There is no beast so fearsome as a madman scorned from above;
There is no force so pow’rful as hope for impossible love.
“It will never work,” my father said. His face was in one hand, elbow propping him up on the table as though it were the only support he had left.
“It will work,” Prince Costas insisted. “The Assassin has never once failed his employer.”
“His employers are usually drowning in gold,” I said. “We are surrounded by ruins. The Assassin does not work out of pity.”
If the situation were a normal one, I would have most likely been reprimanded with a silent look by Father for speaking so coldly to the prince. Costas was both a man and my elder by several years. But my father only ran a hand over his jowls, the seams of his face tightening.
“Your kingdom will be drowning in gold as soon as we’re married,” Costas pressed.
When we’re married, the kingdom will not be mine, I thought. I elected to not say that out loud.
“Oh, and are you plan on having the week long ceremony done in the two days it will take for Alesky’s army to reach the castle?”
There was silence for a moment, during which my father gave me the previously-neglected look. Perhaps my chosen statement was not any better than the one left unspoken.
“I can just give it to you, then, Adalina,” said Costas. “Never mind the ceremony for now.”
“Even once we pay him, my Prince,” said my father, setting his crown down on the table beside him. “Who is to say the rumors are true? Too shady, this Assassin.”
Mother had died at the hands of an assassin. Costas and I had both been surprised when Father had agreed to hiring the Assassin in the first place. I was disappointed but not shocked that he was now having second thoughts.
“Death by enemy armies or death by Assassin. Are those your only two choices?” Prince Costas asked, staring the king in the face.
I knew that they were.
“You should run, my boy,” said my father wearily. “Your kingdom will be safe. Mine is doomed. Take Adalina and flee.”
We stood in the throne room. Or what was once the throne room. Now it had a massive table in the middle, with maps and treaties and letters scattered across the scarred and gilded top.
In spite of the fact that the room had become a hastily thrown-together war room, the walls were still those of a palace. We were surrounded by old but carefully preserved murals and tapestries depicting saints of the Clergy, as well as less orthodox knights and demigods battling monsters and destroy armies.
I would never be a hero like my father’s knights or the demigods in legends of old, but neither would I be a coward and leave my father and kingdom to the mercy of Alesky’s men.
“No.” Costas echoed my cry. “I intend to see the Assassin pull through and save your kingdom.”
“Then at the very least, one of my knights will take Adalina to safety before he arrives.”
Before I could respond that I would do no such thing, a voice from above answered for me.
“Bit late for that.”
There was a soft thump of boots hitting flagstones as a hooded figure dropped from the rafters. To either side of us, the knights that were not painted darted forward, weapons at the ready. Costas held out a hand, and they froze.
“How long have you been here?” Prince Costas demanded.
“Long enough to know you don’t trust me,” said the Assassin, only a grin visible beneath the hood. “Disappointing, but smart.”
“Then you know that I’m your employer,” said Costas. He stepped toward the Assassin, hand on the hilt of his sword.
“Actually,” said the Assassin, sitting down and propping his boots up on the end of our table. “You’re not.” He picked up an apple and inspected it before tossing it in the air. It landed between his calloused fingers, and he took a bite.
“I certainly am,” said Costas. “I’m paying you.”
“No,” said the Assassin, swallowing his bite of fruit. “You’re not. It’s not your kingdom I’m fighting for.”
“It will be in a week’s time,” said Costas, gritting his teeth.
“I’m not into future investments,” the Assassin said casually. “I’m saving King Constantin’s kingdom, and he’ll pay the price.”
“What is your fee?” asked my father quietly before Costas could argue back. Costas bit back whatever retort was to come out, looking from the king to the Assassin.
“I need a serving girl,” the Assassin suggested.
All eyes turned towards me as I blatantly denied yet another man who was older than me. And during a business transaction, no less. I pressed on even as my face flushed.
“I run the domestic affairs of the castle, I know those girls. You can’t just take one to do as you wish.” Images flew unbidden into my mind of just what this man might have in store for them.
“Adalina, one serving wench isn’t worth the price of an entire kingdom destroyed,” said Costas, gloved hand taking my wrist. I wrenched my arm out of his hand.
“I can’t let one of those poor girls pay for our ineptitude in dealing with Alesky!”
The Assassin looked out of one of the stained-glass windows, as though he could see right through it. “Well, there goes the great kingdom of Tearian. But a serving girl is spared! Till Alesky gets here, ’course.”
My mind froze on a fantasy I’d entertained as a child. A daydream, starring me as the brave and noble princess, swording the enemy that dared make an attempt on her father’s life. But now his entire kingdom would die, and I couldn’t save it.
Except that I could.
“I can’t let you take one of those girls,” I repeated. Don’t let your hands or voice shake, I chided myself. Smooth, smooth and hard as a porcelain cup. “But you can take me.”
My father stood up so quickly his crown clattered to the flagstones. Startled, Costas drew his sword. The Royal Adviser, dear Peter, was frozen in horror. Our knights clenched their weapons more tightly, all on edge and ready to pounce.
