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Alshandiel Dolrahn wants a new life away from the suffocating world of Qolar. But will the Diplomatic Corps be her salvation‌or undoing? The ideal assassin is young, smart and on the run. Alshandiel feels suffocated by her home planet of Qolar. She finds her fellow Qolari narrow-minded and xenophobic and the caste system that governs her world rigid and stifling. She is looking for a way out. The notorious Department of Other Matters deals with things the average Qolari doesn't want to know anything about—most notably, the rest of the galaxy. It seems only natural that Alshandiel should consider a career within the casteless, outward-looking Department. But DOM holds its own secrets. And once it has you, it never lets go.



Chapter One

“You’re joking…right?” Maen’s voice was a study in horrified fascination. Alshandiel kept silent. She had already explained her situation, her reasoning. Volatile, stubborn Maen was having none of it. Irritated, she made a point of focusing on a ball game at the far end of the playing field. The wide, low campus of the university stretched around her, the buildings mostly white and squat, their pale walls glowing in the sun. Behind her, a fountain's bowl tipped running water from one sculpted cup to another before disappearing into a circular bed of prismatic grey crystals. The water made a tinkling sound as it fell. It was summer and a warm fifteen degrees. The grass was thick and soft to sit on and the fragrance of leaves and flowers filled the air. If it were possible, Alshandiel would have lived within this one moment—one of calm and predictable cycles, the fountain's musical tones occasionally joined by the sounds of player limbs hitting rubber that carried faintly across the field. Maen sat cross-legged next to her, his long gangling limbs untidy despite their compact folds. His dark eyes were characteristic pools of cynicism, a rough contrast to the paleness of his skin and mohawk of banded black-and-fawn hair that adorned his head. His family came from the north of the planet. Southerners didn't have manes of such dramatic colour contrasts. Vintel, who had been trudging across the library lawn, reached the duo and flung himself down beside them. “What’s the matter?” he asked, picking up on the tension. “Who did something wrong this time?”

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ASSASSIN'S WAY (Sample) Vintel was shorter than Maen but still topped two metres in height. His fair, bright gaze—matched by unusual hair of only a single, light hue—darted between them in enquiry. Maen’s hand jerked towards his university companion. “Our friend here. She just told me she’s thinking of joining DOM.” “DOM?” Vintel’s voice was as incredulous as Maen’s. Silence reigned again for a few minutes while he appeared to digest the information. “DOM’s got to be big,” he finally commented in a calmer tone of voice, “if only because it covers a wider range of issues than just Agriculture or even Defence. Could be there are some nice jobs going there.” “That may be,” Maen shot back in a tone of voice one normally used on a moron, “but how would anybody find out about them, considering DOM is a black hole?” “True,” Vintel conceded. He picked at a blade of grass, shredding it with his fingers. “Even your father, the mighty Yellow Magnate Enermas, drew a blank when he tried to get that Comprehensive Inquiry set up into DOM’s affairs last year.” “Very true.” Vintel put the tiny fragments into the palm of his hand and blew them into the wind. They soared briefly…then flew straight back into his face. Alshandiel tried not to smile. “And their annual budget figures are never itemised. Shastof! I wouldn’t be surprised if what’s published is only half of their real budget.” “Got a point.” Vintel dusted the little rust-coloured flecks off his loose-fitting shirt. “And our dear sixth-year student of Capital Considerations here wants to hurl herself into that bureaucratic abyss? Forgive me if I don’t regard it as one of the most cogent thoughts she’s ever had.” “So what’s in DOM? Is she thinking of joining as an administrator...” he lowered his voice to a dramatic whisper, “or something more dangerous?” “The thought is already madness, Vin.” Maen looked close to apoplexy. “You want degrees?” “Let’s ask her,” Vin suggested. Alshandiel saw his gaze dart to her. “At the worst, all she can do is answer us.”

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His friend shrugged—a starburst pattern with his hands; whatever you say—and laid back on the grass. “So I’m actually being asked my opinion now?” Alshandiel inquired, pinning Maen with a withering gaze. “We’ve finished with our tantrum, have we?” “For now,” Vin said quickly, cutting off a possible retaliation from their friend. “So, is Maen imagining things? Jumping to conclusions? Forgive him, it’s the only exercise he gets.” There was a slight pause before Alshandiel was forced to reply. “No.” Vintel creased his forehead. “So you are considering a life in DOM?” She nodded slowly. “Maybe.” “And are you aware that whoever disappears into that black hole, as Maen puts it, never returns?” Now it was Vintel’s turn to suffer Alshandiel’s contemptuous look. “Don’t you think I’ve given this any thought at all, Vin?” His answer was interrupted by a sharp shout, followed by the bouncing trajectory of a small ball. Vintel neatly intercepted the rubber sphere, holding it while he watched another student approach. The tall rangy male skidded to a halt beside them, panting from exertion. Maen looked up at the interloper—an eighth-year acquaintance—with his usual indifference. “How goes study, Lamnen?” he asked. “Well enough,” the student identified as Lamnen puffed. “Out of breath, I see,” Maen observed. “Maybe your cardiovascular system could do with another spirit-quest to the Usandrai Desert?” The spiteful comment was delivered in a bored tone Maen had taken years to perfect. “Maybe.” But instead of taking offence, the proffered ball, and heading back to his compatriots, Lamnen tarried, bending over double to catch his breath. It must be hard on him, Alshandiel thought, watching as the back of his head bobbed up and down. Lamnen was too old to fit comfortably into the mainstream student groups, but not old enough to socialise with the Matures, and that was even without taking into account the fame of his younger sister.

