They rode under the shadow of the North Gate, where not two months ago they’d displayed the severed head of her beloved on a pike.
Now enemies surrounded her on all sides, grim, pitiless faces holding no compassion for the bound girl riding in their center. Beyond the wall, the castle lay in wait at the city’s heart, spearing the restless heavens in a proclamation of its triumph and a portent of her doom.
Her hands rested in her lap, clasped with a serenity she did not feel. The rope burn on her wrists – a punishment won during a fruitless struggle – throbbed under the frayed strands of hemp. She shifted slightly, trying to slide the abraded flesh out from under the source of irritation, but the burly arms of the king’s henchman behind her on the warhorse clamped around her – painfully, warningly, reminding her of the futility of escape – and she stilled once more.
What was a rope burn compared to what awaited?
Dust swirled up from the dirt street, stinging her eyes and coating her already parched throat. She looked up to where carrion birds winged across the agate gray sky.
Give me rain, she prayed, Let at least the heavens weep when my own eyes are dry, dead wells.
Part of her still wanted to fight, to flee, to refuse to go through with this.
But it was far too late to back out now.
Nobody in the king’s party suspected it had all been planned, her discovery by the king neatly arranged, the faux chase executed to perfection; her capture foreordained by conspirators. She’d fought like a wildcat and been cuffed, restrained and trussed like a feral beast.
But she had not been searched.
The dagger sewn into her corset weighed on her like a burden she still could not bear, despite the fact that she’d trained for this day for two long months.
How could she do this?
She should never have let them persuade her. She was a woman. Women by nature were loving, forgiving and nurturing – and this called for her to be the complete opposite: hating, unforgiving and deadly. How could a young girl become so after having lived seven years in the peaceful and soul-soothing atmosphere of a convent?
At one time she’d believed she could do it, but so much had changed in the past two months that she was sure of only one thing.
She had failed.
When they’d come to her just over two months ago, begging her to leave the convent and aid them in their devious plan, she’d tried to make them choose someone else, tried to make them see reason; but they were adamant that it must be her and utilized every method they could to persuade her.
One of them had cruelly resurrected the past. “He killed your mother! Your father! Your brothers and sisters. Who will avenge their deaths if not their only living child and sibling?”
Her grief for her family, however, had passed years ago, and her temperament was not a vengeful one. When she remained stonily unmoved, another had tried.
“He left you penniless and alone in the world, thrust upon the charity of others. We’ll reward you well for your service and make sure you’ll never want for anything again.”
But her desire for an earthly reward proved too weak a motivation for sullying the conscience of her soul.
A third, his eyes shining with fervor, exclaimed, “You know he’ll kill again if he goes free! How many other families must die at his hand before he’s stopped?”
Those future families, however, were naught but nameless faces to her, too abstract a concept to incite her to save them.
Then the last member of the delegation, the only who’d not yet spoken, stepped forward and offered her a handful of soft words. “He killed Everard.”
And with that simple statement, her entire world had spun, cracked, started to crumble. She stared at him in stunned disbelief.
He continued relentlessly. “He discovered that Everard warned you and helped you escape. He was caught, drawn and quartered for treason. The pieces of his body hang above the North Gate to discourage others.”
His eyes, apologetic even as they were unyielding in his plain-featured face, drove home the truth of his words.
Her broken spirit wept.
Everard. The king’s greatest spy. Her cousin. The man who had saved her life, her spirit, and her will to live when everything within her had wanted to wither, shrivel up and die that terrible day when she was sixteen… when she’d come into the house from the garden and found her entire family murdered, their throats slit, soaked in garish pools of blood on the parlor floor.
She’d been too horrified to speak, too grief-stricken to cry. Unable to do aught but stand with her fist shoved in her mouth to stifle the scream of agony that would rend her into a thousand pieces if she released it.
She might have turned to stone if a knock hadn’t jerked her out of her shocked daze. She’d opened the door, too stunned to think clearly and realize she shouldn’t, and a young boy had handed her the slip of paper that had dragged her out of the mire.
As she read it, shock replaced grief and awe made her forget for a few moments the horror of what lie behind her. It was a scrawled note from the king’s chief spy, Everard, her cousin, who had come to save them, only to find he’d arrived too late to save any but her. He gave her instructions to flee at once for the convent on the remote island of Ninearn – before the king’s assassin returned for her.
