The messengers came for me in the middle of the night. I heard their heavy footsteps approach my cell but I did not move from where I lay on the old, ratty cot. Other prisoners heard them as well, and they rushed to the steel bars that caged them in, reaching their bony arms through them, willing themselves a taste of freedom. I almost laughed. Amateurs, I thought. They are more likely to be named ruler of this entire kingdom than they are to be let out of this dung-hole if they behave so desperately. So instead I waited, staring at the cracks on the ceiling, my hands behind my head. There was an interesting one, directly above my face, that vaguely resembled a bitten apple.
When they had reached my cell, five armed guards in tow, I finally raised my head. And I immediately recognized my visitors. In fact, they were the last people I had spoken to before I was thrown into jail and it had happened merely a fortnight ago.
I had been on a mission, or so I thought.
"Why'd you have to go and kill him for?" A voice asked from the door I burst down minutes before. But I had heard him coming and so I calmly wiped my bloodied knife on my tunic.
We were in the back ally of a pub. It had rained earlier that day and the air was ripe with the odour of damp, sweaty people and mud. The mud was everywhere. I stood in what had once been an animal pen, but the wooden fence had long fallen down, and the trough was knocked over and rotted. There were no longer any animals, and thus, no hay to soak up the mud and provide solid footing. I knew the shoes I was wearing would not survive when I sunk another three inches into the mess. From the open door behind me, I could hear the merry sounds of men drinking away their sorrows, their worries, and their responsibilities. Oblivious to what I had just done, they clinked their glasses and laughed heartily as the tart, amber liquid drenched their clothes. When the city of Tandem despaired, the pubs flourished.
Another man joined the first. I could tell from his shuffling footsteps that he was heavier than his companion, though perhaps shorter. "Not that he was innocent or anything," He said, nudging the body with his boot.
With my back still to them, I contemplated my options. I would have to kill them as well. Even this mission was only supposed to involve a single fatality, I couldn't have any witnesses. "Your accents are local, yet why do you talk to me in a foreign tongue?" I asked them in the language they used, for I am fluent in many.
"We heard you were good," the second man revealed, switching to his native language of Tandemic, "that's why we needed to talk to you."
"Well, now you have talked to me," I sheathed my knife in my belt and turned to face them, "but I am afraid I'm in a rush." And that is when I lunged.
I had knocked the taller man to the ground before his partner could even react. My knife was returned to my hands in the blink of an eye, where it belonged. The man left standing swung his arm at my head. But I was faster than him and as I ducked, he stumbled, leaving me the perfect opportunity to kick him swiftly in the chest. He backed up against the stone wall of the pub with a grunt and I lunged again, my knife poised at his throat.
"Wait!" He gurgled. I hated this part, the pleading. The selfish ones always begged. I pressed my knife further into his flesh and tiny rivulets of blood spilled out. "We need you," He gasped, "We have a job for you." This got my attention.
"Why didn't you make an appointment?" I asked angrily but relieved some of the pressure on the knife.
The man took a large gulp of breath before answering me. "You are not the easiest person to track down, for someone of my social standing that is. We had to convince that brute there," He motioned my most recent assignment, "to attack the Duke's daughter. We know the Duke is not the most, um, forgiving man."
That he was not, if the fact that he hired me was any evidence. "Well it seems you have found me. Now what is it you want me to do?" I asked and he explained the assignment. I should have known better. I should have known these men weren't as harmless as they appeared. They had, after all, convinced a man to set himself up for certain death. But I must have not been paying attention and that was my first mistake. I left them, both alive, with a simple "I'll consider it."
That, I realized as I watched them through the bars of my cell, was my second mistake. Letting them live, I mean. Though I saw with satisfaction that the taller one still sported a gruesome, yellow-green bruise around his left eye.
"Nice shiner," I said to him with a smirk and was even more satisfied when he snarled at me.
The other man pointed in my direction and the guards stepped forward in unison. One unlocked the door to my cell, and the others rushed in, I suppose to stop me from escaping. I mentally laughed; if I had wanted to escape, five guards and two inexperienced fighters would not have stopped me. It was, of course, a matter of escaping the harsh winters of Mount Simeli, which surrounded the prison. My hands were yanked behind my back and cuffed together. The shackles were attached to a chain that was secured to another guard. I was led to a small table in a dim light room and forcefully pushed into a rickety, old chair. My visitors each took a seat on the opposite side of me as the guards assumed positions around the room.
