An Assassin's Loyalties

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Chapter Four

After she had explained everything that had transpired at the castle to her uncle, Sazami returned to her spacious suite, exhausted.

Needless to say her uncle was intrigued but also frustrated with the king’s proposition. Apparently he had gathered a list of high-paying names for Sazami as a bit of a present for Samhain, and while she could take at least a couple, with her mere week of waiting for the Queen’s return letter, getting them all finished would be too stressful. So Sazami convinced her uncle to hand the names out to the rest of the tributes, only taking the names that were within Ciiral.

Tossing her clothes on the back of her chair at her desk, Sazami walks into her bathroom, eager for a warm bath. Low and behold, her servants have already drawn her some water, toppled with sweet coconut smelling bubbles. She wraps her hair up into a bun atop her head, and taking the three steps down to the bottom of the tub, Sazami sighs, letting the water leech away her aches.

That fight with the guards was just what she needed. Even she didn’t know how much she’d been aching for a fight until her fist actually collided with the guards’ faces. But this contract, it would definitely be a task. Her first mission is to be sent out towards the Frozen Wastelands. While her knowledge of its history is superb, she only saw a brief slip of the kingdom when her uncle sent her out there to train with the Master of the Faceless Assassins. She can still feel the brutal training she endured, accompanied by the frostbite that followed her all the way back to Valerie.

Usually in the summer months, the Wastelands were tolerable, but with the approaching winter – gods, it’s going to be like hell, ironically. Sazami never understood how anyone can live in Jokul, how could anyone live in a place where snow is all they see? Not to mention that their Queen has magical abilities.

Most of the other rulers feared of starting conflict with her. Legends speak of how she could create artificial life, create an entire army with her element all around her and not harm a single citizen. That’s probably one benefit to living on a frozen tundra. She can freeze crops, freeze the fjords . . . but not once did she ever try to expand her borders.

At least this contract will be giving Sazami the benefit of seeing the royals of each country. Better yet, it’ll give her a house in Orvryn when she’s finished. She sinks farther down into the water, the suds swallowing her up her chin.

Gods, that beautiful picture is still there, slowly working its way towards the front of her mind the more she thinks about completing the king’s pity little squabbles.

Yes – she will travel to the Frozen Wastelands, travel all over Galalea, through Hell and towards the gates of heaven if it meant she will get to go home.

Leaning her head back into the neck pillow, Sazami sits in the water for another handful of minutes before she scrubs herself. Feeling the water wash down her back, she imagines her stress washing down the drain with the dirt and grime.

By the time she steps out, steam has enveloped the bathroom. As she wipes the mirror with her hand, she looks to her reflection, sighing through her nose as she sees the small speck of white skin creeping over her shoulder.

Turning her back to the mirror, Sazami looks over her shoulder at the layer of scars that dominate her back.

They overlap one another, crisscrossing here and there, others raking down her entire back like the claws of an animal. She can make out at least one of the largest scars, starting from the top of her right shoulder then slowly cutting its way across her back until it stops at her lower left hip. That one was courtesy of the people who found her, and gave her whippings if she showed any signs of trouble; sometimes even rubbing salt into her wounds so they never truly healed.

Then the rest were brought on by the countless homes she got tossed from, one after another and her multiple attempts to escape. Apparently some bastards thought of her as more of an expensive courtesan, or they thought that because she was their property, she should do whatever she was told. But despite her pretty face, little did they know of her volatile temperament.

She could never forget or thank her uncle enough to purchasing her – for adopting her. She was so grateful, she didn’t even care when her uncle told her that she could repay him by becoming a ruthless killer. Sazami had plenty of anger she could take out through training and missions. And on her fourteenth birthday, her uncle’s gift to her was the name and location of each and every buyer that had purchased her, as well as the freedom to do away with them as she pleased. That was probably one of Sazami’s favorite gifts, ever.

Shaking her head, the assassin dries herself off and pulls on a wool nightgown. She lets down her hair, smiling as the braids of her honey blonde hair still seem to be in decent shape. Would she have to pull them out before she travels to the Frozen Wastelands? She wouldn’t want to have to deal with her hair stiffening while out in the cold.

