Chapter 1 - Fauna
There’s one thing in this world that I hate above all others: betrayal. Ultimately lying in which leads to betrayal, but lying can be punished, and then it eventually is forgotten given a few days or weeks. Betrayal…well, that’s a bit more complicated.
Walking through the streets of Fernweh, the grand capital of the kingdom Vandaria, you can always spot someone in which has made the mistake of betraying those who once trusted them. Each house, family, gang, or worship group has its own kill mark. The Firejay gang has a bird of flame, the family Moonbeam uses their crest of sun and moon, and my own group, the Jade Assassins, the most feared assassins in all of Ker, uses our house symbol the unforgiven mark. It’s an x connected at the top with a single line. Those who have betrayed us are given the symbol around their eye, where everyone has a view of it and can mark their face. Anyone with a kill mark is seen as fair game, not even the king would spare more than a glance to a man, woman, or child who has a kill mark. The point of it is that if you betray a person and receive their kill mark, you’re then set free to be slaughtered and hunted down for the rest of your life. No consequences for the killer. If you kill a marked one, you simply bring the body to the person they betrayed and get a ransom. Easy money, but not my type of prey.
Being raised by the leader of the Jade Assassins makes me a big target, but I’ve been trained since I was four years old to defend myself, walk-on silent feet, memorize the layout of an entire kingdom, use all kind of weapons, make weapons, speak five different languages and two dead ones, get information, get my way…pretty much anything.
The people of Vandaria are all too innocent. The king isn’t necessarily vicious and cruel, but he’s not very caring about his peoples’ needs either. If it weren’t for his kindhearted wife, Queen Claritia, Vandaria would be in war with our neighboring kingdoms, Cressida and Adaeric. Everyone hates him and pretends to love him to stay alive, but with Queen Claritia, no one needs to pretend.
Above the King, the Jade Assassins are at the top of the “don’t piss off” list. Just walking through the crowded street marketplace dressed in the distinct Jade Assassin cloak – rough vantablack charmeuse, the silky inside a jade blue - make people form a clear path and avoid my eye contact on instinct. It never entirely bothered me since assignments always required me to do them with little distraction and as quickly possible.
No one knows what I look like besides the tan color of my hands, amber eyes, and black hair. Of course, people still seem to miss the characteristics since they don't look up. The bridge of my nose down to my neck is covered with a black balaclava that hides the rest of my face from everyone. My suit is tight-fitting and flexible, with hidden wedges for knives and other fun things. It’s brutal and black as the darkest night. Father is adamant about keeping me hidden and deadly. Though it’s one of a kind, and only one other person in the world has a suit so similar to mine, it’s still itchy in some places. I often find myself shifting in it to try and scratch at it without my hands.
As I walk up to the House of Jade and its three stories of elegance, I spot two ladies across the street giggling at the two sentinels posted at the front gates. If they knew better, they’d be running while pointedly looking at the ground rather than at the master assassins. One look at me, and they outright sprint down the street paler than freshly fallen snow. It happens more than I’d like it to - people running away, but it’s the rumors and stories they’re more afraid of. At least, that’s what I keep telling myself. When you’re a notorious killer who everyone calls a “murderous bitch,” it’s hard to find friends. Let alone walk into a candy shop trying to get some tarts and chocolates without someone bolting for the door or the owner's hands shaking. Then again, more sugar for me.
The sentinels let me go without a passing glance, and I head for the auburn double doors. My father had the house built with every elegance and finery he could find nineteen years back. It’d look welcoming if it weren’t for the hundred highly trained assassins known to be living and training inside. The double doors are opened by two young servants who look anywhere but at me, just as I reach the top step. The foyer is big and has paintings plastered on each wall, each picturing a different city, in a different time, or another universe. I don’t know why of all paintings my father would choose those, but I’ve come to link them to the stories I read in fantasy books. The one on my left with its dense forest and shadowed figure remind me of the first book I read. Here and Then Gone. It’s one of my favorites.
Straight ahead, a big staircase leads to the second level, the wall behind the stairs hold two doors: One leading to the kitchen where cook makes the best meals and sneaks me snacks every now and then; and the other to the right of the stairs, leads to the training area and extra living space below ground. There are a hundred steps behind that door as a final challenge for those wishing to seek the luxury of the house. I've come to passionately despise those stairs throughout my life.
