There was a time when assassins were safe in the shadows. That was, until the shadows turned against them.
The silhouette of King Ademar’s castle blotted out the stars. Zanzi crouched in the darkness she no longer trusted and listened for soldiers. There was only the whisper of bat’s wings as they flitted overhead.
She had been sent by Balthazar—the master of the Fourth Order of Assassins to which she was blood-sworn—to murder the king’s only son and heir, Prince Hadrian. Not only would she be substantially rewarded, but Endelon would have one less spoiled, devious princeling to worry about.
Zanzi broke away from the cover of the outer wall. The layer of night dew soaked through her boots and dampened her feet. She stole through the castle gardens which teemed with ridiculous dragon topiaries and marble statues of women with far too little clothing draped dramatically in the arms of men wearing even less.
She scowled at the women’s creamy bodies with their soft curves and tumbling waves of hair. She knew it was foolish to hate something that was not real, but she hated them anyway. Because she knew what those sorts of women were like. They never had to worry that the color of their skin might make them a target for slavers, and it was not ruined by scars. They never had to hear children laughing at their short, tightly curled hair. They never had to harden their bodies in order to survive.
Zanzi's brother assassins had no qualms about taunting her for her color when Balthazar’s ear was otherwise occupied. But she embraced their insults with a smile that unnerved them. She was proud of her night-kissed skin which allowed her to meld with the shadows in a way they never could. Balthazar called her his little darkling, and the way he said it with affection and admiration gentling his voice made her feel dangerously beautiful. He had spared her from a life of slavery and adopted her into his Order when she had been seven. Zanzi had learned that it was far better to be an assassin than a slave.
She rolled her eyes as she came upon a sculpture of a nude woman swooning as a man’s hand wandered down her bottom. Unable to control her ire any longer, she drew her double-bladed dagger and hacked off the man’s hand, and then beheaded them both for good measure. She was tempted to hunt down the artist as well and spare the world from suffering any more of his creations.
The satchel at her side quivered and Saleem nosed open the flap to poke out his horned head and scent the air. He was a pygmy dragon, small enough to perch in her hand and with a wingspan no longer than her arm. He blinked his golden eyes at the decapitated statues.
Zanzi scratched the soft leather beneath his chin. “It’s much improved, don’t you agree?” Although she could speak perfect Endelon, she allowed the accent she had fought to retain to inflect her words. It was all she had left of her own people. And it drove Balthazar mad, which gave her dark pleasure.
The dragon snorted. Flecks of sparks flared from his nostrils and skimmed her arm with their warmth.
“Of course I shouldn’t have done it, but can you blame me? I’d say I did Ademar a favor.”
Saleem nipped her finger.
“I know I’m not here to prune his perverted sculptures, I’m here to murder his son.” Zanzi sheathed her dagger and continued through the gardens. She swatted aside a horde of puffy pink blossoms the size of cabbages. “Besides, I doubt the guards will even notice the fortunate demise of one of these statues.”
The dragon wriggled free from the satchel to scurry up onto her shoulder, and the light, swift prick his claws tickled her side. She stole past lacy hemlock, bell-shaped nightshade, and alluring violet aconite, all of which she could turn from innocent blossom to exquisite poison with ease. The remaining multitude of useless flowers that overran the garden she had never bothered to learn the names of.
Saleem stiffened and dug his talons into her shoulder. He gave a warning hiss. Moments later, Zanzi heard the crunch of pebbles beneath clomping boots. She darted past a marble sundial and ducked behind an arbor which was draped in—
She recoiled and bit her tongue to stifle a cry. Roses smothered the wooden frame. Their perfumed aroma made her stomach heave, and their velvet-smooth petals taunted her from within a nest of thorns. Against her will, her fingers strayed to trace the scars against her throat. Saleem sensed her unease and snapped his teeth.
She had been eight when Balthazar had first sent her to gather hemlock. When she had returned instead with an armful of blushing roses far more handsome, she had expected him to share her delight at her discovery. But Balthazar had thrown the roses to the ground and crushed them beneath his boot.
He had twisted a collar of thorns around her neck, and knotted to it a rope so that he could drag her around like a dog. Any resistance was rewarded with a jerk that sent a flare of stinging pain through her as the thorns sliced into her skin and released a trickle of warm blood. Eating, drinking, and even breathing became agony. After eight days, Zanzi finally succumbed to her suffering and submitted. The lesson had been clear—the only desires she was allowed to have were those of her master.
Saleem nuzzled her cheek, and when Zanzi did not respond he snorted smoke. He then spat a mouthful of flame at the roses and their petals began to curl and char.
“Saleem!” Zanzi hastened to blow out the flames. She peered through a gap in the arbor to see if the soldier had noticed, but he was already blundering in the opposite direction. “Are you trying to get us caught?”
The dragon flicked his ridged tail and grawgled, a sound he made that was not quite a growl and not quite a gurgle.
“Keep watch,” she whispered as she crept out from her hiding place and continued towards the castle.
But it wasn’t the guards she was worried about. Saleem could see what Zanzi could not—he was not blind to the deceptions of the shadows. She would not fall to the darkness. Not tonight. Unease prickled the hairs on her arms as her gaze swept the shadows, and she told herself that she was only imagining the sensation that she was being watched by them.