The note had given her purpose, Everard’s protection had given her hope, and survival had given her something to occupy her mind other than the staggering tragedy she could not bear to dwell on.
She’d followed his directions, made it safely to the convent and had lived there for seven years, exchanging frequent letters with him.
By the end of the third year she was hopelessly in love with him, and although he said nothing to betray any depth of affection for her, his promise that he would come for her one day and they would vanish together where no one would never find them gave her something to live for, something to relish when the loneliness of her convent cell suffocated her.
Then one day an urgent missive came from him.
The king’s spies had found her. His highest assassin was on his way. She must hide in the catacombs, in a crypt – in the deepest, darkest crypt the nuns could find…and she must pray as she never had before that he would not find her.
The mother superior wept while shutting her up in the tomb, but Rebecca didn’t. She clutched close her letters from Everard. They gave her the strength to wait out the darkness, to stave off the encroaching threat of death, to ignore the fact that the king’s assassin stalked the halls above searching for her, his blade hungry for her blood.
When he finally left, Rebecca had been freed and her soul soared with hope. Surely Everard would come for her now! The danger had grown too great for her to remain.
But no word had come.
Everard had not come.
Now she knew that Everard would never come.
He’d been callously, mercilessly executed for saving her. The one hope she had, cut down. The man she loved more than her own soul, brutally put to death.
For the first time in her life, a spark of hatred roused in her sleeping soul, awakening a core of loathing inside her so contradictory to what she’d been taught in the convent that her heart seemed to shrink and blacken. And yet…
This craving for revenge must have been lying dormant within her all these years, because at the same time, the horror of finding her parents and her siblings with their throats slit came rushing back. The memory of her grief reared up, resurrected in all its vile glory, her uncontainable sorrow swelling like a living specter to remind her of what he was responsible for.
And now Everard…
Hatred possessed her whole, so deep and so foul and so absolute that it left no room for doubt.
She could kill him. She would kill him.
The conspirators had seen their victory blazing in her eyes. She would do it. Without Everard, her life meant nothing.
Without Everard, there was only this.
The mother superior had let her go with mourning in her gaze, knowing what damning path Rebecca was setting out on and yet uttering not a single word to stop her. She, too, was aware that he must be stopped. She, too, put aside her forgiveness to take judgment into her own hands.
She, too, believed Rebecca would succeed where none had before her.
Rebecca had returned to her stark cell and packed her meager belongings. She’d accompanied the men when they left.
They took her to the village just below the castle, where they secreted her in a small, solitary house – his small, solitary house – at the edge of the wood, which would be her home until the time was ripe for her to kill the king and free them all.
Because against all reason, against all belief, they had somehow convinced the king’s highest assassin to train her.
How they explained why they didn’t just pay him to kill the king himself, she didn’t know. How they explained why they’d chosen her, so unsuitable a vessel for the diabolical act required, she didn’t care. And how they’d persuaded him not to kill her, since he knew full well who she was… she didn’t care about this, either. Let him play his morbid game. She would play along with him, and in the end, she would win.
She would never forget the first moment she’d seen him standing on the threshold of his humble home. Straight dark hair, intent gray eyes set in a narrow, hawkish face. Lean and powerful, a thrumming energy to him as if he restrained a seething force within that he barely kept leashed. His every look penetrated the soul, bared every secret; his every touch brought with it a whisper of doom; his every movement slid through reality, elegant, graceful, and deadly. He spoke little, moved sparingly; he was still until action was necessary, quiet until words were essential.
This was the assassin who killed hundreds at the king’s behest.
The man she was to live with, spend every spare moment with.
The man who would train her to do the impossible.
She couldn’t do it, she cried inwardly that first moment – and then Everard’s memory rose in her mind, and she remembered that she could do this.
She must do this.
And so she moved into his cottage, slept in the small room that shared a wall with his and lay awake at night knowing he breathed on the other side of it. She let him do what the conspirators paid him to do…and because of him, her life descended into a mesh of wretched nights and blissful days.