To my right are two smaller double doors leading to a sitting room. It has three low lying jade-colored couches and two matching chairs. My father had them custom made so that when he holds small meetings, the clients are reminded of where they are. To my left is a dining area with a table set for twelve. I only eat in there when we have guests or cook makes a feast for the holidays, otherwise, I’m off on an assignment or reading and eating in bed.
I go straight up the stairs and head towards my father’s office, where undoubtedly, he’ll be. Now that I think of it, my father never spends time outside his office unless he’s going to do business. He built this house and its reputation from nothing but his own mind and will. All five dozen assassins who live here year-round respect and fear him. He’s kind and generous but will turn to Helias - the God of the underworld - in a matter of seconds. He could be the father you always wanted or the one you feared to have, and I love him either way.
His office is decorated in the same hickory brown. Nothing out of place, save for the papers in front of him. His dark hair has strands of grey peeking through its surface, matching the stubby beard he’s had since I was ten. I cringe at the memory of when he used to grab me from behind and rub his chin between my neck and shoulder. The small rough hairs felt like sandpaper or a creature from the Dearg Forest. I could’ve easily escaped his arms and ran, but I loved the sound of his mischievous laugh too much to do so.
“At least tell me you managed to eat while I was gone,” I said by way of greeting.
He doesn’t bother to look up, before saying, “Despite your thoughts on me, I have managed to do more than just sit here and play with my pens while you were away little one.”
“Hmm.” No matter how old, how big I grow, or how cruel I can get, he’s always called me his “little one.” Though I may complain that the name is an insult of my height, I’ll never grow tired of hearing him call me that. “Oh, I’m doing great by the way. How are you, father?”
“Last I remembered, you were the one who walked in without so much as a ‘hello father.’ Hiding that lovely face of yours from your dear father, Fauna?”
He looks up, eying me up and down for any sign of injury, before inclining his head to one of the chairs beside me. I flop down into it and swing a leg over the side while pulling down my balaclava and hood. I’m pretty, in a way. My dark hair is somewhere between curly and straight depending on the weather. My amber eyes have small flecks of gold in them as if the Gods sprinkled tiny pieces of it over my iris while I was in the womb. My cheeks bones are slightly protruded, my chin short and narrow. My mother passed her face to me, all except the nose which is indeed my father’s.
“All went according to plan I take it.”
“Two days of tracking them to the Dearg forest before toying with them and getting what I needed. Interestingly as the information was, I got interrupted by that same information.” His head shoots up and his focus goes straight into me. It’s one thing for my father to listen, it’s another for him to hone his focus on you and your every word.
I keep my face carefully neutral as I began telling him, “The two spies said they were hired by the Assassins of Cressida. They were to come here and see if the Castle walls were penetrable, and check up on the old jade swine. They were referring to you by the way. Gave them a nice design on their arm for the insult.” His face remains hard as stone despite my trying to ease the rage rippling off him. “They were meeting two of the assassins outside the Dearg forest to report, when I disarmed and captured them. They only gave the same information as their spies. Search the wall, find the swine.”
“Put in the darkest part of the Dearg Forest. I was in a tree watching as a carver skinned them then took the bones.” Just the mention of the carver makes people shiver.
It’s a tall skinny creature that has big black eyes and a sewn mouth. They skin a person and use it for their cloaks, then take the bones and carve horrific things with them.
“The meat was eaten by scavengers.”
“What is it?”
His eyes are distant, and he stays silent for a few seconds. “Nothing, nothing. You have a week’s rest, use it wisely.”
That’s when I notice the papers on his desk. Maps, notes, and contacts. “Another assignment?”
“I have a meeting with the client in an hour, be back then. Full attire. Though do try and wash that smell off you.” As dismissals from my father go, that was a mild one. He goes back to looking at his papers, but I can tell he isn’t really looking at them. Before I get yelled at, I stand up, put my right hand across my chest, and bow at the waist. No one knows how it came up, but upon entering or leaving a room to speak with him, you put your right hand on your heart and bow to the Jade King.
I’m a step from the door putting my hood and balaclava back on when he calls my name. “Fauna”
“Stop by the training room before you wash up.”
“May I ask why?”
A pause, then, “Lance returned two days ago, thought you’d want to say hello.”
I nod my thanks, and walk back down the hall, barely containing my smile. Lance has been gone for over nine months on an assignment I know nothing of. I worried every day for him and prayed to the Gods and their Saints that he wasn’t dead.
