Melina stared up at the night sky, the cobbled ground hard and damp beneath her. She was lying under a carriage parked below the windows of an old townhouse, the knives strapped to her back digging into to her muscles, and she could just see the stars through the spokes of the carriage wheel if she turned her head to the side. The scent of the dirty East London streets filled her nose: a mixture of booze, piss and blood made heavier by the dampness of the air off of the Thames. The sounds of heathenish revelry rang in the distance; of fairies, goblins, and werewolves, or just the usual form of twisted mortal partying the night away. Humanity was absent; this was the hour of depravity, the time of creatures who, like herself, flourished when decency vacated the streets. A drunken chorus of “God Save the Queen” rang out from beside the carriage as a man and woman stumbled passed her hideaway. She could picture them clearly in her mind though she could only see their feet: the woman scantily clad and clinging to the gentleman’s arm as he led her from one heinous adventure to the next for the meager promise of a few coins – could picture it because that had been her once.
She wondered ironically what Queen Victoria would think of the people most often filling their mouths with her praises.
God save the Queen, ha, she thought sardonically, as the singing continued down the street and faded away into the distance.
God save me.
But there would be no God to save her; there was only the god of Darkness who had chased her since birth, since the witch had spoken the Dark Prophesy over her. She had run from him her entire life, but she had grown tired of running, and weary of the abuse that hiding had brought.
She fingered the knife attached to her forearm, the knife that would soon take the life of a man in the upstairs window. To take a life was to declare service to the Dark god. If she succeeded tonight, she would finally be his.
But she was already his, even if it was in an unofficial capacity.
Unbidden, a line from an old poem her mother used to read to her before she had died came to her mind. Though my soul may set in darkness, it will rise in perfect light; I have loved the stars too fondly to be fearful of the night.
Most people feared the dark and the things it hid. But they were wrong; the dark exposed. It revealed the worst parts of people, their evilest crimes committed under the cloak of night.
She had always been a creature of the night, but before she had been its victim. Tonight, she would become its hand.
It was a year ago that she had given up running, a year to the day that she had had enough of the bruises, the drugs, the blood, and had gone looking for death. The Dark god would have her, either in life or in death, but she’d had just enough humanity left to reason that she would do less damage to the world dead in his hands than alive.
She remembered waking up that morning a year ago, naked and bleeding, lying in a pool of her own vomit and thinking, Enough.
A had bruise ached on her left cheek that she couldn’t remember getting, though she could easily guess.
Enough. I will not be hit again.
Death would be better than this.
She could feel the Dark god’s presence at the edge of her mind as usual, his grinning skull demanding action, vengeance.
But there was another way.
In the end, it had always come down to this, to death. The Prophesy had foretold as much. It was only a matter of whose: hers, or the one she killed.
She had decided it would be hers.
Too cowardly to take her own life, she had stumbled into the Court of the King of Thieves. Though its location was “secret”, any underworld lowlife knew it. She forced her way through the doors and into the hands of waiting guards, fully expecting them to kill her. They threw her down, broken and weary, at the King’s feet, and she prepared herself for the order of her death.
Instead, he smiled.
She remembered that smile the most clearly from that night, because it had be fierce, yet merciful all at once, and she had been surprised at how young he was to be King of the Underworld. He had sandy blonde hair and pale green eyes, and he had spread his arms wide until he was nearly touching the chairs of the two goblins that had sat on either side of him.
“Welcome,” he said.
He had given her a choice then, a choice she’d never had, and, in the shock of his mercy and the dazzle of his pale green eyes, she had momentarily forgotten her purpose. His only rule, he explained, was that she bring in money for the Court, but it was up to her to decide the manner in which she would do it. Prostitution – but that was the life she had run from and she would not go back. General thievery – a possibility.
A cloaked man had entered then, his face obscured beneath a black hood as he wiped a bloody knife clean with a lacy handkerchief, the red splattering eerily against the white.
Her eyes caught on the knife, its sharp blade winking out from beneath the lace. She could feel the King’s eyes on her, burning despite the cold hand that had suddenly seized her heart.
She struggled for a moment, trying to pull her eyes away from the blade, a battle raging within her. She pictured grasping the knife and wielding it with fury, dark and powerful, the instrument of death.
She saw the knife plunging into her own chest, drawing her life away. She tried to will herself into believing that was what she wanted.
But it wasn’t.
It had never been her that had wanted death; when she had come to the Court it had not been because she was too cowardly to take her own life. It was because she wanted a chance, no matter how slim, to live.
It was the world that wanted her death – needed her death – the selfish world that had done nothing but abuse her.
