The link between the world of man and Elfhame had sundered long ago, the elven people and their magic fading to legend. Tall beings of extraordinary beauty, the fae preferred a world of peace. But seven elves--considered mad by their own people--longed for power and war. They stole sacred magical scepters, created their dragon-steeds, and opened the gate to the realm of man again and flew through.
Each elf carved a sovereign land within England, replacing the baronies that had so recently been formed by William the Conqueror. They acquired willing and unwilling slaves to serve in their palaces and till their lands. And fight their wars. Like mythical gods they set armies of humans against each other, battling for the right to win the king, who’d become nothing more than a trophy. They bred with their human slaves, producing children to become champions of their war games.
The elven lords maintained a unified pact, using the scepters in a united will to place a barrier around England, with only a few guarded borders open to commerce. Elven magic provided unique goods and the world turned a blind eye to the plight of the people, persuaded by greed to leave England to its own, as long as the elven did not seek to expand their rule into neighboring lands.
But many of the English people formed a secret rebellion to fight their oppressors. Some of the elven’s children considered themselves human despite their foreign blood and joined the cause. And over the centuries these half-breeds became their only hope.
Appleby, England, 1730
Jak crouched behind a bush beneath his mark’s window, his toes curled into a ball for warmth, trying to stop his teeth from chattering. His job required stealth above all else, and he would be the shame of the Rebellion’s Order of Assassins if he fumbled this hit because his chattering teeth alerted the guards.
Or the sleeping woman inside the mansion.
Jak had never been assigned a woman before, although the mark wasn’t supposed to matter. Only the job. In most cases, it was get in, do your duty, then get out. Sometimes the hit was a warning, and he’d leave a bloody mess. But usually he was instructed to leave a clean hit, making their enemies guess whether it was assassination or a natural death.
He had been trained to ultimately kill an Elven Lord. Many of the children saved from the trials were groomed for that task. But few held enough talent or magic to accomplish the feat. So in the meantime, the Rebellion removed smaller players: those half-breeds who sided with the Elven Lords in their war games. One death of a key strategist could save thousands of human lives.
Jak had seen the results of this time and again, so he never questioned his orders. The winner of the elven games kept the king--and the leader of the Rebellion--within the sovereignty of Firehame, the strongest bastion for the Rebellion, since a half-breed had stolen the black scepter and now reigned unbeknownst to the rest of the elven invaders.
But a woman…
And why send him to the sovereignty of Stonehame, where it was cold enough to freeze the bollocks off a man? He was used to the flaming palace of Firehame, to the pockets of fire dotting the countryside, a reflection of the Elven Lord’s magic. A reflection of his own magic…although he had only inherited the smaller gifts. Why not send an assassin with an affinity for the land of Stonehame?
Jak called the gray flame, feeling the magic uncoiling within his very blood. And answered his own question.
He had been sent because he was the best. The Rebellion had high hopes for him, that his magic would grow beyond the gray flame. But so far, it had not. In the meantime, he had become the most prolific assassin in the Rebellion’s Order. He made no sound, left no marks. Although he possessed the magic of white fire, it could only provide light. With the yellow, he could have used the warm flame to suffocate a mark. With the gray, which held solidity, he could have done so as well. But to use his magic to kill a mark would call attention to the sovereignty of Firehame, and expose the base of the Rebellion to scrutiny. So Jak preferred the garrote, poison, or his knife.
His fellows mocked him for going barefoot, but he never left an imprint nor made a scuff of sound.
He used the gray fire magic to gain entrance to buildings. Perhaps his magic was another reason he had been sent on this assignment, for the lieutenant’s mansion was smooth crystal, and he needed to create a stairway of gray fire to clamber up the outside walls, which would leave no trace of how he gained entry, which would further confuse the enemy.
With agility from years of practice, he created a ledge of fire, then another, the gray magic blending with the dark stone of the mansion.
He exercised regularly, ate sparingly, to keep his body lean and strong, even though he already possessed attributes of great strength and agility from the elven blood he inherited. But when he fought another half-breed, he wanted to be sure he would win. Jak smiled grimly. So far, his caution had not failed him.
Using his stairway of fire, he reached the second floor of the mansion within minutes, with plenty of time to spare before the sentry below made his next round.
Jak perched on the crystal sill of his mark’s window and glanced out across the town of Appleby, now more of a city, since the Elven Lady La’laylia, one of the seven Elven Lords, had invaded and claimed this land, building her palace of amethyst within Westmorland. The Elven lady ruled with the lavender scepter, her powers over stone a particular gift of magic. She called the stone up from the earth, shaped it to her will, and cast spells within it that could kill or protect.
Although Jak figured she preferred the killing kind. Rumors had it that the lady enjoyed using the sharp edges of her stones on her bedmates, the poor half-breed bastards.