In the evening, with the two of them isolated in an old dilapidated barn, he would show her how to move with stealth and how to kill quickly and lethally. He would wrap his arms around her and make her move with him, their bodies like one as they went through the motions of murder, the intimacy of him pressed up against her nearly as tortuous as what he made her do when he guided her hand, slitting the throats of pigs, of wounded wolves, of human corpses…
She felt sick every time, her soul withering bit by bit, night by night, as her body grew accustomed to having him close and her hand no longer stiffened under his touch or fought his will. To block out reality, she started to close her eyes and pretend they were locked in some kind of sensual dance – pretend his hand guiding hers was caressing and not slaughtering.
She trod dangerous ground with this imaginary refuge, and when she realized she was losing herself to a man she should despise, she desperately resurrected her love for Everard and clung to it as to an oak in the midst of a storm. She wanted to run from what was happening, but she had to see the charade through. For Everard, she consoled herself.
And for Everard, she found the strength to go on.
During the daytime she could shut out the darkness and death and closeness of the night and occupy herself with mundane daily tasks that brought her a measure of composure. Calin rarely spoke, rarely intruded on her thoughts, and more often than not he was absent, carrying out the king’s assignments in broad daylight, fearing no retribution. Even when home, he often left to go hunting, bringing back fowl and game to skin and cook.
For the first time in years, Rebecca ate well, having had little meat or variety of diet at the convent. Besides hunting game, Calin also often returned from the city bearing foreign delicacies for her to try, and although she wanted to reject anything from his hand, first fear and then something else bade her to accept his gifts. They brought her pleasure she did not speak of and guilt that she quietly smothered in her pillow at night.
Gradually, the food renewed her vitality and enabled her to block out the torment of the night and revel in a measure of happiness, making her daytime and nighttime selves so disparate that she seemed to split into two people: one slowly dying night by night and one slowly coming to life day by day.
Even now, as the horses clop-clopped through the dusty city streets, bearing her closer to the end, she remembered every single thought, every single detail of the day her soul came back to life…
The spade dipped into the soil, dug under it, and overturned the rich, dark earth. Pausing, Rebecca inhaled the pungent scent and watched a cream-colored worm wriggle blindly inside the fresh cavity. Dirt tumbled down the sides of the crevice like crumbled chocolate pattering gently over the writhing form, making her mouth water for the melting, exotic sweet decadence Calin had brought back for her to try the evening before.
Shaking the memory away, she forced her scrutiny back to the squirming creature.
She felt like that struggling being herself, twisting, turning, contorting herself every which way trying to orient herself in a world suddenly too bright for her eyes to make out. She’d come to Calin’s home in darkness, only to find moments of light, of freedom, that unfurled a desire for life in her soul. She ate well, chatted with the girls in the market, joked with the trader from the village when he came peddling supplies, decorated the house as she liked…
Decorated the house as she liked. That most of all, out of everything else, seemed to tell her ‘You have a place here. A place in this world. In this house.’
She rejected it, of course. She always would. But Calin had told her she could do with the house as she willed, and although in the beginning she’d done so in direct spite of him, trying to take all he had made and turn it into something silly and frivolous, her own plan had somehow turned against her. The house had become a place of refuge, a place that welcomed her because it was her touch that created it.
Closing her eyes, she pictured the bright yellow tulips in the vase on the stand by the door, remembering the way Calin’s fingertips traced lightly over them, very briefly, whenever he passed. No matter what flowers she set there, he never failed to acknowledge them with a gentle touch, almost as if it were a benediction.
Farther into the house, scarlet tulips reigned in vibrant solitude on the kitchen table, set in the center of the pristine white tablecloth Rebecca had purchased to cover the scarred old wood – to cover the gashes and scores rent as deep into its surface as the wounds on her own soul. A plush blue and gold rug lay before the hearth, and two paintings of girls dancing through meadows hung on the wall. Lace curtains fluttered at the windows…
Remembering now where those curtains had come from, Rebecca stilled, as if to move would disturb the waking memory.
That had been the day Calin had walked with her to the village.
