Fighting a burp as she walks down the hall, Sazami flicks her eyes left and right as she walks the halls of the castle. Adeena is two steps in front of her, leading her to the council room.
Sazami has yet to memorize the layout of the castle, making a mental note to herself to try tonight. With the extra guards around her doors, it could present a bit of a challenge. She smiles beneath her mask at the idea.
Dressed now in her leather armor, her black cape billowing behind her, mask and cowl secure, Sazami keeps her hand within casual reach of her dagger.
They've already descended to the main level of the castle, snow still falling outside the many tall, arched windows decorated in stain glass. The hallways cast in colored fractals of pink and green and blue and yellow and everything in between. At least today the sun is shining, better than yesterday when it was overcast, making the kingdom seem more grey than normal.
Her little fairy's ashen hair sways left and right with each step, her shoulders square and chin high despite the minor limp. While Sazami was horking down the breakfast she'd brought, Adeena was quick to mention that Queen Gwendolyn wanted her company during the next council meeting – to brush her up on the murders that's happening. Sazami only answered with a hum as she stuffed more food into her mouth, each bite of each food near exquisite.
Sazami tilts her head as she watches the young woman walk with a pride she didn't see a mere day ago. She's yet to see how Adeena acts around the rest of the castle members, but either way, Sazami is already grinning with pride at how her little fairy carries herself despite her flaws and disadvantages.
She stops in front of two large oak doors, the gold knobs looking as freshly polished as the day they were put in. The two guards posted out front eye Sazami, whose returning grin is purely feline. Adeena opens the door, and after a quick swallow, her demeanor changes into the quivering woman who greeted her the day before. Sazami can't help her understanding.
A persona. Something to put on for the people; make them believe in who they see because they'd never look behind the closed door, behind the eyes of the person.
All the more reason why Sazami was trained to look further.
Adeena opens the door and the assassin is met with more sunlight, entering a large, rectangular room with the same tall windows bisecting each beige colored wall. The stain-glass of the dome ceiling high above bathe the oakwood space in a variety of muted colors. At the epicenter sits a long mahogany table fit for six, a large carpet pinned beneath its legs carved like griffon feet. All the chairs are high-backed, Queen Gwendolyn sitting at the head, her court flanking the sides towards the unoccupied end seat.
Sazami walks up, Adeena shutting the door behind her as the queen says, "Welcome, Mistress Altileth." She waves a hand down the table towards the open seat straight across from her.
Sazami sits herself down, sprawling across it, Adeena coming to stand behind her chair like all the other servants she sees. "A pleasure." She says mildly.
Looking to the woman sitting to Queen Gwendolyn's right – a beautiful young thing with hair of sunshine gold, and lips as red as a rose – her hands are folded atop some papers, the turquoise of her long-sleeved gown complimenting her ivory skin.
The assassin lifts a brow at the woman, sparing her a wink while she smiles behind her mask. The woman's long lashes blinks with surprise before averting her onyx gaze. Sazami could've swore she saw flecks of gold reflecting in the sunlight as the young woman's throat bobs.
Sazami grins, that's already one of the people she could easily intimidate. But the other woman sitting the queen's left would be a different story.
A woman of her mid-thirties, she wears the unmistakable armor of the Queen's Guard – the armor as grey as a thundercloud, ornately engraved with the detailing of a snowflake – only replacing the fur-lined hood is a cape of vibrant cobalt blue clasped to her shoulders. The hilt of a wicked looking blade peeks over her shoulder; dented and scarred, it only solidified Sazami's assumption of the woman's combat skills.
Her cropped corn silk hair glows in the morning sunlight – shorter on the sides, longer on the top. Effortlessly chic and casual. Her face . . . almost as cold and chiseled as the stone used to build this castle, and hardened yellow-topaz eyes that promise Death.
It only makes Sazami's grin widen. The games she could play with this woman . . . wonder if she's as short-tempered as Sir Gregory back home.
