WITH MURDEROUS INTENT
My companions were insistent. I would go to the desired location, willy-nilly. They would not leave my side until we stood with our destination before us. One, the largest, used the hilt of his sword to bang upon the door, creating an impressive cacophony against the thick wood. Still, it was necessary, to be heard over the noise from within.
"Major Andru, how delightful!"
In the doorway stood a charming lady, dressed in the height of fashion: tight breeches, tighter vest, a tunic with flowing sleeves thick with lace, high-heeled shoes with jeweled buckles, all in varying shades of gold. It contrasted magnificently with her flaming copper hair.
I looked over the elegant throng swirling at her back, looked down at my own attire.
Brown riding breeches and an old vest. A shirt that had once been white and dusty boots.
"Your pardon, my lady," I bowed. "I received his majesty's summons just as I arrived home and did not stop to change."
I reminded myself to reprimand King Benedict later, in a polite subject-to-monarch kind of way, for sending his henchmen after me without orders that they allow me to dress in the proper mode.
"I had no idea," I continued, at my most engaging, "that I was being invited to such a gala, or I assure you, I would never have appeared thus."
Not that I had had much choice. When three burly guardsmen, all heavily armed, arrive at one's door, one would do well to accompany them.
The lady smiled and dismissed the matter of my attire from our conversation.
"I am merely having a few friends here to amuse his majesty," she continued as we waded our way through the throng and my erstwhile companions disappeared behind the closed door.
I wondered what her name was, and if she were Benedict's latest passion. Looking at her from the corner of my eye, I didn't doubt it in the least. Tall and buxom, it seemed that the material of her vest would soon give up the unequal battle and allow the treasures within to escape.
"Might I ask my hostess' name?" I inquired in my politest tones.
"Oh, I am sorry, Major, I thought you knew. I am Syrilla, Lady Carstairs." She smiled; the same enchanting smile, no doubt, which had captured Benedict. I had often warned him of his susceptibility.
Useless, of course. King Benedict had only just acquired his throne, through great travail by himself and others, and he wished to catch up on lost time.
I couldn't blame him.
Although I often caught myself trying.
Lady Syrilla led me through the crowd in a purposeful manner, her eyes seeking for someone amongst the throng.
I wondered what Benedict wanted this time.
You wonder, no doubt, why I am so free with the name of my liege and monarch. To be sure, I never call him so in public. But since I was one of the ones responsible for gaining him his throne, I felt I deserved the right to call him what I will in the safety of my own mind.
Not that he would mind. Or I don't think he would. He remembers where he came from, and who helped him.
The Lady Syrilla procured me a large glass of wine from a passing servant with a tray. I gulped it down--nothing gives one a thirst like being forced to attend a gala at the point of three swords, I find--and gave the glass back to him as we continued our voyage.
"Er, my lady, what exactly did--" I began, just as we reached a knot of people near the terrace doors.
"There he is," she whispered, "see him there?"
I saw him. Who could miss him? Benedict had always had flashy tastes, but little coin to indulge them. Now he had the coin and the tastes seem to have burgeoned like a weed.
He looked like a peacock in a garden of tulips. Everyone around him wore single colors (it was the fashion just now, I had heard) but he, being the king, had broken this fashion rule in the gaudiest manner possible. Red and emerald, gold and turquoise, silver lace here and black lace there; it gave one quite a headache just to look at him.
He turned and saw me with Lady Syrilla, favored her with what he must have thought was a secret smile. In other words, he ogled her like a satyr.
"Andru!" roared my lord and king. "You took your own damn time getting here."
I bowed with respect. "Your pardon, majesty. I was out when the kind invitation from Lady Syrilla came,"--I thought it best not to mention precisely where I had been--, "and only returned when your servants reached my door."
I finished off with a dirty look, and I meant it to sting, by the gods.
Benedict gave one of his predatory grins, his face splitting wide, teeth gleaming in its sunburned mask.
"No matter, no matter," he said, with a bit less volume--but not much less. "You are here at last." He motioned for another glass and the Lady Syrilla took one from a passing tray and handed it to him.
"Thank you indeed, my lady," he murmured in what I suppose he thought were dulcet tones; they sounded more like a booming cannon. "Andru, I have summoned you here to meet someone, but I don't see her," and he looked about him in dismay. "Aye, she seems to have disappeared."
I sighed. Benedict spent an inordinate amount of time flitting from affair to affair, and always seemed to wish his friends to accompany him on his journeys. He could never understand why I preferred to travel alone, as it were.
