The thud of the assassins’ feet pounded in the corridor. They were searching—I knew—the instant I had hit the ground. They were questing to plunge cold steel in my ribs.

How could it have come to this?

The treacherous harlot Murthe had betrayed me! Sold me out to the dogs! I had loved her—yet she had whispered in my ear that there was a secret message lying under the flower on my master’s altar—written in his own hand. What lies! I had stooped, inhaled a whiff of the poison expelled from the witch flower. I was half way to the grave—my own fault, yes!—but perhaps not doomed yet.

The words of Nizaen, my beloved forest master, echoed dully in my mind. The breath, Raed—the breath. It can cheat death! I remembered how the virtuoso had taught me long ago. I breathed in through my thought: a fine channel of airless energy. I expelled the noxious, debilitating poison that saturated my blood and lungs and caused my mind to scream. I performed the cleansing again.

There was a brief space of illumination, which allowed my mind to push out with all its vital force. In glee, I could flex my wrist, my fingers. I whipped the dagger—a bullseye, at the weasel-swift assassin who was just padding into the doorway and was ready to hurl his sapper.

I twisted aside, in time to avoid the crunching fang-star, the assassin’s projectile that fell where my throat had been. Another rogue, scuttling in on his partner’s death shadow, edged toward me like greased ice. This was an intelligent slayer, robed, cowled, fully equipped—not falling prey to the foolish haste of my victim.

I was forced to hobble painfully to the darkest corner—a cobwebbed niche, almost upsetting Nizaen’s revered possessions on the altar. The noise disturbed my enemy. I used the diversion, scooting back to the corpse, taking the sword and stun-pouch from his body. I had proper weapons now—and a clear mission.

These were the best martial fighters of the realm—the Jinju—and trained assassins no less—but I was a deadly adversary.

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