses. Guilt and fear vied with rage, tearing at my intestines.

No, I could do this. I could state my case, defend it, work something out. They wouldn’t hold me to the death penalty. They couldn’t. My breath came in heavy puffs. I sealed my black flight jacket with one quick jerk of the zipper and plowed onward. Anger and determination carried me. I needed to ride that wave before it crested and evaporated.

Ahead, the light grew brighter. I slowed, then stopped at the entrance to a wide man-made chamber. I snapped the leather strap closed over the grip of the laser pistol at my side and tucked the hilt of my knife farther into my right boot. Reaching behind my head, I unfastened a matte black clasp and tucked it into my jacket pocket, letting my hair fall in a flow of inky darkness. It settled on my shoulders, heavy, thick, and straight.

Someone like me couldn’t present a less threatening appearance, short of wearing a dress. I hadn’t willingly worn a dress in all my twenty-nine years.

Absently, I rubbed at the cuff over my left wrist. The Guild tattoo itched incessantly, no matter how often the others told me it was all in my head. I stepped into the light.

The greeting chamber extended before me. If I squinted, I could make out the domed ceiling above, higher than a two-story building and shrouded by shadow. An irregular opening in the center let in minimal starlight and allowed smoke from the fire to escape. Ornate columns carved from local stone prevented the roof from caving in despite regular seismic tremors. The circular space could hold the entire Guild, all ninety-nine of us, ten times over. Low temporary dividers separated it into work, eating, and rest areas.

This had all been above ground before quakes decimated a rocky desert outcropping and buried the structure. Evidence of windows and blocked doorways remained in the fractured walls. No one knew its former purpose, but a cracked marble altar stood at one end, suggesting possible religious significance.

Ironic—a place of worship had become a training ground for murderers.

I bit my lower lip hard enough to taste blood—anything to prevent the shedding of tears. The term “murderers” never would have occurred to me before five days ago.

The flames thrived and danced in the central firepit, fed by a team of apprentices morning, midday, and night since the origination of the Guild. The oldest records and journal entries described the smoke as a constant annoyance. Later generations installed the metal ventilation shaft above the pit, drawing the smoke to the ceiling aperture, where it would release into the desert. Hundreds of steam geysers dotted the sandy surface—one of the many sources of seismic instability. Despite a slight variance in color, the assassins’ smoke went unnoticed. Assassins needed to have a camouflaged safe haven, and its isolation added to its invisibility.

Micah waited by the altar, his stance deceptively casual. The loose black training tunic hung over brown trousers to his upper thighs and covered muscles I’d once traced with my fingertips. Bright blue eyes under thick dark hair bore into my soul, seeing everything: my failures, weaknesses, and needs. “Come in, Corianne.” His use of my birth name tightened the muscles around my mouth. Nothing so melodious should apply to a master assassin. Everyone called me Cor. Micah’s voice was little more than a whisper, but those who stood behind the altar could be heard in every part of the open area—even speaking at low volume. Such were the acoustics of this room. Useful for training purposes.

While he crossed to the fire and stood beside it, I scanned the other sections of the only home I could remember. At least a dozen of the masters inhabited the Guild at any given time, and twice as many apprentices. The sleeping area should have been dotted with rolled-out smart mattresses that conformed to and cushioned tired bodies. Murmured conversation should have drifted from lowered heads around the docken-wood dining tables while masters consumed bowls of vegetable stew and mugs of ale.

Micah and I were alone. That realization raised the hairs at the nape of my neck. My hand dropped to rest on the grip of my holstered pistol. His eyes followed the motion, as I knew they would. The folds of his tunic hid his hands from my view.

A grinding noise jerked my attention to the entrance, where a steel door slid into place. I’d known of its existence. I’d seen it used before, but I’d clung to foolish hope Micah’s affections would prevent its use on me.

“You have a purpose. State it.” The commanding tone carried his words in echoes that bounced off the chamber walls. If I reached out far enough, I could touch his anger. It filled the room and threatened to suffocate me.

My jaw muscles clenched so tightly, I could barely force the words from my lips, but I spat them like tossed coins at a beggar’s feet. “I renounce my master’s status. I resign from the Guild.” There. Done. The speech sealed my fate. Whatever the next few minutes brought, there was no going back. It hurt more than I imagined.

Even from this distance, I saw his shoulders slump. He’d wished for a different outcome, maybe hoped I’d agree to go back and finish what I’d started. Not going to happen. Nice to know our relationship counted for something, though. Maybe I could use that.

