Xenops grew up on the river, watching gulls overhead and swans down below. The gulls ate trash and insisted they could take everything, and nobody liked them. The swans on the river slid through the scum and the muck and looked so serene, because you didn’t see the frantic movement underneath the surface. Here, at the party, she saw them both again. There were the swans in their dresses, drifting from table to table, talking amongst themselves, and there were all the gulls around them, diving down and pecking at things they assumed they owned.
The woman across the table from her was a pretty one, prettier than Xenops may have dared to talk to this evening. Women of status were dangerous when they thought they saw something out of the ordinary – and she, a girl of dark skin with white spots, was definitely out of the ordinary. Just like a swan hiding its swimming, she kept the sigh deep inside herself. Women, pretty women, funny women, sweet women, laughing women, tough women, angry women – and yet just by talking to them, Xenops could cause someone a bit of a scandal. God only knew what would happen if they knew who her father was. If her grandfather had done all the murdering, she’d be welcomed by these people with open arms.
Well, if not for the other thing.
Still, she had found an opportunity here, and it was not one she intended to waste.
“I suppose,” she said, looking down to her hands as she pulled off her gloves, twisting the fabric in her grip, “you might wonder why I am saying szis…” she shook her head. Could she explain herself to this assassin? Should she? While she’d rehearsed the speech many times in her mind, ever since her mother…
Xenops shook her head and tried to clear her thoughts. She tried to clear out the memory of sitting in her warm little bed, with its high wooden sides, and the bottom that was shaped with the arch of a barrel. Those long, rainy nights in the middle of the autumn, where the birds were quiet and the roof was loud. It was hard to remember the details, now, though she was sure she’d etched them in her mind like they were carved into wood. There, at the foot of the bed, sitting cross-legged in the space empty by her little legs, was her mother. Beautiful as she was, with those deep, soulful eyes and long hair pulled into tight braids; a scarf around her throat, knitted shawl around her shoulders, while she turned the pages and spoke in Gallian of the places far away.
Xenops had known how to read and write Gallian before she’d ever learned Tiberan. Somewhere, she’d read once that it was possible to lose the accent, to speak as a native. When she’d found that passage in the book, she’d thrown it out one of the windows. Let the people of Tiber speak Tiberan. Xenops was a girl of the river, and her mother was from the furthest parts of the world. If they couldn’t understand her, that was their problem.
Those years had been nice and comforting. She woke up, read some books with her mother, played a little, and watched the city roll past out the windows. There’d been toys, scattered from their little chests, and there’d been music from her mother’s lips. There were lessons, too – lessons about how to speak, how to listen, and even lessons on how to lead.
“You see,” her mother had told her, in Gallian, where she was sure that Luke Cornell did not hear her, “People make choices. Do you see this one?” holding up the book, she pointed to the princess on the cover.
“She’s a princess!” Xenops remembered cawing happily.
“Mm-hm. She’s a princess. She’s a princess because she was born a princess, and she grew up a housemaid and she worked and became an owner, but it was at the end, when someone showed her she was really a princess, that she had always been a princess, that she just was one.”
“Mm?” It had been a big lesson her mother had tried to teach her, and she was only seven years old.
“This… this is not a very good book,” Mother had said, closing it, turning it over and over in her hands. “The girl in this book, she had everything chosen for her – and what she chose, with her life…” she hook her head, tut-tutting at the actions of a fictional character. “Weak people accept what they are told to be.” Standing up, mother’d gone to the porthole in the corner of the room and swung it open. A flick of her wrist, and the book arced out into the cold.
There were other books. That wasn’t a very good book. Xenops didn’t remember if she cried or not, but she probably had. It’d been very shocking. Her mother was normally so calm, so lovely. But she’d moved to the bookshelves, and taken a book in her hands, one from the higher shelves that Xenops couldn’t reach, and returned to sit by her on the bed. “’Ere. I like this one much better.” She turned the pages, past the scribbly text that didn’t seem to mean anything, and started to read.
“When the young man on board saw this person approach, he left his station by the pilot, and, hat in hand, leaned over the ship’s bulwarks.
“She was a fine, tall, slim young lady of eighteen or twenty, with black eyes, and hair as dark as a raven’s wing; and her whole appearance bespoke that calmness and resolution peculiar to women accustomed from their cradle to contend with danger.”
The story was a sad one, at first. The heroine, a beautiful and dangerous person, was the victim of a conspiracy by others, and was thrown into prison. It was a dreadful thing to hear, a horrible experience that the book described. When the guards brought in the food, little Xenops had squirmed closer to her mother, and tried to listen bravely.
