Ashai Larish is an assassin from the brutal Denari Lai order. Religious zealots, Denari Lai are kept loyal through an addiction to the same magic that makes them unstoppable. They have become the main weapon for the nation of Nishi'iti, and in a hundred years, they have never failed.
Until now. Ashai just has to kill Pushtani King Abadas Damar and his daughter/heir, Markari. He infiltrates the king's inner circle, putting him in the perfect place to strike. Only the venerable Captain Bauti of the Royal Guard, whose love for Makari is well-known in the palace, suspects Ashai of anything.
Except Ashai has fallen for Makari and cannot complete the hit. When a second Denari Lai strikes, Ashai finds himself fighting for Makari's life instead of taking it. To make matters worse, the order cuts him off from his magic, leaving him weakened and in withdrawal.
Meanwhile, far north, in the Pushtani mines that border Nishi'iti, a slave named Pachat learns that his love, a hand-slave to Makari, has been killed. His grief ignites a rebellion, with him as the leader of the other miners. Urged on by Nishi'iti special forces, the rebellion sweeps across the borderlands, threatening to erupt into all-out war. Yet all Pachat wants is to avenge his beloved's death, so he walks away from the rebellion to seek his lover's killer: an assassin named Ashai.
As Pachat makes off for the capitol city, Ashai is forced to rely on the capitol city's organized crime gang. Despite his best efforts to hide it, Makari discovers Ashai's true identity, and suddenly, he finds himself without her love, without his faith, and without the Denari Lai, Ashai finds himself alone at rock bottom.
Can Ashai kill the second assassin and win back Makari's love? Will Pachat gain the revenge he so lustily seeks?
"Christopher Barili's Shadow Blade sets in motion a new fantasy series with a complete story that makes us want more. It's a tale of magic and love and exploration in a setting that feels more mid-Eastern than the familiar choices. Well-defined characters who go through believable arcs and travel intersecting paths, and an interesting take on magic. Fresh takes on setting and descriptions. Well done!"– John E. Stith, Nebula Award finalist for Redshift Rendezvous
No one ever noticed Ashai. In his business, being noticed got you killed. So he kept his black hair trimmed just below the ears, flowing free in the style popular with Pushtani men. His nose had been broken once, but its jagged bend was not unusual among these men, who often tussled over matters of honor or family. He wore the long, tan robe of a cloth merchant, nothing more. Though he could afford them, he didn't wear expensive perfumes, nor did he allow himself the luxury of fine jewelry. A simple leather band wrapped around his right wrist—a plain adornment for a plain man. He looked like the average Pushtani, blending in despite having only lived in Dar Tallus two years. No one here knew his true identity. Nor his plan.
They wouldn't until he spilled blood.
The sun hung low in the eastern sky, but already, Central Square baked in its heat. Summers here oppressed a man, body and spirit, the heat baking the trash piles and sewage in the streets until the stench assailed the senses like a foul army. When it rained it merely made the heat muggy, and brought out mosquitoes as big as Ashai's fingers and biting, yellow flies. Yes, with its squat two-story buildings, dark cobble stones, and throngs of people, Central Square acted like a frying pan, grilling up merchants, beggars, and nobles alike.
Ashai slipped through the crowd, angling and sidling at a steady pace, not slowing, despite the packed street. He passed within a finger-length of rich merchants, commoners, and soldiers smelling of sweat inside their bulky armor. The last would have gutted him had they known his true identity. But they marched past, blissfully ignorant.
It helped that he drew lightly on the tiny stream of power his God provided him, taking in its strength and portioning it out to his mind, body, and face. He saw events before the average man, as if time moved slower for Ashai, so he moved through the crowd like it stood still. His features shifted slightly with every step, making it impossible for any two people to describe him exactly the same. Even the deep brown of his eyes—the mark of a Nishi'iti—changed every other step: blue, then green, then gray. Never brown. Not here, where Nishi'itis were beaten on-sight. Never brown eyes.
Nishi's power also improved his senses, feeding him bits of conversations, detecting scents only dogs could smell, keeping him alert for any sign of danger.
He stopped outside a spice shop, breathing in the aromas of cinnamon, crushed hot pepper, and Nishi'iti Snow Spice, which made his mouth water. Ashai had grown up on Nishi'iti streets much like these, only without the heat. Or the wealth.
But he lived here now, in the capital city of Pushtan. He no longer slept under bridges or wagons, but in a small flat atop his humble fabric shop. A shop he'd paid for himself, with money he'd earned as a cloth merchant. All part of an elaborate cover story, years in the making. And that cover was so perfect, it was like it had been fated since his birth. Even his Nishi'iti name, "Azha'i," made the transition to the Pushtani version simple.