She felt the breeze on her cheeks even now, the jostling crowd, the weight of the wicker basket in the crook of her arm. Again she saw the old woman knocked aside by a careless passerby, saw her tumble off the wooden platform; felt her own hand reach out – futilely…
But most of all she recalled how smoothly Calin had caught the woman before she hit the ground, as if he and the air had melded into one, joined for a single fluid instant to save that frail life.
How he’d moved that fast Rebecca would never know, but the image of it – the thrilling flawlessness of it – was burned into her mind forever.
He’d helped the old lady to her feet without saying a single word – that was his way – then he’d returned to Rebecca’s side, sparing her long, slow glance of his gray eyes before his gaze shifted to others, always watching, always aware, always prepared in case death was tracking him as he tracked it.
Rebecca had looked back and caught the chipper old woman’s black eyes. Baring her gums in a toothless grin, the old woman had given Rebecca an audacious wink.
A week later she’d appeared at the cottage bearing the curtains, insisting that Rebecca hang them even though the younger woman balked at accepting something that must have taken her months to finish – she’d seen the old woman’s knuckles, watched those twisted fingers move sluggishly through unresisting air. Moreover, she protested, the woman could sell the curtains for enough coin to feed her and her family for an equal number of months. But the old woman had brushed aside her protests. ‘Beauty for a life,’ she’d insisted, gummy smile genial but adamant. ‘Beauty for a life.’
Beauty for a life, Rebecca thought to herself now, watching the worm nose its way into a hole, squirm into it and vanish with a flick of its tail. Hiding away, it was. Afraid of the light. Rebecca almost wanted to crawl inside after it, unsure of what the light in her own heart meant.
Instead, she raised her face to the sky, basking in warmth of a sun that shone on, oblivious to the wretchedness or weakness of those below.
But no misery weighed on Rebecca.
She mourned it, that waning desolation, mourned the simplicity it had imparted her life, because she’d come here wanting to die, wanting naught but to learn the art of murder, to kill her pain, shrivel up and wither away.
Everything had been clear then; her course and her destruction set.
Now, she was no longer wasting away.
Now, she was blossoming.
Now, joy rushed through her veins, at the soft suppleness of soil yielding beneath her knees, at the caress of sunbeams on her cheeks, at the clothes warming her back, and she found herself humming.
She paused, knowing she should not give her bliss free reign, but the song would not be silenced.
It had been silenced too long, ever since the day she’d been singing in the garden while her family had been slaughtered.
But her voice longed to break free of that memory, yearned to shed the chains of sorrow binding the words it would sing, and – recklessly, rebelliously, flinging her joy back in her own face – Rebecca broke the lock and set the song free.
It slipped from her lips in a murmur that built in a gentle crescendo, expanding and growing and strengthening until her chest vibrated with the potency of it. It immersed her inside it, leaving her awash with exhilaration.
How she had missed this! The splendor, the exultation, the liberation.
And so she sang, kneeling in a row of strawberries, her straw hat festooned with blue ribbons and her golden curls tumbling down her back. Closing her eyes and lifting her face to the sky, she sent her glorious melody to the heaven, its ethereal beauty endowing the scene with an element of the divine.
Her spade slid forgotten from her grasp; the uprooted weeds tumbled from her gloved hand.
When she finally opened her eyes, her song a fragment on the wind, she saw Calin standing on the stone path, watching her with his intent gray gaze.
Her breath caught in her throat – for the merest second, she’d imagined a flash of emotion in them.
But the next instant his expressionless face betrayed nothing. He didn’t say a single word.
Just turned around and walked away.
That day had marked a change – in him and in her.
Whenever he was home, he never failed to come and watch her sing in the garden. And instead of the certainty she’d felt before, now she watched him with her brow crinkled in confusion, as if something lurked beneath his stony façade that terrified her more than the murderer in him did.
Why did he watch her? What did he see?
His gray eyes would follow her every move, his face untouchable, distant, indifferent, unmoved, and yet he would stand watching for as long as she endured kneeling.
When the first month passed and another began, she expected a change in their nightly routine; for him to start making her kill on her own…but he never did. It was always his hand over hers that pressed the dagger down, his hand over hers that made the slit, his hand over hers that took the life.
She asked him only once why he never forced her to kill on her own and how he expected her to assassinate the king when she still couldn’t even bear to kill a pig.
