Dragon Blood - By Patricia Briggs

Chapter 1

It takes many years of hard work and dedication to produce a competent torturer. Young men just don't want to take the time to learn the craft.

- Lioth of Edelbreck, Royal Torturer

"It's just like skinning a rabbit," the old man said to his grandson. There was strength in his grip that belied the age on his face as his sharp knife removed another sliver of flesh from Tisala's finger.

"I've never skinned a rabbit alive." The boy looked ill, like a newly blooded recruit, thought Tisala.

The old man lost all patience with him. "Don't be an idiot. Now watch."

The next move of the knife forced Tisala's attention back to her body. Eventually she would tell the old man what he wanted to know, but if she could wait long enough, they could trust none of what she said. But she'd only been there something under two days and already her body ached and her mind flinched away from what had been done to her.

"What do you know about Alizon's rabble, little girl? Tell me and I can quit hurting you," he crooned as his knife worked its magic. "I don't like hurting little girls, but you are hiding something our king needs to know. A brother shouldn't try to hurt his own kin. What Alizon is doing is wrong and you know it. All you need to do is tell me who's helping him and I can stop."

She didn't fear death, not even death by torture. Death was a constant companion in the battlefield, as often a friend as an enemy. Betrayal, though, betrayal was truly frightening. Best she die fast, before she could hurt someone she cared about. She'd bide her time and see if she could use her tongue as a goad to make the torturer slip. Someone had once told her that her tongue was her most formidable weapon, and it was one they hadn't taken from her.

"How can you do this all day?" asked the boy passionately. "Grandfather, cannot the mages make a person talk?"

The old man snorted. "The mages can make a person say anything the mages want him to, but they can't get real information from magic. Good information comes only from men like me. We save lives on the battlefield, give our king his victories."

"Why are you doing this one here, instead of in the castle?" Bravado, not curiosity, sparked his question. Tisala could tell that he knew the answer already.

"For secrecy." The old man's voice trembled, betrayed by age.

The boy sneered. "Because if his precious nobles knew what we did here to a noble woman, they'd join Alizon's rebellion. Torturing a weak woman is filthy work, unworthy of the king's torturer. He'll get rid of you, too, Grandfather, when you're done here."

Quite likely, thought Tisala.

"I do what I am told, boy. I am the king's man." The old man was so agitated, he slipped with the knife and blood cascaded down her arm and over his hand.

The boy looked at the mess, swallowed hard, then turned and ran, shutting the heavy wooden door behind him, leaving the old man distracted from his work, cursing the mother that raised her boy to be weak and foolish.

Tisala almost couldn't believe the old master was so stupid, but he continued to look at the door with the knife in his blood-slick grip - so near to her hand, held only by his inattentive clasp. Tisala never waited for second chances.

She twisted her wrist, breaking his grip, and then drove her shoulder forward. She caught the hand that held the knife and used it to slice the old man's throat.

Tied to the bench she lay on, she couldn't slow the old man's body down as it fell, nor move out of the way of the blood gushing from his ruined throat. But she held on to his hand with her own, damaged and bleeding though it was. Once the body hung limply, she slowly shifted her grip from his hand to the knife.

For a terrible moment, she thought the knife was going to slip from her weak grasp, and she'd be stuck tied to the table. But when the old man's arm slid away, the knife was still clutched desperately in her hand.

The knife, small but sharp, cut through the ropes as easily as it had sliced through her skin. Her body moved sluggishly, stiff from being tied too long, and weak from shock and the indignities visited upon it. She