For six years, former temple assassin Aral Kingslayer has been living as a jack of the shadow trades, picking up odd jobs on the wrong side of the law. But the past is never dead, and Aral’s has finally caught up to him in the beautiful, dangerous form of Jax Seldansbane—a fellow Blade and Aral’s onetime fiancée.

Jax claims that the forces that destroyed everything Aral once held dear are on the move again, and she needs his help to stop them. But Aral has a new life now, with a fresh identity and new responsibilities. And while he isn’t keen on letting the past back in, the former assassin soon finds himself involved in a war that will leave him with no way out and no idea who to trust…

 

Crossed Blades (Available Nov 27th 2012):
Book #3 of the Fallen Blade Story, an Excerpt:

#Chapter 1#

Today I saw a ghost in an old lover’s eyes. I hadn’t realized how much I would miss my face until the moment Jax looked at me and saw a stranger.

I was sitting in the Gryphon’s Head, as I have so often in the past, and drinking too much whiskey—likewise. Only it wasn’t my usual whiskey, and I wasn’t my usual self. The bells of Shan had just sounded the sixth hour. The sun slanting in through the open windows of the tavern was still hot, but the first touch of evening had started to steal the worst fire of its bite. I’d taken a seat far from my usual table and ordered the Magelands whiskey instead of my favored Aveni to reinforce my recent loss of face.

I recognized Jax the instant she stepped into the Gryphon, though she had the sun behind her and shadow hid her face. First love is like that. It writes itself into your heart and your memory in letters that can never be erased.

Or can they?

The look Jax gave me when our eyes first met cut as deep as any sword could. Not for what it said, but for what it didn’t. There was no recognition there, no hint of what had once been between Jax Seldansbane and Aral Kingslayer. No love and no loss, just the cold assessment of a professional killer sizing up a room for threats.

She gave me a single measured glance, alert for any trouble, then moved on when she didn’t see it, just as I would have in her place. I should have expected that, should have remembered what I had become, but I hadn’t, and that indifference from one I had once loved tore at me. I was invisible to her, a ghost in her eyes.

It’s all right, Aral. Triss’s familiar voice spoke directly into my mind, sweet and clear and wholly reassuring. It’s you who have forgotten your face, not Jax.

As usual, my familiar was right. I felt a pressure on my shoulder like a friend’s hand, squeezing briefly and then gone. I glanced at the shadow that stretched out behind me and gave it a wry smile. Him really. Triss is a Shade, a creature of living night. He lives in my shadow, quite literally.

Thanks, my friend, I sent back. Even a month on, it’s hard to remember what the bonewright did to my face.

I reached up, rubbing a rueful hand down my cheek and across my chin. Not that different from my old face, really, not from the inside anyway, and not to my fingers. But I knew that no mirror would show me the face of Aral Kingslayer ever again, nor even the somewhat more haggard and haunted version that I’d worn for my years as Aral the jack. A jack, one of the underworld’s all-purpose freelancers. Packages delivered, bodies guarded, the occasional contract theft. All in a day’s work for that Aral, and oh what a very long fall from the days when the world had called me Kingslayer and the unjust had shivered when they thought of me.

I took another long pull on my whiskey, smoky and strong, just what I needed. Then, I reminded myself that my changed appearance was for the best, considering all the wanted posters showing my old face. I kept telling myself that, and until the instant Jax’s eyes had passed me over unrecognized, I had mostly even pretended to believe me.

I’ve never had a particularly distinguished sort of face. Medium brown everything, from eyes to hair to skin. Not too pretty, not too ugly, the kind of face that’s easy to ignore or forget. The masters and priests who raised me to be an assassin in the service of a goddess now dead had always told me it was one of my strongest assets.

My new face shared all the best aspects of my old face, improved on them even. I had deliberately reshaped skin and bone in a way that removed most of the markers of my native land, worked at making myself look like the product of a mixed heritage. It was the sort of face you might see in any of the eleven kingdoms of the east—never a native, but not a clear foreigner either. In so many ways it was the perfect face for what I had once been. Aral Kingslayer, Blade of Namara, the goddess of Justice. How ironic then that I put it on only after the murder of my goddess, her temple’s destruction, and the death of all but a handful of my friends and fellows.

Easy. Triss squeezed my shoulder again—a shadow’s touch—this time in warning. Remember where we are and control yourself. They are hunting us still.

