“Valentina?”

I turned at the voice behind me. It was just my instructor. “Magister Rector. What can I do for you?”

Eric Rector was a well-liked teacher. He had been with the Academy for nearly twenty years now. “Headmistress wants a word with you.”

“Headmistress?”

Rector nodded. “What did you do now?”

I shrugged. “Nothing that I know of.”

Walking through a large archway, I left him and made my way to the instructors’ wing and then to the very end where Headmistress Kalys had her office.

I knocked and the door swung open to reveal an extremely tall older woman with wire-rimmed glasses and a crooked nose. Even dressed in the most ridiculous green brocade dressing gown, Diane Kalys was impressive.

“Headmistress,” I said. “I was told you wanted to see me?”

“Ah, yes. Valentina Ludmilla. Come in, come in.” Kalys ushered me to a giant mahogany desk and sat me in front of it. Taking the chair behind it, she reached into a drawer and took out a manila envelope.

Confusion colored my tone. “Headmistress, I don’t underst—”

“Open this,” Kalys said, interrupting me, handing me the envelope.

I opened it, pulling out a bright red folder. Opening the folder that was labeled “Mission 64,” I found it was a contract file. I frowned. “Are you offering me a contract?”

Kalys smiled thinly, sharp blue gaze probing mine.

I read through the papers, my confusion growing. Once I was finished reading, I turned back to the front page to stare at the picture of a gorgeous woman with the palest of milky skin and intense green eyes. “Aurelia Stela,” I read the name aloud. “Who is she?”

“Someone the Academy wants dead very badly,” Kalys said. “We are willing to pay so much more than a regular kill for her extermination.”

I looked back at the paper. BILL KILL was written in large red letters across the top. That was a kill where the assassin got paid for their target’s murder. A thrill kill was a contract picked up just for fun, regardless of money. “What did she do?”

“We think she may have kidnapped and murdered President Jakon’s daughter.”

“Princess Clairana?”

Kalys nodded. “She was taken last night. Aurelia Stela is the best lead we have so far.”

“Why do you think it was this girl? How do you know she wasn’t one of the victims, too?”

“She was the only one near Princess Clairana at the time. Besides, she’s worth nothing. She wouldn’t be of any value to kidnap.”

“Where were the princess’s bodyguards?”

“Aurelia was apparently Clairana’s best friend. Clairana sent them away because she was having a— whatever you call them… slumber party with Aurelia.”

“I’ll find this girl.”

“So you’ll pick up the contract?”

I nodded, picking up a pen, and signed the contract. “I’ll bring you her heart on a silver platter.”

“I’m counting on it,” Kalys said with a dark smile. “You leave at dawn.”

Dismissed, I left the headmistress’s office, the manila envelope tucked under an arm.

“Val? Val, wait up!”

I rolled my eyes at the grating voice of the most annoying girl at the Academy. Turning, I gave Sarah Perris a withering look. “What do you want, Sarah?”

“Ooh, what’s that?” Sarah pointed to the envelope.

Sarah was under the delusion that we were friends. As awful as I’d been to her, she still thought I liked her. She didn’t understand that assassins didn’t have friends. Or, they shouldn’t. Training at the Academy was bound to make you close with some people, but I preferred to fly solo. Friends meant weapons to be used against you. If your enemy— and as an assassin, you were bound to make some— discovered you had someone in your life you cared about, it was all over for you.

“None of your business.”

Sarah looked slightly taken aback, but then continued on doggedly, blue eyes bright. “Do you want to have breakfast together tomorrow?”

“No,” I said flatly.

“Lunch?”

“No,” I repeated.

“Dinner?” Sarah continued hopefully, wearing down my patience.

“Definitely not.”

“Why not?”

Because you’re irritating and we’re not friends, I thought. But instead, I gave a different answer. “I won’t be here tomorrow.”

“Oh. Where are you going?”

I exhaled, a long-suffering sigh. “Classified.”

“Ooh, is it a mission?”

“No,” I lied.

“Can I come?”

“Absolutely not.”

“Why not?”

Again, we’re not friends. “It’s top-secret.”

“Ooh, is it someone famous? A senator?”

I ground my teeth in frustration. For the thousandth time, I found myself wanting to ask her why the hell she decided to become an assassin. That girl was talkative and could not keep a secret for her life. “That’s classified.”