But then she’d broken free.
With a chance, offered by another, she had broken out of the prison, and escaped. And every night, for many weeks more, her mother had read her that book – a chapter or two at a time, about this wonderful heroine, who travelled to strange sounding places like Naples and Marseilles, who gathered up money and returned to visit her revenge on the enemies who had tried to destroy her forever.
The night she’d finished reading that book had been strangely sad. There had been duels and danger, and her mother had paused oddly at a few points when the heroine – the Contessa Monte Cristo – had indulged in dances with other women, but that hadn’t seemed particularly strange to her.
“Do you remember, mama,” she’d asked, as her mother closed the book for the last time, “Do, do you remember what made you get that book down, again?”
Her mother was running her fingers over the book, not looking at her daughter directly, while she spoke. “Why… I don’t think I do.”
“It was because you talked about how people have their lives chosen for them. And the Contessa didn’t! She was told she was one thing, and she chose to be another!” she beamed, lesson observed, so proud of herself.
“Ah, yes,” Mama had said, leaning down and kissing her forehead. “But for now… now, you must sleep.”
“Mama,” she’d asked, settling into her blankets, squirming down and pulling them up against herself, “What about leaders that take away others’ choices?”
“Ah, yes, yes…” her mother had said. “In that case, they are a tyrant,” she’d whispered, brushing her daughter’s hair from her face with fingers so gentle, “when you meet a tyrant, kill him.”
Xenops drifted off to sleep that night with a smile on her face, and the engines’ song humming her to sleep.
Those engines! They’d been on the ship as long as she had, even though they were apparently relatively new. There was a broken thread in one of the engines. You didn’t hear it, if you were outside – the air and the ambient noise, not to mention the roar of the second engine – covered it. When you were inside, though, and leant against one of the walls, you could hear the song through the skull. Eyes closed, lips parted, humming throatily along with the engine, she could remember that song. Her mother had sung it when she was younger, and now she was…
Xenops didn’t know why she was gone. There’d been an argument. A raging one. Blood had hit the floor. In the middle of the night, she’d watched a shadow hovering before her door, and slid down as deep as she could under the blankets, hoping that whatever it was, it would go away.
With her head back, she could hear her mother’s song.The mother who had been here, and now was not here any longer. One day, she’d told herself mother was just gone. Three days, she was worried she was sick. It wasn’t for six days that she mustered the courage to creep through to her father’s office, knock on the door, and ask him where mama was.
Luke Cornell was a big man, but to a child, he was something taller than clouds.
“Your mother’s gone,” he’d said, leaning forwards, resting his hand on his knee, while the chair underneath him creaked. “But she taught you how to behave.” He said, holding a hand bound with a bandage close to his chest. “She’s off in the Colonies, hunting bad people, she said.” He wrinkled his nose, and sunk back in his chair, and not for the first time, Xenops felt like he’d forgotten she existed. “But don’t worry, dear. You’re mine, and I take care of what’s mine. Nebrin? Take my daughter to her room, make sure she’s safe.”
Little Xenops hadn’t been bothered by that sentence at the time. It wasn’t until she heard it echoed ten, twenty, thirty more times, over the years, that she realised how badly it bothered her. Words were important. He shouldn’t have used words like that. Those kind of words could injure people, like a loaded gun left somewhere quiet.
As for loaded guns, she’d been ten when she found it.
When her mother had been on the boat with her, she had lived her life in a very small world, full of books. It hadn’t bothered her all that much, because she had someone who listened to her and spoke to her. Maybe she’d have grown frustrated with being on the boat all the time if her mother had been there. But at ten, being stuck in one of four rooms, atop the lurching houseboat felt less like being in a home and more like being a prison.
Her father had left a loaded gun on the hall table. She knew it was loaded, because she’d seen him load it and push it against Nebrin’s ribs, glaring at the bigger man.
“You know what y’are, y’great bastard,” he’d said. There were far too many of those moments around her father. Nebrin was a big fellow – but somehow, no matter how badly Luke treated him, he always fell into line. All those years of watching and listening had never revealed why. Xenops had to assume Nebrin was paid remarkably well.
After the exchange, the gun went on the counter. Luke left the gun next to Nebrin as he simply walked away from him, sneering. Nebrin didn’t even look at the gun, though – he just turned around and walked to the stairs.
She didn’t think either of them had noticed her.
It wasn’t really a well-thought out plan. Xenops knew she couldn’t shoot her father while looking at him. He was big, and scary, and, well, what if she’d missed? It wasn’t like it was going to be easy. The books had made it so very clear to her that killing people was never easy.
