Zanzi crept toward the prince’s four-poster bed, her dagger drawn. She shoved aside the silk canopy and the sallow moonlight revealed a figure buried beneath a goose feather throw. Saleem leapt from her shoulder to cling to one of the wooden posts, his claws scrabbling against the wood. She peeled back the edge of the throw to expose the prince. Her dagger nearly slipped from her fingers and she took a step back. This was Prince Hadrian?
Her stomach clenched as she stared at the young boy sleeping in his bed, unaware that death hovered over him. He couldn’t be more than what, eight? Nine? Not much older than herself when she had joined the Fourth Order. And not much older than her brothers had been the day her family had been slaughtered by raiders and she had been sold to slavers. Zanzi gritted her teeth and turned from the bed.
A child. Balthazar expected her to murder a child? Was this another one of his cruel lessons?
Her grip tightened upon her dagger and she stalked back to the bed. Fine. She would pass his stupid test just as she had all the others. What was one prince to her, anyway? She had killed husbands as they slept beside their wives, and left fathers with their throats slit for their children to find. How was this any different?
Zanzi laid the edge of her blade against the boy’s smooth throat. His eyelashes fluttered but he did not wake. Just one quick slice, little more than a twitch of her hand, and she could be done with this. Saleem stared at her with reproachful golden eyes and grawgled.
“It must be done,” she snapped. “I have no choice.”
This boy would probably grow to be a tyrant anyway, and Endelon had plenty of those already. She applied pressure to the blade and it threatened to sink into the prince’s soft throat. Her hand stilled. But what if he didn’t? What if he was to be the one to restore peace to Endelon? How could she know?
Zanzi closed her eyes. It was as though she could once again feel Balthazar’s thorn collar constricting her neck and embedding itself into her skin. Her desires did not exist, only those of her master.
But she did not want to kill this boy.
Zanzi’s hand began to tremble upon the blade. She squeezed her eyes shut. Don’t look. Don’t think. Just do it. She raised the dagger and plunged it towards the prince.
She jerked the blade from its course at the last moment and it swished through air instead. The boy slept on. Zanzi staggered away from the bed and crumpled to her knees in the middle of the room. She couldn’t do it. She wouldn’t. She doubled over, breathing heavily, as nausea churned within her. Tears of anger and frustration pricked her eyes, and before she knew it they had overwhelmed her and she began to weep. She knew what this act of defiance would cost her.
She had always told herself that she didn’t have a choice—that she had to kill in order to survive, and surviving made her strong. But this was the lie she chose to believe so she could live with herself. The truth was, she was weak. She was too terrified to find the strength to stand against Balthazar and refuse his orders because it would mean forfeiting her life. And she would rather take the lives of others than lose her own.
She was nothing more than a coward bowing to her master's will. A bitter smile twisted her lips and she licked away salty tears. She had always thought that it was better to be an assassin than a slave. But they were the same thing.
Saleem nuzzled her hand and Zanzi scratched him beneath the chin as her tears dripped onto his sleek scales.
“For once, I want my life to belong to me,” she whispered.
“Who are you? Why are you in my chambers?”
Zanzi leapt to her feet and whirled around, dagger raised, to find Prince Hadrian standing before her. He stumbled backwards and bumped into the bed, his eyes as round as a screech owl’s. She watched those eyes flit from her tears to the blood streaked over her tunic to the weapon in her hand, his face growing paler with each discovery.
Zanzi wiped a sleeve across her face roughly. She scowled at the boy, embarrassed that he had witnessed her moment of weakness.
“Guards!” Hadrian shouted. He pressed himself against the bed.
“They won’t hear you. They’re dead.” Zanzi hated how indifferent her voice sounded as she said this.
The boy had begun to tremble, though he still dared to look her in the eyes. “Are you going to kill me too?”
Zanzi dropped her gaze, unable to bear the sight of this child cowering before her. “No.” Irritated by her shame, she prowled towards him and pressed her dagger against his throat. “But don’t make me regret sparing your life.”
The urgent, clanging notes of a bell filled the night--King Ademar’s men knew she was here. It was about time. Zanzi pulled back from the young prince, and she heard him release the breath he had been holding.
“Come, Saleem,” Zanzi said as she strode toward the door, and the dragon flew to her shoulder.
Balthazar would send men after her, she knew. But she would not run or hide or wait to die. She would use the skills he had taught her to hunt them, and she would drag as many of them down to hell with her as she could before death finally claimed her. They would not remember her as the Lioness of Endelon, but as the Darkling who had ravaged the Fourth Order of assassins.