Sazami marks the two other men and women at the table, though none of them are as remarkable as Queen Gwendolyn's Second and Third. Each of them quivering before Sazami even sat down. Still, she marks a few traits to remember them by: a plain, balding man with a belly as round as a keg; a fairly handsome man with mouse-brown hair connecting to a close-shaved beard, a scar trailing across his full lips; a sniveling, rat-faced wench whose hair is pulled back so tight Sazami thought she her skin would rip.
The last member, who calls herself Ursela, makes Sazami pause. She is stout and short, with the kind of wicked face that makes people quickly look away. Her spider black hair is braided in a coronet around her head, but still her pointed ears poke through the strands. Her seaweed green eyes lined heavily with kohl, the color showing on her pointed nails, too. Her lips are a deep crimson red, bringing to attention the mole just above the right corner of her mouth.
As she introduces herself, Ursela flashes a jeering smile, revealing her too-white teeth. Sazami's annoyance doesn't improve when Ursela runs an eye over her body. A woman who can kill and ruin with words. Especially if it's about another woman.
Sazami easily holds her pretentious gaze. Even tracing her finger along the handle of her dagger, a gesture gone unnoticed by the guards bordering the room. Despite the mask, Sazami gives a slight smile, as if she's seen that smile from a thousand different times, from a thousand different women.
Because she has.
"Now that you've arrived, we can begin." The queen says, flattening the skirt of her pewter colored dress. Still Sazami holds Ursela's gaze until the woman's eyes flick to the queen at the sound of the steward tapping papers on the desk.
First round: victorious
Queen Gwendolyn's flowing dress is immaculate, revealing tantalizing glimpses of a lush female body adorned with freshly cut diamonds at her throat and pointed ears. Her hair is half up, pinned at the back, the rest left to fall in loose curls at her back.
Her face . . . did she not get a good look at it from before?
Her face is both young and wise, bedroom-soft yet foreboding. Her peridot green eyes gleam with that glittering magic, alluring and deadly.
"What are we to expect, Your Majesty?" Sazami asks.
The queen waves with ethereal grace towards the woman to her left. "Nyx, my Captain of my Guard, will explain." She motions to the woman on her right. "And my steward, Willa, will give all the details."
Sazami flicks her eyes to the Nyx woman as a young servant boy approaches with a pitcher of water. As he pulls the glass towards the edge of the table, she holds up her hand. He immediately pauses and she waves him away.
All the while her eyes are pinned to Nyx, while the rest of the council's eyes are on her.
Please. They expect her to just take her mask off so casually . . . for water?! What sort of fool do they take her for?! She doesn't know whether to be insulted, or to just laugh in their faces.
A couple of lower-level guards wheel in a board with the map of entire kingdom of Jokul drawn across it. On the map she can see red X's sprinkled about the space, a heavy gathering set around the ruins of Vrost, the old and now ancient city that legends say Queen Gwendolyn destroyed. It heavily resembles the board she saw back in Valerie.
Willa, the steward, stands and walks over towards Sazami with the papers. She watches until Nyx is standing next to the board to look at the young woman as she sets the papers down next to Sazami's empty glass.
The woman is very pretty when up this close. The contrast between the gold of her hair and the darkness of her eyes give her an air of mystery, like those of a wraith, or nymph. Nyx clears her throat, Sazami not even touching the papers as Willa returns to her seat.
"As your king has informed you, we've been getting a string of murders happening around the kingdom, across the entire continent of Galalea. And with your diagnostic they've written for us, we've agreed that mystical aspects are involved."
She motions an armored hand towards the outskirts of the city, where the trail is scarce at first. Becoming thicker and thicker as it moves further away, towards the ruins.
"The first victim was a young hunter." Nyx continues with a quick jerk of her chin towards the papers next to Sazami. Straightening her posture, she takes the first paper off the top of the pile. "He was discovered by his party when he didn't return for a day after going out. They assured us that he knew the tundra and its wildlife like the back of his hand, able to find the city even in the thickest of blizzards. They found it unusual that he'd succumbed to the elements, or to any of the local wildlife."
