Nameless. Unknown. Alone.
An assassin without a name, born to kill. Owned by a vicious man who refuses to call her anything but girl, she is forced to commit atrocious acts of violence. Vowing to take her future into her own hands, the seventeen-year-old decides to risk everything on one act of defiance—drinking from The Death Drink. The beverage kills most whose lips touch it—only allowing those who are destined to be royalty survive the first sip.
Powerful. Revered. Hunted.
To the astonishment of the nation of Valcora, she imbibes it and lives, which crowns her queen. Thrown into a life of royal intrigue, she now has a purpose—to rule with the fairness she was never shown. Despite her altruistic plans, it becomes apparent that someone wants her dead. The new queen must use her training from the former life she only wants to forget in order to stay alive long enough to turn her kingdom into something she can be proud of. She’ll hold onto the crown… or die trying.
“You will kill who I tell you to kill.” Daros’s voice is low. Threatening.
My insides quiver. I’m not the type to stand up to my master. He’s not just larger than me; he also holds such power over me that I shake to think about it. Yet after everything I’ve seen, stand up to him I must. “No. No more.”
He comes around his massive desk, forming a fist. “What did you say?”
“I will not kill for you.”
He steps up, his favorite jeweled dagger in hand, pressing it against my throat. A man enters the room, and Daros gives a quick glance at him before turning back to me.
“I don’t have time to deal with this.” He snaps his fingers. “Go up to your room. Consequences will come later, but know you will do what I say. That’s the only reason I ever took you in to begin with.”
I slink away, unrepentant, passing by the unfamiliar man. No matter what he says, I’ll never kill again.
It might be harder if he takes me into the room.
Still, after last time, I’m determined to stand free. To not do it again.
The house is as grand as ever, even if I am not in Daros’s good graces. I wish I could get my hands on one of the many hundreds of books I pass, but there’s no touching Daros’s things, especially books. I hurry my way through the house toward my room. The swirling wooden staircase is silent beneath my steps. I don’t touch the carved banister. If I can’t get up the stairs without touching it, I’ve got bigger problems than falling down.
At the top, I move toward another, less lofty, staircase. As I climb, the thought of leaving comes to me. The house is empty of all others except guards. I’m the only assassin Daros owns. The only person foolish enough to stay.
Not that he’s given me other options.
He hires a handful of assassins from time to time, but I’m his tool. Or I was. I no longer wish to remain so. I’ve thought of this before, but not with such vigor.
I open the door to my room. It’s sparse—only a few blankets on the floor. I plunker down on them and let my idea stew. Should I really leave? This is the only roof I’ve known over my head. Until now, Daros’s threats and punishments were enough to keep me here.
If I go, there will be no more shelter. No more food. But then, there will be no more killing. No more following his orders.
Ever since I can remember, I’ve either been training to kill or killing for him.
The world outside isn’t a kind one. It will be hard to get food. Hard to find shelter. Hard to find a useful life, according to Daros. But is a life really what I want?
After all I’ve done, I’m not sure I deserve it. I’m sickened, except for the parts of me that are hollow.
I open my window and look outside. It’s a beautiful street, full of neatly arranged Kurah class houses. The rich can find no better neighborhood than this, unless they go to the palace.
The stones used to make the Kurah houses glimmer in the light. A cobblestone road with grass in front of the buildings and precise lines lies in front of the homes. There’s a faint scent of flowers in the air. Nothing to match the turmoil inside my soul.
The ledge outside the window is meant for decoration, but I can climb on it easily. It wouldn’t be the first time, but it may be the last. I’ve been here all seventeen years of my life that I can remember. Is now the time to leave? Yes. I believe it is.
Decision made, I grab my daggers and stash them on my person. Once they’re situated, I check to make sure my pouch of poisons and antidotes is hanging around my neck. Its presence is a bittersweet reminder of things that are in my control—which aren’t many.
I swing out the window and creep along the wall, sticking to it like a spider. I shimmy down the wall and use stones that are jutting out when I reach the corner of the house.
It’s this part that’s dangerous. If Daros looks out the window and sees me, I’ll be lucky if I get an arrow to the shoulder. I can’t go back. Can’t return to the room of horrors.
I breathe in and out three short times to find my courage and make a break for it. Once I get to the cobblestone street, I slow to a walk.
Somehow, I made it away from the house.
Then I hear a shout. Fear punctures my lungs, making it hard to get air.
One of Daros’s guards is headed after me. The pounding of my heart matches the pace of my feet on the ground. He’ll give chase as long as it doesn’t draw attention. I’ve got to get to people.
