The Blade and the Temptress
A gold bit in hand, Tharkensen considered what it would be like to kill a legend. Challenging for sure. And oh, so satisfying. He inhaled deeply, savoring the thought. The feat meant as much to him as a drink did to a man dying from thirst. The pay was simply a bonus.
Whether as a single gilded coin or broken down into ten silver monarchs or a thousand silver bits, it was a small fortune. He had killed for less. Much less. Tharkensen rolled the coin across the top of his calloused hand from his pointer to little finger and back again. Sunlight played off the count’s face imprinted upon its surface.
“Do you accept the contract?” The man in the chair opposite Thar licked his lips, hands fidgeting on the tabletop. He wore roughspun linen, a moth-eaten mantle, its collar pulled high to hide his neck, and he slouched down under the brim of his grease-stained hat. One could easily mistake him for a step above a commoner.
But not Thar.
Not a speck of dirt showed under the man’s nails. And none who claimed to be a blacksmith ever had hands so smooth. Then there was his scent: as clean as a babe soaped and washed fresh by his mother. Besides, Thar never forgot a face.
“Yes,” Thar answered, “I accept.” What business was it of his if King Jemare chose to send one of his servants to broker a kill?
“Good.” The servant produced a piece of paper and slid it across the table. “I shall take my leave now. May the Dominion shine on you.” He stood, bowed, and hurried away.
With a shake of his head, Thar watched him leave, waiting for the click of the door lock before he began his meal. When he heard the footsteps retreating down the inn’s stairs, he picked up his spoon, scooped up a helping of pickled eggs, and stopped, his attention drifting to the paper on the tabletop.
It was an artist’s rendering of the raven-haired woman, her angular jaw a tad short of masculine. Beyond eyes like amber gemstones, Elysse the Temptress didn’t look like much. Thar dropped his spoon onto his plate, the food’s mouthwatering scents no longer so appealing.
He still found it hard to fathom that this woman had killed King Jemare’s son, Joaquin, the heir to the Kasinian throne. Even if the boy thought more with his prick than with his head. Someone must have helped her slay Joaquin’s guards. How else to explain their defeat despite the training I gave them? And yet, if she'd accomplished the feat alone ... Taking a deep breath, he stopped himself from becoming ecstatic.
Through a slit in the tavern’s window, he gazed down onto Kasandar’s main thoroughfare where it passed by the Smear. The sun’s first lances reflected like golden jewels from the huddled mass of signs and windowpanes. Merchants who rose with the dawn hurried along, their guards’ hands on sword hilts, wary gazes locked on the Smear’s narrow alleys where fingers of daylight fought a losing battle. The marching boots of the nightwatch’s last patrol drifted nearby in odd counterpoint to the wagon wheels mourning on cobbles.
He wondered if it was worth it to take on this adversary or if he would again be wasting his time. The coin, which was ten times what he normally charged, gave him a measure of hope. In small bursts like miniature lightning bolts, tingles eased up his arms and face. Perhaps things would be different this time. Perhaps he might actually be risking his life. Perhaps he would find one worthy of their name. He could hope, couldn’t he? After all, what was life without a challenge?
The thoughts sobered his enthusiasm. They didn’t call him the Lightning Blade for nothing. Only the most lethal of his number ever earned their true name. As good as his target was supposed to be, she would never see him coming. The certainty in his own skill, and the ensuing result, saddened him.
Mouth downturned, he considered his last few contracts. More often than not, the people he introduced to his sword possessed a reputation they didn’t deserve. One man, Omar the Stoneform, was said to have skin so hard he couldn’t be sliced. So, to prove it true, Thar had greeted him the point of his blade. Over and over again. The whimpers, wheezes, and leaking red that followed had been disappointing. Why can’t I find one person as good or as strong as my employers claim? Might as well change my name to the Myth Killer. He sighed.
Overcome by past disappointments, hunger as dead as the bacon on his plate, cold coffee like mud, Thar pushed away from the table, the chair scraping the wooden floor. There was no use in brooding. His job was death. And he’d been employed and paid. The time had come to begin his service.
