She’d known once it was proposed that this was a bad idea, but it was too late to pull out now.
Far too late.
The city gates were already in sight, the castle at its heart spearing the restless heavens in a portent of doom, and she was surrounded by enemies.
Her hands were bound together and resting in her lap, clasped with a serenity she did not feel. The burly arms of the king’s henchman sitting behind her on the warhorse clamped painfully around her, reminding her of the futility of escape. Dust swirled up from the dirt street to sting her eyes and coat her already parched throat.
She looked up at where carrion birds winged across the agate gray sky and prayed for rain, prayed that at least the heavens would weep when her own eyes were dry, dead wells.
Yes, it was far too late to back out now.
Not when they had gotten this far.
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 and her capture efficiently ensured. She had fought like a wildcat and been cuffed, restrained and trussed like a feral beast.
But she had not been searched.
The dagger sewn loosely into her whalebone corset weighed on her like a burden she still could not bear, despite the fact that she had trained for this day for two long months.
How could she do this? she asked herself despairingly. She couldn’t!
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 had believed she could do it, but so much had changed in the past two months that she was sure of nothing but one thing.
She had failed.
When they had come to her just over two months ago, begging her to leave the convent and aid them in their devious plan, she had tried to make them choose someone else, tried to make them see reason; but they were adamant that it must be her.
One of them, in an attempt to sway her, 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 will reward you well for your service and make sure you will never want for anything again.”
But her desire for an earthly reward was too weak a motivation for endangering her eternal soul by killing it in this life.
A third, his eyes shining with fervor, exclaimed, “You know he will kill again if he goes free! How many other families must die at his hand before he’s stopped?”
Those future families, however, were 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 had not yet spoken, stepped forward. “He killed Everard,” he stated softly.
And with those words, her entire world had spun, cracked, started to crumble. She stared at him in stunned disbelief.
“He discovered that Everard warned you,” he continued relentlessly, “and they had him 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, drove home the truth of his words.
Everard! her spirit cried brokenly. 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 and had come into the house from the garden to find her entire family murdered, their throats slit, soaked in garish pools of blood on the parlor floor. She had been too horrified to speak, too grief-stricken to cry. She had been 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 and a young boy hadn’t 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…but was too late to save any but her. He gave her instructions to flee at once for the Nandean convent on the remote island of Nadin – 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 had 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 though 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 the king would never find them gave her something to live for, something to anticipate.
Then one day she received an urgent missive 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 had wept while shutting her up in the tomb, but Rebecca had not. She had clutched close her letters from Everard and they had given 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 was stalking 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 had 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. Everard’s assassination inspired in her a core of loathing so contradictory to what she’d been taught in the convent that her heart seemed to shrink and blacken, and yet this aversion, 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 was resurrected in all its vile glory, her uncontainable sorrow rising like a living specter to remind her of what he was responsible for.
And now Everard…
Hatred so deep and so foul and so absolute possessed her that there was no room left for doubt. She could kill him. She would kill him.
The village delegation 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 she was setting out on and yet not saying 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.
Though he was just one man, he wielded such power as no man should: the power to grip the entire kingdom in a crippling state of terror. Who would be his next victim? How many more would be slain in cold blood? Who was next on the king’s list of condemned?
Rebecca had packed her meager belongings and accompanied the men when they left. They had taken her to village Girra just below the castle and secreted her in a 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.
And then he had come. Against all reason, against all belief, they had somehow convinced the king’s highest assassin to train her. How had they explained why they didn’t just pay him to do the deed? she wondered. How did they explain why they’d chosen her, so unsuitable a vessel for the diabolical act required? How did they persuade him not to kill her, since he knew full well who she was?
And yet, somehow, amazingly, he had agreed to the entire farcical scheme.
She would never forget the first moment she’d seen him. 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 was 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 was graceful, elegant and deadly. He spoke little, moved sparingly; he was still until action was necessary, quiet until words were essential.
This was the man who had killed hundreds at the behest of the king.
This was the man who was to live with her, spend every spare moment with her, train her to do the impossible.
She couldn’t do it, she objected inwardly – and then Everard’s memory rose in her mind and she remembered that she could do this. She must do this.
And so she said nothing. She stood by unresisting as he moved into her cottage. She let him do what the villagers paid him to do…and because of him, her life became a mesh of wretched nights and blissful days.
She hated those evenings when, in an old dilapidated barn, he would show her how to move with stealth and how to kill quickly and lethally, when 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.
At 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, and more often than not he was absent, carrying out the king’s assignments in broad daylight, fearing no retribution, and even when home he was often out hunting, bringing back fowl and game to skin and cook. For the first time in years, Rebecca ate well, having had little meat at the convent, and gradually, despite the torment of the night and her lingering grief for Everard, she bloomed into full health. With renewed energy, she could block out the nightmare of the nocturnal killings and revel in a newfound measure of happiness. So disparate were her daytime and nighttime selves that she seemed to literally become two people: one slowly dying night by night and one slowly coming to life day by day.
One morning she even found herself singing while she tended the small garden behind the cottage, and forgotten joy rushed back into her soul. She had always loved singing…had been singing in the garden the day her family had been slaughtered, and since their deaths she had often immersed herself in song, using it as a source of consolation as well as a manifestation of joy…but after Everard she had lost even the desire to sing.
How she had missed this! she exulted. The liberation, the splendor, the serenity infused in her strong, clear voice! A voice the nuns had said could coax even weeds to blossom; a voice they used to listen to with their eyes closed in wonder and their faces filled with awe.