Again, he was right. The Gryphon was a public place. One where I was known to have spent a good deal of time, before my second life as a jack of the shadow trades was exposed. Looking around the room, I could spy several tables worth of potential trouble. The place in the corner that I used to consider my regular spot, for example. A man and a woman sat there, both with their backs to the wall, both exhibiting the alert calm of the waiting hunter.

She was slender, tall, and long limbed yet muscular, and far from fragile. Ice blond hair and white skin marked her out as foreign, as did her hard blue eyes. Her quick precise movement made me think of some sort of giant praying mantis. The man was also tall, but broad where she was slender, with heavy muscles showing through the thin silk of his long-sleeved tunic. He was as dark as any of the locals, but the angles of his face and his thick black beard suggested a Kadeshi background, as did the short broad-bladed axes he had tucked into his sash.

He caught me looking at him and raised an eyebrow ever so slightly, touching one of his axes in a way that told me he thought I was a thief. I pretended to be intimidated, swallowing heavily before looking down into my drink, and he snorted and went back to talking to the woman. Trouble averted easily enough, but dammit, I shouldn’t even be here. I should have walked away and found a different bar to haunt, a new place to start building myself a new identity to go with my new face.

But I was deadly tired of running, and somehow I just couldn’t walk away from the old me that easily. Not even the drunken wreck of a version that had earned his bread as a shadowside jack.

Which brought me back to Jax. We had grown up together at the great temple of Namara. She had entered the service of Justice a year after I did, barely four. A tiny girl with long dark hair, pale skin, and a winsome smile that had grown into a wicked one as the years transformed the girl into a beautiful young woman. Though she had never grown all that much in physical stature, she had more than made up for it with her skills as a sorceress and assassin in the service of Justice, coming third in our generation for the quality of her kills, after Siri and me.

Why had she chosen this moment to walk back into my life? I didn’t make the foolish mistake of thinking her presence in the one place in all of Tien I was known to have frequented was any kind of coincidence. I also wondered where she had been hiding during the six years since the temple fell. Not in Zhan, I guessed by the lack of color to her skin. Nor anywhere else with brutal sun, unless she had become a creature wholly of the night.

Aven perhaps, or back home in Dalridia or the mountains of the Magelands. One of those, almost certainly. She would have had to hide someplace she could blend in, and someplace close enough that she could have reached Tien in four weeks or less. That ruled out Öse, Varya and Radewald.

The news that the Kingslayer had been unmasked would have flown fast and far on wings of magic. Everyone in the eleven kingdoms with any sort of governmental or shadowside connections would have heard that message within a week, two at most. Unless she wanted to spend a lot of money and draw the sorts of attention that one of our kind couldn’t easily afford, Jax would have had to travel by more mundane means. No ship or horse could have brought her here from any farther afield so fast.

I knew that right after the fall Jax had spent time in the grip of the Hand of Heaven, the human instrument the gods had used to destroy the temple and Namara’s worshipers. As the magical enforcement arm of Shan’s archpriest, the Hand was known for its willingness to employ torture and the stake to achieve its aims. That, no doubt, explained the dozens of thin scars that threaded Jax’s face and arms, white on white like fine lace on a marble table.

But where had she been since her escape? What had she been doing? Her clothes told me nothing. Like anyone both sane and in-purse who found themselves facing Tien in summer, Jax had opted for a vest and loose pants in the thinnest of silks—gray in this case. She had eschewed the more common sandals for light boots of the same sort that I wore for roof-running. The short, curved swords she wore in a double sheath on her right hip looked vaguely Dalridian in design, but they could have come from anywhere. No clues there. No clues anywhere really.

I wanted to go to her, to take her in my arms and tell her who I was and how very happy it made me to see her alive. But six years as a fugitive had taken its toll. I would wait and I would watch, and only when I was sure there was no trap would I make a move. Even then, caution must come before trust.

For several long minutes she chatted quietly with Jerik at the bar, obviously asking questions, though I couldn’t make out specifics. He kept shaking his head no and shrugging, despite the fact that she flashed several heavy gold coins at him. Finally she seemed to give up, flipping her hair back with an angry snap of her neck that I’d seen too many times to count in the short, tumultuous year we had shared a bed. Without another word she stalked straight out the front door of the Gryphon.