He measured her with his steady, empty gray gaze. “You need to hate to kill,” he explained finally, “and you’ve nothing against pigs and corpses. But once the king is done with you, your hate will live, and your hand will know what to do.”
His words had shaken her, driven the reality of her situation into her soul like a stake, and she threw herself into their lessons feverishly, determined to focus only on the end and ignore what would come before.
She lost herself even more as Calin’s presence at her back became her torment and her consolation; as he became her ally and her foe.
She no longer knew.
But she wanted to know.
She was standing by the window. Staring out at the honeysuckle and other plants right outside the house, some of the tulips vivid under the wan, pre-storm light. She’d planned on opening the window, but once she’d drawn the curtains back and tucked them over the hook, she couldn’t bring herself to invite in the kiss of the outside world.
Calin found her like that when he walked in.
She didn’t hear him, just saw him at the edge of her vision. It seemed he was looking at her – not that he had much else to look at in this sparse place.
His body angled away, mid-step to leaving.
“Do you like the curtains?” she asked, her voice too high – too springy.
His figure at the corner of her eye hesitated, then swept back toward her.
She swallowed, then moistened her lips. He passed out of sight behind her, and her head turned slightly before she caught it following him. She didn’t want to see him. That liquid movement of slender limbs shouldn’t fascinate her, no matter how hypnotic she’d found it last night when she’d watched him practice in the barn.
His leashed strength fitted into movement and murder.
“I think they let in light.” Again, her voice came too high-pitched and almost sing-songy false. “This place was a dungeon before. It needed light.”
“I like the curtains.” His voice came low, too close behind her, with that thrumming intensity running just below the surface.
How close behind her? Part of her breathlessly leaned back, wanting to feel his voice rumbling through her, its intensity and vibration against her spine, the power she had seen in him last night, his power, streaming through her…
Again she caught herself and gripped the windowsill, pinned herself there, firmly in place. She bowed her head, catching a flicker of motion outside: a butterfly alighting on the stem of a flowering plant, its wings splayed in vibrant azure and deep gold splendour beside mauve petals.
“They let in light,” she babbled on, but at least her voice had lowered a bit, although to her ears it sounded almost angry. “But at the same time, no one can see inside when you close them. They still hide what you’re doing.”
His fingertips brushed over the skin of her neck, the touch too intimate, but she held still for it, for him, every bit of her bated. Waiting.
“They don’t need to hide anything.” His mouth came close to her ear. “They could let in more light,” he murmured, “if they wanted to.”
Her knuckles turned white gripping the windowsill. “This place couldn’t take that much light,” she whispered. “Too much light, and you’d see only its flaws.”
He reached past her, making their position almost an embrace. His slim fingers cupped the curtains, material gathered under his caress and released from the hook in a single silken movement.
The curtains slipped down, shading the room, casting her in their shadow. Cutting them both off from the outside world.
“Then let there be dark.” His breath skimmed over her ear, down to her neck. “So no one can see what we do.”
He pressed his lips full against her flesh then, like a brand. It seared through her in answer to her darkest craving. Her knees buckled, locking together. Her lips parted and her head began to fall back against him, wanting more than his heat on the flesh of her throat, wanting it on her—
Lucidity splashed through her, and she twisted around, the ridge of the windowsill digging into her backside, Calin’s mouth and his hand and his gaze still a mere breath from her.
“I don’t like the dark,” she whispered.
Her trembling fingers groped for the curtains, taking three attempts to fasten them back over the hook.
Calin watched her bumbling, and only when her shaking hand fell back to her side did she realize how close they still were, and how he wasn’t touching her, and how she still wasn’t moving away.
“You don’t have to like the dark,” he said. “You just have to accept that it will find you wherever you hide.”
It was the next night that the peasants brought them a dying man so she could practice her art on living flesh.
At first she stood silent with shock, but when Calin shut the barn door, she screamed defiance and fought him. He was stronger, though, subduing her, twisting her around, forcing her hand to the deed.
Standing motionless in his arms afterward, she watched dry-eyed as the man’s blood surged and slowed; watched the life fade from his eyes. Then she spun on Calin and turned the bloody dagger on him.
