Ten years ago, the Empire needed the king of Figaro dead, and a fledgling assassin needed a job.
Author's Note: Sometimes I get an inexplicable urge to write in second-person. Note that there's some fudging of the timeline here (just how much depends on how old you think Relm is in her optional flashback), but considering that the game's creators seem to have been able to add two to twenty and get eighteen, I figure that I'm just getting into the spirit of the math. ;)
Wrap it all in velvet-- the knives, the tools, the tiny vial that brings death creeping up from the inside. Five hundred thousand, they said, but only a tenth up-front. They want you because you have no name, no history, and no trail winding back to their service. They only half-expect you to succeed, but if you fail, they expect you not to survive.
Your own expectations are split, as well. You don't have the level of experience needed, even factoring in your days as a thief, and your record, while impressive enough for a novice, is hardly the stuff of legend. They are prepared for you to fail and have probably planted something on you that will point to Narshe or Doma. You aren't well-versed enough in high culture to know what it is.
You should care more about this, but the Reaper will catch you one day, no matter how far you run. At least tonight the odds are even.
The sand is cool and pale in the moonlight, as if the desert is a living thing that dies each night with the sun. Bodies are still warm when you leave them, or, long ago, already cold when you came across them; you wonder how long it takes. You were in too many pieces to keep time when the fire went out of her.
Stop. You try to focus, but the sands are dead and the stars are staring. Interceptor rubs his head against your hand and whines, prompting you to scratch him behind the ears. The motion soothes you.
You couldn't kill someone who wanted to die. Maybe if he had been sleeping, or engrossed in a book, or kicking and gurgling because it was your first job and you were still clumsy with a garrote...
You aren't killing Baram every night, no matter what the bartender would say. You're killing her.
The castle is near now, defended by a moat of moon-bright sand. From the cover of a dune, you peer at the walls in search of watchmen.
There are assassins who refuse to kill anyone but their targets, citing either esoteric ethical codes or a devotion to the challenge. Others kill whomever they can put in their way and use the money as an excuse. Neither variety lasts long.
A common mistake, you have learned, is to attempt detachment by viewing people as noisy, mobile furniture. Far better to take their humanity into account. The trick is to understand them, heart and mind, and not to care.
Your first spare was bored, staring out over the streets and perhaps thinking of someone who makes the daily routine worthwhile. If he had been a few feet farther from the door, you could have ignored him. Instead you crept up from behind, a ripple in the shadows, and slipped in through the throat.
You almost managed, but you caught yourself wondering if there were children.
Tonight you have been ordered to kill no one but your target and to leave no traces of your presence. When you see the guard staring listlessly over the desert, you shift your mask enough to blow the dog whistle. And you think, as he goes to investigate the barking, Maybe you saved a father, Interceptor.
But you don't care.
The hook catches on the sill, and a few tugs prove it sturdy. You slide up the rope like a raindrop in reverse, then spool it up after you. The last time you left a rope dangling from a window, you took a crossbow bolt in the shoulder from an alerted tenant. When Baram saw the scar, he jeered at you for your carelessness. He never told you how he lost his eye.
For your blood, you took away just enough to drink down the pain. Better to break even than attract a counterweight, you thought, but Baram had lived as if he never expected a reckoning. "You think too small," he told you once, pulling you away from a store window. "Where would you be without me?" Still in Zozo, you imagine, or perhaps under it.
You're always under something.
They offered you five hundred thousand as if the number would still your heart. You once stabbed a man for an empty wallet, but it wasn't murder if he was still breathing when you ran. Baram had disapproved, because Baram attached a mercenary value to life. "Simple math," he explained. "Blood's hotter than gold. You can kill for shoes in Zozo, but folks in Jidoor are ten thousand or better."
The conductor was worth a pair of kings. You wonder if his family was proud.
Shake your hear, clear it away, and turn finesse against the window's seal. You slip inside as silently as the night air.
The room is heavy with dust and crowded with royal heirlooms too cheap to display but too dear to dispose of. A few years ago, you would have already begun filling your sack, grabbing stacks of golden plates that would later prove to be made of brass and sentiment. Now you slide past them, disturbing their dust as little as possible. Leave no traces, they said, and you are too new to afford a blow to your reputation.
The door eases open under your glove, swinging into a dark hall cut with shutter-sliced moonlight. Portraits hang between the windows and are illuminated only in slivers. Years of monarchal authority, and nothing remains to show for it but a colorless ear in a neglected hall. Not even kingdoms are worthwhile.
You reach the door without incident. It isn't even locked.
She was worthwhile. She took in stray dogs and wounded strangers alike, without question or demand, and formed a warm white shield against her neighbors' whispers. The old man never liked you, but she was always quick to defend your honor, what little you could claim, and even when you told her the truth, she only stroked your hair and talked of sunrises.
In return, you gave her the seed that devoured her from the inside.
There are lights here, but few and dim so as not to disturb the king's slumber. The guards in front of the curtain stare vacantly in the wrong direction. Your path is clear and black, as long as you are silent.