Pulling on her slippers, Sazami wraps her braids into a silk scarf before finally leaving the steaming warmth of her bathroom. Despite the time only being eight o’clock, Sazami saunters over to her thick, fluffy mattress and plops lazily atop it.

Only five seconds later does she realize – her balcony doors.

“Fabian, not now. I am I too exhausted and irritable.” Sazami groans into her pillow.

She turns her head against the pillow towards the balcony doors and in between the swelling curtains stands her co-worker and kill-for-hire. With his arms crossed, leaning against the doorframe Fabian Peters only smirks.

He boldly takes another step inside her room. “Aw, did I visit the dragon at a bad time?”

“Since when is it ever a good time for you?” she snaps. Sazami pushes herself into a sitting position, well aware of how high her nightgown is scrunched up, baring her long legs. Her hand twitches to adjust the scarf around her head, but decides against it. “You know my uncle will kill you if he comes up here.”

Fabian shrugs his shoulders and winks. Sazami rolls her eyes, wanting to smack that smirk right off his face. Hopefully her skin will keep the red of her warm cheeks at bay. She folds her legs in, holding her ankles.

She just knew her uncle was aware of Fabian’s intrusion, and if he did, he sure was taking his sweet-ass time coming upstairs. Of course, Sazami would gladly spare him the work of clocking Fabian over the head.

Her Uncle Dahnor made it a statement that the other members are to live in the Keep across town while Sazami was growing up with him. While the other assassins knew better, it was always a precaution he took as Sazami is one of two girls among a guild of men. The other female member

She can understand – some of the members are fairly attractive. Dahnor always told his assassins to keep their appearances honed and presentable, as they can be used as weapons as well.

Now at the age of eighteen, Sazami comes and goes to the Keep whenever she pleases – mostly for training, but no one is allowed to the mansion unless asked by Dahnor personally.

Fabian however, was a bit of an exception when it came to Sazami. With only a year between them, they practically grew up together, but they are far from being fond of each other. Their rivalry has grown up with them, the two always pining to be Dahnor’s favorite, but Fabian was always overruled. He might be older than her, but Sazami is family.

His jealousy towards her played into said rivalry along with the determination to always show her up or undermine her decisions at every turn. They learned the same moves and fighting tactics, they went on missions together all through their years, only until Sazami turned sixteen did her uncle decide to let her go alone.

Fabian is a cocky son-of-a-bitch; always teasing Sazami when she was younger. Whether through her feelings and hormones, or by means of physical insults, it rightfully earned him several punches to the face and kicks to the groin. However, Sazami decided that she didn’t like Fabian because of an incident when they were thirteen. Fabian threw a dagger at her head for feeding his horse some candy. She caught the dagger of course, and ever since, Fabian had borne a scar on his upper lip from her return throw.

Still, it would be a lie if she said he wasn’t fond to look at.

Bearing the looks of his father, Fabian has light, ash brown hair with his bangs falling over his eyes; of which he constantly has to brush out of the way. He has a sculpted face with distinctive cheekbones and eyes with a blueish-grey tint. His royal blue tunic barely confines his muscled torso, his biceps practically bulging from the sleeves, and his ebony cloak sweeps past his feet. Hidden beneath, a belt of daggers and a lovely looking rapier with a bejeweled hilt.

He comes close to Sazami’s bed, leaning his shoulder against the wooden post. The sheath of his one dagger is near her toe, its tip dangling just above it. One flick of her foot and she could have that dagger and slice open his throat.

Fabian stands there comfortably, completely aware at how annoyed he was making Sazami with his leering stare. Sazami narrows her eyebrows. “Why are you even here? Don’t you have anything better to do other than annoy me?”

“Well excuse me for wanting to say thank you to the person who gave me a nice contract, for once.” Fabian says, still smiling.

Sazami purses her lips, scrunching her nose. “There’s no need to thank me. If I hadn’t had other plans I would’ve taken them. But I’m currently going to be occupied by the king for a while.”

