This story is by Hannah Tussing and was part of our 2018 Spring Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
Viper’s gonna kill me.
That one thought resonates through my mind as I squint against the light of a guard’s lantern. Xenobi digs her needle-sharp claws into my neck, letting out a nervous chirp. I roll my shoulders, asking the ferrox to settle down.
“What are you doing out here?” the guard asks in a gruff tone, jabbing his broadsword at my chest.
I glance down at my outfit. The simple brown dress and stained apron of a serving wench is going to be a hard sell, but not impossible. I can’t be caught before I even make it inside the gala.
“I’m so sorry, sir,” I say, “Please let me back in. I can’t get in trouble again.” I widen my eyes and blink innocently up at him.
“A troublemaker, are you?” he asks, lowering his sword.
I tilt my chin up and sashay closer to him. “Oh, I don’t mean to cause any trouble. I just need back into the kitchen.”
“We don’t need any trouble tonight.” His voice hardens.
“Will you escort me inside, please?” I give the guard a sultry smile and dance my fingertips over his arm and up his bicep. “I can make it worth your while after the gala.”
His eyes follow my hand and a slow grin spreads across his lips. “I like the sound of that.”
He reaches a hand toward my waist, but I whirl out of his reach. I can’t let him feel the dagger I have concealed under my dress.
“Thank you, darling,” I simper, resting my hand on his arm as he leads me inside Duke Negress’ estate.
He takes me in the entrance to the servant’s quarters. Small paintings of noblemen engaging in boar hunts and hawking line the walls. If the servant’s wing is this gaudy, I can’t imagine how assaulting the ballroom is.
When we reach the kitchen, I throw the guard a wink over my shoulder as I saunter through the door.
A dozen serving girls scramble around the large kitchen, chopping vegetables, arranging hors d’oeuvres, and whispering amongst themselves. Xenobi pokes her snout out from my mane of auburn hair, sniffing at the mouthwatering aroma of roasted quail. I push the ferrox’s nose under my hair. A tray of champagne glasses is thrust into my hands and I’m told not to drink any of them. I wouldn’t be caught dead sipping champagne like a snooty noblewoman.
I stride down the hallway behind several dozen serving girls. My eyes are dazzled by glittering chandeliers as the ballroom doors open. Noblewomen in elaborate gowns in every color imaginable glide across the ballroom floor.
I break away from the other girls and peruse the ballroom, offering up the glasses of champagne to any noble I pass. I squeeze up a smile and study each of their faces. None of these nobles are my targets tonight, but I commit them to memory, just in case.
“Nobility of Carhana, welcome to the Mid-winter Gala!”
I lift my head at the nasally voice. Duke Negress stands on an elevated platform, his hands spread wide. Xenobi churrs in my ear and I smile. “There he is, girl. Right on schedule,” I whisper.
With the duke still blustering about his greatness, I exit through one of the side doors of the ballroom. Confident no one is following me, I slip into a small closet at the end of the hallway in the servant’s quarters.
There I discard my serving wench costume for the more practical attire I’m wearing underneath. I run my hands down my sleek black leather leggings and knee-high calfskin boots, checking that all my knives are present. Then I pull on a hooded mask that conceals my face except for my eyes.
Satisfied with my outfit, I leave the closet. I sneak down the hall and grasp the third lantern on the wall. The mounting screeches as a small opening appears in the wall. I slip through and climb up a serious of ladders and support beams until I reach the rafters.
I crawl along them until I reach a position above the ballroom. Below me, lords and ladies twirl in waltzes. Duke Negress makes his way through the gala, accompanied by a few guards. One of them tastes his champagne before he drinks it. A smile parts my lips. Poison won’t be his downfall tonight.
I watch his every move as the gala drags on. After greeting all of his guests, the duke exits the ballroom at the north end. I follow from the rafters. He walks between four bodyguards, protected from all sides except from above. I flick my wrist, readying two throwing knives against my palm.
“Sir.” Two guards stop in front of the duke, holding a struggling young woman between them. “We caught this wench stealing your wife’s necklace.”
Duke Negress’ eyes burn with fury. “Kill her.”
The girl’s eyes widen. “Please,” she squeaks, falling to her knees, “have mercy!”
“Mercy? Then perhaps I shall allow my men to enjoy you before I end your pathetic life.”
The guards leer at her. Tears stream down the girl’s cheeks as she cries. I swallow hard. The girl’s screams tear at my heart. I have been in her place once. But if I fail to assassinate the duke, I will lose my one chance to gain my freedom. Viper isn’t one for second chances.
The bigger guard tightens his grip on the girl’s arm, grinning. “I haven’t had a pretty little thing like you in a long time.” He grabs a handful of her blonde hair, yanking her to her feet.
Anger burns through my veins at his words. My eyes dart between the duke and the girl. I cannot hope to take out the guards surrounding the girl and Duke Negress at the same time. I have to choose. Sweat moistens my palms.
My knives whistle through the air, their deadly tips burying into the necks of the guards holding the girl. They slump to the floor, lifeless.
“Up there!” shouts a bodyguard.
“Dragon dung,” I growl.
Xenobi springs from my neck and dashes across the rafters. One of her black paws slips and she falls.
“Xenobi!” I reach for her, but my fingers close around air.
The ferrox lands on her paws, her body enlarging until she’s the size of a fox. The guards surround her and she hisses. I swing down from the rafters. I’m not about to leave my best friend to die.
A body slams me to the floor as soon as I land. Stars dance behind my eyes. The girl freezes and screams.
“Get outta here, you moron!” I yell.
I hear her soft footsteps as she flees. The guards don’t follow the little thief. I am the bigger prize now. Xenobi hisses and snarls beside me.
“Run, girl,” I whisper.
The ferrox lets out a questioning churr.
“Make sure the girl gets outta here. Come back for me later.”
She reluctantly dashes from my side, disappearing into the shadows as she shrinks down to ferret size.
“Bring the assassin to me,” Duke Negress says.
“Yes, sir.” The guard hauls me to my feet and yanks my hands behind my back.
Duke Negress sneers, disfiguring his already ugly face. “Let’s unmask the fool that dares to kill me at my own party.” He rips the hooded mask off my head. Auburn hair spills down my back and shoulders.
“You’re a woman?” he splutters.
I snort. “No, I’m a dragon. Didn’t you see me breathing fire?”
“Take that brazen harlot to my office for questioning at once!” the duke snarls. “I want to know who she’s working for and how she got into my gala.”
“Yes, sir.” The guard binds my wrists and shoves me forward.
I twist in his grip, kicking him in the gut. He stumbles backward with a grunt. I lift my left leg into the air, snatching between my teeth a tiny dagger hidden in my boot. I whip my head around, slashing one of the guards across the shoulder.
“Don’t let her escape!” cries Duke Negress.
I clench my teeth around the dagger, eyes darting around the room. Three guards charge me from the left. Two move toward me from behind. I spin to the right. The guards collide with each other. I pivot on my right foot and lunge for the duke. Perhaps I can still complete my mission.
Pain stabs through my thigh and curses spew from my mouth. The dagger falls from between my teeth and I stumble to my knees. An arrow sticks out from my leg, crimson blood staining my pants. Dragon dung. I didn’t see the archer on the balcony.
Two guards grab my shoulders and a third clouts me in the side of the head. Pain radiates through my skull and my vision begins to fade. One final thought runs through my mind as everything goes black.
Viper’s gonna kill me.