The girl in the assassin costume sighed, this was quite possibly the most ridiculous thing she had ever seen. She glanced around the immense ballroom of the spectacular Winter Palace at the revellers dancing, drinking, parading and flirting to celebrate the coming of spring to Ashtan. A party in the palace - with several members of the royal family in attendance - where everyone was dressed up as some sort of denizen of the criminal underworld, most with faces at least partially obscured, was extraordinarily reckless, no matter how many guards scowled at them from the walls and mezzanine, bows and swords in hand. If she wanted to, she could kill anyone here before a single one of them even knew what was happening: the thought of which, she had to admit, gave her a grim sort of pleasure. She doubted the King, away in the East inspecting the fortifications at the coast would have sanctioned this frivolous insanity. Queen Alessandra was on the dais at the northern end of the great room, seated on her magnificent throne of sculpted black marble which glittered in the torchlight as if it were itself aflame. She looked down on proceedings with an amused haughty expression, occasionally saying something to the lady in waiting to her left whose costume seemed to consist of an extremely low cut red silk dress, a red lace mask which only covered her eyes and a sack at her feet inscribed with the word ‘loot’ in very elegant calligraphy: pathetic. The Queen’s own character for the evening was clear enough, and Lieava smiled to herself at the cleverness of it: she wore no mask and was dressed in a stunning velvet gown as black as midnight, with a long train that fanned out around her feet. Her long, straight, raven hair hung loose down her back like a shimmering veil and she wore an enormous ruby pendant on a gold chain around her neck which seemed to glow from within: she was Nadira, Queen of the mythical Underworld, a delicious twist on the theme of the evening. Alessandra had been called the Jewel of Ashtan when she married the King at 18, and was still a great beauty over 25 years later. To her right, occupying the throne that would eventually be his, sat her eldest son, Prince Aidan. He was not in character at all as far as Lieava could tell; he wore plain black trousers with an elegant black velvet tunic, emblazoned in silver with an eagle, the emblem of Ashtan, and an expression of annoyance which suggested that he did not approve of the evening’s festivities. His hands were clenched on the arms of the throne and his clear grey eyes swept the room as if he was looking for trouble. At least there was one sensible person here besides herself.
From the snippets of conversation the assassin caught as people drifted around her, she gathered that most of the assembled courtiers thought that having an underworld themed party was a terrific jest and a chance to behave in as debauched a fashion as they liked. She suspected the disguises they wore tonight gave them a chance to show the true faces they usually hid behind masks of civility and courtliness. Little did they appreciate however, the irony that amongst the fake assassins, thieves, pirates, highwaymen, ladies of the night and mercenaries playing at malevolence, a real killer was prowling. What would they think if they knew that Rodanh’s Wolf stalked amongst them? It had been ridiculously easy to attach herself to the rear of a party of lesser nobles and walk right into the home of the Ashtani royal family completely unchallenged. Nobody had even bothered to search her for weapons, and there were plenty concealed on her person. Still, at least she hadn’t had to buy a new outfit. She had dressed herself, as she usually did for these missions, in black leather trousers which fitted closely to her skin and kept her warm, a plain black tunic, supple leather boots which allowed her to move noiselessly down hallways and along rooftops, and a black woollen cloak with a hood. As this was a party she had made an effort to look more amateurish than usual and had swapped her customary plain black mask for a silver affair which still covered most of her face, but was decorated with sparkling crystals and she had swept her ebony hair up into one of the elaborate styles that was the fashion amongst the young noble women of Ashtan. She reached up and attempted to subtly adjust one of the many hair pins that was currently digging into her scalp and then stepped neatly to the side as a drunken pirate, his eye-patch now covering an ear, careened towards her, drink sploshing all over his billowing white shirt and onto the floor. She clicked her tongue in distaste, the sooner she got out of here the better. She scanned the room for her target but he was nowhere to be seen as yet, though she knew he would be attending. The assassin had been watching him for several days now and could have killed the traitor at any point, had felt her fingers itching for her bow frequently, but had decided to see what he was up to. It could not be for innocent reasons that he had suddenly reappeared so close to Ninfal after so long in hiding in distant lands.
As the ongoing merriment flowed around her Lieava wondered how long she would go on like this. It was the perfect cover, really. Who expected the King of Ninfal’s small, notoriously shy, female little cousin to go around assassinating people? Of course, everyone knew about the seven years she had spent wandering the world while the war against the Caliosh invaders raged in Ninfal, but they all assumed that she’d only survived because of Toshan, she’d been merely a child after all. Very few knew that for the past five years, since she was fifteen and the King’s previous assassin had met an unfortunate end, she had been hunting down those who had betrayed Ninfal and visiting bloody retribution upon them. She had been seeking Cranan’s head for a long time, waiting, until he had finally surfaced recently in Ashtan’s capital, and if he thought now that he’d gotten away with his treachery, then he was soon going to find himself very much mistaken. She was going to take him apart piece by piece as so many of her people had been.
