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Published by EVERNIGHT PUBLISHING ® at Smashwords


www.evernightpublishing.com




Copyright© 2017 Marie Medina



ISBN: 978-1-77339-437-4


Cover Artist: Sour Cherry Designs


Editor: Karyn White



ALL RIGHTS RESERVED


WARNING: The unauthorized reproduction or distribution of this copyrighted work is illegal. No part of this book may be used or reproduced electronically or in print without written permission, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in reviews.


This is a work of fiction. All names, characters, and places are fictitious. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, organizations, or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.



DEDICATION


To David and Patrick



ASSASSIN’S RETURN


Valladora Tales, 3


Marie Medina


Copyright © 2017


Chapter One


Valladora

3156, The Year of Blood

Quentin looked up from the vegetable garden every time he heard his nephew Jesse shriek in delight. He couldn’t help it. Even though he had grown used to his nephew’s boundless enthusiasm for everything under the twin suns, he still worried the adventurous little boy might hurt himself. Jesse had just turned two, and he could already run so much faster than Quentin had ever imagined someone so small could run. Luckily, the fence Samuel had built on his last visit had proven sturdy enough to keep Jesse from wandering, or sprinting, away from Quentin.

The letter Quentin had received three days ago had indicated Samuel would be back soon, possibly today. Part of Quentin rejoiced in his childhood friend’s return, but the rest of him remained baffled at the man’s continued devotion. Quentin’s twin sister, Lizzie, had gotten pregnant by a man who had been passing through their village—to this day, Quentin had no idea who Jesse’s biological father was. Lizzie had refused to even give him the man’s name. When she’d died in childbirth, Quentin had been left to raise Jesse alone. Samuel had returned to the village a few days after Lizzie’s funeral, and upon hearing the news had declared publicly that he was the child’s father before lamenting that Lizzie hadn’t told him about the baby. Murmurs had immediately gone up, quieting down when Samuel promised to do all he could for the child.

Quentin had been too stunned to object, even though he’d known it was a lie, and he’d stood by and watched Samuel chastise himself for not marrying Lizzie and staying in the village. Word had spread, but Samuel was so well liked and admired in the very conservative village that most hadn’t blamed him for putting his duty to the king first, especially as he hadn’t known there was a child to consider. Quentin had kept his mouth shut, as no one else seemed to disbelieve Samuel’s assertion. But Quentin knew Samuel had not been in the village anywhere near the time of Jesse’s conception, plus Lizzie would have had no reason to lie if Samuel had been the father. She’d been infatuated with him since she was twelve, and Quentin would definitely have approved of them being together. Samuel also would never have even started to court a friend’s sister without obtaining permission first. But more importantly, Samuel had always preferred male lovers. He’d often mentioned the interesting and exotic men he met on his travels. Everyone else in the village believed Samuel was an ambassador for the king, but Quentin knew what he actually was—an assassin.

As much as he loved his friend, Quentin felt uneasy about Samuel’s work. The danger worried him as much as the moral quandary did. If Samuel died, Quentin would truly feel alone in the world. He’d still have Jesse, but it wasn’t the same. Quentin was well liked, and everyone was kind to him and Jesse, yet he’d never felt he fit in, his withdrawn nature viewed as odd by most. His two attempted courtships had been disasters, so he’d given up for now. Taking care of Jesse took up all of his time anyway. His second courtship had, in fact, been more for Jesse’s sake than his own. As much as he loved Jesse, he wanted the little boy to have a mother and receive the nurturing he worried he couldn’t give.

A shadow fell across the tomatoes in front of him, and Quentin looked up. He smiled and said, “Look, Jesse! It’s Daddy!”

Samuel opened the gate and entered the yard, smiling back at Quentin before scooping Jesse up into his arms. “Hey, Jesse!”

“Dada!” Jesse said, beaming at Samuel.

“He’s talking now!” Samuel said with a proud grin.

“Yes, but he prefers laughing to talking. So far, he says Quen, dada, and cow.”

Samuel looked thoughtful. “But I’m hardly here. Does he really remember me?”

“I think so. It’s only been a few months since your last visit. And I talk about you when your letters come. Read them to him.”

Samuel’s gaze cut over to him right away, looking a bit surprised. “You do?”

“Of course,” Quentin said, wondering what the look on Samuel’s face meant.

Turning his attention back to Jesse, Samuel said, “My, you’re getting big! I hope you’re helping your Uncle Quen.”

Quentin laughed as he wiped his hands on his trousers. “He’s too little for that.”

Samuel bounced Jesse, who giggled with glee and tugged on Samuel’s collar. “Big, strapping lad like this? He could help you.”

“I do just fine by myself,” Quentin said.

But Samuel eyed him. “You look tired.”

“I am. Between the cows and Jesse, I’m always busy. If it weren’t for the fence you built, this garden would’ve gone to pot. He’s learned to climb out of his little playpen.”

