She Chooses Death

They didn’t deserve to have their throats cut, she reminded herself. They were most likely good men, who did not choose to serve a tyrant and usurper. As her eyes flickered from one to the next, watching for the first twitch of a hand toward a sword or the tiny twist of a foot that would precede a dash for the hall beyond, she cursed the bulk weighing against her shoulders. Always the flair for drama, she thought, but she knew that these sorts of grandiose, arrogant gestures stuck in the minds of the people and bolstered their spirits. The whole enterprise would avail little without it, but she must now spend her first movement—that half-second of action before the opponent could react—shrugging off her burden, instead of drawing a weapon. Keeping her face unreadable, she spared a tiny prayer of thanks for the wind now blowing away the thick heat of the fading afternoon.

For hours she had waited at a distance, concealed by the thick bracken at just the point where the road began to descend from the hills that protected the vulnerable side of the castle. She had in the past endured much longer stretches of stillness, but the scorching sun, penetrating even into the small clearing she had formed for herself among the thick leaves and thorns, had all but drained her near-endless supply of patience. Watching as the king’s closest allies had passed, each with a larger retinue than the last, down from the heights into the stronghold below, she had slowly counted each sword as the sun finally descended into an uneasy dusk like blood ebbing from one’s temples after a battle. When all the guests had at last ensconced themselves within, she had waited for the guard to change, and then another hour after that—long enough for the lingering heat to sap the new guards’ freshness and the half-light of early evening to erode their vigilance.

Her weapons trainer had said to her once that a man could enter anywhere he pleased if he only looked confident and acted as though he belonged. In countless years of practice, she had determined that this was, at best, only mostly true. Attitude certainly played a part, but in many situations and for many disguises, confidence sent the wrong signal. She had instead learned to identify the demeanor and bearing expected of one in her assumed position, which in turn required that she quickly and accurately evaluate the faces and character of those she meant to deceive. Fortunately, she had had ample time on this particular venture to observe the gatekeepers from half a mile off as she waited for the sun to disappear behind the hill. At that distance, even her remarkable vision neared its limit, but she had time on her side. When she had finally crept out of the brush and begun her slow trudge down the trail to the gate, she knew them well enough to fool—or kill.

They had seen her coming quite a long way off and eyed her warily as she approached. She kept her eyes on the ground after the manner of the simple yeoman whose garb she had adopted, and nothing about her bespoke ill intent or subterfuge until she had drawn near enough to betray herself as a stranger to the keep. Not recognizing her round, hairless face, the leftmost of the three had extended his hand toward her.

“Stop,” he had cried, when she was within 10 paces of the gate, which stood open to welcome the king’s guests. “What’s your business here, then?”