It should have been funny watching hardened shadowside bonebreakers twice Jax’s size getting quickly and prudently out of her way as she gave them the look. But she’d caught me so off guard with the suddenness of her departure that I barely had the leisure to notice. I was far too busy trying not to appear as though I was following her, when I knocked back my drink, and then rose to do just that.

What’s the plan? Triss asked silently. I thought we were going to take this slow.

That was before she left so quickly. We have no way of knowing if she’ll ever come back, and I want to know why she’s here.

Point. How shall we play it?

Cross her shadow. Tell Sshayar to let Jax know to meet us somewhere private at midnight. Walk away.

It was an old Blade trick for passing secret messages one to another. Shades had a means of silent communication that would allow Triss and Sshayar to exchange basic information. Unfortunately, with the exception of my newfound ability to communicate with Triss, no Shade could bespeak their Blade companion mind-to-mind. That was another legacy of the magic that had reshaped my face, the breakthrough that allowed us to do what none of our kind ever had before: mindspeak. But it wasn’t something that could be taught, so we would have to fall back on the older method of passing the message Shade to Shade for later verbal relay.

Great plan in theory. In practice . . .

I hate it when we do that, I thought at Triss. Where the hell did she go?

That way, replied Triss, unobtrusively nudging my right foot. I can taste Sshayar’s essence on the street, but only very faintly. She’s hiding deep in Jax’s shadow and the sun is strong today, burning away the traces of her passing. We’ll have to move quickly if we want to keep track of her.

Jax had been barely forty feet ahead of me leaving the bar, but by the time I got out the door, she’d vanished into the crowd. Some of that was simply height. At a hair under five feet, Jax stood a head shorter than the average citizen of Tien. Thousands of whom were out wandering the streets in search of dinner.

The Stumbles, where the Gryphon is located, is one of Tien’s worst neighborhoods. The streets are narrow and poorly kept—there are cobbles down there somewhere, but you have to dig through a lot of filth to find them. At the moment it was hard even to see the filth beneath the swirling mass of people that filled the street.

As was so often the case with slums, the Stumbles was also one of the city’s most heavily populated neighborhoods. The accommodations mostly varied from miserable to inadequate, but rooms and parts of rooms could be had for a few kips a day, and that meant that people who’d have been sleeping on the street in other parts of the city could put a door between themselves and the night while they slept. That meant a lot, especially in a place like the Stumbles.

As I threaded my way through the crowds guided silently by Triss, I kept an eye out for Jax. But between her height and the fact that almost everyone in that poor neighborhood wore light browns and middling grays, I never caught sight of her. I did spy a half dozen pickpockets and cutpurses, and had to warn two of them off with a look when they got too close to me. That last was a shock. Another painful reminder of my lost face—people knew Aral the jack in the Stumbles and would have known better than to even consider picking his pocket—but they didn’t know me.

No one knew me. Not the petty criminals, not Machim the beggar, nor Asleth the noodle vendor. No one. That should have made it easier for me to pass through the crowds, as people who would normally have wanted a piece of my time ignored me. It didn’t. Aral the jack was a dangerous man, a drunk maybe, and down on his luck, but people knew to get out of his way. Nobody knew to get of the way of . . . who?

I stopped in the middle of the street as the weight of that question hit me. Who was I, really?

Aral Kingslayer had died with his goddess. The man who wore that name had crawled into a bottle and not come out again. In his place a new Aral had emerged, Aral the drunk who had paid his bar bills by playing the shadowside jack. Doing things for money the earlier Aral would never have contemplated. Petty little illegalities, and all freelance, so that there was never a chance he’d owe any loyalty to anyone ever again. Never anyone he’d have to care about.

That had all changed a bit over a year ago when a woman named Maylien had found an echo of the old Kingslayer hiding under the skin of the jack.

For a little while I thought I’d found a new purpose in life, a new Aral who might have a chance at doing some good in the world again. That was the plan anyway. I’d even thought it was working, right up till the moment I realized how much of me I’d lost with my face. I didn’t even have a name anymore. Not really. Not one I could wear in public. If your only name was a secret, was it even really a name?

Aral! Come on, we’re losing Jax. Triss gave me a sharp slap on the side of my foot and I got moving again.

But I’d lost my hunger for the chase and I hardly even blinked when we lost the trail as it left the narrow streets of the Stumbles and plunged into the human river of Market Street.