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And as for the Usandrai Desert! Only fools and religious extremists braved the barren wind-scraped wilderness that encircled the northern pole. There was a steady stream of people who ventured there every year, in search of either untold mineral riches or spiritual enlightenment. They usually came back missing frostbitten extremities. Or didn't come back at all. With that in mind, rumour of Lamnen's religious quest into the frigid Usandrai wilderness four years ago was bound to scare off any sane-thinking, not-very-spiritual colleague. Which, when one was talking about the Second Southern University, included almost its entire population, including the Theology Department. A not-quite-young-enough, not-quite-old-enough, ultra-spiritual-nut student with no friends and a celebrity sibling. And she thought she had problems. Well, she did. Hence, DOM. “You three look pretty serious,” Lamnen commented, looking to make conversation while waiting for his heart rate to reach equilibrium. Vintel began making a dismissive gesture but Maen jumped in with both feet. “You’d be serious too, if one of your friends decided to dive into the Department of Other Matters.” Lamnen's dark eyes darted between Vintel and Alshandiel before resting on her. How did he know? “That’s a big move,” he ventured, leaning back and stretching his back. “Shastof! You think so?” Maen's tone was vitriolic. The older man didn’t reply, but took the ball from Vin’s upheld hand, gave the group a quick nod, then jogged back to the rest of the players. “Thick as rock,” Maen commented to nobody in particular, although he seemed pleased with the level of insults he managed to impart. “What does Mica think of this?” Vintel asked, bringing the conversation back to the topic at hand. Alshandiel shrugged. “He doesn’t know.”

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ASSASSIN'S WAY (Sample) “Doesn't know? Don’t you think you should tell him? DOM’s a big step, Shandi. Even if half of what they say isn’t true, it’s still terrifying to contemplate. What do you know about them? About their work? Once DOM accepts someone, that someone can say goodbye to their friends and family. She’ll never see them again. We'd never see you again.” “That doesn't happen to everyone,” Alshandiel countered, but her voice faltered. “My family socialises with a DOM Director from time to time. Da knows him through work.” Nols Lazeet was the director's name. He had only ever been to her parents' house a handful of times, each time on business. Strictly speaking, they didn't quite “socialise”, but her father spoke of him often enough. Vintel snorted. “One person out of how many thousand? And what about those stationed offplanet with the diplomatic arm? What would you do out there, all alone? What can you do offplanet that you can't do on Qolar? Maybe your director friend escaped, but I've heard my own da talk. Joining DOM is a living-death sentence.” Alshandiel made a resigned starburst with her hands and said nothing. “And what about Mica?” Vin pursued in a gentle voice. “You still haven't answered that question. What about your future together?” “There is no future together.” She met Vin’s frown with a grimace. She had meant to tell them earlier, really she had. “Mica and I agreed to go our separate ways.” “What?” This from Maen, who hurriedly sat up. “When did this happen?” “Four days ago. It was all very,” she smiled without humour, “amicable.” Her gaze flicked over the stunned expressions of both of her friends. “I know what you’re thinking,” she warned. “You’re thinking that this sudden interest in DOM has something to do with Mica and the fact that our relationship ended. That’s. Not. True. I submitted an initial query to DOM a month ago. The fact is, I’m still waiting for their answer.” “They may never answer,” Vintel suggested, a hint of optimism in his voice. Starburst. “In which case I continue my life outside DOM.” Shalon’s teeth, what would she do then? “And if they do?” This from Maen, the eternal angry pessimist.

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ASSASSIN'S WAY (Sample) “Then I consider continuing my life inside DOM.” “You've thought this through, haven’t you?” Vintel’s voice was grave. Alshandiel was reduced to honesty under the weight of his eyes. “I think so.” Later, when she was at home, ensconced safely in the security of her room, Alshandiel would wonder about that. She would also wonder about her world and her place within it. What was it that made it so easy for her to contemplate a life with the Department of Other Matters? It might have been her parents, who appeared so friendly and personable to strangers, yet were filled with a disconcerting mix of anger and apathy at home. Or Mica, with whom she thought she shared common dreams and a joint future. A Mica who turned out not to have any thoughts beyond career-climbing ambition and which region they’d live in once they'd finished their Quadracy. As for her two best friends, Maen was emotionally unapproachable, still wrapped in grief over a tragedy years old. And Vintel, with his enormously influential father, was grooming himself for a role on Qolar's faction-riven political stage. If she felt she had a true confidant somewhere, a solid anchor mooring her to Qolar, she might not have considered running away to join DOM. DOM. Even the word itself sounded dark and ponderous, building on the department's image of secrecy and concealment. The average Qolari didn't want to think of anything beyond his or her immediate planetary sphere of influence, and was quite happy to have a separate, often ignored organisation set up to handle distasteful interactions with other species. Department of Other Matters. Could any other species come up with such a euphemistic name? “Other Matters”. As if even acknowledging the existence of other species within the galaxy would somehow pollute Qolar. Alshandiel was sick of it. Sick of the pretence, sick of the xenophobia, sick of the closed-mindedness. No, neither Maen, Vintel nor Mica understood. Alshandiel was suffocating on the world they were so comfortable with. And she had to escape.

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ASSASSIN'S WAY (Sample) The invitation arrived in the afternoon two days later, delivered by personal courier. That was enough to start the servants’ tongues wagging. It comprised an envelope of expensive reed paper, still redolent of the sea, with “Alshandiel Dolrahn” on the front. Handwritten. In opaque ink. It kept everyone twittering for the rest of the day. Always aware of appearances—her parents had trained her well—Alshandiel took the note from the maid without saying a word, without betraying any emotion, and slipped upstairs to her room. Was it bad news? If so, how to camouflage it? She sat at her favourite perch, the broad window sill overlooking the garden, and cut the knotted tie, unfolding the parchment with careful movements. How she hated surprises. Skelante Lamnen requests the company of yourself and your friends at an Autumn Soiree to be held in two weeks’ time. Skelante Lamnen? Alshandiel quickly checked the name on the other side of the parchment, to make sure it was addressed to her, that the courier hadn’t mistaken the destination. His skin wouldn’t be worth the leather if he had made a mistake. But the name and address (her name, her address) were correct. Skelante Lamnen. The social butterfly-cum-party autocrat of the city, a role made all the more extraordinary because she was a Black. “Just a Black,” Alshandiel murmured to herself with a hint of irony. People whose social standing depended on whom they had cocktails with the night before were desperate to kill for an invitation like the one she now held in her hands. An appearance at one of Skelante’s infamous parties could turn an inept human rag into a walking silk tapestry—shining and desirable. The only problem was, she didn’t know the woman. In fact, she had never met her. They didn't move in the same circles. Alshandiel read further. The invitation gave the party venue as Skelante’s townhouse. Her own private residence. Not a large gathering, then. Intimate. Well, intimate for Skelante, which meant, say, only one hundred and fifty attendees rather than the usual thousand.

