Arron didn’t believe in panicking. The threat of imminent loss brought fear, but few would dare steal from him or his team.

 

But there were some. And that knowledge, combined with the fact that his brother hadn’t yet returned, made his stomach coil.

 

Arron tugged at his collar. He and Karim waited in the shadow of the wall surrounding the Southern Esteemed City. Unimportant strangers milled beneath the limp sun, pressing through corridors hemmed by mega buildings of stone, mud, and rough steel. Shining windows on the storefronts exposed wares and delicacies for passersby to gawk at.

 

Arron leaned back. He shouldn’t appear so anxious. Karim would question his grit. Arron drew his dagger and examined its edge. The wall dug into his back, seemingly harder than before. He shifted.

 

“Trust the boy,” Karim murmured.

 

Arron straightened. “The last time I trusted Justin, he had a crossbow bolt in his shoulder and most of his blood covered the streets.”

 

“He wasn’t to blame.” Karim issued his words like a challenge, setting a grindstone against Arron’s spine.

 

“You’ll do well to remember that last time you spoke out of turn,” Arron said.

 

Karim lowered his eyes, dipping his head just enough to imply respect.

 

“We’re checking on Justin.” Arron led the way through the crowd. Karim wisely remained silent. Next time the man challenged his authority, Arron would give him scars to remember his mistake. If Karim doubted Arron, he’d endanger the team. If he ever jeopardized Justin, Arron would inflict him with more than a few wounds.

 

Arron and Karim slipped into the square. Men, maidens, and trolls meandered over the uneven stone, visiting the shops on the outskirts and pausing beside the sycamore tree in the center. Justin was nowhere in sight.

 

Arron scanned the crowd, praying he wouldn’t see the painted face of a member of the New Aris assassins. What if they had tracked them here, waited for Arron to send Justin away, and found the boy alone?

 

Arron cursed. What had he been thinking? The lad wasn’t ready.

 

Karim nudged his shoulder, nodding toward the courtyard’s center.

 

Their target, a soft-faced informant in a stretched tunic, reclined under the tree, likely waiting for some corrupt politician to bribe him for news.

 

He was out of his house, which meant he and Justin had yet to meet. Arron glanced at Karim’s weathered face. It betrayed no anxiety.

 

“Justin’s taking his time then.” Arron rolled his shoulders, mimicking Karim’s expression. “I’ll hit the target. You find Justin and ask why the blazes he was taking his time.”

 

“You want to take him in public?” Karim nodded toward the target.

 

“Are you questioning me again?”

 

Karim shook his head, muttering something under his breath. He headed toward the house where Arron had sent Justin.

 

Arron wove through the crowd in an indirect route toward his target. How should he kill him? Any attempt would attract attention.

 

No guards stood watch near the square. The commoners would recognize him when the deed was done, for they knew the name Arron. In this age, an efficient assassin was as untouchable as a king from all but his fellow tradesmen.

 

Arron slid a dagger into his palm, concealing it along his inner forearm. He strolled between two chattering fairies. Twenty feet and closing.

 

After he finished, he’d hide till the clamor subsided. Then he’d reunite with Karim, escort Justin out of the city, and beat the living blazes out of his brother for lollygagging.

 

Fifteen feet and closing.

 

Someone screamed.

 

Arron hesitated. The sound continued, a high-pitched, raw cry brimming with shock and terror. Shoppers froze, the wares they were examining forgotten in their lax grips. The crowd, including his target, turned toward the shriek.

 

Arron increased his pace.

 

A second scream, louder than the first, sent a murmur through the crowd. A woman shot out of a nearby alley.

 

Arron slowed.

 

Thu-dump. Thu-dump. Thu-dump.

 

The sound bounced off the alley’s walls. The masses held their breath, like a diver on the edge of a waterfall.

 

A lion burst into the square.

 

Arron’s heart tripped. What in the name of the mother of pearl…

 

Muscles rippled beneath a golden coat. A flaming mane that would incur the sun’s jealousy swished around its head, framing two flaxen eyes that tracked Arron’s movements.

 

It bounded toward him, claws scraping the stone.

 

He backpedaled, but lead seemed to replace his bones. The ground slipped under his feet.

 

The gang from New Aris. They must have hired a shapeshifter to slay them all.

 

The crowd melted away from the lion like snow from a red-hot blade. Arron fumbled with the blaster inside his coat. He drew it.