“Ah, come on. I won’t tell.”

“It’s classified.”

“Why won’t you tell me?”

“It’s classified.”

“But we’re friends.”

I whirled on her. “No. No, Sarah, we’re not. We are not friends. I have no friends. Friends end up getting you screwed, one way or another. They’re tools for your enemies to use against you. So we are not friends. We never will be friends. I don’t want friends.”

Sarah looked hurt, but I didn’t have time to care. Having friends was not a luxury assassins had.

Turning on my heel, I stalked off in the direction of my dormitory. I entered my dorm room and tossed the file on my desk. My roommate had moved out at the beginning of the semester, saying I was too cold and rude to live with, which meant I now had a double all to myself.

I began stuffing clothes and other things I’d need into a big black duffel bag. I’d select my weapons from the armory building later.

Finished packing, I sat on the edge of my bed and pulled the file towards me. I opened it and thumbed through the pages. I studied the picture of the girl again. In it, she had a half-smile and a ponytail. Some of her nearly-white blonde hair had escaped from her elastic band and was curled delicately, framing her stunning features. She looked like an ice queen, as pale as the freshly fallen snow itself, and just as sharp as the treacherous icicles that hung from rooftops.

I shut the file and sighed. Killing this girl would be a challenge. I had no idea where she was and she had the aura, even through the picture, of someone who knew how to fight. I would have to be careful and wise in choosing my weapons, and make sure I was armed heavily.

“Better get some sleep,” I said aloud to the empty room. “I leave before sunrise.”

•

My horse, a big black stallion with a white patch of hair on his chest named Nightlight, calmed immediately under my touch. He didn’t like the stable boy’s hand because he was too rough. It made him nervous and finicky.

Nightlight rubbed his head against my cheek and I ran my hand through his mane. Saddling my horse, I felt relaxed.

Nightlight knew the path well. He picked his way through the front gates, leaving the wrought iron and brick Academy behind.

The weapons and my duffel bag weighed down Nightlight, but he didn’t seem to mind.

The first rays of sunlight were just illuminating the tips of the mountain range in the distance when we were about three hours’ ride from the Academy.

The shadows were long, like creeping fingers. I kept my ears peeled for any signs I was being followed or targeted. Only assassins and those with a suicide wish traveled these roads alone and only the desperate traveled them at night.

I made it to an inn about mid-morning. The innkeeper and his wife were jolly, plump people with three children: a girl who seemed about seventeen, a boy who appeared around fourteen years of age, and another girl who looked no older than five.

“Ghese,” the innkeeper’s wife said to their oldest child. “Show this weary traveler to her room.

Ghese was a pretty, young girl. She looked nothing like either of her parents. Where they were heavy-set, she was stick-thin. Where they had brown eyes, hers were dark blue. Where their skin was tanned, hers was paper-white. Where their hair was brown, hers was ash-blonde. Where they had defined muscles, she had none at all.

She had a nice smile, I noticed, as she cast me a shy one and led me upstairs. Handing me a key, she pointed to a door numbered “6.”

“Here you are,” Ghese said. Her voice was soft, where her parents’ were loud, jovial, and booming. “Hope you enjoy your stay. I’ll get my brother to stable your horse.”

“Thank you,” I said to her.

Ghese inclined her head and left.

Unlocking the door, I carried my bags inside. It was a good thing no one had seen the weapons inside my bags; otherwise it would have started a panic. I dropped by bags on the bed, and rubbed my eyes. Then I went in search of a midday meal.

I sat down at one of the tables downstairs and Ghese brought me hot soup and a mug of beer. I left the beer untouched, needing my strength about me if I was to find the lost princess and her murderer. The soup was good.

I felt someone standing over me and looked up. It was Ghese. “Can I help you?”

She sat down. Lowering her voice, she whispered, “You’re an assassin, aren’t you?”

I nearly choked on my soup. “What?”

“You have lots of heavy bags. I saw the tip of an arrow poking out of one. You have daggers in both your boots and probably various blades strapped and hidden all over your body. You look at everyone like they’re a potential threat. You jump at every sound within three feet of you. Your hands keep inching toward your waist, where I’m sure you have eight kinds of knives there. So tell me. Who’s your target?”

I stared at her. Unsure of what to say, I just sat there, silent and confused.

