A Serpent's Tale
The Deadliest Assassin in Rivergarde.
Her Father’s chambers were dimly lit by tarnished brass lanterns, the centre of which were burning with a blend of stolen Faerie ashes and Roseblush. It was a sickly-sweet fragrance, concocted to mask the scent of decay. Several hung from the walls, along with handcrafted red tapestries which draped from one corner of slate-grey stone to the next.
Roselyn kept her back pin straight, despite the nagging, persistent urge to cough. Her eyes watered against the chokehold of perfumed smoke which danced and writhed beyond the lantern’s flickering light. The room stirred with expectancy, made worse by the supple flutter of paper as her father leafed through the pages of his leatherback journal and scrawled something inside. Then, without looking up from his desk, finally spoke:
‘Is it done?’
Shadows obscured the grim lines of his face, the soft light exposing every one of his jagged scars, every deep-set wrinkle. She would speak only when he took in the sight of her. When he acknowledged her.
He lifted his eyes, black as an encrusted onyx.
‘Yes, it is done,’ she said.
His face didn’t waver. Not as it should have. Indeed, it was only his own son exiled. ‘Have you sent this message to Hayden?’
‘Do you want Hayden informed?’
Her father leaned back and tipped his chin upward, revealing traces of ink-stained skin. Foreign words, as ancient as the Faerie scribe who etched it, coiled down his neckline and upper chest in a trail of elegant swirls—the shape of a serpent's tail.
He studied her as he would an enemy, regarding her with lethal intent. ‘Why must you ask such stupid questions,’ he ground out.
She thought carefully before opening her mouth, attempting to subdue the tremble in her knees as she did so. ‘I am mistaken. I thought this assignment was a personal one, not on behalf of The Exorci.’ How could she have thought otherwise? She never worked directly with The Exorci. They were her father’s lethal band of magic-wielders, assassins and spies—the most-feared regiment in Vadilea—passed down through generations of war and bloodshed. They directly serve the King of Rivergarde, King Gerald, while her Father stands as the Exorci General. Just as the treaty suggests.
Despite being her father’s personal assassin, with a reputation of being the deadliest one in all of Rivergarde, Roselyn still wasn’t one of them—had never been a member of The Exorci for as long as she could wield a weapon. Which was practically since birth.
Her father scraped his desk with a trimmed nail, the movements tenderly drawn. She was sure he could smell the fear on her, controlling it as he so wished. It was a game for him, to watch as she squirmed, as sweat glistened above her arched brow.
She lifted her head higher.
At the back of the room, from within deep in the shadows, her father’s purple-eyed phoenix scuffled her feathers against the confines of her crate. She let out a sombre cry, her chest hunched over a pair of scar-flecked talons. For a moment, her amethyst-coloured eyes met Roselyn’s with a mutual look of grieved longing.
Roselyn had half a mind to go over and tear the door from its hinges, if only to lessen some of the pain swarming the bird’s eyes. But that would make it look like she cared. Which she didn’t. Not when she grappled ceaselessly, day-by-day, to keep her emotions buried down under. And so, she snatched her gaze away from the phoenix with a practised flair of indifference and looked back at her father.
‘Roselyn, go and tell Hayden the news. Let us take it from here. The business I have with Nox and The Exorci is none of your concern.’
Despite the fact it was I who bundled him up and lugged him in the back of a carriage, she thought. She grew up in the castle separate from her brother, Nox, who barely spoke a word to her the few times in her life they did cross paths. He was practically a stranger.
At least, that’s the part of him she tried to reserve when she readily accepted the assignment two days ago.
Roselyn left her father’s chambers without looking back and wandered the passageways of Harwood Keep––the section of Harwood Castle that lodged members of higher rank. It was dark and murky, its walls assembled by jagged, silver-lined stone. With it carried the scent of earth and damp moss and the underlying stench of sweet, rot-eaten wood. So different was it to the perfumed Roseblush which burned from her father’s Faerie lanterns and other regal dormitories alike.
