Lena tugged at the collar of her ball gown and fanned herself with one hand. Not only was the dress totally impractical, but it made the stifling heat of the ballroom all the more unbearable. It was all Lena could do not to collapse in a heap on the floor – the cool marble really did look tempting – but she stayed upright and grabbed an icy drink from a passing server’s tray.
She had waited too long for this night to ruin it by fainting and drawing attention to herself.
She sipped her drink as she surveyed the room. The Royal Ballroom was lavishly decorated with beautiful tapestries and silvery flowers that wound around the marble columns, and the guests were dressed just as richly. They twirled across the room, the men dressed in dark suits, the women in pale silk dresses that seemed to glow in the candlelight. It made Lena sick to think of all the money wasted on the gowns which would probably never be worn again after the ball.
Lena herself was dressed in a gown she had salvaged from a target’s house. The woman had been in her mid-twenties and had been somewhat taller than her, but the pale mint dress was almost a perfect fit – and seeing as Lena had only had to persuade the woman to leave the city instead of killing her, she felt no guilt whatsoever about taking it with her as a little reward for a job well done.
Usually when she came to these events she was looking for a guest, but not tonight. Her target was one of the Guards dotted around the room. The guests tended to steer clear of them. Their crimson uniforms and sharp gazes were somewhat intimidating, even Lena had to admit that. And then there were the whispered rumours of what the guards could do; stories that children told to spook each other, stories of power over the elements that their parents quickly hushed in case the wrong ears heard.
Lena had always laughed at the stories. She knew they were much more than just rumours.
“Lena? Lena, come in from out there, you’ll catch your death of cold!”
Lena ignored the worried calls from inside the house and kept building her snow-castle. She loved the crunch of snow beneath her feet and the cool bite of the wind against her cheeks, and couldn’t understand her governess’ worries. She was barely a few yards away from her house, and it wasn’t as though she’d go running off anytime soon. She was happy to stay where she was and perfect her sculpture. She scooped more snow into her mitten-clad hands and used it to rebuild her lopsided towers, but they still kept tipping over. She frowned at the powdery snow. She just needed it to freeze properly, then – Lena stopped dead. As she’d thought it, the snow had swirled into a perfect tower and, when she reached to touch it, she found it was frozen solid like an icicle.
“That’s a lovely castle you’re building there, little one,” said a soft voice from behind her. Lena felt a shiver run down her spine, but she knew it wasn’t from the cold. She turned round very slowly and looked up into the face of a young man all dressed in crimson. He smiled at her but it wasn’t a real smile, and it made her even more nervous. He laughed at her but there was no cheer in it.
“Yes, a beautiful castle,” he carried on, crouching to examine it. “The moat and the drawbridge, yes, just like the King’s castle, hm? And these towers, they’re quite special, aren’t they? How did you make them?”
Lena wanted to tell him but a little voice in her head was whispering warnings to her, so she just looked at him with her mouth agape.
“Come, child, no need to be afraid of me. I just want to know how you made those towers. Could you show me?” he said, and this time there was a hard edge to his voice that made all the hairs on Lena’s body stand on end.
She gulped and said, “I just... I just patted the snow together. L-like the rest of it.” Her heart pounded and her hands trembled as she started to build a miniature tower.
“Lena, if you don’t come in right now then I swear by all the gods, I will come out there and –“ Tyla, her governess, froze as she came through the doorway and caught sight of the man crouched alongside Lena. She lowered her head in a half-bow, stammering out a greeting. “I’m so sorry, Guardsman, I hope my-my charge isn’t bothering you.”
The crimson man (or Guardsman, Lena supposed she should call him) rose to his feet and gave Tyla the same false smile that he’d given her. “Not at all, not at all, in fact she is quite...” he paused and smiled more widely, “enchanting.”
Lena didn’t understand the terror that flashed into Tyla’s eyes as she tried to smile. “Oh, I’m so glad,” she said, eyes flickering between Lena and the Guardsman. “Come on now, Ty, your dinner is ready, you’d best get in out of this cold weather.”
“She doesn’t seem to mind the weather too much,” the Guardsman said as Lena walked towards the house, the same cool smile on his lips. “And she’s quite a talented snow-sculptor too, if this castle is anything to go by.”
Tyla gave him a tight smile as she ushered Lena through the door. They exchanged forced pleasantries for about a minute before the Guardsman left. Tyla shut the wooden door quickly as he turned to leave, but not before Lena saw the steaming puddle of water where her castle had stood just a moment earlier.
Lena was growing steadily more irritated. She had spun around the ballroom with a few men and women in an effort to look more normal, scanning the room the whole time, but still her target hadn’t come in sight. She had tracked his movements for months, stolen Guard rotas from unsuspecting royal administrators, worked out where he would be at every minute of every day for the past week, and yet he was nowhere to be seen.
At least, he was until the Guards shifted positions and she caught sight of the features which had been carved into her mind for longer than she cared to imagine. He nodded to his companions at the door and made his way up a spiral staircase to the balcony area.
It was time to bring her plan into action. She started holding her breath until she couldn’t any longer, then did it again, and again, until she felt a touch light-headed and knew her face would be bright red. She paced slowly towards the door that led out of the room, stopping now and then to lean against the wall or place her hand against her forehead in mock distress. By the time she reached the Guards at the door her cheeks were flushed and she was just dizzy enough that her eyes were slightly unfocussed.
