Three days passed, and while Queen Snow gave the Assassin no more tests, she also gave him no true assignment.
He was beginning to wonder if she had only hired him to appear impressive while sitting beside her at meals and official things. Perhaps she even hoped his reputation would scare Malif into submission. If so, then on both accounts she would be wrong. malif was too insane to be scared into anything, and the Assassin too important to be a scary-looking lapdog.
The Assassin was nearly prepared to slip away one day. The Queen and her three guardians could compose some story of him finishing his mission or going off to do it, and would likely spin it up so that the eleven traitors--who were actually twelve--would live in mortal fear of their lives.
But before he left to see about other proposals, Snow’s aunt pulled the Assassin aside while passing in a corridor.
“Is the queen too busy to talk to me herself?” the Assassin asked.
“Too noticeable,” Jehanne replied smoothly.
The Assassin should have noted that. A woman, the second-born, and scarred. Jehanne had likely always played the role of second choice, second best, and last looked at. Snow was the Queen, Casin was rich, and Oudin both famous and in control of an army. That left only Jehanne to do the silent and most important work.
“Then it’s you who will give me my mission. or you’ll try to hire me out to rebel against your own niece. Wouldn’t that make for fine gossip, conspiring with your sister-in-law.”
“You’re to go to the Black Kingdom and see how well defended Malif is,” Jehanne said, ignoring the Assassin’s lazy chatting.
The Assassin gave a frown. He would have expected orders to ensure Malif was safely tucked away, perhaps well-secured or neatly locked up.
“I suppose I was mistaken in assuming Queen Snow had brains,” said the Assassin. “Not the first time I was mistaken with royalty, although she can’t take the name Beauty to make up for it. How could she let Malif roam free? Allow her to entrench herself?”
“Snow didn’t lack brains. She simply had a heart back then.”
“She doesn’t now?”
“If she does, it’s well smothered,” said Jehanne drily. “Whatever prevented her from killing the women then is dead now.”
“Hunh,” the Assassin said. What else could he say? he could hardly criticize Snow for living out the same story that the Assassin had.
“Find Malif. Report back information. Kill nothing but food. unless the rumors that eat young girls’ hearts are true, in which case Snow asks that you abstain and satisfy yourself with woodland creatures,” Jehanne said. She picked up her skirts and moved gracefully past the Assassin.
The Assassin watched her go--or rather heard--and thought of how the world had much more texture now. Before, all people came in a certain template. The spoiled royal, the naive adolescent, the hen-peckish wife, the lazy rich man. Each person fit a certain slot just so. Whether they truly did or that he told himself that they were no more special than that in order to avoid guilt, the Assassin was no longer sure.
It would be a little cliche but not entirely untrue to say that Adalina made him see past his templates. Or maybe he was simply seeing people who had grown past it.
Snow was not an exaggerated woman attempting to be unlike others by wearing boots and swaying a sword. Nor was she a tomboy, incapable of seeing past her desire for short hair and childish dreams of the freedom that another sex brought.
Likewise, Jehanne was not eternally depressed over her disfigurement, which would have been the end of the world for many young noble ladies gadding about the castle. Nor was she bitter and jealous, or simply a sweet, selfless and naive old lady.
The Assassin didn’t see animals or targets. He saw intelligence. He saw practicality. He didn’t see what he had seen in Adalina, but that was good. He would never escape such pain without even worse scarring than he already bore if yet another thing reminded him of the Beauty he had lost.
That he had sent away.
He comforted himself, saying she was happy now. For the first time in a long time, he yearned for someone else to be happy even more than he wished for his own happiness. But that could only be true so long as what had once been happy was now replaced by a cold, dead numbness.