The knife flew in a deceptively lazy arc and buried itself in the target.
Not fast enough, Allie, they’re trying to kill you!
I spun, giving myself a mere split-second to aim, then released the second knife with a flick of my wrist.
I dove into a roll and pulled the last two knives from the sheaths at the small of my back, coming to my knees with a knife in each hand, fighting to control my breathing.
The blades sailed through the air, point first, and hit with a satisfying thunk. My sheaths were empty, but only one knife had hit the bullseye.
Not good enough, I thought sourly, If the wooden target had been an enemy, you might be dead.
I sighed and rubbed my forehead with the back of my left arm to stop sweat from dripping into my eyes. I’d been throwing knives all morning, forcing myself to try weighted throws, blind throws, throws off the wrong foot, and anything else I could think of that might simulate a real combat experience. My muscles were burning and my aim was getting worse as I grew tired. Of course, that was the whole point. I wouldn’t be throwing knives under ideal conditions. If I had to throw a knife, it would likely be a split second, life or death decision.
“That is not being the most practical use of a knife, Kishma,” The deep, disapproving voice said from over my shoulder, “a knife is not being a ranged weapon, it is being a weapon for close work.”
He jabbed a finger into my back just below my floating ribs and I squeaked, spun, and punched the Master at Arms in his beefy shoulder. The big man grinned down at me, but that didn’t stop a cold trickle of unease from running down my spine. Molfus, the Master at Arms of Avalon, was making a point—pun intended. He’d poked me in the exact spot you would use to stab someone in the kidney.
“I know,” I said, trying not to think about a blade sliding into my flesh, “but there aren’t many ranged weapons I can take to other verses with without breaking the Laws of Founding.”
“A sling would be being better for range, and small enough to put in the pocket.”
“But no use for close work.”
Mmm. The sound rumbled in his barrel chest as he nodded, then pointed at the small piece of armor lying in the grass at my feet. “Are you being tired of my gift so quickly?”
I bent to pick up the vambrace, strapped it to my left forearm, and smiled up at the red-skinned man. “Of course not. I wanted to practice throwing with different weights on my arms. That’s why I left the right one on,” I held up my right arm and wiggled it as proof.
“This is not being such a bad idea,” he approved, then dropped one meaty paw on the top of my head, “even from such a tiny brain.”
“That’s rich coming from you,” I stepped out from under his touch and backed toward the target while squinting at his overdeveloped shoulders. “I’m surprised all those muscles in your neck haven’t squeezed your brains out through your ears.”
Molfus threw his shaggy head back and laughed. I smiled, too. I couldn’t help it. He was like a huge, friendly bear. Although, I had seen the results of Molfus’s handiwork, and there was nothing friendly about it. The last man foolish enough to fight the Master at Arms in earnest combat had his skull staved in. He wasn’t just a big man, but an uncommonly strong one. I didn’t know if he carried the same guilt I did over having killed people, but if he did, he never showed it.
“Ronan has been sending a summons for you,” he told me.
I plucked one knife from the bull’s-eye, two from the center ring, and one from about an inch inside the outer ring of the wooden target, and slid each into its sheath.
One out of four. Not good enough, Chapter.
If I was going to use these knives to help keep my team and myself safe in the near future, then I was going to have to be more accurate under pressure. A couple of inches could mean the difference between a disabled enemy, and one still capable of mayhem. I sighed.
“Yeah, our team has to go pick up tech from Alfar before our mission. I stayed on the practice field too long, I’m probably messing with his schedule.”
“Ronan could be standing to have his schedules messed with. He is being entirely too serious.”
On the whole, I agreed. My boyfriend was one of the Senior Venatore, and a serious kind of person in general. I’d made a point to tease a smile or laugh out of him as often as possible, but I couldn’t blame him for being edgy where this mission was concerned; every member of his team was inexperienced, and we were counting on gathering the information we needed to take down the man who had been trying to kill me for the last year.
“This is an important operation,” I said, “he wants to get things right.”
Molfus snorted. “Every mission is being important, or Arthur would not be sanctioning it.”
I didn’t bother to correct him. Molfus might be a high-ranking member of the Guard of Avalon, which was the center of power for Walkers in the Eververse, but he wasn’t Venatore and he wasn’t privy to the details of this assignment. All of us would be looking for information about who was stealing magical weapons from different verses, but as far as I knew, only the members of the Concillium itself—the ruling body that ordered the Venatore around—and the individual teams knew exactly what they would be doing in the verses to which they were assigned. Then again, I was about as junior as it was possible to get, so there was a good chance I didn’t have all the information, either, despite being on one of the reconnaissance teams. So, I ignored his comment, thanked him for giving me the message, and headed toward my room.
The Bastion was a fortress inside the Castle grounds where Venatore trained or lived while in residence on Avalon. I crossed the nearly empty training field with a watery, early autumn sun on my back, and climbed the stairs into the barracks. Three quarters of our number were on assignment on different worlds in the Eververse at any given time—finding and training new Walkers, or chasing down anyone suspected of breaking the Laws of Founding and hauling them back to face the justice of the Concillium—so I didn’t see anyone else as I snagged a change of clothes from my room and hurried toward the baths. As the air began to fill with moist warmth, my skin tightened.
Please, let the baths be as empty as the rest of this place, I thought.
When I turned the corner and entered the steam-filled room, I was relieved to find no one else making use of the facilities. I found a prepared tub, stripped as quickly as my sore muscles allowed and lowered myself into the hot water, splashing some over the side of the basin in my rush to cover myself. If someone came in now, they’d see no more than my head and the steam rising out of the dark water.