 

The lion pounced on him, throwing him to the ground. His blaster clattered across the stone. In that instant, Arron felt like a mouse in the talons of an eagle. His heartbeat pounded against the lion’s paw, and his ribs strained under the beast’s weight. The lion was going to tear him apart. Worse than that, it would kill Karim and Justin after he was dead.

 

He clawed at the lion’s paw, nails bending back. He shoved its legs. It must have a weakness, some fault he could use. He couldn’t let it harm Justin.

 

The lion dipped its head, whiskers brushing his cheek. Arron reached for its eyes. It growled, and he went rigged. The lion’s smoldering eyes filled his vision, its splintered ebony pupils glued to his.

 

The lion released him and loped away in a rush of air.

 

Arron gasped. The sky stretched above him, blue and clear. He snatched his blaster and launched to his feet. The lion had been replaced by fleeing humans and trolls, his target somewhere among them.

 

Where were Justin and Karim? What if the lion had slaughtered them? He imagined their bodies: Justin’s blond hair stained red with blood, and Karim’s strong limbs rent.

 

“Justin!” he shouted. He spun, searching above the heads of the rushing crowd. Makers have mercy. His brother wasn’t answering. He was dead. Arron sprinted toward the last place he’d seen him.

 

“Arron!”

 

Justin jogged toward him, pale as a ghost. His thatch of hair flopped over his eyes. “Did you get him?”

 

Arron exhaled, stumbling a little. Karim exited the opposite alley, scanning for the lion.

 

The beast hadn’t touched them.

 

The alley it had vanished into yawned like the entrance of a tomb. This was a warning. The New Aris gang wanted them to back down. To fear.

 

The lion would not spare them next time.

 

Arron tightened his grip on the blaster. He wouldn’t allow it to kill Justin and Karim. Not on his life.

 

***

 

Two Weeks Later

 

Justin cleared his throat.

 

Arron raised his head and surveyed the ballroom, probably thinking Justin wanted him to check out a threat.

 

Cheerful nobles mingled, danced, and conversed about the latest news concerning the grand counselor. The fairies gorged themselves at the pastry table, humming and twittering like a flock of happy Redkites. An overgrown lump of a troll sat in their midst and talked in a low monotone to the fairies perched on his shoulders.

 

Any of the guests could glance into the shadows, suspect the three strangers leaning against the pillars in the shade, and alert the guards.

 

If only someone would.

 

Arron settled back against the pillar.

 

“You are restless tonight,” Karim, their most recent addition to the team, said.

 

“I am not,” Justin said. Did Karim suspect him? He could never tell what he was thinking. His face was as emotional as a corpse.

 

“He wasn’t talking to you,” Arron muttered.

 

“Oh. Right.” For the love of the mother of pearl, why couldn’t he keep calm? His hands trembled. He shoved them under his arms.

 

Arron harrumphed. “You have nothing to fear.”

 

Justin shrugged. Arron had claimed the grand counselor as his target, probably because he didn’t want Justin or Karim captured or shot.

 

Justin would never let Arron get hurt, but his internal promise did little to soothe his nerves.

 

Karim stood tall, refusing to assume the casual positions of his fellow assassins. “There’s no reason to fear it.”

 

Karim hadn’t mentioned his name, but Justin still looked away. The lion had first appeared two weeks ago. Arron had barely spoken during the days afterward, completely dedicated to discovering as much as he could about shapeshifters so he’d be prepared for the lion’s return.

 

And return it did, foiling their missions again and again. Their reputation suffered. They’d never have accepted this assignment if Arron wasn’t paranoid that their failures would tempt fellow gangs to ambush them.

 

Justin rubbed his neck. They were cursed with this reckless job because of him. He was the one summoning the lion, after all.

 

But he couldn’t do it again, not tonight. If they wrecked this one, Arron was sure that the New Aris gang would attack them again. A shiver raced up his spine. Arron had never been wrong before. If Justin called the lion tonight, they’d fail. The New Aris gang would be after them.

 

Justin would be casting his brother into danger. He’d be a traitor.

 

But he’d promised he wouldn’t watch another death. If he broke his vow now, he’d never regain his bravery.

 

He must prevent them from striking tonight. It was the only way to keep his team and the grand counselor safe.

 

And his conscience sane.

 

Justin studied the scene once more, hoping a suspicious dancer or fairy would save him the trouble. The fairies were preoccupied with the food, the nobles with gossip, and the trolls with whatever shiny object currently held the attention of their dull minds.