I hardly make it to the top of the stairs before I break into a sprint, and my smile becomes one so big that I can’t remember ever wearing one in the nine months he’s been gone. I make it halfway down the stairs before I jump over the left railing and land on the ground with a roll. I don’t give the guard by the iron door a chance to open it for me before I ram my shoulder into it. I fly down the narrow staircase, jump the last ten steps nearly crashing into a wall before I again fall into a sprint. As I run down poorly lit hall to the open double doors on the right, people wisely step out of my way or else I might’ve pushed them down and used them as a steppingstone. I latch onto the wall, nearly cracking my nails as I slide through the doorway and into the training hall.
The training room is a hundred yards in length and fifty-five yards in width. There’s everything from archery, to knife throwing, tracking, hand to hand combat and so on. Arrows fly past me, nearly missing my nose. The orders to cease fire ring in my ears as I come to a whiplashing halt. The room goes quiet around me, the burn of everyone’s gaze aimed at my head. I don’t care for anyone but the man shirtless and plastered with sweat in the center sparring ring. His back is to me, the strong muscles shifting as he lowers in a defensive stance. I remember that stance as clear as a sunbeam through a sky of clouds. He’s back. He really is back, and I’m not dreaming this time. I've pinched myself several times on the way here to double-check.
His opponent, a younger man I recognize as a newcomer, goes on the offensive with a parry and downswing of his sword. It’s a minor move that does little damage to a well-trained opponent like Lance. Proving my point, he easily deflects both maneuvers and then kicks the youngling’s legs out from under him, pinning him in a swift move. My eyes follow the movement of his shoulders tensing, feet pivoting seamlessly and full of power, knuckles white from his grip on his sword and the youngling’s wrist, and my eyes start to burn.
He’s back. Every day since he’s been gone, I’ve felt like I was missing a limb. I felt like at any moment without him, I was as defenseless as a puppy left in the alleys during winter. Seeing him here, now, I feel complete. We’ve grown up together, trained together, broken the rules, and gotten in big trouble together. You don’t just adapt and forget about someone like that overnight. But he’s back, and I’m going to tackle him once my knees unlock.
He stands from his crouch, putting one sword in his other hand and offers the other to the youngling. He pats him on his shoulder, and then noticing the sudden silence, turns around. His stormy grey eyes meet mine, and I can do nothing to stop the choked sob from breaking through. His eyes widen, scanning over me once as he drops his swords. I break into another sprint, scared that if I don’t, my legs will give out and I won’t be able to get back up. I run into his arms, my legs pushing off the ground so hard that it should’ve sent us both falling to the ground, but he keeps us upright. I can’t stop the tears from running down my face like a waterfall. Dam what others think, especially when his arms are squeezing me so tight that I’m wheezing as I bury my face in his neck to smell his signature scent of tangerine, hidden under the musk of sweat. I can feel his tears running down my shoulder above the cloak, and I’m grateful for our height difference that has my legs dangling off the ground, keeping my knees from buckling.
“Last I saw you,” he says, somehow managing to pull back from my own death grip enough to take my head between his hands. “You were…still short.”
I smile despite my wanting to throttle him for the insult. “Last I saw you, you were as handsome as father once was. What happened?”
“I suspect his aging took over and he stopped dying his hair to hide it.”
“He’d punish you if he heard you say that.”
“Well, it’s a good thing only everyone in the training room witnessed me say it.”
I stutter out a laugh between my sobs, feeling lighter than I have in days. His laugh is one every girl goes drowsy over just hearing it once. I’m no better than those gawking girls from the street by thinking I could bottle up the sound and treasure it forever.
“I missed you.” He pulls me back into his arms and digs his head in my neck. I can feel him breathing me in as his arms tightened on my waist.
“I missed you too.” This time I pull back and survey him for any injuries or hints of them. Though I know he’s had time to rest and is already getting into training again, you can never be too sure. It isn’t until I look back at his face, that I notice his change in hair color.
“You dyed it!”
“Well I couldn’t go into Kaweth with black hair when everyone there has red wine, could I?” He leads me to the water basin at the sidewall, where men and women dressed in training attire walk away from.
“Hmmm. Wait a minute. Kaweth? Why the hell would you go across the Sea of Morgayne to Kaweth?”
“Father gave me an assignment.”
“An assignment that went across the Sea of Morgayne and into the hell mass of Kaweth?”
“Why am I not surprised?”
