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Extended Excerpt: The Impossible Contract by K. A. Doore

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An assassin’s reputation can mean life or death.

This holds especially true for Thana Basbowen, daughter of the legendary Serpent, who rules over Ghadid’s secret clan of assassins. When a top-tier contract drops in her lap — death orders against foreign ambassador Heru Sametket — Thana seizes the opportunity.

Yet she may be in over her head. Heru wields blasphemous powers against his enemies, and Thana isn’t the only person after his life: even the undead pursue him, leaving behind a trail of horror. Her mission leads her on a journey to the heart of a power-hungry empire, where dangers lurk around every corner. Her only ally is Mo, a determined healer set to protect Ghadid any way she can.

As further occult secrets are unleashed, however, the aftermath of this impossible contract may be more than anyone can handle.

The Impossible Contract by K. A. Doore hits shelves on November 12. Please enjoy this exclusive extended excerpt!

1

Drum Chief Eken’s end of season party was unflinchingly raucous. The unfettered flow of date wine and the thunder’s erratic interruptions only encouraged the partygoers to an ever-greater volume. The wind puffed the sound and smell of rain through open windows and doors. A storm was coming; it was season’s end. All of Ghadid was celebrating tonight, safely indoors and away from the strong winds and violent rains. A mixture of excitement and relief pulsed beneath the too-loud conversation.

But Thana felt neither. Instead, she ground her teeth against the crowd’s onslaught, thrumming with a nervous anticipation that had nothing to do with the storm or the party. Balancing a tray of wine-filled glasses on one hand and holding a pitcher in the other, she threaded her way through the bodies, attuned only to the tone, not the content, of the words blowing past.

For this event, she’d borrowed a dull purple wrap that sucked away the warm undertones in her brown skin. It served its purpose in transforming her into just another background blur, as unexceptional as the other slaves. She’d even done her hair up in a common slave style, all tight black knots in uniform rows across her scalp.

Her gaze tracked the crowd and snagged on a figure in green conversing with one of the drum chief’s wives, his wrap cinched tight with a silver belt: her cousin Amastan. He wore his tagel higher than usual tonight, covering even his nose, but Thana would know her cousin’s build and stance anywhere.

She let out a breath of relief. He’d made it.

Not that she’d ever doubted he would. But there was always a chance, however small, that he could’ve been delayed, or worse, barred from entering the party. Then they would’ve had to scrap their plan, wasting the months of preparation and planning it’d taken to get them this close to Eken.

After all, this conveniently public spectacle afforded them their best—and only—chance to kill the drum chief.

It wasn’t personal. Not for Thana, anyway. The contract had sealed Eken’s fate. But it was personal for their employer, whose daughter the drum chief had dishonored—one among many, if the rumors were true. If Eken had been anyone but a drum chief, their employer would’ve approached the Circle for justice. But, although a drum chief wasn’t technically above the law, going the traditional route would’ve allowed Eken to turn the trial into a public spectacle and bring shame upon the girl’s whole family, while incurring little more than a small fine himself. The girl had suffered enough already.

Instead, a network of sympathetic ears had brought their employer to Kaseem, the broker of so many bloody deals, who in turn selected Amastan out of all the cousins. Only Amastan had previously demonstrated the precision and subtlety necessary to kill a drum chief. While the family’s contracts were now sanctioned—if unofficially—by the Circle, they’d still be exiled or even executed if they were caught killing one of the Circle’s own. Drum chiefs were fickle like that. Hence: months spent carefully assembling the pieces of their plan until each was exactly where it needed to be and nothing could go wrong.

Thana averted her gaze as she served the guests, only occasionally sneaking a glance to check Amastan’s progress. As she circled the room, she picked out other drum chiefs, their wraps rich and vibrant, their fingers glittering with rings. Ghadid had twelve drum chiefs for its twelve neighborhoods. Half of them were here tonight.

But one was still missing. The night was no longer new and Drum Chief Eken had yet to make an appearance at his own party. Where was he?

A sudden quiet settled on one corner of the room and oozed outward like spilled oil. Heads tracked its spread. A moment later, the crowd near Thana parted and two men passed by, one wearing a wine-red wrap and the other, bone white. The first was broad-shouldered but stout. His extravagant wrap hid most of his peculiar shape, its embroidery and hem of tiny bells pulling the gaze away from a bulging paunch. His equally lush tagel concealed his entire face but for a thin swath of dark brown skin around a pair of even darker eyes.

Thana had worked in his household for three weeks already. She would’ve known Drum Chief Eken’s wide-legged stride and shape anywhere. The other man, though, was a mystery. White was inappropriate for a celebration and Thana doubted he was in mourning. Everything about him yelled foreigner, from his loosely wrapped tagel, to his lighter, almost golden eyes and sand-pale skin. He ignored the greetings flung his way as the drum chief led him through the room, all the while trying to engage Eken himself.

Mutters nipped their heels but sputtered out when Drum Chief Eken signaled for the party to continue. The conversations started and stopped and started again, like a tired mule failing to pull its load. Thana caught snatches of worry and confusion as she resumed circling the room.

“—audacity to be seen in public with—”

“—was always saying Eken’s a shards-cursed imperialist—”

“—of the Empire doing here?”

Thana kept her expression blank even as worry tightened her chest. Rumors had circulated in the few days about the Empress’s man who had arrived along with the year’s first caravan. Who was he? And why had he come all this way from Na Tay Khet to their city on the edge of the Wastes?

Now he was here, at Eken’s party, in the company of the drum chief himself. The implications were unsettling, but they had nothing to do with her contract. Thana wouldn’t let his presence distract her.

“It’s true, then.”

The voice came from beside her. Thana smoothed over her jerk of surprise with a smile and offered the speaker a glass from her tray. A tall man stood at her elbow, thin but strong like a palm, his dark red tagel almost as loose as the foreigner’s. His eyes, though, were as dark as midnight. As he studied Thana, she realized he’d spoken to her. He raised his hand, refusing the wine.

“Sa?” prompted Thana.

The man turned his gaze back to Eken and folded his arms. “The fool has finally arrived.”