Ghese continued. “Your earrings and necklace and bracelets can come off and double as weapons. Your belt can work as a means of tying up your target. Your headband doubles as a gag, I’m guessing. You make no sound when you move. The way you walk is like a big cat stalking its prey. You—”

“How could you possibly know all that?” I burst out, curiosity getting the best of me. It wasn’t very professional, but I had to know. “How could an innkeeper’s daughter notice all that?”

Ghese smiled slightly, peeking timidly through a curtain of hair. “I’m observant?”

I wasn’t buying it. I gave her a droll stare. “No. It’s more than that.” I narrowed my eyes on her. “You’re smart, I’ll give you that. But I’m smarter. You may be quick, but I’m quicker. What’s your last name?”

“Chiksa.”

I raised my eyebrows. “Your name is Ghese Chiksa? What, do your parents hate you or something?”

Ghese didn’t respond to that. Instead, she said, “I’m fascinated by assassin culture. My parents wish I wouldn’t research it, but I study it late at night after they’ve gone to bed. I have a stash of books on the subject. Many say how to spot an assassin.”

I narrowed my eyes farther, but didn’t comment.

“I’ve always wanted to run away and join the Academy,” Ghese said sheepishly.

“Sorry, girl.” I shook my head. “You don’t have what it takes to make it as an assassin. It’s not as glamorous as you might think or the books make it out to be. It’s not all justice. It’s blood and guts and gore and betrayal.”

Ghese leaned forward, eyes bright. “I know. I want to live that life.”

“Trust me, kid. You don’t.”

Ghese glared at me. “You don’t know me.”

“It’s dangerous, kid. Don’t you get that? Think of your family. They’d never see you again. They’d never get to hear from you again. They’d have no clue if you were dead or alive.”

“Schrödinger’s cat,” Ghese said.

“Whose cat?” I shook my head. “Never mind about cats. The point is, kid, it’s a horrible life.”

“Then how come you’re an assassin?”

“My parents were murdered when I was young an I wanted revenge.”

“Did you get it?”

“Yes. But even if you join the Academy for one tiny reason, one small mission, you can never leave again. It’s not something you do on a whim, kid.”

“Stop calling me kid. I’ll be eighteen next month.”

“I’m twenty-one, so I’m older,” I said. “Trust me, kid. This is not a life you want. It’s lonely, friendless.”

“I’ll have friends,” Ghese said.

“Then they will get you killed.”

“What do you mean?”

“They’d be weak links your enemies could use against you. Or they’d turn out to stab you in the back— literally and figuratively.”

Ghese’s determined expression faltered. “You have no friends?”

“And I prefer it that way. That way, no one can get to me. No one can use them against me. That way I can’t be hurt.”

“That’s so sad.”

“That’s an assassin’s life. Some are stupid and make friends. There’s this one girl—” I rolled my eyes and sighed in exasperation as I thought of Sarah. “This one girl thinks we’re friends. I keep trying to explain that it’s better off if none of us have friends and I can’t stand her, but she doesn’t listen. It’s hard not to get close to people during training at the Academy, but somehow I managed. It just means that while all the other assassins there get their friends killed and get torture over their deaths or capture, I’ll be immune.”

“And you like it that way?”

“Yes.” I answered without hesitation.

“So no husbands, either?”

“No significant others of any kind,” I said. “I saw this one girl kill herself after she received news her boyfriend had been killed by a man who wanted to hurt her.”

“Wow. That is lonely.”

“Rethink your plan before you go traipsing off to the worst decision of your life.” I said.

Ghese nodded. “That doesn’t sound like much fun.”

“It’s not. Believe me.”

“Is that why you haven’t smiled once since coming in here?”

“I haven’t smiled in years, kid. Not really. This life kind of takes the genuine smile right out of you. Through the years, the happiness just sort of… drains away.”

“I’m so sorry.”

I shrugged. “Stay away from this life, kid. The Academy is not a good place to be.”

“Who’s your target?” Ghese asked, repeating her earlier question.

I took another sip of soup. “Sorry, kid. That’s classified.”

I was slightly surprised Ghese didn’t push it. “Assassin stuff. For your eyes only. Got it.”

“Thanks.”

“Do you like your soup?”

“It’s great. Thanks.”