So had the screams from down below.
When her father killed people, he did look them in the face.
She’d shuddered when she picked up the gun. It wasn’t actually all that heavy – one of those four-chamber things that the police favoured. She’d fired it at the door of his office, and the shattering of glass as the bullet punched through the door meant she’d hit a porthole – gone well wide of the desk that sat squarely in front of the door. There were gunshots in response – and Xenops had run from the hallway with her hands over her head, screaming.
When she was in her room she slammed the door threw the gun out the porthole in her room. It’d hit the dock, instead of splashing in the water, and she’d been terrified of that.
Her father had emerged from his office, angrily snarling for Nebrin.
Xenops had never been more terrified before than she had been that night. But while she hid under her bed, terrified and holding back tears, she’d heard them talking. She’d heard them piece things together…
She’d listened as they dragged the poorest member of the crew out onto the docks. She’d watched, through the porthole, where they searched the docks, found the gun. She watched in horror as her father beat the man on the side of the river. They’d thought the shot came in through the window. They thought the gun had been taken and thrown to an accomplice. There was some petty grievance, some minor nothing, and they’d stood there on the riverside, beating the man to death for the threat against Cornell. Then they’d found the thief cowering in an alleyway, heard him screaming he had nothing to do with it, and they’d emptied the gun into him.
Luke Cornell had killed two men, because of something she’d tried to do. And then the business was concluded, and they were done, and they dumped the bodies in the river, and the boat steamed along merrily.
Lying underneath her bed, swallowing her tongue, Xenops had reflected on what she’d just done. She’d just let two men die because of something she’d tried to do. By not speaking up, had she killed those men? Had she let someone die for her?
She didn’t sleep that night.
When she woke up and looked at her hands, the little white spots below her fingernails were larger than they’d been yesterday. Scrubbing hadn’t removed them, no matter how she tried. Not when she’d ran downstairs, grabbing the bucket of hard soap they used to swab the deck. Not when she’d gone into the meat room and used the burning, acrid cake of something white and sulphurous against her skin, trying to clean those white spots.
She was Luke Cornell’s daughter. There was something about him inside her, and now, she could see it bubbling to the surface. In a moment of weakness, she’d done what he’d do, and now, now she was losing herself to become something like him.
That terror, that fear – not the threat of her father, or the threat of being caught – kept Xenops’ trembling hands away from guns and blades for two long years. The whiteness didn’t stop, though. It freckled along her hands, up her arms; it spackled around her lips and across the bridge of her nose; she woke up every few days to find new patches of her skin had decided they liked being white more than they liked being brown.
Luke Cornell hadn’t taught her much. Mostly she’d learned how to look ladylike and how to look for an escape.
The escape was very hard, though. The boat always had guards. Twice she’d tried to creep out, and seen the men with boathooks walking the decks. She’d seen the gulf between the boat and the walls, and known that she couldn’t swim. The only time anyone left the boat was with her father – and she hadn’t put her foot on dry land as far as she knew, all her life.
Resentment at her father built as fear of her skin condition diminished. Despite being as well-behaved as possible, studying and learning and hiding who she was, escape was still on her mind. Escape had not become a single action – it was now a corridor. It required a plan. One of her books had been very helpful, too; it talked about a man poisoned by candles, slowly, invisibly.
Six months of slipping bits of candle into her father’s food yielded nothing. Annoyed, she’d reread the book, and found that the candles had originally been laced with arsenic. Which was cheating.
Long term plans were good. She’d have to come up with one of them. That was what, when she was thirteen? My, time had flown.
She’d been fifteen, the last time she’d actively tried to kill her father. While she’d worn away at her accent a little, and managed to make the most of her time in what she now imagined her own personal dungeon, as the Countess had. The carpets were nicer; there were fewer rats. But it was still a cage; she was still bound; and at night, she still heard the screams from down in the meat room.
The letter, that’d been the last time she’d acted directly. The letter that she’d found while doing some tidying up in her father’s office. He had a letter opener and a paper trimmer, and she’d been using them to construct some… paper somethings that had interested her for a few weeks at that point.
The books in her room had not changed much in seventeen years. There had been plenty of them, and she had read all of them. Most of them had been recovered from old libraries in the disused parts of the city – unlike the binders and ledgers that sat on her father’s shelf.
There’d been a single book resting on the shelf that had caught her eye, as she slid the letter-opener in a smooth, straight line to form a proper right-angle triangle so the device fit together well. The Count of Monte Cristo. The name immediately brought to mind those beautiful phrases from her mother – the reading all in Gallian. There had been a sequel? How wonderful!