She… she wanted power, she wanted to be strong. She wanted to stop denying herself and pretending like she was fine with never fighting back because of what it meant to take a life.
Her mother had told her to run and never stop, but running had made her weak. It was a paradox: giving into strength would make her strong but it was also a sign of her weakness, because she could no longer resist the darkness that had always lurked in her heart, demanding action.
There was a chance the Prophesy was wrong. There was a possibility that blood oath to the King of Thieves would trump a killing oath to the Dark god. A person could only serve one master; she would just have to ensure that her heart was entirely given to the King.
She lifted her chin.
“That,” she said, pointing at the cloaked man’s knife but staring up at the King. “I want to do that.”
His eyes widened slightly, and she had the sense that he was surprised, and that it was a rare occurrence.
How could she blame him? She was a drab little thing, skinny and bruised, a tangle of dark hair that had been, up until ten seconds ago, dreaming of death.
“And what is that exactly?” the King asked. His smirk told her that he knew exactly what she meant, but wanted to make her say it.
She cast off the last of her weakness.
“I want you to teach me to kill.” She said it clearly and firmly, and squared her shoulders as she spoke.
His smirk grew to a grin. “An interesting choice.” He inclined his head graciously towards her. “Very well. Unlike the Queen in yonder palace, I accept all manner of people here. An assassin you shall be.”
There was something feral in his smile and she wondered if he wasn’t exactly human. It would make sense, she thought, noticing the number of inhuman creatures frequenting the Court. A hellish king for a sinful court.
The King of Thieves was still smiling at her, his eyes like stars in the dimness. She felt her lips tug into a vicious smile, her heart thumping wildly.
She realized then, in a last moment of clarity, that this was the Dark god’s doing, that he had known that she had grown too practiced at resisting him and he needed some other method of breaking through her defenses.
It was true that a double oath of service could protect her somewhat. But once she took her first life and made her vow to the Dark god, it was only a matter of time before her black heart gave itself over to him entirely.
It was foretold.
The King had promised her freedom and power, and her abused self had leapt at the chance to have it without the Dark god.
But in that sudden moment of clarity, she realized that the smile of the King matched perfectly the smile of the skull in her mind.
She realized it too late.
Yes, the Dark god’s smile matched the King’s.
But it also matched her own.
Since she didn’t have a knife, she bent and picked a loose nail up off the floorboards. She pressed the tip into her palm, and drew a shallow cut across it, letting the blood drip down to the floor as she winced in pain. “I am at your service, Your Majesty.”
So she was here, one year later, lying on her back beneath a carriage with knives strapped to every limb, preparing to take her first life at the order of her new master, the King of Thieves.
There was a noise from the window above her and the lamp was doused letting her know her target had finally gone to bed.
Soon. She had to be sure he was asleep.
This particular man was a wealthy merchant, and she had been hired by a rival seller to kill him and eliminate the competition. It seemed an extreme measure to take all in the name of business, but gold was gold, and this was the price of her new life.
When she felt she had waited long enough, she slipped out from beneath the carriage, grateful that her black hair only helped to decrease her visibility in the night. Some of the paler haired assassins covered their hair in charcoal, a nasty precaution that left them smelling like burned wood for days afterward.
She glanced around her. This particular street was empty, the townhouse being far enough away from the main area of opium dens, brothels, and other such places, that, though she could hear the revelry in the distance, there no one was around to see her.
She reached the edge of the house and began to climb, the thick wooden paneling providing easy holds for her hands and feet. It was not a far climb and she did not fear falling; the room she wanted was only on the second floor. When she reached it, the window was locked tight, but she had checked it yesterday when the merchant was out and found that, if shimmied correctly, the old wood would give and she could open it.
She could just make out his sleeping form, sprawled across a large bed beyond the cluttered knickknacks of the want-to-be rich.
She jimmied the window open and slipped into his room, her feet landing lightly on the wooden floor. She slunk toward the bed, careful to keep to the edge of the room where the boards would be less likely to creak, and drew a knife from her arm sheath as she approached.
The bed was too big for her to reach him, so she climbed onto it carefully, wincing at the give in the mattress. She thought hatefully of her old life, when her reason for climbing into a stranger’s bed would have been very different.
He rolled over as the mattress shifted, his eyes opening. He stared at her, confused, but then his eyes widened suddenly and he opened his mouth to scream.
She leapt on him, throwing one hand over his mouth, the other driving her knife towards his throat.
He was a large man, and he blocked her, trapping her wrist in his hand. She had the advantage of gravity, but he had the advantage of size, and a free hand as he did not have to cover her mouth as she did his.