“Oh, the king himself has asked the aid of Valerie’s Assassin Sazami Altileth?” Fabian asks, giving a smile that he knew made her irate. This time he pushes aside her foot and sits down on the foot of the bed. Sazami considers kicking him in the side, her foot twitching with the anticipation. “What’s his proposition?”

“I don’t see how that’s any of your business.”

Fabian presses his lips into a flat line, slightly irked. “Well, how long will this go on?”

“As long as the king needs my business.” Well, it sounded better then telling him that she didn’t even know. “However, I will say that it isn’t a normal contract. He isn’t having me kill anyone.”

“Of course, as is the way of the great and beloved King of Valerie Jared Kormeloth.” Fabian provokes, rising from the bed and raising his arms as he speaks the king’s name.

Sazami would’ve spoken up, out of sake for Aela’s father, but decided against it. She didn’t really favor the king anyway, either. He only acted kind towards her when he thought she was Skylar Lichenthorn.

“Well, hopefully you’ll be gone long enough to watch me become the new Assassin of Valerie.” Fabian grins, clapping and rubbing his hands together.

Sazami almost snarls. “That’s never going to happen. I still have a week or so before my mission starts. I can carry out the contracts my uncle provided, perhaps even all of them. So don’t get too excited.”

“Oh you should know how I love surprises, Sazami.” Fabian grins.

If he dares to wink at her one more time, the hidden dagger within her nightgown will find a new home in his neck. She slides off the bed, turns her back to the asshole and begins to pull back the sheets. “You’re dismissed. I must get some sleep.”

“You’re dismissing me?”

Thumping the pillow in annoyance, Sazami huffs, irked he is still here. She looks over her shoulder, giving him a glare. “Would you rather I call my uncle? I’m sure he would love to escort you out.” She snaps.

At her tone, Fabian coldly chuckles as he starts to step back towards her balcony, holding up his hands. “Alright. Fine. Goodnight Sazami.”

Sazami simply huffs as she fluffs the pillow she squished with her fist. She listens to Fabian’s feet as they click across the floor, and when they stop, she sighs in aggravation. She turns around ready to lash at him, but stops when she finds him just looking at her. Her heart skips a beat, swallowing down her surprise, trying to keep her breathing and heart steady.

For a moment, there’s something gentle in his eyes. He stands there with his thumbs hooked in the belt loops of his pants, blinking slowly. He then gives a small smile.

Her heart jumping a beat, Sazami watches as her curtains suddenly bloom to life from a breeze. The red draperies completely block her view of Fabian until they deflate back down. He is still there.

They drapes billow up again, concealing Fabian again; but this time, when they fall back down against the doors, the assassin is gone.

The next morning, Sazami awoke before dawn as she always did, securing her hair with a hair tie and adjusting her tunic. Grabbing her black riding boots, she closes her bedroom door soundlessly behind her. Quietly she hurries down the steps of the darkened house and out to the stables.

Pulling open the doors, all of the horses lined in their pens along the walls turn their heads to her. Sazami smiles, wanting to take all of them out today, perhaps in the afternoon. But she had her eyes set on the one horse that has been her faithful non-human friend since she started living with her uncle. Tallie.

Grabbing the bridle hanging just outside the horse’s pen, Sazami pulls open the door and smiles as the horse lifts its head and huffs.

The horse was black as pitch, with dark eyes that bored into her own. The proud mare is a horse of Valerie hand-picked from the Stallion Mountains themselves. Legend claimed that the Fae had made them from the four winds—spirit from the north, strength from the south, speed from the east, and wisdom from the west, all rolled into the slender-snouted, high-tailed, lovely creature that stood before her.

The horse hops slightly in excitement as she beholds Sazami. The assassin loops the bridle around the horse’s head, securing the throat lash and letting Tallie adjust the bit into her mouth. She giggles as the horse’s tongue flaps as she tries fit the bit right. “You silly girl.” Sazami smiles as she pets the horse’s muzzle.

Leading the horse out of the pen, they walk down to the opposite end she came in, and preps Tallie’s saddle. Setting the blanket down before the saddle, she adjusts the straps and buckle, yelping slightly when Tallie’s tail whips at her, smacking her shoulder. She turns to the horse who is staring right at her. “Too tight?” she asks.

