Cair Saeva once told me that hatred cannot be taught; only learned.
I learned hatred working beside my father in the swamps, watching his hands tremble as we hauled rotten logs through the muck. I cursed the Pahadorans at every breath that rattled in his feeble lungs. My father, who should have been a tall strong man, a glory among princes, had squandered his life in exile from the settled lands and was now dying like the filthiest swamp rat that ever took fever. My brother and I, his sons, had no future before us except his, all because Javon Pahadoran had butchered grandfather and stolen his lands.
Hate breeds in god-forsaken places. It festers and scores the soul of a man, hollows out his heart like a rot-eaten tree, until his convictions can no longer support the weight of his fury. I first understood this the day I knelt at Father’s sickbed, watching him cough blood-streaked phlegm onto a moldy reed mattress. Hatred welled within me, spat streaks of darkness through my veins, until my vision pulsed to its rhythm. I knew then that I would do anything to punish the family that had betrayed us.
That is why I volunteered to kill the Pahadoran heiress.
My wife, Jeene, sat across from me as I strapped belt, pack, and satchel to my body in the predawn darkness. Her face glowed warm and weathered in the firelight, her hair curling free of the loose braid that bound it. She was as beautiful as the day we took our marriage vows, as angry as the day I’d accused her—wrongly, it turned out—of breaking them.
I avoided her eyes as I finished my preparations, then paused near the children’s room on my way to the door. They were still sleeping; three tousled mats of golden hair above the blankets. As I watched, our daughter yawned and rolled in the bedding before settling back to sleep. Jeene stood beside me like a statue.
“It’s for them, too, you know,” I said.
“Is it?” she asked. “If you fail, you’ve robbed them of a father, and if you succeed—”
“I will succeed.”
“If you succeed, their father won’t be the same man. You’ll destroy yourself with this, Gaerwin.”
“If I do, then so be it. Or do you care so little for my family’s honor?”
“Gaerwin, the Pahadoran Heiress is a child, innocent of her father’s wrongdoing!”
“Father and Cair Saeva were children when Javon butchered their parents.”
“Yes, and he spared them.”
“Spared? So that they could live in miserable exile? So my father could die like a beggar, felled by a curable illness? Oh, Lord Javon’s mercy is great indeed!”
“Hush!” Jeene said, and pulled me farther from the sleeping children. “Javon is aging. Rumors say he won’t outlast the year. Stay. Let time and the gods wreak your vengeance.”
“And leave his spawn on Father’s throne? Let my own children grow up like... like—”
“Like I did? Say it, then. You still abhor yourself for not being married to a noblewoman!” Her eyes flashed clear and green in her fury.
Watching those eyes, my anger deflated. “No. Never,” I said softly, and took her hands in mine. “But don’t you see? This could mean Father’s life. If the heiress dies, and if Javon is as frail as tongues would have it, then Father may outlast him. And once we’ve regained our lands, his illness can be treated.”
Jeene pulled away. “Murder is murder, no matter what hopes you gild it with. You don’t even know whether the Council of Nobles will reinstate the Mosvins.”
“With the Pahadorans dead? Of course they will.”
She pressed her lips together in frustration but said nothing. Muggy summer rain pattered against the thatched roof and dripped through the corners.
I double-checked the straps on my pack and walked to the door. Jeene followed. She wrapped her arms around me, and I was startled by the fierceness of her embrace. Her eyes were dry when she released me, but her hands trembled against my shirt. “Come back,” she said steadily.
I nodded, and she nodded, and then I left. I did not look back as I trudged away from the cottage. I did not want to see whether she was still standing in the doorway, a golden-fringed silhouette against the firelight within. I did not want to know if she was crying.
Cair Saeva stood waiting outside her hut, pale and wraithlike in the waxing twilight. Her eyes still glowed with the aftermath of magic, and even though I was a man I could feel raw power pulsing in the twin amulets that dangled from her fingers.
“Blue is the lure,” she said quietly, “purple the trigger.”
I shuddered slightly as she laid them in my outstretched palm. Death lurked in the heart of each gem. Vengeance: I had dreamt of little else since my father had fallen ill, yet the solid reality of the gems gave me pause. Could anything good come of such darkness?
“You are uncertain,” Cair Saeva said.
I tucked the jewels within the lining of my vest; a quick, almost furtive motion. “I am committed. I will not fail.”
“You must not.”
“Have you searched the omens?” I asked.
Cair Saeva’s face was bleak. “Javon Pahadoran is guarded by the dark fates, as ever. No Mosvin hand will claim his life.”
“And the heiress?”
A taut grin. “The heavens are silent. The future is ours to shape.”