Sazami's eyes scan over the report, no doubt written by the steward, Willa, judging from the elegant and feminine handwriting.
Victim suffered heavy effects of rigor mortis, due to the cold temperatures. The body showed no signs of lacerations or bruising to indicate damage was done by either weapon or hand. The victim's weapons: bow, arrows and a small skinning knife, were all left untouched, left next to the body. Neither they nor the kills for the day were taken or disturbed.
Victim's face was frozen with the mouth open wide, as if screaming, the skin as tough and dry as leather. The tone of the it was three times darker than his normal – similar to a near ashen-brown, or dirt brown. The eyes were rolled back into the head, a single stream of blood leaking from the nose. Brain trauma?
Upon closer inspection, there were scratches at the victim's throat – self-inflicted, as shown by the bits of skin left underneath the victim's fingernails. Some dried blood found along the inside of the victim's lips.
Nyx goes on to say, "Each victim we found was set in the same exact state; we first assumed it could be decomposition, until we soon learned that they were happening within hours of the persons leaving their homes."
"How often would the killings occur?" Sazami asks.
"As of now, it's still sporadic, no distinct pattern. It would be two in one week, a single person the next. Then after three weeks, it would be three more people. Every one of the victims are completely unrelated to one another: the wife of a farmer, a courtesan, a homeless man, to the child of a Duchess."
Sazami takes a steadying breath. Nyx is about to continue when Sazami asks, "How old was the child?"
Nyx looks to her, and for a moment, understanding reflects in those topaz eyes. "She was five."
Sazami keeps her face neutral, even as she feels the queen watching her carefully. As if she can hear Sazami's heart thundering, smell the sweat now coating her gloved palms.
"Over the next few weeks, we've had some shifters guards scour the land to see where they could be coming from. We've soon discovered a pattern with the tracks left in the snow, from when they were running, we assume. We've found tracks that go all the way back to the White Peaks up north, but soon they started coming from south, southeast."
After a heartbeat of quiet, Sazami asks, "How well do you know this land?"
Nyx sharpens her gaze. "Like it's my job. Because it is."
Sazami takes the verbal slap. "Is there anywhere they could be running from, anywhere close by?"
Looking to the board, the Captain of the Guard points to an unmarked spot right in the middle of the barren expanse between the capitol of Pakkanen, the city of Foscar, and the ruins of Vrost. "The nearest house is three miles southeast from the gates of the capitol, five miles northeast from Foscar, and two miles northwest of the old city."
Will suddenly speaks up, her soft voice carrying the silken tone of a forest nymph, "We've checked into the inhabitants: a husband, and wife, and a two-year-old daughter. Neither the parents have had previous records, and our guards searched their cabin top to bottom. They've found nothing."
Sazami nods with approval. "The attacks and disappearances started a little bit past the outer gates of the kingdom, as did the returning tracks. Then slowly we noticed they were coming from further away, once we realized they were coming from the old ruins, we stopped the searches, so –"
"Why?" Sazami abruptly interjects.
Nyx's expression briefly feathers with irk, gone as quick as a blink, as if she's not used to people interrupting her. Or they never dared to try. Sazami holds her stare, tracing the lip of her empty glass with a gloved hand.
"I said, why?" Sazami drawls, careful to draw out each syllable like a mother would a confused child. "Why, did you call off the search?"
Nyx arcs a blond brow. "Because we can't afford to go to the ruins."
"Can't, or won't?"
"Can't, because of the suspicious activity."
"So you're willing to let the bodies of these people – who have loved ones desperate and bereft – just freeze and be buried beneath the snow?"
Vast, cold power crackles in the council room, but the queen's face remains unreadable.
The captain's chuckle boils Sazami's blood. "Ironic having my decisions questioned by a woman who kills for money."