As much as she might want to, Thana couldn’t respond. Legally, the fool was her master and agreeing with the man could see her whipped. So she kept silent and moved away to fill an empty glass. When she glanced back, the tall man was gone.

Meanwhile, Eken had shed the man in white and joined his wife. Amastan greeted the drum chief and pressed his closed fist to his chest. Eken mirrored the gesture, then laughed at something Amastan said, his whole body heaving with the motion.

Keeping one eye on their exchange, Thana weaved through the crowd. She handed out glasses of wine and topped off empty ones as she went, smiling blandly at each passing thanks. Soon, her tray was half-empty. She paused long enough to rearrange the glasses.

Amastan was explaining the history of glasswork to Eken as Thana approached. She twisted the top of one of her rings beneath the tray, then offered her tray to the drum chief. Fully engrossed in Amastan’s words, Eken reached for a glass. Thana turned the fuller side toward him and, as she brought her hand back, tipped her ring over the glass that’d soon be nearest him. Fine white powder fluttered into the date wine, dissolving instantly.

With the smallest metallic clink, barely audible even to Thana, the ring’s cap settled back into place. Thana gave the drum chief her blandest smile, but he took the poisoned glass without even a glance her way. Then she continued on, offering wine to the next guest. She didn’t dare linger to see if the mark drank the poison. That was Amastan’s job.

Thana glided across the room, her thin smile belying none of the thrumming nerves beneath. This may have been her third contract with Amastan, but it was by far her most important. No one was beyond the family’s reach, but killing a drum chief wouldn’t come without consequences if they screwed up. Over two decades ago, her mother had killed a drum chief and almost ended the family. But her mother hadn’t been under contract and they were. As long as she and Amastan stayed within the confines of the contract, everything would be fine. They’d be fine.

Thana welcomed the nerves. They were a part of the work. That’s what keeps you alive, her mother had said time and time again. Nerves and anxiety were encouraged. It was the calm you had to be afraid of. Complacency got you killed.

The nerves were well-earned: in the next few moments, all their work would come to fruition. Thana had spent months living among the slaves, while Amastan had spent that time gathering facts and rumors. In the next few moments, they’d either become legends in her family’s history or cautionary tales of failure.

Despite the tension of the moment, she couldn’t help but feel a spark of jealousy. If they succeeded—and they would, they had to—all the credit would go to Amastan. This was his contract, after all, even if she’d put in half the work. More, if she was being honest with herself, since she’d been the one playing a slave. Amastan would be the one remembered for killing a drum chief, not her. And he didn’t even want the prestige.

Thana took a breath and pushed away her jealousy. In its absence, the nerves came roaring back. It was out of her hands now. She had to trust they’d chosen the right kind of poison, that Amastan had calculated the correct dose, that she’d ground it fine enough, that the mark had drank all of it, that the timing had been right, that no one had seen, that Amastan kept their mark engaged, that—

The storm broke, rain pounding against the roof and drowning out the crowd, the air suddenly laden with it. For a moment, Thana couldn’t hear anything but the rush of rain. That moment soon passed, but the din worsened as people shouted to be heard above the roar. Slaves rushed from window to window, closing the shutters before the spray could dampen the drum chief’s guests. As each window was closed, the storm was further muffled, until its rage was only a distant scream.

Then the shouting started.

Thana turned, her face a mask of surprise as she fought a surge of panic. We’ve been found out, someone noticed the ring, the chief can taste poison, it was the wrong poison, Amastan slipped up—

Drum Chief Eken clutched at his own throat, his eyes so wide that the whites showed all the way across the room. His tagel had been yanked down and his lips were moving, but Thana couldn’t hear him over the crowd. Amastan waved one of the drum chief’s wives over. No one else was responding to the crisis; the other slaves stood frozen in place, confusion and terror on their uncovered faces. Past the growing chaos, the man in white leaned against a wall, eyebrows furrowed as if this were a mere annoyance.

Froth spilled from the mark’s lips. Thana’s panic spiked, became paralysis. It wasn’t supposed to happen this fast. The mark was supposed to survive the evening, only to complain about stomach pains and die later that night. Even to the healers, it would’ve seemed as if he’d eaten spoiled meat. The contract required a quiet, inconspicuous death. But this—what was this?

Whatever it was, she wouldn’t let it ruin their contract. Thana shoved her tray into the hands of another slave and all but dropped the pitcher on a table as she rushed to Amastan’s side. Now was not the time to disappear. No one would notice the slaves who rushed to help, but they’d notice any who ran away. She couldn’t risk breaking her cover, not when the contract wasn’t done.

The mark’s wife helped Amastan guide him out of the room. Thana ducked under Eken’s other arm, spreading out his bulky weight and using her body to shield his features from the wall of staring guests. Even if the mark was dying, it was still disrespectful to let so many see his bare face, most of whom belonged to a lower class.

Once they were out of sight and in the hallway, the wife pulled over a chair and they guided the drum chief into it. He slumped, his shoulders heaving with each pained breath. He wheezed and hacked as he fought for air and he kept shaking his head like a stunned dog.

His wife turned on Amastan. “What in G-d’s name happened?”

“I don’t know, ma.” Amastan echoed her worry. “One minute he was fine, the next—” He waved at Eken.

A second woman joined them, the gold chain at her waist marking her as Eken’s senior wife. She went straight to her husband, her fingers finding first his wrist, then his neck. She tilted his head back and peered into his eyes before prying open his mouth and staring down his throat. She did all of this in the same perfunctory manner as an Azali examining his camel.

She stepped back, shaking her head. “He’s having an acute reaction to something he ate. Girl”—she snapped her fingers at Thana, who stiffened—“did you see him take any nuts of any kind?”

Thana kept her gaze averted but shook her head. “No, ma. Just the date wine that was served to every guest.”

“Then there must have been some pit in the wine.” The senior wife pinched the bridge of her nose, irritated. “The fool should’ve known better. The cores of some fruits make him very ill. Quick, girl—fetch a healer. We have little time.”

“Yes, ma.”

