“When do we admit she isn’t here, Assassin?” Snow asked. She was squatting on the other side of the fire, her intense face contrasted between shadow and fierce orange.
“Now,” said the Assassin, masking his bitterness.
Snow’s face was nearly a snarl. “We’ve wasted too much time here. Time I could have spent stopping my stepmother.”
The Assassin looked at the base of the fire for a moment before looking up at Snow.
“We’re stopping Malif.”
“By sitting in a forest?”
“By going after the one weapon Malif is never allowed to use.”
“We have accomplished nothing.”
The Assassin stood, toes of his boots creating a trench in the pine needles before him.
“Because I’m a moron. The beast will want to come to me. He hasn’t So obviously, he can’t. No hunter could get him. Malif already has him.”
Snow’s muscles went rigid.
“You want to take the beast from Malif?”
“I’m a mortal, but I’m a damn good one.”
“Malif. Not some petty king.”
The Assassin smiled grimly. “And if I’m not good enough, I’ll strike a deal with her.”
Snow stepped forward, grabbing the throat of his hood and pulling their faces close.
“She’s insane. She’s magic. She will kill you and subdue the entire world,” Snow hissed. Her fierce, blue eyes darted between his. Gauging if his fight was for Adalina, or for the world. Against Malif, or against the beast.
“I will not let her use the beast,” the Assassin said quietly.
Snow must have decided that he was fighting for her as well, because she let go of his hood.
The next morning, they mounted their horses and set in for another long ride. They were silent most of the morning, scanning the forest in a last-ditch attempt to find tracks that Adalina may have left.
“You’re certain she would have come after you?” Snow asked. The Assassin had at first hated when Snow refused to acknowledge that the beast was also Adalina. But now his nerves grated under Snow referring to the two as one. It wasn’t Adalina that would be coming after him; that would be the beast. But if they killed it, it would be Adalina that got hurt.
Damn, he thought internally. Even I’m not sure who is who.
“No one knows the curse better than me. Centuries of sharing the same mind.”
Snow looked up at him. “You might slit my throat for this, but how did you get cursed? Rumors abound, but no one actually knows.”
The Assassin’s eyes widened involuntarily under his hood. In hundreds of years, no one had asked. Perhaps they were terrified, perhaps they assumed he’d always been a beast. It seemed strange, in recollection, to think that no one had asked of the origin of the curse.
But he’d never, ever been forced to put the event into words.
“Someone cursed someone. I took it from them.”
That was blunt. Cold. Too cold.
She’d never been cold. Not until the curse.
The Assassin found his hands shaking on the reigns. He’d managed to stifle the memories over the years, but the more the curse had to be studied the more it came back.
“Dammit,” he swore aloud. “Dammit, that’s not how it went. That’s not how it went at all.”
“Never is,” Snow said. The Assassin looked back at her. “No one can tell their own story right.” The former queen looked back at him with a steady gaze.
“It’s not just my story,” said the Assassin. “The beast ruined more lives than just mine.” Not just the people he’d killed. The curse had damaged people with things far worse than death. Adalina was a living testament to that. The Assassin was a living testament as well.
Snow simply nodded.
She knows, thought the Assassin. She has her own monster that’s ruined too many lives to fit into one story. There’s too many rabbit-trails, too much back-tracking, too many side stories. Too much blood.
He looked back at the trail ahead.
There were unspoken words between them. Snow knew that he didn’t have to share his story right away. Not until he could tell it properly. Just like Snow knew that the Assassin wouldn’t abandon her or their cause, and just like she knew that he still had to save Adalina.
There’s still too much woman in that warrior, he thought irritably. Next thing you know she’ll be able to tell my life story to me without me ever speaking a word. Woman’s intuition isn’t to be trifled with.
The humorous thought was enough to put a smile back on his face. He shoved away dark thoughts and memories for another time. They had a mission to focus on. Clergy’s cloth, they had a world to save. A beauty to rescue, a beast to stop.
We’re going to be awfully busy, the Assassin thought.
For the first few days, it was nothing more than boring, however. Hours were spent riding, with a few moments of starlight stolen away for sleep. As they drew nearer to where the Assassin knew Malif was, the more they shifted their sleeping hours towards midday, leaving more riding time to the solitude of night.
“Now here’s my plan,” the Assassin said around a mouthful of apple. “I thought about sneaking in, but then Malif would kill us on the spot. Nothing can get past magic surveillance. Not even me.” He sighed. He was certain that if he still had the beast, the voices would tell him Snow was rolling her eyes.
“So you want to be brazen.”
“Precisely. Let her know we’re coming. Have her expect us. Malif’s insane, but she’s wicked smart too. She’ll want me, beast or no.” The Assassin tossed his apple core to the ground, where it was crushed by the hooves of Snow’s horse.
“She’ll never let you close to the beast.”
“Actually, she will,” said the Assassin. “Because I’m going to win her the world. Can’t do that without the gift of voices.” He worked as much irony into the words as he possibly could.
“So you take the curse from the girl and then attack?”
The Assassin turned and gave Snow a look. “No, I’m going to win her the world. Didn’t you hear me?”
A smile curved Snow’s dark lips. “Right.”
The Assassin nodded. “Heaven knows she needs it. Her terror won’t keep down rebellion for long, but the beast’s will. And that princess she has won’t do a lick of good.”
“Now the question is, how do we get an invitation to my stepmother’s court?”
“Well for one thing, I have her arch-nemesis, which is a fantastic bargaining tool. For another, we’re going to slaughter a lot of her guards.”
Snow arched an eyebrow. “Bold.”
The Assassin grinned. “Thank you.”
“And if we die?”
“We won’t be there to witness Malif destroy the world.”
“Good enough for me.”