Behind her, safe in his own personal quarters, Gallos slept comfortably. Rhias, like many other people, wondered how a man who controlled the lives of half of Lorendheim’s population could possibly rest well at night. Rhias, unlike many other people, didn’t let such innate curiosity cloud her judgment.
Gallos was just a man, she knew. Deep inside his imperious demeanor, within his seeming heart of stone, behind the polished masks, she knew that he was just a man.
She reached inside one of the hidden pockets of her robes and found one of the knives there. Carefully, she tested the edge of the blade with her fingers. The magic of the Masquers would not only ensure that no one would ever notice the knives, but would also ensure that she wouldn’t be cut by her own weapons.
She remembered Haron, but it was just his name this time. And the sound of his voice, all raw and scratched.
Try as she might, she could not remember his face. For these small mercies, she was grateful.
She left the knife alone and leaned against the doors to Gallos’s chambers. There was a stillness in the air, and Rhias was the kind of woman who knew all too well when a stillness in the air would be perfectly out of the question.
She burst into the room, drawing two knives at the same time. The lone black-clad man climbing in through the window froze at her entrance, allowing Rhias a single moment to attack.
* * *
“What’z your name?” the tall man asked.
The girl looked up at him. “Rhia,” she said, doubtfully.
“Rhiazz?” the man asked.
“Rhia,” the girl said.
“Rhiaz,” the man decided. “Why you out here, Rhiaz?”
Rhia squinted in the falling snow. “Because,” she said.
The man smiled. “Becauze what?”
“Because,” Rhia said, and couldn’t get any further than that.
“Becauze you don’tz have a home,” the man concluded. “Why don’tz you have a home, Rhiaz?”
“Rhia,” Rhia corrected. “I ran away.”
“Oh?” the man said, feigning surprise.
“I don’t like the other kids. I don’t like the food. I don’t like Sister Ilihn. And Miseth doesn’t stop making fun of me.”
“Mizeth must be a very bad boy,” the man observed.
“I knocked out two of his teeth,” Rhia said, “and I pushed his face into the coal.” Then, in a much smaller voice, she added, “But Sister Ilihn saw me and locked me in my room. She said I had to stop acting like a child.”
“That’z why you ran away,” the man said.
“The window was open,” Rhia said, as though this was a logical excuse.
“Ah,” the man said, in an understanding tone.
Rhia shivered in the cold.
“You cold?” the man asked.
Rhia shook her head. “N-no,” she said.
The man looked at her, thinking very carefully as he did so.
“Would you like to come with me, Rhiaz?”
“Where are you going?” Rhia asked.
“Nowherez,” the man said. “Everywherez. I zee the world. I go wherez the money takez me.”
“Better than freezing to deathz out here,” the man said.
Rhia stared at the man’s outstretched hand for a few moments, and then took it with her own, shaking as she did so. The man pulled her up.
“My name is Haron,” the man said. “Good to meet you, Rhiaz.”
* * *
The black-clad man raised one hand, feeling the two knives buried in his chest, and the wet, sticky blood that oozed from the wounds. He dropped to one knee, still reaching for his sword with his other hand. Rhias buried a third knife in the man’s sternum, causing him to twitch and finally lie still.
On the bed in the far corner of the room, Gallos still slept. Rhias wondered whether Gallos was truly slumbering, or if he merely wanted her to handle everything in this situation.
She heard a rustling sound from the window, just in time to see a single black-clad leg step down onto the windowsill. She grabbed the second man’s ankle – earning a startled cry from its owner – and then twisted it forward, throwing the man off his precarious perch and onto the hard snow-covered pavement three stories below. The man screamed as he fell.
Rhias peered out the window, looking up towards the roof of the manor house and into the covered face of a third black-clad assassin. The man’s dark blue eyes radiated fear and surprise; Rhias’s eyes were nothing but dead pools of blackness.
The third man scrambled to his feet, fleeing across the roof.
Rhias reached up, grasping the rough wood lining the window and flipping herself onto the roof in a display that would have impressed the greatest circus acrobat. The assassin turned in surprise, and then desperately began his flight along the city’s rooftops.
* * *
“No,” Haron said, holding her arm carefully, “don’tz look at the target.”
Rhia squirmed in his grasp. She didn’t like it whenever Haron touched her. “How can I hit it if I can’t look at the target?” she said, frustrated.
“Not right if you look at the target,” Haron said. “Too many thingz to keep track of bezidez the target.”
“What’z… what’s that supposed to mean?”
“Thiz,” Haron said, pulling the knife from her fingers and throwing it – almost effortlessly – towards the tree stump. The knife thunked into the center of the crude circle Haron had drawn.
Rhia stopped squirming and simply stared.
“You pick a zpot,” Haron said. “Any zpot withzin your line of zight. You don’tz look at the target. You know wherez the target is compared to the zpot you chose.”
“But you’re not aiming!” Rhia said, confused.
