Dawn Study by Maria V Snyder

Chapter One

YELENA

I ghosted through the quiet Citadel streets well after curfew. Dressed in black from head to toe, I stayed in the shadows to avoid detection and lamented the necessity of having to skulk about like a criminal. The row of Councilors’ houses appeared to be deserted—we’d received intel that the Cartel had “relocated” the Sitian Council for their safety. Not trusting the darkened windows or the info that the houses were empty, I looped around to the back alley and waited. No signs of movement. Were the houses vacant, or did a professional ambush wait inside?

If I still had my magic, there would be no need to guess. But the baby in my belly was blocking my powers—or, at least, that was the current theory. My pulse skittered with the thought of the baby. Valek’s request that I be very careful echoed in my mind. I drew in a breath to steady my heart as I approached Councilor Bavol Zaltana’s home, located in the middle of the row.

Without the light from the street lanterns, the darkness pressed around me. A cool night breeze diluted the stink of garbage left too long in the sun. I knelt by the back door and felt for the keyhole, then inserted my tension wrench and diamond pick. Lifting the pins into alignment, I twisted the tumbler and the door swung open into the kitchen that during my previous visits had been filled with heat and light and the scent of jungle spices. Instead, a cold, quiet mustiness greeted me.

I tucked my tools away and stepped inside and to the right. Standing in the threshold, I would have been an easy target. I sniffed the air for any hint of perfume, cologne or shaving cream, or anything that would indicate another person or persons crouched in the shadows.

Only the dry scent of dust filled my nose.

That ruled out the amateurs, but I knew The Mosquito remained a threat and wouldn’t make such a rookie mistake. He’d been paid to assassinate me, and he would hunt me until he finished the job. No surprise that Valek wasn’t happy about this mission, but due to our limited resources, personnel and time, he’d conceded the need to send me here while he searched Bavol’s office in the Council Hall. Since Bruns Jewelrose and his Cartel had moved into the hall, Valek had the far more dangerous task.

We both sought any information on how Bruns’s Cartel had been able to procure enough Theobroma to lace the food at the Council Hall, the Magician’s Keep and four military garrisons. Their magicians then used magic to turn all those who consumed the sweet treat into compliant and obedient members of the Cartel.

When no obvious dangers materialized, I walked through the house, checking every corner for intruders, including the ceiling. All clear. Breathing became easier as I drew the curtains tight before concentrating on my task. Lighting a small lantern, I started in Bavol’s home office, looking in his desk drawers.

Bavol had been given the assignment of determining a way to mass-produce Theobroma for the Sitian military. Once the Council learned that the Commander had barrels of Curare, they’d panicked. Curare was an effective nonlethal weapon, causing full-body paralysis. The substance that counteracted Curare was Theobroma, which wasn’t ideal due to it rendering a person vulnerable to magic, but it was better than being paralyzed. The other problem, however, was that it only grew in the Illiais Jungle, and at a very slow rate.

Or so everyone thought.

Bruns and Owen Moon had managed to increase not only the quantity but also the growth rate, using glass hothouses and grafting techniques. But just how had they learned this technique remained a mystery.

Finished with the drawers, I moved on to Bavol’s cabinet. A couple of the files included diagrams of plants, and I stacked them next to me. The last time we visited Bavol, he’d acted...odd. Leif’s magic picked up a strange vibe from him, but we hadn’t pressed the issue. Now, with Bavol “housed” at the Greenblade garrison and unreachable, I hoped any information we found would help us determine not only where Bruns had procured the Theobroma but also how.

I collected a nice-size pile, but spent a few minutes checking the living area and his bedroom, too, just in case he had hidden files elsewhere.

Satisfied that I’d covered all possible locations, I grabbed the stack and slipped out the back door, relocking it behind me. I waited for my eyes to adjust to the darkness as the air cooled my sweaty skin. I’d left my cloak back at HQ. It was the middle of the warm season. The night air remained a reasonable temperature a little longer each evening. And since I was three and a half months pregnant, I stayed warmer as well.

An extra-deep pool of black appeared next to me. Instinctively I dodged to the side as metal flashed, and a sharp coldness nicked the left side of my neck before striking the door behind me. I dove to the right and hit the ground with a thud. The blackness cursed and followed me. I hissed as a blade seared a path along my left bicep. I kept rolling deeper into the darkness—my only defensive play at this point. Fear pulsed, urging me to hurry.