Still, escaping this guy won’t matter.
Daros will know how to find me.
Fear pushes me harder. Makes me stronger. Faster.
I weave through the streets, my back burning with his gaze. He is fast, but I am lighter. Swifter. At least, that’s what I tell myself.
I swing to a street on the right, my feet slapping against the stone path beneath me. Houses seem to fly by as I run, each different than the last. The sunlight is bright. I should have left at night. Or maybe I shouldn’t have left at all. But if I go back now, Daros will torture me. Scar me with his hatred.
I push forward, toward the market, swerving through several more streets. A glance over my shoulder shows no one trailing after me, though others are on the street, most headed the same way as me. Still, nerves claw at my chest. He could be coming in at a different angle, to head me off.
I turn down another street, and the market comes into view. I hasten to it. I’ve done it so many times before, but always on Daros’s errands. Thinking of the jobs he’s sent me on makes me shudder.
Pushing the thoughts aside, I follow the flow and get lost in the crowd. Numbness consumes me. Fills me to the brim with its frigidness.
I seem to have lost the guard for now. This doesn’t mean I’m clear. There are still ways Daros could follow me. Find me. Torture me. Force me to kill for him again.
I clench my jaw. I’ve been trained to play a part. It won’t be hard to act like I’m living off the streets. If only I’d learned something about Daros, all that time at his house—a secret to give me an advantage over him…
But there is nothing.
His secrets were as tightly held as I was. Though, if I can escape, maybe someday his secrets will too. Not that they’re my concern any more. For now I need to focus on staying out of his clutches and away from being tormented.
Night is coming on. They’ll be sure to light the pathways by the palace of the dead queen, but there’s no such luxury toward the slums where I’m headed. I’ve been to both places many times. This city is familiar to me. I had to know it to do my job. Now I will no longer be sent on errands. It doesn’t give me as much comfort as it should.
The cobblestone gives way to packed dirt. It’s easier to silence my steps on it. First order of business is finding somewhere to sleep tonight. Not that I’m tired, but I don’t feel like wandering the streets all night.
Watching my back will be much easier from a place I can control. Though it might not be worth the effort. What’s the point of my existence?
I have nothing to offer.
The smell is foul down here, like no one has ever cleaned the place or put in a sewage system. Why would they? Daros says beggars aren’t worth taking care of.
There are plenty of Poruah out, old and young, many of whom are staring at me. Most are dirty with the muck of the day. Lots of girls in skirts and boys in pants. I go to a girl who looks about my age. She won’t stop staring at my clothes. Hers are tattered bits of brown cloth, but she’s one of the few wearing pants like me.
“Trade outfits with me,” I say.
“Why would you want to do such a thing? Mine are terrible, and yours are so… nice.”
“My father beats me. If he finds me down here, it will be worse for me. Your rags will help me hide.” It might as well be the truth, though Daros certainly isn’t my father and a beating would be the least of my troubles.
She nods. “I know a place we can switch.”
I follow her behind a shack that’s presumably someone’s house—maybe hers. It looks as though a big wind would knock it over. As long as it stands while I change, it’s not my concern.
The girl changes clothes with me. She takes my white shirt and gives me her brown one that’s stiff with grime. Her clothes are coarse against my body. I reach down and smear dirt across my face and mess up my short brown hair. Daros will recognize me, but it won’t be as easy.
“If you come with me, I can show you someplace safe to sleep,” the girl says.
Her sweet tone makes me wonder what she’s hiding. Why is she helping? What could be to her benefit? Still, I contemplate her offer. Being among others would make me harder to find, but it’s not my place to be with others.
“I can make it from here.” I make my voice cold.
She gives me a funny look but hurries on her way.
When I come out and walk along the river, no one looks at me. I fit in.
A week of my life goes by in a numb stupor. I planned on getting a job—anything besides killing. Something where Daros couldn’t use me. I thought I could put the past behind me. Thought I could move on. But as time passes, the more I realize I’m not entitled to survival. Not entitled to anything.
I never was. I just didn’t see it before, being Daros’s drone.
I can’t move on.
The faces of those I killed haunt me.
I want to disappear.
To become nothing.
The truth is I gave up my right to live when I stole that right from others. There has to be something I can do about it.
The bleakness in my chest pounds at me. I don’t speak to the other homeless people milling about the dirt-paved streets. Don’t acknowledge their presence.
Now that I’ve killed so many for Daros, my life is no longer worth anything. I’ve had more kills than I can count. Many more than I should have. I’ve heard whispers about me. That death comes to many by secret means. That the Shadow Wraith kills in one blow, when you least expect it.
