Here's an excerpt from Cassandra Rose Clarke's The Assassin's Curse. I'm told it's a cross between Saladin Ahmed's Throne of the Crescent Moon and Guy Gavriel Kay's Under Heaven. For more information about this title: Canada, USA, Europe.
Here's the blurb:
Ananna of the Tanarau abandons ship when her parents try to marry her off to an allying pirate clan. But that only prompts the scorned clan to send an assassin after her. And when Ananna faces him down one night, armed with magic she doesn’t really know how to use, she accidentally activates a curse binding them together.
To break the curse, Ananna and the assassin must complete three impossible tasks—all while grappling with evil wizards, floating islands, haughty manticores, runaway nobility, strange magic, and the growing romantic tension between them.
I left the inn at sunset. The four vials were tucked away in my pocket, but I kept my knife out. Even though Papa had partially gotten me into this mess, I hated to think what he would say if I went out there completely unprepared.
I walked across the sand for a long time, long enough that the sun melted into the horizon line and the stars began to twinkle in the unending blackness overhead. The wind pushed my hair away from face, tangled my dress up in my legs. And I was so scared I kept choking on my own empty breaths. I’d been in battle before. Battles with weapons, though. Battles against people, not ghouls. And even in those battles my skin turned clammy and numb beforehand, even then I had to remind myself to breathe.
I walked long enough that Lisirra was just a chain of lights in the distance. For a minute I wanted to turn back, just drop the vials and run straight to the garden district and beg my apologies.
Suddenly that medicine scent, the one from the night before, saturated the air.
I stopped walking. The wind howled, blowing my hair into my eyes. I clutched my knife in one hand and stuck my other hand in my pocket and waited.
The shadows lengthened, curled, expanded. I whirled around, looking for a pair of glowing eyes, a flick of dark fabric. Nothing.
I wrapped my hand around the vials.
The world was suddenly too big.
And then he was there. I didn’t see him, but I felt him, a shiver of cold breath on the back of my neck. I spun around, kicking up a spray of moonlit sand, and shoved the knife into my dress sash.
A flash of skin.
I pulled the vials out, broke them between my palms, and threw the whole thing, blood and magic and glass, in the direction of that skin. I screamed the invocation, the words still clumsy on my tongue.
The light erupted clean and bright. In the desert darkness it was the exact same color as the southern seas. It shot up like a fountain toward the sky. For a few seconds the entire desert glowed green.
And then something happened. The light didn’t shower across the sand as it should. It didn’t change into a doorway and disappear. It simply blinked out, like a candle between Mama’s thumb and forefinger as she said goodnight, and I was plunged back into darkness and there was the assassin standing in front of me, his eyes – dark tonight, normal, not blue at all – narrowed above his desert mask.
I screamed. I didn’t have time to think about the failure of the woman’s magic. I didn’t have time to think about anything. I just screamed and screamed, and the assassin stared at me with a sword glinting like starlight at his side.
I stumbled away. The sword flashed, sang, cut a long gash in my right forearm. I fell down into the sand. He darted toward me, and I drew up Papa’s strength and in one movement yanked my knife out from my sash and implanted it squarely in the assassin’s thigh. He stumbled backward, dragging the knife from my grasp, and I thought he looked a little stunned.
No time for thinking, though. I dove forward, grabbed the knife again. He swung his sword down at me and I was able to roll away, sand coating my face, stinging my eyes. I skittered backward across the desert like a crab. I thought the assassin was moving kind of slow for an assassin. Maybe the magic had done something after all. Or maybe he felt sorry for me. That sort of thing happens among cutthroats more often than you’d expect.
The assassin reached into some dark place in his armor and I flung the knife at him, in my panic not taking care to throw it properly. The hilt bounced off his chest. He stopped and looked at me. All I could see were his eyes, but they had a lightness in them that made me think he was laughing, which got me angry instead of scared. I reached over and grabbed the knife, jumped up to my feet, swung my head around, looking for something to use as a weapon or something to use as a trick. Nothing.