Now, kneeling in a row of strawberries, in a straw hat festooned with blue ribbons and with her golden curls tumbling down her back, Rebecca sang. She closed her eyes and lifted her face to the sky, her glorious melody rising jubilantly to the heavens, its ethereal beauty endowing the entire 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 eyes, and her breath caught in her throat – for the merest second, there had seemed to be a flash of emotion in them.
But the next instant his expressionless face betrayed nothing. He didn’t say a single word, but ever after, whenever he was home, he would always come to watch her sing in the garden. Why did he come? What did he see? His gray eyes would follow her every move, his face still and hard…untouchable, distant, indifferent. He stood stonily silent and unmoved, and yet he could 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 only asked him 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 that 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.
Then one night the peasants brought them a dying man so she could practice her art on living flesh. At first she was 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, slammed the one with the weapon against the wall, knocking it from her grip, then he shoved her up against it and kissed her with all the pent-up fury of a man driven too far. She went rigid in shock and some part of her screamed at her to run, but it was too little too late and her traitorous lips were already responding to his mouth as it moved intimately over hers, stroking, caressing until her resistance caved and he coaxed to life a scalding desire from her shameless body. Her world reeled at the uncontrollable surge of passion consuming her.
Would it have been like this with Everard?
The unbidden thought chilled her to the bone, impaling her heart like a lance as she realized who held her imprisoned in a passionate embrace, and she jerked her head away like a wild animal desperate to escape a trap it already knew had irrevocably ensnared it.
Even knowing that escape was futile, that the snare had shut and she would carry it with her forever, 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 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.
She had told them this wouldn’t work!
And yet what other choice did she have but to brazen out the farce? If she fled tonight, the villagers would wash their hands of her and Calin would come after her to 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.
At least if she did it she would die a hero.
And so she pulled herself together and vowed to continue as before, pretending the kiss in the barn had never happened. An absurd resolve when she felt Calin’s presence like a physical touch.
However, her hard-won resolution faltered the next morning when the villagers came and told her that the king was coming through the next day and for her to be prepared.
So soon? she had wanted to wail.
But she had said nothing, merely nodded and watched them leave, slapping one another on the back for a job well done.
As soon as she turned away, Calin’s words came rushing back. “Once the king is done with you, your hate will live…”
The time had finally come, and there was no saving her now…or rather, there was only one man alive who could, and she knew he never would.
But there was one thing he could give her…or rather, take from her. She would be damned if she’d give the king her virginity.
Somewhere deep inside she knew her priorities were horribly skewed, and part of her recognized it as a foreseeable imbalance from the impossible situation she had been put in, but she accepted it and knew that Calin would teach her one last thing tonight…and it didn’t have anything to do with murder.
He didn’t return till deep into 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, and once he buried his hands in her unbound hair to pull her head back to lower his mouth over hers, she knew that this time 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 have felt disgusted with what she’d done, 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. Happiness. For these few moments, 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 embrace 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 was 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? A man who had only slept with her because she’d presented herself to him out of desperation? She wasn’t so foolish as to believe his physical passion expressed any depth of spiritual feeling. He had used her body for release because she’d offered it, not because he cared for her.
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 was outwardly calm, no sign of her despair visible to undermine their faith.
But inside she was falling to pieces.
It was madness, this plan of theirs! she ranted inwardly. It would never work! She had 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.
The plan was already in tatters, and yet she could tell no one. She must go through with this 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 had 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? 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 had lived life to its fullest, experienced the dizzying depths of human feeling…both high and low, and though her soul was torn asunder, she had no regrets.
Someone shouted, jerking her from her emotionally fraught reverie back to the bleary present as they jounced 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.
They hurled her inside and 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 and bolting the door behind them.
She vowed to herself not to scream, not to fight, but to endure his rutting and then to casually slit his throat as Calin would, his conscience cut off from all remorse, a hole in his soul that could never be filled with compassion nor 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 and 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 closed her eyes.
And felt hot blood dripping onto her neck. She opened her eyes just in time to see Calin drag the king’s dying body off her and heave it onto the soiled rushes.
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 saw now that she hadn’t. Calin had come to save her.
He had fallen right into their trap, just as the villagers had planned…to kill the king and his assassin with one stone.
“Let’s go, Rebecca.” He stepped up to her and stretched out a hand to help her up, but she stared at it blankly.
“It won’t help,” she managed, her voice sounding strangled.
“It won’t?” he asked casually.
“You’re the one they’re really after,” she said 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 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?”
She knew at once that he didn’t believe her; 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 peasants would come pouring into the room any minute now to seize him and kill him. The men who had sent her would already have amassed the other villagers. They would be waiting down in the courtyard, on the roof, on the wallwalks…There was no escape for Calin today.
“You killed my parents. You killed my sisters, my brothers,” she recited dully, the speech she had 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 the…” 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 this 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 the villagers 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’ve succeeded,” she said tonelessly. “So why are you here now? To kill me?”
He stepped close and 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.”
And suddenly the reason why no one had come bursting into the room was crystal clear. She should have guessed when he said he’d known everything beforehand. Why else had he come here today if not to get rid of those men who had plotted his demise? It had all been child’s play for him, a game he let them believe they were winning until it was he who executed the last move.
After all their scheming, 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.”
Sonya Lano |
She’d known once it was proposed that this was a bad idea, but it was too late to pull out now.