(c) 2008 Kim Knox
The sun had not yet risen on a winter day and the cold, dank air chilled me to the bone. The smell of rotten potatoes, of the damp thatch on the roofs of the tumble of houses worked their way up my nose. I ignored them. The narrow alley, grey-brown like the rest of the stinking City twisted away into the distance.
The slither of a rat’s foot over the fungal floor made me twitch. Taking a calming breath, I stopped just outside the circle of weak yellow light cast by the single torch. The solid wooden door lay thick with bolts. New iron gleamed, no rust spots on the inch thick padlock.
I scratched a hand through unwashed hair stared at the dirt that smeared the pale skin of my fingers. My bones ached. I leaned back against the wet stone and shivered as the water seeped through the hole worn through my leather armour, through the rip in my once-white shirt. My own breathing rasped and fogged the air.
He was behind that door.
I twisted the gold earring, feeling the cold metal push through the flap of skin. A symbol of who I used to be. I winced against the sudden pain as the gold dug deep into the skin. My fingers came away darkened with blood. I let out a slow breath. I had to stay calm if I was to finish what I’d started.
My spine straightened and I pushed myself away from the wall. I was…had been…a Commander in the Imperial Guard. Now I was just a hired sword, working a city I hated. But it got me closer to him. He wouldn’t recognise me now, not with the scar that lined my jaw; a savage run of tissue, silver against white skin.
There was a time when I wouldn’t have skulked around a little known back door waiting for him to appear. I, my family, had been important, respected. Until I made the mistake of bringing into my circle a man I thought I knew. I know I was besotted. He had a pretty face and a mind that could twist and turn to make me laugh.
My family—we were Council Members, high ranking Civil Servants, Captains. A tight group, wealthy and moderately powerful. And I destroyed that. My eyes narrowed on the silent, bolted door.
I had help.
Marton’s clever words turned one family member against the other. The Court was a dangerous place to work, we all knew that, and rumour lost fortunes, cost lives. He took My family money and little by little robbed us of our name. Until even I, just a soldier, couldn’t ignore it.
What made my gut burn is that I didn’t know; that I turned to him to try to find help. Family’s always carried vendettas; it was accepted. But I was the chink, the simple, simple Guard.
I had to resign my commission as my family found further disgrace in the supposed embezzlement of Imperial Funds. Now we were scattered. My parents hid somewhere in the north on a plot of land hidden from the bailiffs. My brother and cousins wandered in the eastern desert. And me? I still haunted the City, living hand to mouth, working for any lowlife whose loose tongue could tell me of the man I sort.
He used me to worm his way into the heart of my family. I never thought that I was so gullible, but I didn’t see the workings of his mind. The evidence came later, after. Through him, I found myself in a stinking alley waiting for him to appear, fresh from the latest scheme.
It had been almost a year. I believed I was close.
The door opened, a slow, groan of shifting metal in the silence of the pre-dawn air. More light seeped out, brightening the yellowed glow.
My body tensed. The short sword slipped into my hand, fingers tightening around the worn hilt. A relic from my time as part of the Imperial Guard…a professional’s weapon. Years of training made my movements cat-silent, using the deepened shadows beyond the light to hide me.
My heart lodged in my throat. Finally, I was here. The scene I had rehearsed over and over in my head would soon happen.
There’d be no gloating, no shouting his name. He was a fine soldier and he’d have bodyguards. I’d stab the blade deep into his chest. Perhaps his eyes would stare, perhaps even recognise the woman he’d destroyed. If he did, that would be a bonus.
I wanted him dead. Dead for my mother, my father, for my grandfather who had died of the shame of his disgrace. For myself.
Blood pushed faster through my veins as I edged to the open doorway. A man, dressed in a black— No, not him. I let out a tight breath. He stood in the light, blond hair glowing in the guttering torch light. A burly bodyguard his hand on the jewelled-pommel of a sword. His dark eyes scanned the darkness assessing the threat
And then he was there.
My heart lurched. Still the same face that I had cursed every night. Sandy hair in that untidy mop with his tall, lean fighter’s frame. The same pale blue eyes, one’s that I’d thought so clever. My stupid emotions hid their coldness and calculation.
“Not quite.” The tip of my blade grazed the bodyguard’s neck. “Is Marton paying you enough? Enough to die?” I saw fear in his dark gaze. And then he was gone; escaping into the shadows. “Obviously not.”
