Aleksander sat on the edge of his bed with his head in his hands, as he had been for the past hour after retiring to his room—which had only been after wandering around the castle corridors and grounds for another hour before because he couldn’t clear his mind.
He just couldn’t get the task the King had asked of him out of his head. After ten more minutes of speaking with His Majesty, the young Major had agreed to find Branna. But now . . . now he’d had time to attempt thinking, he wasn’t sure if he’d made the right choice.
Sure, he wanted to see her again; his memories of her were hazy at best and ten years old. She wouldn’t recognise him; she’d kill him on the spot. Or worse, use him somehow in order to get into the castle and then kill him afterwards.
And then there’s was the task of finding her first. Where was he supposed to start? The whole city-based army had yet to find her, what would allow him, alone, to find her?
There was a reason no one could find her, and that was because no one knew quite what she looked like. Not even Aleksander, not anymore at least. When he’d joined the army officially he, like everyone who does so, has a chip placed into his eye to make it at least half bionic—it gave him the stealthy ability to see through buildings for people, and also allowed him to match a person to a photo in the criminal database files (something which saved on time and effort).
As soon as news of Branna being in Eborakon had reached the army quarters, the Generals thought it would have been a good idea to use that database to find a match to her whilst the soldiers searched . . . but there was one, fatal error with that plan, no photographs of Branna Drummond existed, because she’d never been caught and put on a criminal record.
She was silent and elusive. In all the years the army had been chasing her, they’d only come close to capturing her twice. And the second time had been yesterday evening. But there were no traces of her.
And even he wasn’t sure that he would recognise her if he walked past her. It had been ten years, she had to look different. Did she still have her raven-black hair for which her forename had been given to her? Or had she dyed it a different colour to disguise herself? How tall had she come to be? How fair had she grown to look? How scarred was she, physically and mentally, due to her line of work? Was her skin still the Northern pale it used to be, or had her years in the sun-kissed South counties tanned her?
Aleksander wanted answers to all of his questions, which meant he had to find her.
He glanced up from his hands, scanning his room. It was a modest size with little furniture. He had a large glass table in which the top acted as his computer, responding to his touch. There was a long bar across the mantelpiece of his fire that, when he pressed the power button, a projection screen popped up from the centre to be his TV, and responded when turned on to his voice. Those were his two modern features; the old fashioned ones were his tall bookcase piled high with books, his Chesterfield sofa, the chandelier overheard, and his four-poster bed.
As soon as he left this castle to start his mission, he was to move into a house the King had bought and had decked out with all the modern appliances and a high security system that shut down access in and out when turned on, as well as having a locking code that only he and the King knew. The last part would be Aleksander’s way of keeping Branna in and others out of danger, if it came to that—he sincerely hoped it wouldn’t come to that.
That house was basically a safe house, and probably the King’s own. He really wouldn’t be surprised it that was the case, the King had numerous safe houses dotted about all over Britannia.
And he was to use one to house the most notorious, the most deadly, assassin in the country. He must be out of his mind.
Aleksander shot up and headed across the room, walking into the attached, small en-suite and coming to a stop in front of the basin with the mirror hanging on the wall. He ran the cold tap and pooled water in his cupped hands and brought it to his face, because a shot of cold water usually helped to clear his mind—alas, it did not, so he was left staring at his reflection in the old, tarnished mirror.
His eyes had been brighter once, like emeralds, when he’d been a carefree child that ran though the streets with his friend—his only friend—but moving times and the loss of that friend, the loss of any pure happiness, had dulled his eyes to a flat, dark green. His right eye, however, had two rings of white—one around the pupil and one going around the centre of the iris—because that was his half-bionic eye.
He’d changed over the years, dramatically, to the extent that if he weren’t who he was then he probably wouldn’t even recognise himself. How was Branna ever going to even slightly recognise him?
That was if Branna knew him. Which he knew in his mind that she wouldn’t, because if she did then she would remember other people and this mission of hers, her mission to kill the King . . .
Aleksander rubbed the heels of his hands over his eyes before picking up a towel and drying his face. He knew he should probably go that safe house and set everything up, even though he had no idea how long it would take to find his long-lost friend.
He let out a long sigh and backed out of the bathroom. Maybe if I just go to this safe house it will be a lot more simpler.
After crossing the room, he slammed his fist against the button to call for a servant, because bringing all his stuff together himself would take longer than he wanted. But he had things that he didn’t want servants, even if they were actually androids that responded to orders and commands, to see or pack—personal items that held memories.
Like the shoe box under his bed, which he lay down on his stomach and dug out from the piles and boxes, and then set on the edge of his bed. It was full of photos, chips holding voice recordings, a cylindrical bar that, when the top was clicked down, would project videos from the projection camera on whatever surface it was pointed to, doodles and drawings—all these things, these precious items, now almost ten years old.
He wouldn’t look at it now. No, later, when he’d got himself set up. For now he grabbed the large duffel bag from inside the ottoman at the foot of his bed, before moving to his closest and switching on the light.
The walls were lined with hangers and drawers, all occupied by uniforms. He didn’t really own any clothing that wasn’t mandatory, but the ones he did own were at the end of the room. So he walked over and opened all the drawers, pulling out the few pairs of jeans and shirts. He’d buy more later. Being a Major never usually left him with enough time to wear his own clothes.
When he walked back into the room, one of the servants was stood in the centre with her hands clasped in front of her. Androids looked incredibly humanlike nowadays, their synthetic skin looking and feeling like actual skin, and they moved like humans—for this they’d experienced discrimination because they weren’t human even though they looked it.
Aleksander, for one, had never discriminated against androids. He hated the stupid act.
