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Chapter Two

The Assassin strode towards Queen Snow’s throne. He did not kneel, although his head remained down. he could only see a sliver of marble floor and the inside of his hood. But what his eyes could not see, the voices made visible to his mind.

There were courtiers to every side. Exactly forty-two, all merchants or soldiers. The Assassin didn’t understand why they were here, unless it was just so Queen Snow’s new pet could make a public appearance.

Behind the queen stood three people. One was the late king’s sister and Snow’s aunt, a woman who looked similar to her niece but was afflicted with blemishes that had been the result of a pox. The other two were men. One was a fat and gaudily dressed merchant, the other a seasoned warrior. Jehanne, Casin and Oudin were their names.

Then there was the queen herself. She was relatively tall and extremely muscular, scarred in places that her well-tailored dress conveniently hid. As remarkable as that was, it was hardly the most striking thing about her appearance. Snow’s skin was as starkly white as her name, and that was only contrasted more by her hair that was black as oblivion itself. And as though whatever cruel god made her was not yet satisfied, she also had lips of dark red that were uncomfortably close to the Beast’s favorite shade of blood.

All this the Assassin knew before he had even set foot in the room. And now--as he stood and waited for the Queen to speak--the Assassin had little more to d than to listen to the Beast beg, urge, demand that he massacre the courtiers.

“The Assassin,” announced Queen Snow after what felt to the Assassin like an era. The courtiers murmured hellos and other tepid greetings. Then they went back to their quiet conversations and questions and assumptions. Not one could speak quietly enough to avoid the Beast’s voices, however.

The Assassin drew nearer to Queen Snow’s throne so that they could hold whatever discussion she had in mind in relative privacy.

“Could you prove to me in some way other than rumor that your services are as good as legend has it?” Snow asked in what was for her a soft voice. “Without killing anyone, we’d prefer.”

The Assassin was more interested in Snow’s voice than in her request. It sounded stiff, and was delivered like something neatly stitched together beforehand. He knew little of the queen but legend as well, and wanted to piece out her personality. A slight grin--one that was heavy to hold--grew under his hood. He inclined his head, as though listening intently. He already had the entire room’s conversations at hand.

“The merchant standing under the window with an image of the Black Kingdom’s patron saint is telling a joke,” the Assassin said. He relayed the set-up. It was one that could lead to nothing but a dirty conclusion. The Queen held up a hand. The Assassin stopped.

So she is more delicate than they make her out, he thought.

“Let us prove this,” said the Queen in her stiffly stitched voice. She had the merchant come over. “Lord Reyn, I would like it if you would finish your joke--assuming you were telling one--in front of the Assassin and myself.”

The merchant’s face grew bright red, and he stammered out the punchline in a voice that alternated between bass and alto. Almost immediately, the Queen snorted in an unmistakably spontaneous way before suppressing further laughter.

“You may go, Lord Reyn, if you’ve nothing more bawdy to share,” she said.

The Assassin’s smile came back, and it was big enough that he could almost convince himself that it was genuine.

“I am convinced enough,” said Snow, her own smile fading back into a more serious expression. “Your final test will be your first assignment. I want you to discover and dispose of those in this court that are against the Four Kingdoms in their war against Malif.”

The Assassin immediately slipped through three trains of thought in a few split moments. The first was a brief wave of shock at Queen Snow’s ruthlessness. He knew that she had “disposed of” her stepmother. Snow had killed in battle. But it was strange to hear such calculated cruelty presented as no more than a pragmatic course of action.

The second train of thought was carelessness, in more than one sense of the word. The Assassin didn’t care what Snow wanted done. he was simply there to do his job. But that in and of itself was careless, in the other meaning of the word. His job wasn’t to kill mindlessly. It was to work with Queen Snow towards her ultimate end.

The third was understanding. Snow knew his previous epiphany. And he couldn’t write her off as entirely brainless. if this next move was a part of her plan, then it was idiotic. Her command had been the test.

“That would be unwise,” he said, looking at the edge of Snow’s skirts. The toe of a boot peeked out. No, this woman isn’t brainless. Not with that sort of practical footwear, he thought approvingly.

Snow smiled, although she assumed he couldn’t see it. “Why?”

Now that word hadn’t been so stiff. It had bene blunt, yes. But it had been true.

“Your new assassin shows up and people die? Suspicious. Even if we make the deaths appear completely natural and accidental, it would be at least eleven people gone at a very unfortunate time.”

“That many?” Snow’s smile was gone.

“At the least,” the Assassin said. “Two of those are guessed on body language alone, however.” He couldn’t resist a small brag.

“And you claim this so confidently without having seen their bodies with your own eyes,” Snow said, still suspicious yet also with a sliver of awe.

The Assassin inclined his head even more deeply: his first sign of respect.

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