“The world is full of black hearts, but mine is the blackest heart of all. I like the sound of that, don’t you? The alliteration, the poetry. But I will not bore you with names of poets.”
Eros sat across the table from a man long rumored to be a monster, not merely a savage, but a literal demon. He could now see what he long suspected to be true. Rumors could be used for deception and intimidation, and as Eros made his living by such methods, he had to admire the implementation. Even without the blood-red helm of spikes, Zaibos was a monstrous figure, taller by a head than himself, with shoulders like a horg. The king of Tyrnael sat, even now, in full plate, as if the armor was a part of him. An elaborately wrought iron chair, riddled by gaps, accommodated the spikes protruding from it.
“I speak only the poetry of stealth,” he replied, “like a dagger in the night, silent as a gliding owl.”
Zaibos’ lips curled into a wicked grin, his sinewy beard swaying like snapping vines. “I like you, assassin; you do not fear to look into my eyes and speak your mind. That is just the kind of man I need.” He tore into his meat like a sabertooth, his fingers greased with fat, and downed the morsel with mead.
Eros leaned into his chair, trying to look at ease. He did not feel hungry and only sipped at his chalice, which was heavy enough, he considered, to use as a weapon should the need arise. It was not as though he had never met with evil men before, but he made deals under cover of the moon, in lonely alleyways and forgotten alcoves. Here, the sun was full on his face, and colorful tents surrounded them. Soldiers bustled to and fro, grinding swords on whetstones, picking straw men with arrows, testing weapons against armor and muscle with muscle. Murder was open for discourse and Zaibos showed not an inkling of concern.
“You’ve not yet told me the job.”
Zaibos picked his bone clean and spat greasy slivers with his answer. “I want the princess’ heart in a box, a jewelry box I will provide you.”
“Princess Radia?” Even with his assassin’s heart, Eros could not rein in the shock in his voice. “Isn’t she your . . . sister?”
The king’s eyes were like dull steel. “Should that matter?”
Eros took a swig from his cup. The mead tasted bitter. There were times when he had refused to take money, usually from a husband who still loved his wife, when he could still see the hurt in their eyes, the desperation, and in those instances the assassin would talk his would-be clients into less bloody resolutions. But in the man who sat across from him, he was nothing, only a hunger.
“For the heir to the throne, it will cost you a mighty sum.” In truth, Eros had never killed anyone of royal birth, but he assumed, as anyone might, that the fee must be higher.
“Cost is irrelevant.” He slammed the chalice down and wiped his chin. “I could make your likeness out of solid gold, if you want.”
In a clearing not three steps from their table, two men were making a raucous noise with morningstar on shield, sword on helm. Eros could almost hear their sweat. Were they preparing for war? Did this have some connection to the princess? He could only guess, but sigils and banners meant nothing to him, to a man of his profession. There would always be the need, in any society, for dirty deeds, for men in the shadows to maintain the illusion of purity. Whoever ruled in Tyrnael, whether Radia or Zaibos or Skullgrin himself, he would blend in like a chameleon, because he had come into the world like few others did, a man born without identity. A thought occurred to him in that moment, a possibility he could only dream of since the time he was old enough to understand injustice. He quivered with the thought, wondering if it was even possible. And why not? Zaibos was the master of Tyrnael and the secrets of the Zo were at his disposal.
“Gold does not interest me. Nor jewels either.”
Zaibos smiled, as if let in on a perverse joke. “Lands, then? Titles? A lordship, perhaps?”
“Nothing so crude,” the assassin answered. “What need does a man with my talents have of lands? No, what I desire is . . .” and he pulled his hood away to reveal the brand on his forehead, like a serpent with an extra head for a tail, the shame mark, his aleph. He offered nothing more, waiting for his employer to catch on, fearing the derision known to him since birth.
Zaibos slicked his beard with the grease from his fingers. “And all this time, you’ve kept it hidden from me, that I should not be speaking to you?”