The Assassin was very, very still.
“Adalina will do no such thing,” Costas said, voice strangled.
“Adalina, no,” my father whispered. Even one of the knights whispered something about Princess Adalina.
“I know my name, thank you,” I said. Smooth, hardened.
“You will sacrifice yourself for a serving girl?” asked the hooded man.
“For all the people of this kingdom,” I corrected.
Would he actually sacrifice me, my irrational mind asked. In the terrifying moment, anything seemed possible.
“She will not-” started my father.
“She will.” The Assassin stood up. “The fee is paid, you will be spared, the princess is mine,” he said. “We all win.”
If facial expressions are anything to judge by, Costas doesn’t think he’s won, I thought in shock. What had just happened? I had just given myself away. Not as a wife, but as no more than a slave. To a man so shrouded in myth and legend that, until tonight, I hadn’t truly believed in his existence.
“What will you do with her?” my father asked quietly.
“I told you. I need a serving girl. My own home’s a mess.”
My father looked at me helplessly, as though silently begging me to change my mind.
“Give us the week,” Costas begged.
“I’ll give you... eh, twenty seconds.”
Costas began to argue again but fell silent when the Assassin casually pulled out a knife.
“I may never see you again,” my father said in a broken voice, tears spilling out of his eyes.
“I love you,” I said, knowing I hadn’t seconds to waste on any other words. My own voice was cracking. I placed my trembling lips on his tear-streaked cheek.
“Twenty seconds up!”
I pulled away, brushed past Costas and the knights, and stepped through the doors of the great hall. My mind still hadn’t truly comprehended what I had done.
Behind me, I heard the Assassin say, “-brave girl. You should be proud. Saved a whole kingdom! Maybe an annual parade in her honor or something. I love a parade.”
“You’re a beast,” my father hissed.
“Oh, you have no idea,” said the Assassin. Following the enigmatic statement was a chorus of gasps and shrieks.
My father cried out, ”Adalina, no! You cannot go with him!"
The door shut. There were footsteps. Then the Assassin beside me, rearranging his hood.
“What did you do?” I asked. You could hear the tears straining my voice. “Did you kill someone?”
“Let’s just say I showed them the monster I am,” said the Assassin in a dark voice I had not yet heard from him.
“You will keep your word,” I pressed, trying to make my voice equally dark. I stared straight ahead, not daring to move lest I break into tears.
“I’m a creature of honesty, Princess Adalina. But I don’t advise looking for any other chivalrous qualities.” He stared straight ahead as well for several moments before beginning to walk.
“Where are we going?” I took my skirts in hand, walking after.
“No more questions for now,” the Assassin called over his shoulder.
I felt rather like I was walking through a tunnel. Everything I knew and loved was behind me, but I could only walk forward. I could only see the end, only think of this precise step and nothing more. No grief, no anger, not even fear. Only following the beast that was now my master.
The Assassin did not talk during our walk. He did not speak again for several hours. I don’t know how far we walked. It was, however, a considerable distance. Had I been myself, I’m sure I would have despised every wretched step. But I was in shock or some similar state. The hours-long trek had been but a sliver of my existence.
The Assassin stopped in front of a massive iron-wrought gate. Each spoke must have been at least three centimeters in diameter, interwoven with what would have been a gorgeous pattern of vines were it not overgrown with its real life counterpart and a myriad of spider’s webs.
The Assassin’s sudden stop jolted me from my trance. He unlocked the rusted gate and pushed it open. I winced at the piercing squeal of the hinges; if the lack of movement had not awoken me, the sound surely would have.
“I trust it’s now obvious why I need a serving girl. The rest of the castle is in a similar state,” he said.
A castle it was. A bulky fortress that put my father’s delicate palace to shame. If the stone fortress were not intimidating enough in sheer fortitude, the spiked iron flour-de-lis and gruesome gargoyles would be fearsome enough to ward off unwanted intruders.
I stepped through the gate, looking quickly at the ground after realizing I had been gawking like a country bumpkin in the city. The Assassin shut the gate behind me, then led the way to the massive front doors. I meekly followed. My mind snatched onto the idea of having to clean the behemoth of a castle.
The Assassin threw open the front doors and turned to face me, arms still spread wide.
“Your new home.”
“For forever,” I said, voice small.
“Follow me to your room.” He scooped up a set of rusted skeleton keys and walked out of the entrance hall to a staircase.
I followed, my slippers clicking on the flagstones as he led me down into the castle’s bowels till we were enough stories under the earth that I knew this would be no normal room.
“You’re jesting,” I protested. “The dungeon?”
“Consider it a secure sleeping area,” he suggested.
“You’re jesting,” I said again.
“Are you suddenly finding your kingdom no longer worth this?” asked the Assassin softly, dangerously.
I went into the cell.
“And so, the princess holds out!” he said with a grin. “I’m off to save her people. Rest well. You’ll need the beauty sleep... you’ll be working hard tomorrow.”