“No problem. I made it myself.”

••

I had been planning on just stopping in for a meal and maybe a quick bath or rest. I ended up staying the night.

I took that time to study the file. I read it through four times before I figured out where Aurelia was most likely to be hiding.

Before the sun was up, I was awake and on Nightlight, heading towards the north village of Mundark where I suspected Aurelia to be stationed.

Mundark was nearly a full day’s ride from here. Since I’d left before dawn, I would be there a little past suppertime, right before sundown.

The ride was quiet and swift. No one bothered me or attacked me, probably because I was clearly armed. I had taken my bow out of my bag and slung it across my back. My sword was hanging at my hip, my daggers visibly strapped to the outside of my pants, fastened to my thigh.

The beginning of the sunset painted the sky a brilliant orange and pink, like some toxic fire-breathing monster had vomited all across the clouds. The gold of the setting sun reached back desperately toward the sky as if it didn’t want to let the moon have center stage as I arrived in Mundark.

I found a quaint little bed and breakfast and paid for a room, deciding to hole up and plan out how I would take down Aurelia. Aurelia was clearly trained by someone in the fighting arts, if she’d managed to kidnap the princess without any of the guards stopping them.

•

It took well into the night and then all morning for me to scope out the best way to get into Aurelia’s bedroom without anyone noticing and then to kill her and get out. I needed to make sure we were alone in the house so I could carve out her heart without being disturbed.

I took me another few hours to figure out which house belonged to Aurelia.

Finally, I decided it was time. I gathered up the weapons I would need from the mini-arsenal I’d brought and stationed myself in the shadows beneath her balcony, below the window I’d decided would be the best to enter from.

I waited there until I was sure the house was empty except for the girl whose shadow I could see directly above me.

Swiftly, silently, I climbed the pillars and carefully swung myself up onto the balcony overlooking the mountains. Moving like a ghost, I went to stand over Aurelia with my dagger raised.

Aurelia came awake swiftly, eyes flashing open. She was off the hammock on her balcony almost faster than I could blink. “Who the hell are you?” Her voice was silky smooth, reminding me of melted chocolate and velvet. She brandished a knife in her hand at me. I hadn’t even seen from where she’d pulled it.

Aurelia was beautiful. The picture in her file didn’t do her justice. She had the most vibrant green eyes that snapped emerald fire. Her nose was perfectly straight, and her lips were full and round. She had a sturdy jaw, with high cheekbones. Her eyebrows were arched daintily above her fiery green eyes. Her fingernails were painted a green to match her sparking eyes. Around her throat hung a necklace of jade— pink jade, purple jade, green jade— from a silver cord. Gold earrings hung from her ears, going all the way up to cartilage. Her nose was pierced bull-style and she had the tattoo of a snake slithering down one arm, its neck wrapping around her wrist, and its head resting on her hand. On her other wrist, she had a small blue rose tattoo. Her dress shimmered like pure gold in the late afternoon sun, accenting her platinum blonde hair that hung lose around her shoulders, and pushing the swell of her breasts up higher, giving me a full view down her low neckline.

Staring into the face of her killer didn’t seem to frighten her. Aurelia met my eyes and held them, mouth parted slightly as if she were only slightly surprised to see me.

Aurelia stood, tensed, back against the wooden wall of her hideaway.

“Val,” I said, answering her question from above, knowing better than to give her my full name even if I intended to kill her.

Aurelia’s beautiful face changed then, her expression becoming one of interest. “I’ve heard of you,” she said in her soft, sweet voice.

Even thought she lacked the fear an innocent would have had, she was not what I would have suspected of kidnapping and murdering the princess who was supposedly her best friend.

“Where’s Clairana?” I asked, cutting straight to business.

“I don’t know.” Aurelia said, frowning. “Is she missing?”

“Like you don’t know.” I snorted.

“Is that what this is about? I thought you were here to assassinate me.”

“I am.” Now I was confused. “Because of Clairana.”

“What?” Aurelia looked taken aback. She was quite convincing, acting perfectly like she had no idea what I was talking about.”

“My employers seem to think you kidnapped and murdered her.”

Aurelia’s expression became indignant. “I did not such thing,” she gasped. “I thought you were here because one of my father’s enemies hired you.”

“Any idea who did?” I asked, ignoring the bit about her father.