But for all her cruelty, she loved beauty above all, and even at night the palace glowed with a lavender radiance, the color reflected on the homes nearest the place. Crafted of one whole piece of quartz, the castle soared up into the night, with one great tower almost seeming to touch the stars.
The great tower housed the dragon-steed Midaz, who could turn people to stone with his breath, and oddly enough, was rumored to have a fondness for half-breed women. Whether it meant he befriended them or ate them, Jak couldn’t be sure and didn’t particularly want to find out.
His glance skittered away from the palace. Every home within the city had also been crafted of quartz, in an array of colors, but most the natural white. The stone had been diamond-cut, especially the mansions of those who held the magical skill or wealth to craft the stone. Within the daytime, the city sparkled with a brilliance that kept most of the citizens squinting against the glare. Even at night, the homes glowed with an inner radiance from the gemstone and an outer glow from reflected starlight.
Except, of course, the mansion he now stood upon. Made entirely of black jet, it appeared ominous and gloomy against the rest of the city, like a black raven perched among white peacocks. Jak felt sure the lieutenant had crafted his home purposely to intimidate.
But with Jak’s black assassin’s cloak, it made his task all the easier, for he blended with the shadows of the stone. His linen shirt had been died black, and he only wore a black waistcoat over it. His hooded cloak replaced his frock coat, and his black breeches sported black hose that ended at his bare ankles. His cloak hid the pale skin of his face and his half-elven hair.
Unlike the white of the Elven Lords, his hair shone as black as a moonless night, matching the color of his large elven eyes. Unfortunately, he’d inherited the damned sparkle in his hair, and no amount of blacking polish would dim it, so he kept his head covered…but his feet bare, for he’d blackened them with grainy soot. Not only for camouflage, for it also gave him better footing on the smooth gemstone.
Jak also wore a black cravat around his throat, of sturdy fine wool, without a hint of lace. His garrote. His cloak also held a myriad of pockets, each holding a packet of a particular mixture of poison. His scabbard and knife lay strapped around his thigh, within easy reach, but hidden beneath the cloak when he walked the gemstone-cobbled streets.
The black mansion he now plastered his body against belonged to Lieutenant Overon, advisor to the Elven Lady’s champion, and a brilliant strategist. More than once, his battle plans had almost won Lady La’laylia’s army the day. But the king still resided in Firehame, and when Jak had first been given this assignment, he assumed his mark would be the lieutenant himself, to assure that the Fire Lord kept the king within his sovereignty. Although only a trophy to the Elven Lords, the king’s court held principal players in the Rebellion, and Firehame was the only sovereignty where those who tried to bring down the Elven Lords could thrive, due to the imposter on the throne who aided them.
But to his astonishment, the name of the lieutenant’s daughter had been scribbled on the piece of parchment he received. Well, not even her name, actually. Just “Lieutenant Overon’s daughter”. Jak discovered the girl’s name by spying on her.
Minerva. A woman in the flush of youth, with the white hair of the elven and the pointed ears. Only her human-shaped eyes of ocean blue betrayed her human heritage.
Jak loved women. His mentor knew it. Everyone did. Women loved Jak just as much as he did them. Their lace fripperies and mercurial moods and gaiety and giggles. He never truly fell in love with any of them, though. He figured loving someone changed your life, and not a one of the ladies had altered his a whit.
True love was an entirely different matter. One must first possess vulnerability and trust and…a heart. Jak had lost all of those long ago. He had been trained by necessity, chosen by chance. Oddly enough, he became good at his profession because he did not enjoy the kill. He learned not to care, one way or the other. When he was on a mission, his heart turned to stone. And although he counted the lives his kills saved to justify each one, through no conscious intent of his own, he felt his heart becoming more hardened with each kill.
He suddenly realized why the hell his mentor, Lord Bistine, had sent him to kill a woman.
Because, again, Jak was the best. To bungle such a job, perhaps cause the lady any sort of pain, would be unthinkable. His mentor knew Jak would be careful not to do either, and so he hied off to Stonehame.
It took him a fortnight to consider his strategy. To time the position of the guards. The comings and goings of the family. What most people did not realize, and what made an assassin’s job much easier, was that they all had habits. Routines. Things they did nearly the same time and same place day after day.
The lieutenant’s daughter was no different, although she spent much more time in her rooms and private gardens than the average young woman. She mostly drew or painted pictures, and occasionally wrote in a little book, usually facing the same apple tree. Jak often wondered at that. How many different variations of the same tree could one woman draw? But given her father’s reputation for ruthlessness in the games, Jak supposed her hobby might be a means of avoiding the man. Overon might be just as ruthless in his private life.