"So nice to see you again," I said to the men, "I'm sorry, I didn't catch your names before you were turning me in to the police."
"We're dreadfully sorry about that," The chubbier man said before his companion elbowed him in the gut. In a slightly pained voice he continued, "I'm Mr. Pedlar, Tandem's mayor and this is Mr. Carson, the banker."
"Look," the tall one said, "You already know what we need you for. If you agree to complete the task you will not only be granted freedom from this prison, you will also be handsomely rewarded."
It was true that my only chance of leaving this damn cellar was with a escort to provide food and shelter from the cold. But could Pedlar and Carson really give me my freedom? If I chose to fulfil their demands, well, let's just say I'm wasn't sure I wanted the life that it left me with. But when the alternative was prison, what choice did I have? Did I really want to live the remainder of my life in this hell hole?
"We are worried about our city." Said Chubby, "Your city. Soldiers from Faraway ride in every week. They take our people's money, they knock over the food stands, soiling people's means of living. I've even seen them beating children just for accidentally getting in their way! It's getting worse and worse and I fear that the city of Tandem will collapse if we do not take matters into out own hands. So please, will you help us?"
I looked Carson in the eyes, then Pedlar. What choice did I have. With a heartfelt sigh, I sold my soul, not only to the mayor, the banker and the candlestick maker, but also to a new life. One, I wasn't so sure I wanted. "I'm in," I said and I shook their hands. "Let's go kill the King."
I am an assassin. I was born with blood on my hands and so it must have been so. My father blamed me for my mother's death, though how a helpless child in the womb has any control over that sort of thing, I have no idea. But ever since I took my first breath, my father has sneered at me with pure disgust. I got my first taste of his true hatred for me when I was six years old. I refused to eat the cabbage on my plate and he struck me across the face so hard, I was flung backwards against the wall. I broke my collar bone in two different places.
When I was eight years old, I'd had my fair share of scars and bruises. That was also the year I ran away. Of course, an eight year old doesn't know the first thing about running away and I had only made it as far as Tandem before I ended up frozen, starving, and barely conscious, living on the streets. That was when Aleksander found me. He took me in and nursed me back to health. When I was strong enough, he gave me a choice. I could either take a pouch of coins and be on my way, or I could stay, live in his home and eat his food, as long as I agreed to work for him. I was smart enough to realize that the pouch of coins would only last me one month, and then I would be back in the position Aleksander found me in.
He trained me in his line of work. I learned speed, agility, and endurance. I learned how to be graceful, attentive, and deceiving. Aleksander taught me stealth, he showed me how to disappear, how to pick locks and how to escape. Every night, he would trap me in various devices and if I was not out of them by morning, I would not get any breakfast. I learned several herbs and poisons that would put grown men to sleep, or even kill. Above everything, I learned to kill. The first weapon I held was a hunting knife. Aleksander taught me to throw it with precision, until I hit the bullseye every time. I got to know every possible weapon, until each was merely an extension of my body. Swords, daggers, rapiers, bows, maces, and spears. I practiced and practiced until I earned Aleksander's nod of approval. But that still wasn't enough.
Once I had mastered every tool Aleksander tossed my way, he told me I must relearn them using my opposite hand. As a challenge, Aleksander brought in various opponents for me to fight with my right hand tied behind my back. I lost only once. I turned Aleksander when I had finished off the final opponent. "Forgive me, Master, for deceiving you" I said, my head bowed. "My left is my natural hand. I only learned the right hand because that is what you taught me." When I dared glance glance up, it wasn't disappointment that showed on his face as I had feared, but praise. Finally after two years of training, I had earned Aleksander's praise.
And then I was sent off to work. I made my first kill at ten years old. It was a thief. He had stolen many sheep and cattle from the villagers, leaving them hungry and with no food for the winter. He didn't even see me, didn't even hear my knife as it sailed through the air until his struck him directly in the heart. Dead in an instant. I hadn't even hesitated, imagining the criminal as one of Aleksander's training dummies.
I remember how I felt in that moment, and I will remember it for as long as I live. I wanted to bolt, leave and never have to see this scene again. I could put it in the back of my mind, to forget about it. But my knife was still embedded in the man's chest, and if there was one thing I treasured, it was my knives.
