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Chapter One

The Assassin was perched on a windowsill, face concealed and senses alert. It was dark, and he was nearly ten floors up; chances of being spotted by the few people below were slim.

He inched along the sill, then made a skillfully calculated jump to the next one. The Assassin crouched, pulling two tools from his belt. With practiced fingers, he unlocked the window and swung it open.

Curtains fluttered in the fresh breeze. The Assassin dropped to the floor of the room beyond, scanning for people. The room was dim, empty save for a bed with a sleeping woman.

Queen Snow.

The Assassin snapped his fingers loudly in front of her face. There was no reaction. He grimaced, then turned to the room’s door. Deftly, he undid the locks, pulled it open, snatched the chain-mail hood of the guard outside and yanked the man in before he had time to react. Then he closed and locked the door.

“I- wha-” the guard stammered, blinking in the dark room. His hand was moving towards the handle of the sword in his belt.

The Assassin batted away the man’s hand and unsheathed the sword for him, then tossed it to the other side of the room.

“Why are you guarding Snow?” demanded the Assassin.

“I- she is our q-queen...” The guard was utterly bewildered. “Assassin, why are you here? You deser-”

“She’s good as dead and Malif rules you,” corrected the Assassin.

The guard had regained his wits. “No!” he protested. “Queen Snow will wake. She is our ruler.”

Romantics, the Assassin thought with a grim smile. The guard was one of the people still loyal to their cursed queen. They had faith in her rule, love for her person.

Just the sort of love the Assassin needed.

“Good,” he said, mirthless smile visible beneath his hood. “Kiss her.”

“...what?” The guard stopped trying to inch towards his sword.

“You heard me. If you love your queen, and if you want her to wake, kiss her.”

Bravely fighting off nervous shakes, the guard turned and took a few steps towards his sleeping queen.

“I cannae,” he said, voice faltering. “I cannae do that to Snow!”

“Clergy’s sake,” the Assassin muttered. “Just kiss the woman and break the curse already!”

The guard put a hand to Snow’s arm. Instantly, he got a woozy look to him, and Snow’s face twitched.

Thank the gods, thought the Assassin.

The guard bent down, then briefly pressed his lips to Snow’s.

Then fell limp on top of her.

Years of training and a fierce instinct caused Snow to shove the weight off of her, reaching for a non-existant sword. The poor guard slumped to the floor, armor rattling loudly against the flagstones.

“Good morning!” said the Assassin cheerfully.

Snow looked from the Assassin to the sleeping guard, icy blue eyes darting around the dark room. She took a step towards her former employee.

“You bastard.”

“Calm down, m’lady,” said the Assassin. “All’s well. Well, no, it isn’t. But it will be, especially if you start listening to me and doing exactly what I say.

“You order me now?” Snow raised a dark eyebrow. “After leaving me to the mercy of Malif’s armies?”

“Your step-mother couldn’t have been stopped by me,” the Assassin scoffed. “I’m strong, I’m skilled, but I’m mortal. You needed the Beast.”

“And just where is the beast?”

She was an intimidating figure. Much more so than she’d appeared on the throne. There was strength in her build, and a coldness to her features that suited her name. This woman was a warrior, much like the Assassin. But rather than doing bloody deeds in the shroud of night, she had twisted them into a glory that allowed her to lead and inspire men. The Assassin only scared them.

“Where’s Malif?” he countered.

“That girl is working for my stepmother?” Snow’s face was stricken, terrified at the thought.

Not much could terrify Queen Snow.

“Without the Beast, Malif wasted no time in descending on the White Kingdom. You thought she was done once she’d cursed you and gotten her revenge. But Malif had bigger plans. She left, which is the only reason the survivors of your army were able to guard your body, to seek more power. And the Monster likes power.”

Snow was silent, contemplating the Assassin’s words. “You want to hunt it. Get it back.”

At the word hunt, images of arrows slamming through Adalina’s body came unbidden to the Assassin’s mind.

“Yes,” he said slowly. “I can control it. It controlled me for centuries, but over time I mastered the voices. B- that girl has only been in contact with those briefly. She could never hope to keep it from doing as it wishes.”

“You betrayed me. That monster is the ultimate curse. Why on earth should I help you gain it back?”

Because otherwise, Adalina may die. “Because otherwise, it belongs to Malif.”

Snow sighed heavily, looking down at the sleeping guard. “I know how curses work, Assassin. I’m not so naive as Malif paints me out. Or as my guardians would prefer me to be.” The Assassin nearly chuckled at the thought of an innocent, naive Snow. “There must be... caring to shift the curse.”

“My problem. Not yours.”

The former queen gave a regal nod. “Off to hunt a beast, then.”

Off to save a beauty.

The Assassin never wanted Adalina to take the curse. Everything he’d done was to avoid just that. Because curses are never, ever broken. They only get passed on, given away, taken. And now it was his beautiful Adalina that was cursed with all those voices, all that blood. His hands shook at the thought of it.

The Beast hadn’t wanted Adalina to take the curse either; the Assassin was trained. He was built to do the Beast’s deeds. But Adalina had been too brave to run from the Beast’s screams, and too stubborn to leave under the Assassin’s orders.

She never should have come, thought the Assassin numbly. I should have just taken that fop’s offer of gold instead of demanding some company. Nothing good comes of mixing the Beast with people.

As Snow and the Assassin prepared for a journey through the White Kingdom to Malif’s fortress in Charmyn, her latest plunder, he continued to berate himself. He argued with Adalina in his head, he yelled at the beast, and he raked claws across his heart. It was as though his mind was too empty from the lack of voices; he had to make up his own.

But he would have those voices back. If it killed him, if it killed Snow, if it killed Adalina.

His beauty would not suffer one syllable more.

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