No one knows who will be next or why. Not even I. Only Daros does.
The guilt has clawed at me for some time, but only now, when I have so much time on my hands do I realize how severe it is. It’s choking, bloodying its way through me.
I reach the market again. Being in the capitol, it’s huge compared to others, I’m told.
Voices are calling out a jumble of things.
“Fresh fish. We catch, you cook.”
“Cotton, wool—we have it all.”
“Buy a pretty bracelet for your pretty girl.”
“Roast chicken. Get your roast chicken.”
“Carvings of all types. Women. Animals. Landscapes. You name it, we can make it.”
Adding on the sound of customers chatting, and it’s a cacophony. It’s overwhelming to be against such a rush. The noise feels my senses, drowning out my fears. For the moment.
There’s an odor in the air, like the place hasn’t been cleaned in a while. Over that is the smell of roasting meat. The stalls have so much food, fruits, vegetables, and more. I was little, but I remember the famine. The pain in my stomach becomes stronger at the memory.
I have no money. I could steal an apple, but it doesn’t matter.
I don’t deserve to eat.
Don’t deserve anything but the numbness in my soul.
I pass the food carts, stop, and stare at a jewelry vendor. The wares on the wooden table are elegant and refined. Bracelets with pearls from far-off oceans. Necklaces with rubies and diamonds. Rings with sapphires. They’re all so sparkly and bright.
I reach out to touch one. Not to steal it—I have no need for fine things, nor do I deserve them. Just for once, though, I want to see what they’re like. If they’re hard, like the fake ones I wore on certain jobs. If they’re cold against my skin.
“Get your slimy hands away from my merchandise,” a woman covered in her own jewels shouts. “Get out of here, before I call the law.”
For a moment, I’m tempted to stay. What if the lawmen did come? Would they take me away? Would they hang me or cut off my hand for attempted stealing? It’s a harsh punishment that isn’t usually doled out, but I’ve earned it.
But no. I take a step back. And then another.
I could handle the pain, but why bother? Daros would be sure to find me at a public hearing. One of his minions would tell on me. I won’t go to him, to be tortured and put back into his service. To be the Shadow Wraith.
I make my way past other vendors, barely taking them in. I have to will to care about them.
The crowd thins as I move past the market, but there are still people milling about. I pass a few people spotted with almaca, a disease that will kill them for lack of food. Or perhaps it’s the poor quality of food. All I know is these people are lucky. They’ll be escaping this dreaded life soon.
I walk, misery shrouding me. I pay little heed to what I’m doing. Where I’m going. Until I realize I’m headed to Daros’s house. My feet must have instinctively gone this way. For torture?
No. I don’t want that. I hurry away, paying better attention to where I’m traveling.
“You, there,” a thin but muscular man calls out.
I glance around. He’s calling for me. This is it, then. Daros has found me.
I’ll be hauled back to his house, to be tormented. Starved and tortured. Hated. And if he doesn’t think I’ve repented after that, it will be my death.
A blessed darkness.
But only an if.
“Do I know you from somewhere?” the man asks.
I should run, but my feet won’t move.
He doesn’t look familiar, but that means little. I know many faces from the many jobs I’ve done. “No,” I say.
He narrows his eyes as he leans in closer. “I swear I know you from somewhere.”
My heart should be racing now, my mouth going dry. None of the usual fear sensors are going off. I’m numb. I don’t want to go back, but apparently not enough to send me into caring.
“Huh. Get on with you, then.” He brushes past me, heading toward the direction of Daros’s house.
It’s easy to return to my mindless wandering. I tell myself not to go to Daros’s, but other than that, I don’t care. I just can’t.
There’s a gnawing ache in my chest. Something I can’t control or do anything about. Well, there is one thing, but it would be the final thing I’d ever do.
My feet are silent against the cobblestone. The noise of people comes in the distance. Despite myself, I’m drawn toward them. It’s a nicer area here—strips of park, covered with trees and flowers. The crowds are dressed in fine things, and many people give me dirty looks, but it doesn’t matter.
I reach the palace and find numerous people going through the portcullis and inside the impressive building. But of course—it’s the day for the Death Drink. Drinking the Mortum Tura either kills you or—rarely—makes you queen. The opportunity to try it comes once a week since we lost our last ruler. It’s luck I stumbled this way on the day the drink is to be taken by those who chose to risk it.
What better way to ease myself out of life than with the famous drink? I could kill myself a million ways, but this way would be brave. The way all women are supposed to try. No more waiting for death to find me. I’m coming to it.