"Majesty," I said, "doubtless I would--"
"Ah, there she is," boomed Benedict, motioning behind my back towards the tall doors to the terrace. "Come, Madren, he's here at last. Come and greet an old friend."
It seemed to take forever for me to turn around. And in that endless time, a thousand thoughts and feelings ran through my mind. Regrets, memories, anticipations, fears.
My last thought was that, of course, it could not be her. She was dead.
But it was.
Apparently, the news of her death had failed to reach her.
She stood in the doorway to the terrace, dressed in black. I had asked her many times, in the old days, why she always wore black. Every time I asked, I got a different answer.
Slim black breeches tucked into sleek high boots. An inky shirt under a brocaded vest.
Her hair was a darker amber than I remembered, but her eyes were the same grey--a grey of stormy skies, a grey of old coins, a grey of weathered stone.
And she wore a sword. She always wore a sword--and various other blades, secreted about her person, although where she managed to secret them all I had never dared to inquire.
Madren the Savage, some called her.
Once commander of King Theobades' guard. Then on his death, chief assassin for the usurper Damion. Finally, when Benedict appeared after all had thought him dead, she switched her allegiance to the rightful heir and helped us to put him back on his throne.
She was without a doubt the most dangerous person I had ever met.
She had also been my lover, my best friend, my life.
And the woman I thought I had killed.
"Hallo, Andru," Madren nodded. If there was joy at the sight of me, she hid it well.
"Well, Andru?" shouted Benedict behind me. "Lost your tongue? Or your mind, man?"
I walked toward her. It was the longest walk of my life.
I stopped a few feet away. She lifted her head slightly to look me in the eye, but only very slightly, as she came near to matching my own uncommon height.
I heard nothing else in that huge room full of people, no other sound, no other movement. But I could hear her breathing speed up as she looked at me.
It was not desire, I knew, unless perhaps the desire to murder me.
I wanted to watch her hand, see if it decided to draw her sword and run me through, but I was afraid to take my eyes from hers.
I smiled, held out my hand, trying to keep her right hand in the corner of my eye.
It wouldn't do much good, I knew. I had seen her kill, quickly, elegantly, and without remorse. I had no sword, no way of protecting myself.
And she had to be angry with me.
Would not you be?
"Madren," I nodded, hoping she wouldn't kill me yet, not before I had a chance to explain.
"Hah," shouted Benedict, "he remembers her name, at least!"
Madren looked down at my hand. At that instant, I knew exactly what was in her mind. I have no magic powers, I am not a trained adept, but I knew it without a doubt.
She was seeing my hand with the knife in it, just before it plunged into her belly.
She looked back up at my face. She made no move to hold out her own hand.
"Come, come, this won't do," said Syrilla. She was behind me, but I had not heard her move. "Old friends must not meet again this way, not in my house."
She moved beside us, took Madren's hand in one of hers, mine in the other.
"Please don't disappoint his majesty," she whispered. "He has so few pleasures, you know."
She placed Madren's hand in mine.
The shock of physical contact was unexpected. I hadn't thought to feel such a jolt at the mere touch of her hand.
Madren smiled. To anyone who didn't know her, it would have seemed almost natural.
"How good to see you again, Andru," she said as she pulled me to her and put her arms about me. My mouth was near to her ear.
"Please don't kill me," I whispered, hugging her as tightly as I dared.
She murmured in my ear, so low that even I was not sure I heard.
I felt cold, but I was sweating like a hard-ridden steed.
I waited for the inevitable.
Finally, Benedict shouted from behind me, "All right, all right, enough of that. Let the rest of us see you together at long last."
I stood back from her, glad to be alive. I admit, I did sneak a look down at my belly, just to make sure, you understand. Sometimes, shock can make one feel nothing for a time.
But I was unharmed.
Suddenly the room was filled with people again. I know, they had been there all along, but to me they had just reappeared.
And not a one of them knew just how close to death I had been.
Benedict ambled up, put his meaty arms around us both.
"How glad I am to see the two of you here," he rumbled. "Madren, back with us again, after all this time. Where have you been, what have you been up to? Andru, were you surprised? Of course you were, who would not be? We thought you might be dead, Madren, dead and lost to us, after all we owe you."
Her voice was cool, cool and calm. Only I could know how dangerous she was when she sounded like that--I and some dozens of corpses. I chanced another look at her face, hoping for one of her crooked grins, one eyebrow cocked up.
She smiled at Benedict, nodded to the Lady Syrilla.
"I thank your ladyship for the invitation," she murmured. "I confess, I did not expect such a welcome."