My musing almost cost me my life as he drew a tiny pistol from a hidden wrist holster. He fired once, the beam of energy slashing the air between us. I lunged to the right and felt the tingling in my skin that always followed near-death. The burst struck the wall with a flash that threw sparks from the stone.

I’d gotten lucky. Micah rarely missed.

A dive to the left carried me over the closest divider and into the sleeping area. Several mattresses softened my landing, and I rolled to crawl back and peer over the partition. Micah had gone the opposite direction, into the dining section. He ducked under a table, then flipped it on its side as a barrier. Docken wood was partially petrified, prized for its hardness. I snapped the strap off my much larger, more powerful laser and drew it into the palm of my hand, fingers wrapping around the custom grip.

A standoff meant my eventual defeat. The other Guild members wouldn’t stay away forever. If I pursued Micah, he would shoot me. Instead I fired two shots, one at the ventilation shaft, knocking it askew, and another into the fire itself. It surged and roared, scattering embers and bits of wood in every direction. Billows of smoke poured from the enraged flames, carrying into other sections and obscuring vision. Stifling a cough with my free hand, I plunged into the ashy cloud cover and lost myself.

My eyes burned and teared as I circled the pit, hoping to approach Micah from behind. Pockets of drifting smoke floated like lost spirits—the ghosts of my victims, rising to seek their revenge.

A blur of motion launched from the smoke, tackled me to the ground, and slammed my gun hand against the polished marble floor. My bruised fingers released, and the weapon skittered across the smooth surface, disappearing into the shadows.

That’s it. I was dead. No real disgrace. He was Guild Leader for a reason. So why hadn’t he shot me already?

Micah’s weight pressed me down. He struck me hard enough across the face my vision blurred for a second, and I felt the shock wave run down my spine. “Why?” he demanded, breath hot against my cheek. I smelled the red wine he preferred in overabundant amounts. His decision to carry out Guild law had not come easily. Maybe he still had feelings for me.

I pictured fresh-faced, blue-eyed innocence under a mane of curly blond hair—my last assignment—and the bile rose in my throat. My Guildmates nicknamed me the Core of Sardonen, a play on my name, because they claimed I was the heart of the Guild. That heart cost me everything.

I spat in Micah’s face while I struggled to think of something else to say. The saliva ran down the side of his wide nose. “You sent me to kill a child.” The growl made my voice unrecognizable, even to me.

“A tyrant. His rulings have ended thousands of lives. You should have fulfilled the damn contract. Coming back here… you’ve left me few choices.”

Conversation equaled distraction. I drew my legs up to place my feet flat on the floor and thrust with my hips, twisting my torso. The sudden motion knocked him off-balance, and we rolled toward the edge of the firepit. His hand came down on a chunk of burning kindling. His cry of pain tore at me.

I looked sideways at him. Micah still gripped me with his left hand, but his opposite sleeve and the skin of his gun hand were aflame. He flung the tiny pistol, its metal superheated. It vanished into the fire. We shoved apart. Micah beat his burning clothing against his hip. My head met the stone floor, creating sparkles at the edges of my already spotty vision, but I rocked back for momentum and gained my feet in one move, panting. A flash of fabric caught my eye as Micah’s tunic disappeared behind another partition.

“He was a puppet, Mic!” I drew breath to continue but expelled the air in a wracking cough. My eyes streamed tears from the ash, and more. “The Gibran council made the decisions. His guardian pulled the strings.” I slipped the knife from my boot and strained my ears, listening for any cue that would give away Micah’s exact position. No human sound carried to me, only the crackling of burning wood and the creak of the ventilation shaft swinging overhead where I’d half detached it from its moorings. Micah taught me everything I knew about stalking prey. I didn’t expect to detect—

An arm wrapped around my shoulders and across my chest. I threw my weight forward, tossing him over my back to land with a thud and a grunt and a stirring of dust.

In an instant I’d straddled him. Memories of the two of us in similar positions under much more pleasant circumstances threatened to break my concentration. I shook my head once, viciously, and held my knife at his throat.

His gaze met mine. My hair brushed his cheeks. I noticed the stubble there, and this close I could see the shadows beneath his eyes. How long had he known of my refusal? Three days’ transit by star freighter from Gibran to Sardonen, another day to cross the desert in my aircar and refuel at the oasis city of Weathered Palms, then an hour to the Guild’s hidden base of operations. He’d had plenty of time to consider this moment.

