Shavi peered over the edge of the garrison rooftop. A quick scan of the dark courtyard below revealed the guards standing exactly where her information had indicated they would be. She eased back down, careful not to make any sudden movements that would attract notice. They might not be able to reach her on the roof with their halberds, but archers could be summoned with a single shout.
She patted her head, making sure her black hair was tucked up and the dark gray silk mask was secure. The kohl around her eyes filled in the gaps in the mask, leaving only the whites of her eyes showing. A whisper hissed in her ear.
“Are you sure you won’t reconsider?”
She winced and whispered back. “Rekkan, this is hardly an appropriate time.”
“It’s the only time I’ve gotten in the last month to talk to you. You’re so busy you never seem to have time to talk to anyone.” She suspected that his black mask hid a pout. “I had to give Declan twenty silvers and clean his quarters to get him to trade assignments with me so I could talk to you.”
“You actually traded missions?” Of all missions to pull this stunt, why did he need to pick this one?
He ignored the topic change. “If you just got to know me… ”
“I’m not sleeping with you, Rekkan.”
“I’m just asking you to have dinner with me: just dinner. It wouldn’t have to be…”
He cut off at the sound of marching boots below.
They listened as the guard went through the elaborate changing ritual. Shavi kept her head down—not only did she not want to be seen, she didn’t want to lose her night vision to the flickering torches held by the guards. When the boots tramped on to the next post, she gave Rekkan a curt nod. They rose, and padded noiselessly over the top of the roof to the edge. For another minute or two, Shavi knew, the new guards’ eyes would be too busy adjusting from the light to see dark shapes against a dark wall. Shavi hooked a spelled grapple with a light line over a gargoyle’s head and slipped down the line to the ground. She pressed herself to the wall behind a bush as Rekkan followed her down. He gave the cord a practiced jerk to break the charm, and caught it quietly as it fell.
Shavi crouched in the shadows of the bush, watching the new guards settle in. Rekkan squatted behind her. She fought the flash of irritation — his jet black outfit was more traditional and certainly more elegant, but that perfect black was more visible in shadows than her dull dark gray. This was exactly why she preferred to work by herself: especially when she could not afford to fail.
Instead of wasting time being annoyed, she tried to focus on the movements of the young guard nearest her. The patrols were too regular; for eight seconds, no one watched the narrow space separating her bushes from the opposite wall. When he made his next turn, she darted across the narrow courtyard, Rekkan on her heels. A door in the wall of the inner building presented tempting bait, but she couldn’t hope to pick the lock without being seen. Instead, she pressed herself against the cold stone, hidden only by the massive frame and the dark shadows. She closed her eyes to avoid picking up the light, and listened to the guard’s footsteps. Closer, closer … and then he turned and retreated again, too soon to have seen around the door frame.
Farther down the courtyard, the guard’s partner did the same: too far to see them in the shadows with his light-ruined eyes. She edged around the corner into a narrow cul-de-sac in the castle walls.
“So who finally had the guts to hire us to kill the Duke?”
Rekkan whispered as they strapped their climbing claws over their gloves.
“If you didn’t bother to find out before taking the assignment, I don’t see why I should tell you.”
“Was it the priests? They’ve been awfully upset at the last few executions. Or a death mage? Or did the farmers finally get tired of getting taxed half to death, and band together to raise our fee? It’s not like anyone’s going to miss the old bastard.”
“I bet it’s someone who wants to sleep with his wife. They say she’s stunning. Or one of his underlings…”
“Rekkan, shut up.” Shavi carefully wedged a claw into the gap between two of the stone blocks in the wall, testing the grip. The spell stuck tightly to the stone without leaving a mark as she tensed her hand. It disengaged properly as soon as she relaxed. Satisfied, she began to climb, hugging the wall tightly. This was one of the more difficult passages and she was grateful that Rekkan would need to concentrate too much to keep talking. She swore to herself that if she ever got sent on a mission with him again, she’d ask the Guild magician to spell him into silence for the evening. Better yet, she would go out of her way not to get sent on a mission with him again.
The wind picked up as she reached the second story, and the neighboring walls fell away behind her. Now that she was above the surrounding buildings, the wall was exposed to both wind and eyes. She had to rely on the fact that most people rarely look up, and trust that if someone did, she would blend in with the gray stone in the darkness. Not for the first time, she wished that someone would come up with a working invisibility spell.
Her skin was prickling from the cold by the time Shavi reached the lower roof. Below her, she could see the layout of the complex. The outer wall and garrison kept the city at bay. The courtyard they had just crossed further isolated the main building she now stood on. The next floor of the building was significantly smaller than the ground floor; a space of gently sloped roof offered a temporary haven before they approached the second story wall. Shavi had chosen a stretch with no windows looking out onto the roof. She leaned down and gave Rekkan a hand over the edge, careful not to cut either of them with the claws. They nestled down behind more gargoyles to peel off the climbing gear.
