Chapter 2.1 (Zara)

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Zara Tait pressed her back to the tree, listening for movement. Her sleeveless tunic stuck to her skin in the Leodian heat. Her breaths felt too loud in the silence. Then she heard it--the faintest rustling in the underbrush.

She peeked around the trunk, spotting the young man. His shoulders were hunched as he walked, hands jammed into his trouser pockets. He whistled a faint tune, oblivious to the fact that he was being watched. He was seventeen years old, just a couple years younger than she was, yet he stood taller than her.

He didn't know it, but Zara had been waiting for him.

She sought out all her targets the same way: follow them every day for as long as it took to map out their routine, watch the way they interacted with people, and observe how they acted when they thought no one was watching. By the time she got to them, she knew them better than anyone else did.

It was why she never failed.

When the boy—Tyrus Johan, categorized dangerous rebel—reached the small clearing, she had the perfect shot. Zara took aim with her crossbow. Even though she could have made that shot on a galloping horse, she took extra care, setting it up with more time than she needed, measuring and re-measuring angles.

She couldn't afford to mess this one up, but as she shifted her position, the smallest twig broke beneath her boot. It was enough to catch Tyrus' attention. He spun around, eyes wide.

Then he ran in the opposite direction.

Zara swore. The forest terrain was less familiar to her--she was used to carrying out her assignments in the city, where it was often easy to navigate the narrow alleys and find her prey. Tyrus, however, was difficult to track there. He knew more passages than she did and, unlike most of her targets, could slip through the streets undetected.

As Tyrus reached the edge of the clearing, she fired a bolt. It punctured his sleeve, pinning the fabric to a tree, but he tore it free with little hesitation and took off.

She slung her crossbow over her shoulder, stopping just long enough to retrieve her bolt and the scrap of fabric, then gave chase.

Another thing Zara knew Tyrus was good at: losing a pursuer. She'd watched him do it twice in the city this week alone. Now, he wove through trees in intricate, seemingly random paths. It would be difficult for most people to do, but he was playing to his strengths.

Unfortunately for him, she was just as skilled.

She followed close behind, withdrawing a dagger from her belt. Its blade was black, a Stelian weapon rather than a Leodian one. Its very existence was ironic; the people of Stelan had been peaceful, refusing to participate in such lowly acts as violence. But it meant they were unprepared when Frecan warriors invaded their domain, and now many Stelian refugees like Zara had strayed from their values, adopting Leodia's instead. She was no better; she herself had taken lives in the name of Queen Chhaya.

And she hated herself for it.

Still, she tracked down Tyrus on yet another assignment. Because it never seemed to stop.

Because if she ever left the queen's services, she would become someone else's assignment.

As the sun beat down, trying desperately to shine through the leaves, the two neared the edge of the woods where the fields began. For a heartbeat Zara thought he would attempt to run through the neighboring wildflower field. It was the closest way to the city, where she'd never be able to follow him, but it would be foolish. Thoughtless. There was no way she'd miss a shot in such an open space.

She muttered a quick prayer under her breath, her focus never leaving him.

Just as she thought they were out of the woods, Tyrus broke his steady rhythm. His left arm shot up. He grabbed the branch above him, swung himself around the large trunk, and changed directions. Then he was off again, dipping under the low-hanging branches, skipping lithely over the large roots. Zara could've sworn she even heard him give a low whoop.

She followed, but as she turned sharply her ankle gave way.

"Gods," Zara hissed in pain. She forced the frustration down and pushed herself up, then paused to listen.

There. It was small, but the sound of his movement was northeast. And he wasn't that far away.

She started again, but her injured ankle wasn't helping. Her pace slowed little by little while his only increased. He slipped farther away. She let out a groan.

Move. Faster.

Then he was out of sight, and she could no longer hear his nimble movements through the undergrowth.

She sank to the ground and closed her eyes, a chill running down her spine as she envisioned what came next.

The queen would not accept this.

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