As Thana left the room, she made a circle with her thumb and forefinger on her hand nearest Amastan. He grunted and said something, but the noise from the crowd was too loud. She could only hope he’d seen her signal and knew to look for her coded note outside the slaves’ quarters later. They hadn’t been exposed yet, but the situation was getting away from them.

Thana grappled with what had happened as she slipped outside and down a side street, running through the pouring rain for the nearest healer. The possibility of dragging her feet crossed her mind, but it was just as quickly dismissed: if Eken died because she was too slow, all the blame would fall on her. No, their original plan was shattered. But Thana was still a slave in the drum chief’s household for a few more days. There was still a chance they could salvage this contract. Still a chance she could fix things.

When Thana returned with a healer, three of Eken’s wives waited outside his room. They let the healer through, but one of the wives blocked Thana from following. Thana caught only a glimpse of the senior wife and Eken inside, still alive. She retreated to the slaves’ quarters and wrote Amastan the promised note. Then she scrubbed the floor—and planned.

Only one course of action remained. They’d never get those months of preparation back, but Thana was still here, a part of the drum chief’s household. Just because the poison would be cleaned from his body didn’t mean he couldn’t still die quietly tonight. If anything, it’d be less suspicious than before. Eken was old and the reaction had weakened him. It wouldn’t be surprising if his heart gave out. Thana just had to make sure that it did.

It’d be risky, acting on her own. For generations, assassins in her family had traditionally worked in pairs. When a murderer had caught several of her cousins alone and unawares, that tradition had become a rule. Of course, her mother had been known to work on her own, but Tamella was a legend. Even forced into retirement, her name was still a whispered warning. Someday, Thana would reach the same level of notoriety.

But aspiration was one thing; action was another. Thana couldn’t wait for Amastan. She had to act tonight. If her mother could get away with working a contract alone, than so could she.

While the decision set part of her at ease, it set the rest of her on edge. She was on her own. If she failed, all of Ghadid would learn her name and she’d be hunted. Her family and cousins were tolerated as a necessary evil, a vanguard against corruption and injustice, but only if Ghadid could pretend they didn’t exist.

G-d did not condone murder, even when it was for the greater good.

With only a few hours left to act, Thana got to work.

_________

The storm lingered well after it was mere dregs, spitting at empty streets with little enthusiasm, its breath fogging windows. Thana hunkered under the eave of a neighboring building, gaze fixed on one window in particular, as dark as an eye. She’d shed the purple wrap in favor of a dark green one that blended with the shadows. Its lightweight fabric clung wet to her skin and rain ran through her knotted hair and down her face, but she didn’t move.

The evening had been trying, full of nerves and waiting. Although Amastan had instilled an appreciation for patience in her, she still hated sitting idle. Slipping away from the other slaves had been a trial in itself. Now she drew in calm with each breath, stilling her shaking hands. She could do this without Amastan. She had to do this without Amastan.

The lights in the other windows went out one by one. The wind picked up, whispering unintelligible promises to any who’d listen. A different kind of fear spread bumps along Thana’s arms. Guul were said to ride on the tails of large storms, feasting on the disaster and death left behind. Thana touched the cord at her neck, tracing her finger along the glass charms lying cold against her collarbone. But guul were creatures of the Wastes. They never came near Ghadid. Here, she only had to fear wild jaan.

Thana checked her rings and counted her knives. When the rain picked up in one last, petulant burst, she detached from the wall and slipped across the alley as little more than a shadow. Eken was expected to survive the night. A wife was keeping guard outside his room. But no one should be inside, no one by his side. At least, not while the healer was resting.

The rainfall masked the squeak of metal as Thana used her knife to unscrew the bolts of the window hinge. She caught the glass before it could fall and shatter, then climbed over the sill and into the room and its stifling darkness. She pulled the freed window back into place after her to keep the wind out.

She paused and took in the room, her sight already adjusted to the gloom. Damp footprints glistened behind her as she approached the long, low bed. The dry air would take care of those, storm or not. A man stirred in the bed, lips moving soundlessly, but his eyes didn’t open.

Thana’s fingers found and twisted the cap on one of her rings. She stopped next to the man’s head, comparing the face before her with the one she’d seen tagel-less at the party only a few hours before. It was the mark, all right. Drum Chief Eken.

She leaned over the mark and watched his nostrils flare and flutter, his lips part. Holding her own breath, she tilted her hand over those lips until white powder spilled and coated them. The mark grunted. Licked his lips. Resettled.

When the mark started to choke, Thana picked up the pillow beside his head and laid it across his face. At this, the mark started, hands reaching at and pushing away the pillow. Thana leaned in, imagining herself as unmovable as metal. She closed her eyes, feeling instead of seeing the mark’s progression from waking to confusion, followed by awareness and struggling. Thana fought back, willing the poison to work quickly. Although she was fast, she wasn’t strong like Amastan, and the mark could easily overpower her if given a chance.

For a heartbeat, she knew he would. The mark had hold of the pillow’s edges and was gasping for breath as he pushed her back and away. Thana gritted her teeth and shoved back with all her strength, but she wouldn’t last much longer. The mark thrashed, feet kicking air, body twisting away from her.

Thunder crashed, long and low and distant. Lightning illuminated the room, outlining the mark’s weathered and scarred hands as they clawed at the pillow obstructing his mouth and nose, the assassin’s pylon-straight back and tense shoulders, her mouth set in a thin, firm line.

The light was gone just as suddenly, and with it went the mark’s strength. He weakened by degrees as the poison worked, numbing his muscles, breaking his will, and slowing his heart beat by beat . . . by beat. He stopped resisting all at once, arms falling heavy back to the bed. But Thana didn’t relax, not until the breath she’d been holding burned like acid in her chest. Only then did she let go of the air in her lungs and the pillow in her hands. She stepped back, wary and weary and ready to be done. She freed a knife and waited.

But she didn’t need the knife. The pillow slipped to the side bit by bit, then all at once, revealing parted lips and open, sightless eyes. Thana shivered despite the room’s warmth. Three contracts, and she’d never gotten used to that sight. She hoped she never did.

