An Unfolding Tale

an experimental fantasy fiction by M.D. Ward

A Kiss of Shade Shade

Shaydra lounged awkwardly on the uncomfortable old bed, revolted by her circumstance, and looking forward to escaping it as quickly as possible. Even a poor set of battered, old leathers would have been vastly preferable to the silken scarlet dress, which was so sheer as to reveal far more skin than fit the codes of modesty. Not that Shade was particularly  concerned with modesty. She simply detested the idea of exposing her flesh to the leering eyes of men. She hated being watched and weighed and measured, like a cut of meat destined for the spit. It would not last much longer though. Her work was nearly complete.

“Has anyone ever told you that your eyes shine like the rarest of emeralds, my pretty?” Shade fought the urge to laugh at the Lordling’s pathetic and half-drunken attempt at charm. Holding on to her mask of practiced submissiveness, she smiled.

“You’re too kind milord,” replied Shade sweetly. “I think that deserves a kiss. Come here, handsome.” It was not a complete lie. Oralon Vander was a handsome man, if perhaps a bit long through the nose. It was not his appearance that disgusted her, but the way his eyes seemed to linger just below her chin. That and the ornate, golden marriage band that he wore on his left hand. Shade had no illusions about her own, dubious moral character, but she did hold a few things sacred in the secret places of her heart.

As the Lordling approached, she leaned forward with puckered lips and a false eagerness, allowing him to wrap his arms around her. She ignored the strong but surprisingly tender hands that ran along her body. All of her attention was focused on his lips. It was only when they locked with her own that she realized that he was trembling. Was it from fear or from desire? Neither seemed to fit Vander’s reputation for ruthlessness and heartlessness.

Instead, she found that the softness of his touch reminded her of another man, from another time. For one brief moment, she was carried away in the currents of pleasant memories. The shape of the lips. The timid hesitance. It was all the same.

No, she told herself firmly. I will not think of him. Not now. She counted off the seconds. Four. Five. Six. Seven. Certain that she had waited long enough, she bit down on his lip, just hard enough to draw blood.

“Ack!” screamed the Lordling. “Ashes and embers that hurt!”

“My apologies,” said Shade, less sweetly than before. She rolled away from him, crossed the room and began to shed the dress. She opened a pack, pulled out the simple and practical small clothes that she normally favoured and began to dress herself.

“Wait!” shouted the Lordling. He sounded confused and almost frightened. Does he already understand what is happening to him? Shade wondered. Does he see how he’s been fatally duped? A moment later, he seemed to remember who he was, and his voice took on a stronger tone of command. “Get back here. We’re not finished, woman!”

“I’m afraid we are,” replied Shade. “You more so than I. How are you feeling Sir Vander?”

“A little warm,” he said. Beads of sweat were already forming on his brow and his eyes were glazing over. One hand came up to his bloodied lip and he took a deep breath. Shade watched him with distant, professional interest. By now, the poison would have reached his mind. How would he react? Everyone was different. Some people had hallucinations, while others would abruptly revert back to childhood, becoming little more than blubbering babies. Once, she had even seen a man overcome by an almost ecstatic trance.

Gandjai,” gasped the Lordling.

“Hardly,” Shade snorted, pulling on her loose, leather trousers. “I work alone. Some of their methods are highly efficient, however.”

Shade had never thought of herself as a particularly cruel woman, but she did feel a pang of disappointment at the man’s simple, uninteresting descent into his own, eternal slumber. The strength seemed to seep from his body, as though he were a wilting flower, sagging slowly to the ground until he finally collapsed and closed his eyes. A moment later, the last breath slipped across his blood red lips.

Fully dressed now, Shade crossed small room and bent down beside the body, where she retrieved the Lordling’s signet ring. Cast from solid gold and inlaid with a number of precious stones, it would surely fetch a pretty price. But that was not the reason for Shade’s interest. While she was not opposed to a bit of opportune looting, the ring would serve as proof that the contract was complete, which in this particular case would be far more rewarding.

She had just tucked the ring safely away when she heard a rattling at the door. A soft click told her that someone had easily undone the lock—though whether with a key or pick, she could not tell. Shade whirled, unsheathing the knife that she wore belted at her hip. As the door slowly swung open, she prepared to defend herself.

And very nearly dropped the weapon when Sir Vander walked through the door.

“Well done, my dear,” said the Lordling with an amused smile. There was no kindness in that smile, however, no trace of mirth in his hard, grey eyes. “It seems that you’ve lived up to all I’ve heard about you.”

“Who are you?”