The horse huffs. Rolling her eyes, Sazami finishes setting up the saddle, pinching the horse’s buttock. The horse huffs, another tail whip. Then hooking her foot into the stirrup, Sazami swings herself onto the horse’s back and snaps the reins.

Taking the back gates of the mansion’s backyard, Sazami and Tallie leaps over the black iron bars and they’re on a small trail leading to the main road. Trotting through the cobblestone street, it was relatively clear as most of the carriages don’t roll out until nine. So she has the whole road to herself, but she forces herself to stay sitting tall, the anticipation building.

Once they reach the front gates of the stone walls, she passes by the guards with a simple nod, they barely return it. Taking the couple steps over the threshold, Sazami’s hands snap and Tallie takes off across the bridge like a bolt of lightning.

The world becomes a blue of green, red and orange. The chill of the morning air makes Sazami’s eyes water, feeling the vibrations of Tallie’s muscles as they thunder through the woods. Overhead the clouds race by her, blurs of fluffiness; the wind whistling through her hair and filling her lungs.

She lets Tallie navigate them through their self-made trail, the two of them knowing this forest like the back of their hand and hoof since they were young. Sazami first received Tallie as a thirteenth birthday gift from her uncle; Tallie being about two years old. Sazami practically dedicated her life to Tallie, rising early to clean her stables and brush her coat, spend the afternoons riding through the woods outside the kingdom’s walls, and just nights sitting with her in the pen, telling her stories to a nonjudgmental creature.

Sazami always thought horses were better than people. They’re good listeners.

They break through the trees and a clearing explodes in colors of green and brown. Over in the distance, dominating the horizon, Sazami can see the Stallion Mountains reining tall. Sazami weaved and turned within the field, fast as a stream down a mountainside. Back under the shelter of skeletal boughs, a large oak blocks the path ahead, foliage and moss growing over it to try and make it one with the forest once again.

They leap over it like it’s nothing but a small river bend, but within the moments of elevation, Sazami closes her eyes, feeling weightless for those few seconds. They hit the earth again, and Tallie keeps running.

“Faster, Tallie,” she whispered in the horse’s ear. As if the mare understood her, she took off, Sazami’s legs gripping the mare’s side. She feels the horse gruff, a neigh of excitement reverberating through her bones.

They make as far out as the foothills to the Stallion Mountains, their snowy peaks scraping against the sky. As the wind kicks up, ripping strands of hair from her box braids, Sazami opens her arms wide and howls with joy.

Freedom. This is what freedom felt like. No daggers, no blood, no secrets. Just a wild girl and her horse, bounding through the plains without a care in the world.

Sazami and Tallie spent the morning together, stopping in a field of tall grass speckled with dandelions when Tallie became too winded to run. Sazami removed the saddle and bridle, allowing Tallie to drink form a nearby river.

As Sazami bathes in the sun, feeling the tall grass ripple around her, she sways a small stalk of grass between her teeth with her tongue, ticking like the dial of a metronome. Tallie is rolling in the grass, huffing and shaking her head. Sazami often had wonders if the mare was part dog.

The sun has risen over Valerie, the sky becoming bluer as the clouds keep drifting across the sky until they disappear from sight. It’ll be six days now before the return of the letter from Queen Gwendolyn. She would still have some time to spend with Aela – the two having already arranged for them to meet at the castle. Then she might even be able to stay for Samhain, the beautiful festival filled with firecrackers and sparklers, candy and wine and children running around the square in homemade costumes.

She still remembers her first Samhain festival back in Orvryn, things are rather different in that the fire is of more importance. Dancing with ribbons of red and orange around the giant flame, walking across beds of coal while still all dancing to the beat of music. The music was one of the bigger stars at least for her. She can still feel the beating of the thick drum as she danced within the bed of coals; it pounded through her as if the drum itself was her heartbeat. Strong, fierce, powerful. No pain, no screams, just fun and ecstasy.