Thana touched the charms at her neck as she muttered a prayer for the drum chief’s jaani. She returned to the window, settling its glass back in place. But while there was still a small gap, she threw a pebble at the water cup near the bed. It teetered and fell and shattered. Someone gasped in the hallway. In another moment, they’d enter, see the mark dead, and send for a healer. But they’d also send for a marabi to quiet his jaani. No one, not even Eken, deserved to have their jaani go wild.

Thana vanished into the lingering storm before anyone opened the door.

2

Thunk.

A knife protruded from the leather target, several inches from its center. Thana examined the girl at the opposite end of the room. Illi already had another knife in hand, but she waited to throw it as Thana approached. Thana moved Illi’s fingers along the knife’s hilt, then nudged the girl’s rear foot over by an inch. She stepped back, gave Illi another once over, then nodded.

“Again.”

Illi threw the knife, her motions as quick and smooth as a whip. Thunk. This time, the knife quivered at the target’s center.

Thana fought back a smile. “Not bad for a first lesson.”

Illi puffed her cheeks. “When am I ever going to need to throw a knife? It’s wasteful.”

Thana’s mood curdled. “Do you ask Tamella when you’ll need to fight hand-to-hand? Or sprint for several platforms?”

Illi looked away, braids obscuring her sour expression. “But those skills are practical.” She crossed the room and yanked her knives from the target.

“No,” said Thana. “They’re not. If you ever have to sprint for a contract, then you’ve already failed, and the watchmen will find you anyway. Tamella isn’t teaching you how to run or fight, she’s teaching you endurance and confidence. Same here. You’ll probably never have to throw a knife as part of a contract, just as you’ll never have to punch a mark, but the other skills you’re learning—precision, controlled breathing, form—will help you. Now, try again.”

“Besides,” said a voice from the doorway. “You never know when a contract might specify the mark die by a thrown knife. You should be prepared for any eventuality.”

Illi spun, the dagger at her hip already in hand. But Thana took her time. She recognized that voice, jarring as it was to hear it at home. Even more jarring was the sight of the man in her bedroom doorway. He wore a crisp green tagel up to the bridge of his nose. Around his eyes, his skin was as brown as warm tea, wrinkles etched deep by sun and age. His wrap was tight around a wiry torso and rough, callused hands were folded atop an amber-tipped cane.

“Kaseem.” Thana tried to hide the tremble in her fist as she placed it over her heart and bowed her head. “How may I be of service, sa?”

Kaseem lifted his cane and gestured at Illi. “I don’t wish to impose upon you and your pupil, ma. Please, finish your lesson.”

“We’re done for the day,” said Thana quickly. At least this time, Illi knew better than to contradict her. “What brought you all the way here, sa?”

Thana held her breath, mouth dry. It was an idiotic question.

There was only one reason Kaseem would cross the city to show up at her door.

“Your recent work was impressive,” said Kaseem, rolling the amber beneath his palm. “The qualities you demonstrated are exactly what another client is looking for.”

Illi let out a tiny sound, halfway between a gasp and a squeak. Thana shot her a warning glance, but the younger girl had already smoothed her features into a blank mask, her fingers laced together before her, the dagger back in its sheath. Despite being almost ten years Thana’s junior, Illi was far enough along in her training to grasp what Kaseem meant. After all, if she kept training and passed her test, she too might be approached by Kaseem one day.

One day. Thana resisted the urge to bounce. She’d dreamed of this day her entire life. Not every cousin made it through training and even fewer were ever approached by Kaseem himself for a contract. This was it. Maybe, finally, her mother could be proud of her.

“Illi,” said Thana, “that’s enough for today. I’ll let Tamella know how you did.”

Illi started to protest, but then her gaze caught Kaseem’s and she pressed her lips tight instead. Illi flicked one of her long braids over her shoulder, pressed her fist to her chest, and went to the window. If she stayed, the girl would have a full lesson in how a contract was presented and negotiated, but the details of the contract were privy only to those bound by it. Thana wasn’t about to take an untested cousin on as her partner for her first contract.

When Illi had disappeared over the windowsill, Thana gestured to Kaseem and led him down the stairs to the living area. The ground floor was deserted. Her mother was on a rooftop somewhere training the other young cousins, and her father had wormed his way into a drum chief’s private library where he now spent most of his days. His own collection filled half the room, shelves of densely packed scrolls that contained too many details about things that had happened in Ghadid. Amastan was in love with all that history, but Thana couldn’t be bothered. Now was more interesting—and relevant—than then.

Kaseem took his time on the steps. He wasn’t especially old, but he was as frail as a grandfather. Not for the first time, Thana wondered how old he really was. He claimed he’d shattered his thigh in a fight once and now relied on a cane to get around. But he leaned too readily on it, turning his weakness into a display— like a feint. If he’d been part of their family, he would’ve made a great cousin.

When Kaseem was on level ground, Thana went to the hearth and swung the waiting kettle over the fire. Only once the water had boiled, the tea steeped and been poured, and the two were seated across from each other did Thana dare speak.

“The mark’s funeral isn’t until tomorrow, sa.”

“I know.” Kaseem ladled a third spoonful of sugar into his tea. “The execution of that contract was impressive.”

Thana snorted. “We nearly botched it. Should’ve known the mark’d have a problem with date pits, of all things.”

“Yes. You almost did. That was foolish of you not to inquire into any potential cross reactions. But the key here is that you didn’t ‘botch’ it. The mark is dead and his household doesn’t suspect murder. At least, not any more than usual.”

Every death was suspect in Ghadid, where healers could cure you of almost any ailment if you could afford the water—and drum chiefs could always afford the water. The family was responsible for relatively few of those deaths—or had been. Entire years used to pass between contracts, but they were still working through the glut after a twelve-year ban. Long-suffered injustices had to be righted, and it wasn’t as if the marab or the Circle was going to do anything about them.

Thana tasted her tea and wrinkled her nose; she’d let it oversteep. She sipped it anyway, using the bitterness to center herself as she waited for Kaseem to get to the real reason he’d come.