Fire and sun! Triss growled into my mind. It’s gone, and I can’t tell whether that’s an effect of the sun or if Jax did something clever to break her trail.

I found it very hard to care about the answer when what I really wanted was to go back to the Gryphon and drink until the world went away. I couldn’t tell Triss that though, not with the way he felt about my drinking. Instead I just stood and stared at the passing parade, full as it was of walkers and riders, carters and rickshaws, even the odd palanquin. Sandals and boots and hooves and wheels, all of them grinding away at the dust and dirt and . . .

Wait. Back up. Think, man!

There it was. So simple and elegant I had no idea why it hadn’t occurred to me before.

My guess would be she got into one of those. I pointed at a passing  oxcart. If she made sure that her shadow didn’t spill over the edge of the bed, a cart would make a very good getaway vehicle. That or one of those closed palanquins. Hell, she could even have had a covered rickshaw waiting for her here.

I’m an idiot. Triss sounded shocked. The idea of a shadow trail is new enough to you that I can understand why you wouldn’t have thought of that before now. But, why didn’t it ever occur to me?

For the same reason it didn’t occur to me, probably. Blinkered thinking. We both knew fire and sun and running water can break a shadow’s trail, so it didn’t occur to either of us to think beyond the big and flashy to simpler means.

So now what? Triss asked me.

The Gryphon, I think. Maybe Jax will come back. Triss didn’t say anything, but I could feel his disapproval as he thought about me having another drink. I could also use some dinner, and it’s Jerik’s cooking or go home where we’ll have to deal with Faran and Ssithra. . . .

I guess one more whiskey won’t kill you.

I thought you might see it my way.

Faran was almost sixteen and a problem and a half. She’d been eight when the temple fell. A combination of talent, smarts, luck, and utter ruthlessness had allowed her to escape an attack that killed most of her peers and teachers. For six years she and her familiar, Ssithra, had lived completely on their own, spying and thieving their way across the eleven kingdoms to stay alive. Her last assignment had gotten away from her in a way that would probably have killed her if it hadn’t also brought her to my doorstep. I’d had to abandon my old face as part of fixing that mess.

Now she’d become my . . . apprentice? Ward? Surrogate daughter? Faran and I were still working out the details of what we were to each other. So far, the process involved a lot of snarling and baring of teeth and I desperately wanted a little break before I faced the next round. Though Triss’s relationship with Ssithra was harder to parse, the level of hissing in Shade that went on between the two of them suggested to me it wasn’t any less fraught. In any case, the Gryphon sounded a hell of a lot more like home to me right at the moment than the rented house we shared with Faran and her familiar.

The Gryphon had started to fill up by the time I got back. Jerik just grunted and pointed me toward an empty seat at the end of the bar when I called out my order for whiskey and a bowl of fried noodles topped with shredded whatever-happened-to-fall-off-the-back-of-the-cart-today. His indifference stung a bit, since I was used to being treated like a regular. A few minutes later, he dropped off my bowl and a small loaf of black bread that I hadn’t ordered along with my glass, then turned away before I could say anything about getting my order wrong.

I was tempted to throw the bread at his retreating back, but just sighed and took a sip of my whiskey instead. It tasted smooth and silky, like liquid magic. Kyle’s eighteen, the special cask reserve if I knew my whiskeys. Nothing like what I’d ordered. As I paused before taking another drink, Jerik spun around to drop a beer in front of the smuggler sitting three stools to my right. I raised my glass ever so slightly in Jerik’s direction as well as an eyebrow. Jerik responded with something that could have been the faintest ghost of a wink or perhaps nothing at all.

I took another sip. It was top shelf Kyle’s all right, the spirit old Aral the jack had drunk whenever he felt deep enough in the pockets. Since I’d ordered nothing but Magelands whiskeys at the Gryphon since I changed my face, and the Kyle’s wasn’t sitting somewhere you’d get them confused, I had to figure the switch was intentional.

Which meant he’d recognized me, and wanted me to know it. I would have liked to believe that was impossible, but he’d been my landlord and bartender for five years and knew me as well as anyone in the city. It was hard to disguise a walk, and harder still if you were drunk.

But why was he letting me know about it now? To cover my confusion I took another sip of my excellent whiskey and then followed that with a mouthful of noodles. The hot pepper sauce almost covered the aging vintage of the fried bits of meat and vegetables. Almost.