It wouldn’t be the first time she and Aela have attended the festival together, in fact, it was almost a yearly tradition of theirs. Of course, some things such both of their occupations did get in the way at times. But it didn’t stop either of them from bringing the other gifts – though it was unneeded.

Her uncle would be there too, he’s not one to miss out on parties, especially when an important client of his is going to be there. He will be Sazami’s escort while the rest of his assassins will either be in the hidden in the crowd or observing from the shadows.

Sazami swats away a pesky gnat that keeps tickling her forehead. She probably looked psychotic with strands of her hair practically ripped from her braids. It’s probably best; going to the Frozen Wastelands with braids might make them freeze easier. Or perhaps they won’t – it’s difficult. Snow might definitely get stuck, and it might make them heavier . . .

Sazami groans, throwing her arm over her eyes. It’s getting a little warmer, the autumn chill slowly dissipating, and her black tunic is absorbing the sun’s heat. She’s going to have to go back eventually, right around noon actually. That’s when the carriage is going to be at the house to take her to the castle.

Sighing to herself, Sazami spreads her arms and legs wide, mimicking a child making an angel in the snow. Tallie walks over to her, her mane well ruffled from rolling on the ground. The mare’s soft muzzle tickles her cheek and Sazami giggles. As she pushes herself to her feet, she dusts herself off and pulls dry leaves out of Tallie’s mane and tail.

Riding back to Valerie, it wasn’t as exciting, but it was enough to keep Sazami in a good mood as she heads back into the streets, uncaring of how wild her hair must look. She steers Tallie back towards the gates that divide her uncle’s property, and rounds back to the stables.

Sazami hops off, patting Tallie’s croup. “Gods, I’m starving. You hungry too, Tallie?” The mare’s tail whips up, smacking her in the face. Sazami spits and wipes her mouth. “Carrots it is. Got it.” Running her fingers over her tongue, she removes a strand of Tallie’s tail hair, her lips contorting into disgust.

Once inside the warm mansion, Sazami nods to several of the servants as she passes them. Making the trek to her room, Sazami calls her servants. She doesn’t mind the giggles some servant emanate at the sight of her hair. Seeing her reflection in passing mirrors of hall furniture, she does look as if she was struck by lightning.

It’s ten o’clock now, and Sazami sighs as she hops into a bath and lets her servants work their magic on redoing her hair. What were they supposed to be doing today? Already Sazami can tell it’s going to be a lovely day; so there is no way she is staying inside.

Soon her servant comes to tell her that the carriage has arrived. Rather rushed, Sazami couldn’t argue as her servants threw a dress on her and hurried her out t6o the hall.

Her personal handmaid Talani quickly herding her down to the door to the front yard. “Gods help you child,” she mutters. “If the good lords done blessed you with good hair, learn to take care of it.”

Sazami could only smile bashfully as they stop at the door, Talani taking the time to adjust the skirts of Sazami’s dress. The old Orvryn woman’s homespun dress pools around her as she kneels. Her white apron worn in color, small stains signifying its well use. Her hair is grey, pulled tight up into a bun, spectacles hanging on a beaded necklace. The palms of her hands are slightly pink, and when she stands to face Sazami, she sighs. Her face, while a bit wrinkled, is finely colored. Her brown eyes soften as her shoulders drop. Tentatively, Talani reaches her hands up, her fingers tracing along Sazami’s face, and pulling forward some of her now fixed braids.

“You look beautiful, honey.” Talani says with a pinch of Sazami’s cheeks. “No, go. Go! Go!” she hurries Sazami out of the door and the assassin spares her a thank you before she closes the door to the mansion.

Sazami looks to her guards. The door to the carriage is already opened, the footman smiling at her. She didn’t get a chance to looks at herself in the mirror, but only assumes she looks decent. One of the guards holds out his hand and she takes it with a closed-lip smile as she lifts her skirt to step inside. Closing the door behind her, the coachman snaps the reins and they’re immediately moving.

