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THE BOY WAS A skilled smith.

He'd fashioned himself a great many swords, and sold a great many more. It was required to make his meagre living and keep from starving. He’d made blades for prominent knights and lords passing through his town of Cael. He was thin as the knives he forged, but his body hosted a quiet strength, surprising muggers he encountered.

A business he kept secret also paid his living wages. Bardia would kill nobles for coin, willing to take nearly any job for the man who paid him enough. None suspected a boy of fourteen. Bardia was quick as a shadow and just as difficult to catch. He was silent as the grave when he struck, and he had never been caught.

He remembered his first assignment—Lord Raynar Black of Ballard. A man by the name of Hanin Caldwelle met Bardia as he sat a beggar on the path to Cael, collecting coins from the generous. He could still remember Hanin—a willowy man with a pointed beard and squinty, gleaming eyes. He did not know Bardia, but he looked at him as though he did. He dressed like a merchant, in rich brocades and muslin from the Isle. He asked Bardia if he’d ever killed a man. Bardia answered that he had, but claimed it was all in fairness, since the man sought to steal from him. Hanin stood with his fists on his hips, asked Bardia if he knew who he was. Bardia told him he knew him not, and the man said that this was well and good. He did not give his name then. Bardia only learned his name after the job was done, after Hanin Caldwelle was styled Lord of Ballard, as Raynar Black had formerly been.

Bardia took the job for five gold pieces, and the Caldwelles had ruled as lords of Ballard ever since. Five gold pieces bought Hanin Caldwelle a minor province.

Now, Bardia could scoff at it.

That was when Bardia was twelve. The slaying of a lower lord like Raynar Black wasn’t much to brag about, but word reached the right—and richest—people of Bardia’s skill, a skill he never thought he had.

Bardia’s renown spread. Those who needed him sought him out and paid handsomely for his services. With time, procurers knew to find him at the smithy, where they would be greeted by the boy.

This was where Bardia was found by a cloaked man with little information to give.

The man approached Bardia after nightfall—when the boy hammered glowing orange steel in the dim light. The stranger kept his hood up, his face cast in shadow. Bardia was suspicious of the stranger, but hardly hesitant. Noblemen always sent shady figures like this to do business with him.

“Godden, sir. What can I do for you?” Bardia asked, dousing the hot metal in a barrel of water, listening to the sizzle.

“I’ve an errand for you, boy,” the man told him. “A special one, worth a pretty prize.”

“Go on then.” Bardia appraised the blade as he pulled it up.

“My master wishes for you to take a highborn lady.”

“I prefer slitting the throats of lords in their beds. Much easier than abduction.”

“Your weight in gold would be paid to you…and then some. Enough for a ship. Enough for an army, if you like.”

Bardia’s steely eyes met the stranger’s as he stuck his blade back in the fire. “I should like to know who your master is that he can pay so much. Some local lord or foreign?”

“My master stays unnamed, boy,” the man said sharply.

Bardia pulled the red-hot metal from the fire again, placing it on the anvil and taking up a hammer. “And who would this highborn lady be?” The hammer struck, and the shrill sound rang.

“The crown princess in the citadel.”

The hammering ceased. Bardia returned the steel to the barrel.

“The same crown princess who sits in a high castle tower with armed guards at her door each night and a servant checking in hourly, no doubt?” Bardia drawled.

“The very same,” the man replied. “But I assure you, boy. Should you agree to this, my master will make it most easy for you. You’re not serving some petty earl. The most difficult thing would be taking the princess from the castle.”

“No small task, though you speak of it like it is.”

“I understand the difficulty of this undertaking, as does my master. We will remain in contact throughout, and he will arrange everything for you in advance.”

Bardia hesitated as he threw the steel back in the fire. “This gold had better be as much as you say.”

The man smiled. “Your payment will be far more than I could describe to you now, boy.”

Bardia eyed the stranger dubiously, wondering just who this man was but understanding his own business well enough by then not to ask. It certainly was a demanding task he’d been presented with, but it seemed it would be profitable for him, despite the risk. Should he be caught, he would be executed for conspiracy against the Crown. However, the gold could buy Bardia a way to a certain aim of his own, one that no one knew of except for himself.

“Are you wanting the princess harmed?” Bardia asked. “Or simply kidnapped. I suppose you want ransom for her.”

“No ransom. We would prefer it if she never returned. Once you have her, you may do what you wish with her, so long as she never returns to Lahan. Can you manage this?”

“Aye."

“That is all my master asks,” the man bowed his head.

“Well, sir,” Bardia scoffed. “You have me.”

A slow smile spread across the other man’s face.

“Very good,” he said. “My master will be pleased.” He glanced down at the sword Bardia was forming. “A fine blade, boy.”

Bardia huffed. “A tool, nothing more.”

The stranger departed.

Bardia considered the task as he worked on the sword. Every task he was assigned, he could lose his life for—this one in particular. There was little escaping royal wrath. He’d be done away with if he was caught. Even so, the boy had always seen his life as something that could be shed like a cloak if need be. 

Bardia wasn’t sure how he would go about it, but he was certain he would pull it off. He had everything he needed to scale the castle walls. Indeed, that would be the easy part. The difficult bit would be the actual taking of the princess. He hoped the man who visited him was right, and the task would be made simple for him. He wasn’t sure what kind of power that man wielded, but he hoped it was legitimate.

Bardia had planned out castle infiltrations in his head countless times before, as he’d performed many in the past. He often pictured what it would be like to scale the thick, stone walls and slip in through narrow windows. Once inside, the aim would be to avoid detection. He would need to sneak past guards, maids, servants, the like. If he managed that, his next aim would be to access the nobleman. That would be the trickiest bit. They were the most heavily guarded people in the household. But, if he managed to sneak by, and if he managed to access the ruler, the power was in his hands to decide the fate of kingdoms.

It was an exciting daydream. But this was no assassination assignment. This was an abduction. What he would do with the princess once he had her, Bardia did not know. Perhaps he could sell her off to some slaver for more gold than he was already promised. The problem with that would be disclosing her identity, something he would need to treat carefully. The wrong people finding out who she was could end badly for him. If that were the case, Bardia would need to rely on her beauty for her value. He had never seen the princess, but he knew that she was part-Elf. The appearance of Elves was off-putting to Mainland lords more often than not. Bardia had only seen an Elf one time, and his memory of it was hazy.

Bardia would await word from the stranger. Typically, he was left with some knowledge of who hired him. Even when Hanin Caldwelle refused to disclose his identity, Bardia could tell he was highborn from his clothes alone. His immediate ascension as Lord of Ballard was far from surprising once the deed was done.

But there was no indication of who the stranger wanting the princess taken might be—no sign on his clothing to show status, no pin of a noble house or physical trait of any family. No, this man was sent. Sent in the place of the true conspirator who wished for Bardia’s service. Whoever that nobleman was, his sent man offered nothing for Bardia to infer his identity.

Like Hanin Caldwelle, not even a name.

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