Thief of Lives Page 0,1

from her slender finger. The heartbeat weakened until even he could not hear it anymore. He watched as her eyes grew cold and vacant. A ringlet of brown hair adhered to the wet flesh on her throat as her head rolled in his grip.

With his free hand, he ripped her dress open, exposing the bloodstained white shift she wore underneath. He shredded that as well and dropped her body upon the porch like a soiled, broken doll. Turning, he walked back out the front gate to the street, stopping briefly to check both ways. Once certain the path was clear, he returned the way he had come.

Fishing a handkerchief from his pocket, he wiped his mouth.

The coming days had been successfully set in motion.

Chapter 1

It was the place he'd nearly died, and here he returned every day before dawn.

Leesil stood sweating in the forest clearing's cold air, surrounded by sparse-limbed, shaggy firs. The sun had crested the high eastern tree line, and winking sparks of sunlight skipped between ocean wave tops below to the west. Along the shallow bay's coastal edge sat the small port town of Miiska, its rooftops brightened by the dawn.

White-blond hair matted flat to Leesil's neck, shoulders, and his narrow face, letting the blunt tips of his oblong ears peek out. Faded but still visible scars lined his tan-colored throat and the lower right side of his jaw. The thin beige cotton shirt clung to his back, and his feet felt wet with perspiration in the soft leather boots. Breathing hard, he scowled in irritation, wiping away sweat running into his eyes. He shivered briefly. The chill of a late-autumn morning encouraged him to keep moving for warmth.

"Valhachkasej'a!" he muttered, though not completely certain of its meaning.

His mother—Nein'a, Father had called her—would whisper it under her breath when angered or frustrated, or when she cut herself accidentally while sharpening a blade. Her narrow, triangular face of smooth caramel skin would wrinkle slightly, and high, thin wisps of white-blond eyebrows would cinch together in a scowl as she shifted unconsciously into her native Elvish.

She refused to teach Leesil her language, and her large, slanted eyes would narrow whenever he asked. At her occasional slips, he'd listened carefully to the way she spoke and silently mouthed the words in turn, trying to unravel their meaning. Leesil had heard enough foul exclamations in varied tongues to guess at the meaning of this exclamation. Childhood obsession became unconscious habit. A few times, she had spoken his name with strange inflection— Leshil—and more than once referred to him or herself as "anmaglâhk," but he never unraveled its meaning.

Shaking off the memory, Leesil returned to training, collapsing low in a buckled crouch. His right leg shot out to the side.

Momentum pulled him into a backward spin toward his outstretched leg, body pivoting quickly on his left foot. When his right heel had traced one-third of a circle, it bit into the clearing's earth.

His torso spun around, and both arms swung over to his right side. Hands slapped flat against the ground to brace his weight, and his left leg whipped upward.

Today he trained later than ever before. There was so much to remember, to relearn, and it was the last morning he could slip out alone before anyone, including his companion, Magiere, arose for the day. Their routine would soon shift to nightlife again, as they fell back into their roles as the owners and proprietors of the Sea Lion tavern. She would handle the bar, while he ran the card games at their faro table.

He looked down the slope to the