Picking the wrong pocket can get a girl in trouble…

© 2007 Lilith Saintcrow
Available Now from Samhain Publishing

First of the Steelflower Chronicles
Thief, assassin, sellsword—Kaia Steelflower is famous. Well, mostly famous, and mostly for the wrong reasons. She’s made a good life for herself, despite being kicked out of her homeland for having no magic. She’s saving up for her retirement, when she can settle down, run an inn, and leave the excitement for others.

Then she picks the wrong pocket, wakes up with a hangover, and gets far more than she bargained for. Now she has a huge, furry barbarian to look after, a princeling from her homeland to fend off, and an old debt to fulfill. And for some reason, the God-Emperor’s assassins want to kill her.

It’s never easy being an elvish sellsword, and this time it just might be fatal…

Enjoy the following excerpt for Steelflower:
“I have already told you,” Darik continued in commontongue, “where you go, I go. The palace means nothing to me. Let them have their halls and hangings. They did not lift a hand to aid me or my mother when I was young. Why should I aid them now?” He shrugged, Kshanti silk moving over his shoulders. “You interest me far more than any empty Throne.”

My throat closed. Gods. Why does he continue with this farce?

“That is truly wise of you.” Kesamine’s pale face was thoughtful in the candlelight. “But tell me, my lord prince, why do you follow the Iron Flower?” She was about to add aught else, but the look on my face must have stopped her.

Darik glanced at her, consideringly. “Do you really wish to know?” A slight smile touched his lips.

“Curiosity consumes me.” Her blue eyes glimmered through the black traced on her lids. “I have never seen a man chase Kaia for long. Her tongue is so sharp she has no need of a sword to keep them away.”

Darik shrugged. “Push your chairs back a little, then. I shall show you.”

Kesa and Jettero complied, scraping their seats back along polished wooden floor. I stayed where I was, frozen in place, staring at him. What was he thinking?

If I was truly his adai, I would know, would I not?

Without flinching, Darik held his hand out over the table. Directly over the candleflame, an arm’s length above.

A spot of warmth bloomed on my left hand. I set my jaw. His eyes locked with mine. “There is a drawback to being adai,” he said, calmly. “The adai feels the wounds of her s’tarei. Tis a reminder, not to be careless of her twin.” He moved his hand down slightly, and the warm spot in my palm grew hot.

“You cannot be serious.” My throat was shuttered, the words were a hoarse croak.

“I am.” His hand dropped. The spot on my palm became scorching hot.

I fought to keep my fingers loose and relaxed. “You would cripple your hand to seek to prove a point?”

“I will not be harmed.” His tone was intimate, as if we were the only two in the room. “My adai would not allow it.”
He dropped his palm down into the flame.

Kesa gasped and stood up, her chair squealing along the floor. Jettero let out a curse.

I found myself on my feet, leaning half over the table, my fingers around Darik’s wrist. I had shoved his hand out of the candleflame and flung it back at him before I knew what I did. My left palm throbbed, spikes of agony forcing their way up my wrist. I had not moved quickly enough.

I swept my hair back, away from the flame. Looked at Kesa, looked at Jettero. And finally, I looked at Darik, cradling his left hand in his right. His swords looked up over his shoulder, twin accusers. And his eyes—

I had expected pain, in his black eyes. Shame. Instead, I saw triumph, and a fierce pride. His face was harsh in the soft light, and his jaw was set. The full beauty of the Dragaemir was upon him, and I saw how he would look in twenty winters or so, when time settled on his bones and brought him fully into his prime.

“You see?” He lifted his left hand. There was a red patch in the middle of the palm, but no blister. Perhaps I had been fast enough after all. “My adai. Tis not in her nature to allow me to suffer.”

I shook my left hand out once, briskly, snapping my fingers. “I will not have you continue—”

“Kaia,” Kesa snapped. Her eyes sparkled, an overflow of some emotion I could not name. “Sit down. I will have no more of this at my table. You are rude.”

“Oh, Mother’s tits—” I began.

“Sit down.” Her tone brooked no disobedience.

I will face sellswords and assassins, I will duel in the ring, but I would not cause Kesamine any shame at her dinner table. I was raised better. And I value her peace.

I dropped meekly into my chair. My hand gave one last livid flare, settling to a dull ache. No real damage, merely pain. “Kesa,” I managed, weakly. “Please.” You have no idea what this will do to me, when I lose it.

“We have not had sweetmeats yet.” Her earrings jingled as she raised her chin. “Thank you for that…illuminating spectacle, Your Highness. And I do mean that. Kaia never speaks of her people.”

He shrugged. His eyes never left me. Dull anger woke in my bones.

I grow weary of being watched so closely, princeling.

Jettero took another gulp of wine. “Amazing,” he said, as Kesa drew her chair back up to the table. “If you are wounded, she feels it?”

Darik nodded. “Tis the curse of the gifts we are blessed with. Kaia’li has more than most.” He picked up his wineglass, took a sip. Calmly, as if he were at a banquet and not about to ruin my entire life.

“This is mere callousness,” I said tonelessly. “When you find your true adai I will be left to wander alone again. You should not toy with me so.”

“Kaia—” Jett began.

Jett, if you make a snide remark now, I will call you to the dueling circle. I am angry enough. “Leave it be.” I made it to my feet again, slowly, like an old woman.

Kesa stared up at me with a strange expression. Thoughtful and curious all at once, and tinted with…what? Regret? Envy?
Sometimes other races envy us. They do not know the heavy price of the twinning, or the pain when it is broken.

I did not dare meet Darik’s eyes. He had proved his point. “I will meet you on the dueling ground tomorrow, Dragaemir. Two candlemarks past dawn.”

I turned on my heel and paced across Kesa’s dining room. Silence thickened, vibrating with tension. The storm, forgotten by us all, stroked the sky with thunder and lashing rain. I could imagine ships at anchor swaying under the force of that wind. Wished I was on a ship, hauling on rigging, battening down, too busy with canvas and hemp and shouted commands to worry for anything but the next moment, and the next.

I put my hand on the doorknob. My palms were slippery. I did not fear him, did I?

No, I did not fear him. I feared what I might become in his eyes; and when he met his true adai, it would kill me to give up the dream of being a true G’mai, a daughter of my people.

A daughter of the Blessed. The girl I was before I left the borders of my land and became Kaia Steelflower.

“Do you truly wish to duel me?” Darik’s voice hit the walls like a slap. It was the second time he had raised his voice to me, and I could not feel satisfied that I had provoked him. Chair legs scraped against the wooden floor again. Had he risen? Was he prepared to come after me?

“No, I do not.” My throat felt thick, full of unshed tears. “But you leave me no choice, Tar-Amyirak Adarikaan imr-dr’Emeryn, Dragaemir-hai. You leave me no choice at all.”

With that, I escaped through the door, shutting it quietly but firmly. I had the last word.

I could not feel victorious, though. I only felt emptiness. The dream was over.

I would never be a true G’mai. Best just to end it quickly.

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