Samuel put Jesse down. “You said you were always busy in your last letter. That’s why I’m going to stay much longer this time.”

Quentin wanted that, but he hated to take advantage. “The king’s all right with that?”

Samuel studied him before he said, “We can talk about that later.”

Quentin looked down at Jesse. “He’s too young to understand what we’re saying.”

The other man shook his head. “That’s not it. I just got here and want some time with my friend. Time I’m not thinking about my work or Jareth.”

Quentin noticed Samuel looked weary as well. He could see a hint of dark circles under his dark eyes. “I’m sorry. You’re right.” He grabbed the basket of vegetables. “I’m pretty much done. We can sit on the porch and have a refreshing drink. I made peach tea.” He nodded to the large glass jar sitting on the table in the sunniest spot by the house.

Samuel smiled again. “I’ve always said that spot was magical. Never had sun tea like yours anywhere in my travels.”

“You always say that. It’s all the same, and you know it.”

Samuel took the basket from him and put one arm around him as they moved toward the house. “I disagree. Sun tea is better than something boiled in a kettle, and your sun tea is the best in all of Valladora. I’m the world traveler. You should listen to me and follow my lead.”

Quentin laughed. “Should I?”

“Yes. In all things, I should be your guide.” Samuel squeezed his shoulder as they mounted the few steps to the porch. “Sit. You’ve been in the sun. I’ll grab some glasses from inside.”

As usual, Quentin didn’t resist. What was the point? His friend was the stubbornest man he’d ever met. He watched Jesse carefully putting rocks into a bucket as Samuel fixed their drinks and sat down beside him.

“You’ve been in the sun, too. Did you walk from the village?” Quentin asked.

“I rode, but I put Sophie in the barn first. Rubbed her down a bit and fed and watered her.”

Quentin looked toward the barn and small stable. “I must’ve been daydreaming. I didn’t see or hear you until you were right in front of me.”

“You were busy watching Jesse. Plus, I do have certain skills, you know,” Samuel said with a grin.

Proud as Quentin was of his friend’s success, he couldn’t smile back. “I know. But I still worry that each time I see you will be the last.”

Samuel sipped his tea, looking more serious. “I’m careful. You know I am.”

“Yes, but … I’m sorry. You just said you didn’t want to talk about this right now.”

“It’s all right. Don’t worry about it.” Samuel watched Jesse playing. “He’s grown so much just since I was here last.”

“He’s going to be very big and strong, like his father.” He cut his eyes over a moment as he said, “Whoever he is.”

“This again.” Samuel sighed. “If we tell everyone the truth, my help will look like charity.”

“It is charity.”

Holding his gaze, Samuel said, “We both grew up poor. We ate and had shelter, but that was about it. You were both only seventeen when your parents died. You had to struggle so much more than I did.”

“But we had what they left us. This land and the cows and everything. And I work hard to make things better for Jesse.”

“If I keep helping you, Jesse will have options neither one of us ever had.”

Quentin watched Jesse a while before saying, “You went out and found your options. Your opportunity. Nothing held you back.”

“My parents barely had anything to leave me except that old house. I had to do something. There’s nothing wrong with sharing my wealth with … my oldest friend. My truest friend.”

Quentin squirmed under Samuel’s intense gaze. “I guess I’d rather have you as a distant father figure than have Jesse know the truth.”

“Exactly. He might think less of his mother. Or he might spend his entire life wondering who his father was.”

Quentin nodded as he finished his tea. “How was your journey?”

“Too long. I came from the noise and chaos of the royal dominion, and I was anxious to be here with you.” His gaze didn’t wander as he reached over and touched Quentin’s hand where it rested on the arm of the rocking chair. “Both of you.”

Moving his hand back to his lap in a way he hoped looked casual, Quentin said, “In the middle of nowhere with chores to be done?”

One corner of Samuel’s mouth rose in an almost smile. “Here in the loving home of my favorite person. Milking cows and playing on the floor with Jesse and talking with you by the fire every evening.”

“It’s summer. We’re not building a fire.”

Samuel laughed. “You know what I mean.”

I think I do know what you mean, especially the way you were just looking at me. “I do. I’m glad to have you back.”

His gaze almost seeming to grow more intense, Samuel asked, “Are you?”

“Of course. There’s lots to do. I don’t get out much.”

“You must get lonely.”

“I’m rarely alone. Jesse crawls out of his crib, too. Comes and crawls into bed with me.”

“Again, you know what I mean.”

“I do, but … I’m not worried about that. Jesse’s my priority.”

Samuel licked his lips and opened his mouth, but then he sat back and didn’t say anything for a moment. He nodded to one of the fields the cows grazed in. “When did that tree fall?”

“Two weeks ago. A pretty bad storm.”

“Needs to be chopped up.”

“I know. It’s hard with Jesse. I get nervous because he moves so fast. I worry he’ll jump in the way of the ax or try to climb the fallen tree and get hurt.”

“Good thing I’m here then. I can do that while you watch him.”


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