First on his list: a trip into the Smear. Still rolling the coin absently, he rummaged into his cloak’s folds with his other hand, drew out a few copper bits, and dropped them on the tabletop with a clink. After one last look at the woman’s picture, he picked it up and slipped it into the pouch at his waist. He turned to leave and froze.
She was lounging on a chair no less than ten feet from him. A smile graced a face that would make any person catch their breath. A face from recent memory. In trousers and a shirt befitting a man, leather boots well-polished, she met his gaze. Those bejeweled eyes and defined jaw were unmistakable.
Keeping his face placid to veil his surprise at not hearing the door lock click or even a change in the room’s air, Thar casually rested his hand at his side. He even remembered to close his mouth and fake as if he chewed a last bit of food.
“Thar … the Lightning Blade.” The words rolled off her tongue, slow, smooth, and as conversational as if she’d told him it was sunny outside or someone would die in the Smear.
“Elysse the Temptress.” For the first time in years, Thar felt another tingle, in ways similar to his earlier anticipation, but this one wasn’t excitement. Instead, his pulse quickened; his mouth dried. He furrowed his brows at the unfamiliar sensation of fear. Why in all the hells am I afraid? Of a woman, no less, regardless of her reputation. A snarl almost left his lips at the weakness.
She dipped her head. “Your latest employer has given you a rather daunting task.”
“For a lesser man, possibly. Not for me.”
“Oh?” A dagger appeared in her hand. She turned it several times, inspecting the blade. “Dracodarian forged steel. An extraordinary find. Almost as rare as the race themselves.”
Thar resisted the urge to reach for the weapon’s twin in one of the matching scabbards hidden under his cloak. The missing weight spoke for itself. Frowning again, he realized he hadn’t seen her move.
“You Blades never fail to baffle me.” Effortlessly, she balanced the hilt on one fingertip. “You so more than most, Thar. From babes, the king’s best train you to do what it is you do: hunt and kill those who might challenge his rule, those with a fighting prowess comparable to your own. From babes, loyalty and undying devotion to the crown, to Kasinia, is ingrained into you. Or should I say beaten?” She paused, head tilted in contemplation, which made her jawline even more acute. “Why were orphans, abandoned babies, taken in by the court? Babies not of noble birth? What made you different? What of your parents? Why did they give you up?”
“Kasinia is the only—” Thar stopped himself from saying the words, from repeating the mantra that Kasinia was the only father and mother he knew, the only one he needed, the sole reason to live. In his teen years, he once wondered about his parents when he stood guard at a birthday ball for one of the many counts’ sons. For the briefest instant, he’d dreamed what it would have been like to be showered with that type of love from another human, rather than his trainers’ canes and harsh voices.
Elysse watched him, lips curved up as if knowing his thoughts. She gave an almost imperceptible flick of her hand. The dagger disappeared. Its familiar weight returned to his scabbard.
Eyes widening, Thar sucked in a breath. His quickened pulse became a thump that threatened to leap from his chest. Seated within it was the lightning charge again. Elysse the Temptress was living up to her status as a legend.
Forcing his body to relax, he cracked a smile. “Is there a point to all this?” He gestured with one hand, not trusting himself to leave it close to his daggers. “Don’t disappoint me by begging for your life. I’ve seen enough people piss their pants.”
“My point is this, Tharkensen. There’s a reason the King’s Blades all possess the skill they do. There’s a reason you’re given certain contracts. There’s a reason the king allows you your little side business.”
“We train harder than anyone else.” Thar held up his hand, fingers open, and began to count off his points. “Because of that, we can touch parts of our minds and bodies a normal person couldn’t. We’re among the most loyal to the crown. And lastly, the king is simply keeping his rule secure.”
“If only it were that simple.”
“Regardless, I work for the throne.” Remembering his gold bit, he rolled the coin and then stopped it at his middle finger. “Even if I only had this one contract, and not the king’s order also, I’d still hunt you down.” Thar picked out the distortion in the air around her. He almost grinned. “You seem to be one who might finally offer me a challenge. Now, can we get on with it?”
