Silk tore as I deflected the knife down into the skirts. If my assailant was surprised, he made no noise. He didn’t hesitate or lose his knife, just shifted his grip and struck again. He was dressed entirely in black, with minimal reinforcement—favoring stealth over armor. We traded blows at blinding speed, the voluminous skirt and screen walls containing the fight to a small space in which neither of us could give much ground.
He was very good.
This must be the Scythe, at last.
One of us would make a mistake eventually. My skirts pressed against the chairs, the screens, the plants as I dodged…I nearly tripped over Brell’s stool several times. He had two knives, and I had only the small folding knife. I deflected another blow into the skirts and was impressed with the knife that sliced right through and came out again smoothly. I retreated forcefully, bucking the hoopskirts into a leafy fern as I gave myself a split second of space to draw Shiharr through my brand-new slit. I half expected my knife to stick to the sheath or simply be missing, given my dreams, but she was there and felt perfect in my hand. Grinning, I raised the blade, and the Scythe hesitated.
He fell back a step, knives poised defensively.
“Unused to fighting your marks?” I goaded.
Our eyes met. His were brown and wide with…frenzy? Shock?
Closing the small gap between us, I struck with Shiharr. He blocked sluggishly, and a slash bloomed across his chest. Shallow, I thought. Maybe not even to the skin. But I shouldn’t have hit at all. What was he, a berserker assassin who used stimulants to fuel his murders and then keeled over from withdrawal? I’d never heard of such a thing. Seemed impractical. I struck again and this time he cursed as I nicked him.
Abruptly his knives disappeared into his sleeves and he leapt backwards. The screen rocked as he slammed into it and he stumbled, righted himself and darted through a small gap between the screen and the wall.
I ran out of the alcove, catching sight of him disappearing into the next alcove like a shadow. People gasped as I pushed them out of the way, my role entirely cast aside. I caught a glimpse of him darting out of the alcove, heading along the wall toward the river, using the alcoves as cover to keep me away. Ignoring the crowds of gaping people, I picked up the skirts and ran after him. In full view of the assembly, with people leaping to get out of my way. I was aware of shouts and gasps, but focused entirely on keeping track of the shadow.
The river was getting closer, and I wondered if the Scythe would throw himself in. There was a niggling worry in my mind about the practicalities of leaping into the river after him wearing the Countess’s enormous red gown. It would act like a sail and tow me south with the current. Would the gown even recover from the experience? I’d gotten the impression it was an heirloom. And the ruse would be over, then, for sure. Not that this mad dash was good for the ruse.
We were nearing the same little spit of esplanade where the Count had made his stand when I threw the dwarven knife. It wasn’t a very good throw, but the Scythe stumbled coming out of the alcove and it was enough for me to cut him off. We stopped, facing one another, chests heaving. I struck first, the Scythe dodged quickly enough that I thought the dwarven knife hadn’t hurt him. He made an attack of his own, but I deflected.
“Let me go,” he said again, his voice was rough.
“Drop the contract,” I retorted, swinging Shiharr.
He evaded with a curse, his parry and counter smooth and instinctive. We dodged and wove. We had more space here, and no where near the privacy of the alcove where he’d attacked. Guards would be here in a matter of moments. The Scythe knew he was in a bad position, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that he wasn’t trying to kill me like he should be.
Abruptly he snapped, “Dammit, Zare,” and kicked. I was too slow, taking the blow to my midsection and stumbling backwards as he turned and made a leap straight at the wall of the palace. I stared in surprise and professional admiration as he scaled the wall—which had nothing I could see for holds—disappearing onto a balcony.
“Dammit, Zare,” I echoed dumbly. Dammit Zare. Dammit. I had questions. And even without the dress, I couldn’t climb a sheer wall like this. How in Serrifis had he done that?
I sheathed Shiharr. Wishing I had a rope, or the skills of a spider, I tried a leap at the wall. My fingers stung as I dug them into the fine slit of the stonework and managed to hang for a second, my shoes catching on my hem, before dropping to the ground with my hands smarting. Fornern’s fists.
“Quill is up,” panted Eliah at my elbow. “Maybe he saw.”
I nearly punched her in surprise.
“The Scythe?” she asked.
“Think so,” I answered. “He’s good.”
Guards swarmed around us, there was shouting as their commander sent the majority running for the palace entrance. Presumably to cut off the assassin’s retreat from the inside. I propped my hands on my hips and scanned the balconies. If I were the Scythe, and a job had gone this sideways, I would cut my losses and run. He’d blame the failure on bad information—and he wouldn’t be wrong. Better to live than be caught. Dammit, Zare. My heart was racing. I turned to Eliah, “I think he’s been driven off—”
A woman in the crowd screamed. We both jumped and turned toward the sound. The guards skidded to halts around us, their questions stymied by the shriek and the wave of gasps through the crowd.
When I saw it, all the air whooshed out of my lungs in an, “Oh.”
On the other side of the esplanade near the river, three balconies up, was Quill.
Hanging over the empty space by his fingertips.