Chapter 4.1 (Zara)

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It didn't take long to track down the woman Chhaya wanted dead. Zara found her in the Old City. The streets were a maze of pathways weaving under and around the massive roots of the ancient wearian tree. Zara perched on one of these roots, out of reach of the dying lantern light, and watched the streets from above. Small shops and food stalls were tucked beneath the roots. Although they were all closed, she could still smell the spices lingering from the empty food carts. Her stomach growled, and she realized she hadn't eaten all day.

Only a few lanterns still burned at this hour, but a few streets over Zara heard loud music and drunken laughter from the tavern she had followed the woman--Meena--from. Up here, the breeze was a relief from the humidity that stayed throughout the night. Zara pulled her curls over one shoulder, relishing the feeling. If she closed her eyes, she could pretend she was a little girl again, leaning out her bedroom window with the breeze caressing her face while she watched the festivities unfold on Stelan's streets. Her mother would've caught her up and told her to go back to sleep, but not before telling her a bedtime tale.

Zara couldn't afford to think of her mother now, not when she was about to complete an assignment. But it was hard not to. Especially when the woman she was to kill reminded her of Mother. Zara had been watching Meena for a while now. She was older than her mother would've been, but the way she carefully organized and stacked books on the shelves and tables of her little shop was too familiar. Mother had taken the same care each night when replacing the tales she'd removed from the bookshelf.

Meena turned, illuminated in the lantern light. Her face was weathered and round, and her eyes held a tenderness that Zara remembered seeing in her own mother's eyes. While humming softly, Meena straightened another pile of books. Zara recognized the tune as a Stelian one that Black Blades often sang.

Zara's heart ached. She didn't want to kill this woman.

But Queen Chhaya gave an order, and Zara had to fulfill it.

Dropping down from the root without making a sound, she landed on the hard-packed earth below, wincing. Her ankle felt as if it was about to give out on her. She ignored it. It was something to worry about after the assignment.

She moved through the shadows, and it was as if she wasn't there. Her skill of navigating the shadows made some people believe she could bend them to her will as she did with fire, but her unnatural magic never extended that far. Still, Zara appreciated that rumor. It was one of the nicer ones--better than the rumor that she had slaughtered her entire family or the one about how she liked to torture her victims before killing them.

She drew her dagger, and as Meena turned around to grab another stack of leather bound books, Zara pressed the blade to her throat. Meena startled, but then she relaxed, regarding Zara with curiosity.

It was not the reaction Zara expected.

"Come to kill me, have you?" The woman wasn't afraid to look her in the eyes, which was rare. Most who'd heard of her believed they'd be cursed or marked for death if they did.

Zara's throat went dry. "Yes."

Meena tilted her head to the side and sniffed. "You don't smell like death like they claim you do. I bet none of the tales are true. You're just a girl who can't stand up to a queen that isn't even her own."

The words caught her off guard. If Stelan hadn't fallen, Zara would have been raised to patrol the streets and maintain peace as a Black Blade, but her dreams burned like her beloved domain. Nobody referred to her as a Stelian anymore. Hearing another Stelian refer to her as one--after everything she had done--made Zara want to lower her knife.

She's just another assignment.

But unlike the others, Meena was not afraid of her.

Zara's hand trembled, the blade grazing the woman's throat. "Queen Chhaya knows you're planning a revolt. I need names. Who are you working with?"

"Your heart is not in it, girl." Meena placed a gentle hand over Zara's, removing the blade from her neck. "I've seen what the queen has done to our people. I can help you."

Zara wanted so badly to be anywhere but here. Gods, if she killed Meena, she wouldn't be any different than the person who had executed her mother.

The words almost left Zara's lips--she wanted to admit that she was lost, that she hated serving the Leodian queen, that she despised herself for the things she had done. But before she could say any of it, the woman wrenched the knife out of her loose grasp and held it to Zara's neck instead.

"Leave while you have the chance," the woman demanded.

"I can't."

The woman tensed, preparing to make a move, but Zara used her magic to summon the few spirits she possessed. Their chill wasn't as strong as Chhaya's, but it was noticeable enough for the woman to drop the knife.

"My goddesses, it's true." Terror twisted Meena's mouth. "You're cursed just like the queen." She backed away, colliding with a bookshelf.

Zara retrieved her dagger and advanced, spirits trailing behind her. "I need names."

The woman shook her head. "I don't know. I--"

"Names," Zara hissed, blade pressed to Meena's skin again. "Do not lie."

"I don't work with anyone! I swear, I--"

"I'm sorry," Zara said, and then she used the worst part of her magic, drawing from the despair and horror and every painful emotion the spirits possessed. She projected all of it into the woman's mind.

Chhaya had done this to Zara once, to show her how to use her magic for interrogation purposes. The pain of being trapped inside her own head, unable to push out the darkest thoughts and emotions, was far worse than any physical form of torture. When Chhaya had practiced this on her, Zara wanted to die.

It didn't take long to get the names she needed, and when it was all over, Zara whispered, "Goddesses and gods, please forgive me" and slit the woman's throat. She lowered Meena to the ground, folding her hands across her chest. Then, Zara untied the small pouch she kept tied to her belt and removed a small, crumpled flower from it. Its petals were the shade of the blood pooling around her victim's head, and Zara tucked it into Meena's hands.

Zara stepped back into the shadows, refusing to let her tears fall. The people who told stories of Zara believed she left these flowers as her signature to brag about which kills were hers, but that wasn't the truth. These flowers had bloomed the week of her father's death, the same flowers that marked the beginning of her mother's rebellion. Giving one to each victim was Zara's way of stating that she did not agree with Chhaya's orders. That she didn't want to do this. It was her little act of defiance, even if nobody else knew what it meant.

Not wanting to linger any longer, Zara disappeared into the night to hunt down the others. Before dawn arrived, she completed her assignment.

Six more flowers lay in the hands of corpses.

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