Golden Retriever

I have been raised to be the perfect end to a man's life.

I have been brought up to be a dignified assassin.

I have been told to be beautiful in my work, to take pride in it.

I have been drilled with the idea that what I do is honorable, not treacherous and cowardly.

But someone has to do it. Right?

Of course. Right. Everyone I trust won't lie to me at the same time, will they? Of course not.

I was so sure of that fact for so long.

I am an assassin without blood on her hands. Because if you're raised to be the end of the King, then generally you don't run around strangling every cheapskate on the streets. You wait for your job, and when it comes, you do it right and you do not, on any account, make a mistake.

In the meantime, such as the first fifteen years of your life, you train. You make your tutors believe without a doubt that you will succeed beyond what anyone even dares hope, and that you will look sincere, dignified, and beautiful the whole time you're doing it.

And when you're not convincing them, you convince yourself. It is, believe it or not, much easier to convince yourself.

By the time I was sixteen and standing in front of the Magistrate, I had myself completely and utterly brought around to the side of confidence.

"The court convenes." The man with the curled white wig spoke with a voice like a frog with a bad case of bronchitis. His red robes draped around his skinny frame in a sickly fashion. Nothing about him suggested he was planning the fall of the King.

"Kiley Winter, have you read and interpreted the scrolls you were delivered on Sunday's eve?" Asked frog man.

"Yes, lord, indeed I have." My hands were sweaty as they established a death grip on my skirts. The heat was unbearable. Mid July in the Magistrate's court.

"And you understand what you are to do?" Another man asked. His eyebrows distinguish him from the rest. A couple of hairy caterpillars who appeared to be in the throes of romance.

"Yes, sire, I do." I answered. Rivers were traveling down my back, trickling under my corset and threatening to stain the silk of my bodice. The heat, the heat was not my friend. Many things were not an assassin's friend, and the heat was one of them, I was discovering. It wasn't on the roll, but it was in my mind.

"Then I would appreciate your oath. I will have you know that the Magistrate's office has conducted a thorough search of the entire city and you are the best suited to this job. You are, of course, sworn to silence under pain of excruciating torture and quite probably death." Frog lost much of his gravity and supposed importance when you heard him speak, I was quickly discovering.

But the fact I had been training for this day for fifteen years made the smile die on its way to my lips. This was no time to show I even possessed the muscles necessary to smiling.

"I will swear." I said simply. A page approached me with a small scroll. The Assassin's Oath. I knew of it. This was, most probably, the most important moment of my entire life.

I accepted the scroll and opened it.

My hands were steady as I read off my oath, pledging allegiance to the back-alley branch of the Magistrate, swearing my silence and promising to live up to my name as the best choice for the murder of a King.

Assassination. The assassination of a King.

My sweaty hands put the pen to paper and scrawled my signature, unintelligible and absent of loops or swirls, just as I had been taught. The page took it to the Magistrate, and he examined it, nodding after a while.

"Very well. You know what to do. Do not presume to approach this building again."

"Thank you, sires." I said. Then I turned on my delicately shod heel and left, praying I wouldn't slip in a puddle of my own sweat. I was dripping, it seemed. My eyes stung with the sunshine and heat when I stepped out of the building, and I snapped the parasol up as soon as I could, shielding myself from the glare.

As I made my way back to the Mansion, my heavy skirts like anchors against my movement, I did everything I could to not think about tomorrow.

Tomorrow. It was a Saturday, so the King would be alone in his chambers for officially nine minutes before about twenty advisers trouped in and began dripping their ideas in his young ear.

A boy. He was a boy, merely seventeen. Easy prey, too easy, really. I had proved that I had the skill of a very advanced assassin, I could have taken down the first King, the current boy's father, even with his skill at swords. One has to actually have a sword in ones hand to be skilled with a blade. Too bad he was done in by the influenza. It would have actually been a challenge to snuff him.

I stripped the red silk gloves off my hands and tossed them in the gutter. They were useless anyway, stained half brown with sweat, and the first rule, as I had known from the age of five, was don't keep baggage. If it's useless, pitch it.

I could see the ivy-covered wall of the mansion already.

Tomorrow. Yes. Tomorrow. Tomorrow would be my ticket away from that wall, one way or another.

Just live to the day after that, and I would be in business.


*

The morning dawned bright and clear, and I dawned with it. I woke under the same white sheets and heavy grey blanket the same as I have done for sixteen years and I tried not to think about what the day held. I tried to think of it as one of the never ending drills.

Even as I dressed in the white clothing, white breeches, white tunic, white stockings and white spiked boots, to blend into the white stone of the castle walls, I told myself that. Even as I ignored the breakfast bells and instead ran the whetstone down the length of the dagger, I told myself that it was another drill.