When Firehame again won another battle because the enemy mysteriously lost a key player in the game, he felt satisfaction and no remorse. Had he been sent to kill the lieutenant, the reason would have been obvious. But why the girl? A young woman who sang like an angel and dallied in her garden, rarely even leaving the mansion. Did the Rebellion think the lieutenant would suffer from the loss of his daughter, and become useless in the games? Or was it just a warning? To the lieutenant, or the Elven Lady?
Jak liked it when the mark was more obvious. It eased his conscience. Unlike most of his fellows, he still seemed to be plagued with one.
Minerva--no, his mark, usually left her window open, even at night. He found her room easily, because when she wasn’t drawing in her garden, she sat staring out her window. He often caught himself wondering what she thought about, for her view certainly never changed. Did she know her father sided with the Elven Lady in the games, killing her fellow countrymen? Did it bother her, as she sat safely in her room of black stone?
Jak suddenly became aware of the warmth of the fire roaring inside her room, saw the flames dancing across the window sill. It felt almost welcoming, the warmth that flared out into the cold night. He wondered again why she left her shutters open in the last few weeks he had been watching her, each successive night colder than the last.
Instead of closing out the frigid air, she built a raging fire to counter it. She appeared to love the outdoors, so perhaps she could not bear being shut in. Or…a frisson of warning suddenly crept up his spine.
He slid his toe toward the window opening, a fraction away from inside the sill, and froze when he didn’t feel the tell-tale tingle of a magical ward of alarm. No one with a lick of sense left their windows open and unwarded. He could not imagine Lieutenant Overon would be so careless of his only daughter, his only heir. But perhaps he relied on his guard, or his daughter neglected to tell him the warding stones needed to be replaced. Perhaps they did not have the magic to renew the spell within the stone and needed to hire someone at the palace to do so.
And perhaps he had been set up. But he trusted Lord Bistine, not only his tutor and mentor, but also a friend. Perhaps a trap set by the Elven Lady then? Could they have a spy in their own Order?
In Firehame Palace, the windows were warded with yellow fire. Any unauthorized entry resulted in the yellow changing to red fire, toasting the intruder within minutes. Each sovereignty created their own magical protection. In Stonehame, it consisted of crystals imbued with spells. Most warding stones set off a series of alarms; the stronger ones pain, and the strongest death. There had been many outside the mansion, but Jak discovered two unprotected areas, just small enough for him to wiggle through.
Had that been no mistake, but on purpose? Had he wandered into the perfect trap?
Jak ever so slowly withdrew his foot away from the sill.
“Please,” said a woman’s voice from within the room. She spoke loud enough to be heard, but gently, as if she feared to frighten him away. “Come in. You must be so cold.”
Devil-take-it. Jak almost fell off the sill. He recognized her voice. Minerva Overon. Awake and waiting for him. Could she be as wily as her father?
“I-I assure you it is safe. I…I am alone.”
Jak never ran from an assignment. This wasn’t the first time a trap had been set for an assassin. Just the first time for him. He knew ways of diffusing a trap. And he had a reputation to uphold. Was his life worth the keeping of it?
He saw her shadow against the firelight as she neared the window, a hand held out beseechingly. “I just want to meet my killer. Do not be afraid.”
Jak…afraid? That did it. Trap or no, he couldn’t run now.
With a speed which left the lady gasping, he slid through the window and crouched on the floor, calling to the white fire, sending it skipping about the room, lighting up every nook and cranny, causing a diversion for any who laid in wait for him.
But it appeared she’d told the truth. She stood alone, her white hair loose about her shoulders, tumbling down her back. She wore naught but a thin silk robe tightly clasped with a gem-studded girdle. No stomacher covered the top opening of the robe, and with every breath the silk crept open, revealing the swell of her breasts. Stones studded the silk as well, tiny things throwing golden sparks about the room.
She looked like some radiant angel.
In that moment, he hesitated.
Within a blink of her blue eyes he could be across the room, garrote about her throat, and she would take her last breath, with no more pain than a thorn piercing her finger. But because of her beauty, or mayhap the curious look upon her face, he froze, and in that moment Jak knew he altered the night’s events.
The door to her room showed a locked bolt from the inside.
Her bedding had been turned down; the imprint of her body still lay upon mattress and pillow. A mirror leaning on a small vanity cast his reflection back at him. A small escritoire faced the window, with ink, blotter and parchment. Two cushioned chairs flanked the roaring fire, a tea table standing between them, laid out with a silver service for two. A kettle warmed on the hob. Two small tables, covered in disarrayed parchment, flanked the bed, and a washstand with mirror faced it. A large clothespress took up the remaining space.
Jak took all of this in at a moment’s glance.
