Free Read: Vendetta

 

VENDETTA

By Suzzanne Myers

     The letter was a plea. 

     The assassin, Kyaltos Aremis had said, was nothing if not an educated man.  Could be nothing if there was nothing within him, could take nothing if he didn’t comprehend the value of his procurement.  He read the written works of men so that he might know them as they knew themselves, for it was in the written word, Kyaltos taught, that a man’s heart was revealed.  The cant of his lettering, the depth of ink, even the very words he chose – different in any other language – could describe the avenues of his soul.  This then was a goal of the trained Cyprian: to script – that is, to read a man in his words, to know him by them, to discover who and what his life had been.  Only then could he understand how to plot the man’s death.

     Khuamen had known these things, had also been a pupil under Master Aremis once.  But that was a  long time ago when he went by a Theban name, when he was not a king.  The moment Telcinus set foot on Egyptian soil, Khuamen knew why he was there.  He was old now and wise enough to realize that Telcinus would not be stopped, not with a thousand spies and all the palace guard turned out to find him.  Instead, he’d sent only the plea. 

    A king should have been more careful, Telcinus thought.

     I am your friend, the letter said.  Nothing more than that.  But the letters were broad and quickly drawn, the ink a light, uncertain stain.  Trust me, it seemed to say, and perhaps, forget the past

    But it was impossible for Telcinus not to remember what had happened all those years ago. To think of the boy he’d been, a loving, trusting boy, beholden to the man who’d owned him, who’d called himself father instead of master.  And then how he’d learned the worth of a slave, when he was bound upon an altar, a sacrifice to make a foreign people believe a Theban should be their living god.  Left hopeless and destroyed upon that altar by the man’s greed, with all that he was and could’ve been hollowed out and cast away like so much rubbish.

    Forget the past.  Or was it, forgive me?

    They were words he’d longed to hear, words that even now made his willpower falter.  He had loved the man who became Khuamen.  But those words were not the truth behind the plea.  The only thing that had ever been in Khuamen’s heart was a hunger for power.  Never remorse.  He’d coveted the wife of the old Egyptian king, had murdered him, had then sacrificed an innocent boy to assure the people that the gods favored his coup, had even forced his new wife to hold the dagger.  If her heart had been as cold as his she might have cut the boy’s neck a little deeper.  For that kindness, Telcinus did not hate her.

    But forgiving Khuamen was something he could not do. 

    Telcinus knew a rational man couldn’t live his life in the past.  It was something he’d learned in the years since, but even so, he could not deny that he was a result of that past, a product of the wrong that had been done to him.  He’d hoped never to see Khuamen again, had thought that if he stayed away he could erase the man’s memory altogether.  And he had almost done it, had almost forgotten so many, many times. 

    But the past was vivid and real now. It was a girl kneeling on a temple floor, the princess Merekhet, Khuamen’s only heir. It was a scar to mark how he’d survived, that he could never truly forget.  And it was a Cyprian gift; final acknowledgement of the vendetta that brought him to the Brotherhood long ago.  He’d made his choice back then and now it had led him back.  Now it would be done.

    The ink shaped and reformed in his mind, stretched out across the paper, reached for him.  Khuamen’s voice pleaded, don’t kill my daughter.

    The girl’s eyes flickered, looked up at him briefly.  They were sharp Egyptian eyes, fired with amber irises and he did not think they missed much.  “I knew you were here,” she whispered.

    A usurper should have known better, Telcinus thought, as he drew the dagger from his sleeve. The grip was familiar in his hand, comforting.  Khuamen should never have revealed so much. “Then you know the time has come.”

    Merekhet kissed the feet of the great statue before which she knelt.  It was carved in the likeness of a woman with a lioness’ head and it bore a fierce scowl.  The girl dipped two fingers in a bowl of oil to anoint the stone and looked back at him. “Does it have to be done this way?”

    He read the uncertainty on her face, saw apprehension and hard decision comingled in her yellow eyes, found himself admiring that much about her. Said only, “It’s the choice you made.”

    “Yes,” she sighed.  “Did you know I asked them to send you?”  She studied him, eyes tracing the line of the old scar that ran from his ear to the hollow at his throat. It was white and long ago healed, but her gaze made it ache anew.  “My mother died when I was still very young, but she wrote of you, of a man with a scar like yours.  And she wrote of my true father. It had to be you who came. I wanted it to be you.”

    So the girl understood that much of the events that had shaped her life.  It struck him suddenly that he was the only one privy to these last moments of her innocence, while she hesitated to take that final step and cross a threshold she could never come back from.  It seemed a strange thing that he should find this moment memorable, that he would feel such a strong desire now to prolong it as long as possible, but he remembered it had been the same for him when he fell on his knees before the Brotherhood and swore Death’s oath. 

    Was it compassion he felt now?   Or was it what the rapist felt as he held his victim close and savored her virtue, knowing once had it was forever lost?  Had the girl’s mother felt like this when she held the dagger to his skin, he wondered?  He remembered her eyes, narrow and pretty like her daughter’s.  Afraid.  Had she realized she would destroy him then? Had she cherished the moment before she did it? Had she remembered it again at her own end?