Behind her, in the hut, Father coughed and retched. Cair Saeva hurried to his bedside, but I forbore to follow. I left my father in his sister’s care and turned toward our ancestral home, toward the man who had brought us so low. Toward my children’s future.
The manor was as grand as I had always imagined it. Red-shingled rooftops rose against the cloudy sky, looming over the thatched roofs and stonework of the surrounding town. Wagons rattled by on wooden wheels, mud and rocks flinging up behind the horses’ hooves.
Watching the muddy flecks on my clothing spread with every wagon that passed, I felt my pent-up resentment double. As the second son of an eldest son, I stood second in line as grandfather’s heir. I should be traveling these streets astride a groomed white stallion, not as a weary pedestrian jostled by the throng. By the time I reached the manor gates fury rolled in my heart, thick and black as smoke.
The manor’s gatekeeper was a prunish, prudish man, his face a mash of bulbous protuberances and overlapping wrinkles. “State your business!” he snapped without lifting his eyes from a dreary scrap of parchment scribbled with quotas of eggs and vegetables.
I bowed deeply, if somewhat stiffly, and delivered my well-rehearsed lines. “Noble sir. I am sent by King Shazzinar of Goshul, whose lands lie far to the south. The fame and beauty of Lord Pahadoran’s daughter have reached the mighty Shazzinar’s ears, and he is journeying even now to honor her. I am sent ahead to bring a token of his esteem.”
With the last words I pulled the blue amulet from within my vest, the one Cair Saeva had called the lure. The gatekeeper leaned in for a closer look.
The “jewel” was a coin-sized hunk of fractured glass purchased from a nearby village, anchored in a makeshift setting of twisted brass wire. I had helped fashion it and knew it for what it was; a cheap, rough-hewn imitation. Yet as it lay in my cupped hand I couldn’t help but think it must be the most precious creation in the whole world.
The gateman seemed less impressed. He cocked an eyebrow towards me, his deep-creased frown lengthening. “Goshul, eh? Where’s your escort?” He glanced around suspiciously. “Where’s your horse?”
My chest constricted. The man should have been so enthralled by the crystal that he spared no attention for such details. Had Cair Saeva’s magic faltered?
“The road from Goshul is beset by bandits this year,” I stammered. “A royal escort would have drawn their attention, and my gift is too precious to risk its theft.”
The gatekeeper’s broad mouth crumpled into a sour-lemon expression, and I shrank back under his scrutiny. Why wasn’t it working? Cair Saeva had spun her finest dream magic into the brass wire setting, meant to lure the viewer into absented-minded obsession with his own desires.
Of course. The crystal worked by building on the dreams and aspirations of those who saw it. I saw it as a priceless treasure because I knew it was the key to our family’s redemption. But this rough-voiced, small-minded man had no hopes to hang on it... yet.
“Look on this,” I said, thrusting the jewel beneath his nose. “Would you have so valuable a treasure stolen by bandits?”
The gateman scowled. “Of course not.”
“It would be a pity for you if it had been, for King Shazzinar has charged me to reward each man who helps me bring this treasure safely to its recipient.”
“Hmph,” the man said, but he peered again at the crystal, and this time I saw its pale blue flicker echo in his eyes. He stared at it for ten heartbeats. Then he straightened and plucked the pullstring of a small bell attached the inside wall of the gate, prompting a well-dressed servant to appear through a narrow doorway.
“Provide his lordship with a room,” the gatekeeper snapped, as though it were the servant’s fault that no room had yet been provided. “And fresh clothing. He brings a gift for the heiress.”
And with no further trouble, I entered the walls of my ancestral home. The servant guided me past gardens I should have played in as a young boy, through statue-lined hallways where portraits of my bloodline had once hung. We traveled up two narrow flights of stone steps to a room overlooking the courtyard, and I was courteously left with the promise that food and garments would be delivered shortly.
I had never seen such opulence. The guest room was twice as large as the entire cottage where Jeene and I raised three children and was lavishly bedecked with tapestries, mirrors, and ornately framed paintings. I threw myself across the overfluffy bed—belt, pack, muddy boots and all—and rested my head on scented pillows. This was what fate had denied my children. This was the future I would bring them.
I imagined my father, strong and healthy again, roughhousing with the children in the spacious courtyard beneath the very window across from me. Cair Saeva would sit demurely near the rose bushes while Jeene and I—
Jeene. I had tried not to think of her during the journey. Her disapproval hurt too much, like a slap across the face each time I recalled our parting.
Jeene didn’t understand. How could she; she wasn’t a Mosvin. Three generations of unrequited injustice didn’t scream in her blood. Assassination is an ugly word, but not any uglier than betrayal, butchery, and perfidy. What was one girl’s life weighed against the pent-up suffering of three generations?