Nothing except a weird slithery motion through the sand, black against the black night. Then a pair of narrow white fangs. It was coming up behind the assassin, creeping up close to his ankles, but he didn’t take no mind of it. Too busy pulling some murderous enchantment out of his cloak.
I ain’t never liked snakes. You don’t see enough of ’em on the water to get used to ’em, really, and when I saw this one I shrieked without meaning to and stuck my knife clean through it, cause my fear had turned me into a fool who only acted on reflex. Darkness pooled out onto the sand, and the snake flopped a few times and then died.
The whole night went still. I swear it was like the assassin and me were the only two people left in the world.
The assassin said something in that beautiful-terrible language of his. But he didn’t try to kill me, which was what I expected. I pulled the knife out of the snake and wiped the blood off on the hem of my dress. The assassin kept staring at the snake like he’d never seen one before. I took this opportunity to attempt an escape, and began creeping back over the sand on my hands and knees.
“Stop,” the assassin said, and I froze, sure I was about to die.
Footsteps thudded on the sand. He came and stood beside me, and when I looked up at him, half-forcing myself to meet his eyes, he pulled the mask away from his face.
He wasn’t a ghoul at all, just a man, like the shopkeeper had said, and younger than I would’ve expected, though still a bit older than me, maybe by about five or so years. His entire left cheek was scarred, ripples and folds in the flesh as if from a fire or maybe magic. Beneath the scar he was handsome, though, almost as handsome as Tarrin of the Hariri, so I didn’t exactly relax.
“Did you save my life?” he asked.
“Maybe.” I figured in a situation like this, ambivalence is always best.
“Why did you do that?”
I looked at the dead snake and back up at his scarred face. “Seemed like a good idea at the time.”
The assassin frowned, and it twisted his face up in a way I found interesting. I waited for him to pull out his sword and slice my throat, but instead he sat down on the sand beside me. He draped his arms over his knees and stared morosely off in the distance.
“I wish you hadn’t done that,” he said.
“Um… I’m sorry?” I waited for a few minutes, watching him. Then I asked, “Are you going to kill me or what?” I figured I might as well get it out of the way.
He looked over at me, moonlight flashing across his dark eyes. I decided I rather liked the look of him, which was a bit of a problem, all things considered.
“No,” he said, sounding glum.
“Oh.” Relief flooded over me, and anybody with any lick of sense would have picked up and ran back toward Lisirra. Instead, I opened my mouth. “Why not?”
He hesitated. “You saved my life.” A pause. “From an asp, of all things.”
“That’s the dumbest reason I ever heard.”
“I’d expect you’d be grateful for it.”
“Oh, I’m plenty grateful,” I said. “I’m just saying, that’s a dumb reason.”
“Yes, well, I’m afraid there’s more.”
I eyed him warily.
“I have to protect you now.” The words came out in a rush, like he was embarrassed to say ’em. I woulda been.
“You saved my life. That’s how it works.”
“How what works?”
He didn’t answer, just rubbed at his forehead, and I figured this must be some kind of honor thing, like he swore an oath or something. Pretty stupid oath for an assassin, but what did I know? I’d heard about ships in the Confederation with ridiculous rules of honor. Like this one captain who had his crew give a portion of gold to a temple every time they made port in Empire lands. More often than not the temple turned ’em in, so they spent half their time being chased by the Empire navy.
Fortunately, Mama and Papa never much went in for things like that. They always taught me that honor was best defined on a case-by-case basis.
“Well,” I said. “I don’t require your protective services. I’m a pirate.”
“A bit far from the ocean,” he said. He glanced at me out of the corner of his bad eye. “Besides, I’m afraid you do. The Hariri clan expects you dead. They’ll send someone else.”
“Or,” I countered, feeling pleased with my cleverness, “you could just tell them you did it.”
“They require proof.”