A narrow beam of yellow light sliced through the darkness. My attacker had come prepared. Lovely. The light swept the ground, searching and then finding me. Caught in the beam long enough to be a target, I somersaulted to my feet as the thwack of a crossbow sounded. Debris pelted me when the bolt ricocheted off the ground nearby. Too close. My heart jumped in my chest. Another bolt clipped my right side, the pain a mere nuisance in the grander scheme of things.

I raced for the end of the alley, zigzagging as much as possible and hoping with all my soul that a second ambusher didn’t wait for me at the end. A third bolt sailed past. I shot from the alley and increased my pace, no longer caring about staying in the shadows. Glancing behind, I spotted a black-clad figure aiming a crossbow in my direction. Ice skittered down my sweat-soaked back. I changed course, spinning to the left just as the bolt whizzed by my ear. The air from its passage fanned my face. Not stopping to marvel at either my good luck or his lousy aim, I dove for the shadows and ran.

Hours later—or so it seemed to my starved lungs—I slowed and ducked into a dark shadow. Bending over, I gasped for breath. So much for staying in shape. Although running for your life wasn’t exactly something you could train for. Plus I’d gained a few baby pounds. The thought sent a new spike of fear right through me. I ran my fingers along the gash on my side, seeking its depth. I sighed with relief—only a flesh wound. Then I remembered my other injuries, and they flared to painful life. The one on my neck was also shallow, but the cut on my arm would need to be sealed. I sagged against the building for a moment. Not only my life but also the baby’s had been in danger.

Once I recovered, I realized I still clutched the files from Bavol’s office. I would have laughed, but the sound might have attracted the wrong attention. Dozens more soldiers had been patrolling the streets since the Cartel declared martial law and set a curfew. To avoid them, I took the most roundabout path back to HQ, ensuring no one followed me. By the time I tapped on the hidden door, the first rays of dawn lit the white marble of the Citadel.

Hilly, one of the Helper’s Guild members, let me in. She raised an eyebrow at my disheveled and bloody appearance.

“I ran into a bit of trouble,” I said.

She quirked a smile. “Not as much as when Valek returns.”

Oh no. “Did he...”

“Yep. He stopped in about an hour ago, but when he heard you hadn’t returned, he took off to look for you.”

I wilted.

Hilly took pity on me. “Come on. We’ll wake the healer and get you cleaned up before he comes back.”

I followed her through HQ. Since the building Fisk had once used to house his Helper’s Guild had been seized by the Cartel, he’d found another empty structure tucked almost out of sight in the northwest quadrant of the Citadel to use as a temporary base of operations. Now his people helped us in our efforts to stop the Cartel from taking complete control of Sitia. The so-called resistance.

Sleeping barracks occupied most of the lower level. The members of the guild spanned in age from six years old to eighteen. The kids didn’t mind the close quarters, and some happily shared a bed. The extra-large kitchen took up the rest of the level. The two upper floors contained Fisk’s room and office, a small suite for Valek and me, and a number of guest rooms for our growing army. Our farmhouse in the Stormdance lands had been a useful place to plan and recuperate during the last month, but we’d quickly learned that we needed to be closer to Bruns.

The healer was a sixteen-year-old boy named Chale who’d recently developed magical powers. Since all the magicians at the Magician’s Keep had been conscripted and sent to the Cartel’s garrisons, there had been no one to teach him how to use his power—except me and Valek. Even though I lost my powers over three months ago, I hadn’t forgotten my lessons from the Keep. Valek, on the other hand, had freed his power only recently and almost flamed out, killing us all. Now he was reluctant to use it until he learned how to fully control his powers. Not an ideal situation, but we tried.

I sat at the kitchen table in my undershirt as Chale cleaned my wounds. The gawky teen was all thumbs. He peered through a riot of black hair that my fingers itched to trim. As I suspected, the cut on my biceps needed more than just a bandage. At least talking Chale through the steps needed to heal it with his magic distracted me from the pain. As long as he didn’t touch me skin to skin, he could use threads from the power blanket to stitch the cut closed.

“I have to keep pulling power to knit the skin together,” Chale said with concern. “Something is tugging it away. Is that normal?”

“No. I think what is draining your power is what is blocking mine. At least, I hope that’s the case.”

“Is it the baby?”

I stared at him. Not many people knew.

He blushed. “Sorry, I just—”

“No, don’t apologize. You’re a healer. Sensing the baby is a part of your powers.”