“I’m so sorry to bother you,” she said breathily, “but I’m not really feeling... not feeling very well. I-I think I need some air, could I please step outside for a moment?”
The Guards’ stern expressions were unchanged.
“No one leaves the ballroom until the ball is over,” the short one on the left said. Lena pretended to be surprised and looked down at her shoes.
“Oh, I’m sorry, it’s just that I really need some air. Is there anywhere else I could go? Are the balcony windows open?” said Lena.
“The upper balcony is only for those guests with a signed invitation from the King himself,” said the tall Guard. “It is not open to everyone.”
Lena tried to look affronted without losing her feverish look. “I’ll have you know I do have a signed invitation! Look!” She pulled a small scroll from her clutch and thrust it into his hand. They studied it for a moment, clearly thinking it was a forgery – which it was, but it was a damn good one – before passing it back to her with a nod.
“You’ll find open windows to your left at the top of the stairs, my lady,” said the tall Guard, his tone more formal than before. She nodded her thanks and allowed herself a small smile as she made her way up the stairs.
It wouldn’t be long now.
Lena knew she wasn’t supposed to be listening to her parents and Tyla’s discussion but she knew it was about her and the Guard. Her curiosity had won out, so she crouched with her ear pressed against the kitchen door.
“... all that care when she was small... oh gods, Non, how can this have happened?” her father said, his voice cracking.
“We knew it was a possibility, and we’ve made plans. We can get her out of here...” her mother said, her voice growing quieter and quieter until Lena couldn’t hear her properly.
“I’m so sorry, it’s all my fault,” Tyla said. “I called her in but I should have checked on her sooner, this might never have happened if –“
“No. You mustn’t blame yourself, Ty. We should have warned Lena maybe... it just seemed safer to hope that her powers wouldn’t manifest....” Her mother trailed off. Lena’s heart thudded painfully. What had happened with the tower earlier couldn’t have been that bad, surely?
“Tyla, will you come with us? I think Lena would like it if you did, but you don’t have to if you-“
“Of course I will. It’s the least I can do.”
“Thank you. We’ll leave at midnight. No one can know.”
Lena couldn’t sit there and listen any longer. She ran in to the kitchen and threw herself into her mother’s arms. “I’m sorry mam, I’m so sorry, I won’t do it again, just don’t make me go,” she sobbed into her mother’s shoulder.
“Hey, shhh, it’s okay sweetie, it’s okay,” her mother whispered. “This isn’t your fault sweetheart, I promise you. We’re going to be fine, okay? We have a very secret way of leaving the house and we have somewhere to go and we’re going to be fine.”
But even as she finished speaking, there were shouts from outside the house and three sharp knocks on the door. The colour drained from everyone’s faces and time stood still for a moment. Ty’s parents glanced at each other and her mother nodded, rising to her feet, and she turned to Tyla.
“Take Lena through the tunnel. Get her out now, just run as fast as you can, and get yourself to a hiding place. Don’t stop to grab anything, just go.” Her voice was low and determined but she stopped to embrace Lena and Ty. “I love you both. Please, be careful. We’ll stop them for as long as we can but it won’t be long and then they will be after you.”
Lena’s world was a blur and hot tears trickled down her cheeks as her mother let her go. Tyla grabbed her arm and pulled her towards a trapdoor that she had never noticed before and took her under the house into a tiny tunnel that even Lena had to stoop to run through. The tunnel walls shook and there were crashes and shouts from above them but they kept on running without looking back. Eventually the tunnel sloped upwards and faint evening moonlight seeped into the tunnel, and even though Lena’s lungs cried out for air they didn’t stop running, Ty running ahead of her pulling her along.
There was a creak and a crash behind them that startled them both into stopping, and even though Ty tugged her away as fast as she could, she was too slow to stop Lena from seeing her home go up in flames.
They were too stunned to notice the crunch of boots on snow behind them.
“Surrender the child,” said the Guard from earlier. “Give her to us. Her parents are dead: she has nothing. Give her to us and she will be trained to fight, to make something of herself.”
For a moment Lena thought Ty was considering it. She turned to her with a sad smile and whispered her parting advice. “Run, and hide.” She span round and punched the Guard in the face and Lena ran as fast as her legs would let her.
She reached an almost hidden sewer entrance and leapt in, but as she did she saw the Guard loose a firebolt straight into Ty’s chest and saw the closest thing she had to a sister go up in flames.
The Guard was right opposite Lena as she reached the top of the stairs, and even after seven years and months of planning, the sight of him still made her heart skip a beat. He was tall and broad-shouldered, frowning down at the ballroom with cool grey eyes.
Hatred swelled up in her chest. Here was the man who had destroyed her family, the man who ruined her childhood. She kept her expression neutral as she walked past him and whispered, “Someone is going to die tonight.” She kept walking towards the open windows and knew the Guardsman was following her. Sure enough he grabbed her shoulder and span her around, throwing her against the windowpane.
“What did you just say to me?” he growled, fire flashing through his eyes.
Lena desperately wanted to make the moment last, to see fear in his gaze as she tortured an apology out of him, to make him see the girl whose life he ruined all those years ago. But other Guards had seen the commotion and were running over. She looked him in the eye as she summoned all her power. “You’re going to die now,” she said calmly, and with all her strength she threw a blade of pure ice into his throat. His eyes widened and blood spilt out from his neck and mouth as Guards grabbed Lena and dragged her away. She smiled at him as he sank to his knees.
It was good to finally watch him die.