That surprised me. Marton remembered. I held those pale eyes and saw something else I didn’t expect. Want. And… love…? I ignored the burst of memory. Those feelings had burned to ash a year ago. They had.
He took a single step forward. “Why did you leave me?”
Fingers tightened around my sword hilt. I had to remember that the man couldn’t be trusted; that he had destroyed my life, my family. “Leave you?” I barked the words. “Because of you, my family was disgraced…slaughtered.”
“Milla…” The voice that could slip over my skin like honey. Involuntarily, I backed away, my blade lifting. He would not weave his magic around me a second time. “I tried to warn you.” He scratched fingers through his loose hair and let out a ragged breath. “But my life just erupted. Soldiers. People I thought were friends turning away; or worse blackening my name.” His eyes held mine, almost entreating. “And you were gone.”
Lies. More of his lies.
“I searched for you. I gave up all hope of ever seeing you again.” His fingertips stroked along the edge of my jaw; tracing the run of scar tissue. “So much pain,” he murmured. The brush of his palm against my cheek. “When we could’ve been together.”
To melt into that touch; let the pain of the year ease away… Tempting. So very tempting. His scent wove again through my senses and with it came the remembered taste of him. My eyes closed. And I let Marton underestimate me. “Together?”
“Always,” he said. His voice softened and his body slid closer, bringing back too many images. Ones I had denied. “The way it was meant to be.”
He thought I was still the love-clouded idiot he had gulled so many months before. “Meant to be.”
Marton’s fingers edged over my body, my spine, so slowly… And I almost smiled. A faint clink. Something the manufacturers had never been able to disguise.
He staggered away. My short sword slithered out of the hole in his gut. He stared at hands covered in is own blood. The thin blade, triggered by the movement of his wrist still jutted out over his right palm.
“You should have thought to grease the mechanism,” I said, watching as his knees buckled and he crumpled to the wet-cobbled floor.
“I did search for you, Milla.” He coughed out a spray of blood with a harsh laugh. “I almost stopped…all of it. For you.”
“I loved you. But I knew you’d kill me.”
I wanted to laugh, but the man sickened me. Weaving his lies to the end. “You were about to stab a hole in my back!”
“Damn it, Milla I was scared.” A trembling hand, scrubbed at his face. He stared again at the blood coating him. He sank back against the damp wall. The glow of light washed over his paled face. “This year’s been a nightmare. Knowing you were out there. Hunting me.” His eyes closed. “I was stupid to take the contract.”
Yes. I wanted to know just who had paid him to destroy my family. “Who hired you?”
Marton’s weak laugh had my gut tight. I didn’t feel sorry for him. I didn’t feel anything for this man. I didn’t. “Don’t worry.” His voice was fading. “Councillor Sandea paid for involving me in this mess.” His pale eyes found mine again. His breathing came shallow and more of his blood stained his mouth. “Forgive me, Milla.” Almost his last breath. “Please.”
I wanted to hate him; feel the burn of anger that had fired me for a year. But I found myself kneeling, water soaking through to the skin, watching my own hand hover over his jaw. I felt the brush of stubble under my fingertips. “I’m sorry we met, Marton.”
A smile tugged at his lips. “I’m not.”
His chest rose and fell. I watched a strange peace drift down over his face.
He was gone.
My throat ached with tears I would not cry. I cursed. But still tears burned and then slipped over my eye lashes to wet my cheeks. Marton was dead. I pressed my lips to his cool forehead and tried to tell myself that my heart hadn’t cracked. Again.
The noise of the alley, of the tumble of rooms with their golden light, penetrated my senses. I heard the low murmur of voices. “Goodbye, Marton.” And I allowed myself the last touch of his cold face before I stumbled away.
I would head for that hidden plot of land in the North. I knew nothing about farming; but the thought of feeling grey-black soil between my fingers; of watching something grow and prosper swelled threw me. I wanted to put death far behind me.
I glanced back to the body still slumped in the doorway. My Imperial sword glittered in the cast light. I pulled at my earring and crushed it under my boot heel. That part of my life was over.
Briefly, I closed my eyes.
One day the guilt might fade. I quickened my pace, running as raised voices followed me up the alley. And on that day, I could forgive us both.