“It’s healthy, if that helps?”

“It does,” Valek said from the doorway. He still wore his black skintight sneak suit, which highlighted his long, lean and powerful muscles. “Can you say the same about my wife?”

A dangerous glint lit his sapphire-blue eyes, but Chale failed to notice.

“Of course. It’s just a couple scrapes.” Chale’s light tone downplayed my injuries nicely—perhaps he’d noticed more than he let on. “We’re almost finished.”

“Good,” Valek said, but his gaze seared into mine.

And though his angular face revealed none of his thoughts, I knew he suppressed a whole gamut of emotions. In a few graceful, almost predatory strides, he was by my side. He laced his fingers in mine as Chale completed his work. Bandages were fine for the shallow cuts. I didn’t want Chale to exhaust his power on the minor abrasions—one of the guild members might need him tonight.

Valek let go of my hand as I shrugged on my torn and bloody tunic. He studied the garment without comment—another dangerous sign. But by this time, the kitchen bustled with the morning crew, and soon piping-hot sweet cakes were set in front of us. My stomach roared with sudden hunger, and even Valek wasn’t brave enough to get between a pregnant woman and food.

Only after I stuffed myself did he reclaim my hand and tug me to my feet.

“Upstairs,” he said.

Feeling much better with a full stomach, I trailed after him as we ascended the stairs to the third level and into our rooms. Valek closed the door and I braced for his lecture. Instead, he wrapped his arms around me and pulled me close. I rested my head on his chest and listened to his heart beating, soaking in his warmth, breathing in his musky scent, feeling safe. At six feet tall, he was eight inches taller than me.

I’d known Valek for almost nine years, and the only thing that scared him was the threat of losing me. “What happened?” I asked.

He leaned back and lightly brushed the bandage on my neck with his thumb. “I found out The Mosquito is in town.”

Ah.

“Did he attack you?” he asked.

“It was too dark to see, but the first strike was aimed at my throat.” The Mosquito’s signature way to kill was to stab an ice pick into his victims’ jugulars and let them bleed to death. Nice guy.

“Tell me what happened.”

I detailed the attack and the reason it took me so long to return. “But I managed to hold on to the files. Did you learn anything else while you were in the Council Hall?”

“I grabbed a few promising files from Bavol’s office, but I’m more concerned about what I overheard Bruns and his sycophants discussing in the hallway.”

I stepped back in alarm. “You weren’t supposed—”

“They didn’t know I was there. Besides, the information was worth the danger.”

“About The Mosquito?”

“Yes. That, and Bruns knows you’re in the Citadel. He’s offered a large bounty to the person who kills you.”

No surprise. “How much?”

“Yelena, that’s not the point.”

“It’s not the first time someone’s put a price on my head.” Master Magician Roze Featherstone had offered five golds as a reward for my capture when she tried to take over the Sitian Council seven years ago.

“This time is different. You’re...”

I waited.

“Vulnerable without your magic. And it’s no longer all business with Bruns. He took Ben’s and Loris’s deaths and our escape from the Krystal garrison personally. You need to go back to the farmhouse in the Stormdance lands. You’ll be safer there.”

“And what about you?” I asked. “As you said, our escape. Did he set a bounty for you, as well?”

“No.”

“How do you know?”

Valek paced the room. I crossed my arms to keep his lingering warmth close. Plus, judging by the agitation in his steps, I sensed he was working up the nerve to deliver more bad news.

He stopped. “Bruns has offered fifty golds to the person who kills you.”

That was a fortune. I whistled, and he shot me a glare. “You didn’t answer my question,” I said.

Another scowl, and then his shoulders drooped as if in defeat. “Bruns has been in contact with Commander Ambrose, and...” Valek paused. “The Commander has agreed to send Onora to assassinate me.”

Chapter Two

VALEK

Yelena’s mouth opened slightly in surprise, and concern flashed in her green eyes over the news. But Valek had expected something like this. If he focused on the logic, the move made perfect tactical sense. The Commander had warned Valek that leaving Ixia would be an act of treason. And acts of treason, no matter what the reason, were punishable by death. Plus, he now had magic, of all things. He’d inadvertently traded his immunity to magic for the power to wield it. And the Commander had a standing execution order on all magicians found in Ixia.

Except he and the Commander had been close friends, and he was unaware of Valek’s magic—only a handful of people knew. He’d hoped the Commander would give him the benefit of doubt and not send an assassin after him.