He caught her wrists and slammed the one with the weapon against the wall, knocking it from her grip. Then he shoved her up against it and his body was against hers and he was kissing her with all the pent-up fury of a man driven too far. She went rigid, caught in shock and pleasure and horror all at once, his mouth moving intimately over hers, stroking and caressing until her resistance and her body and her soul all shuddered under him.
Some part of her screamed at her to run, but it was too little too late. Her resistance caved and her traitorous lips responded to his coaxing. Pleasure delved deep. An uncontrollable surge of desire sparked scalding life from her shameless body.
Would it have been like this with Everard?
The unbidden thought impaled her heart like a lance. Chilled to her marrow, she realized just who imprisoned her in his passionate embrace. She jerked her head away like a wild animal desperate to escape a trap that had irrevocably ensnared it.
Even knowing the snare had shut and she would carry it with her forever, though, she broke from Calin’s grip and stumbled for the barn door, bursting out into the cool night, her cheeks flushed and her soul torn in two.
What had she done?
She couldn’t breathe; she could scarcely see, blinded by searing tears of shame.
How could she fall in love with someone like Calin? She asked herself the same question over and over. It was the vilest betrayal of Everard, of her family; it was an overwhelming travesty, the greatest sin. She couldn’t afford it. It would weaken her resolve, endanger everything they’d worked for.
It would destroy her.
It had already destroyed her. Even now she recalled his lips on hers; their touch burned into her skin forever. How could she keep hate alive when passion had scorched it all away? It was defeat. Pure, immutable defeat.
And yet she would brazen out this farce. If she fled tonight, the conspirators would wash their hands of her. Calin would come after her. He’d finish the job he’d been given seven years ago… and Everard was no longer alive to protect her.
She was dead if she did the deed, and dead if she didn’t.
If she did it, at least she might save the kingdom. Save someone else’s worthless life.
And so she pulled herself together and vowed to continue as before, pretending the kiss in the barn had never happened.
An absurd resolve.
She felt Calin’s presence like a physical touch. His eyes followed her. He followed her. He stood too close, hovered too long, let every touch linger to the point of agony. The intensity of his grey eyes bored into her until she wanted to scream for him to stop invading what he’d already conquered. He was everywhere she didn’t want him to be.
She existed in a state of rigid control, commanding a body no longer entirely her own, a body wanting to bow to Calin’s will rather than hers.
Her hard-won resolution faltered the next morning when the villagers came with news that the king was coming through the next day.
“Be prepared,” they told her.
Be prepared? So soon?
But aloud she had said nothing, merely nodded and watched them leave, slapping one another on the back for a conspiracy plot well executed.
As soon as she turned away, Calin’s words rushed back. Once the king is done with you, your hate will live…
There was no saving her now…or rather, only one man lived who could, and he never would.
But one thing he could give her – or rather, take from her.
She’d be damned if she’d give the king her virginity.
Somewhere deep inside, she knew her priorities were horribly skewed. Part of her recognized it as a foreseeable imbalance from the impossible situation she’d been put in, but she accepted it.
Calin didn’t return till late in the evening, but she was up waiting, standing before the fireplace, biting her fingernails down to the quick and trying to wipe Everard and her family from her mind. They would get their revenge tomorrow, she promised. Tonight, she would reap what guilty pleasure she could from her last night in this life.
Calin saw her once he walked inside. He halted, staring, knowledge passing across his lean, sharp features, then he closed the door behind him and crossed over to her without a word. He buried his hands in her unbound hair, pulled her head back and lowered his mouth over hers.
This time she knew the trap was going to bleed her dry.
And she didn’t give a damn.
He loved her that night as she had never imagined a man could love a woman, and she clung to him as if she wanted to belong to him for all time. Though she knew she should feel disgusted with herself, her body tainted, her soul blackened, her womb sullied by a mercenary, she felt none of that. She felt sated and blissful and sleepy, and when he pulled her into his arms, she lay there content, an emotion foreign to her sweeping her heart away on its wings – an exultation, a freeing of her soul. It took her a moment to define it.
For these few moments, in Calin’s close embrace, with the world and its sordid truth locked outside, she was happy.
