Drakon heaved himself through the open third-story window. His black cloak flowed about him, concealing him in shadow. His muscles quivered from the rapid ascent. Below, the clamp of boots and a muttered conversation passed beneath the window and then receded.
Another close call.
This made the fourth such encounter of the night. He lived by a rule: two close calls and he would abort a mission. Each time he ignored this simple rule, something untoward happened. His survival instincts screamed for him to turn back and return another night but time was short, and he was dangerously close to missing his deadline. The manor grounds were an ant colony of activity, and it took him longer than expected to make it this far. Seconds dripped by, increasing his chances of being discovered.
Discovery meant death.
Silently, he settled into the wooden floorboards. No groan of protest announced his entry. Crouching, Drakon pulled the cowl of his cloak lower and drifted wraith-like into the chamber. A breeze swept inward. The cool, crisp air did nothing to purify the overwhelming stench of incense hanging in the bedchamber.
A light orb floated overhead, casting the chamber in a warm yellow glow, elongating the shadows in which Drakon hid. Art canvases of all sizes hung on the stone walls, ornate furniture adorned every square inch, and a massive four-poster bed overflowing with furs stood at the chamber’s center.
Drakon curled his lip in disdain. The warden’s blatant show of wealth was in contrast to the poverty of the people he lorded over. Another warden charged with the well-being of commoners lining his pockets from the people’s labor. He hadn’t expected much humility from a noble, and even less from a mage such as the Jenna City Warden.
Drakon’s orders from the king were clear. The warden was to appear to have died of natural causes. Drakon wasn’t privy to the transgression the man committed to garner himself a spot on the king’s kill list. The reason was inconsequential. He didn’t care, nor did he mete out judgments. The Royal Council dealt with such things. He was but the gnarled hand of death employed to dole out the punishment. Drakon recalled the death and poverty he witnessed while traversing the Commoner District of the city and grimaced. He would enjoy killing this warden.
The bedchamber was empty, as Drakon knew it would be. He committed his mark’s routine to memory. The warden was middle-aged, but his habit of nightly drinking and debauchery was legendary throughout the Kingdom of Somorrah.
Drakon’s gaze searched the chamber for the warden’s favorite vice. There. A pitcher and glass sat on a table next to the bed; remnants of red wine stained the bottom of the glass. Drakon removed a vial from his cloak. A colorless, odorless liquid sloshed within its clear container. He would add one drop into the glass, and the deed would be done. He would send word of the mission’s completion to the king. Afterward, he might take an overdue leave of absence.
He moved toward the table. Laughter and shuffling footsteps from outside the closed door froze him halfway across the chamber. The doorknob turned, and the door banged open. Drakon threw himself into the shadows of a wardrobe. Sounds of merriment drifted into the room and then were muted as the door snicked shut.
The warden was early. Drakon hadn’t expected him until nearer to dawn. He cursed inwardly. He couldn’t wait in the shadows until the man passed out. The king made his instructions all too clear. The warden was to die before sunrise. Drakon gritted his teeth. He would have to improvise. He hated improvising. It reduced his chances of an undetected escape, but what other choice was there?
He pocketed the vial and pressed against the wardrobe. The warden, red-faced and inebriated, stumbled on unsteady legs toward the bed, hauling a struggling woman behind him. He was small and slender, manual labor having never sculpted the muscles of his body. Like all wardens, he was also a magical mage. The man’s diminutive physique was no indication of his power.
Alabaster skin inked with tattoos peeked from the warden’s robes, testaments of his magical aptitude. Only his face was unmarred. Each tattoo was a rune etched to guard the warden against the harmful effects of drawing the goddess’s power. Such power came with a price, and the wardens protected themselves with the tattoos.
The warden’s hair was a dirty blond, and his skin was pale but not an unearthly translucent. A mage’s hair, eyes, and skin lightened with their growth in magic. This mage wasn’t as strong as the others Drakon killed. His tongue prodded a void a molar once occupied as a reminder of past battles against magical enemies. Thank the goddess for small mercies.
A sob drew his attention to the woman the warden dragged in tow. She was waif-like. Oily black hair concealed her face, and her chestnut skin identified her as a commoner. Her threadbare dress was torn at the neck and thin enough to see through. She was probably a slave. He resigned himself to the possibility of collateral. From the look of her, death would be preferable to her current lot in life. He could give her that escape, at least.
The warden yanked the woman forward. She struggled all the more, whimpering and pleading for release. The warden cursed and slapped her hard enough to snap her head back. The blow whipped her face toward Drakon and freed it from its curtain of dirty hair.
Drakon’s eyes flared. A face smooth with youth was decorated with black and blue bruises and a split lip. Terror-filled eyes glistened with tears and, more disturbing, resignation. This was no woman as he initially believed. It was a young girl.