Aurelia shrugged. “President Jakon had many enemies who could have targeted her to get to him.”

“Rumor has it you were with her when she disappeared.”

“That’s impossible,” Aurelia said. “I’ve been here all summer.”

“Can anyone verify that?”

“Any number of people. My servants—”

“Servants’ testimonies can be bought.”

“My family—”

“Loyalty can be a flawed thing.”

“Any of the townspeople.”

“Too bad,” I said. “My orders were to bring my employer your heart.”

“But I’m innocent.”

“Money and vengeance doesn’t care about innocence.”

“Spare me, please.” For the first time since I’d snuck into Aurelia’s home, I noticed the twinge of fear in her eyes.

“Why? You didn’t spare Princess Clairana.”

“I didn’t hurt Clairana!” Aurelia insisted. “I didn’t touch her. I haven’t seen her.”

The beginnings of doubt settled into my stomach, a prickly feeling. A sour taste filled my mouth. Either Aurelia was the most amazing actress on the planet or she was innocent.

“We have witnesses placing you at the scene.”

“I wasn’t there!” Aurelia pleaded. “I swear!”

I narrowed my eyes, not leaving my attack stance, dagger at the ready. Finally I relaxed my stance, feigning nonchalance.

Aurelia glanced at the balcony, all the opening I needed. The second her blade was lowered, I was there. I pushed her backwards, pinning her to the wall with my body. I knocked her blade away and held mine angled at her throat. “Tell me where Clairana is.”

“I don’t have her,” Aurelia panted, eyes wide.

“I have a file, an employer, a terrified president, and witnesses that say otherwise.” I said, hyper aware that the rate of her breath pushed her breasts against me intimately at a rapid pace.

“I— don’t…”

“Aurelia Stela, right?” I asked, interrupting her, trying to clear her heady perfume from my mind.

Aurelia nodded.

“Then you’re my target.” I said. “May I say, your picture doesn’t do you justice.”

Aurelia smiled weakly. “Pictures never do anyone justice.”

“Let’s assume you are telling the truth—”

“I am.”

“If you are telling the truth, do you have any clue where your friend could be?”

“Clairana is the daughter of the most hated leader of this world. President Jakon has many, many enemies. The missing princess could be anywhere.”

“If I promise not to kill you and you promise not to run away, can you help me?”

“Help you?” Aurelia asked dubiously, raising her eyebrows. “How?”

“We’ll search for Princess Clairana together and then I’ll let you go.”

“You’ll just let me go?”

“My oath,” I said, placing my index finger and my middle finger over my heart.

“What do assassins know of mercy?” Aurelia challenged. “Once they’re after a target, they don’t stop.”

“Well, maybe I’m different.”

“How so?”

“Maybe I believe you and I don’t believe in brutally massacring the innocent.”

Aurelia gave me an odd look. “You’re not like other assassins.”

“How many assassins have you come into contact with?”

“Enough.”

I nodded. “I believe in justice, not unnecessary bloodshed.”

Aurelia’s odd look deepened. “That’s not the usual assassin motto.”

“Even dead, I want my parents to be proud of me.”

“You became an assassin because of them?” Aurelia guessed.

I nodded. “To avenge their murders. To bring their killer to justice. But once an assassin, nobody gets out. In it for life.”

“Aurelia Mae Stela,” Aurelia said.

I cocked my head at her, moving my blade from her neck and slipped it back into the holder on my thigh. “I know.”

“No, you don’t understand.”

“What do you want me to understand?”

“Princess Aurelia.”

I frowned at her, not understanding.

“Aoraniala.”

“What about her? She died years ago in a fire.”

Aurelia shook her head. “I am Princess Aoraniala.”

I scowled at her. “She’s dead.”

Aurelia shook her head again. “I faked my death.”

“Why would you do that?”

“It was Clairana’s idea, to escape my father’s enemies. Now why would I kidnap my own blood sister?”

I stared at the beautiful girl before me, uncomprehending. “What?”

Aurelia sighed. “Did President Jakon issue the contract on me?”

“I… I don’t think so,” I said. “I don’t know.” I thought back to the contract and the name on it. “My boss gave it to me. I don’t remember seeing President Jakon’s name on it.”

“Do you remember what name was on it?”

I understood now. “Arnold Reichbach. Isn’t he against your father?”