My voice softened. “The Guild can’t know everything, Micah. Even you make mistakes. Admit it, dammit. Admit you were wrong. Let me walk away.” As I’d been taught, as he taught me, I’d returned to face my fate with honor. I’d resigned. If he admitted his personal error in accepting the contract for the Guild, my loss of status and livelihood would be punishment enough for me. Of course, it would also end him as Guild Leader.

What worth did he place on loyalty? On love, even love long lost? Time ceased to pass while I awaited his response.

“We are bound by the contracts we accept, Cor.” His breath wheezed in his chest.

What pieces of my heart he’d left me plummeted to the soles of my boots.

No doubt now where his priorities lay. I’d thrown myself on his mercy. I wouldn’t throw myself on his sword. Rigid adherence to Guild rules ended our relationship. That same rigidity would end one of our lives. More bones for the corridor walls. I’d been a fool to think I could depend on our relationship to convince him not to kill me. “I don’t kill kids.” My tone dropped to a whisper. “You couldn’t have done it. He was younger than an apprentice—thirteen at most. We do what we do to protect the innocent. It’s the only thing that makes this profession tolerable. You asked me to become a monster.”

“Thirteen….” Micah’s eyes closed. He drew a shuddering breath and released it.

A horrible understanding dawned.

Too easy. He realized what he’d done—no doubt after the fact—but he knew. With one order he’d destroyed everything I’d trained for, everything I was. My home, my friends, my livelihood—he’d taken them all with his one bad decision as Guild Leader to send me after that child. He knew. And he regretted it.

By coming back, I’d forced him to choose. My life and his humiliation or my death and his eternal guilt. But there was a third choice I’d initially failed to see.

No witnesses. He’d dismissed everyone so he could let me win this fight. Avoiding that first attack with the pistol shot hadn’t been luck. He’d missed intentionally. No other explanation made any sense. Micah trained me himself. Even drunk, he would always best me in combat. Besides some minor scrapes and bruises, I was unharmed.

He hadn’t sealed the entrance to keep me in. He’d locked it to keep others out, in case they returned ahead of schedule. Ahead of me killing him and getting away. Of course, even if I escaped, they’d hunt me. But I’d be alive and free, and he’d die a hero’s death.

The realization shook me, along with another, deeper epiphany.

I didn’t care. I didn’t care about Guild law or losing my status. And I wouldn’t make him a martyr to preserve his precious ego.

Few assassins lived to twenty-nine, even fewer to Micah’s thirty-five. I’d taken enough lives. Time to start living my own—by my rules, not theirs.

Little by little, I eased my blade away from my former lover’s throat. We could reach a compromise that would permit us both to live. Would my infliction of a severe enough beating allow him not to lose face for failing to kill me? Maybe if I drugged him first. “Micah—”

In a swift movement worthy of a master, he seized my wrist in his left hand. One slice and he’d drawn the knife across his own jugular. My scream echoed off the walls of the chamber, bouncing back to me in taunting waves of agony.

I couldn’t remember the last time I’d screamed.

Yes, I could—in pleasure. With Micah.

Blood poured, drenching my hands in sticky warmth. The weapon slipped from my wet fingers. I jerked away from the gaping wound, hideous like a macabre smile. My eyes went to Mic’s face, but life had already left him. His head lolled, and a dark pool formed on the stone. The scent of iron overpowered the smoke.

I gagged once, swallowed, then gagged again and lost the battle, vomiting until my abdomen ached. I continued to dry heave, my intestines wrenching like the wringing of a wet towel.

I’d been exposed to plenty of blood and gore in my profession. This certainly wasn’t the first friend I’d seen die. But it was the first time I’d held the weapon.

I screamed again, putting all my rage and frustration behind the sound. “You bastard!” The words strangled from my tightened throat while my open palms slammed the stone floor. Micah had stolen my choices from me. Again.

Time passed, I’m not sure how much, but breathing grew more and more difficult as smoke filled the room. Knees shaky, I staggered to my feet, then nearly fell when the chamber tilted and swam. Oxygen deprivation. I needed to get out.

Despite the urgency, I stumbled to the sleeping area, locating the lockers built into the partition. Tears blurred my vision, and I found my storage space by feel and habit. It took three tries to enter the release code on the keypad, one of the few evidences of modern technology in the Guild house. When it snapped open, I dumped its contents and clawed through them for whatever I could easily carry: a spare pistol and back holster, another knife (I wasn’t retrieving my favorite one), a holocube. I could have used the change of clothes, another set of working gear. However, I’d left my satchel in the aircar on the surface. I cut a strip from a shirt and wrapped it around my mouth and nose.

