Lindsay Buroker

Deadly Games


In the predawn light, Amaranthe Lokdoncharged up the worn travertine steps of the ancient stadium. Herthighs burned, her calves ached, and sweat streamed into hereyes.

“Idiotic,” she muttered to herself betweenstrained breaths. “Deranged…masochistic.”

A dark, round shape blurred out of theshadows. Instinctively, she lifted her hands and caught the heavy,sand-filled ball to keep it from slamming into her chest. Barely.She wobbled, the weight threatening to knock her onto the stonebenches, but she compensated and continued upward. With a lastburst of energy, she hurled the ball back to the shadowy figurethat had appeared at the top of the stairs.

Amaranthe kept her hands up, thinking hemight throw it again, but he propped it against his hip and waited.Legs trembling, she reached the top step and forced herself tostand up straight instead of collapsing in a sweaty, exhaustedheap.

“Dedicated,” Sicarius said.

“What?” she asked when she caught her breath.Stars still lurked in the deep blue sky, and she could not make outhis face, but it would not have hinted at his thoughts anyway.

“Your list,” he said.

Amaranthe waited for him to expound. He didnot.

“You think I’m dedicated for being here, anhour before dawn, training with you? Even though I told everyone totake the week off because we’ve been working so much lately?”


Figuring her pride had kept her on her feet arespectable length of time, she sat down on the closest bench.

“You don’t think I should be following my ownorders and enjoying a relaxing week? I could be sleeping in ormaybe planning for a day at the beach. It is summer, after all, andthe weather is finally good. Yet I’m here with you, torturingmyself. You don’t think I’m crazy?”

“In general, or for training?”

She scowled suspiciously at him.

A clank drifted up from the sand-coveredfloor of the arena below. A yawning man in city worker’s overallsshambled out of a maintenance door carrying a lantern. He headedtoward the towering machine that controlled the Clank Race, asteam-powered obstacle course with a tangle of climbing walls,swaying nets, rocking platforms, and swinging axes. The contraptionoccupied half of the arena floor inside the running track, andboxing and wrestling rings took up the other half. The workerpatted his pockets, cursed, and walked back inside.

“The athletes will show up soon to starttraining,” Amaranthe said. As a junior, she had competed in asmaller version of the Imperial Games, and she missed training forsomething as innocent as medals and honor. “I suppose we shouldgo.”

“Yes.” Sicarius offered a hand.

Surprised, she gazed at it for a couple ofseconds before clasping it. He pulled her to her feet gently andheld the grip for a moment.

Amaranthe swallowed. A couple of monthsearlier, he had admitted he cared for her, but he had also said itwould be a bad idea for them to act upon such feelings. Outwardly,she had agreed with him; inwardly, she kept hoping he would beovercome by emotion-or she would settle for lust-and tug her intohis arms for a passionate kiss. Unfortunately, she could notremember having too many men overcome by lust because of herpresence. Perhaps it was because she always wore her hair in apractical bun and donned utilitarian clothing more suitable tomercenary life than an evening out. Anyway, Sicarius wasn’t thetype to be overcome by…anything.

He released her hand without a word and ledthe way down the steps. Amaranthe trailed him, wondering if she hadimagined that pause. They followed a railing toward steps leadingdown from the elevated tiers of seating.

Sicarius stopped before he reached thestairs. A young woman climbed into view, blond hair and freckledskin illuminated by a pair of gas lamps burning on the landing.Though she wore the loose white togs of one of the athletes, sheclenched a short bow in one hand and had an arrow nocked with theother. Her head turned from side to side, eyes searching the arenabelow.

A throwing knife appeared in Sicarius’shand.

“Wait,” Amaranthe whispered, slipping pasthim.

Fear whitened the woman’s knuckles where shegripped the bow-this was no hardened bounty hunter.

Amaranthe held her hands out, palms up, andwalked toward the landing. “Greetings.”

The bow jerked in her direction.

Amaranthe dropped to her belly, wincing asthe hard edge of a travertine step rammed her chest. A clinksounded as the arrow skipped off the railing. Amaranthe sprang toher feet, hoping to reach the woman before she could reload.

Sicarius was already behind the woman, aknife pressed against her throat. The bow clattered to the stonefloor.

Amaranthe flung her hand out, saying,“Don’t,” but Sicarius had already paused, waiting to see what shewanted to do. A few months ago, he would not have. He simply wouldhave killed someone-anyone-who dared lift a weapon in hisdirection.

Amaranthe straightened her shirt and walkedforward. “Care to explain why you’re shooting at the shadows? Inparticular, the portion of shadows I was occupying?”

Rings of white shown around the young woman’sblue irises. She opened her mouth a couple of times but did notmanage to speak. She could not be more than eighteen or nineteen,and with that pale skin she was not likely a Turgonian.

Amaranthe waved a hand toward Sicarius tosuggest he could loosen his grip. He did not.

“He’ll only kill you if you don’t talk,”Amaranthe said.

“Accident,” the woman whispered, a faintlilting accent marking the word. “I was tense. My sister… someonetook her.”

“Oh? Like a kidnapping?” Eagerness thrummedthrough Amaranthe, revitalizing her tired limbs even more thanbeing shot at had. Was there some trouble afoot? Something her teamcould handle? Something that could earn them attention-goodattention?

“Kidnapping.” The woman started to nod butwinced when the movement drew blood. Sicarius kept his knives sharpenough to split the hairs on a flea.

“Let her go, please,” Amaranthe told him. “Ido believe that’s a client.”

Though Sicarius had drawn the woman back intothe shadows, to stay out of the light on the landing, Amaranthe hadno trouble reading the cool expression he leveled her way.

“What?” she asked him. “It’s not as if youwere going to spend the week sunbathing at the beach.”

Sicarius released the woman, but he did notput away his dagger. As soon as she was free, the girl clasped ahand to her throat and lunged away from him.

“We might be able to help you,” Amaranthesaid. “My name is Amaranthe. What’s yours?”

“Fasha,” she said, still holding her hand toher neck. She eased closer to Amaranthe while throwing uneasyglances at Sicarius. “Are you…athletes?”

“We’re swords for hire,” Amaranthe said.

“Mercenaries?” Fasha tensed. “Lowlifedung-crawlers that work for the highest bidder? How do I knowyou’re not the people who took my sister?”

“We don’t work for the highest bidder, andI’m reasonably certain I haven’t mingled with dung lately. You?”Amaranthe raised her chin toward Sicarius.

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