Drum Chief Eken’s end of season party was unflinchingly raucous. The unfettered flow of date wine and the thunder’s erratic interruptions only encouraged the partygoers to an ever-greater volume. The wind puffed the sound and smell of rain through open windows and doors. A storm was coming; it was season’s end. All of Ghadid was celebrating tonight, safely indoors and away from the strong winds and violent rains. A mixture of excitement and relief pulsed beneath the too-loud conversation.
But Thana felt neither. Instead, she ground her teeth against the crowd’s onslaught, thrumming with a nervous anticipation that had nothing to do with the storm or the party. Balancing a tray of wine-filled glasses on one hand and holding a pitcher in the other, she threaded her way through the bodies, attuned only to the tone, not the content, of the words blowing past.
For this event, she’d borrowed a dull purple wrap that sucked away the warm undertones in her brown skin. It served its purpose in transforming her into just another background blur, as unexceptional as the other slaves. She’d even done her hair up in a common slave style, all tight black knots in uniform rows across her scalp.
Her gaze tracked the crowd and snagged on a figure in green conversing with one of the drum chief’s wives, his wrap cinched tight with a silver belt: her cousin Amastan. He wore his tagel higher than usual tonight, covering even his nose, but Thana would know her cousin’s build and stance anywhere.
She let out a breath of relief. He’d made it.
Not that she’d ever doubted he would. But there was always a chance, however small, that he could’ve been delayed, or worse, barred from entering the party. Then they would’ve had to scrap their plan, wasting the months of preparation and planning it’d taken to get them this close to Eken.
After all, this conveniently public spectacle afforded them their best—and only—chance to kill the drum chief.
It wasn’t personal. Not for Thana, anyway. The contract had sealed Eken’s fate. But it was personal for their employer, whose daughter the drum chief had dishonored—one among many, if the rumors were true. If Eken had been anyone but a drum chief, their employer would’ve approached the Circle for justice. But, although a drum chief wasn’t technically above the law, going the traditional route would’ve allowed Eken to turn the trial into a public spectacle and bring shame upon the girl’s whole family, while incurring little more than a small fine himself. The girl had suffered enough already.
Instead, a network of sympathetic ears had brought their employer to Kaseem, the broker of so many bloody deals, who in turn selected Amastan out of all the cousins. Only Amastan had previously demonstrated the precision and subtlety necessary to kill a drum chief. While the family’s contracts were now sanctioned—if unofficially—by the Circle, they’d still be exiled or even executed if they were caught killing one of the Circle’s own. Drum chiefs were fickle like that. Hence: months spent carefully assembling the pieces of their plan until each was exactly where it needed to be and nothing could go wrong.
Thana averted her gaze as she served the guests, only occasionally sneaking a glance to check Amastan’s progress. As she circled the room, she picked out other drum chiefs, their wraps rich and vibrant, their fingers glittering with rings. Ghadid had twelve drum chiefs for its twelve neighborhoods. Half of them were here tonight.
But one was still missing. The night was no longer new and Drum Chief Eken had yet to make an appearance at his own party. Where was he?
A sudden quiet settled on one corner of the room and oozed outward like spilled oil. Heads tracked its spread. A moment later, the crowd near Thana parted and two men passed by, one wearing a wine-red wrap and the other, bone white. The first was broad-shouldered but stout. His extravagant wrap hid most of his peculiar shape, its embroidery and hem of tiny bells pulling the gaze away from a bulging paunch. His equally lush tagel concealed his entire face but for a thin swath of dark brown skin around a pair of even darker eyes.
Thana had worked in his household for three weeks already. She would’ve known Drum Chief Eken’s wide-legged stride and shape anywhere. The other man, though, was a mystery. White was inappropriate for a celebration and Thana doubted he was in mourning. Everything about him yelled foreigner, from his loosely wrapped tagel, to his lighter, almost golden eyes and sand-pale skin. He ignored the greetings flung his way as the drum chief led him through the room, all the while trying to engage Eken himself.
Mutters nipped their heels but sputtered out when Drum Chief Eken signaled for the party to continue. The conversations started and stopped and started again, like a tired mule failing to pull its load. Thana caught snatches of worry and confusion as she resumed circling the room.
“—audacity to be seen in public with—”
“—was always saying Eken’s a shards-cursed imperialist—”
“—of the Empire doing here?”
Thana kept her expression blank even as worry tightened her chest. Rumors had circulated in the few days about the Empress’s man who had arrived along with the year’s first caravan. Who was he? And why had he come all this way from Na Tay Khet to their city on the edge of the Wastes?
Now he was here, at Eken’s party, in the company of the drum chief himself. The implications were unsettling, but they had nothing to do with her contract. Thana wouldn’t let his presence distract her.
“It’s true, then.”
The voice came from beside her. Thana smoothed over her jerk of surprise with a smile and offered the speaker a glass from her tray. A tall man stood at her elbow, thin but strong like a palm, his dark red tagel almost as loose as the foreigner’s. His eyes, though, were as dark as midnight. As he studied Thana, she realized he’d spoken to her. He raised his hand, refusing the wine.
“Sa?” prompted Thana.
The man turned his gaze back to Eken and folded his arms. “The fool has finally arrived.”
As much as she might want to, Thana couldn’t respond. Legally, the fool was her master and agreeing with the man could see her whipped. So she kept silent and moved away to fill an empty glass. When she glanced back, the tall man was gone.
Meanwhile, Eken had shed the man in white and joined his wife. Amastan greeted the drum chief and pressed his closed fist to his chest. Eken mirrored the gesture, then laughed at something Amastan said, his whole body heaving with the motion.
Keeping one eye on their exchange, Thana weaved through the crowd. She handed out glasses of wine and topped off empty ones as she went, smiling blandly at each passing thanks. Soon, her tray was half-empty. She paused long enough to rearrange the glasses.
Amastan was explaining the history of glasswork to Eken as Thana approached. She twisted the top of one of her rings beneath the tray, then offered her tray to the drum chief. Fully engrossed in Amastan’s words, Eken reached for a glass. Thana turned the fuller side toward him and, as she brought her hand back, tipped her ring over the glass that’d soon be nearest him. Fine white powder fluttered into the date wine, dissolving instantly.
With the smallest metallic clink, barely audible even to Thana, the ring’s cap settled back into place. Thana gave the drum chief her blandest smile, but he took the poisoned glass without even a glance her way. Then she continued on, offering wine to the next guest. She didn’t dare linger to see if the mark drank the poison. That was Amastan’s job.
Thana glided across the room, her thin smile belying none of the thrumming nerves beneath. This may have been her third contract with Amastan, but it was by far her most important. No one was beyond the family’s reach, but killing a drum chief wouldn’t come without consequences if they screwed up. Over two decades ago, her mother had killed a drum chief and almost ended the family. But her mother hadn’t been under contract and they were. As long as she and Amastan stayed within the confines of the contract, everything would be fine. They’d be fine.
Thana welcomed the nerves. They were a part of the work. That’s what keeps you alive, her mother had said time and time again. Nerves and anxiety were encouraged. It was the calm you had to be afraid of. Complacency got you killed.
The nerves were well-earned: in the next few moments, all their work would come to fruition. Thana had spent months living among the slaves, while Amastan had spent that time gathering facts and rumors. In the next few moments, they’d either become legends in her family’s history or cautionary tales of failure.
Copyright © 2019 by K. A. Doore