Tragedy forged her, but love tempered her steely heart.
There aren’t many choices for a child arrested and charged with murder. When a mysterious stranger asks an imprisoned Ilyana to be his apprentice, she accepts.
Fast forward a few decades and she’s an expert in her field, an assassin for hire with special skills, and an uncanny affinity for weapons. Her newest bounty requires her to eliminate the Barbarian King, only for the first time in her career, she hesitates.
Turns out she and the monarch from the west might have a common enemy in the Grand Vizier, a highly placed official for a rival country. He’s the one behind the bounty on Konstantin’s head, and the person responsible for the death of Ilyana’s parents.
Rather than kill the King, she finds herself working for him. Together, they form a plan for revenge. What they don’t expect is the ensuing tempest of secrets.
Warning: Contains scenes of violence.
Mother had just tucked me into bed when they kicked in the door to our house. It was a distinctive sound, the bang loud as it hit the wall. Impressive, given Mother had dropped the bar in the bracket for the night.
“Is it brigands?” I asked, thinking of the stories I’d heard whispered.
“Worse,” Mother muttered. “You must hide, Ilyana.”
My lips parted to protest. “Why should I hide? This is our house.” Despite my tender age of nine, I should be by her side as she confronted the rude intruders stomping about on the floor below us.READ MORE
The wide-eyed countenance of my mother and the way she bit her lower lip stole any complaint I might have uttered. Not much scared my mother. She laughed at bugs, even the hairy, many-legged scuttling kind. Unlike our neighbor, Dame Feelly, whose shrieks could be heard even with windows closed. Mother didn’t hike her skirts when the rats swarmed from the cellar after the floods but rather chased them with a butcher knife. They made fine stew, and their fur kept my hands warm in winter.
“Quickly now. In the cubby,” she admonished before leaving me alone. Trepidation blanched her features as she went to confront the invaders, rendering me terrified, too.
I couldn’t lose her. With Father dead and the creditors, those scavengers, stripping our things one by one to pay a thing called debt, she was all I had left. Her and the leaky roof over our heads. Perhaps that was why the intruders banged around so much downstairs. Even tucked in my room with the door closed, I could hear things breaking, the distinctly male voices cursing and yelling, the softer murmur of my mother as she tried to calm them.
Poor Mother. Nothing had gone well since Father’s untimely demise. I should be by her side, supporting her.
Despite her warning, I exited my room and crouched at the top of the stairs, pausing first for a listen.
A gravelly male voice barked, “Where is the brat?”
They had better not be speaking of me.
“She is not here.” My mother lied to protect me, and I eyed the door to my room. Perhaps I should return and hide. The cubby I could access by wiggling under my bed would be tight but secure.
All thought of hiding fled as the sharp crack of a hand slapping flesh brought a sharp cry from my mother. They’d hit her!
“Let’s try that again.” The man’s voice might sound calm, but I could hear the menace. “Where is the brat?”
“Sleeping at a friend’s house.”
“I don’t believe you. Check upstairs.” The male in charge snapped the order, but before anyone could even take that first step, my mother reacted.
“Leave us alone. Isn’t it enough you killed my husband?”
My eyes widened. Why did Mother claim that? She’d told me Father had died in an accident.
“I’m told he died because he got greedy.”
“I’ve kept to my part in the bargain,” my mother exclaimed.
“The terms of it have changed. Where is the child?”
“I’ll never tell you.”
“You will. People always talk with a bit of fisted persuasion.” I could hear the cold glee in his words. “Restrain her.”
My mother cried out again, and despite her last command to me, I had to help her. I flowed down the stairs, the hem of my nightgown fluttering. I paused at the bottom as I took in the scene I burst upon. There were two men, both bigger than me and my mother, not brigands but soldiers of the emperor. I recognized the black and silver livery. My gaze focused on my mother, her arms yanked behind her back by a soldier with a beard. “Let Mother go.”
Mother saw me, and her eyes widened. So much terror in them. Not for herself but for me.
The man in front of her turned and noticed me standing there. “You must be the brat.”
My chin lifted. “My name is Ilyana. Release my mother.”
“You don’t get to give orders, brat. Especially not in this matter. Your mother lied to an emissary of the emperor.”
My young age didn’t make me stupid about the events unfolding, but I remained immature enough to think my two clenched fists and stubborn demand might sway them. “She lied to protect me. I am here now. Let her go. You’re hurting her.”
“You will come with us.” The man reached for me, but I retreated. I didn’t like being touched. Only Mother ever hugged me.
“We’ve done nothing wrong,” I insisted. Soldiers only arrested bad people. We weren’t bad people.
“I have my orders.”
A grunt from behind had me half turning to see my mother struggling in the grips of the bearded one. She yelled, “Run, Ilyana. Run and don’t look back.”
Leave her? I couldn’t—
The dagger that slid across her throat had me gaping. The blood spilled in a thick torrent that couldn’t be real. Couldn’t be hers.
Her lips opened and shut, not a vowel escaping. Then stopped moving entirely. The soldier holding her released her body, dead before it even hit the floor.
He killed her.
Shock. Anguish. Anger…
He killed Mother.
