Chapter Two- VERA
Silence hovers over the colossal arena. Silent Watchers stand behind me, observing me as I stare at the wooden target up ahead. I release the knife in my hand. It whips through the air, hitting its mark twenty paces away. Picking up another knife, I throw again. Thunk. It sticks hard, landing a hairsbreadth from the first. I wipe my brow on my sleeve. It’s barely dawn, and already I’m sweating. The subtle breeze barely gives me relief.
Murrow hands me five more knives and nods firmly. After having spent most of our training together, he knows I’ve got this.
I take a deep breath. A single mistake will cost me. One after another, I flick each knife. They twirl beautifully, hitting the target dead center. The corner of my mouth tugs upward--perfect.
Cheers and groans erupt behind me. Murrow pats me on the back.
“Brilliant, Vera.” He grins, showing the small gap between his two front teeth. He runs to collect the knives, his narrow strip of brown hair catching the breeze.
Behind me, a small group of new Silent Watchers grumble as they hand over their losing bets to my other friends, Karl and Nate. They are both muscular, and I try not to laugh when I see them flexing their arms, trying to intimidate the recruits into giving them more money.
The four of us all started in the same recruiting class many years ago. We were only eight at the time, we knew we would be friends the moment we all chose similar knives to practice with--but our friendship was risky.
King Kgar has never approved of my happiness. I’ve tried to run my friends off many times, trying to keep them out of harm’s way, but they’ve never budged. Now, years later, I’m glad they never gave up on me. Even if they did use me at times.
Nate decided to use my skills this morning to earn a quick coin. He knew this new group of assassins wouldn’t know any better. How were they to know a girl could throw better than any assassin in Graves Hill? It was easy money. He and Karl enjoy sneaking into town to gamble.
A Silent Watcher’s life is one of vigilant training. The king’s rules are strongly enforced and my friends are lucky not to have been caught. Unlike for them, the king’s eyes are constantly on me, one way or another. I’ve had no choice but to be smart. There are only a few things I’ve ever managed to get away with, and sneaking into the city of Dryden to gamble is not worth it to me.
The sour-faced Watchers groan as they depart. Nate flicks a coin towards me, and I snatch it out of the air hoping for silver. My face falls when my open hand reveals a copper.
“You know, if you guys plan on dragging me out of bed early, it better be worth more than this.”
“It’s not about the money,” Murrow says. “It’s about the glory,” He comes back over carrying my knives. Rolling my eyes, I take my knives and tuck them in my belt--along with the worthless coin.
Looking up, I squint to see Nate’s face towering high above me. Grinning widely, he reminds me of an oversized child. His blond hair curls up at the nape of his neck, and his cheeks have dimples on both sides. I hear the girls in Dryden find him quite handsome. And even though I can see it, I can never look at him that way. He’s family.
“I hope you’re not asking for a raise, Vera.”
I roll my eyes again, and Nate barks out a laugh. His eyes shift past me, and he stills.
Turning around, I see where Nate is staring. The morning light reflects off the Commander’s shiny bald head. His stern gaze hides under the bushiest of eyebrows I’ve ever seen. He’s the king’s uncle, and the leader of the king’s forces.
Commander Bellek’s long strides lead directly to me. Nate knows better than to move an inch; in fact, we all know better. Catching the attention of the Commander is never a good thing. Loose hairs escape my braid and tickle across my face. But I remain still.
“Commander Bellek, Sir!” We shout in unison. A drum starts up from the middle of the arena. He looks us up and down with a practiced suspicion, then holds out his hand.
“Hand it over.”
Nate steps around me, placing the sack of coins in the Commander’s hand and falls back beside me. The beat of the drum continues on.
“Well, what are you waiting for? Don’t you hear the drums? Stations!”
Clasping our wrists to our chests, we respond together, “Yes, Commander!”
“Except you, Vera.”
Inwardly grimacing, I remain in place as the others dash away. I lift my head, and jut out my chin.
“How much did you get from the new recruits?” he asks.
“I didn’t get a chance to ask. We were interrupted.”
His expression remains placid, clearly unimpressed by my smart retort.
“You’re lucky I like your ugly face. That mouth of yours is nothing but trouble.”
Puffing out my chest, I grin.
When King Kgar captured me, he had no desire to raise me himself so he handed me over to his uncle, Bellek. Not having a clue how to raise a girl, he raised me the only way he knew how: I became a trained assassin. In return, I trained him. I taught him that raising a girl isn’t easy.
