Fox (Winner of The Sin Eater's Daughter Writing Competition)

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Can Fox - the town's most feared assassin - finish her latest mission and save her brother?

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1. The Assassin

 

One more minute. After that I will gut my target here, for everyone to see. Messy and guaranteed to draw unwanted attention, at least I’ll be able to leave that much sooner. My nose flares in response to the combined stench of piss, sweat and greed circling the tavern. Only the thought of meeting the Mistress’s whip keeps me seated. One hand is on my glass of cherry juice, the other is curled around my knife. To the revellers I’m a shadow, eyes concealed under my hood, profiling them one by one. 

A fight breaks out in the corner of the room, dragging three hulking men into the fray. There's a shower of shattered glass and foul curses. I take a sip of cherry juice as blood splatters over tables and grunts of pain ensue. Amateurs. It's no wonder the town fear the Miao and not these lowlifes. 

My target’s been sat on the same table all night, holding court, an emperor of filth. Finally, he leaves. I drum my fingers on the table, then gulp the rest of my juice, the back of my jaw sizzling from its sourness. I lay the empty glass on the table, and follow my target. 

“You going to pay for your drink?”

I scowl. 

The bartender folds his arms, a half-scratched Imperial Seal tattoo on his left bicep and glares at me. The men around him lower their eyes. No-one wants trouble from a man brave - or stupid - enough to defect from the Emperor’s army. 

I lift my hood, enough that only he catches a glimpse of what’s beneath. 

His eyes widen and he stumbles backwards. “My mistake. N-no charge.”

I smirk and turn away. No-one else notices the shadow that glides across the room.

My target leaves the backdoor ajar - he’s either arrogant or oblivious to the threats on his life. All it takes is a gentle push and I’m out in the putrid alleyway. I'm not the only one following him tonight. The other two men in the alleyway reek of hired help. I’m not worried about them but I'd rather stay concealed until the opportunity to complete my mission presents itself. I scale the closest building, using the jutting balconies to heave myself up and swing onto the slanted roof. Dressed in my cloak, I'm a black stain against the sky, my target unaware of what is pursuing him. 

Thunder rumbles over the Ailao Mountains that closet the town from the rest of Raioshu. If it's a fast moving storm it might force my target inside, so I pick up the pace, gliding over tiles I’ve used for pursuing the majority of my targets. There is only silence as I leap from building to building. Except whoever designed this town didn't consider assassins using the roofs for pursuit, making them different sizes and shapes. Some have railings, some have stone statues I can latch on to, but many are simply steep declines. My heart tenses with every jump but its back to a steady beat by the time my feet land, rattling a chipped tile.

“What’s that?” my target hisses.

His bodyguards survey the alleyway, finding nothing, and then search the skies. I sink into the roof’s shadows, nestling myself into the arms of this building’s guardians.

“Not sure, boss,” one of them replies.

“Maybe it’s a bird?” the second one suggests.

My target stamps his feet. “I didn’t hire you to protect me from birds, you idiots.”

His bodyguards mutter something I don’t catch, though I stay shielded by the extending roof.

My target sighs exasperatedly. “Don’t just stand there. Cover me!” 

His bodyguards move in closer. They’re in my way, but no matter, I’ll make quick work of them too. My target shouts at his men, though what he's saying is lost in another rumble of thunder. The air becomes static, tugging at my ebony hair despite being tied under my hood. A layer of sweat grows under my mask as the storm nears. 

They’re distracted. My fingers are itching to reach for my axe. I peer over the roof, breathing in and out for each t’s a ten metre drop but I spot a line of lanterns, hanging limply in the air from a previous festival, I can use to propel myself down. First, I pat the guardian lion I've been perched next to; he doesn't say anything back but I guess he's too busy protecting the building to bother with me. I take a steadying breath. My run up is limited by the short roof but it’s enough to throw myself into the air. My cloak billows around me and I float long enough to grab a lantern. A delighted yelp bubbles out of my lungs as I fly, but I clamp my mouth shut. The lantern rattles along the rope, knocking off the other lanterns as I go.

The men scatter to avoid being hit and I can't help but laugh at their confusion - they search for the source of the attack but my black cloak against the night keeps me camouflaged. Still, the bodyguards tighten their parameters around my target.

I land, uncoiling my muscles. Adrenalin pummels through my veins but my training ensures it doesn't cause me to panic. Panicking is impossible when you're the real predator on the streets.

"Don't you dare come any closer,” my target screams.

My lips curl with disgust for this lowlife, mixing with my earlier amusement. I take a step towards them, and my target scurries back.