“Now what?” Rekkan kept his voice low despite the whistling of the wind.
“Now we wait.” She nodded towards a lit window farther along the face of the building and up another floor. “We’re supposed to make it look like a natural death. That means waiting until he’s asleep.”
The wind whistled through the eaves.
“But why is one dinner so…”
“Why do you keep asking?”
“Because I’m in love with you.”
“Rekkan, you barely know me. We’ve had maybe a handful of conversations in the last year. Why are you so convinced that you love me?”
“Because you’re brilliant and talented and I admire you?”
She looked at him pityingly. “And you know I’m ‘talented’, how?”
“Well, because I know. Everyone says so. Everyone knows you’re one of the fastest rising Guild members…”
The light went out. Shavi waited patiently. “So do you want me because you think I’m brilliant, or because you think everyone else thinks I’m brilliant?”
“I want you because you are brilliant.”
“I think I want a reason that’s a little less shallow than that.”
“How’s that shallow? I thought you wanted to be valued for your skills. It’s not like I’m claiming I love you because you’re beautiful or your father has a lot of money.”
She silently counted, still waiting.
“Well?” he prompted.
She rolled her eyes. “It’s exactly like that.”
“I don’t see how you can say that.”
“You see very little.”
“What’s with you tonight?” he complained. “You’re even more touchy than usual.”
“Even I am not so arrogant not to worry about my Trial,” she said, irritated nonetheless at the need to confess it. It was irrational, she knew: her plan, with the appropriate backups, was flawless, and she was more than accomplished enough to handle any unforeseen difficulties. The only weak point was this partner she had failed to do without.
“This is your Master’s Trial?” He had the grace to sound abashed. As he should, she thought, stumbling his way into her final evaluation. Success; and she would be promoted to full Master Assassin, one of the youngest ever: free to choose her own contracts; to keep the majority of her earnings … even to leave the city if she chose. Failure; on the other hand … the Guild did not take failure well.
“It was on the board. You didn’t even bother to check, did you?” Of course he hadn’t. And if he kept her from succeeding, well, she would make sure to take him down with her. Juniors were supposed to be allowed a bit of leeway, but she’d be damned if he got away free after ruining her chances.
“I’m sorry,” he said, sounding genuinely contrite. “But we both know you have this thing in the bag. Will you let me make it up to you after?” He was relentless.
“Hush. It’s been long enough,” she pointed to the window. “Let’s go.”
He made a small noise of frustration, but followed her across the roof. She gestured wordlessly at him, and he gave her a boost up. She held up a mirror to the window, careful to show as little of herself as she could while scanning the room.
The bed-chamber was decorated with as much richness as she’d expected, and worse taste. A low fire flickered in the hearth, casting weird shadows from the ornate bedposts onto the tapestries on the walls. A large lump in the bed snored loudly. She suspected the explanation for the heavy slumber could be found at the bottom of the heavy gold goblet on the edge of the night table.
Shavi nodded to Rekkan. She gently opened the window to give herself room to work. The flames fluttered at the sudden draft and she froze. The figure continued to snore. She reached down and gave her partner a hand up to the wide window ledge.
She dropped a feather into the room. It drifted towards the floor, buffeted slightly by the draft. An inch above the rug, it suddenly skittered sharply towards the wall. She smiled to herself. Her information had been correct here as well: it appeared the Duke had had his pet magician set traps in the bedroom. Probably justifiable paranoia: given just how many of his subjects he’d managed to anger. Now some kind of magical field lay along the surface of the floor. Most likely, it would be triggered if someone who was not on a small, pre-established list touched it. Whether it would result in an alarm being sounded or a nastier effect, Shavi didn’t intend to find out.
Rekkan produced a small amulet. He whispered a few syllables to it, and then held it down on the ledge, pointing towards the bed. He nodded to her. Shavi reached a hand down into the air at the level of the ledge. Her hand hit an invisible barrier. She reminded herself to thank the Guild magician the next time she saw him. The air bridge was a blessing in her line of work. She edged out onto the seeming nothingness as Rekkan bore down on the amulet to provide counterweight. The spell took at least two to operate: it had to be maintained by someone not on the bridge at the time. Unfortunate; otherwise, she would have been able to do this alone.
Her passage across the chamber was painstakingly slow. The bridge was narrow, and Shavi didn’t want to risk a tumble. She never got used to the disquieting feeling of crawling along, four feet up in the air, with no visible means of support. She felt as if an eternity had passed before she was over the sleeping figure in the bed and could finally do her job.
His mouth was hanging open, giving a usually fierce-looking face a comical air. Shavi smiled — after all this planning, the most critical step was easy. The Guild’s poisons left no trace, even to the most practiced magical investigator. It was much of why they could command the prices they did. A few drips from a dark bottle, a few seconds’ wait, a snort, a gasp, and the room was suddenly silent. And that’s the end of the dread Duke, she thought wryly.