“Your quick thinking and success despite the kind of failure that would’ve rattled any of your other cousins was notable.” Kaseem placed a glass bottle in the middle of the table. “Which is why I’d welcome your expertise on a new contract.”

Thana stared at the bottle, pulse thudding in her ears. This was it. She’d been expecting this, wanting this. She’d worked three contracts with Amastan already, passed the test five years ago, and trained her entire life—longer than most of her cousins by a decade. Amastan had received his first contract barely a year after earning his tagel. But then, that was Amastan, the only cousin who’d ever tried to fight Tamella. He was . . . unique.

But she was the Serpent of Ghadid’s only daughter. She needed to be more than unique, she had to be exceptional. Thana straightened. Whatever contract Kaseem had brought her, she’d prove her worth by completing it.

She examined the bottle. Its throat was sealed with wax, but the glass itself was clear. The bottle was filled with baats, the metal coins glittering in the hearth’s firelight. Even without counting, Thana knew there were more than she’d ever seen in her life. It was easily a merchant’s fortune or a drum chief’s allowance. A year’s worth of water, at least.

On top of the baats was a folded note. The contract. She’d have to break the seal to read it. Her hands stayed in her lap.

Kaseem was watching her closely. “Go on, take it.”

Thana met Kaseem’s gaze and tried to read those eyes. “What are the obligations?”

The edges of Kaseem’s eyes crinkled with a smile. “The removal of a mark. This time, however, the client prefers that the cause of death is quite obvious. The word they used was ‘messy,’ but you may use your discretion. You’ll be paid the second half upon confirmation of the mark’s death. You may share this contract with another. You have as long as you need to complete the contract, but once you read the details, you may want to act quickly. Of course, I wouldn’t presume to tell you how to do your job.”

“And if I fail?” The question was a formality; Thana knew the answer. Failure meant the end of her career, maybe her life.

“The usual. Return the baats you were paid upfront, plus a fine. Judgment by the drum chiefs, if you’re caught.” Kaseem paused, took a sip of tea. “But this client has one additional stipulation: if you don’t complete the contract, your body will be forfeit.”

Thana frowned. What could the client possibly want with her body? If she survived, perhaps they meant to own her as a slave. If she died, though, her body would be worthless. Unless all they wanted was to ensure her jaani was not quieted. She grimaced. That would be a step further than mere humiliation; that would be blasphemy.

Did her potential employer mean to intimidate her with that obligation? If so, then it was insulting. Thana was a cousin, a professional. If she took the contract, she’d complete it. Threats were immaterial.

“Who’s the mark?”

“Do you accept the contract?”

Thana eyed the bottle. Of course she would, but she still had to ask one last question. For it to be a legitimate contract, the mark’s guilt must be beyond the law. “What’s their crime?”

Kaseem’s eyes all but disappeared in a wide smile. He let out a low rumble of a laugh, at complete odds to his thin, bony frame. “It would be simpler if you asked what crime they haven’t committed. Your potential mark is guilty of the most egregious acts against both their fellow man and G-d. The world will be a much safer place without him.”

Him. Thana drew the bottle close, marveling at its weight.

She was struck again by the gratuitous amount of baats inside. “The note includes your exact instructions.” Kaseem spoke quickly, belying his own eagerness. “But I can tell you this much: a foreign friend visits our city and your employer would like to see that he’s given a proper welcome.”

“A merchant?” guessed Thana, appreciating the musical clink of metal on metal as she turned the bottle. She set it down and pried off the wax seal with a knife.

“An ambassador, of sorts. From the Empress herself.”

Thana froze, the bottle half turned and the paper still caught inside. The ridiculous number of baats made sickening sense. This contract was going to be Political, with a capital p. A drum chief was one thing—Ghadid prided itself on dealing with its own problems. But the Empress?

The Mehewret Empire claimed Ghadid, although the city had never acknowledged foreign rule. There had been no war, no surrender, no fanfare. Over a century ago, the Emperor had simply redrawn his maps and declared that Ghadid and the other cities on the edge of the Wastes were now on this side of the Empire’s border. At the time, no one had bothered to correct him. Ghadid had its own problems, including a seven-year drought and a spike in banditry. A messenger had arrived to announce the change. He’d been ignored.

Years passed and the declaration was forgotten. Then the Empress came to power. It wasn’t enough that the map of her Empire included Ghadid. No—she wanted tribute. She wanted control.

The first tax collectors the Empress sent never returned to Na Tay Khet. Soldiers accompanied the second group and camped below Ghadid, among its pylons, as the drum chiefs deliberated what to do. The decision had nearly torn Ghadid apart, but in the end they sent the soldiers away. That time, the army had come unprepared for a siege against the City in the Sky. Perched above the ever-shifting sands upon metal pylons that burrowed deep into the earth, Ghadid was unconquerable.

But the third—

Thana remembered them. The Empress had sent a smaller force, one that arrived with a caravan and rode the carriages up into the city, hidden in plain sight among the other foreigners. Thana had been too young to understand what was happening, but she remembered the proclamations that had appeared over- night, pasted on buildings and bridges. She could still feel the jostle of bodies as her family joined the others in the long, twist- ing lines for the census. She could still hear the cold, quiet anger in her mother’s voice and the intermittent bursts of outrage in the streets.

Thana would never understand how those collectors returned to their Empress alive. Many in Ghadid regretted the act of clemency. The Empress’s proclamations had rolled in a few years after that: long, curling lengths of vellum read by tarted-up citizens of the Empire, their skin pale as milky tea and their clothing little more than a skirt around the waist, their faces and chests indecently bare. The proclamations were frivolous, but their intent was plain: the Empress owned Ghadid.

The family’s business had picked up. A few years back, the Empress had retaliated by sending a small army. But Ghadid had drawn up its carriages and gleefully rained down rocks and burning pitch and broken glass until the soldiers gave up and left. Another group had tried the infiltration trick, but it didn’t work a second time. Their bodies were never found.

And now the Empress had sent an ambassador, with a list of crimes to his name that impressed even Kaseem. What was she planning?