Elysse beamed. “One thing before we fight …”
“When I win, you’ll take me as your wife.”
Thar started. Such a request had been the farthest thing from his mind. “Lady, you’re raving mad. Why would I agree to that?”
“First off, I’m no lady. Secondly, I wasn’t asking. And last, it’s the only way I spare your life.”
Thar cackled. He couldn’t help himself. By the abyss, the woman had to be bloody crazy. However, she eyed him with about as much expression as a stone. In fact, those eyes were a bit too predatory, like a hawk analyzing a tasty morsel. He let his mirth dissipate into a chuckle. “If you know so much about us Blades, then you realize how pointless such a threat is. The penalty for a failed commission is death.”
“Ingrained into you from young.” She smirked. “You Blades aren’t much different to stray dogs. Take them in, feed them, show them love, provide them with a form of education, whip them as needed, teach them to fight, and finally, give them a purpose.” Elysse pursed her lips, appearing thoughtful before she nodded. “Yes, very much like a dog, a deadly one, but a dog no less.”
For a moment, Thar’s blood boiled, the tingle within him heating to match. His fingernails dug into his palms, but something about the little twitch of her lips, and her arrogance, told him she was purposely goading him. After a deep breath, he unclenched his fists.
“So, you have restraint. Good. Now, let me tell you why you’ll agree to be my mate. I know you better than you know yourself. Of all the Blades, you believe you’re the best. As much as you search for anyone who can match you in combat, I doubt you’d give up the chance to learn from the person who defeated you. Especially if they said you could become better than them. I also doubt you’d refuse the one little thing that niggles at you.”
“And that would be?”
“Who—no—what you are.”
Cold prickles caressed his spine. He almost opened his mouth to ask before he caught himself. “Even if any of that were true, the others would hunt us both down.”
She shrugged. “That’s nothing new to our people.”
Thar narrowed his eyes. Why did he get the sudden impression she was referring to him when she said ‘our people’? “Let’s say I agree, and by luck, you win, why do you want me as a husband and to help me …” He let his voice trail off. If he’d finished the sentence, he would be admitting her superiority, much less the fact his statement meant it subconsciously crossed his mind. Now, that, was bloody crazy.
“To continue our line, of course,” she said, face scrunched up as if he asked a ridiculous question. “You see, my dear Tharkensen, unlike the other Blades, you’re of pure Dracodar blood. If our race is ever to rise to take revenge for the past, on King Jemare and the entire court, on all those who play Far’an Senjin, we must make a child. We must have a few, in fact.”
Far’an Senjin—The Game of Souls. Thar gritted his jaw.
“You and I are among the few Pures left,” Elysse continued. “The same way the king has trained so many of you to hunt your own, you and I will fashion the greatest weapons our people have ever seen. Together, we will stop him. After all, with what’s coming across the Renigen Sea, we’ll need quite a few exceptional warriors.”
Thar had heard enough. “You’re full of shit.” He’d stood here and listened, mesmerized by what she did, thinking he’d finally found what he sought. Until now. “Not only because the Dracodar are a myth, a people long dead, but because you’re too arrogant by half. Sitting here all pretty, prodding at my past, trying to convince me to betray the one thing in my life that has been good to me. All you’re doing is another form of begging.” Thar shook his head. “Sad. This is going to be fun.” He dropped his hands into his cloak’s folds, the charges within his body growing from spurts into a complete flow that circulated with his blood. The skin under his skin hardened into a steel-like consistency.
With her eyes trained on him, that serene smile he’d already grown to hate on her face, the Temptress leaned forward, her elbow on her left thigh. “Denial will accomplish nothing. What you feel right now is but a pittance compared to what you are.”
He was done with talk. She would pay for playing with his mind. His service would begin now.
Elysse’s lips parted seductively. With her right hand she beckoned to him. “They say a man’s strength is the measure of his soul. Let’s see how deep yours is. Whenever you’re ready, husband.”