Nishi always provided.
The crowd milled about like sheep, ringing the fountain in the center of the square. Waiting. For her.
These fools ignored their gods and worshipped a mortal woman. A woman marked to die.
Ashai studied the street entering the square from the north. Princess Makari would come from there for her weekly bout of helping the poor from the safety of her carriage, where the filthy masses couldn't touch her. On occasion, she would step from her coach onto the broiling cobblestones and mingle with her people. Today would be one such day, if her patterns held.
He'd seen her many times, always from afar, and yet her beauty always stunned him. He almost regretted that he would kill her.
Out of nowhere, the stench of rotting flesh hit him like a wall of refuse. He glanced to his right, following the odor. There, weaving through the crowd, was a bent, filthy man, with hair like a rag-mop and rags on his back. When his gaze met Ashai's, his eyes flashed silver.
"Nishi strike him." Ashai risked the Nishi'iti curse out loud to protect himself from the foul creature. Shiners were people who fell prey to back alley magic—potions or powders or spells that gave them a contaminated kind of power that mimicked Nishi's gift. But once the corrupted magic sunk its teeth into a victim, it never let go. Most went mad and killed themselves. Survivors were marked with the glow in their eyes for all to see. Abominations.
The first time Ashai had seen a shiner, he'd left the man's corpse on the snow-swept side of a Nishi'iti mountain. He'd never seen one in Dar Tallus. Until now.
The shiner turned and slipped off into the crowd, probably sensing Ashai's true power and fleeing.
Relieved, Ashai stole a furtive glance to his left. A few feet away, a boy of fourteen shifted from one foot to the other, fists clenching and unclenching at his sides. His mud-colored hair stood in all directions, hastily chopped short with a knife, and dirt smeared his face. His green eyes scanned the crowd, meeting briefly with Ashai's before moving away.
Ashai wondered for a moment if he'd chosen the right boy. It had taken just a few copper pieces and a pinch of magic to convince the young thief that the princess's purse made an easy target. Just a gentle nudge, a wordless suggestion, and the young man had smiled at the prospect of stealing from well-guarded royalty. Had Ashai applied a bit more magic, he could have convinced the boy to kill her, or die trying. But Denari Lai did not let children do their killing.
Denari Lai, Shadow Blades, Holy Death—no matter the name, Ashai's order did not just kill. They instilled terror, toppled nations, and destroyed power. Their legend had so grown, that one Denari Lai assassin had forced a foreign king to withdraw troops from Nishi'iti territory just by leaving one of their gleaming midnight daggers on his pillow. The king still died of course—his blood served as the wax that sealed their message.
Denari Lai were hand-chosen by their leader, the Chargh Lai, and fiercely loyal to their God, Nishi. It was his power that gave them the skills to take life in his name. He let them touch him, and in return, they would kill their own children if Nishi condemned them, so long as they spilled no innocent blood.
A commotion near the entrance to the square told Ashai the princess had kept her schedule again.
The boy had noticed, too, as he stood stock still, his emerald eyes staring at the entrance. It would have looked suspicious had every other pair of eyes not been turned that way, as well. Yes, Makari's people loved her. They would mourn her death for weeks. Months, even.
The crowd parted as Royal Guard soldiers in blue armor, helms gleaming in the morning sun, opened a path through the crowd. Trumpets sounded, and a cheer rose from the assembled rabble, rattling Ashai's teeth.
Makari had forgone the usual carriage and royal gown. Instead, she rode into the square atop a white gelding. Leather armor, glistening in black and deep blue, clung to her body, covering every inch of her own pale skin with a hardened carapace. Her midnight-colored hair flowed behind her, and her sky-blue eyes shone as she surveyed the gathered crowd. At her side rode a fortress of a man, dressed in blued chain mail, a long sword swinging at his hip. Captain Marwan Bauti, Commander of the Royal Guard, had accompanied his princess this morning. An unexpected complication.
Things had just become unpredictable. Too many variables. Ashai looked for the boy, hoping to wave him off, but the lad had disappeared into the mass of bodies.
Ashai's gut twisted.
He looked again at the princess, and to his relief, her purse hung at her belt. He hadn't expected it to be there while she wore armor, but she couldn't toss coins to the poor without it.
He caught sight of the boy weaving through the mass of people and followed him. If he couldn't stop the thief, he'd have to improvise.
Makari stopped amidst the throng, her guard fanning out around her, Bauti at her side. She sat tall in the saddle, scanning the sea of people. When her eyes reached Ashai, they locked with his, and his heart stopped. He knew he should look away, but he couldn't. Her gaze held him fast, and for that frozen moment, Makari dominated his mind and his heart, blocking out all else. Then her gaze moved on, and Ashai let out a breath, confused.