Thana slid the note out and opened it, smoothing it against the table with her palm. She read. Instead of bringing clarity, though, her confusion and concern only deepened.

The mark had arrived a week ago with the most recent Azal caravan. The note described him as average height, pale featured, and having a predilection for wearing white. A cold realization filled Thana: the foreigner at the party. Was this contract related to Eken’s? Then she read the last line:

Heru Sametket is the second advisory marabi to the Empress.

“He’s a marabi?” Thana stared at Kaseem. “You want me to kill a marabi?”

“The Empress’s marab are no holy men,” said Kaseem. “They don’t bother themselves with funerals or quieting jaan like ours do. They are a different breed altogether, preferring their studies over action. There is very little of G-d about them.”

Still, Thana’s heart hammered. Holy man or not, a marabi was a man of G-d and they could protect themselves in ways that went beyond mere knives and poisons. It was rare for a contract to be written on a marabi, but when they were, the crimes were significant.

“Why is the Empress’s marabi here?” Thana sipped her tea as she considered a different question: did Kaseem know that Heru was already hard at work among the drum chiefs? If he’d spoken to Eken, then he’d spoken to others. Was he trying to start an uprising?

“I don’t know.” Kaseem’s gaze unfocused in thought. “But there’re guesses, conjectures. I suspect the Empress is testing us. She might be searching out weaknesses for another siege. Or she may be sowing dissension. It wouldn’t be the first time.”

Thana ran her thumb along the note’s edge. “But killing the marabi, an ambassador . . . that would guarantee a war.”

Kaseem steepled his fingers and met her gaze. “Yes.”

Thana considered. Her mother had taught her to question the motives of any potential employer, but Amastan had taught her to consider the bigger impact. A contract might be justified against a particular mark, but if it didn’t serve Ghadid, it didn’t serve the family. In its own way, the family protected Ghadid. Starting a war didn’t sound like protecting the city.

Then again, war had been brewing between Ghadid and the Empire ever since the late Emperor had added them to his map. If the Empress didn’t send an army now, then she would in the months or years to come. Wasn’t it better to have that war on their own terms, rather than at the Empress’s whim? If Ghadid reacted strongly enough, perhaps the Empress would strike the city from her map and be done with them.

In a way, it was already too late. If the Empress had sent her own marabi to Ghadid, even as an ambassador, then she’d already shot the first metaphorical volley. If they didn’t respond strongly, they’d look weak, perhaps even accepting. The tone would be set for future discourse. Ghadid couldn’t risk it. Thana couldn’t risk it.

She folded the note and slipped it into a pocket. “What else can you tell me, sa?”

“I have only rumors.”

“Then give me rumors.”

Kaseem poured himself another cup and took his time stirring in sugar. He set the spoon down and took a sip before answering. “The Empress’s marab are a breed apart from our own. They attend the dead and their jaan, but she has encouraged them to pursue nontraditional studies and research. There’s even rumor that she has removed restrictions on some previously banned lines of study. This has seeded her court with marab who are not wholly devoted to G-d. This ambassador in particular is one of the worst offenders, intent on twisting the word of G-d into blasphemies. He’s a keen but cruel man, whom few but the Empress can abide. And, most importantly”—Kaseem held up a finger—“he’s traveling alone.”

Thana frowned. A loner would be tougher to lure out. A loner would notice if someone went through their things. A loner wouldn’t leave their drink unattended or their back unprotected. A loner would be on their guard.

Then her frown curled into a smile. It was a difficult contract, yes—but Kaseem had come to her. She wouldn’t disappoint him. And with Amastan as her partner, nothing could stop her.

“I accept. Let’s talk payment.”

3

“But a two-pronged approach won’t work,” insisted Thana. “Not this time. There’s no way to drag the mark out. We have to go to him.”

She sat in the window of her room, legs tucked to her chest and hand dangling. Beyond, the sky was a cloudless blue, any mugginess lingering from the storms too thin to be felt, the air quickly returning to its usual stink of hot stones and sand. The gnats had all but disappeared with the rain, but a few still insisted on buzzing by her ear. She swatted at them in vain.

Amastan paced her room, hands clasped behind his back. On the small table by her bed was the note that detailed her—their— contract, alongside an empty teapot. Thana had found Amastan as soon as Kaseem had left and invited him into the contract. He’d accepted, of course. Then he’d begun to fret.

His tendency to overanalyze every angle of a contract had ensured their success in the past, but shards and dust, was it annoying. It’d already been several days since the eventful party and they’d made no progress. Their mark had kept his head down and was holed up in an inn. Whatever had driven him to seek out the drum chiefs was gone and now he kept to himself, leaving the inn at odd hours and avoiding routine. For an ambassador, he was surprisingly private and skittish.

No, the two-prong approach that’d brought them so close to Eken wouldn’t work here.

Amastan’s nose wrinkled as he chewed his lip. He’d tied his tagel low for this meeting. “We need to draw him out—”

“How? He’s not talking to anyone.”

“A disturbance. You go in as a servant at the inn and—”

“If we’d known ahead of time, we could’ve slipped in before he arrived. But he’s spooked—he won’t trust any new servants.” “It doesn’t need to be a servant. The inn is full of iluk and other foreigners this time of year.”

“What then? I try to talk to him? He’s an ambassador, the only people he wants to see are drum chiefs, and I don’t have to explain why impersonating one of them would be a bad idea.”

Amastan stopped pacing and turned to her. “Then what do you propose?”

“Kaseem said we need to be quick. So: a poisoned arrow. We can hit him through a window—”

“The further away we strike at him, the higher the chance he’ll survive.”

“So you’re not gonna like my idea of slipping into the kitchen and poisoning his food.”

“Unless we can guarantee he’ll eat it. And I doubt either of us wants to risk another reaction like Eken’s.”

Thana winced. That oversight belonged to both of them, but she couldn’t shake her own guilt. They’d come within inches of disaster. Poisoned drinks and food were out, then.

Quick and messy, that’s what Kaseem had implied and what the contract demanded. She knew, then, what they needed to do. She also knew Amastan wouldn’t like it. Well, he’d just have to handle it, because this was her contract, not his. Her shot at making a name for herself. And if they messed up, it’d be on her. So they wouldn’t mess up.