Cranan appeared then, at the opposite end of the ballroom, talking to a group of men dressed as a band of Saloren mercenaries in loose red pants, black vests and bandanas, swirling tattoos that were already smudged trailing across their skin. Rage flamed inside her as she beheld his smiling face, laughing at some joke that one of his companions told. Well, the assassin would be the one laughing later, she was going to take immense pleasure in killing him. She weaved through the crowd toward him and took up a position next to a table covered in drinks where she could listen to his conversation. The band of ragged mercenaries had drifted off towards the dancing and Lieava watched closely as a short figure in an obviously finely tailored highwayman costume approached Cranan and spoke without looking at him: “Why you wanted to make the exchange here, is a mystery to me Cranan. I’d heard you liked to gamble, but this seems beyond reckless. My master will not be happy if we are caught.”
Cranan laughed, a hollow sound that raised the hairs on Lieava’s neck. “Come now,” he replied, “don’t be boring. What could be more amusing that selling the host’s secrets at his own party?” Lieava’s breath caught in her throat: in Ninfal they had thought Cranan had merely gone into hiding once the killing of the traitors had begun and he had realised what was coming for him, but what if he had been acting as a spy all this time? How many secrets did he have for sale? She feared that she had not caught up with him soon enough. The highwayman was now glaring sidelong at Cranan, who began to reach into his pocket and said, “I see that you are not enjoying the festivities as much as I. Very well, shall we make the trade?”
“Not here” seethed the highwayman, “Are you mad? Let us find a room somewhere.” Cranan fixed a contemptuous smile on his companion and motioned with a nod of his head for him to follow as he left the ballroom and headed towards a staircase. Lieava followed at a distance as they made their way up the stairs to the second floor of the palace, and along a corridor lined with ugly old-fashioned paintings of hunting scenes. She heard faint laughter and voices emanating from behind some of the closed doors: evidently this was where guests came if they wanted to have a more intimate sort of party. Cranan and the highwayman went into one of the rooms on the right, the side that must look out over the rear of the palace, Lieava realised. She crept to the door and put her ear to the keyhole.
“What? Don’t you trust me Virat?” She recognised Cranan’s voice.
“You’ll get your money when I’ve seen the papers”. There was a rustling sound of paper being withdrawn from a pocket and set down. “Well, this is very interesting indeed. My master will be pleased.”
Just then, the assassin’s keen ears heard footsteps on the stairs at the far end of the corridor. Decision made in an instant, she drew a short blade hidden in her wrist brace and slipped inside the door. She cut the highwayman’s throat before he even had time to turn around and pushed his body into the corner behind the door. Cranan was gaping at her and Lieava flashed him a predatory grin and spoke in Ashtani; “I am sorry, am I interrupting something?” He lifted his chin, glancing at the papers on the table, and composure apparently regained, hissed at her, ”Who are you? What do you want with me?” Her grin widened as she slipped into their native Ninfallan and almost whispered “Can’t you guess? I’ve come for your head, Cranan.” He narrowed his sharp little eyes at her, calculating. “You? You are Rodanh’s Wolf? But that’s impossible, you’re just a girl.” The assassin sighed. It was like this every time. Frankly, it was getting dull. “Yes,” she replied, irritated, “I’m a wo…”. But she never got to finish the sentence as Cranan lunged across the room at her. She was surprised and he managed to knock the blade from her hand but she was still faster than he was; she twirled out of his reach, seized the back of his jacket and flung him into the far wall. She was about to draw another blade when he lunged again and grabbed her by the throat. He was surprisingly strong, but she was better. She reached up and slammed his head into the wall with as much force as she could muster when she couldn’t actually breathe. He released her and reeled backwards, looking furious. Smirking like a demon, she was about to advance upon him once more when the door flew open, hitting the highwayman’s body with an unpleasant thud, but obscuring it from view. Cranan moved towards her but a man appeared, brandishing a crossbow that was pointed at his heart, and he froze. Lieava froze too as the man entered the room. He was young, perhaps a couple of years older than her and tall, with tousled dark brown hair, pale skin and large dark brown eyes. She might have thought him handsome, had she not been too busy considering how she might relieve him of the crossbow. She did notice that he, like herself, was dressed head to toe in black, but with a harness on his back which had evidently held the crossbow until a moment ago. The realisation that he had come to the party dressed as an assassin nearly made her laugh out loud: it would have been almost funny were it not for the fact that now she would probably have to kill him too.