“Yes.” Aurelia cursed. “He must have figured out who I really was. I knew I shouldn’t have gone back to visit Clairana. I changed my name and decided to pose as her best friend so we could see each other.”

“That was dumb,” I said.

“I see that now.”

“Should you run?” I asked. “Reichbach will be coming for you now, if he knows who you really are. Especially if he has your sister.”

“I don’t think he does,” Aurelia said.

“Well then where is she, if she’s not here or with him?”

“Faking my death was Clairana’s idea.”

I stared at her blankly. “You said that.”

Aurelia sighed. “Aren’t you assassins supposed to be smart?”

“Hit on the head one too many times, I guess. Enlighten me.”

“I think Clairana did the same thing.”

“She went into hiding?”

“Possibly.” Aurelia nodded. “And I think I know where she went.”

•

The ride was short, thought it felt a million times longer, with Aurelia on the back of my horse, her arms wrapped tightly around my waist. I could feel the peaks of her breasts through my thin black shirt. Her delicious scent didn’t help, either. She smelled like vanilla and honey.

“Stop here,” Aurelia ordered.

I drew Nightlight up short and dismounted, reaching back up to help Aurelia off. My gaze went immediately to the dip in her dress that plunged dangerously far between her breasts.

Aurelia adjusted her dress, which had gone askew while riding, causing the hem to hike up almost to her waist.

Aurelia went to knock on the door of the building. A few minutes later, a flap opened the show someone’s gray eyes.

“Can I help you?” The person asked in a feminine, nasal voice.

“Is Cenina here?”

The woman’s eyes narrowed at us suspiciously.

“When I sleep, in dreams they look on thee,” Aurelia said.

The woman’s face changed then. “And darkly bright, are bright in dark directed,” she said in response.

Code, I thought as the door swung open to show an elderly woman with an orange dress and fine gray hair. The code is lines from a poem.

“Shakespeare,” Aurelia explained as she stepped inside.

I followed her.

“Sonnet forty-three,” the old woman agreed. “Now. I know why you’re here, Princess Aoraniala. Who’s the angry-looking girl?”

I frowned at that.

“Chessa, this is Val. Val, Chessa.”

“Val what?” Chessa asked. “How do you know her? How do we know we can trust her?”

“She’s my assassin,” Aurelia said.

You have an assassin?”

“Well, actually she’s the assassin who was sent to kill me.”

Chessa’s whole demeanor changed. A knife materialized in her hand from under her dress and she ran at me. Aurelia stopped her, disarming her easily.

“Chessa,” Aurelia said calmly. “She’s here to help us.”

“How do you know? She could be playing you. Her lot is known for lying… And you just led her straight to your sister.”

Aurelia shook her head. “She could have killed me, but she didn’t. Besides. If she wanted Clairana’s location, it wouldn’t be too hard for her. She found me easily enough and I’m supposed to be dead.”

Chessa nodded slowly. “Clairana, you’ve got visitors!”

A beautiful girl appeared at the top of the stairs, twirling her onyx hair between her fingers. Clairana had the porcelain complexion and high cheekbones of her sister, but her eyes were a dazzling blue than her sister’s green, and she had a beauty mark below her left eye and a smattering of freckles across her cheeks. As she descended the stairs, I noticed she walked with a slight limp.

Where Aurelia was light, Clairana was dark. Clairana smelled of musk and burgundy rose and jasmine. Aurelia’s dress was spun gold while Clairana’s was the blackest blue I had ever seen, her throat laden with a necklace of obsidian and sapphire.

“Aoraniala,” Clairana said in surprise.

“Clair, this is Val. Val, my sister Clair. I told you she wasn’t dead.”

Clairana raised her eyebrows. “What’s going on, Aora? The point of faking one’s death is that one doesn’t want to be found.”

“There’s rumor going around that says I kidnapped you.”

“Ludicrous. People think you’re dead.”

“Not me. My alias.”

“Well, Aurelia Stela kidnapping me would be kind of impossible, seeing as how she doesn’t actually exist.”

“Yes, but other people don’t know that.”

“Well. I can see how that would be a problem.” Clairana definitely didn’t seem as bright or quick-witted as her sister. It was a good thing she was attractive.

“Yeah,” Aurelia said. “So now people will be coming after the both of us.”