Without asking, she’d reached to the shelf; plucked the book; and the letter had fluttered down to her feet, from its place tucked into the back cover.
To my dearest daughter, it had read on the cover, in Gallian.
When she bent down to take it, though, she’d risen into a shadow.
“I didn’t give you permission to touch my things,” her father had said, reaching over her shoulder, snapping the book closed in one of his hands.
“’Ow long ‘ave you had szis, faszeire?” she remembered asking. She remembered it that way, though she knew that there had been a tremble, a pause, between some of those words. Turning the letter over in her hand, she rested the tip of the letter-opener against it.
Then… he’d put his hand on hers, and stopped her.
And she’d screamed.
The memory was fuzzy.
There was a splash of blood she’d had to clean out of the dress. Her father’s trousers had a bloody gash in the thigh. She’d been trying to kill him, she’d twisted the blade when it sank in. Oh, god, how she’d wanted to. How she wanted to turn his fortress of silence and veneer of respectability into a place where freedom howled. God. How she wish she’d known what she did about blades and blood vessels now.
But she also remembered him kneeling on her chest.
She remembered two black eyes for weeks.
She remembered I’ll beat the ladylike into you if I have to.
The memory was pretty fuzzy.
Xenops drew her breath, and steeled as hard as she could ever be, leant forwards, to whisper to the Assassin.
“I-“ then she hesitated. The Assassin, she had beautiful eyes. Oh, there was something in them – her gaze seemed to be like some tangible thing, like a steel rod, nearly vibrating with contained rage, but there had to be something else there as well. Some sadness. Some disappointment.
Xenops could understand that.
Then she saw, reflected in one eye, over her shoulder, another single eye. Hastily, bare fingers plucked a piece from the board, and be ladylike came to her rescue.
“You know, I often szink szat sze pawn is sze soul of chess. Szhey are sze very life of sze game. Szey alone form sze attack and sze defense; on szeir good or bad situation depends sze gain or loss of sze party.”
The Assassin looked very confused, behind the fan. She was so well made-up, too – and probably had very kissable lips, behind that fan. To signal what she saw, Xenops tilted her head, setting the pawn back down, hoping the lilt of her head would draw the Assassin’s eye to the figure that loomed closer over her shoulder.
“Allo, Miss Zee,” Nebrin asked, his voice a low grumble. “Don’t suppose y’ve seen yer dad around have you?”
“Ah, mais, non.”
Nebrin nodded. Her father’s terrier. Slinking around, waiting for an order. The only problem was, he didn’t know what he was hunting. They’d both assumed the bullet came from outside, after all – they’d both been so sure. If you wanted to be safe around a terrier, you had to walk – they’d chase anything that ran.
Nebrin slouched away, while she turned back to her friend, and laughed sweetly – “Just a friend of my faszeire’s,” she said, glibly, before lowering her voice once Nebrin was out of earshot.
“You are the Assassin.” She said, gesturing with the same pawn she’d plucked from the board. “I was given a catalogue of sze oszer girls’ dresses before sze event, so I could coordinate mine. Szat dress is not one of szem… and you are too pretty to be so shy. Too too pretty.”
The Assassin looked awfully concerned, and … well, it was cute. Xenops wasn’t going to flatter herself that she was seducing the woman, but … still. It was nice to have that reaction. A little harmless flirting, yes?
“Sze assassin that killed two men in one moment during a party – you ‘ave to be here wisz a reason. And… I would like to offer you an opportunity.”
From her blouse, her purse; from her purse, a coin. Then, another coin. Then, another… while she focused on the coins. On the time they represented.
“Every week since I was thirteen years old, my father gives me two pennies.” Xenops felt her fingers trembling at their touch. It was freedom. It was a key to a cage. “It is, he tells me, my pocket money. I szink he believes szat I will, um, ask Nebrin to buy szings from the market wisz it.” Every word came very carefully, her eyes fixed on her fingertips. “I have saved szem all, two pennies at a time. When I had twenty, I changed szem for shillings. When I had five shillings, I changed szem for pounds.”
Those trembling fingers set five round, flat, tarnished gold-ish coins on the table, behind her chess pieces. Each one was cleaned and polished, worn at the edges where the millinery had been handled by dozens of hands. “It is all I have to offer you, Madamoiselle Assassin, but I wish to hire you to kill my father, and set me free.”
The other woman leant forwards, her glorious white-and-pink fan snapped shut, while she closed her gloved hand around Xenops. With a hoarse voice, a croak, really, whispering down low, she asked – “Why?”
Xenops drew herself back. “Because my faszeire is a tyrant.”