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ASSASSIN'S WAY (Sample) In the Northeast district. Very exclusive. Well-patrolled streets, leafy sidewalks, pavement a person could eat off. A citizen normally had to produce a four-sun credit rating just to walk there. Dress: as appropriate Please inform my staff if you will not be attending Thereby assuming that nobody in their right mind would turn down such an invitation. It sounded arrogant enough to be authentic. Alshandiel rubbed the heavy, textured paper between her fingers. Skelante Lamnen was sister to Lamnen, the spirit-quest nut. The invistation couldn't be a coincidence, could it? “Alshandiel?” A voice called up to her, imperious in its command, the one word holding a thornball of questions. What are you up to? What was that parchment you were carrying? Who is it from? I’d better like your answers. “Coming,” she answered, making her voice sound light and carefree even as she grimaced. Nothing. Just something innocent. Somebody I’m sure you’d approve of. Of course. She tripped down the stairs. Her father eyed her intently as she entered the sitting room, his pale eyes heavy with mistrust. Always under suspicion, she thought to herself. She was sure even imprisoned murderers were afforded more latitude. “I was told you received something by courier,” he started, laying aside the daily news. That was one of her problems, the fact that—via their staff—her parents received notifications of her movements the way a geosynchronous satellite received rainfall data. “Yes. An invitation, would you believe?” She curved her mouth into a smile. “To what?” “An autumn party. In the Northeast district. The Republic enclave.” There, that should mollify the hypocritical bastard. He brightened for a moment before frowning again. “I’m not sure I know anybody in the Republic enclave.” And, of course, if you don’t know them, they must be bad, right, Da?

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ASSASSIN'S WAY (Sample) “It’s Skelante Lamnen,” Alshandiel continued. “I’m sure you’ve heard of her. No society page is complete without at least two articles featuring her latest parties.” She held out the invitation for inspection, knowing it would be ignored. Her father was only ever interested in what she tried to conceal, not what she was happy to share. “How did you meet her?” Quickly, think of something! “At university. Her brother introduced us.” Ashandiel hoped she injected the right note of nonchalance into her voice. “A socialite? Doesn’t seem the university type to me.” Alshandiel starburst, accompanying it with an innocent look. How should I know? “What caste is she?” Ah, the all-important question. What would happen if she answered truthfully? “The Lamnens are Blacks.” She’d really be over the balcony then, picturing her father’s righteous anger. A Black, living in the uppity Northeast district? Why, they were Reds, and even they could only afford a townhouse in the east. Almost northeast, her mother would always remark to visitors. Ashandiel wondered if she was the only person who rolled her eyes every time she heard the comment. No, telling her father the Lamnens were Black would only aggravate the situation, and possibly result in her being banned from attending. “Yellow or Red, I should think,” she finally said, after pretending to consider the question for a handful of seconds. “It was mentioned somewhere, but I can’t exactly recall.” “You’re brainless, that’s why,” her father shot back. He reached for his news digest and Alshandiel knew she was safe. She allowed her shoulders to relax. “Knowing a person’s caste is the most important thing in the world. Think I got to where I am today by forgetting such important details?” Alshandiel stood obediently, answering when required while letting the rest of her father’s lecture wash over her. The invitation may have a mysterious connection and unknown consequences, but the truth of the matter was that she was going to attend a Skelante party. She grinned. On the inside.

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Chapter Two

Vintel whistled in appreciation when he saw Alshandiel in her new outfit. He was discreet enough to wait until they were both out the door and walking down the steps of her parents’ house before making such a sound, and ceremoniously opened the rear wing of Maen’s wheeler before gesturing her in with a flourish. “May I offer you a ride to Skelante Lamnen's soiree, lady?” “Thank you kind sir,” she replied in kind, “I'd be delighted.” Maen—Alshandiel couldn't possibly have gone without Maen and, with Vintel, had spent the past two weeks convincing him to come along—was busy monitoring the traffic reports while they seated themselves, but it was the job of a moment to program in their destination, then turn and greet her. A small jolt at the same time indicated they were now on their way. “We should be there in twenty minutes,” he began. Only a wiggle of his eyebrows betrayed the change in seeing Alshandiel dressed in more formal attire. “We could get stopped at one possible checkpoint along the way, which is at the entrance to the Republic enclave, where our munificent hostess lives. I hope you remembered the invitation, in case we do.” This last remark to Alshandiel. “Get stopped, that is.” She patted an inner pocket of her tunic, just by the neckline. “Right here.” “So why were we invited again?” Vintel asked, his voice still a little high with disbelief. “None of us knows the Party Queen.” He made a gesture of surrender. “Not that I’m not happy to be the object of insane jealousy from all my brothers and cousins. In fact, I’m surprised I wasn’t the target of an assassination attempt by now.”

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ASSASSIN'S WAY (Sample) “You could have been,” Maen countered. “Wouldn’t have made a difference. After all, it wasn’t either of us who got the personally couriered invitation.” He looked pointedly at Alshandiel. “I’ve told both of you everything,” she retorted. “You know as much as I do. Why not think of this as an…adventure, instead of looking for trouble under every rock?” “Adventures get people killed,” Maen replied, staring out the tinted window. Alshandiel winced. His older sister had been killed in a mountain-climbing expedition to the Asen peaks when he was thirteen, and the other two were usually very careful about bringing up any subject that could somehow relate to the tragic accident. “I try to be healthily allergic to adventures,” he added. “I pride myself on the fact that I’ve been successful thus far in doing so.” “Maybe that’s why everybody regards you as a boring cur,” Vintel remarked, the barest twinkle in his eye. “Better featureless than flensed,” Maen shot back, but the insult had done its job. He relaxed in his seat and even allowed his lips to droop less. “I doubt a fission missile is about to drop on Skelante Lamnen’s townhouse within the next four hours,” Alshandiel interrupted. “So, Maen, how about we put this career-pessimism of yours on hold and just try to enjoy ourselves? For all you know, it was her party planner’s mistake, getting mixed up between a list of important social butterflies and some subset of Southern’s student population. It’s the opportunity of the year and we should make the best of it.” Both her friends remained sceptical, obvious even in the evening’s shifting chiaroscuro, and the rest of the ride passed in silence.

To call Skelante Lamnen’s residence a townhouse, was like calling the ocean “a patch of water”. The three friends decamped from Maen's wheeler, where it was swiftly taken in hand and disappeared by an abrupt and efficient valet. It was done with such speed that Maen didn’t get the chance to say a (caustic) word. He gazed at the vehicle-id disc that seemed to magically appear in his hand with dazed eyes.