“We’ll track his routine for a few nights, then slip in while he’s asleep and slit his throat.” Thana wiped her hands together as if brushing off dust. “Simple.”

Amastan’s frown was slow, considering. “He’ll have wards, charms, and who knows what else. We might not be able to just sneak in.”

“We’ll visit Salid and he’ll sell us stronger charms. We’ll ask Menna and she can tell us how to break his wards. And if we run into something else, there’s two of us and one of him. He won’t have a chance.”

Amastan’s gaze slipped past her and out the window as he thought. Thana waited as patiently as she could. She was right. He’d see it too, he had to see it—

“Yes,” he said. “You’re right. I understand now why Kaseem chose you for this particular contract. He saw some of Tamella in you.”

Thana bristled but bit her tongue. If this contract went right, then maybe Amastan and Kaseem and all the rest of her cousins would stop seeing her as just the Serpent of Ghadid’s daughter.

“But we still need to be careful,” continued Amastan.

“Of course,” said Thana. “We’ll watch him for a few nights— he has to have some kind of routine. The building next door has a glasshouse, but it doesn’t take up the whole roof. We can set up there. When we feel good and comfortable, then we go in and do whatever it takes to finish the contract.”

“We can’t assume we’ll have more than a few days,” warned Amastan. “We don’t know how long he plans on staying.”

“We won’t need more than that.”

Slowly, Amastan nodded. “I see no obvious flaw in this plan.”

Thana prickled with pride. From him, that was high praise. She smiled and slid off the windowsill. “Then we’d better prep. We’re going to have some long nights ahead.”

_________

Heru Sametket sat alone at a table on the edge of the inn’s over-crowded common area, oblivious to everything and everyone around him. His attention was fixed on the paper unrolled across his table and the pen in his hand. He wrote in furious bouts only to pause for long stretches and chew on the end of his pen.

He wore a dark blue tagel up to his eyes, but he itched at the fabric like a young man unused to the cloth. Despite his class, he wore neither charms nor any jewelry. He had on the same white wrap he’d worn at the party, which glared bright and conspicuous in the gloom.

The color choice was perplexing. Only the grieving wore white, the shade of sun-bleached bones and death. Thana had found a little about the Empire and its marab in her father’s library, but only learned that they preferred red or even black and certainly nothing to confirm Kaseem’s salacious rumors. Ghadid’s own marab wore gray. Only mere whimsy could explain his choice, which irritated her more than she liked.

Across the room from the mark, Thana prodded a half-eaten bowl of porridge and traded verbal jabs with a handful of her cousins. She’d talked them into joining her tonight, but they didn’t know she was actively working a contract—and they wouldn’t suspect. Only those of her family who’d been chosen for the profession would’ve had the training to notice Thana’s disengagement. She’d chosen cousins in other lines of work, so no one commented when she picked at her food and stole glances at the mark.

Outside, Amastan was nestled on a neighboring rooftop. He’d pick up surveillance when Heru went upstairs, which he always did after dinner. If he wandered away on an errand instead, then Amastan would follow. Amastan was less skilled at tracking than Thana, but he had already spent two evenings inside the inn. They couldn’t risk his presence becoming familiar. Besides, he could use the practice.

The server plopped a mug next to Heru and moved on. Heru took it, lifted his tagel, brought the mug halfway to his lips, and paused. His eyebrows formed a hard line and then he was on his feet. He grabbed the server’s elbow and yanked him back to the table. Thana dabbed at her porridge with a piece of crust and tried not to stare.

Heru stabbed his finger at the mug. “What is this?”

The server tried to shake free, but Heru held fast. “It’s your drink, sa.”

“No, you imbecile. There’s a crust around the edge and a stain on the lip. This mug is filthy. How dare you serve me in a dirty mug?”

The server blinked. “It’s as clean as it gets, sa.”

Heru shoved the mug at him, spilling half its contents across the floor and the server. “Then clean it again!”

The inn’s owner, a man by the name of Idir who was solid if slow, approached from the kitchens, drying his hands on a towel. “What’s the problem, sa?”

The server fled and Heru turned his anger on Idir, brandishing the mug like a weapon. “I don’t know what kind of clientele you normally serve at your establishment, but even the lowest slave wouldn’t drink from such a disgusting mug.”

Idir took the mug, glanced at the offending rim, then gave it a quick rub with his towel. He handed it back. “There. Clean as new.”

A lone chuckle burbled up from the back of the room. A man wearing a tagel as red as blood had paused his card game to watch. Something about him tickled Thana’s memory, but she shoved it aside. Heru took the mug back reflexively but didn’t bother to inspect it. He opened his hand and let the mug fall. It hit the floor and split in two with a jaw-shuddering crack, spraying dark wine across the stones. The room went silent.

Idir looked down at the mess. “I’ll add that to your bill, sa.”

Heru grabbed Idir by the shoulders and stepped close. He hissed into the other man’s ear. Idir’s expression shifted from annoyance to amusement, then concern, and finally wide-eyed terror. When Heru let him go, Idir was trembling. Shoulders slumped, he bowed to the marabi, picked up the remnants of the mug, and hurried from the room.

The whole inn was staring now, but Heru ignored them and returned to his seat. Within moments, he was reabsorbed in his work and the scratch of his pen was the only sound in the room. Slowly, the other patrons picked up their conversations and smothered the eerie scritch scritch scritch with murmurs and strained laughter. Thana’s companions exchanged nervous glances.

“Who does he think he is?” muttered one cousin.

“He better not be staying long,” said another. “He’ll get himself marked if he keeps that up.”

Thana hid her smile by taking a drink.

Heru paused, then put his pen down and reached under the table to a small sack. He pulled out a blue glass bottle and poured some liquid onto a cloth. He used this to wipe both the table and his hands. He’d performed this same ritual twice just this evening. Thana could only guess at its significance.