"Stifling in here," one mutters. You freeze, flattening yourself against the wall, as he cracks open a window and lets moonlight cut a line through the path ahead of you. Insect chirps abrade the silence.
You pause when you reach the edge of your cover, watching dust swim in the ray. They told you to wear blue, the real color of midnight, but you can't let go of symbols. Holding on will be the death of you.
She always talked about newness and beginnings, the great wheel of life, and how miracles bloom from tragedy. Weeds bind her bones now; there is nothing beautiful there.
When the guards yawn, you dart through the light to be swallowed again by the darkness on the other side. It shouldn't mean anything, but the feeling runs clattering through your mind and echoes through your concentration.
You wish you had velvet for your brain.
The stopper comes free with an almost inaudible squeak. You remember, in the raw place in the back of your mind, when the pop of a cork punctuated good fortune. Years of toasting stolen bottles with Baram are drowned out by the night when she told you that everything was different now, that she didn't care what they thought, and that the only worthwhile magic was cast with promises and rings. You hadn't realized how easily things could change again.
Things are changing now, all around you, and the salt of the tides is leeching you dry.
Stop. Don't let your hands shake. You are alone with your target, the swish of the curtain having been swallowed by cricket-song, and you have only to administer the poison. Think of the money, which is quietly unimportant to you. Don't wonder--
You have dropped into the darkest cover even before you identity the sound as footsteps. "Are you restless, your highness?" asks the guard who spoke earlier.
"A little, yeah. That dog woke me up."
"His majesty has slept soundly."
"Heh, I'm not surprised. I'm just heading out for some air."
"As you wish, your highness."
"Why're you guys always so formal? You both saw me in diapers."
A pause. "Will it please your highness to wear a coat?"
Another pause, then a sigh. "Yeah, okay. Nanny'd box my ears if I didn't."
There are princes, they said. Twins. You can guess at their value to your employers as either Imperial pawns or the fulcra of civil war. You can guess, but you were told only that you must leave the sons untouched when you take the father.
They can afford to lose another parent. They have better blood in them than you ever did, and there will be others around to shape them into adults. They won't dig through garbage and cut the rings from a dead woman's fingers because they're too hungry to be squeamish.
You shouldn't be thinking about this at all.
When the sound of the prince's footsteps have faded, you rise again, holding the vial carefully. Pour it slowly, they told you. Moisten his tongue with drops the size of tears, and his body will never know that it has swallowed. Perhaps they assumed that you have never used poison before.
Bar the gates, but you're already inside, already setting ruin in motion. It's too late to regret, too late to pull out, too late to say her hips are too narrow--
The old man stirs without waking. You tuck the vial away, wrapping it back into silence, and slide away from shadow to shadow.
The window is waiting as you left it, closed but unlocked. Leaving is always the worst part. For all the precautions you take coming in, you can never shake the sense that you're forgetting things, leaving pieces of yourself everywhere. You dreamt once that your body was falling apart on a job-- first fingers, then ears, then strips of flesh-- and your clothing did nothing to hold you together. Part of you would be unsurprised to turn now and see yourself strewn over the dust.
You don't look back as you slip outside and pull the window shut. You don't even shake anymore.
Clouds have drifted over the moon, granting you cover, but you still feel exposed as you take the distance between the shadow of the tower and the nearest dune. Once you are out of sight of the castle's watch, there will be no one to discern your blot upon the sands. You remind yourself, but the stars are myriad and sharp, a million sparks of life caught just before the eyes go dark. Some things refuse to die.
You are almost clear when the restless prince rounds the base of the tower and pauses.
Even at this distance you are certain that he is squinting, trying to separate the cold shadows from the living one. You play two short bursts on the dog whistle, and Interceptor rushes across the sand, howling. The boy is distracted long enough for you to slip out of sight behind the dune.
When you let the whistle fall, you notice the tremor in your hands. You will them steady.
You dreamt once of the child, watched the bundle of blankets rise and entwine the growing figure of a girl whose features melted ever closer to hers until at last she hung before you in the darkness, mouthing your name as blood poured down her thighs.
Stop. It was only once.
You meet as arranged, at a pub in South Figaro where the tables buzz with rumors that the king has fallen gravely ill (and nearly a month since the last Imperial visit, to the vexation of those whose who suspect Ghestal's hand). Your contact wanted to meet you in a field in the dead of night, but you aren't quite that stupid. Just stupid enough, apparently, to take a job that makes your survival an inconvenience.
That the money is passed quietly under the table indicates less that the Empire abides by its word than that your contact has weighed your future utility favorably against the bag of gold. "We underestimated you," he says, and you give him no acknowledgement. "A man like you might find a place with us."
You've heard that before. The shine has gone out of it.
Five hundred thousand, and they never met you. Even history is their whore.
You buy Interceptor a sirloin, replace your worn rope, and cannot recall later how you wasted the rest.