He shook himself and moved forward again until he stood just a few paces behind the thief. He felt the tension radiating from the boy as nervousness swept his thin frame. Still, his exterior remained placid, as smooth as the surface of a mountain lake. Perhaps Ashai had chosen the right boy after all.
Makari raised a single, leather-gloved hand and her subjects fell silent. Her voice rang through the crowd.
"Citizens of Dar Tallus, I apologize for my unladylike attire, but I came directly from my sword lessons with Master Bauti, and did not want to keep you waiting while I changed into some stuffy gown designed to impress other nobility. You're working people. Your time is more valuable than royal vanity."
The crowd cheered, and Ashai didn't think any of them—at least not anyone male—objected to the form-fitting leather. While it protected everything vital and left no skin exposed, it clung to her shapely legs and accented her long, elegant neck. He'd never been this close to her before, and had to look away to avoid offending his God.
He took a deep breath. There were new variables—armor, Bauti, and now bread.
He had to focus, but her beauty continued to drag his attention from the details.
"If you will have me," Makari said, "I will walk among you now, and offer help to those in need."
Swinging a leg over the saddle, she dismounted. Bauti joined her, moving to her left shoulder. His hand rested on the pommel of his long sword. Servants carrying baskets of bread stood behind them both.
The boy edged forward and Ashai tensed. He drew a thicker strand of magic, extending his senses further. He could hear the thief breathing now, feel his pulse. He smelled the bread, mingled with Makari's sweet perfume, and the stench from the gutters behind them. He tasted the metal of the coins inside her purse.
The thief worked his way to the head of the line to receive bread, his left hand out, his right hand hanging at his side. Ashai drew within five steps.
Makari turned to receive the first loaf of bread and when she did, the boy's left hand reached for her purse, the right flicking a small blade from his sleeve.
Time seemed to slow as Ashai closed. Three steps. The boy grasped the purse and brought the blade up.
Bauti saw the blade, but reacted too late.
As the boy sliced the purse strings, Ashai reached him and time returned to normal.
Ashai jumped in front of the knife, knocking the blade upward with his arm, feeling the cold metal bite through his robe and into the flesh of his forearm.
"Knife!" Bauti yelled, shoving Makari behind him.
Ashai allowed his facial features to relax and stop shifting. The thief's green eyes opened wide just as Ashai snatched the knife from his grasp and applied a tiny trickle of magic to his mind, blanking out the boy's memory of him.
Bauti crashed into Ashai, knocking him aside.
"No, don't!" Ashai yelled.
But the captain thrust his sword into the boy's chest. The thief's green eyes opened wide, his mouth forming a circle. Then Bauti jerked his blade free, spraying blood across the cobblestones, spattering Ashai's face. The boy crumpled to the ground, a gurgling sound escaping his lips as his blood pooled between the cobblestones.
Ashai jumped to his feet and rushed Bauti, rage sweeping through him, but the remaining guards drove him to the ground, pinning him down and taking the small knife. Then they twisted his arms behind his back and hoisted him to his feet.
"He was but a boy!" Ashai shouted, straining against the guards.
"And he tried to kill the princess!" Bauti yelled back.
Ashai opened his mouth to reply, but never got the chance.
"Release that man!" Makari stormed toward them, her eyes blazing blue fire. She gripped a curved dagger in one hand. "Release him now!"
The guards released Ashai, but remained close, hands near weapons.
Makari shouldered past Bauti, her eyes falling quickly to the wound on Ashai's forearm. Those eyes, shining with confidence and command, turned his knees to jelly
"You are injured," she said, reaching for his arm, but stopping short.
"It is nothing, Highness," he said, bowing his head.
"You saved my life, sir, at great risk to your own."
Ashai looked at the body of the boy on the ground. He seemed small now, not threatening. Ashai reached for the boy's body, making the guards tense. He paused, then picked up the purse and extended it to Makari.
"Charity and good will should not be met with thievery, Highness," he said. "He was just a boy and probably meant you no harm. His death is … regrettable. His family …"
He let the sentence trail off. Blood ran down his forearm, so he channeled a silent string of magic to the wound to stem the blood.
"I doubt he has any," Makari said. She turned to Bauti. "Captain, summon a healer to see to this man's wound."
Bauti balked. "Highness, we should return to the palace. There may be more—"
Ashai stared at the ground to keep from glaring at the captain. He needed to remember his mission. Emotion had no place here, but the image of the boy's expression as Bauti ran him through had burned itself on Ashai's mind and fueled a fire in his belly.