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Around them, an army of valets were carrying out similar operations with other vehicles, the bustle of staff and guests swirling around the small trio as they stood, stunned, on the wide pavement. Without a word, in unison they walked to one end of the residence, took a long look up the boundary wall hewn of expensive Winchenal marble, then tracked their way back. Surely the designation of “townhouse” was nothing more than a bit of legalese to avoid exorbitant property taxes. Only the end-wall of a one-and-a-halflevel garage connected it to its neighbour on one side, with the wall of marble trellising doing the same on the other. They sauntered through the front garden and Vintel frowned as he scrutinised the complex stone fretwork more closely. Alshandiel thought he was probably appraising how much such craftsmanship cost. Even the Enermas family home couldn't afford such a large piece of hand-sculpted magnificience. A solidly-built, tough-looking male stood at the top of the townhouse stairs, vetting the invitations that were presented to him like sacred offerings. Which, in a way, they were. His formal wear couldn’t hide the muscle rippling under his grey jacket or his aggressive military stance. When they reached the head of the queue, Alshandiel reached past her collarbone and extracted the invitation from her jacket's small inner pocket. The guard flicked the parchment under a personal scanner with a practised move, verifying its authenticity, before returning it. He assessed them with one last look, then gestured them inside with an economical movement of two fingers. They meekly obeyed. Even Maen remained silent. Skelante Lamnen’s townhouse rose to four levels, with the autumn event occupying the lower two of those, spilling out into the chill night air of an exquisitely landscaped split-level rear garden. Glancing around at all the beautiful people, and calculating a brief party schedule based on the amount of coverage Skelante received in various society pages, Alshandiel felt sorry for the woman's neighbours. She didn’t think they had paid millions for a patch of dirt in an exclusive enclave, only to be unwilling eavesdroppers to Skelante's constant partying. An interesting question was whether having the noisy Skelante living next door increased or decreased their property values. What was worth more, noise pollution or social cachet?

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Maen, on the other hand, watched the female attendees in the same way as somebody regarding fine animal flesh at an upcoming auction. “There seems to be a lot of, ah, skin showing,” he commented after they snagged some bowls of refreshment from an ambulating waiter. He took a deep breath of the rising vapour and smiled. “Llandrin mix. The good stuff.” “He’s right,” Vintel concurred. “Despite your, impressive attire tonight, Shandi, I admit I was expecting something a little more…revealing for an event like this?” “It’s an ‘autumn soiree’,” Alshandiel replied, pricked by the observation that she somehow didn't look as feminine as the women that surrounded her. “That means cooler weather. If the rest of these vacuums want to catch some pneumonic illness, that’s their problem.” “I mean no insult,” Vintel cut in. “You look wonderful, divine, gorgeous.” Alshandiel brushed one of her ears backwards with her fingers—I'm not listening—and wandered off to explore more of her host’s territory, in truth more amused than irritated. Besides the obvious off-limits indicators to the upper levels—another burly tough, twin to the one at the front entrance, stood guard by the wide stairs—and the area around the kitchen where the catering staff bustled, Alshandiel was free to roam the rest of the residence. She estimated a total of perhaps two hundred people were in attendance, laughing their way through morsels of food that looked like miniature works of art and an unceasing and ongoing array of barely legal social substances. She held onto her bowl of llandrin like a talisman and avoided the gentle pressure from hordes of insistent servers as she strolled through the formal groundfloor rooms and more informal inglenooks and sitting-rooms on the second level. Discreet glowing lights edged the wide paved balcony leading out from the double open doors of the rear parlour, then dipped to follow the contours of a halfhidden set of spiral steps and a small private garden niche. The vapour rising from her refreshment bowl, its smoking cube three-quarters spent, was sharper in the cooler outside air and she was grateful to be away from the shrill sounds of people desperate to convey a degree of social attractiveness. As she was thinking of stepping down to examine the flowering bushes by a small but ornate fountain, a distinct sound caught her ear. She turned, in time to see Lamnen—the spiritual nut, not the social queen—stare at her then deliberately walk away. Page 16


It was obvious he wanted something. To talk? To explain why she had been invited? Alshandiel stole a look around to see if anybody was watching, put her bowl down on a low table and followed him. It was as if he knew how fast she was walking and how far behind him she was, because she always caught a flash of his dark blue jacket before he disappeared down the stairs or around a corner. She finally thought she'd lost him in a dead end but a closed door to her right promised a clue to his whereabouts. She ignored the modern artwork on the wall, an original and expensive limited-edition print, and opened the door. Steps led down. Ignoring a pang of fear, she followed them. Lamnen—what was his first name?—had led her to the garage. She reached the bottom step and found him leaning nonchalantly against the bonnet of an expensive two-seat wheeler. “Good evening,” she said. Her voice echoed in the cold empty space. He merely nodded in return. Alshandiel cleared her throat. “I’ve already figured that you’re the one responsible for my invitation. That's right, isn't it? Any reason why?” His tone was nonchalant. “I ask so few things of my sister that she’s happy to oblige.” She tried flashing him a reassuring smile. “Not that I'm not grateful for the chance to attend such an affair—” “A comment one of your friends made disturbed me,” he said, interrupting her. Alshandiel frowned. He convinced his sister to invite three complete strangers to her home because something one of them said disturbed him? She remembered that Lamnen was rumoured to be a fundamentalist weirdo. And now that she thought on it some more, all his manoeuvring to get her to the garage—where they were both alone, probably behind excellent soundproofing—was beginning to inspire paranoid thoughts. Alarm bells clanged in the back of Alshandiel’s brain. Maybe the man was mentally unhinged, thinking he was in some kind of fantasy world? Was he also violent? She glanced around quickly, trying to spot tools that could be used as a weapon. “I’m sorry if we offended you in some way…” she began, planning her retreat from the narrow chilly room. Her feet began to backtrack. “Are you really thinking of joining DOM?” Page 17