The sun was rising in the sky, and my time of procrastination and sharpening was over. I rose from the perfectly made bed and stood in front of the window.

My eyes fell on the scroll, my orders. I had memorized them two weeks before.

The one at the bottom I had penned in myself, the ink was smeared slightly by riding next to my sweaty skin yesterday. Don't panic, it said.

"Do not panic, Kileana." I whispered. Then I opened the window and leaped out onto the terrace. From there I let myself down slow, using the ivy as a ladder and the stones as handholds.

The words ran through my mind as I climbed the Mansion wall, and I listened to my own voice whispering them to me endlessly as I threaded through markets and stalls, silent as a pale shadow.

The castle was in my view, I could see the highest tower, the one I would shortly be scaling.

The wall to the castle would pose no problem. There was a sycamore near it, I know what to do.

But the tree stares me in the face and makes me pause, remembering a hot day like this one.

I'm three again, and father has me in his arms one last time, and I'm laughing up at the towers, and he's saying the King lives there, our King who protects us, and the day is perfect and why couldn't every day be like this one, but now he's dropping me and telling me to run and there's an arrow in his back and I'm sobbing because there's blood on my dress and my daddy is telling me to run and so I run and I hear footsteps behind me but I can be fast and I can climb and I hide in a sycamore for hours and hours and I watch men take my father away on a makeshift stretcher and later the men find me and bring me to the mansion and then I begin my life again and the dress with the blood is burned in the bonfire...

I stared up at the branches and shook my head clear of the images. I scaled the tree with even less difficulty than my three year old body did, and dropped down to the other side of the wall, my eyes not watching the route. I'd had it drilled in my mind so many times there was no need.

The tower was fifty yards to my left, so I ran fifty yards to my left, my body pressed halfway up against the wall, and I knew I was invisible.

I craned my neck for a moment, and stared up at the towering stone above me. No ivy coated the sides, for that would be a sin to let anything compromise the safety and solidity of the King's dwelling.

I had a flash of wonder where I questioned whether they considered assassin's scaling said wall a compromise to the King's safety. One had to imagine that they did, whomever they were.

Before I could think anymore, I began the climb. My boots dug into the cracks and my fingers gripped the rough stones with extreme pressure. I had strong fingers, I knew that much. In my line of work, you had to. Or so said the assassin's I had talked to. Sometimes it was easy to forget, such as when you were scaling the wall to the King's private chambers, that I had never had another man's blood on my hands.

I watched the stone in front of me, refusing to look down. It was rule one, a rule I never broke. It simply wasn't a good idea.

I was nearly there, I could feel the wind getting colder and I could feel the stone getting smoother towards the top. It was harder to get a grip on.

I glanced upwards, and saw the ledge of the balcony. Two more feet up and I grabbed hold of the rail that encircled it, and pulled myself up with ease.

So easy. Who knew that killing a King was so easy?

There were the doors. Small and modest oak doors carved with a sun and a moon. The King and the Queen. Only, now, there was no Queen.

The boy hadn't taken a wife yet. Was the whole thing so easy? Not even a woman to raise the alarm? It was almost humorous. No guards up here, because how would anyone scale such a wall? How indeed. Sixteen years of climbing a replica of that wall, perhaps?

I forwent the door and instead quietly shattered the stained glass window on the east side of the tower, using the cloth of my shirt on the one side to keep it from making any noise.

The curtains provided the perfect spot to prepare. I crouched behind them, on the windowsill, and quietly unsheathed my dagger. It glinted in the early morning sun, and I swallowed past my dry throat.

The moment I had been waiting for for near my whole life.

It was, of course. This would ensure me a life of leisure, the reward from the Magistrate was immense. I could have children who never had to touch dirt in their entire lives. They would never know hardship, never know poverty.

Then again, once I've killed, how could I ever honestly bring life into the world?

I breathed out very softly, banishing such absurd thoughts, pushed aside the curtains a fraction of an inch, and put my eye to the gap.

He was asleep. Sprawled across the couch, one of his long legs on the cushions and the other on the floor. Papers, graphs and maps were spread out on his chest, and he held a worn book on on hand. He snored gently.

So easy.

I pushed the curtains all the way aside and lightly stepped down to the inside of the tower, pulling them closed again behind me. I didn't want a random breeze to wake him up and spoil the ease of this assassination.

I removed my boots with a flick of the laces, and stepped towards the couch in my stockings.

Then I saw his face.

He wasn't any older than I was.

His caricature on the coin was older, stronger, more chiseled, even a little ruthless.

