Narova the Skagit: Chapter One
Black Hand Ledger Entry – April 19 of the 10th Year After Old Empire
Successfully completed a Lullaby on the merchant named Sujava in Le Mune. Three-hundred gold pieces added to the guild treasury. Sujava died at my hand. Axe wound to the throat.
A discovery of note: Sujava had built a basement torture chamber and filled it with female children he tormented with a variety of scourges. All prisoners were dead except for a Skagit girl with black hair who had been flogged repeatedly. She tried to bite my throat out when I released her from her bonds. I elected to take her back to the Holdfast for training. She has a Sleeper’s temperament. Also, there are stories of Skagit binding themselves to interesting spells that elude other races. I would like to test this rumor eventually.
The girl speaks common tongue well enough. Her name is Narova.
Chapter One: The Tavern Killings
I dodged the crossbow bolt that would have killed me. My partner, Ulnar, wasn’t as quick.
I heard the wet crunch of iron-meeting-face. Almost immediately, I smelled the stench of shit as Ulnar’s dead bowel surrendered its charge. People don’t usually crap themselves that fast. Must have been that stew we ate for dinner.
I sprang out of my chair in the tavern called Scapegrace, grabbed the spent crossbow Gogen had just tried to murder me with, and jammed the butt backwards into his face. Twice. I could tell from the sound the butt made that I broke his nose with the first hit, and shattered his eye socket with the second. I have a great ear for broken bones.
Gogen loosened his grip on the crossbow while I was destroying his face, and I grabbed the weapon from him. I slipped around the table and spun in a circle, slamming the crossbow into The Asshole Who Had Just Killed Ulnar. I never got his name, but I hit him in the temple hard enough to kill him.
“Skagit bitch!” said a man named Cedrick. I smiled because those were going to be his last words, and from our brief conversation over wine, the noble little fuck had clearly prided himself on good manners, calling me Lady and calling Ulnar Sir. Shit like that. But I’ve found good manners and courage both melt down pretty quick once people start shooting crossbows indoors.
I drew a bamboo needle from the garter belt on my thigh and rammed it through Cedrick’s right eye. His cheek and nose and ear turned black before he hit Scapregrace’s dirty floor. I guess I’d overdone it with the Barbaroy poison. It was my first time using it.
These little acts of carnage happened in about five seconds. Other people in the tavern were just starting to look up from their ceramic mugs of wine and ale and whatever-the-fuck-else peasants drink. But Boris Blithe—the lone survivor of the group, and the wizard whose life Ulnar and I were being paid to end—was a little faster on the whole reaction front. He’d stood up and taken three big steps back from the table and started working up some kind of spell with both hands. I could smell burning hair and sour blood, classic signs of a mean Wrath spell.
Never push your luck when a wizard is about to push a spell into your face, Falen had told me during my training. It was good advice. By the time Blithe had the spell ready, all that remained of Narova the Skagit were the soles of my leather boots shooting out an open window. I landed on a poorly thatched awning a few strides below the window. Then my ears popped and a torrent of glass and splinters rained down over my head and back. A piece of shrapnel took a coin-sized chunk out of my left ear, and something-very-fucking-hot got lodged between the leather pauldron and backplate I’d been wearing beneath my dress.
Good thing I bailed out the window instead of trying to be a hero. Blithe had demolished half the tavern wall.
I half-hopped, half-fell off the awning and landed in a huge puddle that smelled like it was mostly filled with horse piss. But I rolled around in it all the same to cool off the piece of metal in my back. Then I ran away down an alley.
At least, that is what it would have looked like I was doing if Blithe was watching me from the window, trying to quickly summon the strength to rocket another magical calamity at me.
I reached a narrow intersection of alley and cobblestone street. Turned left and picked up my pace. Then left again—running past the tavern until I was parallel with the front entrance. One more left. Then just me, sprinting forward.
Here is the thing about murdering people for the Black Hand: failure is frowned upon in a pretty serious way. As far as bands of Sleepers go, the Hand isn’t quite as bad as the Crimson Eyes, who force all their guildies to submit to an extremely painful hex spell that the honchos activate should they botch a job. I’ve heard it melts their eyeballs and turns their teeth into snakes, but I’ve never seen it. The Eyes are all crazy, anyway—one of those Sleeper Guilds that worships Morrigan the Black, lord of the Underworld, and says they’re doing his work. Idiots.
Still, if you come up empty on a job for the Black Hand, you’d better be able to explain it with a dead partner and a maiming injury that children cry to behold. I had the dead partner, but a missing piece of ear and a poke in the shoulder wasn’t going to cut it. Boris Blithe needed to go in the ground if Vexen Green was ever going to give me another job.
Lucky for me, I have impeccable timing—that, and the ear for broken bones were my most valuable traits at the time. Blithe stormed out of the tavern’s front door when I was just two big strides away from reaching the entrance myself. And he was looking in the opposite direction.
I hit him in the neck with a flying sidekick. Just beautiful execution. Blithe’s head jerked hard and for a moment I thought I’d broken his spine—which would have been something I bragged about while binge-drinking my payment away—but I was wrong. And then I was panicking really fucking hard because Blithe had somehow gotten his hand around my throat while we were toppling to the ground together.
“Should have kept running, Skagit.” His lips were close enough for me to feel his breath on my face. “I will curse your skin and plague your bones. Turn your insides to rot.”
I could feel enough heat quivering from his fingertips into my throat to know he wasn’t bullshitting. Boris Blithe was casting a Final Hex on me.
“And you should have looked right,” I hissed while drawing an iron dagger from my boot, “instead of left.”
I rammed the dagger through Blithe’s upturned chin. The blade was thin, but four inches long, which is more than you need to reach a wizard’s brain. His eyes popped open—freakishly wide—and his grip on my throat relaxed. I pushed my palm into the wizard’s face and shoved off him, as if distance was all I needed to cancel whatever magic he had been working on me. I took a few awkward steps backwards and looked down at my work. His legs were twitching like I imagined a frog’s would if he were put in a similar situation.
“Gnnnnn,” he mumbled in a brain-dead grumble. “Gnnnnnnn-nnnnaaaaaa-goooooooo-ck.”
Blithe went still a moment after that final hard syllable left his lips. And as he died, it felt like an icy noose was being wrapped around my throat—pulled tight just for a moment—and was then allowed to slip away, as if carried by an invisible rider who was suddenly called away to more pressing business. Not a brained mumble after all. I’d just stood there and watched while a Morganthi Wizard finished casting a Final Hex on me.
“Shit,” I muttered.