“Victor, do you still love me?” she asked, resting her hands on her hips.
Asha’s deadly yellow eyes peered at him from under blood red hair. She pulled a dagger from her belt and stepped toward him with the same devious smile that hooked all her prey.
“All good things come to an end, my love.”
Victor continued to stare, surrendering nothing but the cold gleam in his eye.
Asha knelt close, bringing the dagger to his throat. The blade sliced through his skin. His anger seeped out in a crimson flood as his head dropped to his chest. She stared at him for a moment, smiling at the fulfillment of her work, and then disappeared into the darkness surrounding the camp.
IN ASHA’S LIFE, there was only one man she ever contemplated following. He was the only man she never planned on killing. There was something different about him. He was ambitious, murderous, and treasonous. All the qualities she admired. Together, they traveled across the breadth of the Jovan Empire, farther into Kaval than planned, searching for the one man who could reverse their fortunes.
Asha pulled on the reins of her horse, slowing it to a walk. Her companion did the same.
“Tell me again, Falk. Why do we need Weylin?” She used her hand to brush hair from her face, letting air kiss her sunburned skin, almost the same shade as her hair.
Falk smirked. “Asha, you need to understand, every young hunter that grew up in the Red Forest idolized Weylin. Even though he’s an Outcast, if he joins us, most Balauri will follow.”
“Yes, but why is he so important?” she asked impatiently.
Falk grimaced then stared at Asha from under platinum hair that clung to his face. “Weylin is from an ancient generation. A time when being Balauri meant something. If anyone can change the Red Forest, it’s him. He may be able to help us unite outcasts as well. If we can find him.”
“Yes, if. Last I heard he hasn’t been seen in over a hundred years.”
“He moves often, but the drawings I’ve posted throughout Jova and Kaval have finally paid off. I received word that he was in Trata two weeks ago and left for Kalisvalt, which is right over those hills.” He pointed east.
“And if we find him, what are you going to say should he ask about his wife?” A wicked smile crept across Asha’s face.
“There’s nothing that links me to her. It was a well-hatched plan the queen was framed for. He will want revenge against her. And I’ll tell him whatever I have to. He must be lonely after all these years. Maybe he needs a little hope or companionship. The Outcast Camp can give him that. Don’t underestimate me, Asha. There’s nothing I wouldn’t do to overthrow the queen and take the Red Forest.”
“And if he uncovers your plan?”
“I’ll kill him. But he’s worth much more alive.”
“I’ve heard Balauri say no one was better with a dagger than Weylin …”
Falk laughed. “Years ago, when he was a hunter. Now he’s just a relic whose best days are behind him. I just need his name, not his sword.”
Asha sneered but didn’t reply.
They continued in silence, following the Wemyr River through the hilly terrain surrounding Kalisvalt. When they crested the last hill, the city appeared before them, encircled in a twenty-foot stone wall. Farther in the distance, the silhouette of an unfinished castle rose from the tallest hill. The occupying Jovan Army worked hard toward its completion.
As they arrived at the gate, a Jovan guard, standing watch on the wall, called down to them, “State your business, travelers.”
Falk rode closer, shielding his eyes from the sunlight that glinted off the guard’s armor. “I am Falk, and this is my wife. We have come from Gosdan for a change of scenery,” he said in his best Jovan.
“Just the two of you? It’s dangerous east of the wall.”
“We take care of ourselves.” Falk smiled.
The guard laughed. “I suppose you can. Open the gate!”
The gate slowly disappeared into the wall, revealing a well-maintained cobblestone road that led through a bustling marketplace. Hundreds of the darker skinned Kavali milled about while Jovan sentries stood at numerous doorways keeping the peace.
Falk and Asha steered their horses through the crowd to the nearest tavern, dismounted, and then tied their rides to posts. They stepped through the tavern doors where inebriated Jovan soldiers laughed and joked, usually about the Kavali, who they had been entrenched at war with for centuries.
When the soldiers saw Asha, the room went quiet.
A Jovan soldier rose from his seat, stumbled toward her, and propped himself up with one hand on the bar top. He cleared his throat. “Ma’am, I saw ya from across the room,” he slurred and spat his words, spraying Asha and engulfing her in the haze of liquor. The soldier motioned to where he had sat, where the other soldiers laughed and encouraged him.
“I’m Sam,” he paused for a moment as if he forgot what he was going to say. “And I was wonderin’ if you would honor us by havin’ a drink at our table?”
Asha stared blankly at him. Without a word, she turned her attention back to Falk. Her arm was grabbed and she was spun around to face Sam in all his drunken annoyance.
“I wasn’t finished …”
She smiled at Sam. Without losing eye contact, Asha reached down into a leather pouch on her hip that was filled with a poisonous balm. She teasingly spread it on her lips. Sam smiled back and watched her. Then Asha, swift as a snake’s strike, elbowed him in the throat. Sam fell to his knees, holding his neck with both hands. The drunken soldiers stumbled to their feet as Asha moved behind Sam, still on his knees, trying to breathe. Gripping a handful of his hair, she pulled his head back, and went for her dagger. It was a menacing weapon with a jagged edge and a hilt carved into the head of a snake.
The soldiers crept closer.
“I wouldn’t do that if I were you,” Falk said, shaking his head. He untied his massive, two-handed blade from his back, and unsheathed the steel.
The soldier nearest Falk stopped in his tracks. He glanced over his shoulder. Eyes wide, he discovered his comrades had deserted him. “What do you want?”
“We’re looking for a man.” Falk handed him the sketch. “Have you seen him?”
The soldier passed it to another bar patron. It passed through many hands until it made its way into the hands of the bartender.
“Aye, I’ve seen ’em,” he said.
“Where? When?” Falk demanded.
“Three days ago. I saw him head out of town.”
Falk stared at the man a moment before he turned and motioned for Asha to follow.
“May I kill just the one?”
The kneeling soldier’s eyes grew large. A puddle of liquid amassed on the tavern floor underneath him.
Falk seemed to weigh the question, but shook his head.
Asha moved the knife from Sam’s throat, helped him to his feet, and then spun Sam around. She forcefully kissed him. Asha pulled away then smiled at Sam. She followed Falk out of the tavern.
“Now what?” she asked.
“We split up. Only two paths head east from Kalisvalt. One goes to Vada. The other to Katervalt.”
Asha sighed. “He better be worth it …”
“He is, Asha … He is.”
A Song of Betrayal
“THE KISS OR THE DAGGER?” Asha whispered softly in his ear. Before she pulled away, she gave him a gentle kiss on the cheek then smoothed her hands over his face.
He said nothing, yet his eyes blazed with fury, as if the fire that danced in them came from within and not the campfire. His scowl could strangle the life out of most men. But his hands were feared beyond everything else. He’d use them if they weren’t tied behind him and around a tree.