    Merekhet reached up and took his hand, pulled him down to squat in front of her.  “Pretend that we are just a man and woman, nothing more. What would you say then?  Would it have to be like this?” 

    He stared  at the ripples of white linen that pooled around her legs, at the cream-colored soles of her feet, at the slender, graceful fingers that had interlocked with his and only just then released, seeming to realize they’d trespassed by touching him. 

    He did not rub his fingertips together, but the feel of her skin lingered on them all the same.  If I was only a man, he thought.

    But he said, “We are never just men and women. We never can be.” 

    “Then what are we?”

    He leaned forward, watching her eyes shift back and forth.  “Shades.  Of what we should have been.”

    Merekhet smiled, but it was bittersweet. Then she reached out and laid her fingers against the foot of her stone goddess. “I am meant only to be a toy for the rest of the world to play with.” She looked up into the lioness’ stern visage.  “I want to be more than that.”

    “Then it’s up to you to be more.”  He licked his lips. “Are you afraid?”

    ”No.”  Her shoulders fell and she sat back against the wall behind her.  The slender muscles in her neck shifted as she turned to watch a servant lighting a censer across the hall.  “It’s what I’ve known I would do all my life.  Even still, I wish you would’ve turned down the offer.”

    What could he say to her?  How could he explain the tumult of his life, that he was still a boy, still trapped under the knife of her mother?  That this was the culmination of years of work even as he tried to forget what drove him to do it?  That when she’d sent to the Brotherhood, he’d known exactly what he must do?

    He could stop it.  He could turn and leave with not another word despite how it would stay with him the rest of his days.  The girl would send for another, eventually.  He knew it, had recognized that much about her even if she didn’t know it about herself yet.  But at least then Telcinus could say he had not been the one to take her innocence from her. 

    “That was my choice to make,” he said simply, and understood that he could not leave, not even if she commanded him to.  Death was what Khuamen had taught him and he’d learned the lesson well.  He’d made his choice. 

    There were footsteps in the hall outside.  The sound of bronze and leather.  A man’s voice calling her name. 

    “I regret it,” she whispered.  “You might have forgotten this, some day.”  She looked up at him and in her eyes he saw his own pain.  Saw tears there, and remorse. “Who would you have been?”

    “Not a slave,” he whispered.  He leaned forward.  “There is no redemption for me, lady.  Not in this, not ever.  What I’ve done to come this far cannot be forgiven.”

    She shook her head. “I know.  But I will remember you.”

    He nodded.  “Remember your part as well.”  He rose and slid up behind the statue of the lioness as twenty of the king’s guard poured into the hall, fanning out as their master came in behind them.  Khuamen saw Merekhet sitting alone against the base of the statue and cried out, running toward her.

    I am your friend, the letter said.  And Telcinus had sent his reply back, saying only, You will find her in the temple hall.

    A man who knew the Brotherhood should have been suspicious, should have recognized the subtlety of the words, the promise couched in each short, quick stroke.  An usurper should have realized his mistake, that his daughter was never in any danger.  Should not have come even with a hundred guardsmen.

    But an old man loved his child.  Even if she was not truly his, even if she secretly hated him for the real father he’d stolen from her.  Another ten years and old age might’ve given Merekhet the throne she deserved.  But it was not a kingdom she wanted, not a throne that had brought her to this moment.  She sat up amidst the ripples of white linen, smiled at the man who’d called himself her father, reached out her hand.   If Khuamen had known what lay in the heart of his daughter, he might not have loved her.  Might not have been blinded by it.  But he did not suspect, having fallen in love with her beguiling smile, her gentle beauty.   She was what Telcinus would have been, if he’d had his choice.   Khuamen’s face lit with joy to see her still alive and he laughed as he ran to grab her up in his arms.

      Telcinus lamented that the innocence he’d cherished in her was now gone, as he came around the back side of the statue and caught the usurper’s topknot in his grasp.  He set the sharpened bronze against Khuamen’s neck beneath the statue of a lion-headed goddess. 

      He looked up and saw it in Merekhet’s eyes, those fierce amber eyes.   She knew the cost of what had been done, understood too that redemption was not hers to give.  The blood was already pumping beneath his knife.  There was a gurgle in Khuamen’s throat and his frail limbs flailed wildly.  There could be no going back.  They were across the threshold and here, now, there was only acknowledgment between killers, between those who would not be slaves, who would never forget.  At the last, they understood each other.  Telcinus smiled, inclined his head even as he heard the angry howl of the guardsmen behind him, heard their swords torn free from their scabbards.  She could not save him, but it was well made, this end. 

     A king was dead.  In his place his daughter lived, and remembered.

 

 

THE END

Vendetta © 2009, Suzzanne Myers 

Appeared in the Assassin’s Canon Anthology by Utility Fog Press, released December 2009