Authors: Sarah Ahiers
Who pushed me, even when I pushed back
I SQUATTED QUIETLY ON THE SLOPED, TILE ROOF OF A
bordello, cloak pulled around my body for warmth, bone mask secured against my face. Below me, a man stumbled across the flagstone street like a drunkard. It had taken him long enough to finish his overpriced dinner.
The man bumped into a water barrel. He removed his expensive leather hat with its elegant stitches and dunked his head into the barrel. The rainwater darkened his silk collar. I scowled beneath my mask. He shouldn't treat his silk so poorly. The man shook his hair like a shaggy dog, the water flashing in the light of the sweet-smelling oil lanterns outside the bordello.
Below, passersby took a single look at the man and veered away, pretending not to see him or his altered state. Good. My job was always easier when everyone followed the unspoken rules of the night.
Behind me, the light from the full moon dimmed. Even though it lasted less than a second, hardly noticeable to most people, my life could depend on noticing the details of my surroundings.
Someone was trying to get close to me. It was all the warning I needed.
Beneath my cloak, I freed a dagger small enough to be concealed in my palm and sleeve. I needed to be steady and calm. Panic was for amateurs and led to injury or death.
I inhaled deeply, shifting my weight from heels to toes. My fingers tightened around my knife.
A single second could be the difference between life and death. I knew better than to hesitate. I sprang backward and twisted toward the creeping figure.
I took in everything I could with my first glimpse of the attacker: a man, tall, dark cloak, dark leathers, bone mask blank of features except for eyeholes.
He dodged left, his cloak flaring wide with his movement, defensively camouflaging his shape. A trick that would work better if he'd been faster. I'd already seen his torso, his limbs, his head. The cloak wouldn't distract me.
I slid a foot behind his ankle, hooking his leg. My fists met his chest and I shoved.
He fell to the roof. Only my quick grasp of his cloak prevented him from thumping against the tiles. A fight it may've been, but neither of us wanted to draw attention. That would've been unprofessional.
His hazel eyes watched me, expression unreadable beneath
his mask. The right half was the white ivory of the bone, the left decorated with dyed red squares in a checkered pattern.
I held the knife to his throat, the sharp edge pressed against the rough hairs on his skin. Someone needed to shave.
There was a moment of quiet stillness as he thought over his next move. The excitement of the fight coursed through my veins. I smiled beneath my mask. I'd already won.
“I yield, Lea.” He held up his hands in defeat, his voice muffled behind the mask.
I slipped my knife into a pocket on my sleeve and offered Val my hand. It took all my weight to pull him to his feet.
“How do you always know?” He brushed dust off his legs and flicked a leaf from his cloak.
“You blocked out the moon again.”
He pushed his hood off his head and the moonlight turned his short blond hair silver. I tried not to stare, even though his leathers wrapped tightly around him, straps clinging to his arms, buckles firmly gripping his chest and body, highlighting his muscles, which I knew, like mine, came from working hard almost every night.
Of course, it wasn't just the leathers that made him look good. No one could say Valentino Da Via was not attractive as hells.
“You should know better than to try to sneak up on me,” I said.
“One of these days I'll surprise you.”
His face was covered by his mask, but I could picture the smirk on his lips, the playful challenge in his raised brow.
I laughed. “One of these days I may let you.”
I returned to my surveillance of my mark. The man had moved only a few steps from the barrel, arm against a wall as he caught his breath.
Val took a casual seat beside me, left leg tucked beneath him, the other bent at the knee against his chest. Unprepared and lazy.
I nudged him with my shoulder but said nothing. He hated it when I corrected him.
I could smell the oil he'd used to clean his leathers. His body heat pressed against mine, and warmth, with a thrill of something like lightning, spread through my chest.
“Have an early night?” I asked. A robed woman emerged from the door beneath us and shouted at the man before she returned inside. He had to know he was a spectacle if a prostitute took time to scold him.
Val shrugged. “No night, really. My mark didn't show. Either got wind someone put a contract on him, or he got lucky.”
“Luck doesn't last forever,” I quoted the familiar assassin motto.
Val grunted. “I'll get him tomorrow night, or the next. I'm patient.”
It was easy being patient when he didn't need the money a completed kill would bring. But it wasn't Val's fault he was rich, or that my Family wasn't anymore.
Val leaned closer to me, his thigh pressed against mine. A moment later his hand followed, fingers resting on the
leather-clad skin of my leg. And though I couldn't feel the circles his fingers traced, I still shivered beneath his touch.
I pulled away, every bit of me protesting.
“I'm working,” I whispered, but it sounded weak even to me. “And someone could see us.” That sounded even weaker. Our relationship was a secret, and the thrill of keeping ourselves hidden was half the fun.