Yelena put her hand on his arm. “He’s being influenced by Owen’s magic.”

“We don’t know that for sure.” There had been a few inconsistencies, like when the Commander had tried to protect Valek from Owen by sending him to the coast to deal with the Storm Thieves. He was also supposed to be protected from Owen’s subversion by the null shields that Leif had woven into his uniforms, but the Commander could have lied to Valek about wearing them.

“He has to be,” she said.

He pressed his hand over hers and enjoyed not only her touch but the respite from the constant presence of his magic. With his mental shield in place, it wasn’t as bad, but contact with her turned it all off, and he returned to the man he’d been for the last forty-one years of his life.

“Are you worried about Onora?” she asked.

Was he? They had sparred a number of times, and each time he had defeated her. But perhaps she planned to ambush him. “No. She’s the best to come along in the last twenty-four years, but unless she catches me off guard, I don’t expect her to cause me any trouble.”

“And you’re never relaxed,” she teased.

“I am when I’m with you, love.” He picked up her hand and kissed her palm.

“Really? And those knives under our pillows, the swords on the floor, the darts in the headboard?”

“I said relaxed, not stupid. Being prepared is never a bad idea.”

“No.” Her gaze grew distant as she rubbed her side.

Probably remembering The Mosquito’s attack. While Valek was proud she was able to get away, he planned to ensure that would be the assassin’s last attempt on her life.

“Speaking of being prepared,” he said, “you need to leave the Citadel until I’ve taken care of any bounty hunters coming after you. Either go to the Stormdance farmhouse, or travel to the Illiais Jungle to visit your mother. Both are safer than here.”

She gave him a tight smile. “Nice try, handsome, but I’m not going anywhere. At least not until Leif and Mara return from Broken Bridge with my father, and we’ve looked over the information from Bavol’s.”

“At least promise me you’ll stay in HQ until they arrive.” He leaned close and kissed her neck, then whispered, “Do it for your handsome husband.”

Laughing, she said, “I promise to stay in bed for the rest of the morning as long as you stay with me. After that...no promises.”

“What if I give you a very good reason to stay in bed until I squash The Mosquito?”

She drew back, and desire burned in her gaze. “What’s the reason?”

“Me taking care of you until you’re out of breath and a puddle in my hands. A service I’ll be happy to perform anytime during your...bed rest.” He nibbled on her earlobe.

“Oh, my. Someone certainly has a high opinion of himself,” she teased.

“Is that a challenge?”

“Oh, yes! Show me what you can do, and I’ll consider your request.”

He grinned. “Accepted.”

Not giving her time to reply, Valek pulled her to their bedroom and made short work of her clothing. A few bloody scrapes marked her back and a number of bruises peppered her arms. Valek suppressed his fury with the knowledge that The Mosquito would soon be crushed.

Valek scooped her up and laid her on the bed, then kissed her for a long moment. She plucked at his clothing, and he grabbed her hands. “This is for you, love.”

“Exactly. Now strip.”

He peeled off the tight garment, but his gaze never left her. Once divested of his clothing, he joined her on the bed. He trailed kisses down her neck. Valek had been convinced he’d lost her when she hadn’t returned from her mission, and he planned to savor this time with her as if it were the last. His efforts left her gasping, and he gave her three very good reasons to stay in bed.

She stretched like a cat and curled up next to him. Yelena met his gaze. “You’re really worried about the bounty on me?”

Valek traced the recently healed cut along her side with a finger. Purple bruises ringed the bright red line. “I know you can handle an assassin.” He quirked a smile. “Or two, but with fifty golds at stake...a gang of wannabe bounty hunters could come after you together and split the money.”

“All right, I’ll stay in HQ until you’ve dealt with The Mosquito,” she promised.

A weight lifted from his shoulders. He pulled her close. She snuggled against him and fell asleep almost immediately. He smoothed her long black hair back from her beautiful oval face. The knowledge that he’d do anything to keep her and the baby safe comforted him, since it required no thinking, no weighing the consequences of his actions and no hesitation.

Valek had once felt the same uncomplicated feelings for the Commander, but not anymore. Even if the Commander’s behavior had been caused by Owen’s magical hold on him, Valek could no longer return to that place of blind loyalty. His new magic complicated everything, of course. However, that would just be an excuse. No. Yelena meant more to him than his own life and happiness, and much more than the Commander’s.