“It’s funny how Nate towers over you, yet you still manage to make him shake in his boots,” I observe.
“At least the boy knows his place. Maybe you could learn from him.”
Silent Watchers start pouring into the enormous arena that’s been built into mountain sides, alert to the sound of the drums. The drum’s cadence signals the start of training. Everyone has until the last beat to arrive at their stations. There are exactly one hundred beats. If they are late, they are sent immediately to the whipping block--which isn’t a good way to start your day.
“Now get to your station. I can’t have you whipped before your birthday.”
My birthday’s tomorrow. King Kgar plans a lavish celebration of it every year. Sparing no expense. I’m never thrilled about this day, for I’ve no desire to be paraded in front of a room full of noblemen and their pompous wives. But I have no choice.
To the people, I am the property of the king and to be treated as such. No one’s allowed to talk directly to me, or touch me. In the arena, however, the rules do not apply. It’s the one place I can escape the invisible chains of the king.
I weave through the thousands of Silent Watchers--a black sea of strength and power. Everyone wears their black threads, an impenetrable fabric that’s made in the Tar Islands.
There are four main stations spaced out around the arena. Archery, sword skills, knife throwing, and the cages. The cages are where I head to now.
Some would say it is strange that I train with the men who helped murder my real family, but having never known my parents, it is hard to feel hate. I’ve been raised by these men, and strangely enough they’re my family now.
I know all the details of my capture and the murder of my parents. But it’s the king who ordered the raid, and it will always be the king that I hate. Plus, only one assassin survived that raid, so I can’t hold these assassins accountable for something they didn’t do.
My lungs burn as I hurry across the arena. Dirt kicks out from under my boots. Graves Hill is the largest training arena in all the four kingdoms. It is built into Wolfmere Peaks, the treacherous mountain range that towers up high over the arena, its tips hidden in the clouds.
Thousands of men train here daily, and every day is different. As the only female, I’ve had to prove my worth to these men. With my knife throwing skills, I’ve earned my place. They don’t view me as the “prisoner” the way the king and the rest of kingdom do. In their eyes, I fight just as hard and receive the same proud scars they do, so they view me the same--family.
The drum stops and I slow my pace, stopping at the edge of my station. I rest my hands on my knees, breathing heavily. Just in time.
I maneuver through the men as everyone circles around thick iron bars. Being shorter than most, I’m determined to get a good view. Sparring is the best kind of entertainment. Even with the strict rules.
There are three rules for the cage. No weapons, spectator silence, and no interference. Violate any of these three, and you are sent straight to the whipping block.
Captain Ryker stands alone inside. His red hair slicks back perfectly, not a single hair out of place. Straight-edged sideburns come down alongside his rugged jaw, and he is displaying his normal unimpressed expression.
He waits for us to gather around before he chooses the first two assassins who are to fight. Ryker is unforgiving. He, of course, has his favorites, and I’m not one of them.
My eyes dart around, sizing everyone up. No one is even close to my size, not even the new recruits. This has always been a problem for me, and it’s why the cage is my least polished skill. Reaching back, I pull my braid forward over my shoulder and adjust the red band around my head. No matter how hard I fight, it’s never enough against the weight of these muscled men.
Captain Ryker points out two assassins to begin the day. They make their way towards the gate, dropping their weapons at the entrance. Barely giving them time to reach the center, Ryker signals the fight.
Both men crouch down. The bigger of the two makes the first lunge. His opponent moves quickly, sidestepping his advance. The bigger one lunges again, and throws himself at the other’s legs. Not able to escape this time, his opponent is slammed to the ground. The fighter on top brings his fist down hard. Crack. Blood pours from the opponent’s nose. He tries to scramble out, but to no avail.
I peer around, curious to see whom I might face. So many intently watch the fight inside the cage--except for one. Beyond the fighters, and on the other side of the cage, there are two piercing blue eyes staring directly into mine--Marcus. He winks and my skin flushes. A memory of tangled sheets and warm lips against my neck floods my mind. His perfect mouth curves up into a playful grin. He is my forbidden secret.
I turn my focus back to the fight. I can’t have him distracting me, even if I’d rather be sparring with him someplace else.
Bloody nose hasn’t managed to get back up, and has just been issued a hard kick to his side. I shake my head.