As she paced the gloomy vessel of the Keep, she took note of The Black Army guards who, averting their gaze from her swift form, were standing stoically at their delegated posts. They were King Gerald’s personal battalion, commanded to guard the inner keeps of Hardwood Castle. They were clad in black, weather-beaten armour, lengthy swords sheathed at their sides.
The Black Army Guards were instructed to only look back up when Roselyn was out of sight entirely. They’d be a fool to catch the gaze of someone who was as good as a living, breathing Wraith. She was required to be just as merciless, just as starved for violence as some of the most experienced Exorci members that dwelled here. The only difference being that she was sculpted from the cruellest of them all. Her father saw to it that she was his blade, a weapon to be wielded when he saw fit. People regarded her with the same terror one would emanate while facing Death himself, rendered speechless by the horror of who beheld them.
It made her feel… numb. A void that struck her down to her very core. It made her believe the rumours—the hushed whispers that were passed back and forth on a moonlit night. I heard she’s a demon-born ghoul. Has a soul as stained as ash. They were shriller at the dead of dusk, when her blood pumped with the thrill of hunting—when she was the monster in a children’s storybook and not a 17-year-old girl. Other times, such as now, as her shoulders slumped and her fingers trembled, she wasn’t so sure who she was. Even if hunting Nox felt preternatural, she was succumbed with the sudden urge to scrub violently at the blood now flaking beneath her fingernails. She was jittery. Off-balance. And for the first time in her life, her heart seized at the thought of what she’d done.
Finally, she reached Hayden’s dorm. It was evening, and so he was either preparing for a night assignment or had retreated to his rooms to rest. She knew this only because she had worked so closely with him these past two years—he was her father’s Lieutenant.
Roselyn stood outside Hayden’s dorm and knocked on his wooden door. Once. Twice.
Rustling could be heard, before Hayden appeared before her. He was barefooted, clad in slim-fitted black slacks. His dark, midnight-black curls were slightly ruffled and wind-beaten, dangling just below his brows. He peered at her with a perplexed frown, his blue eyes almost black in the low light.
‘What?’ He asked.
‘A warm greeting indeed.’
He toyed with the cuffs of his shirt, his eyes disinterested. ‘I’m busy.’
‘Well, I assume you’re not going out for any assignments looking like that.’
‘Still busy,’ he drawled, his voice almost edging a growl at her candour.
She sucked in a breath. She felt as if she was running out of air. ‘My father wanted me to tell you that Nox has been exiled. About half an hour ago.’
Hayden raised his head, gaze instantly alert. ‘Nox has been exiled?’
Suddenly, with a swiftness known only by an Exorci Lieutenant, he gripped the lapel of her cloak and pulled her inside. She stumbled with a shriek—something she was trained not to do if the situation arose—and attempted to regain her footing. ‘What are you doing?’
She tore herself free from his hold, shoving him back with a hand to his chest. He stumbled, somewhat gracefully, before slamming the door behind him. He fixed his gaze on her and closed the space between them.
‘Where has Nox gone?’ He asked.
‘What? I don’t know any more than you.’
He studied her shrewdly, eyes roving from head to toe. ‘You don’t work for The Exorci,’ he said. ‘Why has your father sent you and not one of his messengers?’
‘I don’t know, but he seemed very insistent that it be me.’
‘So, you willingly threw your brother at the back of a carriage?’
She blinked at him, trying to ignore the way the word brother clogged up her throat. She had never heard it fall from another person’s tongue before, let alone from someone who worked as closely to her father as Hayden.
‘Yes, it was an assignment.’
Hayden’s expression hardened to its usual grimace. ‘Of course.’
He ambled to his bedside drawers, home to a half-filled goblet of red wine and a heaping pile of papers. His chambers, too, were dimly lit by flickering lanterns, illuminating the areas that would otherwise be concealed from the moonlight trickling through his small, arched window. Since it was Roselyn’s first time inside Hayden’s dorm, she couldn’t help but take note of the more domestic workings; the way his sheets were crumpled, strewn carelessly across his bed, the pile of shirts that were bundled on the floor mere inches from her feet.