"I kill corrupt officials and adulterous spouses. I've never killed a child, nor do I find it justifiable by any means." Sazami slowly stands, placing her palms flat on the table. Everyone in the room tenses, the guards already having their hands on their weapons. But Sazami only stares at the captain. "What do you have to fear of a city that was blown to bits by your very queen so many years ago?"
"You mind your tongue, assassin."
Sazami doesn't let one speck of emotion show. "Answer."
"Who are you to give me orders?" Nyx growls with disdain.
The assassin angles her head with unnerving grace. "Someone who is supposed to be helping you. And to do that, I need to know everything. Including why you turn tail and run like a coward."
The silence that follows is so tense and palpable Sazami could cut it with her dagger. But she only stares at the Captain, forcing back her usual cocky grin as they stare at one another with mutual disdain. This isn't about getting under the Captain's skin anymore. She wants to know the truth.
Why avoid the ruins? Why leave the bodies there, when they follow the rule of the very queen who destroyed it?
"Miss Altileth, please." Willa chimes, both women turning their heads to the steward. She's turned so pale her freckles are like splattered blood across the bridge of her nose.
Both women soften their glances– although Sazami could've sworn the Captain's face briefly rippled with yearning.
"We originally made it a rule not to go to the old kingdom for the safety of the citizens. Ever since the" – she casts a quick glance to Queen Gwendolyn who has gone as still as death – "incident, years ago, the city has since been surrounded by impenetrable snowstorms, temperatures dropping to deadly numbers. No form of wildlife can go there; some of them and some . . . interested explorers have been found frozen solid."
"How could you find them if you can't get past?" Sazami asks.
The steward shifts through her thick stack of papers before pulling ones that were heavily noted. Not one inch of space was left. "Every month, during a full moon, the storms die down to reveal the ruins – or at least what could be made of them – and we send in search parties to look for anyone who might've gone in."
Adeena steps out from behind Sazami's chair and limps over to retrieve the papers. She returns them to Sazami with a slight bow before resuming her position.
Willa continues, "And now with the recent activity, and the threat of some darker magic at play, we've since furthered the rule, and even had to use the threat of punishment."
"How so?" Sazami asks without taking her eyes off the paper. It is truly remarkable work. Though she can't make sense of everything written down – some sentences having merged together with others – she can see the steward had calculated when the next full moon will be for each upcoming month, even three years in advance.
"As of now just time in the castle dungeons. Not many people wish to explore there anyway, but there are some who insist."
Sazami almost chuckles when the steward's lips press into a thin line, as she two cannot comprehend the stupidity some have to want to go exploring an abandoned and dangerous city at the risk of their lives.
"And you think whoever's behind this has set themselves up in the old ruins?" Will nods. Sazami looks to Nyx and snorts as she tosses the papers onto her growing pile. "Well, that wasn't so hard to answer was it?"
Queen Gwendolyn still hasn't said much – so unmoving that Sazami wonders if she knew it's a solid tell. Not about her own nerves, but about her heritage. Only the elves can go that still.
"So what now?" Sazami asks, casting her glance around the room, but landing back to Willa – deeming her the only other decent person in the room next to the queen.
Seeming to pick up her message, Willa shifts through more papers as Sazami leans her hip against the table, crossing her arms. Then the steward pulls out three more papers and says, "We've recently discovered a body just three days before you arrived. We've been keeping it for research purposes."
"Why? Weren't all the bodies matching in description of their state?"
"Yes, but this one is . . . different." Willa holds out the paper, Adeena immediately walking over to retrieve it. Out of the corner of her eye, Sazami sees Nyx returning to her seat next to the queen. "She had some clear bruising on her upper arms, her neck, and her ankles. This was the first real sign we could find of some kind of struggle, and we were hoping you could take a look at it. In addition to her cause of death being drowning."