The warden slapped the girl again. The crack ricocheted off the walls, and she slumped dazed into the warden’s arms. Having subdued her struggles, the man dragged her to the bed and flung her across it. She curled into a tight ball and whimpered. The warden grabbed her thin ankle and yanked her toward the edge of the bed.
“Quit your yammering!” He climbed atop her, clasping her wrists in one hand. “You should be honored that I would bring a smut like you to my bed!”
Blood pounded in Drakon’s ears. Unbidden, dark memories rushed to the surface of his mind.
A slave child. Powerless. Drakon blinked and shook his head, trying to dislodge the memory.
Nausea rolled through him. His blood heated in his veins.
Hay scratching tender skin.
With effort, he forced the memories back, slamming the door on their mental prison. Yet, the rage left in their wake had Drakon darting silently from the shadows and toward the warden, who tore at the girl’s clothing, before he realized he was moving.
The warden stiffened with awareness, some part of his inebriated psyche realizing they were not alone.
Too late. Drakon’s blade slipped in the hollow at the base of the man’s skull. The body jerked. Drakon twisted, severing the spine, and yanked the dagger free. The body slumped forward.
Blood gushed from the wound, coating the bed and the startled girl beneath. He pushed the body aside and freed her.
Wide, oddly ancient eyes––much too knowing for a child—peered back at him from a tear-streaked face mottled with bruises. She sucked in a deep breath, a preamble to a scream. His hand clamped over her mouth.
“Do. Not. Scream. I won’t harm you, but you will remain silent.” He stared into her shining, unblinking eyes.
“Nod if you understand.”
She nodded slowly, and he peeled his hand away, ready to place it back. She didn’t scream but sat up and eyed him with caution. He grabbed an unsoiled coverlet from the bed and tossed it at her.
“Cover yourself and get out of here. Tell no one of what you’ve seen.”
Even as he uttered the command, he knew he was being a fool. The only way to ensure her silence was to kill her, but he couldn’t bring himself to kill an innocent. No doubt, her short life was filled with atrocities for which this night was but a culmination. Her petite frame trembled beneath the coverlet.
No. Drakon was not so far gone that he would kill a slave girl. His soul was black and withered, but he had not delivered it to the pits of Targarius. Not yet.
The girl’s throat worked. “Th–thank you.” Her voice was an unsteady whisper in the quiet chamber.
He cleared his throat. Her thanks unsettled him for reasons he didn’t want to acknowledge. He turned, focusing on the warden, and grimaced at the mess he had made. Blood soaked the bed beneath the corpse and pooled on the floor. A frozen mask of surprise rested on the man’s face. His pale-blue eyes locked on the nothingness of death. Already pale skin drained of its color as blood leaked from the body.
Drakon took in the tattooed runes on the warden’s skin. All that power and useless against a simple dagger. In the mage’s assurance in his magical superiority, he never suspected or spelled against nonmagical attacks. It was the way of nobles—arrogance above intellect.
Drakon sighed. The man’s death would never pass for natural causes. His moment of untethered emotion destroyed weeks of planning. The outburst he exhibited was out of character. His lapse of control annoyed him, but he couldn’t dwell on it. He had to plan his next steps, or they would be his last.
There was only one recourse left to him. He would remove himself from the city before the warden’s body was discovered. But before he fled, he would retrieve the other reason he was eager for this mission. He bent over the body, rummaging through the folds of the robes.
“Where is it?”
He rolled the corpse on its stomach and patted it down. He cursed. Nothing.
The warden always carried an object of power when he visited Sura City. Indeed, this mission excited Drakon for this reason. Desire to own such an object clouded his logic. In hindsight, it went to reason the warden would travel to court with additional protection. Nobles and commoners alike distrusted the king and the royal mage. The Jenna Warden would’ve been a fool not to travel with safeguards. However, the man wouldn’t carry such items in his dwelling.
He should have understood this sooner.
Drakon stood with a grunt of frustration, wiped his blade on his leathers, and returned it to its sheath. If the mission went according to plan, he would’ve had time to search the chamber. As it were, he would be leaving without his prize.
He spared a glance at the girl. Shock had yet to release her from its grasp. If the warden’s guards found her, they would sacrifice her in Drakon’s stead. He hoped she didn’t waste his gift of mercy. She would live or die by her action or inaction alone.
He sprinted to the window and glanced out. No sentries stood guard or moved across the grounds. That was good, and no one would enter the warden’s chamber until the maid arrived for the morning cleaning. Drakon would be long gone by then. As if summoned by the thought, a creak sounded from the door.
“Rainore? What the devil is taking so long? Finish with the—”
A slender man, clad in nothing more than skin and his mage tattoos, stopped mid-stride into the room. His pale-blue eyes locked on Drakon’s cloaked figure, widened, and then flicked to the body cradled in a crimson stain on the bed.