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Chapter Nine

“And why do you want to see the queen?” asked the guard, evidently shocked that anyone could ever want to see Malif. The Assassin couldn’t blame him.

“I have the answer to her little... pet peeve.” The Assassin gave a grim smirk from beneath the hood. If the guard hadn’t puzzled it out already, he would know who the Assassin was now so long as he had more brains than the bumpkin before him.

“Please wait,” said the guard stiffly before going inside, likely to inform the superior. He was tall and lanky, the ill-fitting armor creaking loudly as he abandoned his station.

With stunning speed, Snow darted into a window. The Assassin mentally traced her path, starting in the guard’s armor room and ending as close to Malif as possible. The Assassin would secure the beast, and then the two would take Malif.

The Assassin had slit the throats of kings, hunted impossible monsters, slaughtered armies... but nothing this utterly idiotic.

The lanky guard returned, a stout, shaggy-headed man in tow.

The second guard pointed a thick finger at the Assassin.

“God save your souls.”

“Bit late for my soul, I think,” said the Assassin. “I mean, my mind and heart are already-” he made a poof sound, spreading his fingers apart.

“A monster like you never had a heart,” snapped the man.

A red hood. A chipped cup. Bloody and broken.

He’d had a heart once.

The Assassin flashed a cocky smile. “Then your queen and I will get off soaringly.”

The two guards, whom the Assassin named Lanky and Stout, marched him into the castle. He refused to let himself think of what he had done to Stout. Kill his son? Burn his crops? Or did he blame the Assassin for Malif in general?

Refusing his own thoughts never went as planned.

They walked through enough corridors of stone that the Assassin feared Snow might never find them. They finally stopped in front of an unassumingly small door.

“Just try an’ kill her,” hissed Stout. “One of you’ll die if you do, an’ the world’ll be a better place for it.”

Lanky unlocked the door, and Stout pushed the Assassin inside. But the moment he crossed the threshold, he froze. It was not entirely of his own free will; magic was holding him in place. But the Assassin would have frozen in any case. Kneeling on the floor, bound by magic, was Snow.

And draped on her shoulders was a single, very bloody cloak.

The shock jolted through him then faded. He seized up the situation. He could take the guards behind him, and he knew the path through the fortress. But Malif was aware that they were here. It was likely her holding them in place.

Her that had gotten her hands on that cursed cloak.

“You,” said the Assassin to Snow, his voice faltering out of his control. “Did a terrible job.”

Snow, who had every right to be grief, anger and terror-stricken, only gave him a cold look.

“Malif?” the Assassin called. “You know we can’t do anything to you now. Come out. We can talk.”

Snow closed her eyes.

“Malif?” He said it louder.

“Curses, curses,” crooned a voice. For a split second, the Assassin thought a thousand more would follow it. It was so penetrating, reverberating in his mind. When it wasn’t followed up by a blood-thirsty KILL HER, he rather felt like he’d missed a step going down the stairs.

“Yeah, curses,” said the Assassin. His voice grew playful, urging a banter. “Like the one you’ve got in here somewhere. I’m awfully familiar with that curse, you know.”

“You can control it,” the voice said. It was definitely a woman’s. Malif’s, he had to assume. He watched Snow cringe at the voice, her features twisting into minuscule grimaces.

It had to be Malif.

“You couldn’t,” he said. “It took me nearly a century to learn how.”

“Lies,” Malif hissed.

The Assassin stopped, shocked at the blatant refutation.

“That’s not how you banter,” he scolded after a moment.

“I’ve studied that curse,” said Malif. Her voice was almost sleepy, the words starting out sharp and ending in a drawl. Attacking you, then lingering as she savored the sound. “I’ve traced it back generations, watched your moves, seen how it works.”

The Assassin frowned.

Generations? But there had only been him and his daughter. And how someone could have watched the Assassin’s every move was beyond him; the beast covered his tracks well.

“Well, I was actually there for the whole thing. It would take years to overcome the beast’s lu-”

“One day.”

The words were sharp, biting into the Assassin’s ears like a winter wind.

“One... day? One day what?”

“That’s how long it took the princess to overpower the curse.”

The Assassin’s eyes grew wide beneath the hood.

“Be- that’s impossible.”

Malif lied. She lied to get power, lied to keep it. She’d lie to throw him off. To get what she wanted.

What did she want?

She wants me to assume Adalina has control, he thought. She wants me to assume Adalina will be fine. She doesn’t want me in control of the curse. She knows I could betray her.

Armed with the thought, he plunged on.

“That’s impossible,” he repeated. “I want proof.”

He could hear the smile in her lazy voice. “Then have it.”

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