ASSASSIN'S WAY (Sample) Alshandiel stopped. That was the last thing she expected him to say. He waited for her answer. “What if I am?” Her tone was challenging. “I would advise against it.” “And who are you, to advise against it?” she asked pertly. He paused. “I'm ex-DOM.” No, that was the last thing she expected him to say. “I left almost four years ago,” he added. Alshandiel shook her head. “I didn’t think anybody left DOM.” “That’s for public consumption. We’re more numerous than you think, us DOM exiles. A small but significant population, you could say.” “How do I know you're not lying?” He starburst. “You don’t.” Great. “So what have you got to tell me?” She figured she’d listen first and sort through his verbal trash later. At least while he was talking he wasn't making violent moves towards her. Alshandiel tried to look attentive. “DOM is a predator, looking for certain types of people,” he paused, watching her with a calculating air. “It likes them young, smart and on the run from something. Do you fit the bill?” “You make it sound like a cult,” she countered, not liking the answer she would have given. “It is,” he said, nodding agreeably. “What do you think happens in Other Matters? Why do they erase all links to your previous life? It’s so they have you, pliable and dependent, to mould as they wish. It's an effective strategy.” “But they obviously didn’t mould you?” There was a hint of mockery in her voice. “My links to my family are...exceptionally strong, stronger than their indoctrination. In the end, they had no choice. They had to let me go.” “If they're everything you say they are, why aren’t they afraid you’ll expose their secrets?”

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“I didn’t get far enough in the training.” One side of his mouth curled into a mirthless smile. “I opted out during the first year. Of course, DOM doesn’t like loose ends, doesn’t like to admit that people leave. So they concocted a cover story for me. Can you guess what it is?” Alshandiel licked her lips. “The spirit-quest to the Usandrai wilderness.” “Twisted bastards,” Lamnen breathed. “And me, an atheist.” He gave a short bark of laughter and started pacing the length of the wheeler. “So why not come clean?” she asked, raising her voice. “It can’t be fun masquerading as a religious nut on campus. You're Skelante Lamnen's brother, for Shalon's sake. You can shout everything from the Central Spire and nobody will do anything to you.” He frowned at her. “You still don’t understand, do you? Your friend’s father, Magnate Enermas the Yellow, is the most powerful politician in the Party, and even he couldn’t jumpstart an inquiry into DOM’s financial affairs. They cultivate an air of total impenetrability and unfailing omniscience. They even keep an eye on their little strays like me, to make sure nobody undermines the institution they’ve been so careful to build up.” He stopped his pacing and walked back to where she was standing. “Do you think I could tell you any of this in the open? Meet with you in one of the university canteens and freely discuss my nine months with them? For all you know, the security at this party could even be DOM.” “Agents?” Alshandiel’s voice was incredulous at the idea of DOM spending serious money to monitor some half-crazy dropout of theirs. “Or informants. It’s amazing where they pick up their little snippets of information.” Silence filled the garage. “Lamnen,” Alshandiel concluded, “I’m afraid you haven’t told me anything I don’t already know from public documents. DOM is a secretive organisation. It obliterates all connections between you and your past. It is highly-funded and is moderately effective.”

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ASSASSIN'S WAY (Sample) “Are you running away from something?” he cut in. “Is that why you’re thinking of joining?” The closed look on her face seemed to provide him with the answer he sought. He sighed and shook his head. “Then they already have you. You may think they don’t know or have forgotten about you, but they’re just running their checks, making sure they’ve got every one of your hot buttons labelled. Then they’ll call you in for a meeting and, by the end of it, they’ll have you begging them to take you away from all your troubles.” His eyes blazed. “Don’t you understand? Running away isn’t the answer. You have to turn and meet your problems head-on. Joining DOM will only be a paper solution to a real-life problem that will track you till the day you die.” Alshandiel’s voice was cool when she replied. “Thank you for your advice, but I think you should let me be the judge of that.”

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Chapter Three

The call came, one month later, on Alshandiel’s university stu-comm line, when she thought DOM had all but forgotten about her. The use of her student, not home, account was particularly telling. It was as though “they” were aware of how delicate her domestic situation was. She couldn’t help but recall Lamnen’s words in the chilly townhouse garage. She had thought over his remarks every week following the party and still wasn’t sure what to make of them. Was he crazy? Honest? Paranoid? Concerned? And how could she verify a story that, by its very nature, couldn’t be verified? DOM is a predator, looking for certain types of people. It likes them young, smart and on the run from something. In her saner moments, Lamnen's disclosures made her head spin. The message, on the other hand, was spare and terse, nothing more than a meeting request, with a choice of dates, times and venues. Resigned to a trek into the centre of the city, Alshandiel was surprised to note that all the nominated locations were on the university campus. We come to you. On the off-chance somebody might have intercepted the brief correspondence, the message was supposedly from the university’s administration section, although there was none of the usual irrelevant verbiage that normally accompanied such bulletins. Alshandiel knew—deeply, viscerally—that it had come from DOM.

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ASSASSIN'S WAY (Sample) Now that she had the message confronting her, she didn't know what to do. Should she call Vintel and ask for his advice? Reply to the message? If so, what should she say? Surely just meeting with a DOM representative wouldn't be construed as a commitment? Alshandiel's fingers approached, then retreated from the “Reply” button. She needed advice, but when she pictured Vintel, all she could see was him laughing at her. That went double for Maen. No, she would have to handle this one herself. Pulling back, Alshandiel decided to sleep on the request. She replied to the message the following morning, suggesting the earliest time that suited her schedule. That meant she had two days to pass in nervous anticipation. With the decision made, she screwed up enough courage to confide in Vintel and Maen when she met them that afternoon. Their reactions were not ones of calm acceptance, but neither were they full of uncontained mirth as she'd been expecting. “You sent off the reply this morning?” Vintel confirmed. Alshandiel nodded. “And the interview is for the day after tomorrow?” “They didn't say it was going to be an interview,” she demurred with a starburst. “They just said 'meeting'.” “You’re crazy,” Maen breathed with quiet vehemence. “Don’t do it,” Vintel cautioned her. “Just don’t go.” “I’ve already agreed to it, Vin,” she protested. “Say you forgot. That you had an exam coming up or something.” “DOM’s bad news,” Maen intoned. Alshandiel felt a surge of irritation rise. Vintel and Maen, like Mica, were turning themselves into compliant little Qolari, avoiding issues by creating excuses and gloomy scenarios. “What's wrong with both of you?” Her voice was clipped and angry. “All I’m doing is going for a meeting. If I don’t like what I hear, I’ll leave, it’s as simple as that. Despite what you may think, Maen, DOM is not staffed by supernatural beings. They’re only public servants!”

