Queen Snow was soon armed and dressed in more protective clothing than the burial gown she had been sleeping in. Her ebony hair was pulled back from her face, her blood-red lips pursed in concentration as she poured over a map.
It was strange, after so many centuries, to be able to see someone instead of relying on a thousand descriptions to picture their features. And it was doubly strange to see people as ugly or, in Snow’s case, beautiful, instead of as little more than meat.
But there was only one Beauty to focus on.
“Milaf has taken over all the land colored with purple dye,” the Assassin explained.
“All of the White Kingdom, all of Charmyn, and the Free Towns of the east mountain range,” Snow murmured. “The coasts remain untouched.”
“Charmyn was the last to fall. Rumors claim it was a negotiated takeover.”
“It is said the beast fled to Tearian’s forests,” said the Assassin. “And Malif fears the fallen princess may become enraged and attack. After all...” His voice faltered. “She gave herself to a monster to save Tearian. Now the rumor is that she has become one for the same result.”
The rumor had been partially spread by himself; the fewer people willing to go after Adalina, the more likely the chance she would remain relatively unscathed. But time was a danger still. Malif would not wait forever to claim such a warrior for her own purposes, and the beast could not be kept from murderous rampage for long.
That was the strangest thing. The Assassin remembered his blood-baths with vivid clarity. Times when the beast had full control and killed hundreds mercilessly. He had been a famed, unkillable monster. As he gained control and legends died, he began to take work as an Assassin, earning his name. His one skill, his one reason to life.
But there had been no stories of entire villages slaughtered. not even rumors of livestock gone missing. Perhaps with Malif’s power on the rise, people simply hadn’t noticed.
“Where is she really?” asked Snow, interrupting the Assassin’s thoughts.
“The beast likes forests,” said the Assassin. “And the cursed victim usually runs to a familiar place. It’s possible she is in Tearian, but more likely she’s near my fortress.”
Snow raised her eyebrows. “Fortress?”
“Did you think I lived in a den?” The Assassin reached across the table to pluck an apple out of a bowl.
“I assumed you moved from job to job.”
“I didn’t take many. They’re dangerous. A lot of people die.” He took a bite.
“That’s what you were paid to do.”
“Around the beast, everyone pays,” he said darkly. The Assassin held up his fruit. “Apple?” he offered in a cheerful tone.
“No thanks,” Snow said, blue eyes dropping back to the map. “I’ve lost my taste for those. Where is your fortress?” The Assassin chuckled, taking another bite. He’d heard the rumors of how Malif poisoned the apples in the palace. Of all the bloody things.
The Assassin tapped a spot on the map. “Hereabouts,” he said lightly.
She nodded. “And just what do you need from me in this?”
“The beast sees everything. There’s no sneaking up on it. But Adalina is an untrained maiden, which means two things. One, the beast doesn’t want her. He doesn’t like transitioning between people, but he wants a capable host. The curse is used to me, and will likely be eager to curse me again.”
“I’m still not relevant.”
Someone would think she didn’t want to be woken up, the Assassin thought irritably. Then again, waking to your entire kingdom in ruins and the world in the control of your step-mother wouldn’t exactly make for a grand mood.
“Two, we are arguably the best warriors in the land. I cannot subdue anyone under the curse by myself, and no doubt you know the tales of your own ancestor’s attempts. But as a team, we are more likely than anyone to succeed.” The Assassin didn’t add that he didn’t know of any warriors left alive in this century. He had more or less killed them all. And he wasn’t going to stake Adalina’s life on some unknown knight.
Snow sighed. “I don’t like this. Any of it.”
“The odds are remarkably in our favor given the circumstances,” the Assassin commented.
“After we subdue the beast and you take the curse, you will help me defeat Malif,” Snow said, eyes watching him sharply.
The Assassin gave a nod, pulling up his hood. “The Beast will be at your service,” he promised.
The two went to the stables. It was slower than the Assassin would’ve liked; everyone was delighted that Snow was alive, and the two had to make the loyal guards swear to not breath a word of it to anyone.
“Guard the secret of my shifted curse more carefully than you guarded my body,” Snow would whisper. The tearful guards and citizens would nod, beaming widely at their beloved queen.
The Assassin occasionally got a terrified glance. He considered himself rather lucky.
Within the hour, the warriors were mounted and riding towards the fortress. The noble queen and the bloody assassin, fighting in tandem for their own sort of love.
“How long have I been asleep?” Snow asked, swaying in motion with her horse.
“Hearsay says roundabout four months,” said the Assassin.
“Malif did all that in four months?”
The Assassin twisted in his saddle to look at the shocked Queen, corners of his mouth turned up grimly.
“You were considered the strongest person in all the lands, m’lady. When you fell, the others cowered. And she has magic.”
She grimaced. “Malif has always been strongest.”
“In some ways.”
“In all ways. What do you know of my stepmother?”
“Not much, come to think. The Beast didn’t dwell on her much while she was...”
“Banished.” Snow’s lips twisted in a smile. “Taboo in the Four Kingdom, to punish your parents. But if anyone deserved it, Malif did.”
“To be fair, the Beast didn’t dwell on her much while she was in power either. Noe one was brave enough to send even me up against her.” The Assassin’s grasp of ancient history was unparalleled, since he had lived it, but his modern politics were lacking. Unless he had been the one to kill them, he didn’t know much of anyone.
“You aren’t exactly humble.”
“Reports say neither are you.”
“Humility pales compared to honesty.”
There was silence for a moment, save for the clopping of horse hooves on the dirt path. But the Assassin knew Snow; she was gathering her thoughts, ordering them before presenting them.
“My mother died in childbirth, taking what was to be my brother and the future king to the grave with her,” Snow began. “That left him with a daughter for an heir, an unthinkable thing in any of the Four Kingdoms. But Red was falling to famine, and relied on White for food. With Blue and Black in strife, the kingdoms were desperate for some solidity. So the Red King abdicated, sending his queen to marry my father.”
“Malif, I presume?”
“She was less than happy with the arrangement, but women and children had no rights in the Four, or now Three, Kingdoms at the time. Malif was obsessed with bringing back the Red Kingdom. She thought her husband was a coward and despised her new family. All was well and good until we found out she had arranged for her old husband’s murder.”
“...oops,” muttered the Assassin.
Snow looked as though she were going to say something, then just shook her head before continuing.
“We tried to cover it up, but the Black Kingdom found out, the Kingdoms fell apart entirely. It’s still called the Four Way war. I was an angry, angst-ridden girl of eighteen or so and defied every order and joined the army. Things were so chaotic that arguments concerning my sex—once General Oudin discovered it—were simply irrelevant. Within two years, it was simply the White Kingdom against Malif and a smattering of Black and Blue regiments. My father passed and I became Queen. Things in the White Kingdom were completely different. But still Malif and her armies fought, whenever they were able to crawl out of that hell hole they live in. We’ve been skirmishing for nearly seven years, until I became exhausted and hired you.”
“That went well.”
“Things with Malif always do. But now I’ve a question concerning your history.”
“Oh, that would take me a fortnight to declaim,” said the Assassin dismissively.
“It will be fairly recent history,” Snow promised. “How was a girl you’d enslaved able to shift your curse?”
The question sounded so innocent. But the Assassin heard the voices beneath, the real questions. How could a girl like that love a monster like you?
“I don’t know,” the Assassin said softly.