* * *

Valek woke a few hours later and slid from the bed without waking his wife. An automatic smile still spread over his lips every time he thought of Yelena as his wife. Not many people knew of their marriage, and even fewer were aware of the baby, but the fact that they had exchanged vows continued to thrill him, as if he’d won the biggest tournament in the entire world.

Going down one level, Valek stopped in Fisk’s office. The stark room contained a desk, a couple chairs and a table. The young leader of the Helper’s Guild bent over his desk. The fingers of his right hand ran through his light brown hair, leaving behind rows of spikes, while his left clutched a stylus. He frowned at a sheet of parchment spread over the desk.

Valek tapped on the open door, and Fisk glanced up. Dark smudges marked his light brown eyes. The poor boy appeared years older than seventeen.

“When’s the last time you slept?” Valek asked.

Fisk blinked at him. “Sleep? What’s that?”

“Not funny.”

Fisk dropped the stylus and rubbed his face. “Wish I was joking.”

“Bring me up to date, and then take a break.”

“But—”

“It’s not a request. Exhaustion will only lead to fatal mistakes. I’ll collect the information from your guild while you rest.”

He grinned. “Half of them are terrified of you and won’t report.”

“Then they can wait until you’re awake. What’s the latest intel?”

Fisk filled him in. “We think Hans Cloud Mist is a member of the Cartel. He’s been spotted at the Moon garrison twice, and we’ve confirmed Danae Bloodgood and Toki Krystal as members.”

Valek considered this for a moment. They were all influential businesspeople who thought their accumulated wealth and business acumen meant they could do a better job of running Sitia than the appointed Councilors. “I’m beginning to suspect there are eleven members, one for each clan, with Bruns designated as their leader,” he mused.

“Sounds like something they’d do to justify their actions.”

Interesting comment. “What do you mean?”

Fisk leaned back and spread his arms. “They decided that the Sitian Council was not doing a proper job of keeping Sitia safe from the Commander. Plus the Council also failed to rein in the Sitian magicians, letting them go about their business willy-nilly.”

“Willy-nilly?”

“Yeah, you know.” Waving his hands, Fisk elaborated, “Selling null shields to anyone, using their magic for selfish reasons. I think the Cartel feels they can do better than the Councilors, but they still honor the structure the clans have established long ago. So they’re not really usurping the Council—just replacing them.”

“And that helps them sleep better at night?”

“Exactly.” Fisk rubbed the stubble on his chin. “Why is identifying the other members of the Cartel so important when Bruns has brainwashed them along with everyone else? They’ve no clue that Bruns is collaborating with Owen and the Commander.”

“You tell me.”

He huffed. “I don’t know, because in order to stop the Sitian takeover, all we have to do is stop Bruns, Owen Moon and the Commander.”

Valek suppressed a smile at the “all we have to do” comment. If only it were that easy. “Why are these people members of the Cartel?”

Fisk shot him a sour expression. “Okay, I’ll play. They’re rich and powerful. Which is why the Cartel has been so successful in getting resources and converting the garrisons—Oh!”

Valek waited as Fisk followed the logic.

“So we identify them all and wake them up to what’s really going on, so they can use that influence and power to help us instead of Bruns.”

Smart boy. “Or we assassinate them all and take them out of the equation. The added benefit is that we scare their support staff.”

Instead of a knee-jerk reaction to the thought of killing ten people, Fisk paused to consider it. “Yelena would never allow that. She doesn’t want any of the brainwashed to be killed. Besides, I think they’d be more useful alive than dead.”

“And that is why we need to know their identities.”

Fisk yawned. “We’re getting reports back from the garrisons and will soon have a complete list of personnel at each one.”

“Good. I need your people to locate a bug for me.”

“The Mosquito?” He straightened in his chair, looking more awake.

“Yes.”

“Where?”

“Here in the Citadel.”

“Ah, hell. Is that why Yelena needed...” He stopped. “Won’t he be with Bruns?”

“From what I heard last night, either he’s been fired, or Bruns thinks the competition will compel him to finish the job.” Valek told Fisk about the bounty.

“She has to leave now and go some—”

“I already tried that. Best I could do was get her to promise to stay at HQ until I’ve dealt with The Mosquito.” In other words, once Valek plunged his knife in The Mosquito’s heart and scared all the others away.

“That’s some relief.” Fisk ran both his hands through his hair. “But the Citadel will be overrun with assassins, and it’s gonna be hard to find the bug. He’s smart, and my people aren’t as effective in the Citadel. Rumors that they’re doing more than helping carry packages for shoppers are spreading. Before, everyone ignored my kids, thinking them harmless and stupid. Now...”