“Oh, hell.” I did shudder a little at that, though. Bad enough they hired someone to do their fighting for them. Demanding proof? Good thing I managed to avoid marrying into that family.
We sat side by side without speaking for a while. He went into some kind of trance, and the scent of mint was everywhere and his eyes glowed pale blue like before. Now that I wasn’t scared out of my mind I realized they were the color of the glaciers in the northern seas.
While he was in his trance, I sat there and did some thinking of my own. I lucked out with that snake, no doubt about it. If they sent another assassin – and I figured they would, on account of this one screwing up the job – it might be handy to have a bodyguard around. Better still if that bodyguard was an assassin himself. I didn’t much want to admit it, but he was probably right about me needing his help.
Sides, once the Hariris were taken care of, I could ditch him and head off to Bone Island or maybe straight to the southern port cities. His honor wasn’t my problem.
After a while, he shook his head and blinked, and his eyes returned to normal, like his soul had come back from wherever he’d sent it. You never know with magic-users.
“How’s your leg?” I asked him. Figured it might be good to play at making friends.
“Your leg. I stabbed you.”
He stared at me. Then he peered down at his leg, spread his hands over the dark fabric of his trousers. Blood on black is too dark to see in the best of times, and even with the moonlight I couldn’t make anything out.
“A flesh wound,” he said. “I’ll be fine.” He paused, tilted his head toward me. “How’s your arm?”
“Oh.” I glanced down at it. The blood had dried onto my skin, and the wound had stopped hurting sometime in the middle of the fight. “Nothing I haven’t dealt with before.” I paused. “My name’s Ananna, by the way.”
He hesitated. I was about to tell him he didn’t have to give his name, but then he spoke up. “You can call me Naji.”
“Glad I have something to call you,” I said. He looked like he wanted to smile, and his eyes kind of brightened, but otherwise his face didn’t move.
The wind picked up.
I didn’t think much of it, except to duck my head to keep sand from blowing in my eyes. But Naji grabbed me by the wrist and pulled me roughly to my feet. When I looked up my heart started pounding something fierce, cause the desert was lit up like it was daytime, light coming from the swirls of sand slicing through the air. When the sand struck against my skin it left a shimmery golden glow, like the pots of expensive body paint we sometimes stole from merchant ships.
“The Hariris?” I said, dazed. Sand stung the inside of my mouth. “Already?”
Naji yanked the mask back over his face, leaving just his eyes. “No,” he said. “Find someplace to hide.”
“It’s the middle of the desert!”
He shoved me away from him, and I stumbled across the sand, almost losing my balance. My eyes watered and my nostrils burned. I pulled the knife out of my sash and clutched it tight, close to my hips, the way Papa taught me. I had no intention of slinking off behind some moonlit desert tree. My people do not hide.
A figure emerged from the swirl of sand and light: a woman dressed in long rippling skirts. Something about her, about the way she moved, seemed familiar–
It was the woman from the dress shop.
She looked a lot grander than I remembered, and even more beautiful. Her hair streamed out in dark ribbons behind her, and her skin glowed with the same light from the sand. Her pale eyes were stones in the middle of her face. I tried to find my voice, to tell her Naji wasn’t no threat anymore, but she spotted me and I froze in place.
“You,” she said. “Why aren’t you dead?”
“What?” It came out barely a whisper. My heart thudded against my chest, anger and confusion spinning out through my body.
The woman scanned the desert. “I should have known better than to send a sea rat out here.” Her gaze flicked over to me. “Though you seemed to have so much potential. I really did think it would work.”
I realized then that the woman had used me – I didn’t know the full of it, but I hated that I’d trusted her enough to let her do it. So I lunged forward, knife outstretched, but she picked up one hand and flicked her fingers and I went flying backward. I landed hard enough in the sand that all the breath slammed out of me, but then Naji was pulling me up to standing. He pressed his face close to my ear, his mask rippling as he spoke.