A woman slid into the seat next to Heru, her unnaturally straight hair tumbling across bare shoulders. Her wrap dipped dangerously low, and she leaned forward a little as she turned toward him. Thana’s cheeks warmed and she twisted her gaze back to the marabi’s face for his reaction. But he ignored the woman and began writing again.

A cousin jostled Thana’s elbow and she peeled her attention away. She nodded once or twice, too distracted to parse her cousins’ conversation, and snuck another glance when she took a drink. The woman—she had to be a whore—pouted. Her eyes were lined with thick kohl and her lips had been painted a bright, painful red. She’d leaned in close to Heru and was fluttering her lashes. Then her gaze dipped to what the marabi was writing. Her pout deepened into a frown, but she didn’t draw away.

Heru finally looked at her, his pen still hovering over the paper. His gaze was cool and analytical, as if the whore were merely an insect. His tagel fluttered as he spoke. The whore replied, a sly smile pulling back her lips to reveal yellowed teeth. She wiggled her chest, but Heru’s gaze never strayed from her face.

The woman, unperturbed by his lack of enthusiasm, slipped an arm around his shoulder. Heru abruptly stood, rolling up his papers and recapping his pen. The woman offered him another pout, but Heru was already stalking toward the stairs that led up to the private rooms. The woman frowned, then glanced toward the back of the room. The man in the blood-red tagel made shooing motions at her. Rolling her eyes, the whore followed Heru.

Thana finally recognized the man in red. He’d been at Eken’s party, had made that strange remark. His presence among Eken’s guests meant several things, most interestingly that the late drum chief had been in the habit of inviting whoremongers to his public events. What was he doing here in the same inn as the mark? Perhaps he meant to take advantage of a foreigner’s ignorance and rob him.

Well, he could have the mark’s baats when the contract was complete. Thana wouldn’t need them.

“Did you hear that, Thana?”

Thana bit her cheek and smiled. She was being too conspicuous; might as well run with it. “No—I was hoping that whore would give up and come over here.”

Her cousins all laughed. Guraya slapped Thana on the shoulder, her hand heavy with wine. “She’s too much for you.”

“Oh come on, a girl can dream.” Thana elbowed Zdan and wiggled her shoulders in a parody of the whore which was only exaggerated by Thana’s small chest and modestly tied wrap. “Don’t tell me you weren’t watching.”

Zdan rolled his eyes at her but didn’t deny it.

Guraya giggled. “You better act quick. Another caravan just arrived, so they’re going to be pretty busy. I can’t wait for the market next week, there’s going to be—”

Thana zoned out again. A week felt so distant when she had a mark to kill in the coming days. She pretended to listen, but kept checking the stairs, waiting for the whore to return. Guraya was right, the inn was overflowing with iluk who’d be easy pickings for such attention. The whore wouldn’t waste her evening on one mark. Any minute now . . .

But the whore didn’t reappear. Gradually, the other patrons paid up and either took their leave or retired upstairs, some with whores at their side and some alone. A handful were locals, but most belonged to the caravans. The extra cloth around their shoulders and heads, their longer tagels, the dust that lightened every inch of uncovered skin marked them as iluk, probably Azal.

Eventually only Thana, her cousins, and two people in the far corner remained, one of which was the man in the blood-red tagel. Thana had watched the whores return one by one, but the woman who’d followed Heru still hadn’t appeared. Unease had slowly filled her along with a need to act. She’d been sitting in this stuffy, crowded room for long enough. It was time to find Amastan and see if he’d learned anything new.

Idir began to sweep the floor, his only warning that whoever didn’t leave soon would find themselves tossed out. Thana left the baat for her drinks on the table but hesitated as her cousins headed for the door. She needed to know what Heru had said to Idir that had shaken him so. Anything could give them an edge.

Idir didn’t look up from his broom when she neared. “How may I help you, ma?”

Thana kept her voice low. “I was only wondering what that man said to you, sa. It isn’t too late to call the watchmen. If he was intimidating you—”

Idir stopped sweeping and looked up. “You’re Tamella’s daughter, aren’t you?”

Thana started. “How did you know?”

Idir’s eyes crinkled with a friendly smile. “You have her cheekbones, ma. I’ll never forgive her for marrying Barag. Such a strong woman shouldn’t be held down by a soft-skinned poet. But that’s not your fault.” Idir glanced down at his broom for a heartbeat, then rolled his shoulders back and met Thana’s gaze. “If you were anyone else—aside from Tami—I wouldn’t answer your question, but . . . you seem cut from the same cloth. You won’t think I’ve been touched.”

Idir gestured with his broom toward the stairs. “I know they say he’s a marabi, but whatever he worships, it’s not G-d. He spoke of things that should be forgotten.” His fingers tightened around the broom. “I’ve seen a lot over the years, there’s been mad men and wild jaan beneath this roof, but neither have chilled me as much as him. He threatened to bind my jaani. And, ma—I fear he can.”

Idir’s words stirred Thana’s memories. She’d begged stories of monsters and jaan from her father when she was younger.

Scary stories she’d giggled over and that had later kept her awake in the dark of her room, jumping at every creak of the cooling stones. Stories about jaan that stole into your mind and whirled your thoughts into madness. Stories about guul that stole bodies and picked apart corpses for parts. Stories about sajaam that had once commanded storms and ruled the world.

And stories about en-marab that had once been marab until they turned against G-d. No longer content to quiet jaan, they’d learned how to control them. Bind them. Where the marab maintained the balance between the living and jaan, the en-marab subverted that balance to enslave both. If you misbehaved, the en-marab would steal your jaani while you were still alive.

But while jaan and guul could be found in the Wastes, sajaam and en-marab were long vanished from the world, if they’d ever existed at all.

“Some advice?” said Idir, voice low and close. “Don’t cross that man, ma. Stay out of his way. Our city will be much safer when he’s gone.”

Thana glanced at the stairs and touched the glass beads at her neck. She’d bought them only yesterday from Salid. Her fingers counted five: one against jaan, two against magic, three against deception, four against bad luck, and five against G-d. Through her wrap, she almost thought she felt the charms’ reassuring warmth.

“Yes. We all will be.”

Copyright © 2019 by K.A. Doore

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