The door tapped faintly. At my acknowledgement, a tall, sticklike man entered with a tray of bread, cheese, and fruit and a pile of brightly-colored clothing.
“Do you require anything else, my lord?” he asked after placing the items on a thin stone table. I shook my head.
The servant bobbed like a drinking bird. “Very good, your lordship. His Grace, Lord Pahadoran has requested that you attend him this afternoon. I shall return to guide you to the hall.” He bowed and left.
I unfurled the pile he’d set on the bed: tunic, trousers, and a scarlet vest-cloak embroidered with golden stallions. True nobleman’s finery.
For a full quarter of the bell, I just stood there, running my fingers over the cloth. Then, invigorated, I hastened to cast off my muddy rags.
I was dressed, groomed, and pacing the room for over an hour before the spindly servant tapped on the wooden door again. Cair Saeva’s amulets bounced against the inside of my shirt as I followed the servant through sunlit hallways, my boot heels clicking hollowly on the patterned stone floors.
Javon Pahadoran waited for me in a wood-paneled hall trimmed with bodyguards and golden filigree. He lay spread across his chair as if it were part of his skeleton, his left hand draped carelessly over the arm rest. A gaudy signet ring clung to one finger.
My breath quickened as I approached. I had never met this man, this gnarled old usurper who lounged on furniture emblazoned with my ancestors’ crest. I had never before seen those flint-sharp eyes floating in a sea of overlapping wrinkles. And yet within the folds of that crumpled flesh I read a complex story of hatred and bitterness and treachery. This man had murdered my grandfather, and his face bore the guilt of it.
The urge to slice through his heart might have overwhelmed me if I hadn’t known he was already dying. The signs were visible, to those who knew to look for them; in the slack muscles along the left side of his face, in the subdued trembling of his forearms. Trembling slightly myself, I gathered my thoughts and bowed low before my family’s enemy.
“King Shazzinar sends his greetings,” I intoned, proffering the blue amulet in my outstretched palm. I had no doubt that its power would ensnare him. A man as treacherous as Lord Pahadoran was always yearning for something; his avaricious heart was riddled with desire and ripe for Cair Saeva’s magic. “And a gift for your daughter, the heiress Tabisha.”
Lord Pahadoran’s eyes flicked toward the gem and stayed there. Rivers of blue fire swirled within the veins of the crystal. It sparkled with life, reflection crawling across my fingers and Lord Pahadoran’s face like starlight reflecting off a holy pool. I could not know, I could only guess, what he saw there. Goshul was rumored to host a clan of mystic healers, healers with a cure for any malady. Even for old age. Perhaps, looking at this offering from an unexpected source, Javon Pahadoran saw a chance to snatch his soul back from the black stairway.
He tore his gaze from the crystal’s depths and rang a small bell to his left. A bright-eyed, dark-haired child bounded in through one of the side doors. Her lace and velvet skirts swished against the floor in purple folds as she hurried to Lord Pahadoran’s chair. Her face was flushed, and I had the distinct impression she had been listening, ear pressed to the other side of the door.
She was nine, perhaps ten years old, having attained much of her adult height but none of its figure. Faint freckles dotted her cheeks, which were round, smooth, and disturbingly similar to my own daughter’s. She curtsied, and a vague uneasiness settled in my gut. Surely this gentle stranger could not be Pahadoran’s child.
“A gift for you, my daughter,” Javon said, gesturing towards the amulet with one hand.
She gaped, then grinned in pure delight. “It’s beautiful,” she said, eyes fixed on the pendant. “Wherever did you get it?”
It took me a moment to realize that I was supposed to speak. I shook myself from my frozen contemplation. “It was dug from the mines of Abbazul, milady, and has graced the necks of Goshul’s monarchs for seven generations. King Shazzinar sends it now, as a gift, to you, and hopes you will wear it as a sign that you will accept his offer of courtship.”
The girl’s lips rounded in a silent “oh”, and she glanced uncertainly towards her father. Marriage contracts were often signed early in the Provinces but not normally for girls so young.
Javon waved a permissive hand. “We will consider his offer, and all that comes with it.”
I bowed again and placed the amulet’s chain around young Tabisha’s neck. She cupped the jewel in her hands and gazed at it with the same rapt attention she might have given a butterfly or a flower.
I felt sick. I had imagined the Pahadoran heiress as a pampered, pompous brat; an ugly, selfish thing like her sire. I had not expected to find something so pure, so untainted. How could I kill this child?
“I imagine this courtship does not come without... expectations,” Lord Pahadoran said softly. In his eyes I saw him calculating the wording of treaties, the sums of financial exchanges, and other unwritten commitments between the two provinces.