Only when she woke later did she weep for what she’d done, but he heard and pulled her back into his arms and loved her again and again until she forgot what should have been tantamount. She was grateful to him for making her forget even as she hated him for it, for dragging her into the illusion of a perfect world. The truth skulked right outside, dark and soiled, but in his arms everything was light and ecstasy.
When morning came, he woke her with a deep, lingering kiss, his gray eyes hooded even in the soft light of dawn.
“It’s time,” he told her emotionlessly.
She nodded and climbed from the bed they had shared, trying to swallow the sobs burning in her throat, aching to be set free. Did he care nothing for what she was to do today? Was he truly so heartless as to allow her to be raped, to become a murderess – a king-slayer, and to be condemned to death for it?
Apparently he was, for he said nothing as he watched her dress and prepare for the gruesome charade she was to play her key role in today.
But what could she expect from an assassin? He’d only slept with her because she’d presented herself to him out of desperation, and she wasn’t so foolish as to believe his physical passion expressed any depth of spiritual feeling. He’d used her body for release because she’d offered it, not because he cared for her.
It should have made her feel filthy, having been used by the man who had murdered all she loved, but her soul was filled with nothing but the agony of foolish, unrequited—
She cut the thought off.
When they walked outside, he pulled her to him and kissed her hard on the lips.
“Kill well, Rebecca,” he murmured against her mouth, then pivoted and left her standing alone, forlorn and shattered. He’d left without a single word of consolation or encouragement, without a single flash of regret in his eyes that he would never see her again.
Swallowing and giving herself a firm shake, she squared her shoulders and took a deep, bracing breath. By the time the peasants came for her, she’d achieved an outward calm, no sign of her despair visible to undermine their faith.
Inside, she was falling to pieces.
It was madness, this plan of theirs. It would never work; she’d already failed them. But she couldn’t tell them that last night their well-thought-out scheme had crumbled like a house of cards when she’d succumbed so completely to a man she should never have allowed to touch her so deeply. Even thinking of him now made her heart constrict with an emotion she could not accept…and could not deny.
But though the plan lay strewn in tatters, still she must go through with the farce, go through the motions, become a murderess…if she could…
And for what? No one could save her now, no matter how this ended.
She almost laughed aloud at recalling how they’d promised to pay her well. But they hadn’t really meant it, had they? No one counted on her getting out of this alive. She’d realized that long ago. Why hadn’t she backed out?
Because of Calin.
When had she lost herself to him so completely? When had she become so hopelessly enslaved to those intense gray eyes? So enamored of his smooth black hair, his silky, persuasive voice, his skilful hands? So fascinated by his stillness, or the rare times that his quiet voice spoke of things that he deemed worthy of saying? Her life had culminated in these past two months of torment and bliss, and she went to her doom now knowing that despite the wrongness of her actions, despite how sick she must be to have done them, at least she’d lived life to its fullest, experienced the dizzying heights and depths of human feeling… and although her soul was torn asunder, she had no regrets.
Someone shouted, jerking her from her emotionally fraught reverie back to the bleary present where her wrists burned, her eyes stung, and her spirit withered.
They were jouncing through the castle gates.
So this was it, then.
She remained deathly calm as they plucked her off the warhorse and pushed and prodded her like a bovine beast into the castle, up some time-worn stone stairs, down several stinking corridors to what must be the king’s chamber but that reeked of urine and refuse.
She caught sight of tattered silk and soiled sheets before they hurled her inside.
The king, once a powerful warrior but now just an aging lecher with a paunch and a murderous paranoia, followed her into the room. Waving his men out, he bolted the door behind them.
She vowed not to scream, not to fight, but to endure his rutting and then to casually slit his throat as Calin would, with his conscience cut off from all remorse, a hole in his soul that could never be filled with compassion or forgiveness.
But once the king touched her, her skin cringed away. Her legs retreated of their own volition, her disgust emblazoned on her face. Rage flared in the king’s piggish eyes. His hand flew out, his rings cutting into the flesh of her temple when she was too slow in ducking. He was on her in an instant, tearing, clawing, pawing, panting as she screamed and fought him. She felt the chafing of the loosened knife against her ribs – perhaps she could…
No. It was all in vain. He captured her wrists and pinned them down, hiked up her skirts and reared above her. She blocked out the world.
