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It was the way she looked at James that caught his attention. The young woman didn’t avoid his eyes like the serving lasses who hurried away after handing him his ale. Nor did she gaze at him coyly through her lashes like a dancer hoping for extra tips. This girl met his eyes straight on, and there was a quiet confidence in the way she held herself. She must have been watching James as he ate, because she came to him as soon as he stepped away from his table. She brushed her fingertips across his elbow.

“I would speak with you,” she said, holding his gaze. The girl was tall, with auburn hair pulled back from a delicately featured face. She wore no makeup, and a loosely woven homespun dress hid her slight form from view. The skin of her hands and wrists was pale, almost translucent where they escaped her sleeves. She turned and walked away.

Despite her plain attire, the girl was attractive, and her request intriguing. James followed, though he did look back to make sure all was well at his table. Rand and Bacchus were engaged in a loud debate over which tavern had the best lamb stew. They hadn’t yet noticed the girl.

She weaved gracefully between drunken revelers to a corridor that opened off the tavern’s cask-lined back wall. The Scorned Maiden had filled up by now with after-supper patrons, and heat from the crowd made the air damp and heavy. James followed her halfway down the corridor’s length—far enough for them to be hidden in shadow but still within earshot of his companions. Then he stopped.

“We speak here,” he said. Years in the Guild had taught him to take precautions.

She hesitated, glancing down the corridor in both directions. Then she slowly nodded. As she moved closer, he loosened the tie that bound one of his daggers to his arm. The knife dropped into his hand. The girl caught the glint of metal and flinched.

“Just being careful,” he said, making no effort to sound reassuring.

She pulled her gaze away from his weapon and did a respectable job of wiping any fear from her face. When she spoke, her voice was cautious but steady. “I’m not foolish enough to lead you into a trap.” Her speech lacked the rolling cadences common to Forge’s peasants, but James couldn’t place her accent.

Now that they were standing closer, he recognized her—the way she tilted her head and the graceful flow of her movements. Occasionally, her eyes caught the light from the dining room, and James saw that they were dark green. “You’re one of the dancing girls.” He hadn’t recognized her without the costume and eye paint.

“And you’re an assassin,” she said.

He took his time answering. It was no secret that he was a member of the Guild, but it wasn’t something usually announced on first meeting. “I may be.”

“I would retain your services.” Her tone was serious. She believed herself earnest, at least.

He gave a low chuckle. “Many think they would. But few have the coin, and even fewer truly have the stomach for it.”

“I have enough coin.”

“And how does a dancing lass come across so much money?” He dropped his eyes to her shapeless dress. “Unless your trade is not purely dancing.”

She flushed now, her nervousness replaced with anger. “My business is my own. Will you take my coin or not?”

It raised his opinion of her, that she didn’t meekly accept his insult. Nevertheless, he couldn’t help her. “It doesn’t work that way. I take orders from my guildleader.”

“But do you have to? I could pay you well.”

“I don’t need the trouble.”

The sounds of conversation in the dining room had died down, and James heard a talesinger’s theatrical voice projecting over the crowd. He turned to leave, and she took his arm. “You have a job tomorrow, don’t you?”

That stopped him. To know that he was in the Assassins Guild was one thing, but to know what he was doing the next day . . . “What of it?”

“If there’s anything in your quarters you’d rather keep hidden, move it somewhere else before you leave. And you may want to return early.”

He studied her face for any signs of deception. “I’ll keep that in mind.”

“And one more thing,” she said before he could turn away again.

“What?”

“The rumors are right. Your guildleader is dead.”

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