The man looked between Cranan and herself until his eyes rested on her throat, it still burned where Cranan had crushed it and she supposed there must be visible marks. The stranger spoke at last: “What is going on here? Are you trying to harm this woman?” Cranan almost choked and this sudden change in demeanour caused her to cast a surprised glance his way as he hurriedly replied “No! She is trying to kill me! She is an assassin”. The man looked disbelievingly at her, and the assassin tried to hide her annoyance and approximate an expression of innocence and distress. “Her?” he said, “That small young lady with hand marks on her throat is an assassin?” Lieava wondered if she could get to him quickly enough that he wouldn’t be able to shoot her. As this absurd scene progressed she was feeling an increasingly strong urge to run someone through. Cranan continued, “Your Highness, please, do not be deceived. If you will look to your right you will see the body of another of your guests whom she has already murdered this evening.” Your Highness? Oh, crap, no. Horror washed over Lieava as her gaze came to rest on the hand holding the crossbow and she saw that it also bore a ring of silver, adorned with a pair of eagle wings. It was the royal seal. This was obviously the King’s second son, Prince James, affectionately known by all in his kingdom as Jamie. The three of them looked down at the same time and saw Virat’s foot sticking out from behind the door. Damn it. And now the crossbow was aimed at her heart. She had to end this, it would be mortifying if she was shot by a fancy-dress assassin.
Her mind raced as she quickly started to weigh her options. To her side Cranan was surveying her with a smug expression that she wanted to punch right off his face. Now that he knew who she was and why she was here, Cranan had to die tonight. She couldn’t risk him slipping away again after it had taken so long to find him in the first place. She cursed herself for not having put an arrow through his eye the second she saw him. She had to get those papers too, who knew what was on those? And she had to get out of the palace as soon as possible before this got even more out of control and without harming the Prince now that she knew who he was. Leaving witnesses was never a good idea but Lieava had a feeling that assassinating the second in line to the throne would take this from unfortunate diplomatic incident to full scale act of war.
She tried to sound convincingly afraid as she said in her best Ashtani accent; “But, Your Highness can’t think I did that, I could never!” The Prince began to look uncertainly between his two captives and as he unconsciously lowered the crossbow, Lieava seized her chance and leapt forward. A swift kick to the stomach was enough to drop him to his knees and make him relinquish his hold on the weapon. She was satisfied to see it fire as it jolted onto the ground and the arrow bury itself in Cranan’s calf. He barely had time to cry out in pain before the assassin had whirled, pulled the dagger from her boot and plunged it into his heart, killing him in an instant and silencing his treacherous tongue forever. It was too quick a death for a traitor like Cranan, but there was no time. She turned back to the Prince to see him looking at her in shock as he began to stand. Lightning fast, before he could move to avoid it, she brought her knee up to his face and sent him down again, blood pouring from his nose, the sight of which sent a brief pang of regret through her. Quickly smothering the feeling, Lieava quickly turned her attention to gathering the papers which were now strewn across the table, snatching them up and stuffing them into a pocket of her cloak. Beginning to contemplate her exit, out of the corner of her eye she saw the Prince, gripping the table with one hand, reaching for the crossbow with the other and attempting to rise once more. A snarl of annoyance rose to her lips. Dear God, he just didn’t give up, did he? She turned to him and spat out: “For God’s sake, just stay down will you? I don’t want to hurt you!” He paused, looking incredulous, no doubt at the now apparently reluctant assassin whom he had just witnessed murder a man without hesitation and who had most likely just broken his nose. This gave her a chance to seize the cross bow and fling it to the far side of the room. He narrowed his eyes at her, scrutinising her masked face as if he were searching for the truth there.
Lieava ducked his stare and looked about her as she heard the shouts and footsteps of approaching guards. There was only one way out now. With a last glance at the Prince, who remained on the floor staring at her and holding his bleeding nose, she ran to the end of the room and threw herself through the window, falling in a rainbow shower of stained glass. It was a long way down and she landed hard, the breath knocked out of her as she hit the cobbles of the stable yard at the rear of the palace. She gasped in a ragged breath, knowing there was no time to waste as she pushed herself to her feet, the shattered glass slicing her hands and arms. Spying the gate was open, Lieava forced herself to run towards it, despite the painful protests from her lungs and limbs: she was fairly sure she’d broken a couple of ribs in the fall. Finally, she made it through and sprinted out into the safety of the night, looking back only once before she was enveloped by the reassuring darkness to see a figure in the ruined window. It was the Prince, bloodied but standing tall and still as the spring breeze ruffled his dark hair, watching the assassin run. The crossbow was back in his hand, but remained lowered at his side.