"And you shouldn't get it, either," boomed Benedict. "Staying away for so long, just so I would not be able to show my gratitude, I'll swear! Why did you do it, damn you?"
Madren looked at me.
"It was ... unavoidable, sire. But now that I am here, I promise I shall stay. For a while, at least. I have some unfinished business to take care of."
I saw her hand brush against the hilt of her sword. I had seen her do that same motion a thousand times.
Benedict grinned his feral grin.
So had he.
"So, we can expect an untimely death, can we?" He turned us loose and grabbed the Lady Syrilla instead. "My dearest, Madren can kill without warning, without sound, without mercy. If not for her and Andru here, and some few others, I would still be wandering in the hills, trying to escape from Damion's troops. I owe them more than I can say."
I had never expected to hear him admit it.
"Then I owe them twice that, majesty," said Syrilla gracefully. "My house is yours," she continued to us, "and doubtless such old friends would like to spend some time alone. I will have a servant show you to a private room and bring you wine and food."
"I would take that as most kind, my lady," Madren nodded. "Andru and I do have a great deal to discuss."
Her silver eyes were as cold as the distant moon, and the tone of her voice matched them.
Benedict and Syrilla accompanied us to the private room, along with a parade of servants bearing every conceivable delicacy on golden trays--and a great deal of wine.
It looked as though my last meal would be a hearty one.
If I got to eat it.
The room was paneled in dark wood, the windows hung with heavy draperies of deep blue. Rich rugs covered the floor. There was a fresh fire crackling in the hearth and two comfortable chairs were drawn up before it.
All in all, I decided, it was as good a place to die in as any.
"You will not be disturbed tonight," said Syrilla as she glanced around to see if anything had been forgotten. "This room is very quiet, and the noise from the party can't even be heard."
"Aye, neither can any noise from here be heard in the rest of the house," roared Benedict with a great laugh. "I can assure you of that. There is, I believe, a bedroom through that door, isn't there, my lady?" He closed an eye in a broad wink at Lady Syrilla, who smiled back.
"Who told you that, sire?" she asked as they walked from the room, followed by the servants.
The click of the latch on the door echoed like a cannon in the still room.
I thought my best course of action would be to act as bravely as possible. Madren always had a weak spot for bravery in others.
I dropped to one knee before her, clasped my hands together and begged for my life.
"Please don't kill me."
But I said it with as much bravery as I could manage.
"Andru, don't be absurd. It would make a terrible mess and upset our hostess. Of course I won't kill you here. Get up and pour us some wine."
I felt better, but not much. I struggled to my feet and did as she asked.
Perhaps if I could get her drunk, I could--? No, now I was getting desperate. As if I already weren't.
I handed her a glass of Syrilla's excellent wine. I hoped I'd get to drink all of it that I wanted.
She drank it off as if it were water, then looked at me for the first time since we had entered the room. She turned the glass thoughtfully in her long clever fingers as she examined my face.
"You look frightened, Andru. As frightened as I was, the night you stabbed me."
The glass shattered in her hand. The sound cut through my head as sharply as the shards cut into her skin.
She didn't even notice the blood. She never took her eyes from me, waited for me to speak.
I opened my mouth, curious as to what might come out.
"You're bleeding," I said. Not too clever, I admit, but do better in a similar situation, if you can.
She looked down, opened her hand. She shook it once and all the slivers of glass flew into the fire, sizzling as drops of blood and wine hit the leaping flames.
She held her hand out, close to my face. I stared at the cuts, heard her muttering some nonsense gibberish.
The cuts healed as I watched them, closed over and turned the pink-white of new scars.
"You're an adept," I sighed, wondering why I had never suspected it, realizing how much it explained.
She nodded once, dropped her hand. I saw her old crooked grin; one side of her mouth in on the joke, the other left out.
"Yes, I am. Or was, rather. I was ... asked to leave the Assembly of Orders. It seems that my attitudes and theirs did not match. My training come in useful from time to time, however."
I drained my own glass, feeling sick, then set it down on a small table and sank into a chair.
Madren, in that fluid motion which I had always admired and could never match, drew her sword. The tip hovered between my eyes, scant inches away.
I gripped the arms of the chair, swallowed around the lump in my throat.
I'm good with a sword. I've had to be. But she's better. It had been the sheerest luck that had allowed me to take her life.
Luck, and the fact that she had trusted me.
I watched the tip of the sword, eyes crossed painfully. I could feel a bead of sweat run down my chin, hang there for a second, then drop off as though it were trying to escape from the inevitable.