“Exactly who I appear to be. I’m afraid it was not to me that you gave such a deadly kiss. Look again.” Shade turned her gaze back onto the dead man. Laying there, he bore a vague resemblance to Vander, but not so much that she would have mistaken him for the minor lord. He was too young, too soft, too innocent.

“A simple illusion, really,” said the Lordling. “A bit of Flame to bend a man’s appearance. The illusion is imperfect, of course, but is surprisingly effective in dim light.”

Shade shifted her stance, measuring the distance between them and the weight of the knife in her hand. She had never killed the same man twice, and she would only get one chance. Sir Vander might only be a minor lord, but he was known to have more than his fair share of talent in the Flame. If she missed, he would surely kill her where she stood.

“There’s no need for that, my dear,” he said. Reaching into the pocket of his fine, silver doublet, he withdrew a leather purse and tossed it toward her. Being careful to maintain her defensive posture, Shade quickly snatched it from the air. “You’ve fulfilled your commission admirably and earned every gold falcon your were promised. I believe the agreed sum was forty, was it not? You’ll find a bit more in there. Compensation for the shock, you understand.”

“Wait,” Shade said. “It was you who hired me?”

“Why of course. I needed to put you through a test.”

“A test for what?”

“To see if you were the right choice for a much greater assignment. And I’m pleased to say you surpassed all my expectations. Tell me, what do you know about Prince Jayslen?”

Shade regarded the Lordling suspiciously. She had never been an overly trusting person—growing up as an orphan in the Stilt District of Relen’ayar could do that to a girl—but she had no idea what to make of this man who had hired her to kill himself. Or at least to kill a man with his own likeness. And what’s this about a test? And Prince Jayslen? It sounds like a whole lot more trouble than it could possibly be worth.

“I know enough not to go sticking my nose in Royal business,” she said. “I have no interest in killing the prince.”

“A patriot?” asked Vander.

“Mere practicality. I don’t want the Queen and lackeys hunting me.”

“Ah yes, the Queen. Terrifying isn’t she? What kind of woman orders her own husband to the gallows? Well no matter, I have no intention of sending you off to kill Jayslen. That, it seems, has already been done. I am far more interested in the one who did the killing.”

“The Prince was assassinated?”

“Perhaps, though I think not. I suspect that his death was much more provincial in nature.”

“And you want me to find his killer? Some sort of vengeance?”

“Nothing quite so dramatic, I’m afraid. I want you to find the killer and bring him to me, alive and largely unharmed—though a few bumps and bruises would be of little consequence. If you do this for me, I am prepared to offer you a very substantial sum.”

“How much?”

“Would one thousand falcons be sufficient?”

Shade very nearly choked on her own breath. A thousand falcons? With that much gold, she could easily live in luxury for the rest of her life. What could possibly drive Vander to offer such a ludicrous bounty? Is this killer dangerous? Will he be difficult to capture? Or is there some other motive at work here? Some other value that I don’t see?

“And the catch?” she asked.

“No questions,”replied the Lordling. “You do your job. Find him and bring him to me alive.”

“That’s it? And if he dies along the way?”

“See to it that he doesn’t. I’m afraid you would find that to be most unpleasant.”

“Fine. I’ll bring him to you, but I’ll need a retainer first.”

“Of course. Another forty then?”

“Fifty.”

“Very well. Fifty it is. Now, for the matter of transport. I will be leaving for the capital in the morning to attend the Queen’s Council. May I suggest that you don that lovely dress of yours and accompany me on the journey? All for show, you understand.”

“If it’s all the same to you, I would prefer to travel in something a little less drafty.”

“Such modesty,” Vander laughed. “As you wish. You may stay here for the remainder of the night. I will have the body removed and see to it that you are not disturbed.” Or that I don’t try to leave on my own terms, more likely.

“My thanks,” said with a sincerity that she did not feel.

“Oh, one last thing,” Vander said as he turned to leave. “Would you mind returning my signet ring. It was a gift from my first wife. I really would hate to lose it.” Wordlessly, Shade withdrew the gold ring and tossed it to the Lordling. “Ah, thank you. Have a wondrous evening my dear.”

When she was sure that he was gone, she opened the small purse and quickly counted through the contents. True to the Lordling’s, word there were forty three gold falcons there, each so clean and unblemished that they appeared to have been freshly minted. One thousand falcons for one man. Ashes and Embers, Shaydra. What have you gotten yourself into this time? It was only as she was closing the purse again that something Sir Vander had said seemed to sink in. She was to accompany him to the Queen’s Council. In Relen’ayar.

She was going home.

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