Adeena hands Sazami the paper, returning to her post behind the assassin's chair. This paper has a simple outline sketch of the woman's body, red ink marking the locations of the injuries. The bruising seems to trail along her ribs, thought not shaded as heavy as the ones on her wrists and ankles and neck. They also sketched her without shoes, emphasizing the frostbite of her feet in blues and blacks and purples.
"How old was she?"
"Fifteen." Willa answers stiffly.
Sazami looks to the steward. "Where did you find her?"
Willa looks to Nyx, whose simply laced her armored fingers together, watching the two women like a cat would a canary. Those topaz eyes – filled with a cold fire – flick between the two women before she says, "We had found her a mile outside of the city gates. We were able to trace most of her tracks back towards the ruins. She's also the first case we've had with evidence of blood being in her system. During the autopsies of the other bodies, they were simply dried up like withered flowers."
"What would a teenage girl be doing out there?"
An exchange of glances, and it is Willa who answers, "Well, sometimes kids will go out there with their cloaks and gear and sometimes have parties in the snow. Others use the open space to practice their magic."
Sazami shows her the paper and says quietly, "Not barefoot they don't. Is the crime scene still open?"
"Yes," answers Queen Gwendolyn, the first words she's spoken since greeting Sazami. "But I'm afraid the weather has made it difficult for us to go and see in person."
Sazami's brows twitch towards each other. "You're the Snow Queen. Can't you just wave your hand and make it all stop?"
The queen's fingers curl into fists, her knuckles going white as she no doubt tries to restrain herself from freezing Sazami from the inside out. Still, she squares her shoulders and clears her throat. "I'm afraid there are some things that are just out of my control."
The stiffness of her tone, the way she took a steadying breath, and the way she averted her eyes from Sazami as she spoke. All of it would've made her push further, but there was something in the queen's lovely face, the way she went rigid at certain points of the conversation. . .
Sazami has spent enough time as a slave to recognize that thousand yard stare some servants drift into once. With it brought back memories, the majority not all good . . . if any. So the assassin lets the queen off easy. "How will I be able to see it then?"
The queen, eager to change the topic, nods before standing from her seat. The rest of her council following. She gestures for them to stay, including Nyx and Willa, before waving her ethereal hand for Sazami to approach.
The assassin walks around the left of the table, Adeena staying rooted in place, and follows the queen towards the back of the room. Several guards and servants move the large board out of the way and pull a final set of azure blue curtains back that Sazami didn't see.
Queen Gwendolyn sweeps a silky curtain of moon-bathed hair over her shoulder, the slightly curled ends almost brushing the generous curve of her ass. The gown working well to hide the secrets of the lush body beneath.
Tucked into the very back of the room, on a raised platform sits an oval mirror as tall as a fully grown man. Its outer border is bathed in a polished gold beautifully carved into ornate floral patterns, as if the large disk had been enveloped in vines and leaves.
Sazami follows the queen up the two steps, stopping a foot behind her as she approaches the mirror. She doesn't dare touch it.
Not as the glass, though polished to perfection, only shows the clear outline of the Snow Queen, and Sazami. The rest of the room and its members have been blurred, as if behind frosted glass. Turning to look over her shoulder, Sazami blinks with surprise to find everyone still there, still clear, still whole. It's Nyx's smug grin that makes the assassin steel her spine as she turns back.
The queen looks back at her, extending a hand for her to come forward. Reluctant, but remembering that the reputation and alliance of Valerie rests on her shoulders, Sazami takes her hand.
She fights back the shiver that runs through her entire body at the queen's cold touch. She pulls her to stand in front of the mirror, only their two reflections remain clear.
Queen Gwendolyn says quietly, "I went to the crime scene, as I did all of them." Sazami looks to the queen baffled but doesn't say anything. "It helps to remember, rather than capture it with simple charcoal and parchment."
She extends her ivory hand towards the glass and Sazami is left in petrified shock and awe as the surface of the glass ripples under her touch. Like when a leave touches the surface of water.