Keeping her hands in her lap, Sazami tries to picture herself in the dress she didn’t pick out. Bathed in the color of ivory, sparkling silver crystals adorn the neckline and cap sleeves of this stunning formfitting evening gown. A low illusion back completes the look, but Sazami can’t help but feel her heart skip a beat. The scars of her slave years are completely exposed, even with the small veil of fabric separating them. Looking at the bench across her, she finds a dark green cloak. Thank the Gods! Reaching across, Sazami wraps the cloak around her shoulders, securing the gold clasp.

The carriage pulls up to the front gates of the castle, the guards nodding towards her coachman. Passing through the wide doors, Sazami leans closer to the window as she crosses the stone bridge leading to the castle.

The towering stone spires breach past the sky, balconies and bridges protruding underneath flying buttresses. A dozen guards flank the bridge, each standing next to the posts bearing the emerald and pearl banners. Spears erect, their kite-shaped shields bear the etching of the gryphon, their eyes shadowed by their steel helmets. Their armor is well crafted from steel and plate mail.

Keeping to the right side of the road, she watches another carriage as it heads in the opposite direction. The castle itself it posted on its own little island, water pouring out from its sides. Its blue-tiled roofs and latticework windows sparkle in the sunshine.

Stopping in front of the giant oak doors, the guards grunt as they pull them open, their muscles contracting. The door to her carriage opens and a guard offers her a hand. Smiling shyly, Sazami takes his hand.

Princess Aela bursts through the doors of her bedroom, adjusting her wavy hair with her hands. When she saw the carriage return across the bridge, her excitement bubbled quickly. She dressed into a gown of red and white, making sure to step into her ballet-style slippers. Beautiful embellishments adorn the sweetheart bodice of the ball gown in rose red. The off-the-shoulder sleeves are set in ecru, the skirts of her gown blooming around her with lace intermixed in the pleats.

She runs down the hall, turning a corner and scaring a servant carrying a large stack of towels.

“Oh, sorry!” Aela exclaims, holding out her arms as the woman regains her balance. Once realizing she’s not going to fall, Aela hurries on, hearing the woman call behind her to be more careful.

Aela approaches the spiral stairs and lifts her skirts, as she hurries down. Though a part of her wants to so badly slide down the railing like she’s seen Sazami do so easily, even with the restrictions of her gowns.

At the second level of the castle, she runs across the mezzanine as the grand staircase comes into view. She hears the groaning of the guards as they open the doors. Above the groans, she hears Sazami’s voice as she converses with the servants that greet her.

The marble pillars pass her by as she approaches the landing to the floor level, and she sees Sazami lift her head in her direction. A smile and a wave. Heads turn and Aela slows to a quick walk as she continues downwards, reminding herself of Sazami’s alias name.

She looks stunning in her ivory gown, though a green cloak hiding most of it. The servants bow to her as she approaches. Trying her best to control her breathing, Aela opens her arms and Sazami smiles as the girls embrace one another.

“Skylar!” Aela squeals. “How are you?”

Sazami feigns a giggle. “I’ve been wonderful, but I’ve been stuck in my uncle’s mansion for the past few days. Absolutely nothing to do.”

Linking their elbows together, Aela thanks the servants over her shoulder and leads Sazami towards one of the sitting rooms in the castle, her room being too far up the stairs to go back.

The girls keep up idle chatter until they turn down an empty hallway. Once the girls are out of hearing range, Aela looks over her shoulder and sighs. “Okay, I think we’re okay. Unless you consider otherwise.”

Sazami chuckles. “We’re fine.”

“I would say you look nice, but your gown is hidden by your cloak. Aren’t you hot?”

“Far from it. It’s getting colder out there. But it’s beautiful for this day.”

Aela shrugs. “Almost every fireplace is lit in this castle, it feels like the air is too thick.” She says with a wave of her hand.

A double set of white doors with ornate gold comes up on their right, Aela opening them up and pulling Sazami inside. Guards nod their head to the princess and her companion, immediately moving out into the hall, closing the doors behind them.

It almost gave off a no-touchy, done in antique gold and soft blues with hardwood inlay floor, heavy draperies, and fancy old chairs. In one corner, like a squat gentlemen in a tuxedo, stands a polished black piano. Thick velvet draperies spill from tall windows, like motionless waterfalls colored pale turquoise.