“Does it matter what I am?” Eros said angrily, “the manner of my birth . . . or what I can do?”
Laughter echoed from the monster’s metallic frame. “Relax! What do I care of the taboos of Dis? I could raze that city to the ground and kill everyone whoever shunned you. Or I could fix that here and now, with my knife . . .”
“The mark is a part of me. A man who is not seen or spoken to cannot be questioned or sought after. It is the greatest tool in my profession. What I request is not for me, but my mother, who carries the same mark. No one has spoken to her since the day I was conceived. In Dis, shit-covered pigs are treated with greater respect. If there is any way to undo the mark, to make her visible again . . . Well, that is my fee, a life for a life.”
In the arena beside them, a giant of a man with a gleaming morningstar struck a powerful blow, and his opponent fell to pieces. Armor scattered like a porcelain doll on a stone floor. Zaibos watched with delight, seeming to forget their conversation, but as the fallen warrior’s broken body was carried off, he turned to Eros. “Our scientists can give your mother a new face. She will be young again, unblemished and beautiful. But first, you must prove yourself capable.”
“The child should pose no trouble. If you call away the guards, I will be able to—”
“It is not so simple! Radia is not as foolish as she seems. She has fled the castle, possibly the kingdom, and is not alone. Her lapdog protector is a Hedonian by the name of Demacharon, a dangerous man, killed eight of my best in single combat. Do you think that will be a problem for you?”
“No man is a problem for me, Zaibos.”
“Oh? You’re that good a fighter?”
“I do not fight men. I kill them. There is a difference.”
“And if you come face to face with this Hedonian? What then would you do?” As if to illustrate the point, another man fell beneath the morningstar. The way the helm was smashed into the skull, Eros doubted the man would live through the night. “A golden age is dawning upon Aenya, and as in the days of yore, Tyrnael will be its capital. There can be no weaklings in this new utopia, which is why the princess had to go. Her weakness, like that of her ancestors, has been a blight on our people for generations. She represents all that I aim to cure. Now, if you would join my cause, show me your strength!”
Eros was never so offended. Any other time, he would have balked, no matter the offer. But Zaibos frightened him like no man ever had. And the possibility of saving his mother from the mark of invisibility, of removing her aleph, was too tempting to walk away from. Still, lines of respect had to be drawn. “Understand this, I am not one of your soldiers to command. But if you need me to demonstrate my services, I can oblige you.”
The sparring champion was called Horgin and for good reason. He was much like the king himself, heads taller than the assassin, and covered in bronze from head to toe. Horgin opened his helm to wipe the sweat. The sun was cooking men in their armor, and by now the brute was sure to be stewing. Good, Eros thought, heat makes a man slow to action.
“This is what you bring me to fight?” he barked, shaking blood and entrails from his morningstar, “a peasant-insect?”
It was all a song and dance to the assassin, the roaring and chest pounding of a halfman, an attempt at intimidation that did not faze him. “Is that a new term you’ve invented? Peasant-insect? How unexpectedly clever.”
Horgin lobbed a ball of phlegm at him, but Eros dodged quickly enough to avoid the sticky mess. “Was that your first attack?”
Feinting outrage, the giant slammed his faceplate down and moved into an offensive posture. Squires rushed to the assassin with a variety of swords, axes and maces, but Eros brushed them off. The only things he needed were in the pockets of his cloak and around his waist. There was a dagger, a particularly nasty species of spider in jars around his belt, spools of special silk thread from a worm found only in one part of the Dead Zones, and a sling.
Eros stood, motionless, until the gathering onlookers thought him paralyzed with fear. Horgin hesitated to kill him, out of pity, or shame to strike down an unarmed opponent. It was Zaibos that gave the order, with a raised finger, to proceed. The distance between the two men was not more than two strides. Horgin had to but bring up his morningstar, make one step, and Eros, sans helmet, would have his brains turned to oatmeal all over the grass. But as Horgin took that first step, the spiky head of his weapon catching the light, he was lying on his back, inexplicably screaming, tears of blood trickling from his left eye. All but Zaibos gaped at the stranger, with a mix of horror and admiration, and from more than a few mouths came the word sorcery! But keen eyed observers saw things as they happened, those who had been focused not on Horgin, but the assassin. They saw the cloth sling, now crumpled in his palm, and the flash of something quick and round and heavy.