Val chuckled. My chest tingled again, but he kept his hands to himself.
I took a slow, quiet breath.
The man below took a step, another, and then he stumbled again. I watched him closely. I was responsible for him now. He belonged to me. He wavered again, before steadying himself against the wall.
“That your mark?” Val asked.
I nodded and reached to the back of my belt for my small water skin.
“He doesn't look like much. Did he anger someone?”
“No. Personal request. Has an illness or something and wants our help to lead him to Safraella a little early.” I pressed the warm metal nozzle against my lips.
Val nodded. Sometimes people paid clippers to help them commit suicide. These were always the simplest jobs. But even with a suicide request, I remained professional. It kept my skills honed if I treated every mark like they might flee or fight.
“How long are you going to watch him before you make a move?”
I swallowed the water and returned the skin to my belt. “I already did. He just doesn't realize it yet.”
The man staggered a few steps into the street. I held my breath. He collapsed. Easy. Not that they always were. I cleared my throat. But it was a god's work I performed, and no one ever said Her favor came easily.
Val shook his head. “You and your poisons. When did you get him?”
“After his dinner. He always buys a wineskin from the same vendor. Wasn't hard to make sure he got one laced with something extra.”
“Nice. Though I'd choose a knife in the back any day.”
I nudged him again. “Be careful what you wish for in the dark, no?”
A stranger approached my mark, stared at him, then glanced around before walking away. Good man.
I stood. Val silently dropped off the roof and into a darkened alley to wait for me while I finished. No need for anyone to start a rumor about the Da Vias and Saldanas working together.
I climbed down and approached my mark. The streetlights spilled over my dark cloak. No one would bother me when I was about my work. No one would dare. Not if they valued their lives.
I hummed a song under my breath, a nursery rhyme my nursemaid used to sing to me when I was young. It was a silly little thing about falling asleep and feeling safe and warm. I'd hummed it once when I was marking my first solo kill, and
the habit had stuck. It seemed right. Maybe someone would sing to me at the end of my life.
I checked the man's pulse. Quiet and still. The poison I'd used was painless. Hopefully he'd soon stand before our goddess Safraella, and She would quickly grant him a brand-new life where he'd feel safe and warm once more.
Behind me, the door to the bordello opened, pouring more light onto the street. “You there,” a woman shouted. “Boy, get away from that man.”
I glanced over my shoulder.
“Didn't you hear me?” The woman stepped from the doorway, her colorful skirts reflecting brightly against the lights. Her face was bare, her feather half-mask put aside now that her nightly duties were done. “Shoo! Go on before you get yourself in real trouble.”
I stood and faced her.
She took one look at my mask, the right half bone white, the left half decorated in black flowers, and her painted face lost all color. She took a step away. “Clipper!” She clasped her hands together and held them to her face as she bowed her head. “I'm sorry, Mistress Saldana, I'm sorry.” She backed away. “I didn't recognize you. I thought you a child trying to rob the dead.”
A boy. I wasn't tall, even at seventeen, but I was certainly bigger than a child. And no child would run around wearing a dark cloak at night, unless they wanted to impersonate a clipper, and that was illegal. And a death sentence if a member of the Families caught them.
No harm done, though. I dismissed the woman with a flick of my wrist. She bowed in gratitude and slid inside. The door closed with a click.
I returned to my mark.
The street seemed to heave below me.
It lasted barely a breath. Maybe just a bit of dizziness from turning too quickly, or the colorful lights of the brothel confusing my eyes. And if I were any other person, any other clipper even, I would've shrugged it off.
But I wasn't.
I brought my fingers to my throat and felt my pulse, counting the beats. A touch fast.
I closed my eyes, quieting my thoughts, trying to listen to the messages of my body. Maybe I was being too paranoid.
My stomach rolled violently, like a snake coiling around its own tail. I shoved my mask to the top of my head and barely managed to stumble to the alley before I vomited.
My skin burned. This wasn't a normal sickness. No, this was something much worse. I quickly recalled my evening. The water skin. Which meant it was fast acting. Vomiting followed immediately by pain.
Could be three possibilities.
“Lea?” Val dashed over.
I sat on the ground, my spine pressed against a building, and tried to catch my breath. Waitâbreathlessness left only two possibilities.
“What is it?” Val dropped, ignoring the puddle soaking his knees as he knelt before me. He reached out, then
paused, his hands floating over my arms, unsure what to do. His wide eyes appeared white behind his mask.
My cloak bunched around me. I struggled against it, my hands shaking to reach a pouch on my belt. Limb weakness. That ruled out all but one. No time left.
I batted the cloak. Val sprang to action, jerking the cloak away from my hands and body. My stomach rolled again.
“Poison.” I gasped at the pain blazing across my skin and through my flesh. “I've been poisoned.”