She hadn’t noticed Hayden watching her until he spoke again, face grim, ‘I have received your message,’ he said. ‘Now leave.’
There were very few moments in her life she flushed with humiliation, yet somehow this was one of them. She cleared her throat to gain her bearings and regarded him with an air of self-possessed poise. ‘I would say ‘as you wish,’ but since you dragged The General’s daughter inside your dorm against her will, I’ll stay put until you apologise.’
He pursed his lips into a tight, fine line, irritation seizing his otherwise bleak face. ‘You really feel no remorse?’ He asked. And for just one flicker of a moment, she almost saw exactly that in the pit of his icy eyes.
‘Remorse about what?’ She had an inkling she knew what, but her feelings regarding her brother’s exile were foreign. And partaking in this sort of conversation with him, with anyone inside the castle walls, made her feel positively queasy.
With swift movements, Hayden unsheathed a dagger from its gold-embellished case, which was hidden just beneath his shirt. He hefted its weight, candlelight glinting from its silver edge, reflecting with it the deadly rigour that’s been carved and honed by Balefire himself. Balefire was a renowned Exorci Bladesmith, who crafted weapons for members of higher rank for a little over sixty years. No wonder Hayden had one in his possession—after all, each of her father’s Lieutenants were blessed with a Balefire blade. What was strange was that she had never seen him wield this dagger before, when she could so easily recall all the other weapons in his arsenal. And what was even stranger was that she vaguely recognised it.
For a moment, Hayden toyed with its gem-encrusted hilt, studying the way in which the jewels smouldered in the flickering light. Then, he trained the pointed edge of the blade towards her. Though he made no move to attack, she placed her own hand on the hilt of her dagger, readying herself.
‘He gave me this,’ he said, his granite-like tone sluicing the silence. ‘Your brother knew what was going to happen to him.’
Her brother’s blade. There was no halting the emotion that assailed her, that made each breath come and go in a pant. That’s why she recognised it—not because of Nox—but because of who it belonged to long before it fell in his possession.
‘Where has he gone? What’s going to happen to him?’ Her stomach clenched despite herself, heart pounding with the need to know more. She knew now was not the time to pander to any emotions, but as usual, her heart knew no bounds.
‘Ask your father, Roselyn. It’s not my business to go sprouting about,’ he said, tossing the dagger onto his bed. ‘It’s not like you to give two shits anyway. Just take your brother’s blade and leave. I won’t ask you again.’
The threat coating his tone—the sheet authority it withheld—was met with her dagger to his throat. She was nimble, yet wild, rabid with undiluted anger. She had him pinned to the wall in no more than a heartbeat, their breaths mingling with barely contained fury.
He only glowered at her, eyes flashing with the promise of violence. She bit her tongue to hold off the challenge of a duel, the chance to break his jaw. No one made her feel so powerless—no one but her father.
And yet, he managed to do just that. She despised him for it.
‘Careful, Hayden. You know better than I that you’re on borrowed time,’ she applied slight pressure to his windpipe, devouring him with fatal smile. She wanted him to reign in the pitiless rage that made her a thing of nightmares—that made her the deadliest assassin in Rivergarde.
Hayden watched her with morbid curiosity—his temper much like a python ready to strike. The only element that gave way to his fear was the rise and fall of his chest, a ragged, rapid pant, mismatched by the lethal calm that seized her.
She flashed him a satisfied grin before withdrawing her knife. For a moment, he looked as though he was about to pounce. But he dared move, offering her a murderous glare instead.
She disregarded his looks, too busy retrieving her brother’s blade. She didn’t know why she was taking it, other than feeling like it was the least she could do in his honour.
‘Thanks for the gift, Hayden. And oh, tell me to leave one more time and I’ll carve out your tongue.’
‘Screw you,’ he sneered, his tongue dripping with venom.
Roselyn strode out of his dorm, gripping the cool hilt of her brother’s dagger.
Now she had to see about her brother’s exile. But since her father would never tell her more than he believed she needed to know, she’d have to find out for herself.
Because Hayden is holding something back.
And he doesn’t trust her, either.