My foot touched the stone of the final stair, my fingers, clammy with sweat, tightened around the hilt of my dagger. The door, heavy wooden planking and iron decoration stood before me, the metal glinting in the torchlight. The stones upon which I tread were smoothed by the passage of feet, yet grooves had not been worn into them in the manner of the floors below; this floor, this room required far fewer bodies to visit. I took a breath to steel myself, then placed the key I had been give in the lock and turned it, slid the bolt across and eased it open.
The door moved nearly silently on its hinges and as it swung, revealed the chamber within, opulent, decorated with fine silks, linens and polished woods. Candlelight played across the surfaces, the walls, the small fire in the grate cast a glow across the elegant carpets that provided small areas of respite from the cold floor.
She stood at the window. This far up, there is no need for bars on the windows, and so I saw beyond her elegant shoulder the city where I had grown, its lights fending off the encroaching darkness and reflecting in the harbor. It was a beautiful sight. She turned then, to face me, her gown shimmering, and yet its effect was nothing when held in comparison to her face. Truly, she was the most beautiful thing I ever laid my eyes upon; I stood stupefied for a few seconds, entranced by her loveliness. An ironic smile danced across her face and her eyes sought mine.
“Are you here to kill me?” her voice was soft, melodic, seductive without effort. I nodded once, willing myself not to be the first to look away. Her eyes flickered, taking in an image of me, I suppose, for she shook her head then and sighed. “They send a boy to do the job that grown men are afraid to do. How… particular.” I struggled to achieve arrogance without seeming petulant.
“Hardly a boy. I’ve killed seventeen men” an eyebrow arched at that, but she didn’t comment. Instead she moved toward the center of the room with movements so fluid she seemed as though she were gliding.
“And how are you planning to kill me?”
“It’s your decision.” That smile again.
“In that case, I prefer not to die.”
I was surprised at her humor. “You don’t believe you deserve to die for your crimes?”
“I didn’t say that, young man.” She raised her eyes to me again. “But since you bring it to our conversation, I am guilty of nothing more than loving the man who committed your crimes. He is dead now, why must I die as well?”
My smile was tight; I knew that she was trying to throw me off, to make it harder to kill her. I knew also that, appearances aside, she was quite possibly the most dangerous criminal I had ever encountered.
“I’m not a court, nor am I God. I merely carry out their will.
“Poison or the sword. Your choice between the two.”
“I’m a civilized woman. Poison it shall be.”
I moved to the decanter of red wine on the sideboard and poured just enough for a couple of sips into a glass. Extracting a vial from the pouch on my belt, I tipped the appropriate dose into the wine and swirled the glass. A soft laugh.
“The Executioner knows his wine etiquette.” She was at my elbow and I hadn’t even heard her move. Wordlessly, I held the glass out for her, averting my eyes form the tantalizing sight of her breasts swelling above the neckline of her gown. She took it, fingers curling around the stem, cradling the crystal. A few steps brought her to the foot of the bed where she stopped.
“How long will it take?”
“A minute. Less.” A nod.
“Will you catch me before I fall?” The look in her eyes was unguarded, nearly vulnerable. I consented to this request and moved to stand near. Her eyes on mine, she lifted the goblet to her lips until the wine lapped at the edge of her mouth. The briefest pause and then she tilted it further, drinking steadily. We stood there, an unmoving tableau for what seem like hours but could only have been seconds. Then she swayed as though she were becoming faint; her eyes fluttered closed; the goblet slipped from her grasp and shattered on stone. I moved forward to catch her just as she began to fall. I turned to lay her on the bed and was surprised to find her hand grasping my shirt and pulling me with her. Her mouth was on mine and somewhere in the back of my head I knew I should pull away, but her lips were intoxicating, heady, and I couldn’t. She rolled atop me, pinning me to the bed. I realized suddenly that the taste of wine was on my tongue, heavy and potent as I swallowed it by reflex, and realized in that second the mistake I had made. I forced blurry eyes to focus and saw her face, triumphant as she collapsed upon my chest. Her mouth came to rest next to my ear and even as the world became hazy again I heard her scathing whisper in my ear,