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ASSASSIN'S WAY (Sample) There was a moment of charged silence before, by unspoken consensus, all three dropped the topic of conversation. They began speculating instead on possible questions in their upcoming exams. Alshandiel breathed a sigh of relief and ignored her misgivings.

On the afternoon of her meeting, Alshandiel asked Vintel to take notes in her Comparative Ideologies class, and walked the short distance from her home faculty building to Library Major, the biggest information repository on campus. Everything jumped into hyper-focus. She noticed the pavement, wet from the previous night’s rain; each step as her boots clacked on the hard surface; her breath, puffing white into the cold, humid air. To keep her hands warm, she stuffed them into the deep fleece-lined pockets of her favourite grey overcoat, and could feel its comfortable lumpiness between her fingertips. It was as if she was on her way to an execution, storing up every image, every sensation, so she would have something to pick over in her last moments. Now that she was on her way to a confirmed meeting with them, she could admit how little she knew. The average Qolari didn't want to know what was happening in the rest of the galaxy, and the casteless renegade department wasn't eager to fill such gaps. DOM might be subjecting their candidates to gene-altering radiation and the rest of Qolar wouldn't know, or care. No, that was a ridiculous thought, she chided herself. After all, as she'd told Vintel and Maen, DOM was only an organisation of public servants. Alshandiel repeated the words in her head like a mantra, stopping only to look up quick directions to the scheduled venue. Meeting room L4C, it turned out, was the farthest room in the northwest corner of the building. Although she was unsure of its position, each letter of the meeting-room name had been emblazoned in her brain for the past two days. She decided against taking the stairs and instead punched the button on the antique elevator, caught between wanting it to hurry up and wishing it would never arrive. She wasn’t sure how she felt when the twin doors finally slid open. It’s all their fault.

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ASSASSIN'S WAY (Sample) She thought of her two friends with a vengeance as the decorative, antique, metal cage rose. If they hadn’t acted so horrified by her upcoming meeting, she would have used Vintel’s exam excuse herself. But, caught unawares by their panic and air of doom, she felt she had no choice but to stick to her original plan. Shastof! How difficult could it be just talking to someone? Unless, she thought with growing horror, she was going to be presented to a board of some sort. Maybe there would be university representatives present who would report what she was doing to her parents. Maybe there would be several DOM agents, all shooting questions at her, testing her self-control. As her mind conjured up one disastrous scenario after another, Alshandiel's steps faltered. Breathing in, she urged her feet to keep moving. By the time she reached the designated room, even with her fevered thoughts and stumbling and hesitant walk, she found she was still early. L4C was one of the older types of meeting room, with solid opaque panels separating it from the rest of the library. Alshandiel was sure this was deliberate on DOM’s part. The newer rooms tended to have transparent walls that could be darkened, but never to total opacity. At the door, she hesitated with her hand up, almost about to buzz the small, slick console and announce her presence. Did one do that when about to meet someone who didn’t officially exist? Someone who had been wiped from Qolar's comprehensive roll of citizens? Was she, in fact, really going to meet one agent (or more!) from the fabled Department of Other Matters, or was it all just a myth, a propaganda tool to flush out potential dissidents? Had Maen and Vintel rushed ahead of her and were they, even now, waiting for her to enter, ever so wellmannered, ever so punctual, so they could roll around the floor in glee at her apprehension, expose their superior hacking skills, and declare it had all been nothing more than the practical joke of the decade? With a quick exhale, Alshandiel dropped her hand and passed it over the access tile instead. The door slithered open. There was already a man in the room. Only one, she thought with relief, and let out a pent-up breath. He was seated behind a small desk, watching her as she entered. His face was impassive. Contrary to what she had been expecting, it was an ordinary face. Nondescript. It occurred to her that he might have been anyone, from a business courier to a shopkeeper. For all Alshandiel knew, she might have passed him earlier on in the day and not known it. He was that forgettable. Page 24

ASSASSIN'S WAY (Sample) (Was that going to be one of his questions? Have you seen me before this meeting? If so, when and where? Alshandiel gulped. The fear returned.) His hair was conservatively cut, neatly combed back and an undistinguished blond. Even what Alshandiel could see of his clothes was ordinary: pale shirt, dark jacket. No pattern, no embroideries, except for a discreet tone-on-tone emblem on a lapel that marked him a Black. Knowing DOM was casteless, she didn’t believe it. Only his eyes separated him from every other person she had ever seen and forgotten, and Alshandiel had her fill of their searing sharpness as she shrugged out of her overcoat and carelessly draped it over a chair back before seating herself opposite him. His eyes were arctic blue, made colder by the clinical detachment with which they watched her carry out her actions. She sat. Silence. They’re only public servants. She waited. Still silence. If this is the first test, she thought, it was a disappointment. She could have directed him to her parents for advanced lessons in psychological warfare. They like them young, smart and on the run from something. ~ Oh yes, I know something about that. “You’re Alshandiel Dolrahn,” he finally began, his voice as forgettable as the rest of him. But it held an edge that made her pay attention. “That’s right.” “Only daughter of Roelven Dolrahn and Imdae Senitka. Red caste. Your father works for the Department of Security.” He reeled off personal facts as if reading them from a budget paper, cool and impersonal. His gaze never left her. “He’s been with the department for twenty-seven-and-a-half years but has only progressed two levels. He’s bitter from seeing younger, more incompetent, people leap over him on the ruthless climb to the top. He’ll never make it, despite his ambitions. He’s just not smart enough.”

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ASSASSIN'S WAY (Sample) He paused, but Alshandiel didn’t move a muscle. What was he expecting her to do? Jump up and down, demanding that he retract every scandalous and hateful statement? In truth, she had come to the same conclusions years ago. “Your mother works part-time for the Communications Directorate.” Yes, her father had encouraged her to keep her old job because it meant a discount on their comm bills. “She dislikes the position of supervisor but holds onto it to keep your father happy. She—” “She has delusions of grandeur and can be a spiteful sociopath,” Alshandiel cut in. “I already know all this. Could you get to the point?” Then her eyes widened and she snapped her mouth shut. Had she really said that? To a DOM agent? It filled her, equal parts, with trepidation and a perverse sense of accomplishment. The man—who hadn't bothered introducing himself; maybe I should call him Mir Nameless?—stopped, but his eyes glinted. “You sent an enquiry to DOM almost two-and-a-half months ago, Mis Dolrahn. Why?” “I’m interested in finding out more about the department.” Alshandiel shrugged. “For what? A school project?” “Employment.” Her tone was short and she caught herself. Of course he would know this. He was trying to rattle her. He was succeeding. “And why should DOM be interested in you?” That was the critical question, and Alshandiel hoped it would come up much later in the conversation, preferably after she had dazzled Nameless with her incisive mind and strategic thinking. She tried to look confident, as if she didn't care if he believed her or not. “I’m young,” she said. “I’m smart.” And I’m running away.