This boy was just that. A boy. His lips flickered in his sleep, and his eyes danced back and forth under their lids.

His hands were unadorned with rings or jewels, and his tunic was simple wool. He didn't look like a King. He looked like a sleeping boy.

My dagger was being held in a vice-like grip, my knuckles white against it's handle.

I carefully lowered it.

Do not think.

Do not feel.

You owe us your allegiance.

Under pain of excruciating torture and quite probably death.

And therein lay the problem.

Death.

His or mine? Why his? Because he was on the wrong end of the dagger?

No!

My mind was playing deadly games with me and I banished it from my head with one hard pinch of the skin on my wrist.

The dagger was an inch from his neck. The skin there was so delicate. Right under his chin it was paler than the rest of his body, which was all lightly tanned with a slight dusting of freckles, and his cheeks were blushed with sun.

His hair was still like a boy's, thick and still smooth, not coarse with dirt and wear, and there was no gray in it. It was still dark and beautiful.

The blade was quivering.

And then?

Then a dog barked.

I whirled, and then I saw my mistake. Three golden haired dogs, retrievers of some kind. They lay on a golden blanketed bed, and I had been so concentrated on my prey that I had completely ignored them.

My life was unraveling in slow motion.

I turned back to the King, and watched dumbly as his eyes opened.

Golden eyes.

Not really golden. So pale brown they might as well have been.

And they were looking straight at me.

The victim has seen you. Kill him. I knew that, I had to kill him. But while his eyes were opened? I wasn't prepared for that. Why couldn't I had knocked out the dogs before I came in?

I didn't do my job right. But I could still get it done. The dagger shook, and pressed itself to his flesh.

The boy King looked up at me, the book still in his hand. His face was soft from sleep, I could tell, and his brain was still in the phase of questioning itself.

And it was finding the answer was death.

"Who are you?" He whispered. His eyes were locked in mine, and his hands were still. He wasn't reaching for any weapons. Smarter than some, I was sure of it.

"It doesn't matter." I said, my voice cracking as I spoke.

"An assassin, I assume? Who wants me dead?" He asked. His voice was remarkably steady given the fact there was six inches of sheer polished steel pushed up against his lifeline right now.

"It's not your information to know." I said, swallowing past the bile that was rising in my throat. I could hear my father's voice in my head as we stood at the base of the tower, repeating over and over again, and it was killing me. "The King lives there, our King who protects us...The King lives there, our King who protects us..."

"I'd say it's mine if it's yours, seeing as I'm the one who's supposed to be dead right now, not you." He said, inching himself upwards on the couch, eyes holding mine the whole time. The maps and graphs shifted and crackled.

"I could kill you right now." I whispered.

"No you couldn't. You're a girl. And I don't mean that as a sexist comment, I mean it as the fact you can't be over sixteen and your hand is shaking. Put down the dagger." He said.

"You shouldn't anger me, I'm the one with the weapon."

"You won't kill me, I know you won't, and so do you. I don't know who you are, but I have a couple of wild guesses at who sent you."

"What does that have to do with anything?"

"Jara, Sikki, Mila, here." The boy called. The three dogs leaped off the bed and stood a few feet away from the couch, out of my reach.

"Those dogs...they protect you?" I asked. The sweat was pouring down my back. I knew what was happening here, but I would not admit it to myself.

"They will if I ask them to. They already have. What's your name, assassin girl?" He asked, still watching my eyes. I didn't understand why he wasn't lying there dead already.

"Kiley." I said, then almost took the dagger to my own neck. What in then name of all gods was I thinking?

"Kiley. I apologize in advance."

He swung his legs up over his head and knocked me in the chest, vaulting over the couch. I landed on my back, hard, but held onto the dagger. He was on top of me, one knee on my chest right between my breasts and the other on my knee. I was immobile.

But I still had the dagger.

"The King lives there, our King who protects us..."

I pressed it to his throat, and he let me. For some inexplicable reason, he let me. The Magistrate was wrong, my trainers were wrong. This boy, at some point, had learned to fight. But in a style that confused me.

A tiny drop of red showed against his skin, and he winced ever-so-slightly. Why in all gods name did he have to wince?

His eyes were back on mine, and he was slowly shaking his head back and forth.

"The King lives there, our King who protects us."

Yes, father, I know.

The dagger clattered to the floor, and he kicked it aside. Then he took his knee off my chest and let me sit up.

I did so and leaned against the wall. He sat back against the couch and watched me.

We sat there and watched each other's every motion and breath for over an hour before either one of us moved.

The dogs sat by the door and panted, in all ways seeming innocent. And yet I knew they would have killed me as soon as looked at me if I had ever posed a danger to their master.





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