He shrugs and grabs a cup of water, taking it all in one gulp. He goes to fill it again when I spot a woman around my age looking Lance up and down like he’s dessert. One slow death promising stare from me and the girl goes scattering to the opposite corner of the room. It’s a curse and a gift to have such a feared face.
“How am I supposed to enjoy my homecoming if you keep giving every girl who can provide me with some fun, a death glare.”
“I didn’t give her a death glare. Plus you can enjoy your homecoming in other ways besides sex.” He doesn’t seem convinced at all, but he is my brother, and the last thing he needs is a one-night stand and a son in another nine months’ time. “As much as I’d love to have a niece or nephew waking me up at ungodly hours with their crying, I’d prefer to wait until I’m twenty before babysitting a demon.”
“Ha. Ha. I come home to you gone on an assignment father denied me the right of knowing anything about, and now you’re accusing me of getting a woman pregnant. Why’d I come back again?” After draining his third cup of water I lock his elbow into mine and tug him to the doorway.
“Because your sister would’ve soon drained the information regarding your whereabouts from father, and then set out to find and kill you herself. Especially since it was your birthday two weeks ago and we couldn’t celebrate it.”
“Ah, yes. Ever the trained assassin following emotions, rather than reason. And I’ll have you know that I had a rather delicious piece of cake in Riela for my birthday.”
“Those emotions saved your life a year ago if I recall correctly.” I refrain from telling him the Riela’s cake is nowhere near a birthday celebration. Then again, birthdays have never really been celebrated in the House of Jade. More often than naught, you’d find yourself celebrating your birth alone during an assignment.
“Yes, but they did get you quite the scars down your leg.”
“And ones I shall worship in the name of Saint Lance every day til’ I die I suppose?”
“Oh, please do, and feel free to give up sacrifices to the handsome devil anytime. Preferably beautiful women.”
I poke him in the ribs, and he bats my hand away as we walk into the hall. It’s times like these I missed most of all. When I could tease and pick on him all I want, and he’d do it right back. If we needed to vent, we’d spar until our bodies gave out and our mind was again cleared. He was there for me more times than I can count, and I’d return it when he needed it but didn’t want to ask for it. I kept him from falling into oblivion when the woman he loved got caught into the crossfire. It was hard for me since she was my best friend, harder for him since he planned to propose.
Our father loved her. She grew up here in Fernweh, born of well-known bakers who always came by to give me pear tarts sprinkled with the richest maple syrup and brown sugar. One day she came to the House of Jade to ask my father for basic lessons on defending herself. She was stunning with her strawberry blonde hair, tanned skin, green eyes, and perfect body structure. Lance and I were standing on each side of our father's desk in full Jade Assassin suits and cloak, and when she walked in she looked at me first, went pale, and then looked to my brother. It took that one look into each other’s eyes for the fate to snap into place.
When two people are fated, it’s hard to ignore. It’s a bond embedded into one's soul the moment they have a heartbeat in the womb. The Gods fate certain people to be together, to breed, to marry…it’s bizarre if you ask me. However, the moment Rose and Lance looked at each other in the office, the bond settled, and they fell in love. Only for the love of his son did father agree to teach her what she wished to learn. Her family was over the moon with her being fated, - not with the training - only a select few ever get to be. Not soon after, she and I made a friendship so deep I swore that if it came to it, I’d give my life up in her stead. I never got the opportunity.
“I would’ve thought you'd be on your knees begging me to tell you of my journey by now.” Lance says pulling me from my thoughts.
“Sorry to disappoint, but father has another assignment for me, and he’s meeting with the client in an hour.”
“I know. He asked me to be there as well.”
“He wants both of us. Why? I mean first, he’s distant and keeping something from us- “
“To be fair dad’s always keeping secrets.”
“Yeah but never like this. Secondly, he never takes clients into his office unless it’s serious.”
“Or a commoner in need of scaring.”
“He’s only asked for both of us to be on the same assignment once, and the danger in the thought of that assignment itself was enough to pale all three of us. Something about my last assignment scared him.” I pause just outside the iron door beside the stairs trying to contemplate what would scare my father so shitless.
Maybe it was the Dearg Forest. There’s plenty of ghostly things in the shadows of the ghostly trees to stir unease, but I know how to get in and out without running into trouble. The carver’s name could’ve paled him, but he’s seen enough to not be entirely moved by it. My father has never been afraid of simple spies, nor has he worried for me when I’ve gone out before. He has been acting odd for the past few weeks, perhaps it’s not entirely this one mission.