“Just tell them to keep an eye out for him. I only need a general vicinity.”

“All right. And now that Yelena is under house arrest, so to speak, she can take over collecting the information from my people, since they trust her, and I can do a bit of reconnaissance on my own.” Fisk paused. “Are you sure she’s going to be happy hanging around here all day?”

“Don’t worry. I’ll keep her happy.”

Fisk shot him a dubious look before heading to bed. Valek settled behind the desk and studied the map Fisk had been marking. The other Sitian garrisons were highlighted. Members of the Helper’s Guild had infiltrated them all. Since the Cartel controlled the Citadel and the Moon, Krystal, Featherstone and Greenblade garrisons, they’d put the military soldiers in charge of all the civilian security forces in those lands. Rumors that the Cloud Mist base was also compromised hadn’t been substantiated yet.

The garrisons farther south still hadn’t been indoctrinated, and Valek had agents working in the kitchens to ensure they remained uninvolved long enough for Valek to recruit them to their side. The agent in the Jewelrose garrison hadn’t reported in weeks, and Valek suspected the man had been captured or converted. Heli the Stormdancer was keeping an eye on the base in the Stormdance lands, but the storm season would start at the beginning of the heating season, and he’d need to find another agent then.

Ari and Janco had been assigned to the Greenblade base to keep an eye on the Sitian Councilors and First Magician Bain Bloodgood. Eventually, they would need to be rescued. Meanwhile, his sister Zohav and his brother Zethan—a concept that still amazed him—worked on exploring the extent of their powers with Teegan and Kade on the Stormdance coast. They were safe for now.

Valek reviewed his to-do list—identify the Cartel members, find and cut off the source of the Theobroma, rescue the Councilors, recruit the southern garrisons and free the magicians in the other garrisons. Oh, and find some time to rescue the Commander. Knowing what he needed to do was the easy part. Too bad he didn’t quite know how these tasks would be accomplished, with only Fisk’s Helper’s Guild and ten others to help. They needed more bodies. More allies. Yelena wished to recruit Cahil, believing the man might be smart enough to see the truth. Valek hoped she was right. Then there were Devlen, Opal and her soldier friends, Nic and Eve. As long as Reema was safe, they might be willing to help. Perhaps when Leif, Mara and Esau returned, he’d send another messenger to Fulgor, the capital of the Moon Clan’s lands and ask.

Leif and Mara had left ten days ago to collect Esau and the plants in the glass hothouse near Broken Bridge. They should be at the farmstead where Leif had left his father by now. However, the return trip to the Citadel would take them twice as long since they’d be pulling a wagon.

* * *

Fisk’s people honed in on a potential location for The Mosquito three days later and provided him with a current description. Valek had been collecting information in the Council Hall in the evenings, much to Yelena’s annoyance at the risk he took while she was stuck at HQ. He refused to feel bad. In fact, knowing she was safe after learning Bruns’s plans kept him from being overwhelmed with all that had to be done. Plus, when he returned each morning, he woke her with more reasons to stay safe.

“You’re going after him,” Yelena said. It wasn’t a question.

She watched him as he dressed in nondescript Sitian clothing—a gray tunic and charcoal-colored pants—and tucked a number of weapons into the various pockets and hidden holders.

“If you kill him, does that mean I’m no longer under house arrest?”

“Technically, yes. But there’s still the bounty,” he said.

“What if he kills you?”

“He won’t.”

“Cocky bastard.”

Valek pulled her close and kissed her. “He won’t, love.”

She melted against him. “I feel so useless.”

“Don’t. The kids love you, and Fisk is getting better intel by being out in the Citadel.”

She managed a half smile. “You’re right.”

“I’m going to put on quite the show today and attract lots of attention and scare the other bounty hunters off for a while, so if you really can’t stand being inside and want to get some fresh air this afternoon, it should be a little safer.”

Yelena’s face lit up.

“I’d rather you didn’t, but if you do, please don’t go far or alone. All right?”

“Yes.” She hugged him tight.

He nuzzled her neck.

“Tell The Mosquito to enjoy the fire world for me,” she said.

“It will be my pleasure.”

