“Someone was here,” the Assassin insisted, peering at the grass surrounding his wrought-iron gate. “They walked that way. It looks fresh.”
“If it’s her, you said that she might run at first,” Snow said. “Should we prepare for the fight?”
“It can’t be the monster,” said the Assassin. “It’s calm walking, not... well, beastly running. Besides, it would attack, not run.” He knew the beasts thoughts as well as the beast knew his own. Centuries of sharing a head will do funny things like that. Sometimes, the Assassin caught himself thinking like the Beast was still there.
That scared him.
It shouldn’t have. After all, even if a sliver of the curse were left behind, he fully planned on taking the entire curse back from Belle. So he dusted the fear away, replacing it with a cloak of nonchalance.
“Who would come here?” Snow murmured. “It took us several days of riding and camping.”
“It took us that long when coming from the White Palace,” the Assassin said, bringing up his mental map of the surrounding land. “Tearian’s castle is barely a day’s walk. If someone is looking for the expert on the curse, they would come for the man who bore it for nearly three centuries. Or it could be a romantic peasant, hoping to slay the beast and save his damsel or some nonsense.” He waved a gloved hand flippantly.
Snow nodded. “Someone here could be interested in the curse, if nothing else. They could be of use.”
“If you’ll track them down,” said the Assassin. “I’ll search the fortress.” He felt Adalina might be there. He so hoped she would. He needed her to be.
He needed her.
Snow gave another militaristic nod and wheeled her horse about, following the tracks the Assassin had pointed out.
“Clergy’s candles, I wish I had at least one of those voices,” the Assassin muttered. It was only half-true. They had their uses, after all. But he said the words out loud more to convince himself that he truly wanted to take the curse back. He had to want it. He couldn’t let himself be afraid of it or afraid of what he was like under it.
The Assassin unlocked the gate and pushed it open. The rusted hinges squeaked angrily. He lead his horse up the little-worn path to the main doors.
“Come out, come out, wherever you are,” he murmured softly. But there was only the sound of his horse’s hooves.
The main door was unlocked.
So she or someone has been inside at some point, the Assassin thought. He pushed it open, a gust of wind sending leaves scattering through the entryway. The Assassin stepped inside, listening for the rustle of clothing or the sound of feet on flagstones.
A curtain brushed against its’ wall, a ray of light flickering over the shards of china on the floor in the dining hall. The chipped cup still sat on the table. The Assassin almost thought he heard a murmur of what it’s voice had once been.
He gave another one of his grim smiles, reaching out to run his fingertip along the edge of the cup, thinking of just how badly the fortress needed a cleaning girl now. When he took back the curse, would he live here again?
After half an hour, he was convinced that there wasn’t a beating heart in that castle besides his own. The Assassin gave a small sigh. He’d so hoped Adalina would be safe and sound in their fortress.
For so long it had been his. His curse, his voices, his solitude. Now Adalina shared it. He hated himself for being so comforted by that fact. What sort of man was he, to wish such a life on the one person that loved him?
He fingered a knife, mentally scraping it across his heart. An evil man. A selfish man.
Once he hadn’t been. But too long with the beast could turn even the most innocent girl into a willing monster. What could it do to a man, already so tempted, so weak?
Her face flashed before his eyes. Straight brown hair, like arrow shafts spilling out of a red hood. Fangs. Little girls shouldn’t have fangs. Blood. Little girls shouldn’t have blood. Not outside of them. Not on their faces. Not dripping from their teeth.
Not his little girl.
The Assassin reached up, feeling tears on his cheeks. The edge of the knife pressed against his jaw, and the salty tears stung against the fresh cut. His mind sharpened with the pain. He dropped his hand.
He replaced the knife in his belt and strode out of the castle. The Assassin mounted his horse and urged it out of the castle grounds. There was nothing left for him here. Not until Adalina was safe and his curse was his own again.
He followed Snow’s tracks, meeting her as she was on her way back to where they had split off. He prayed she’d found the rest of the tracks; a light rain had begun to fall and would wash it all away.
“No calm walkers,” she reported. “No crazed beasts either. I’d swear nothing had touched these woods since you came to work for me.”
“That’s impossible. The tracks were right there,” the Assassin protested. He scanned the woods around them, but found nothing save for the prints left by Snow’s horse.
“Then they faded into nothing,” Snow said bitterly. “Either it could fly or was never there. And who knows how old those tracks at the gate were?”
She’s a soldier, not a hunter, the Assassin thought. Hunting is all I’ve done for a living for centuries.
“The rain has washed any traces I missed away,” Snow argued. “And it will soon become a storm. You couldn’t find a rampaging boar once this lets up.”
“Forgive me, m’lady, but we don’t have time for the beast or it’s hunters to make new ones.” The Assassin wheeled his horse around hers, feeling frantic as the rain began to fall harder. His hood drooped against his forehead as it became heavier with the dampness.
“It’s been months since she turned! Surely you can wait a few days time.”
“Months wasted,” he snapped. “Months in which she could have died, or killed hundreds.”
Snow stared at him evenly, jaw set. “I see that the caring will not be an issue in taking back the curse. Tell me, Assassin. Is this truly about the beast?” The Assassin could feel her sharp, blue eyes drilling into the back of his head, piercing and probing for his true intentions.
He looked down, voice becoming dark. “Everything is about the beast.”
It was always about the beast.