 

“No need to dwell on this,” Arron interrupted. “If the lion shows up, I’ll protect you.” He loosened his tie. “Now, keep the noise down.” His tone indicated that the discussion was over.

 

An easy melody drifted from the band near the corner of the room, and the dancers slowed, edging closer together. A man in a dark suit mounted the platform. The hall burst into applause. The speaker began his long introduction of the grand counselor.

 

“Stations.” Arron opened a pocket on each side of his jacket. “Whereabouts.”

 

“We could still call this off. Give Jake a taste of his own medicine.” Justin’s face pricked as the blood drained out once again. He couldn’t watch another murder. He couldn’t be a coward.

 

But he couldn’t call the lion.

 

“If the lion shows up, I’ll kill him. I’ll protect you,” Arron said.

 

That’s not what I was going for. “But—”

 

Arron glared. Karim ignored the two brothers and slipped a piece of paper into Arron’s right pocket. He wandered away with a grunt. He’d be stationed near the left side of the room to intercept the guards that would rush toward the counselor.

 

“We’d be safe if we abandoned this mission.” Justin rubbed his hands together. Calling the lion would seal Arron’s death sentence. If his brother would only listen…

 

“Justin.”

 

“Maybe we should consider our paths carefully. The lion must have been a warning. A divine one. And he didn’t kill you like he could have. We have a chance to stop now while—”

 

“Justin! Why don’t you believe in me? Why are you so afraid of this lion?” Arron’s cheeks flared.

 

The speaker was reaching the end of his address.

 

Justin swallowed. If revealing his connection to the lion kept another death off his brother’s head, getting a lecture would be worth it. “I…I know him.”

 

“Know who?”

 

Justin swallowed again. “The lion. He’s my friend.” Arron’s face slacked, and Justin plunged on. “Please, we can’t go on—”

 

“You knew the lion, and you didn’t tell me who he was?” Arron’s voice dropped a whole octave.

 

“Don’t hurt him. He had mercy on you.”

 

“I don’t care who he is. If he barges in tonight, he gets a blaster between the eyes. Get to your post. Now.”

 

Justin inhaled. He removed a scrap of parchment from his pocket and rubbed it between his thumb and forefinger.

 

He wasn’t supposed to use this. Not tonight.

 

His stomach churned. Summoning the lion was as dangerous as ever, but that wasn’t the problem. Failure equaled a repeat of New Aris. Rell was killed last time. Karim, or even Arron, would be next.

 

He glanced toward the stage. The grand counselor rested in the shadows of the platform, waiting for the introduction to conclude. Brown hair like the tresses Cameron’s lady had sported cascaded over her thin shoulders.

 

Justin had seen Cameron after they’d killed her. He’d had his chance at revenge, but had spared Justin. If Cameron had pulled the trigger, Justin would never have questioned his conscience or felt sorry for Cameron’s girl, for the injustice they’d done to her.

 

The grand counselor would die by Arron’s hand. Her life for Arron’s and Karim’s. If Justin didn’t interfere, that would be the price of every target’s life from then on.

 

More applause rang out. The speaker motioned toward the shadows. The grand counselor stepped forward.

 

“Justin,” Arron hissed.

 

She was innocent. They weren’t.

 

But could he risk another New Aris? This was his brother! He drew back. He was a coward, a blasted coward.

 

But he’d regret this killing like every life they ended. Once her body was splayed across the stage, the guilt would suffocate him. He’d swear he’d never let it happen again.

 

And he’d keep his word for a while, at least until it grew dangerous. Then he’d stand by and watch another victim die. Then another, and another.

 

Unless he acted now.

 

He slipped his paper into Arron’s pocket and turned, unable to look him in the eye.

 

“Be careful, brother,” Arron said.

 

He straightened his shoulders and disappeared into the crowd, traitor, traitor, traitor echoing in his mind. No matter what he did, his conscience wouldn’t leave him alone.

 

He hoped the grand counselor would appreciate his sacrifice.

 

***

 

Arron hovered near the platform. He cursed. Justin was in league with the lion. His brother didn’t realize how unpredictable shapeshifters were. It was a wonder that the beast hadn’t betrayed Justin already.

 

Yet, the lion had given mercy where, at least in the eyes of those who kept track of right and wrong, none was required. It could have killed Arron on multiple occasions.

 

The beast must love Justin immensely to spare his brother.