Then hot liquid sprayed her neck.
Her eyes shot open.
Calin was dragging the king’s dying body off her. He heaved it onto the soiled rushes and bent over him.
Rebecca gaped, unable to believe, unable to comprehend. Was he really here?
An instant later, she shivered.
That meant their plan had succeeded.
She had succeeded. Although she’d believed he didn’t give a damn about her, that she had failed, she hadn’t. Calin had come to save her.
He’d fallen right into their trap, just as the conspirators had planned – to kill the king and his assassin with one stone.
“Let’s go, Rebecca.” He stepped up to her, crouched down, and used his bloody dagger to saw through the ropes binding her wrists. Then he stood up and stretched out a hand to help her up.
She stared at it blankly. “It won’t help,” she managed, her voice sounding strangled.
“It won’t?” he asked casually, his hand remaining firmly in place.
“You’re the one they’re really after,” she stated emotionlessly. “The king was just a bonus. I was supposed to make you love me so you would come today and save me. And you’ve come…and now you’ll die.”
His hand fell slowly back by his side. His gray eyes were intent on her face, but no fear showed in his expression. His voice was calm when he asked, “You want me to die?”
He didn’t believe her.
She fought hysterical laughter. She didn’t believe it herself anymore. Not after the past two months, not after last night.
But there was no turning back now. The conspirators would come pouring into the room any minute now to seize him and kill him. They would already have amassed their allies. They would be waiting down in the courtyard, on the roof, on the wall-walks…
There was no escape for Calin today.
Rebecca climbed awkwardly to her feet, resting her hands on her abdomen. She felt distant, detached, as if no longer part of the world. “You killed my parents. You killed my sisters, my brother,” she recited dully, the speech she’d prepared with such fervor two months ago now tasting bitter and acrid on her lips. “I only escaped because I was in the garden.”
“I know you were,” he said. “I saw you. I sent you the message telling you where to seek asylum.”
Rebecca’s speech died on her tongue. Cold consumed her entirely. She shook her head and clasped her trembling hands. “Everard sent that message…” Her voice failed as he looked at her, waiting for her to realize the truth her mind couldn’t wrap itself around.
“I couldn’t use my real name now, could I,” he said quietly. “You would never listen to the assassin who murdered your family.” He watched her face. “Everard was the king’s spy who finally found you in the convent. I had to have him killed, so I used your letters to him…to me…to condemn him.”
“Why?” she whispered. “Why did you spare me? Why did you write to me?” Why did you make me fall in love with you, first through letters and then in person? But she could not say that last out loud.
The corners of his lips curled in self-derision. “Apparently even I have a weakness.”
She struggled with her incredulity.
“Why do you think they chose you, Rebecca?” he asked mockingly. “They knew I’d spared you; they knew I’d sent you into hiding; they knew I’d warned you and that I’d schemed to have Everard executed for finding you. They knew you were the one way to get to me. They found you buried in the convent and lured you out, used you as bait; I knew their plan, but I came anyway, to seduce you, to win you, to turn you against your own hatred and make you love me…in spite of knowing what I’d done.”
“And you think you’ve succeeded,” she said tonelessly.
“Tell me I haven’t,” he countered.
She pressed her fists against her stomach. “So why are you here now? To kill me?”
He stepped close, wiped away a falling tear in the mockery of a gentle caress. “No, Rebecca. I’m taking you with me.”
“I won’t go,” she whispered brokenly.
“They’re going to stop you.”
“They’re already dead.”
The knowledge hit her with the force of a physical blow.
Stupid. Of course that was why no one was bursting into the room. Why no one was coming.
She should have guessed when he said he’d known everything beforehand. It had all been child’s play for him, a game he let those plotting his demise believe they were winning until it was he who executed the last move and took their lives instead.
He was going to walk away from this alive and free, without a single scratch on him.
Reading her thoughts, he smiled coldly. “My enemies are eliminated, my patron is dead, my weakness has become my lover and ally. Long ago, I made you a promise.” Leaning over, he whispered in her ear, “It’s time to vanish, Rebecca.”
Text copyright © 2013 Sonya Lano
All Rights Reserved
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