“You don’tz have to aim mozt of the time,” Haron said. “Thzrowing knives iz hard. You think it waz eazy? But when zomebody throw a knife at you, you get zcared. You afraid the knife hit you. That’z all zomebody need.”
“But you hit the target!”
“Lucky zhot. You juzt pick a zpot and know where your targetz are, Rhiaz. You try to hit anythzing you want. But you let the godz handle everything elze.”
Rhia stared at him. He arm reached out in a random direction and found one of her practice knives. Still staring at Haron, she slowly brought her hand back and threw, all in one smooth motion.
Haron glanced at the target. Rhia’s knife was embedded in the stump beside his own knife. He scratched his head.
“Bonez of the moon,” he swore, “how’d you do that?”
“Lucky shot,” Rhia said, staring at the target.
* * *
The man screamed in panic as Rhias’s knife went flying overhead, and in his haste he stumbled on a pair of loose shingles. As Rhias watched, the man desperately grabbed onto the slippery roof, slowing what might have been a fatal descent.
Rhias didn’t miss; that’s what everyone said. Rhias didn’t miss unless she fully intended to do so.
She stood at the edge of the roof, watching the man regain his balance in midst of the gathering snowfall.
The would-be assassin drew his sword. Rhias drew a single knife. She only needed one.
The man lunged at her, his footsteps muffled by the drifts of snow. His sword silently cut through the night air.
Rhias bent backwards as though a reed in the wind, as the blade whistled mere inches from her face. And all the while, her expression did not change.
She sprung at the man, catching a glimpse of his startled face the moment before she drove the knife into his neck.
* * *
She was aware of Haron’s breath, bitter and fetid at the same time.
“No!” she screamed, trying to find the strength to push him off. He was too heavy for her.
Haron didn’t speak, but merely sought her face with glazed eyes. He kissed her more than once there; To Rhia, they felt like little bites.
She kicked and screamed, driving her fists into him before he slapped her hard across the face and left her stunned. Then he pushed his face against her neck, and she screamed again.
“No one hear us,” Haron said, his voice muffled by her clothes. “No one hear us, Rhiaz. Pleaze, I…”
Rhia screamed again. The names blurred in the corner of her mind. Rhia, Rhias, Rhiaz. Haron. Haron. Haron.
There was the sound of cloth tearing. Rhia closed her eyes, trying to stop the tears from coming.
Her right hand reached for something, anything, and found Haron’s old leather belt. She felt the buckle, worn and rusted under her fingers.
Something hurt. She bit her lip, trying to concentrate. Trying to choose a spot.
Her eyes were still closed tightly. She stared into the darkness there.
She felt her hand grip something… familiar. Something all too familiar.
Haron screamed as she drove the knife into his neck.
She stabbed, trying to make the screaming stop. On the fourth blow, Haron’s scream finally trailed off into an obscene gurgle, and he pitched forward. Rhia crawled out from underneath him.
She pulled her clothes tighter around herself, marking them with her red hands. And there, she watched as Haron’s blood coursed into the snow around them.
* * *
When she finally stepped back through the window, she found Gallos seated at the side of his bed, looking at her. Rhias bowed low before him.
“So formal tonight,” Gallos said, the mask expressionless upon his face.
Rhias straightened. She had only seen her lord without his mask once, and the event was of no consequence.
“How many were they?” Gallos asked.
Rhias paused. “Three, my lord.” she said.
“No,” Rhias said, almost automatically. “Amateurs. Experienced with burglary, it seems, but not with the killing.”
“I see,” Gallos said. “Remind me to call on Lady Tersianne tomorrow morning at first light. I am sure that this has been particularly inconvenient for you.”
Rhias knew her lord well enough not to ask how he knew of the Lady Tersianne’s involvement. “No, my lord.”
“Are you sure?” Gallos asked with uncharacteristic concern. “Surely you were asleep when they first arrived.”
“No, my lord.”
Gallos paused, considering the matter. He looked into Rhias’s eyes.
“Do you remember when we first met, Rhias?” he asked.
“Yes,” Rhias said. “You said that you were very impressed with my skills.”
“No,” Gallos said. “That was not the first thing I said.”
Rhias gave him a confused look. “I… do not follow, my lord.”
“I asked you what your name was,” Gallos said, looking at her eyes. “Do you remember?”
Rhias stared at him, wondering what he was expecting from her.
“I asked you what your name was, and you said…”
“Rhias,” Rhias said.
“Rhias,” Gallos said at the same time.
Rhias returned Gallos’s gaze for the longest time, and then turned away. Her face remained expressionless, yet her memory told a different story. Her eyes told a different story.
“You may take your leave of me, Rhias,” Gallos said. “Hopefully your services shall no longer be required for the rest of this evening.”
“You honor me, my lord,” Rhias said, bowing low once again, and moving towards the doors to his chamber. “Sleep well,” she said.
“Sleep well, my Rhias,” Gallos said quietly.
Behind his mask, he watched until the door finally closed behind her.