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ASSASSIN'S WAY (Sample) “DOM has high entry requirements,” he countered, but his tone was lazy and dismissive, as if bored with their conversation. The man was good, she thought with admiration. Even a master like Maen could learn a thing or two from him. She made her voice droll. “I’m sure you have.” His eyes flicked away, then snapped back to her. Incoming! “Hypothetically, if you were accepted for induction within the department, what would you tell your parents?” No! This was all unravelling backwards. According to Alshandiel’s well-rehearsed script, Nameless was first supposed to sell DOM to her. After all, how many insulated Qolari actually wanted to leave the planet? He was supposed to tell her what a fabulous working environment DOM had, seduce her with images of promotion, money and travel. Then he was supposed to say how happy he was to meet someone who was thinking of joining them and perhaps relate an amusing, or instructional, anecdote or two about alien customs and offworld mores. Near the end—Alshandiel had mentally pictured two steaming mugs of thick, winter maltoh and companionable conversation—the question of her parents would pop up, a tangent, and be disposed of in quick time. But now, before any of this, he had asked about her parents. “What I tell them is my business,” Alshandiel said, trying to dodge the question. “Actually, Mis Dolrahn,” and he leant forward to rest his forearms on the desk, “it’s not. It’s mine.” Alshandiel blinked with frustration and looked out of the small rectangular window set into one of the walls. Treetops were visible, the branches bare and stark. Did nobody want her? Was she condemned to live the rest of her life within grasp of her parents' demands? She tried to gather her composure before facing him. “What do you want from me?” she finally asked, a frown marring her forehead. “Am I unhappy? Yes. Am I looking for a way out? Definitely. Do I want to run away to another life? Why not? You already know all this, you must do, so why are you asking me these questions? Wouldn't you instead like to know how I would fit into your organisation? Or how long I would like to make it my career?” There was a small silence before he spoke.

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ASSASSIN'S WAY (Sample) “Are you aware how many unhappy people there are on Qolar, Mis Dolrahn?” His voice, steady and measured, made her realise that she had unknowingly raised her voice. She sat back and looked at him, abashed. He continued, watching her intently. “Each of them thinking that perhaps DOM is their way out of a senseless life? I see all types in my line of work, from the bored to the suicidal. We are not a rubbish bin, Mis Dolrahn. We don’t pick up the dregs of society from the street and somehow,” he wiggled his long fingers, “disappear them offworld to go on scintillating little adventures for us. And there is no career-path in the usual sense of the word. Once you join DOM, you join it for life. And not your life, but a manufactured one…manufactured by us.” His gaze bored into her. “We have to be sure. We invest much in our people. We have to be certain each is worth it. So please,” he began again, with a small nod in her direction, “tell me what reaction you'd expect from your parents.”

“You’re a Red! Does that mean nothing to you?!” The voice was loud and strident, beating at her ears like stinging blows. She stood with her back rigid, staring straight ahead, trying to recite a nursery rhyme in her head to stop the tears that lay waiting at the back of her eyes. Just to the left of her peripheral vision, she could see the family’s servants cowering against the wall of her father’s study. It was all part of the drama. Her father was a person deeply steeped in ritual, and this too-frequent event was as much ceremony for him as punishment for his young daughter. On her other side, she saw her mother’s proud figure, eyes flat with retribution. The accident had happened four hours ago. Her friends, three Blacks, had been banished to their own homes while her mother began a litany of the castigations waiting for her when her father returned from his day's work. She could still feel her mother’s long, sharp fingernails biting into her upper arm, pulling her into the study, making her stand and wait, until her other parent appeared.

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ASSASSIN'S WAY (Sample) “Your mother had the grace to let a family of Blacks come into our home to play with you and this is the way you repay her kindness? The vase you broke was a gift from Aunt Memar. What is your mother possibly going to say the next time she comes to our house?” Tinkle, tinkle, rain is falling, Mother birds from nests are calling, We are home all warm and drying, Waiting for the sun to shine. “Are you listening to me?” Her father moved up close, his face now large in her vision. She had once made the mistake of stepping back and retaliation had been swift and painful. Now, she stood her ground. But she wasn't sure: did his question require an answer? A nonanswer would earn her an additional walloping. Or was she not supposed to answer? In that case, an answer would earn her an additional walloping. “She never listens,” her mother complained, her voice bitter in the room's quiet. “She thinks she can get away with anything by pretending to be stupid.” “Is that it?” her father questioned, still only centimetres away. His pale face was flushed with a feral energy. “Do you think you can hoodwink us by playing the fool?” “No, Da.” Her five-year-old voice was small and soft. Oh no, she could feel those betraying tears start again! Tinkle, tinkle, rain is falling… “Don’t you think we have been more than fair, allowing three Blacks to come into this house?” “Yes, Da.” “And you sought to punish your mother’s kindness by deliberately breaking that vase?” “No, Da.” “Don’t lie to me, Alshandiel!” Page 29