Inside, something burst, and I launched myself at her killer. I don’t think he expected my attack and so I hit him full speed. He didn’t even wobble. I attacked like a creature frenzied, screaming and clawing, a wild thing with no reason, just grief to fuel the violence.
The soldier yelled, “Get off me!” He shoved me away with enough strength I sailed until I hit the counter where I’d prepped many a meal with my mother. The impact caused a grunt, and pain bloomed through my torso. I hit the floor in an ungainly heap.
“Grab her!” the leader commanded. “Don’t let her—”
The leader never did finish that sentence because, without thinking, I’d grabbed a kitchen knife and ran at him, plunging it where I could reach, which proved to be a rather unfortunate location.
He squealed, much like the pigs under the butcher’s knife. I felt no remorse.
An arm wrapped around me and lifted me off the ground. I kicked my feet, twisting as best I could in the grip of the man holding me. I couldn’t fight the strength of that arm. It banded me too tight. It left only my sharp teeth to tear into flesh. I bit hard enough to taste blood.
A shrill scream accompanied my sudden drop to the floor, where I dove for the fireplace poker. My fingers scrabbled to grab, and I swung wildly. The rod connected, and the soldier I’d hit smirked, unimpressed with my feeble blow.
He tore the poker from me and advanced with an ugly scowl. “Stay still and this doesn’t have to hurt.”
If I listened, I’d be dead. Not today.
I darted to the left, but he proved quicker than expected. He grabbed hold of my hanging braid and my feet jerked out from under me. I gasped at the sharp pain in my scalp. Tears pricked my eyes as he dragged me upright. He dangled me and leered. “Maybe I’ll take a minute to show you what it means to be a woman before I send you on your way.”
I was beyond the point of terror and desperate for a way to survive. “Please,” I begged, needing more time. A chance.
He threw me to the floor, and upon impact, I lost my breath. I’d landed beside my mother, and I couldn’t look into her lifeless face. I turned my head as I rolled and got to my knees. The killer grabbed my ankle and dragged me closer.
My fingers dug uselessly at the floor, looking for something, anything, to help. The kitchen knife remained buried to the hilt, out of reach, and yet I stretched my fingers as if it would magically get closer.
Rough hands pushed at my nightgown, exposing my legs. I ignored the touch and kept staring at the knife. If only I could grab it. It would give me a chance. I could fight.
The hands disappeared only because they worked the fabric of his trousers. I’d run out of time.
I needed the knife.
Inside my head I screamed and closed my eyes as my legs were wrenched apart.
A hilt hit my palm, and the moment my fingers curled around it, I swung. The blade entered the man’s side, but I didn’t stop with just one puncture. The soldier threw himself away from me, but I followed, driving the knife into his body again and again.
By the time I’d stopped, he lay across the ruined threshold of the door, bloody, his eyes unseeing.
Dead, just like my mother.
I crawled to her and cradled her head in my lap, sobbing. I was still sobbing when too many soldiers to count filled the room and took in the carnage.
I was arrested. A mere child of nine. And I couldn’t even deny the crime, not with the blood on my hands and spattered on my face.
They threw me into the dungeon along with the other criminals, hardened men and women who eyed me with curiosity. With an intensity that made my skin crawl and my gorge rise, one whispered, “Ain’t you a pretty thing. I think I shall play with you.”
I didn’t think I’d enjoy his idea of fun. Perhaps I should tell him what happened to the soldier that just tried to force me. It proved to be unnecessary. For all his subtle threats, he remained far from me, most likely because one of the women—older than the rest and missing most of her teeth—murmured something to him.
The bells outside tolled the late hour, and one by one, the prisoners slept. All but me. I sat huddled, my arms around my bent legs. Shivering. Not so much in cold but misery.
Mother was gone. Killed before my very eyes. It would forever haunt me. I’d loved her, unlike my aloof father who’d rarely had a kind word for me. She was my everything, and without her, I had no one. Not that it would matter. I’d probably hang for killing the emperor’s men.
No one around me stirred when the soft scuff alerted me of someone’s approach. A single torch remained burning, only barely enough light to make out the person that arrived swathed head to toe in a voluminous cloak. They stopped in front of the bars and said nothing, but I could feel the stare despite the deep cowl.
The voice emerged distinctly male and smooth. “You are the Jaamanian girl who killed two soldiers.”
Should I deny it? Not much point since I was the only young child in the place.
“I stabbed them.”
“Two grown men?” he questioned.
I shrugged. “They killed my mother.”
“What did she do?”
As if she’d have broken any laws. She’d always been strict on obedience. “Nothing. They wanted me.” Or so it seemed even as it made no sense.
“And yet you foiled their kidnapping.”
“And rape,” I interrupted softly. I’d not forgotten that terrifying moment.
“You pose an interesting dilemma. Do you want to live, child?”
Stupid question. “Of course, I do.”
“What if you had to leave this place, this country, and never return?”
“I have nothing here.”
“Are you willing to work hard?”
A burning curiosity filled me. Better than the apathy I’d been sinking into. I stood and approached the bars. “Who are you?”
“A man in need of an apprentice.”
I stared upward and shivered. Not in fear but sudden anticipatory hope. “What’s your trade?”
Receive death or deal in it. Those were my choices.