Ryker steps forward and calls the fight. He looks at the weak assassin as if he were a disease. “Whipping block.” He spits. The losing assassin drags himself up and limps out of the cage towards the center of the arena. I don’t envy him one bit; I’ve taken that humiliating walk more times than I can count.
A shadow passes overhead and I peer up. A large cloud creeps its way across the sky, blocking out the unrelenting sun. My eyes close and I embrace the rare shade. Please, let more clouds come. Unfortunately, the East is somehow cursed with the sun’s merciless kiss.
Ryker’s smirk greets me when my eyes open--shit. He points to me, choosing me for the next fight. Not caring who I’m up against, I go to the gate and drop my weapons. I brush my braid back over my shoulder as I enter the cage.
I ignore Ryker, and stride past him. I crack my neck and shake out my hands before facing my opponent. Standing before me is Kah. I glare at the captain--really, Ryker?
Kah is Ryker’s main crony. He’s a giant, with massive arms the size of tree trunks. Whenever Ryker needs things taken care of, he sends Kah. So many times he’s whispered threats under his breath, and those are the only times I am thankful for King Kgar’s strict rules about touching me--even if they don’t stop the leering glances that come my way. Because even the assassins have limits in place when it comes to me.
Ryker signals us to start. Not wasting any time, Kah runs straight for me and I dive quickly to the side. Sand scatters around me as I quickly jump back up. Instead of chasing after me, Kah stands beyond me and smirks. I know he’s playing with me and my annoyance flares. The sun peeks through the grey clouds, casting light over Kah’s pock-marked face. Big and ugly.
Not letting him get to me, I sprint back towards him. He squats down, preparing for my advance. I slide in front of him at the last second, kicking sand in his face. He flinches back and I slide through his legs while he rubs the sand away from his eyes. I jump up quickly and slam my foot hard against his right leg. He grunts as he goes to his knees and I wrap my arm around his neck.
Squeezing with all my strength, I know it won’t be enough. Kah reaches up and grabs my arm. He pulls down hard, overpowers me, and flips me up over his shoulder. I slam hard against the ground. Air is knocked from my lungs and before I can breathe, he yanks me close, throws his leg over, and straddles me.
Trying to catch my breath, I try to wiggle away. He pins my arms above me and lowers his face to mine. His breath reeks and I turn my head to the side. Anger rolls over me as his lips brush my ear.
“I always wanted to view you the way King Kgar does.”
My eyes flash. Turning back to him, I spit in his face. Kah grips my hair and pulls my head back. A cry escapes my lips. Kicking out my legs, I try to twist away from him. But Kah is solid. I’m going nowhere.
Ryker steps forward. “Enough.”
Kah’s upper lip curls and he whispers words only I can hear. “You are lucky that your pretty little face is protected by the king.” He pushes my head into the ground and rolls off me.
Breathing heavily, I scramble away. I push my hair off my face, and spit sand out from my mouth. “Lucky me.”
Captain Ryker sneers. I see nothing short of disgust on his face.
“Get out of my sight.” He crosses his arms. “And don’t forget to visit the whipping block.”
I bite my tongue. It isn’t worth giving him fuel. It will all come back and burn me later. So I exit the cage, retrieving my weapons before storming off.
Hoofbeats sound in the distance. Shielding my eyes from the sun, I strain to see who approaches. Two brown horses gallop towards me and the blood drains from my face when I see the lone rider.
It’s the most vicious Silent Watcher of them all--Bruce of Tar. Not only is he the king’s personal bodyguard, but he’s also the one surviving assassin who killed my parents.
Pulling up short, Bruce stares through the two slits in his red mask--a mask I’ve never seen him without. A grotesque scar peeks out from underneath it and runs down his chin to his collar bone. I’ve always hoped it’s a scar made by my father.
Knowing he is here for me, I close the distance and mount up on the spare horse. Without a word, Bruce tugs his horse around and takes off. I might be saved from the whipping block for now, but my destination won’t be any better.
Glancing back over my shoulder, Bellek stands on the dais near the drum. His black cape flutters loosely around him, and his grim expression causes my throat to tighten.
Squeezing my heels against the horse’s side, I ride after Bruce. No matter how fast I go, I’ll inevitably be late. Unaware of what this summons could mean, fear twists in my gut, as I am taken to the king.