She carefully edged her way backwards to the window. Rekkan offered her a hand down, which she ignored. He blew out a breath, frustrated, and then squared his shoulders and headed back towards the wall they had climbed up. She shook her head.
“This way,” she hissed.
“But…” He paused, uncertain. “That will take us right past a balcony.”
He trailed her, every motion hesitant. As if he believed her information would be wrong after getting this far. Shavi slipped across the open rooftop to where the balcony jutted out. The only way across at this level was to skirt along the narrow ledge of the railing. She was carefully edging her way around when a sudden movement from the room inside. A lady stood up from a chair concealed in the dark.
Shavi could hear Rekkan’s sudden intake of breath. She threw him a quick hand signal: hold. Then she froze, poised on the ledge, as the lady approached the windowed door. She had a look of ruined beauty, a lovely woman grown old before her time. She met Shavi’s eyes, questioning. Shavi bowed her head slightly; the lady returned the nod, a grave expression on her face. Shavi continued her journey as the lady quietly closed the curtains. Safely on the other side, Rekkan grabbed her arm.
“What the hell was that?”
“Our employer,” Shavi whispered back.
“The Duchess?” he almost squeaked.
She shot him a look of irritation. “Is it so difficult to believe she’d want to free herself of being married to that?”
“Well … yes. I mean, everyone knows that he’s given her everything any woman could ever want. Jewels, serving maids – he had her last ball gown imported from Jenderon. It probably cost more than the two of us bring in for a year. How could she not be happy? How could they both not be happy?”
“She was a trophy. He married her because having a pretty wife made other men jealous. And she married him because he could give her anything, and that made other women jealous.”
“And they both got what they wanted.”
“Maybe they found out they didn’t want what they thought they did. They probably didn’t know each other at all. And when she realized what kind of bargain she had really made… Well…after a while, you start to understand how very long a lifetime could be.”
He was silent as they made their way back down to the edge of the roof.
“It wouldn’t be like that, you know.”
“Rekkan, there is no ‘us’. There will never be an ‘us’.”
“Look, I get your point. Marrying for shallow reasons is bad. Great! Marrying a stranger is bad. Fine! But I don’t see how this is the same situation at all!”
Shavi sighed, and turned to him in the lee of a stone lion. Out of the wind, it nearly felt warm. A few more moments, and maybe her fingers would thaw. “Rekkan, when have you ever tried to talk to me? Not to hit on me, not to ask me for something: just … to talk. Or for that matter, when did you talk to Cleo, when you chased her for six months after the Guildmaster praised her at the Midwinter Banquet? Or Roan; when you were an apprentice?”
“I know what I want, and I try to go get it. I don’t see what the problem is here.”
“The problem is that just because you chase a woman for a quality other than beauty doesn’t mean that your reasons aren’t shallow. I asked you before whether you wanted me because you thought I had worth, or because everyone else did.”
“I still don’t see a difference.”
“In the first case, you like me because you admire me. In the second, you like me because you want others to admire you.”
“That’s not fair.”
“Not my fault.”
Rekkan pulled off his hood. His mouth was twisted bitterly.
“That’s a very nice little argument you’ve got there.”
“See, here’s my problem, though. You say you don’t want to be loved except by someone who really knows you. But in the last four years, I’ve never seen you let one person get close enough to know you. Not one. You’re too busy being icy and mysterious and superior to talk to anyone.”
“How do you think I got to the rank you seem to respect so much?”
He continued, ignoring her, “I bet you’ve been rehearsing that speech in your head for years. Every time someone tried to get close, you insisted to yourself you were pushing them away because they only wanted you because they were shallow and you had status, didn’t you?”
“Nice of you to put words in my mouth,” she said coldly.
“Look, Shavi, maybe you’re right. Maybe I’m shallow, and obsessed with rank, and everything you say I am. But you’re afraid.”
“Afraid? You’re actually going to give me the ‘you’re afraid to love’ speech?”
“No. I’m not. I don’t know whether it’s fear of love, or entanglement, or dependence, or what. I don’t care. You win. Congratulations … you’ve finished your Master’s Trial. You’ll get everything you wanted … they’ll make you the youngest full assassin in our lifetimes, and I’ll leave you alone.” He yanked the mask back on. “And I’m sure you’ll do an excellent job of staying that way. Nothing you do is ever short of excellent.”
She watched him cross the rooftop and wondered why, in the lee of the lion, she now felt cold.
AUTHOR BIO: R. Rozakis has the amazing superpower of causing professors and technicians to stare at her lab equipment and say, “I’ve never seen it do that before!” Her current job in marketing in New York City seems so much safer, really. Her biggest argument with her exceedingly patient husband is in what order they should show Star Wars to their baby. Previous work has appeared in Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine, From the Asylum, Every Day Fiction, and the anthologies Substitution Cipher and Clockwork Chaos.