As if were picking flowers for a loved one, Eros strolled over to the giant’s fallen body, plucking the metal object from the bronze crater in Horgin’s helm, where his left eye had been.
Zaibos looked on like a proud father. “It seems my faith was well placed in you. How did you do that?”
Tools of the trade were a closely guarded secret, as to show anyone would compromise his ability to work, but for the self-appointed king of Tyrnael, Eros figured he would make an exception. From a hidden pocket, he produced a silvery-grey sphere etched with runes. It was smaller than his fist, but so heavy, it was tiring to hold. Every time he used the sling, he risked popping a joint in his shoulder. His arm would be aching for weeks.
“Iridium,” he explained, “heaviest metal known to man and more highly prized than gold. Cuts through bronze as if it were papyrus. Horgin never thought to shield his face, not while wearing his helm, which is why he is lying on the ground and I am not, although I made certain, in case you needed him, that he live; he’ll only need to be more careful watching his left side.
“You see, brains trumps strength every time, and if this Hedonian is anything like the soldiers I’ve known, he should fall just easily. And if he fights to protect the princess, then he is a man with ideals, with honor, which is all the better for me, because I am not hindered by such delusions. I do my job, and I win, no matter the cost.”
“You’re a man of my own heart, so you shall have all you desire!”
As he slipped the iridium back into his pocket, Eros could not shake his discomfort. Zaibos looked as if he could not be more pleased, and to the assassin, that was the most unnerving thing of all.
“So you want her heart in a box. Why not her head?”
“I see your meaning. You suspect I cannot trust you, that you might offer me a pig’s heart instead, but my people have ways of knowing. There is a signature to every life, in the blood, teeth and in the hair. What I desire is her essence, her soul if you will, that which makes her what she is, and so you must bring me the container in which the soul resides. You must bring me her heart.”
“One last thing then . . . how old is she now?”
Zaibos eyed him accusingly.
“If she has gone into hiding, she is likely in disguise. If I am to go looking, should I ask for a twelve year old girl? Thirteen? Fourteen?”
“How should I know? I am not her nanny. Although I believe she has just flowered, so she must be fifteen, sixteen; to a barkeep’s eyes, it will make no difference.”
Fifteen. Almost a child.
“Besides,” Zaibos continued, “the greatest fool in the land could not mistake her for a peasant. No one who sees those eyes can fail to notice. One is turquoise, like the greater moon, and the other violet, like the lesser.”
“The Moon-Eyed Princess,” Eros murmured. “So what they sing of her is true? I thought it just a fanciful rumor.”
“Fanciful, yes, and accurate, much to her detriment.”
From the time he was old enough to hold a blade, Eros had been running “errands,” or so he would tell his mother. It started with a dog who liked to steal the butcher’s scraps, and evolved from there, to debtors and creditors, and to witnesses of crimes. Men were wretched things, undeserving of life, and women fared little better. It made his job all the more easy, which is why, for an innocent life, he charged a higher fee. But this princess was like no other quarry. If what he had heard was true, she was a paragon of virtue, her clemency legendary. And there was also the story of her illness. Not a heart in Tyrnael was unmoved by the young princess, a child of six, standing at Death’s door as the king turned mad with grief—and if the bard’s are to be believed—his hair turning white overnight. Whatever the truth, no man or woman was greater loved than the daughter of Solon. But if Eros could bury his pity to bash a hungry mongrel’s brain in with a rock, he could run this errand. The dog’s death put five silver in his pockets, enough to feed himself and his mother for a cycle. It was his way, and his mother was the only thing that mattered to him, all that he loved in the world, and for her, Eros would strangle an infant in the cradle.