 

Arron set his jaw. The lion knew he was getting in the way. Its grace would run out. Better to annihilate it first. He couldn’t risk another battle, not after what happened to Rell.

 

What almost happened to Justin.

 

The crowd erupted as the lady ascended the stage. She smiled, and Arron swore that the layers of paint caking her face flaked off with the movement. She gently waved. The people clapped, the trolls bellowed, and the fairies danced around her, throwing glitter onto her brown hair and gray dress.

 

She resembled Cameron’s girl. Perhaps that was why Justin was so keen on abandoning this mission.

 

Two guards stood near the back of the stage. Arron simply needed to jump up there, stab her, use her body as a shield against their blasters, and disappear. Though the scheme was foolhardy, it would revive their reputation.

 

As she finished her greeting, the crowd quieted.

 

Three.

 

Arron’s senses heightened. The counselor’s words slowed as the world moved at half speed.

 

Two.

 

Arron found the long knife in his jacket. After he killed her, no rival assassin group would attack them. Karim, Arron, and Justin would be immortal. Legendary.

 

No one challenged legends.

 

One.

 

Arron leapt onto the stage, raising his blade. The guards reached for their blasters. The counselor stepped back. Arron lunged.

 

A golden streak hit him and threw him off the platform. He cracked his head on the marble. The room flashed black.

 

Thu-dump.

 

Golden, furry paws pinned Arron down, and the lion’s thick mane whispered around his face. Its eyes once again locked onto his. He desperately grappled for his dagger, expecting the claws to puncture his chest.

 

But the lion sprang onto the stage and nudged the counselor into motion. The guards lifted their blasters, one aimed at the lion, one at Arron.

 

The lion roared and plowed them both down. One blaster skittered across the floor toward Arron.

 

Everyone screamed and ran. The ground shook as a troll thundered past, fairies still clinging to its shoulders. In a distant tower, a bell clanged.

 

Once the alarm sounded, they vanished. That was their rule. Karim and Justin would flee their posts, as should he.

 

The blaster lay two feet away, candlelight glinting off its metal frame.

 

The lion prodded the counselor down the stairs and toward her guards, occasionally glancing back at Arron.

 

He could end this, here and now. Dodging the revelers, he grabbed the blaster and scrambled onto the stage. Blood roared through his ears. The blaster whined as it charged.

 

The lion flattened its ears and knocked the counselor to the ground, covering her. It should be retreating or retaliating, but instead it gazed at Arron with those blasted, blazing eyes.

 

Arron would apologize to Justin later. He pulled the trigger.

 

The lion crumpled, smoke curling out of a burnt hole between its eyes.

 

Ice coated Arron’s skin and he lowered the gun. The guards reached the counselor and drew their blasters. The crowd thinned, dissolving Arron’s valuable cover.

 

He darted away, heedless of the blaster fire. He needed a dark recess to lose the guards, the people, the danger. More than anything, though, he needed to lose the cat eyes that floated in his mind like a ghost.

 

He paused behind a column, gasping. He’d won. He’d missed his target, of course, but he’d eliminated the lion. That alone would send the other gangs a message.

 

But why did his heart clench?

 

***

 

It took an hour for Arron to shake the guards.

 

He crouched in a corner of the city, watching the torches atop the castle wave and flicker as the soldiers hurried along the walls. The full moon clashed with the darkness and painted the mud bricks a midnight blue.

 

Justin would hate him, but after a few days he’d understand that Arron had been protecting him. Shapeshifters were notoriously unstable. The creature would have mauled Justin eventually, no matter how strong their friendship.

 

Arron fished for Karim’s note in his pocket and shredded it once he’d memorized the rendezvous location.

 

Arron pulled out Justin’s paper next. It was a larger piece than usual, crisply folded but worn around the edges as if the writer had repeatedly fingered it, debating with each touch whether it should be read by anyone else.

 

Arron opened it. It contained no coordinates, only a note.

 

Brother,

 

I met Cameron after we killed his lady. He recognized me. Could have shot me. I don’t know why, but he let me live, and I could never forget that. 

 

I knew you’d banish me from the team once I told you, and then I wouldn’t have been able to stop you. I couldn’t allow you to hurt the counselor. Forgive me. Don’t be ashamed of me. I didn’t want to hurt you.

 

A blotch of ink stained the page where the writer had rested his pen unconsciously, no doubt lost in his thoughts.

 

At the bottom, four words were clearly printed, like the way one would sign a death sentence. Arron stopped breathing.

 

I was the lion.

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