"Form a circle around me!" he orders. The men obey, sizing me up. I unsheathe my axe - a personal favourite of mine. They match me with butterfly swords; two jagged blades, designed to shred flesh apart. I catch sight of their smug expressions and my grip on my axe tightens. Although it lessens when I realise they’ll soon die with fear on their faces. I break into a run, swinging my axe as I go, relishing the sound of metal clashing with metal when it meets with their swords. They're stronger than me, but I duck and dive and soon they are nothing more than body parts in a heap. Whatever men they were before meeting me, they are in Diyu now.

My target has gone so white he could be a ghost, which would make my job a lot easier of course. He's backed against the wall, arms splayed out by his sides, grasping for an escape that will never come. The thunder is directly above us, shaking the alleyway and a second later, rain erupts. Instead of remaining concealed, however, I flip off my hood.

"The Fox," he gasps.

I kick his dead bodyguard’s swords away and saunter forwards. He trips, landing on his back with a crack. I tap my foot until his eyes open again. 

When they meet mine, they fill with tears. “Of all the Miao, why did they have to send you?"

"You've made some powerful enemies.” My voice funnels through my mask as a low growl and my target sobs. I roll my eyes.

“W-what do you want? Money? I have lots of it.”

"Money doesn't interest me,” I sneer.

"Opium? I can get you as much as your heart desires."

I swipe through the air my axe.

“Please,” he trembles. “There must be something I can barter for my life? Everyone has a vice."

"I have no vices."

He nods, tears and rain drowning his cheeks, his mouth trembling so fast it may fall off. This weeping makes him look younger than his years but at this point my heart doesn’t produce the pity it once did for my target’s pleas. 

The time for talk has passed. I could take my time with killing him though, but I'm not that type of assassin. I want it over with; as quick and as straightforward as possible. Lightening flashes once and then we are submerged into an endless dark, from which there is no return. For either of us. The rain falls harder, turning the seedy street into an ocean, as if the gods wish to flush the evil away. It would take more than rain to cleanse our town. Including me. 

I descend on my target, striking him down with my axe, the exertion causing my lungs to heave. The thunder booms - loud enough to drown my grunts and his wails - as I complete my latest mission.

 

*

 

I arrive back at the Keep, my clothes a skin I can’t wait to peel away, after the storm turned the rooftops into waterfalls only an assassin of my calibre would risk. My shoulders lower at the sight of the Keep’s fortified structure and I enter under the Keep's paifang. The golden calligraphy  etched into the arch's two pillars glitters, despite the absence of light, and I pause. My eyes roam all the way from their black stone bases to the intricately sculpted horizontal beam they support, feeling small.

I blink and an eight year old stands with me, hurriedly wiping her cheeks. She winces as the night air nips at her skin, through the thread bare rags on her starved frame. Her head is locked forwards, eyes flitting from the glowing light within the red and green tiled house, to the guardians on top of the gabled roof. The growling guardians stare her down until she's a shivering set of bones, but she sets her jaw, sniffs once and her knees finally stop knocking together. 

I shake my head and the terrified girl is gone. Dead. My stomach twists, but not from hunger and I leave the arch behind, continue through the gardens to the Keep’s main entrance. The ornate fountains cast menacing shadows across the gardens, though my heart remains steady. My feet squelch in the sodden earth - thank the gods my mission is over, I’d never sneak up on anyone in this state. 

I ascend the pale stone-steps and nod at the two winged-dogs guarding the front door. They return my greeting with a stoney glare and I chuckle to myself. The hallways are empty; the girls either out on their own missions or asleep. No matter, they'll hear of my success soon enough. The smells of incense - Chenxiang, Guipi, and Gansong - warm my bones. 

I shirk off my heavy cloak, not before retrieving the souvenir from tonights mission, and catch sight of myself in the bejewelled mirror. My fingers trace the black triangular nose of my mask, follow the curve of the russet face and swirl the white patches around my blood shot eyes. It’s the only possession I own, commissioned to bring The Fox to life. I readjust it, but as always, it pinches my skin.

"You're late.”

I flick my wrist and a knife slips into my palm. 

However, the scent of lilies tickles my nose and I lower it. 

Fen appears from behind the Jade vase. I bristle at letting someone, even another Miao, sneak up on me. Her mask is a brilliant blue with small sapphires dotted above her brows, but no-one notices this when they catch sight of her eyes. They’re famous around the town, earning her the nickname ‘Sky,’ despite the ugliness left in her wake.

I cock my head and lift my souvenir. The signet ring on the little finger of my target’s hand casts glittering shadows in the dimly lit hall. 

Fen's lips curl. “Must you always play with your food?”

“I don’t like leaving any room for doubt.”

Fen's eyes sparkle with amusement. “No-one would doubt the infamous Fox.”

I shove past her, bored of being weighed down with blood and rainwater.

"You have a visitor,” she calls.

"Whoever they are, they can wait,” I say, charging through the hallway.

"He said he'll wait until the next rice harvest if he has to.”