Clairana seemed to finally notice I was actually in the room. “What did you say her name was again?”

I frowned. Did the princess think I couldn’t speak or something? Or did she just not care to hear me speak because I was below her in social rank?

“Val,” Aurelia answered for me.

“Val,” Clairana said thoughtfully. “Isn’t that a boy’s name?” She squinted at me. “Though with her short hair and flat chest, she could quite well be a boy.”

“She’s not,” Aurelia said.

It irked me that they were talking about me as if I wasn’t in the room. “It’s short for Valentina,” I cut in defensively.

“Oh, look. The cockroach can talk.”

I glowered up at the “missing” princess.

“Be nice, Clairana,” Aurelia said. “She’s dangerous.”

I turned my glare to Aurelia. Wow. Thanks for the help. Bitch.

“She doesn’t look very dangerous to me.”

“She’s a trained assassin, Clairana.”

“Aoraniala!” Clairana gasped. “And you brought her into this house? Straight to me!”

Aurelia rolled her eyes. I could tell the sisters didn’t quite get along.

Now that the mystery of the missing princess was solved and my target was innocent, I wasn’t really needed here. “I’m going to go,” I said but neither was paying attention to me. They were locked in a glaring contest. I shrugged and slipped out the door. Not even Chessa noticed my departure. I was mounting my horse when the door opened and Aurelia ran outside.

“Valentina!” She called.

I stopped to look at her. She was truly a vision, like a goddess of sunlight, descended to earth.

“Val, don’t go.”

“Well, I gave you my oath. Help me find your sister and I wouldn’t hurt you. We found your sister, who it turns out, doesn’t need rescuing. You held up your end of the bargain. Now it’s time for me to leave and keep my end of the deal.”

“At least take me home first?”

Home home or back to Mundark?”

“Mundark, please, if you don’t mind.”

I sighed and helped Aurelia onto the back of Nightlight.

“Were you really going to carve my heart out of my chest?”

Aurelia’s question brought my thoughts back to her voluptuous chest and I bit my lip. Forcefully casting those thoughts aside, I answered, “Yes.”

We were quiet for the rest of the short ride back, my mind involuntarily going to Aurelia’s warm body pressed against my back.

Once we reached Aurelia’s house in Mundark, I halted. Climbing off Nightlight, I helped Aurelia down.

“Thank you,” Aurelia said.

“For what?” I asked gruffly, climbing back on my horse.

“Not killing me.”

“No problem.” I said, looking down at her. Realizing if I leaned slightly to the left, I could see all the way down her dress, I tore my gaze away from Aurelia.

“Well, actually…” Aurelia said. “For an assassin, it is a problem. You’re better than the ones I’ve met.”

“Thanks,” I said, embarrassed. I wasn’t used to compliments.

“Do you want to come in for some tea?”

“I don’t drink tea.”

“Coffee?”

“I don’t like coffee.”

“Oh. Well, I probably have some hot chocolate or soda somewhere.”

“No thanks.”

“What about wine? A beer?”

I was amused by her persistence. “I can’t stay, Your Highness. I’ve got other missions waiting back at the Academy.”

“Oh.” Aurelia looked disappointed. “At least let me give you a proper thank you.”

I slid from my horse, giving in. “Oh, alright.”

Standing on tip toe, Aurelia was still shorter than me. I was suddenly very aware of how close she was. Aurelia placed her hands lightly on my shoulders, tilted her chin up. She took my chin in her hand, forcing me to look at her. She waited for a moment to see if I would pull away. When I didn’t move, she captured my lips with hers. Her tongue swept against mine, and I moaned in pleasure. Desire shot through me, burning hot.

Aurelia pulled away, shyly, as if she expected me to push her away in disgust. “I—I’m sorry,” she stammered.

For the first time in years, I smiled. Without a word, I jumped on Nightlight and galloped off. I got about a hundred paces before I turned around, urged Nightlight back toward Aurelia. I couldn’t return to the Academy now, not without Aurelia’s heart on a silver platter, as I’d promised Headmistress Kalys.

I slid off Nightlight, wrapping my arms around her back, and pulled her flush against me.

Aurelia made a little sound of surprise, which quickly changed into approval as I reclaimed her lips and finally got her heart, just not in the way I’d originally planned.

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