“Hello, Major Hale,” the female android said, voice so very like a human’s. Their voices hadn’t been recorded by people like old robots, but instead they were built with voices boxes. Artificial life but almost one-hundred percent real. “You called for assistance.”
“That I did,” Aleksander said and threw his clothes messily into the duffel bag.
“No, no. That won’t do,” she said, eyes staring at the bag. “Clothes must be folded to reduce creasing.”
“Natalia, it is fine. Can I call you Natalia?”
Her eyes moved from the bag to his face, widening with shock. “I am and android, sir, Mark-NAT14.”
“How old are you?” he asked. “When were you . . . programmed?”
“Two weeks ago, sir.” She was lying, not that Aleksander knew or even suspected that. And not like he needed to know.
“Then I have one thing to tell you: You’re as human as anyone else, you deserve a name. So, how about it, I just thought Natalia because of the NAT. You can choose another if you don’t like it.”
She thought about this for a moment and then gave a small nod, a smile crossing her lips. “I like it. Natalia. I like it.”
Aleksander smiled and moved to his bookcase. “I’ll talk to King Charles about it, he’ll be happy enough to change the Mark type on your name to Natalia.”
“Thank you, Major.”
“It’s nothing really. Names give us our identities, we all need one.”
She—Natalia—didn’t say anything for a moment, simply stood there pensively before she unclasped her hands and took a step forward. “Do you need a hand with those books, sir?”
“You can just call me Aleksander, you know,” he said as he pulled down a number of books and stacked them in his hands. “And yes, I do—can you bring those first five on the right over and put them in my bag?”
“Forth.” He walked over and dropped his own books into the bag. He was only taking ten, but they’d make the bag a hell of a lot heavier.
“May I ask why you look like your leaving?” Natalia asked as she came to stand next to him, dropping the five books in the bag.
“The King has assigned me a personal mission is all.”
“So I’ll be gone for, more than likely, the next few weeks at least.”
“You must know that I cannot say anything other than that.”
Natalia nodded. “Of course.”
“Can you pass me my boots from my closest?—I’ve forgot them,” he said as a change of subject. In truth he hadn’t been planning on taking his boots, but it gave a distraction to ask for them. “Oh, and a few jackets and hoodies, and my coat.”
“Of course,” she repeated and walked away, the whirl of her cogs almost noiseless as she moved. Almost, but not quite. The slight noise was comforting, because being soundless was, at the very least, creepy and frightening.
Aleksander glanced once more around his room, which really just looked the same as it had done—albeit a tad emptier. This place, this castle, it had never been home to him, but simply accommodation. The home of his youth, just outside the slums east of the river, had never really been a home to him either, just a place he’d lived until his father had died and his mother had moved to live with her sister following Alek’s acceptance into the Royal Army.
He hadn’t seen his mother for longer than a couple of days a time in almost four years, but he didn’t really miss her. To be in the Royal Army meant leaving your family all but behind, if you came from a less than desirable background. He saw her twice, maybe three times, a year, but not enough to truly miss her.
Which was just another point on the list of reasons he felt like he didn’t really belong anywhere: in the slums, with his mother, in this castle—he didn’t feel truly as if any of the places were home.
Because home is when, after you leave it, you just seem to miss it and want to go back.
There was only place he felt like he belonged, and he was foreign to that place.
He let out a sigh and sat down on the edge of his bed, turning his left arm upwards and pulling back his sleeve to reveal the skin of his wrist. Or, to be more precise, the shape inked to his left wrist. It was a double infinity tattooed sideways, following the blue vein there.
Thirty years ago tattooist had come up with the ingenious idea of having tattoos that tapped into the recesses of the memory system, with different symbols representing different stages of life or events that represented a memory so that, when touched, the memory could be recollected from the long-term memory. A music notes, for example, could represent the first concert a person attended, or a heart could represent ones first discovery of love.
Of course, only with sciences help could this be achieved, and a year later scientists created an ink that could be used for such tattoos. Memory Ink and Memory Tattoos they came to be known as, respectively.
A double infinity symbol as a tattoo acted like a promise, a lock between people because it was one of those that had to be shared by two people or more, it was not an option for just one person to have it due to its meaning.
And binding symbols only truly worked when placed together, so it would come in handy when he had a friend who didn’t remember him to deal with, because the tattoo had been a promise to the two of them, just before she’d left to end up returning a different person ten years ago, that despite the distances and the changes that would drive a wedge they would always find each other.
Even when one of them didn’t want to be found.
Aleksander shook his head, dismantling the thoughts. His mission was to find Branna Drummond the Silent Assassin, not Branna Drummond the girl who had been his friend. She wasn’t his friend any longer; she was a dangerous young woman with an appetite for killing. She was one of the youngest assassins, she was the best, and she’d killed more men than his could possibly count.
Branna Drummond was no longer the girl he’d known, she was ruthless and deadly and her heart was ice in her chest—and he’d do well to remember that.
He’d do well to remember to keep whatever emotions he had under control when it came to her, because he’d end up going against her.
Branna Drummond was a weapon, the greatest weapon the Sept of Assassins had.
If he was going to have a cat in hells chance of . . . controlling—though he hated the word—her, of getting her to remember him just enough for her not to kill him, then when it came to going up against her he had better not be unarmed, because he knew she was always armed even when it looked like she was not.
“Natalia,” Aleksander called out, jumping up onto his feet and circled around his bed to his door. “Bring my bag to the garage and leave it on my bike, I need to go get something.”
That something being weapons, because he’d have to be just as armed and ready as her when they met.
A/N: as you might have already guessed, there is more to Natalia than meets the eye. She's going to become a bigger character in chapters to come.
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