As much as I wanted to stay, to let the heat seep into my sore muscles, I knew Ronan would come looking for me himself if I didn’t meet him soon. I scrubbed the dirt and sweat from my skin, lathered my hair, and sunk beneath the surface of the water for a few blissful moments before scanning the room again and reaching for a towel. Over the last few months, I’d become a pro at quick changes beneath a towel. The cold stone floor didn’t exactly invite naked feet to stand for long, anyway, but sometimes the custodians would enter to clean a bath before the bather had finished dressing and, while that wasn’t an issue for most Avalonians, I preferred a bit more privacy. After what happened in Eriu last year, the idea of a stranger seeing me naked was enough to make cold sweat bead on my upper lip.
A young woman walked around the screen that gave my tub a negligible amount of privacy and dropped a quick curtsey. “Are you finished with the tub, ma’am?”
“Yeah,” I grabbed my dirty clothes off the back of the chair and held them between my knees as I braided my damp hair, “please, be my guest.”
She nodded and drained the tub to wash it as I tied off the braid and hurried out of the room before the steam could wet my clean clothes. Back on True Earth, my roommate and I had divided the household chores between us, and who should clean the bathtub had always been hotly debated, but that had been when I was just a college student with no more to worry about than midterms. Now, I was Venatore—what amounted to an interdimensional cop—and my main worry was staying alive long enough to lose my virginity. Okay, so my main goal wasn’t losing my virginity, but it was something I’d been looking forward to until I’d been forced to travel to Eriu to save my boyfriend from the man who’d been sending assassins to kill me. We had both ended up drugged and on an auction block as strangers examined us with greedy hands and lecherous sneers, deciding how much to bid for the use of my womb and Ronan’s ‘stud services.
“You’re safe now,” I said quietly to myself, and stopped to lean on the cold stone wall for support while I controlled my breathing. In for four, hold for seven, out for eight, I thought, repeating the breathing practice until the tension relaxed and my heartbeat slowed.
I nearly jumped out of my skin and spun on the young boy who had managed to sneak up on me. His brown eyes widened when I scowled at him, and I had to remind myself to calm down. It wasn’t the boy’s fault I’d worked myself up. If I was ever going to get over the anxiety, I would have to learn to control my thoughts.
With an effort of will, I schooled my face into a more welcoming expression. “Yes?”
“Venatore Ronan asked to see you in his rooms.”
“What’s your name?”
“How old are you, Horace?”
“I’m seven years old, ma’am.”
“Well done, Horace. I’ll go there right now, but I have another job for you first, is that okay?”
Horace was several sizes too small for the blue uniform worn by everyone who worked in the castle, and the hem of his pants pooled around his tiny feet. He peered up at me like a turtle in a too-large shell, but his skinny chest puffed up with pride and he gave me a very solemn nod.
“I want you to go to the kitchen and find Mirta, and tell her I said you could have an apple tart.”
He beamed at me as I hurried down the corridor.
“I had to take a bath,” I closed the door behind myself, “I was on the practice grounds when I got your message.”
Ronan stood next to his dresser holding a leather satchel in one hand, and an apple in the other. Mid-morning sunbeams that crept between the curtains showed the light brown tones in his dark hair and made the center ring of his irises look like snow on a frozen pond. “Knives?” he took a bite of the apple.
I watched him for a moment and reminded myself that somehow, this beautiful human being thought I was worth spending time with. My regard lasted a moment too long, and the corner of his mouth curled in a slow, sensual smile, revealing a dimple on one side, as his eyes fixed on my lips.
“Yeah,” I said, and took a steadying breath, “I was practicing weighted throws.”
He looked at me for a few more moments, giving me a taste of my own medicine by letting his eyes linger until heat bloomed in my cheeks, before he relented and slung the satchel over his shoulder. “Good plan. It might make a difference to know how much you’ll have to alter your throw if you lose one of your vambraces.”
“That was the idea.”
“Still, a knife is more useful in your hand.”
I sighed. “Yeah, that’s what Molfus said.”
“Being able to throw a knife has come in handy before, and I have more than one knife to spare.”
Ronan shrugged one shoulder, held my chin between his thumb and forefinger, and gave me a quick kiss. “It’s up to you. Shall we go meet the rest of our team and head to Alfar?”
“I suppose we’d better.”
I followed Ronan out of his room and toward the courtyard, admiring the breadth of his shoulders and the unconscious grace of his stride as his hips shifted easily.
“What are we picking up from Alfar?” I asked, in the hopes of changing the direction of my lascivious thoughts.
“Tech that will help us understand foreign languages.”
“We’ll need them. No one else on the team speaks the languages of Jorth, Maa and Eriu, and we’re going to need to know what’s being said it if we’re to have any hope of figuring out who has been stealing magical weapons.”
“It’s Goll MacMorna. I know it.”
“The Concilium will want solid proof that he’s responsible, Allie. They won’t approve our request to raid Eiru otherwise.”
My chest tightened. Goll MacMorna’s grey-eyed face hovered at the back of my mind, sneering at me with the kind of loathing I’d never known existed.
“You won’t know when I come to you,” he had told me while his guards held me fast by my arms, “and you won’t fight me, but I’ll plant my seed in your belly, and your father’s grandchildren will be mine. I’ll take my sons back from you, and then send you to hell with the rest of your cursed line.”
I choked back the bile that rose up my throat at the memory, and told Ronan, “Then let’s get to Alfar. The sooner we find proof that man is responsible for the theft of magic weapons, the sooner the Concilium will let us kill him.”
When Goll was dead, all the people he abused would be free. The memories wouldn’t have power over me anymore, and I would be free, too.