Then she tossed the sword onto the hearthrug and sat down in one easy motion, tossing one long leg up over the arm of the chair. The sleek black boot gleamed in the flickering light.
"Perhaps that will make you more comfortable?" she asked, right leg swinging like a pendulum.
I let my breath out. I hadn't even realized that I had been holding it. I wiped my hand over my forehead. It came away wet.
"If your plan is to frighten me to death, you've nearly accomplished it." I could hear my voice shaking.
"My plan, my dear Andru, is to find out exactly why you wished to kill me."
"And then kill, of course. How else can I keep you from trying again?"
Madren's logic is always impeccable.
I relaxed, just a bit. I felt that I had a few more moments of life, at least. And if I could convince her of my true reasons for my murderous attack, maybe more than a few.
"You may not believe it," I began, "but when I saw you just now, back from the dead, it was the happiest moment of my life."
"You're right. I don't believe you," she said, the motion of her leg stopping for a second, then resuming. "In fact, it's going to be near impossible for me to believe anything you say."
"But it's true, nonetheless. I never wanted to harm you. I haven't been able to forget you, you and what we had together," I said, hoping she'd remember what those times were like as well as I did.
"Andru. Don't make me angrier by recalling those times. Don't rely on my tender feelings to save your life. As you know better than most, I don't have any. Just tell me why you did it." She remembered, all right.
I felt like Sheherhezade, who told tales to keep her head intact. If my story was good enough, Madren would let me live. But I didn't think I had a thousand nights to perfect my story. Maybe not even one.
So I might as well satisfy my own curiosity.
"How long did it take you to recover from the--" I hesitated.
"Knife in my belly? Why, planning another?" she laughed, if something so sharp and bitter can be called such.
"Push my luck again? I don't think so," I replied, shaking my head. "I just wondered if it had been--how painful it had been."
"Very," she snapped. "It took all the powers I had, simply to stay alive until some friends I had left from the Assembly could help me recover. The ride to their tower was--" she paused, her face blank, her eyes stormy, "--difficult."
"I'm sorry," I said. I didn't like to think of that ride, of her holding herself together while she desperately sought help. I didn't like to think of what she must have thought of me. "Sorry," I repeated, my mind full of that vision.
"Are you really?"
Madren jerked to her feet, walked to the table and poured us more wine. She handed me a glass, sat back down.
"The reason, Andru, if you please," she sipped her wine. "I grow tired of this. I want to get it settled and get away from here."
I sighed, looked into the depths of the wine. It was the pale yellow wine of Shirrene, one of my favorites.
It seemed apt, somehow.
We had shared a bottle on the night I had killed her.
I began softly, "I received a message from one of my most trusted--"
"Spies?" she interrupted, her tone harsh.
"It's what I do, you know. I'm not ashamed of it, any more than you are of being an assassin."
Madren smiled in return.
"Hard to be anything else, working for Damion. Let us accept our occupations and go on, shall we? What message did you receive?"
I wondered if she would believe me. Probably not. It must be difficult to trust a man who has stabbed you in the belly after making love to you.
Disconcerting. Not conducive to a healthy relationship.
"I received a message that you were still working for Damion, in secret."
"You believed that?" she asked in amazement. "After everything else, you believed that?"
"No," I admitted, careful not to let her see my eyes as I sipped my wine. "I did not believe it. But to hear it from him, I realized that someone believed it, and enough to harm our plans."
"So you killed me, to protect our plans?" she asked with a rueful smile.
"I realized," I went on, ignoring her statement, "that someone was trying to ruin what was perhaps our last opportunity to put and keep Benedict on his rightful throne. We had all fought for it so hard, so long, that I did not feel I could take a chance. I did not feel you would wish for me to take a chance, either. So I investigated."
She didn't believe anything I had said so far. I could tell.
"Nothing," I admitted. "No one knew anything about it, no one had heard anything. From what I could see, you were precisely what you said you were. Benedict's champion. My friend."
She laughed, sharp and biting. "So you tried to kill me anyway? Merely for the pleasure of it, I assume."
I opened my mouth but nothing came out. A memory rose before my mind's eye, so suddenly, so intensely, that I could feel the knife yet again as it plunged into her, see the shock in her eyes as she looked down, realized what I had done.
And my own shock at what I had accomplished, at who I had done it to.
I had murdered my best friend, my lover.
"I have never been able to trust anyone," I began, "least of all the adepts of Malmillard--"
"Malmillard!" she interrupted in disgust, sitting up in the chair where she had flung herself.
I nodded. "But when one of them arrived at my quarters late one night, I found that I had no choice. No, no choice at all..."