“Look, father has never led us astray. We should trust him with it - with whatever it is despite our concerns.” My doubt must be written on my face since Lance caught it quickly. “Plus it allows me and you to spend some quality alone time together.” He swings his arm around me and starts leading me up the stairs, and it’s not until we’re reaching the top that I notice how awful he actually smells.
“Before we spend some quality time…” I say, escaping from under his arm. “I think we should take father's advice and wash up.”
He stops two steps from the top of the grand stairs, looking like he just got slapped in the face by an old lady. “Are you suggesting I smell, teeny?” Another nickname I so adamantly hate and love.
“Less suggesting, more - outright yelling.”
“Last I checked I wasn’t the one who hadn’t bathed in four days and am now waltzing around like the Queen of Vandaria.”
“I don’t waltz, I glide. Besides, I’m not the one who needs to stuff my shorts like cook stuffs her turkey to get someone in my bed.”
He gives me an incredulous look and slaps a hand on his chest. “Three…”
Gods spare me. Lance always did this when we were children. I’d insult him, and in return, he’d count down from three before he outright bolted after me. I never got far before he’d tackle me or throw me over his shoulder and carry me around like a potato sack for all to see. “Two…” Remembering how quick he is on his feet, I turn and run through the door and swing myself around the railing, taking two steps at a time to the second floor, and straight for my room. Just as I’ve reached the archway, I hear Lance yell, “One!”
His steps get closer and closer, his laugh rumbling behind me reminding me of the carver’s teeth. As I try keeping my feet under me and map out the halls in my mind, I start laughing maniacally myself. It's been ages since he's done this, and since then I've increased my speed for situations like this. Grabbing the corner of the hall and nearly run into a servant carrying clean sheets. I hear as Lance yells his apology to the same servant, just as I reach halfway down the hallway. My bedroom door is mere feet from me, and I’ve never seen such a beautiful sight.
“You can’t outrun me, Fauna.”
Gods, I just had to get myself in some deep shit, didn’t I?
I burst through my door and slam it shut, just as Lance hits the other side. I have to throw all my strength and body weight into the door to keep him out. Before he can try and open it again, I lock the door and sink to the floor with my back against the wood. He could probably pick that lock in a minute or so, but I doubt he’ll go back to his room to get the lockpicks.
“You may have gotten away for now, but you know how persistent I am.”
I hear his footsteps as he walks back down the hall, and closes his door shut. I wait a few minutes, trying to calm my breathing and listen for any signs of him still lingering in the hall. Father punished us for playing such games and disturbing someone - or something - in doing so. I pray he’s still in his office thinking about the meeting and didn’t hear my squealing every time I felt Lance’s hand brush against my cloak.
I can’t remember the last time I’d been out of breath for something as silly as being chased by my brother. The happiness that fills at the thought alone makes me stand up and quietly unlock my door. I put my head against the side of the door and listen for any commotion, before slowly opening the door. I peek down the hall, finding no one to be there. I open it halfway, getting out of a defensive crouch when out of nowhere the door is pulled from my hands, and I’m tackled to the ground.
“Two years older and you still fall for that.” Lance. He pulled it when I was fifteen years old and I ended up with my hair knotted from him running his fist against the top of my head. I only got out of it because our father walked in threatening us both with an hour of wall sits if we didn’t stop. “I’m rather disappointed, Fauna.”
He pins me to the ground, holding my hands by my head and using his body weight to keep me under him. I know how to get out of it, but he reads it in my eyes and moves swiftly to dig his knee in my right thigh, clicking his tongue like a disappointed teacher. “Really Fauna, to think you would learn to keep your face neutral in a situation like this.”
“In a situation like this, I’m not usually wearing anything, nor am I on the bottom.” His answering laugh rumbles in my chest.
“And I assume, that situations like these are all in your dreams. Especially considering the last guy who offered you pleasure, you ended up having dad hunt him down.”
“He was a drunk who took several women who didn’t even want to breathe the same air as him to bed. So yes. Gods forbid I had dad gut him in his favorite nightclothes.” He didn’t have any nightclothes.
“You know people would think you still haven’t found pleasure with the way you talk to people.”
“I talk to people like people talk to me.”
“With absolute fear and terror of how you’ll choose to make them suffer?”