I considered my bread then. Jerik makes a hard black loaf that will keep you alive for a long while if the effort of chewing it doesn’t kill you first. It’s cheap and awful, and over the years I’ve spent almost as much time living on it as I have avoiding it. This loaf looked more battered than most of its fellows, with several dents and dings and a wide crack splitting it nearly in half along one edge. Hmm. I jammed a thumb into the crack, then broke off a tiny corner of the loaf when I felt a bit of paper shoved deep into the bread.

As I was twisting the scrap of bread in my pepper sauce, Jerik slid back past me. “Tab?”

I nodded and he left. Jerik only runs a tab for serious regulars, and the face I was wearing now simply hadn’t been around long enough. I suppose I shouldn’t have been as surprised as I was that he’d recognized me.

Jerik’s a damned clever man. He used to hunt monsters for a living, and mostly on crown lands, which adds dodging royal patrols to the list of dangers involved in the trade. The dumb die quick, and the smart can get rich if they live long enough. There’s a good deal of money to be made by selling the bits off to various magical supply houses, and Jerik was at it long enough that he really didn’t need to work for a living anymore.

He retired from the business after the gryphon he ultimately named his bar for ate about half of his scalp and one of his eyes. The scars are terrible and a good part of the reason he keeps the lights low, but I think he missed the thrill of it all. It wasn’t too many years after he got mauled that he first opened the Gryphon’s Head and nailed the damn thing’s skull up behind the bar. I’ve always figured he bought an inn down here in the Stumbles among the shadowside players, when he could have afforded a better location, because he missed spending time around dangerous predators.

Despite a burning desire to read my little note right then and there, I knew better. Instead, I just nibbled another corner off my bread and took a long slow sip of the Kyle’s. Golden, though I still missed efik. More now with the recent presence of another Blade to remind me of things left behind. Brewed or chewed, the effect of the beans was so much smoother than alcohol’s. Of course, if I hadn’t given it up I’d be dead by now. Or worse, a sleepwalker sitting in some alley and slicing my arms so I could rub powdered efik into the wounds for a bigger better ride to the place where nothing matters.

I pushed the thought aside. Thinking about efik made me want it, and that was the road to ruin. After I finished my noodles and carefully rationed out the rest of my Kyle’s, I scooped up the loaf and headed out into the Gryphon’s yard. I used to rent a room over the stables back there. Now, I took advantage of long familiarity, to slip into the lower level and find an empty stall, before I cracked open my bread envelope.

By the time I’d gotten it split in half, Triss had defied the conventions that light normally enforced on shadows, by sliding up the wall to a place where he could read over my shoulder, and changing his shape. Most of the time, he pretends to be nothing more than light would make him, a darkened copy of my own human form. But when we’re alone, he will often reshape his silhouette to assume the outline of a small dragon complete with wings and a tail. When he does that, he assumes some of the other aspects as well, and now I reached out to give him a light scruff behind the ears, where his scales always seem to itch.

He made a happy little noise at that, but then shrugged me off and jerked his chin at the tightly rolled piece of paper I held. What’s it say?

Unrolling it revealed a folded sheet with a small blob of black wax sealing it. There was no imprint in the wax and no name on the outside of the letter, but magesight revealed the faintest glow of magic on the seal. I held it up to Triss and he reached out with one clawed finger and touched the seal. There was a hiss and the wax dissolved. I raised an eyebrow at Triss and he nodded. As I had expected, it responded only to the touch of a Shade. Any other attempt to open it would have resulted in the whole thing burning instantly away to ash.

I opened the letter. Inside it said: Ashvik’s tomb. Two hours past midnight. The anniversary of the day you broke my heart. And that was all. No names. No signatures.

Clever, just a location, the time, and a date no one but I would know. The day I told Jax I wasn’t going to marry her. The fifth of Firstgrain, one week in the future. The whole thing was smart, and I wondered how many of these she had handed out, hoping one would get to me. There had been six kings of Tien with the name Ashvik, and their tombs were scattered widely through the royal cemetery. Anyone who intercepted the message and didn’t know it was intended for me would have to guess not only the date but which one was the intended meeting place. The tomb of Ashvik VI, the man who had died to give me the name Kingslayer.

 

Copyright © Kelly McCullough 2012. May not be reproduced without the author’s permission.