Now for the door. I weaved my way to Micah’s corpse, aware of my unsteady limbs. My thumping heart reverberated in my chest and head, building to a migraine crescendo that finally dropped me to my knees beside the body. The impact clicked my teeth together in an audible snap.

I made the error of glancing at his face one last time, but this slack, lifeless mask wasn’t the man I’d loved, the man who’d saved me and given me a purpose in life.

It had been months since he’d been that man, almost a year since he’d chosen the Guild over me.

I forced myself to look away.

Like detached things, my hands slid beneath his tunic, fumbling for his belt and the door release I’d find there. The lingering warmth of his skin seeped into my fingertips, renewing my nausea, but I fought it down. No more time. Darkness encroached on the edges of my vision.

I closed my grip around the device, found the signal switch, and flipped it. The shriek of metal on stone sent my headache to new heights of agony, and I blinked repeatedly before standing to face the door.

Three master assassins blocked my exit.

At least I thought there were three. The way my eyesight was distorted, I could have been mistaken. Three or ten, it didn’t matter. One would best me in my current condition.

I’d watched my lover kill himself, nearly asphyxiated on smoke, gotten the door open, and I still wasn’t going to get away. Part of me wanted to shatter.

The masters glanced from me, wavering and covered in blood not my own, to Micah. It gave me time to identify them: Benn, Alek, and Yesenia. Benn, whom I’d always considered a friend, hesitated. Yesenia shouted with rage. I had a half second to react before she and Alek drew their knives and flung them.

I dive-rolled behind the firepit, where the smoke clung thickest and the flames roiled. One of the blades missed, but the second drove into my back, just below my right shoulder. I smothered a shriek of pain beneath a choked sob and crouched, considering my options. There were frighteningly few, and judging from all the motion in the room, Benn had decided to join the attack against me. I swallowed my hurt and surprise. Assassins had no permanent friends.

One thing in my favor—all three wore training clothes, not working gear. I’d have the only laser in the room, not that I could aim it with my head swimming, but it was something. Micah must have planned this, sent them out on some minimalist survival expedition so if they returned early, I’d have a small advantage. Small consolation, knowing he wanted me to live, but better than nothing.

A trickle of sweat, or maybe blood, ran down my back. It traced odd patterns beneath my clothing, reminding me of nights Micah had done the same with his fingertips. I shook myself, earning an agonizing burst of pain for my efforts. Since the blade didn’t feel terribly deep, I reached over my shoulder with my left hand, grasped the knife hilt, and yanked once, hard. The weapon slid from skin and muscle with a sound like a baby suckling. This time I did cry out, though the crackling flames drowned it.

The masters approached with caution. They needn’t have bothered. My right arm hung useless; my head spun. I’ve never been much for religions or gods, but I turned my face upward, toward the ventilation hole in the chamber ceiling. Before I could offer up a random prayer, I froze, staring.

My fingers scrabbled at my belt, drawing the thin grappling line from its pouch a meter at a time so the wire zinged; I cringed at the noise, but I didn’t have time for quiet action. The duroclamp at its end activated with the press of a button, and I hurled it, straight up into the billowing smoke. It continued to unwind from its container, homing sensors searching for something to dig into, built-in impellers carrying it farther than my waning strength could throw. I worried it might not have enough length, when it went taut.

Its powerful miniaturized motor activated instantly, and I was jerked off the floor by the waist before I had a chance to grip the line with my good hand. Flailing like a fledgling bird, I presented an easy target to my former comrades. Another knife embedded itself in my thigh, then went deeper when I collided with the exterior of the ventilation shaft, clanging up along its outer casing like some deranged bell-ringer until the duct work stopped two meters short of the ceiling. I sucked air through my teeth and willed myself to remain conscious. At last I finally managed to wrap my fingers around the cord and pull my torso upright.

I rose higher, the ground swirling dizzyingly below, and hit the overhead stone surrounding the hole. The grapple motor strained to finish retrieval of the line. Contorting myself, I bent at the waist to fit my body through the opening. I tore several holes in my clothing squeezing through the tight space and forced the knife in another several centimeters until its blade no longer showed. Blood ran in a river from the wound.

One-handed, I clawed at the sand around the jagged aperture, finally grasping a rock to aid the grapple in its job. I flopped on the dirt like a dying fish, ripped the fabric from my face, and gasped air through my mouth and nose in delicious gulps.

I couldn’t imagine moving, but I wasn’t out of this yet. Below, I could barely make out shouting, and in the distance, an aircar engine roared to life.

Wonderful.