How had it come to this? Derek examined the strange knife in his hands by the hilt, turning this question over in his mind like it owed him money. It was a dagger unlike any he had ever seen, with an edge that he couldn’t quite perceive no matter how close he brought it to his face. He was assured that it was sharp, however, and had been satisfied that it was.

I’m not a killer, he thought. To be sure, he had killed before, but that was a different time. He had never killed for money. At least, he had never been paid for it by a third party.

He asked the Broker for work, had been given implicit instructions, and did the job. That was that. When he got home, the only thing Martha would need to know was that her husband once again had coin. That was all there was to it. He considered those instructions once more.

Never let the blade touch your skin or anyone else’s except for the target. You will find your target visiting the Seamstress Gianna at 7pm to pick up a yellow gown for the upcoming Ball. Access will be granted via the servant’s entrance and she will be unguarded. You will plunge this dagger into her belly and disappear with it. Collect your money from the Broker by returning the blade.

They didn’t mention how young she was, though. She could’ve been his daughter’s age, roughly sixteen or seventeen.

He recalled her eyes then, staring into his with remarkable curiosity. He saw her mouth working, unable to voice the question that neither of them knew the answer to. She never looked down; the act itself was more intimate than anything he and Martha had shared. They both knew he had killed her.

He wondered again at why his only pity was ruining silk that cost more than he might earn in a year. It’s not like she lived a hard life, after all. If she were a cobbler’s daughter, or a weaver’s daughter, or my daughter it would be different.

He worked up as much spit as he could and spat onto his right hand, rubbing blood off it with his left. There’s always something you forget to consider, he could hear Martha chiding. His lips puckered in and out as he continued to muster as much saliva as possible until his hands appeared passable. Curiously, no blood stained the dagger.

Taker’s balls, he thought. That was time I didn’t have to spare.

Tucking his meal ticket into an oiled leather wrap and stuffing it into his waist, Derek stepped out onto the street and assumed the walk of a man with nothing to hide. A walk that had taken forty years to wear like a glove.

The trick was in portraying what everyone else wanted to see. The city watch expected you to keep your eyes down, the Union jackboots expected you to be polite and nod your head, the commonfolk expected you to stay out of their way.

***

Derek warmed himself by the fire, once again cursing the Broker for his damnable precautions. He would only ever meet in the Queen’s Wood, far from proper civilization. Far from proper thieves, too.

At dawn he’d ride out and help himself to a handsome reward. Enough coin that Martha would see what she used to see in him. Enough that he might see it too.

“Aye, Nutmeg,” he called to his horse, “It’ll be good to live proper again, won’t it?” Martha used to laugh that one day they’d swim in so much coin they could try Nutmeg themselves and see what all the fuss was about. She didn’t laugh much these days.

Nutmeg looked his direction and picked up his feet. Put them down. Derek nodded to himself. It would be good indeed.

Derek brought his hand up to slide the hair out of his face and thwack! His palm slapped tight against the bridge of nose as something pulled with tremendous strength against his wrist while digging into his back. He could feel his nose being ground into his face bit by bit, warm blood mixing with saliva as he gasped for air.

He tried to stand. Couldn’t. Rolled forward instinctively, cursing himself for the fire lapping at the side of his face greedily. He was surprised to hear a female scream as the pressure against his neck and wrist was released.

Derek felt hands grab him by his loose boots, tugging him out of the hottest coals until they popped right off his feet. He felt his toes grab purchase against the earth through holes in his socks and pushed off with everything he had into a sprint.

Cold pain blossomed where flames had kissed his right eye, and his left wasn’t faring much better from the swelling of a broken nose. Still, he ran as fast as he could in the dark, barefoot, swallowing his own blood.

Sisters!” He gurgled out loud. What are witches doing in the Wood? I’ve got the Taker’s own luck, indeed.

Derek heard a whirring sound like thunder building in the distance right before his feet seized beneath him. His face led the way to the ground in a world of pain, and he once again cursed his terrible choices that put him in their way.

Rolling over and sitting up, he saw a cord firmly wrapped around his feet with two balls dangling to the side. He hastily pulled one foot free, then the other.

Pain exploded behind his eyes as his head was rocked back to the ground by a devastating blow to the temple.

This is how it happens, isn’t it? You know it’s over, yet you can’t help but wonder why. The who, the what, the when – none of it matters so much as the why.

He thought of the young girl he had stabbed earlier and wished he would have said something in answer to the question painted on her face. Anything would have done, even a lie. Isn’t that all that life was, anyway? One big lie?

Or… was it? He felt something else, then, bubbling from within him like a great creature stirring in a pond: desire to live. Desire for revenge, too. Desire to burn these witches to the ground for interrupting his last chance at redemption.

Tasting the blood on his lips, he realized it was possible. Anything was possible. He knew it as surely as a man knows how to breathe. A bargain was struck with him in this moment between moments, and he didn’t dare ask the price.

What did he want? He wanted to live. And with this certainty, he agreed.

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