ASSASSIN'S WAY (Sample) It was a swift orchestration of movements, practised and efficient. First came the slight straightening, then the small lean backwards. She barely had time to brace herself before the backhand impacted her face, all bone and momentum. She felt a searing patch of heat against her cheek, saw stars against a black background, before the soothing dusky tones of the study’s walls and ceiling re-emerged from the darkness. Now was definitely not the time to start crying! … Mother birds from nests are calling… “If there’s one thing I hate, Alshandiel, it’s lying. Do you understand?” She tried to answer, but the thick clot of sobs in her throat prevented any words from passing. “I said, do you understand?” “Yes, Da.” The two words finally emerged, but they wavered. She could feel one side of her head start to ache. His face came in close again, flicking his glance from one eye to the other. “You’re not crying, are you? You know how much I hate to see a child crying.” … We are home all warm and drying… She shook her head, using it as an excuse to blink quickly. “No, Da.” But she lied. In terror, she felt a single tear escape and travel down her cheek. She swallowed convulsively. Would he pretend he hadn’t seen the tear and continue the lecture, or would he notice it? When she saw him straighten again, she knew that the time for words and further delays were past. Would anything have changed if that errant tear hadn’t escaped? Was there some way to avoid all this? The second blow was always the worst, heightened by a sense of dread anticipation and the sharp remembrance of pain and heat. And still the questions continued, the expectations of answers, punctuated by sharp strikes to her face and jagged coloured lines in her vision. Knowing the punishment would be prolonged if she showed any kind of weakness, she forced herself not to cry. Page 30

ASSASSIN'S WAY (Sample) The irony of the situation was that her mother hadn’t even liked the broken vase very much, displaying it only to satisfy Memar, her wealthier older sister. But a lesson had been learnt and Alshandiel, with her sharp young mind, was already endeavouring never to make the same mistake again. Friends could not be trusted to play in her parents' house. To do so was to invite torment. Therefore, she would never invite friends to the house again. When the blows stopped, Alshandiel almost smiled in relief. Her eyes ached, her head still throbbed and her face felt like it had been stabbed with hundreds of sharp daggers, but they were minor afflictions compared to the constant heavy concussive contact of her father’s backhand. “Now go to your room and consider the evil you’ve done.” Her mother's shrill voice was ripe with satisfaction. “And don’t come down until you’re prepared to say you’re sorry.” Alshandiel left the study. All she wanted to do was go to sleep. Disappear into a world of comforting darkness where there were no people shouting at her or hitting her. But she couldn't. She would have to wait in her room until she gauged a proper interval of time had passed, then present herself in front of her parents and formally beg forgiveness from each of them. Her tears would have to wait for, even now, one of her parents could ambush her in her room and any telling wetness meant another round of torture. Night, when the house was quiet and everyone had retired to their rooms, was the best time to give vent to her feelings. But silently, so nobody could tell.

Alshandiel dragged herself from the small library meeting-room to a nearby hutched desk, more exhausted than she cared to admit. Mir Nameless’ dry “Good-bye, Mis Dolrahn” still rang in her ears, with not even an ersatz promise of further contact. They don’t want me, she realised with a start. They can't do, not after what I told them. Which means I’m free to live my life again. Then why do I feel so miserable?

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ASSASSIN'S WAY (Sample) According to the library’s large clock, almost an hour had passed since the interview began, but Alshandiel felt she had been dragged for a week through a hedge of thorn-bushes. Why had she promised to relay details of the meeting to Vin and Maen? What was she going to say?Would you believe, we discussed my childhood for more than half an hour? Bad memories required an...emotional ramp. There was a toll of mental and emotional energy associated with the sharing of painful experiences, and she had used up all her reserves during Nameless’s inquisition. There was nothing left for anybody else. When she felt strong enough, she got to her feet. She clutched her overcoat and stumbled to the elevator. Nobody had come out of the fateful meeting room since she exited, but she wouldn’t have been surprised if she went back now and found it empty. The meeting with Nameless had that quality about it, a half-sinister surrealism. Vin was waiting for her in the nearest canteen, impatiently jumping from one foot to another as he scanned the milling students. When he spotted her, his face cleared and he motioned to the nearest empty table. Maen was nowhere to be seen. “Maen’s on errand duty for his father,” Vin explained, reading her mind as he gestured her to sit. “So, what happened? What did they say?” “It’s not like the vids,” was all she said at first. Around her, groups of students laughed, exchanged pieces of food, rattled cutlery. Never before had Alshandiel felt so separate from everybody else. Vin stared at her, a puzzled look on his face. “Was it a he or a she?” he prompted. “He.” “What did he look like?” “Ordinary. Really ordinary, Vin.” Finally, here was something she could share with him. “You could pass him in the street and not even notice. “It makes sense when you think about it,” she added. “You always notice the beautiful women or the handsome men, don’t you? They stand out and everyone else fades into the background.” Her smile was humourless. “I’ve just been forced to the startling conclusion that it’s the nondescript ones you have to worry about.” Page 32

ASSASSIN'S WAY (Sample) Vin snorted. “What are you saying? Little old ladies with cake parcels?” Alshandiel starburst. Maybe. But Vin refused to be distracted. “So what did he want to know? What are they offering? Did they tell you what division you’d be joining? Or the chances of getting offworld?” Caught in the swirl of his excited questions, Alshandiel was sorry to disappoint him. She hadn’t seen him this animated for months. “He wanted to know everything. He offered…nothing.” She took a breath. “They don’t want me.” Despite his initial objections, Vin was stunned into silence before swinging over to righteous indignation. “What? How can they not want you? You’re the lead student in our program. Are they crazy?” “No, I think they’ve had enough of that.” She saw his frown of incomprehension, a quick drawdown then release of his eyebrows. “He was telling me a little of what kind of people normally apply. Misfits, essentially; depressed, desperate, suicidal. Maybe I should be thankful they turned me down.” “So what will you do now?” “Like I told you: live my life outside DOM.” His grin was lopsided. “As easy as that, eh?” “No, but I'll try anyway.”

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Copyright page PRIME SUSPECT ISBN: 978-0-9875440-3-2 Copyright (c) KS Augustin 2014 Cover art: Sandal Press Editors: H Hammond, John Young A Sandal Press book All rights reserved. This ebook has been made available without DRM, subject to individual retailer conditions. Please don’t reproduce in any form. (An exception is the use of brief quotations for the purposes of critical articles and/or reviews.) That includes printing, photocopying, scanning, uploading to torrent sites or any other practice that is somehow meant to circumvent a royalty being rightfully paid to the author.If you have received this book from a torrent site or through any other means of communication that has bypassed legitimate sales and lending protocols, please contact us at with the relevant details. Sales of this ebook support the living expenses of several individuals. All characters in this book have no existence outside the imagination of the author and have no relation to anyone living, dead, undead or residing in this, or another, galaxy or metaverse. (Thanks for reading down this far. If you’re interested in the books from Sandal Press, why not sign up for our quarterly newsletter? )


First three chapters of ASSASSIN'S WAY