On shaky legs, I hobbled over to where the dead body lay. Dead at my hands. The words rang through my head. I griped the handle of my blade and with a sickening slurp, yanked it free. Only then did I allow myself to look at his face, and it was nothing like the training dummies. His glassy eyes were open and staring right at me. With a tiny yelp, I jumped back. The expression that was now eternally plastered on his face showed no sign of fear or surprise; he had no idea he was going to die.
Dead at my hands. His blood on my hands. I squeezed my eyes shut and pressed on my temples, willing my subconscious to keep quiet. I forced myself to think about the families that would have enough to eat, not the one that had lost a member. I willed myself to see this man as a criminal, to see the good I had done for this city in ridding it of him. With this new mantra, I cleaned my knife and disposed of the body in the river as my Master had taught me. Aleksander nodded at me when I returned. He treated this as no more than our usual training exercises. Only once, after he had tied my hands and feet behind my back, did I allow myself to remember the dead criminal at the bottom of the river. And then I swallowed down my feelings, and began to unbind myself.
Before long, I became the best assassin Tandem had ever seen. Of course, no on had actually laid eyes on me. (If they did, I saw to it that was the last thing they saw.) No one even knew my name, let alone my age. Imagine if everyone found out they were only terrified of a teenager?
I even branched out. Leaving Aleksander and Tandem behind, I did some work in surrounding cities for some time. Killing became a way of life for me. Never again did those dead, glassy eyes haunt me again. I was fearless, ruthless, and powerful. I quickly gained a reputation and landed the title of the best assassin in the entire province. Not something to be taken lightly, I'll have you know.
When I eventually returned to Tandem, I saw my city in the worst of it's recession. The streets were filthy, drenched in muck and filled with a surprising amount of homeless people. One could barely walk through the streets without being groped at by dirty, scrawny hands, begging for food. Worse was the stench. The rank odour of decaying bodies, sweat, and animal manure all mingled together had the power to make a grown man keel over. I was disgusted. My own city had gone to ruins and I was determined to find out whose fault that was, and make them pay.
It didn't take long. Only a few days had passed when I saw the soldiers ride in. And it was no mystery where they were from, if the golden dove embossed on their chests was any indication. These were Faraway's soldiers – the King's soldiers. As the men in armour galloped through our streets, not caring if they ran over anyone, they wreaked havoc. Tax collection, I learned, was their purpose, yet they had no remorse if they caused a little destruction on the way.
The King, it appeared, was stupid. He ruled over the whole province yet only saw fit that he take care of Faraway, his home city. I did not know much about the King, only that he was widowed some years ago. He threw massive parties where all the townspeople sung and danced all through the night and day. No one from Faraway was starving or homeless; the King saw to that. And so on and on these parties went, and on and on our taxes were spent. It seemed that as Faraway flourished, other cities diminished. How the King did not see that over half of his ruling land was suffering, I did not know, so I saw to it that each time his soldiers came to collect taxes, he was left with a few less good men in armour.
This is why I find my current situation slightly ironic. I am dressed in the finest silk that has ever touched my skin and standing on the softest velvet rug I have ever sunk my feet into. As I look down at the waterfall of pearled, silk skirts that surround me, I smile, imagining myself in the life of luxury and I don't even mind that I'm actually going to have to wear a corset from now on. I turn my head to the man on my right and gaze up at him through my eyelashes. He smiles down at me, foolishly thinking that my own display of happiness was for him. A priest's voice drones on in the background, but all I can think about is the plan and how it is finally coming together. I don't need to fake the look of elation on my face. When the priest finally finishes with a flourished "You may now kiss the bride," the man unwinds his arms from mine and turns me to face him. The King is absolutely besotted with me and as his lips near mine I can't help but think about how this part of the plan worked out so well. He draws back slowly, looking down at me with pure adoration. I am reminded once more of my first kill. The King, like the criminal, is completely clueless. He has no idea that in two weeks time, I will kill him.
We turn to face the cheering crowd and the King directs his beaming smile to a young girl in the front row. Her deathly pale hands clutch a bouquet of flowers. Some of the petals get caught in her black curls as she blows a kiss in our direction. She, I note with a scowl, was not part of the plan. I contemplate how I am going to handle my new stepdaughter as I graciously wave at the people congratulating me. She has such a stupid, pretentious name too. Oh, what was it again? Right. Snow.