The smell of wine mingles with the scent of the rich food. More blue-and-gold-lined draperies hang suspended from the vaulted ceilings. A warm fire crackling in the grand fireplace. The strass crystal chandelier with its myriad faceted crystal spheres, has a wondrous effect on the energy in a room.

Aela lets go of Sazami’s hand as the girls settle into a couch, a tray of chocolates already set for them. She pours them cups of warm tea while Sazami removes her cloak, turning away from Aela, allowing the princess a view of the open back of her dress – and of the scars that layer Sazami’s spine. No wonder she didn’t remove her cloak.

Once the girls get settled, Aela does most of the talking since she already knew what is going on in Sazami’s life. Though she did tell Aela about the several contracts she’s been given by her uncle. No names – of course – but Aela didn’t pry.

Not like much is happening with her either, but she tells Sazami of how her mother is cracking down on her for picking a suiter, how there’s supposed to be a series of games for suitors to win her heart. Other than that, nothing else. Since her father hired Sazami, that’s really where all of the focus has been.

Sazami sets down her cup of tea. “Well, it sounds to me as though you’ve been stuck in this stone jungle for too long. Let’s go and do something.” Sazami says as she taps Aela’s shoulder.

Without waiting for an answer, Sazami is already up and gathering her cloak.

Aela stutters as she puts down her own tea cup. “Oh, well what did you have in mind?”

“Let’s go down to the stables.”

Aela rolls her eyes while sighing. Still, she rises from her seat on the couch and claps off her hands. “You just want to go and see the horses.”

Sazami smiles deviously. “So what if I do, I am your guest anyway, and you need to accommodate to my needs.”

Aela jabs Sazami in the side and the assassin laughs, batting away her hand. Following her out into the hall, Aela lets Sazami take the lead towards the stables. Linking arms along the way, they come across a servant of which Aela asks to fetch her cloak. They turn down a corner and guards fill the hall, and they see him.

The King of Valerie.

Her father. Despite the brief tenseness Aela feels from Sazami, the princess smiles and saunters towards her father. “Father!” she smiles.

King Jared returns her smile, his eyes warm as he embraces her. His eyes find Sazami, and he chuckles. “Skylar, it’s good to see you.”

Aela steps to the side, her heart briefly skipping a beat. But Sazami simply smiles pleasantly, even giggles as her father approaches. He extends out his hands, and Sazami takes them politely. Jared brushes kisses against her cheek and chuckles.

“It is good to see you too, Your Majesty.” Sazami says, curtseying low. “How have things been with you?”

Stepping back by her side, Aela smiles, folding her hands in front of her. Her father sighs as he rubs his forehead, his golden crown gleaming with gemstones. “Well, rather nerve wrecking, to be honest; there have been some murders around the continent of Galalea.”

Placing a hand on her chest in exaggerated shock, Sazami gapes saying, “Oh my, is the captain investigating?”

“Actually, believe it or not, I’ve acquired the help of Valerie’s Assassin.” King Jared admits, Aela slightly surprised as his bluntness. Sazami’s face is neutral for a moment, and swallows, manipulating her breathing to sound shaken.

“By the gods, are – are you sure about that?”

Aela’s father extends out an arm, ushering the girls further down the hall in the direction they were originally headed. They start to walk, Aela making sure to link elbows with Sazami. “To be honest, I am not. But after losing nearly twenty men to this mysterious killer, I figured it was time to swallow my pride.”

“I am sorry for your loss. But how can an assassin be better than your men?” Sazami asks, keeping her tone in check.

“Sazami Altileth is Valerie’s greatest assassin. I figured she could put those skills to a different use other than to slay men and women. The investigation requires trips outside of Valerie, and I don’t want to risk losing more men, or sending out my captain. Besides, if the assassin gets killed in the process, it won’t be much of a loss.”

Aela stiffens, noticing how Sazami’s jaw clenched and how her nostrils are flaring. “Or it could mean that there is no hope at all.” She says, her tone stiff. King Jared looks to Sazami, who just keeps her eyes forward. “If Valerie’s greatest assassin is defeated along with your men, then what makes you think there’s even a chance to defeat this killer?”