"Then let them show themselves," Makari snapped, twirling the knife around her fingers and stowing it in a sheath at her belt. "I won't let one boy stop me from helping our citizens."
"I must insist, Highness," the captain said, straightening.
Makari wheeled on him, hands on her hips. She opened her mouth, but Ashai interjected.
"Highness, your captain is right, I fear. Where a boy steals, men may plot worse. I must urge caution, as well. As my mentor always said: 'Small trouble always has a bigger brother.'"
She turned her blue-fire gaze on Ashai, but he lowered his eyes and inclined his head, deflecting her heat.
Makari sighed. "Very well, but I would have the servants distribute the bread and coins on my behalf."
"We have no one to oversee them," Bauti said. "We can try again another time."
Makari looked crestfallen, and Ashai jumped at the opportunity. "Highness, I am but a humble cloth merchant, but I can oversee your servants here. I promise your money and food will be handed out fairly."
Bauti's eyes narrowed, as if to say, "What are you up to?" Makari, however, smiled.
"That is most noble," she said. "But you need healing."
Ashai tore a shred of cloth off the hem of his shirt and wrapped it around the wound.
"It has stopped bleeding already, Princess. It would be an honor to serve you."
He bowed, his fingertips touching his forehead in the Pushtani way.
"What is your name?" The question came from Bauti, cold and knife-edged.
"Yes, I would have it, too," Makari said. "I want to reward your valor."
"I am Ashai, Princess," he said, holding his bow. He felt the fire of Bauti's glare, but ignored him.
"Ashai? Ashai what? You have a family name, do you not?" Bauti's voice had not softened. If anything, its steel was now forged with anger. Ashai made a mental note to deal with the man later.
But for now, he forced a calmer approach. "No, my lord captain. I was raised in an orphanage in the southern city of Brynn. I was taken in by a kind merchant who raised me well and taught me his business. I have no family name of my own, but should I choose one, it would be his. Larish."
"Well then, Ashai Larish," Makari said, cutting Bauti off, "when you have seen to this task, come to the palace. We will hold a banquet where my father will thank you personally."
Ashai bowed again, keeping a smile from spreading across his face. "As you command, Princess. I would be honored and—"
She had remounted her gelding, turning away, the matter closed. Bauti grinned and leaned close to Ashai's ear. "It will be a very small banquet for a very small occasion. Barely a dinner, really. Do try to dress like something other than a common merchant."
"But my good Captain," Ashai replied, forcing a thin smile, "Dressing above my station would be dishonorable."
Bauti frowned at him and mounted his horse. "You'd do well to remember your station then, Larish. And do not be late. His Majesty has more important things to do than wait on a merchant."
Yes, like planning his own funeral, Ashai thought as they rode away.
The Watcher turned from the bakery's second-story window as the Princess and her company galloped away, the towering Captain Bauti watchful at her side. Disappointment simmered in The Watcher's heart at what he'd seen.
Ashai had shown promise, selecting the boy and influencing him with subtle magic. His plan to come under the Princess's good graces was, frankly, brilliant and had worked quite well. He hadn't heard everything that was said, but he read lips well enough to know Ashai would be in the Palace that evening. If he wanted, the King and Makari could be dead by sundown.
His subtle command of Denari Lai magic was masterful, and he moved through the crowd like a shadow. No one in the square would remember seeing him come or go, though everyone would remember him saving the Princess.
But the young assassin had made several mistakes, small things really, but mistakes nonetheless. He'd allowed Makari's beauty to distract him from the all-important mission, to make his heart skip a beat where it needed to be steady. He'd allowed his emotions to get in the way where the boy's death was concerned, and had almost come to blows with the captain.
That would have been an interesting fight, one that probably would have left both of them dead. But a dead assassin couldn't kill a King.
And the boy's death was regrettable, a sin for which Ashai would reckon with God and God alone. Denari Lai were sworn to kill no innocents, and while the assassin did not wield the blade that spilled the boy's blood, he had set the events in motion that left a child dead. A child of the streets, a poor orphan whose only crime was trying to survive in the shadow of a corrupt and opulent empire.
That kind of sloppiness made The Watcher wonder if Ashai would accomplish his mission.
Still, the young assassin found a way inside the palace and would dine that evening with royalty. Barring any further mistakes, his infiltration could well be a success.
The Watcher closed the shutters, moved down the steps with the grace of a cat, and exited the back door of the spice shop, inhaling one last sweet-hot breath of Snow Spice, a reminder of home. He decided further observation would be necessary before reporting Ashai's progress to their superiors. For now, he would continue to observe and stand by as reinforcement. That was what he'd done for all these years. A few more weeks wouldn't make a difference.