She saw his fist flying for her face. She removed her hand from his mouth, risking a scream, and blocked his punch with her forearm.
She had vowed no one would ever hit her again.
As they grappled, his face began to change. A long beak grew from his mouth and his grew eyes, dull in the dim light, flashed yellow.
They were rare, more so than dragons, magical creatures that could transform into an animal. Peaceful beings who could communicate with nature, they used their talents to heal the sick and protect the environment.
Why would anyone want to kill a Changeling?
It was a question her old self might have asked, the self that was not bound to the King of Thieves that had done the right thing and yet she had hated.
Whoever had hired her had clearly lied to the King. No Changeling would work as a merchant.
And no Changeling would cause harm if it could be helped. So why kill one?
The Changeling jammed his head forward suddenly, reminding her of her current predicament. She leapt backwards to avoid being skewered by his beak.
She could see the feathers beginning to sprout from his skin. She had to end him quickly before he fully transformed and flew out the window never to be seen again.
He still had a hold of her wrist. Fingers turned to talons and began cutting into her. She bit her lip to keep from screaming and pulled free. She feinted, pretending to go for his head, but at the last second she twisted and slammed her knife into his other arm, the one that had attempted to punch her.
He screeched, the shriek of a bird, a sound she quickly muffled with a pillow while he was distracted by the pain in his arm.
Her veins singing with her blood-oath to the King, she drew her knife across the Changeling’s throat. Blood splattered her face and chest, and he gurgled, his sheets quickly becoming drenched in red.
She watched him struggle for a moment, until his flailing finally stopped and his eyes were frozen and empty.
He was dead.
She had killed a Changeling.
She felt a flicker of guilt from that other self, which disappeared suddenly as icy daggers tore into her heart. Her veins were on fire and she felt like her body was at war with itself, her blood trying to melt her heart, her heart trying to freeze her veins.
The battle for her heart had begun.
She collapsed over the dead man, his slit throat oozing blood into her hair as she writhed in pain.
Then suddenly, it was gone. She sat up wearily, taking a deep breath, feeling uncannily normal again, more like her old self than she had since she had first sworn the oath to the King of Thieves.
The double oath had saved her.
She looked down at the man she had killed. Guilt wriggled in her chest, but it was accompanied by anger as she saw his fist flying towards her face again.
It was only one fist, and he was only one man, an innocent who had been trying to defend himself.
But in her mind, his fist became many, and his gleaming yellow eyes the eyes of hundreds who had used her and tossed her aside like an old handkerchief.
Yes, she felt like her old self. But she had hated that self for its weakness.
She wanted to leave a sign, something that said, “I was here. You will hit me no longer.” Something that declared officially what she had thought on that day when she had gone to the Court. Something that was entirely hers, that spoke of her own strength and power, outside of any oaths she had made.
She dipped her the tip of her knife into his throat and scratched a bloody “M” across the sheets.
The white fabric glowed eerily in the moonlight through the window, making the red stand out clearly.
The “M” was not just a declaration. It spoke of despair, and fear, but this time, it was not her own.
I have loved the stars too fondly to be fearful of the night.
It would be first of many “M’s” to haunt a city that would fear her.
She leapt out the window and climbed back down into the streets, the blood on her face sticky in the damp night air.
Murderer, a voice whispered. Why would anyone want to kill a Changeling?
She found that she didn’t care. It wasn’t her business to gain information, it was hers to wield power and death.
It might have been her conscience once. But tonight, with a bloody “M” scratched onto the bed of her victim, she was in love with the darkness in her heart, the triumph of evil deeds and the power of killing, and it was a badge. Murderer. There was no one to tell her no, no one for her to beg to stop, because now, she was the one to be feared.
Her chest seized suddenly, again with cold. She gasped, the ice spreading throughout her body.
Then it was gone.
There was a black voice in her mind, a cloak of dark mist and a grey skull that spoke. At last, it said. You are mine.
She shivered, not entirely without pleasure.
It was not the Dark god her mother had feared, but the evil in her daughter’s own heart that would bring her to him.
She should have known he would wait. That the initial battle did not constitute winning the war.
Her heart had always been dark; in the end he was the only master she could serve because she had not just given up her will, she had enjoyed giving it.
She was the Hand of Darkness and her soul was black.
Not all of it, a tiny voice whispered. It was a tiny flicker, a miniscule ember that tied her to the King, that remained her own. It would be snuffed out. It meant nothing.
So she ignored it, thinking instead of the “M” glittering in the starlight.
She raised her face to the sky, to those same stars, their glitter the promise of the good things to come from darkness.