"The old spirit workers used to say that water has memory. It travels through many lives – human and animal – and remembers everything."
Sazami looks to the glass, hers and the queen's reflections finally warbling into a view of the alleged crime scene where the found the young girl. Against the white expanse of the ground, there's a trail of tracks, messy looking tracks that cut through the snow, followed by sprinklings of blood, including one large puddle that outlines a heavy indent. In the background she can see the shadowed outlines of the White Peaks, and a few sparse lines of the skeletal bough of trees.
Sazami swears colorfully.
The queen folds her hands together, rubbing her thumb along her fingers. "So, what do you make of it?"
Taking her own steadying breath now, Sazami sighs. It does little to relieve the tension coiling in her gut.
"I can only know what the tracks say."
"Well that's all we got." Nyx says from behind. The queen shoots her a warning glare.
Sazami peers closer into the mirror, squinting her eyes as if it'll help. "I wish I could see what they look like from above."
Without a word, the image before her shifts, as if looking through the eyes of a bird, and their view shifts to looking down upon the tracks.
Looking to her left, she finds Queen Gwendolyn's eyes glowing an elegant white. She holds her hand in front of the mirror this time, the faintest blue glow whispering through her fingers like ink in water.
When her hand drops and her eyes blink back to normal, she casts a glance towards Sazami.
And she's ever more grateful for the mask and cowl. She only allows one blink before turning back to the magic mirror.
"So?" the queen asks.
Sazami peers closer to the mirror now, narrowing in on the most distinct track of the line. She points her gloved finger at it. "See this one, see how the toe's turned out – the front is much deeper than the back – that says she's running."
Her eyes dart all around the scene, analyzing and assessing. She points to another spot.
"She ran until she dropped here, see the pool of blood, where her face hit the snow; now I might not be completely accustomed to the climate here, but I know that it can get dangerously cold in this region at night. And when you fill your lungs up with that cold air, and you're running, you can freeze them up."
The queen slowly blinks, her eyes fully attentive. Sazami could've swore her skin paled even further.
"Your lungs fill up with blood, and you start coughing it up. So wherever she came from," Sazami points towards the mountains off in the distant, folding her lips in. "she ran all the way here. Here lungs burst here," she then points to the small gathering of trees where she can see the phantom outline of the young woman's body. "and she crawled into that treeline and drowned in her own blood." No tinge of grief, or satisfaction. Just fact.
More of the palpable silence, only this one feels as though the very world is holding its breath.
The queen quietly asks. "How far do you think someone could run barefoot out here?"
For a moment, Sazami is back at the frigid home of the Faceless Assassins. From deep within, she remembers herself sprinting through the frigid cold, choking on the blood that slowly crept upon her like the shadow of the night's cast.
She remembers hearing her knees pop and buckle as she face-planted into the snow, the blood finally spewing past her lips in a disgusting dribble of crimson saliva.
But if she didn't make it back to the fortress, she would die.
"I don't know." Sazami says quietly, biting at her lip at the quiver in her tone.
She looks to the mirror but doesn't see it anymore. She can only see herself screaming into the frozen eternity.
"How do you judge someone's will to live? Especially in these conditions? Whatever she saw, whatever she encountered, she was willing to get away from it by any means necessary, uncaring of the risks it would bring. Perhaps death would've been a blessing at that point."
A faint wince passes over the queen's face – then vanishes.
"No matter how far you think she ran," Sazami says with deathly quiet, turning towards the queen. "I can guarantee you she ran further."
Without waiting to be dismissed, Sazami turns away from the queen, down the two steps of the platform, and heads for the door.
She doesn't pay attention to the council watching her with wide eyes. Doesn't pay attention to Adeena gathering the papers as quickly and deftly as she did before.
No. She can only count her footsteps until she's out of the council room and down the hall, going to gods know where.
Just away from there.
All while trying not to think of what could've made that young woman run so far in the snow.
A tickling chill has Sazami rubbing her arm.
She keeps counting her steps.