“If you insist on fighting, take this.” And he slipped something into my hand, something rough and dry and so powerful that even I recognized the magic in it, before bounding off to face down the woman.
“Assassin,” she hissed, drawing out the word, and Naji reached into his armor, pulled out the same satchel he’d almost used on me. He didn’t throw it at her, though, just reached in and pulled out some dark dust, which he blew across the desert, cutting out all the light from the woman’s incandescent sand. The desert plunged back into night. The woman’s scream echoed through the darkness, and then her silhouette attacked his silhouette, and I blinked a couple times, willing my eyes to adjust.
When they did, Naji had drawn his sword, the blade flashing in the moonlight. And the woman had a sword of her own.
I held up the charm he had slipped me. It was a necklace, a ball of dusty dried-out vines and flower petals hanging off a piece of narrow leather. I slipped it over my neck and immediately I felt protected, impenetrable. Safe.
Damn him! He was sticking to that idiotic oath to protect me. Which meant he was in the middle of a magic-and-sword fight without protection. The charm must have stopped the magic from before, the magic intended to suck him through the portal – now if she tried anything, it would actually work.
I knew better than to jump into the middle of the fight, much as I wanted to. Instead, I looped around behind the woman, keeping myself low to the sand. The woman knocked Naji back with a burst of magic, and as she regrouped herself, I attacked. I shoved my knife into her shoulder blade. She howled, whirled around. Light seeped out of the wound, and a few droplets flung across my face. It was hot on my skin, and for a moment I faltered, not sure what to do about a beautiful lady who bleeds light.
But then she did that flicking motion with her hand again, only this time I stayed put, protected, and in the few seconds before she could realize the secret hanging around my neck, I stuck the knife into her belly. More light spurted out, landing on the sand, on the fabric of my dress.
There were hands on my shoulders, pulling me backward. Naji. He sang something in his language, and the sky ripped open, the stars streaming in the blackness. He wound one arm over my chest and pulled me close to him, close enough that I could feel his breath on the back of my neck. All the wind in the world blew into that gash in the sky. The woman screamed, and her feet lifted up off the earth, light pouring out of her wounds and turning into stars in the darkness, and then she tumbled head over feet through the air and was gone.
The gash sewed itself back up.
Naji let me go. I dropped down to the sand, exhausted, and rolled over onto my back to look up at the sky. The light from the stars was dazzling.
“Who was she?” I asked.
“Stand up,” said Naji. “We shouldn’t stay here. It’s not safe.”
“You didn’t answer my question.” But I got back up to my feet, shaking as I did. The woman’s light was still on my clothes and skin and knife, although the glow was beginning to fade. Naji reached over and plucked the charm from my neck, and I felt his touch long after he’d slipped the charm back into his cloak.
“Well?” I said.
“She’s from the Otherworld,” said Naji. “She’s been chasing after me for some time.”
I stared at him. “Another world?” I asked. “What, like the ice-islands?”
Naji’s head turned in the darkness. He still had on his mask.
“No,” he said. “Not like the ice-islands.”
I waited for an explanation.
He sighed. “It’s a world layered on top of our world. Some call it the Mists.”
“Oh, well that clears everything up.” But I remembered the woman refusing to tell me where the green-light portal would send Naji. Elsewhere.
“I’ll explain it to you later. We need to get out of the desert before the fallout takes effect.”
I took fallout to mean the magic-sickness, since even I could feel that prickle in the air that always comes when you use too much magic at once. Mama’d told me stories about how it changes you, since that’s all magic is anyway, pure change – she said she knew a dirt-witch who got turned into a pomegranate tree after trying to resurrect her dead husband. And I’d seen clams and ripples of sea-bone sprout out of the side of the Tanarau after Mama used magic in battle.
Naji turned, cloak swirling around him, and walked in the direction of the city. And cause the air was choking with magic, the sand twisting into figures in the darkness, my own skin crawling over my bones, I followed him.