I gave a courteous half-bow. “Indeed it does not, my Lord, but King Shazzinar wishes to discuss those matters with you personally. I am sent only to deliver his gift, and declare his intentions.”
“Very well,” Pahadoran said. “You may go.”
I stood rooted to the flagstones. My fingers twitched, longing to snatch back the pendant before it could harm young Tabisha, but I willed them to stillness. Victory was so close.... Now was not the time for faint-heartedness.
I bowed to sire and daughter and fled to my room. Once inside, I bolted the door and leaned against it, the gnarled wood cold and unforgiving against my back. My body shuddered with each heartbeat.
I could not kill this child.
And I could not let her live. My father’s face hung gaunt and staring in my memory. If Tabisha did not die, he would. And my children would grow up in the same undeserved poverty as I had, perhaps dying of the same curable diseases as my father. Dreams and omens! What if Jeene took another hard childbirth, like with our eldest, which had almost killed her? Where would we find the money for a healer?
The purple amulet—the trigger—pulsed with eager intensity against my chest. I pulled it from my shirt and carefully set it on the tiled floor.
It was an ugly thing. Glass, like its partner, set in handworked brass wire. But this stone held no charms to hide its baseness; no illusion of delicacy. It was blunt, amateur work. Even the dim flickers of light in its heart seemed violent: captive magic, whirling in frantic futile circles as it sought to escape.
It was called the trigger because when it was destroyed, the jewel around Tabisha Pahadoran’s neck would shatter in a burst of pent-up power.
Giggles echoed from the courtyard below my window. Peering through the shutters, I glimpsed Tabisha darting through blooming rosebushes like a firefly, laughing as she eluded two handmaidens who, apparently, were supposed to ensure decorum. She reached the dark-stoned cobbles near the garden wall and spun, panting, to wait for her attendants. The blue amulet dangled from her neck like a forgotten trinket.
I drew the shutters.
It’s odd, the way momentum drives us forward in times of uncertainty. I’d imagined wreaking vengeance on the Pahadorans so many times as a boy; had plotted so many schemes to avenge Grandfather’s death. Now that the chance lay before me, I didn’t know what to do besides seize it.
Should I wait? It would have been safer to leave the manor before destroying the gem. But I knew that now, right now, Tabisha was wearing it. In a few hours, she might have removed it, and all our family’s chances would be gone.
I lifted a cat-sized statue from a pedestal in the corner of the room, a black marble carving of a mounted hunter. The purple amulet lay delicate and defenseless on the stone tiles of the floor. Mahogany light flickered within it like a baleful eye.
With strength born from three generations of Mosvin bitterness, I thrust the statue towards the ground. The jewel exploded in a burst of tangible power, and I raised my arms to shield myself from the shards. From the courtyard rose an echoing explosion, and the sickening scent of charred flesh.
I glanced toward the window.
Through the slats of the shutters, I saw a courtyard streaked with crimson. Scorch marks marred the wall where Tabisha had stood, and horrified servants clustered around a slender figure, clothed in velvet, whose long black hair had caught against the bushes as she fell.
A life for a life. A child’s for my father’s. Logic would call it an even trade. But standing alone amidst a sea of splintered glass, I finally understood the heavy price it had cost me.
I did not linger long. I slipped out of the manor before the gatekeeper heard of the murder and hid in the forest until the search parties left. But her mangled carcass is spewed across my dreams. Red and black, blood and hair; long cat-claw streaks against the back of my eyelids.
Jeene holds me after the worst nightmares. She never says it, dear heart, never reminds me that she loathed the plan from the beginning. She just presses her cheek against my back and watches with me as the black sky turns silver against the wealthy skyline of our palace.
I know she hates it here as much as I do. But Father and Cair Saeva could never bear to leave, and I don’t have the heart to leave without them.
The children, at least, seem happy. They live in the same quarters where Tabisha once played, but they have never asked, and hopefully never will, where the beautifully carved toys came from.
Now, jolted from sleep by that image I dare not ponder, I thrash beneath the blankets and stare toward the window. A vibrant glow lights the edge of the darkness, but it cannot vanquish my guilt. I think of Lord Pahadoran, gnarled and shivering on his throne. I begin to understand why the canyons of his face seemed so bitter.
And so we wait, Jeene and I, until the golden sunrise brings sounds of stirring from the servants’ rooms, and the cooks begin to rattle kettles in the kitchens. Soon I must drag myself from the pillows. I will sign edicts and hear petitions, and eat fine bread that tastes like ashes in my mouth, and pretend, until nightfall, that I am content.