Assassin's Heart(7)

By: Sarah Ahiers

I lifted my skirts and raced through alleys and backstreets, taking the shortest way to Fabricio’s. Shops lined the streets—a locked flower stand, a bakery, and an alchemist’s stand, his beak-shaped plague mask hung outside to show he was closed for the night. Ravenna was a night city, more than any other city in Lovero, but only the entertainment and refreshment establishments stayed open. The other businesses waited for the sun to rise to save on the cost of oil.

A salty breeze from the sea carried with it the sweet scent of the lantern oil used to light the streets. I inhaled and smiled. Ravenna was the most beautiful of Lovero’s cities, and its life soaked into my skin and muscles. I reveled in running through its streets. I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else in the world.

Fabricio’s appeared before me, lanterns flickering. My breath eased in my throat, and I strolled casually to the front door. The restaurant pressed against the crumbling city walls. The walls had once been used to keep the ghosts out, but with Safraella the patron goddess of Lovero, the ghosts couldn’t enter Loveran borders, even though the walls were cracked and collapsed. Ghosts could not cross onto holy ground, and now all of the country was considered holy. Before that, the ghosts would haunt the streets at night, stealing bodies and forcing people to hide in their homes. Now the ghosts just haunted the dead plains.

A small crowd of people waited at the entrance. A pinch-faced woman on the arm of a man dressed in colored silks too gaudy for the season glanced at my dress and sniffed.

Val dropped from Fabricio’s roof to land beside me. The woman shrieked.

He wore black velvet with gold brocade visible through slashes on his sleeves. An elegantly stitched gray leather vest matched his knee-high boots. Diamonds winked in his ears, and a ruby ring flashed on his left pinkie. Val didn’t purposely flaunt the Da Via wealth, but it was hard to ignore.

He scanned the crowd, including me.

I blinked slowly and nodded to him. A silent boast that said, I beat you here.

He nodded back, politely. As expected.

And though his eyes sparkled like his diamonds and a smile twitched at the corner of my mouth, no one would guess we were together. Which was how it needed to be. No one could know about us.

My breath caught in my throat as Val strode past the crowd to the doorman. The secrecy sent a thrill straight through the tips of my fingers.

“Ah, Master Da Via.” The doorman bowed deeply. “How wonderful of you to think of us on this lovely night.”

“My usual table, please,” he said.

The doorman bowed once more. “Come, come, I will seat you immediately.”

Val and the doorman disappeared inside. When the doorman returned, I stepped up next, earning a glower from the pinch-faced woman.

“Mistress Saldana, you grace us with your presence.”

I glanced over my shoulder, and the woman’s glower turned into surprise as she recognized my name. When our eyes met, she dropped her gaze. I smirked. Where was her haughty attitude now?

The restaurant was packed, tables filled with couples enjoying a romantic meal, or more lively guests whose libations caused them to laugh too loudly.

I scanned the room for anyone who might recognize me. Val and I had entered separately, but it never hurt to assess one’s surroundings.

The doorman led me into a small, curtained-off room. Inside sat a table for two. The curtain closed behind me. I waited three breaths before I tapped on the left-hand wall.

The wall slid aside, and I ducked through to an identical room so no one in the restaurant would see us seated together. This room housed Val, waiting for me, curtain closed against prying eyes. I slid the wall closed.

He took my hand and kissed it, his lips soft and warm against my skin. I pulled away but could feel the blush spreading across my cheeks. “Don’t be ridiculous,” I said.

He pulled out my chair and I sat down. He adjusted my snood, and his knuckles brushed against the back of my neck, lingering before he stepped away. I shivered.

We sipped the house wine and ate crusty bread and nutty cheese while we waited for our main course of duck in fig sauce.

“Did your father truly speak to the king about marking kills?” he asked. “Because my aunt won’t be happy about that.”

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