Once outside, Valek moved through the busy market with ease. He spotted a number of Fisk’s guild members working the crowd and darting between shoppers. The market was located at the very center of the Citadel. Factories and businesses ringed it in ever-widening circles and occupied the two center sections of the Citadel. The Magician’s Keep encompassed the northeast quadrant, and the Sitian Council Hall and other government buildings were located in the southeast corner. The Citadel’s citizens lived in the labyrinth of homes in the northwest and southwest quadrants.

A few of the abandoned warehouses and factories had been converted into apartments, and according to Fisk, The Mosquito lived on the top floor of one of them. Normally Valek would attack at night, but The Mosquito knew that trick and would be ready.

As he crossed the market, Valek noted three people taking an unhealthy interest in him and sensed another, but was unable to locate the fourth—a professional. He considered his options. Lead the three on a merry chase to an unfortunate dead end, or lose them?

When he spotted The Mosquito standing near the entrance to an alley, Valek recognized the setup. Those three worked for the bug. Like a pack of sheep dogs, their job was to herd him toward that alley, where Valek’s prey would conveniently dangle like bait on a hook. Then the bait would slip down the alley and draw Valek right into an ambush. Classic.

He judged his odds. The Mosquito plus three—doable with darts, but just how many waited? A brief thought of using his magic to sense the others flashed before he dismissed it. Too many people around. Even though Teegan had taught him to control his magic in order to prevent a flameout back at the Stormdancers’ safe house, he was reluctant to use it. According to Teegan, his mental barrier was strong enough that he didn’t need to wear a null shield. Besides, he liked being able to detect when magic was in use around him.

Instead of using magic, he decided to take the high ground. Valek returned to the heart of the market and lost his sheepdogs, then cut down the street next to The Mosquito’s chosen alley. When no one appeared to take an interest in him, he climbed the nearest building and reached the top.

When he straightened, he spotted The Mosquito waiting on the roof two buildings down on his left. Fisk did say the man was smart. So how did Yelena get away from him with only a few cuts?

It occurred to Valek that perhaps Yelena wasn’t his target.

Valek drew both his daggers and faced The Mosquito as he lightly hopped buildings.

The Mosquito halted six feet in front of Valek. “Please tell me you really didn’t think I’d set up such an obvious trap for you.”

“You took a contract to kill Yelena. That makes me question the level of your intelligence.”

“Fair enough.” He swept a hand out.

Sensing movement behind him, Valek angled his body to keep the bug in sight while he glanced back. Four black-clad figures stood up from where they’d been lying on the right side of the rooftop. Nice.

“What about now?” The Mosquito asked.

“It depends on who you brought for backup.”

“Well, this is Sitia. Not a ton of trained killers here. But there are plenty of magicians. Four might be excessive, but...” He shrugged. “I’d rather too many than not enough.”

Ah. Smart move. Around Valek, the presence of magic disappeared suddenly. The magicians must have surrounded him with a null shield. Valek dropped his arms to his sides, as if an invisible hand had wrapped around his torso. When he’d been immune to magic, a null shield could immobilize him like a rat stuck between the jaws of a trap. Now...not at all. However, he didn’t want the bug to learn this fact until the perfect moment.

“Now I’m questioning your intelligence, Valek. Why would you come after me alone when everyone knows how easy it is to trap the infamous assassin?”

“Who says I’m alone?”

The Mosquito opened his mouth, but snapped it closed as his gaze slid past Valek’s shoulders. Four thuds sounded behind him. The presence Valek had sensed in the market stood among the prone forms. As usual, Onora was barefoot.

“You do realize she wants the same thing I do,” The Mosquito said.

Valek rolled his shoulders as if he’d been released from the pressure of a null shield. “I do,” he said. “But she’ll wait her turn. Right, Onora?”

“You can play with your bug first,” she said.

Valek didn’t hesitate. He flipped his dagger and flung it at The Mosquito’s chest with all his strength. Shock whitened the man’s face as the blade pierced bone and buried deep into his heart. The force slammed The Mosquito to the ground.

Shuffling close, Valek crouched beside the assassin. Valek met the bug’s horrified gaze. “I’m sorry we didn’t have a proper match, but I need to save my energy for the next fight.”

For Onora to show up in broad daylight meant it was going to take all his skills to defeat her. If he even could. She must have downplayed her abilities when sparring with him before. “Oh, and Yelena says enjoy the fire world.”

Valek yanked his knife from The Mosquito’s chest and stood to face Onora.


We hope you enjoyed this sample of Dawn Study by Maria V Snyder!

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