King Jared presses his lips in a straight line.

When Sazami continues, she looks to Aela’s father, blinking those stunning eyes. “I understand you might not care for ruthless killers, but why would you even bother to send that assassin on a death mission?”

“It takes a monster to destroy a monster.” King Jared says. After a couple blinks, he turns way from Sazami. “Well, this is a rather dark topic to be discussing early in the day.” He gives a wave of his hand. “I hope I didn’t disturb you girls too much.”

“Only slightly.” Aela says, forcing herself to smile. “We must be on our way. We will see you, father.”

“I’ll take my leave then. You girls be good.”

Aela tugs at Sazami and gives her brightest smile. “We will. Farewell, father.”

Immediately Aela pulls Sazami further away as her father continues in the opposite direction. Sazami has gone noticeably silent, and Aela took notice of how Sazami’s hand kept clenching and unclenching. No doubt she has a hidden dagger in her dress, ready to throw it at her father.

Slowing their pace, Aela loosens her grip on Sazami’s wrist. The girls walk casually, but Aela carefully glances towards the assassin. Her chin is high, her expression neutral. Bored, even.

“I’m sorry, Skylar.” Aela says, not wanting to risk saying her real name. “I didn’t know, and if I did, I would’ve told you.”

“He basically is sending me out in hoping I get killed in the process. Wonderful.” Sazami’s tone is hard, iced with hatred. “Does our deal mean nothing? Does he even have a home for me in Orvryn?!”

“Yes, he does! He was gone for months traveling there and making sure the property was built to code.” Aela defends.

Sazami snarls. “That bastard.”

“I’m sorry, Skylar.”

“Don’t apologize for his sake.” The ring of gold around Sazami’s eyes burning like wildfire. “At least it’ll be more satisfying when I solve this stupid shit.” Sazami grins wildly. “I can’t wait to see his face when I toss the killer’s head at his feet.”

That last part was more of an outspoken thought, not directed at Aela at all. And signifying Sazami is slightly out of wits at the moment. Aela touches her friend’s shoulder, as if hoping she can bring back her sense. Sazami looks to her and sighs, shaking her head.

“Come on, we need to get out of here.”

This time, Sazami takes Aela’s hand, tugging the princess forward. With a quiet gasp, Aela follows, slightly worried as Sazami leads them down the back stairwell towards the servant’s quarters.

Knowing enough of the castle’s layout, once inside the kitchen, they simply head down the steps and out the back door.

Following Sazami, they make it to the quarters, servants bowing left and right, greeting the princess. Thankfully the same servant they met in the hall is there, and she hands off Aela’s royal purple cloak. Without stopping, the girls continue on, Aela’s fingers struggling to secure the clasp.

They make it to the stables, the stabeboys quickly making a path for Sazami; practically leaping out of her way. They still spare Aela a bow and muttered greeting.

Filled with the pungent smell of dung and hay, the princess lifts her skirts as she tries to catch up to Sazami. She makes a straight beeline for a pen located towards the back of the stables, uncaring of her cloak and dress dragging along the wet stone floor. She slips inside the pen and disappears.

When Aela catches up, she finds Sazami cooing and stroking the horse’s muzzle. Aela was almost surprised. This mare was a prized stallion from Orvryn – with a thundercloud coat and ebony black mane. The mare huffs and stomps her forelegs almost in challenge, but Sazami only smiles wildly.

“What’s her name?” Sazami asks, not even looking at Aela.

Aela takes a nervous step back. “Um, I don’t know. I – I think is means something like ‘rider of thunder’ or something.”

Sazami simply hums in response as she runs her hand down the horse’s flank. She suddenly turns to Aela. “Are you a good rider?”

“I, I guess –”

Aela barely responded before Sazami has already mounted the mare in a smooth, quick motion.

“Wait! What are you –?!”

Aela barely responds when Sazami’s hand reaches out and grabs her hand. As quickly as she can, Aela’s feet miraculously find the stirrup and follows her hoist up. She barely got herself adjusted before Sazmai’s digs her heels into the mare’s side and they take off into a gallop.
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