He drew his knife and strode across the room, throwing open the door to the wardrobe before the lady could blink, then stabbed his knife repeatedly inside.
“You are destroying good dresses for naught,” she said, speaking in a hushed voice. “Although I suppose I shan’t have need of them after tonight.”
Jak frowned. Not at what she’d said, but the tone of her voice. As if she considered her death a certainty. And she spoke softly, as if she did not wish to wake the household. So, she would not betray him in that way.
He began to press the walls, using his knife now and then to gauge the sound of the blade on the stone. Solid. Thick. He noticed the drawings hanging everywhere, but did not pay them any mind.
“What are you doing?” she quietly asked, having slipped behind him, trying to peer over his shoulder.
He spun, the hood of his cloak catching on the tips of his pointed ears before slipping off his head. She showed no fear in her voice, only curiosity. Her blue eyes reflected that feeling, as did her lovely face. She looked even more beautiful at closer inspection, perhaps the most beautiful woman he had ever seen.
Fool. Beauty abounded among the English, what with the influx of the blood of the Elven. But she was different, somehow. Like calm in a land of chaos. Sanguine in an age of uncertainty.
She lifted a hand and touched a strand of his hair, gently stroking it with her fingers.
He wanted to lean into her touch, so quickly backed away.
“It sparkles,” she said, her voice apologetic, her forehead wrinkled with worry. “Just like the Elven Lady’s. Yet ‘tis black as jet, like tiny stars in a midnight sky. I just wanted to see what it felt like.”
He scowled, keeping his voice as low as hers. “Where’s the door?”
Suddenly her brow cleared. “Ah. You are looking for the secret door? The one in case of siege or fire.” She swept her robes in a turn, the silk whispering on the black granite floor. She reached the wall adjacent to her bed and lifted several pieces of hanging parchment. “As you see, sir, it is bolted from the inside.”
Again, she spoke the truth. The alarm which consumed Jak since he’d discovered the missing warding stones at the window faded, although he still kept his senses honed for the slightest noise beyond either of the entrances to her bedchamber. He went back to the window, looked out. The guard passed below, not bothering to glance up. They usually did not, the fools. But still, he doused his white fire, leaving only the mellow glow from the fireplace to light the room.
He turned and looked at the girl, Minerva, in complete incredulity. “What is going on here?”
She dropped her head and twisted her hands. “I…I just wanted to meet the man…who would take my life. It seems…a very personal thing, does it not? I would just…feel better if I knew you.”
“How do you know I am an assassin and not some robber out to steal your jewels?”
Jak narrowed his eyes, almost insulted by the question. He, some common purloiner? Not likely.
She sighed, as if sorely tried by his silence. “If you wanted the silver, you would have studied the whereabouts of it, instead of me.”
“Balderdash,” snapped Jak. “How can you know what I have spied?”
She flinched at the word. He supposed a lady of her station had never heard the like. He did not care. There was something odd going on here, and at the moment he cared little for her sensibilities.
“How do you know who I am?” he demanded, this time with an edge of danger to his voice.
She looked up at him through her lashes. Long, pale brown lashes. “I know what you are. You wear the cloak of your Order. And then when I saw you at my window tonight…”
She then knew he had come for her. Not her father. His anger turned to admiration, at the courage on her face.
“I am very good at what I do, lady. Pray tell, how did you see me?”
She took a step toward him. Jak took a step back.
Her lips trembled, the first sign she showed of any inner distress. “May we discuss my magical gift over tea?”
“Ah. You have a gift which allowed you to discover my presence?”
“Yes…but it is more than that.”
Jak rolled his eyes. “And it requires tea to tell me of it?”
She nodded, with a sigh of relief which made him think she’d finally gotten through to a dunderhead. “I have it warming on the hob.”
“Not a chance, m’lady. I am done fencing words with you. I want to know what the hell you want from me.” He needed to know what he had done wrong. He was the greatest assassin in the Order, dammit. He could not continue to be the best if he exposed his presence without him even knowing it. Jak crossed the room in a blink and held his knife to her throat. “Tell me what you really want, or I kill you now.”
If he hoped to shock her into revealing some truths, he succeeded. But he had not expected her to shock him with her answer.
“Please…not yet. There is one other thing…” Her breath came in small pants. The pulse at her neck beat faster. Her gown slipped even more, quite on the verge of displaying the color of her nipples. Jak kept his eyes firmly on her face. Gawd, how he loved a woman’s body. And she had an exceptionally shapely one. But at the moment he loved his life a bit more. And this still felt like some sort of trap.
“Have out with it, lady.”
She finally looked up at him, staring into his eyes, and for a moment, time hung suspended in their contest of wills.
Her chin inched up a fraction, but she did not shy from his knife. “I do not wish to die a virgin.”
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