I skid to a halt, chest tightening. “Where's he waiting?"

"The library."

I chuck my target's hand at Fen, who sweeps it into the folds of her own cloak. It would not end well for either of us if we spilled blood on the Mistress’s rugs.

"Tell the Mistress the rest of him is in the Wei River.”

Fen nods, rejoining the shadows she used to sneak up on me.

I dart through the hallway, turning corners without thought for anything other than my visitor. Exhaustion was settling into my muscles as I entered the Keep but now they are throbbing just as hard as my heart is beating. I'm thankful for the empty hallways.

I arrive at the library and pause, hearing nothing but my own laboured breaths as I listen through the door. My visitor is silent - he knows better than to be here and yet he took the risk. I ready myself for what I might find, already aware this won't end well for either of us.

The library is a forest of bookshelves, it’s layout familiar from fleeing the Mistress’s whip and hiding here until I believed her ire had fizzled out. Other than these instances, I’ve entered the library willingly, the thought of sitting still making my limbs twitch. 

There's a single lantern lit in the reading corner but my visitor is no-where in sight. I slip into the darkness each shelf creates and search for him. I doesn’t take me long. A thump, two shelves over, leads me straight to him. He's on the ground, picking the up the book. I yank him up, the book dropping for the second time, and hook my arm around his neck.

"Start talking," I growl.

He raises his hands in surrender. I spin him round and shove him hard against the shelf, which rattles with the impact. His ebony hair, longer than I recall, shimmers with grease and sticks to the sides of his face. His almond eyes blink, rapidly, then slow as we drink in each other’s appearance. Now the storm has stopped the air has turned cold but a sheen of sweat covers his sunken features. I struggle to track his movements with the amount of times his limbs twitch, even he’s cornered.

"I thought you'd be happy to see me?” he smiles.

I clench my fists. It takes all of my resolve to keep them plastered to my sides. 

"What are you doing here?" I hiss.

“Can’t a brother visit his sister?”

I fold my arms and glare at him.

His smile disappears and his shoulders slump. "I'm in trouble," he whispers.

I snort. "What do you expect me to do about it?"

"You're the only one who can help me."

I study him and find no injuries. However, I step away and the light reveals his sunken eyes, ringed with red bruises and cheeks so hollow the skin is fully stretched across the bones. Everything about him is dishevelled, jarring with the fine fabric he wears.

"What kind of trouble?"

He coughs again. "I owe some nasty people a lot of money.”

“How much?”

His eyes fall to his shoes.

“I’m not in the business of cleaning up messes," I sigh, walking away. 

He chases after me but knocks into the bookcase, rattling the shelves. I wince, waiting for the sound of company, preying the Mistress doesn’t find us.

“I know it’s a big brother’s job to look out for his younger sister but-"

“Exactly,” I snarl. “So where were you when Mother sold me to the Miao?" 

The bustle of the town, the strange leering faces, the fear that made me wet myself in the Mistress’s study - these are the memories that never fade, no matter how deep I bury them.

"She didn’t know what the Miao were," he insists. “She did the best she could at the time.”

I hurtle my knife at him, burying it in the shelf behind him. He’s gone green and the hair above his ear is shorter than before.

“Sort out your own mess,” I growl.

“Please. They'll kill me otherwise."

I freeze, although I know better than to offer my brother help without finding out all the relevant information. 

“Who?”

“That doesn’t matter.” His muddy eyes, the mirror image of my mine, darken.

I snort at his sudden concern for my safety.

“I need money,” he begs.

I blink. “You’re crazy!”

“Surely the Mistress can give you some?” He looks around at the gold and ivory ornaments on the window sills and the water ink paintings lining the walls. His pockets are already bulging.

“No.” My skin burns from the lashes I’ll get if I ask the Mistress to hand over her profits.

Tai catches sight of my blood smeared hands and the dirt caked under my nails, which I swiftly shove behind my back. 

“If anyone can find a way to do it for me, then it’s you,” he sighs.

I wish I could ignore him, close my heart as I do before I kill my targets, and tell him to forget me as the rest of our family have.

“When do you need it by?” 

“The Autumn Festival.”

Marching feet fill the hallway and without thinking I throw us behind the nearest shelf - although his coughing fit isn’t helping us stay hidden.

“Go. Now.” 

Tai stares me down. “Will you help?”

Close up, there are several sores on his neck and some on his jaw that remind me of the men who I have to share air with in the taverns or when I’m forced into the Opium dens to scout my targets. These should be enough for me to turn him away, except my refusal gets lodged in my throat and all I can do is nod, despite the sinking feeling in my stomach. The marching sounds like it’s heading our way.

“Use the window.” My voice is clinical as I rush him to the other side of the room.

Tai’s half way out when he stops, lips pursed. “Do you remember the name our mother gave you?”

“It doesn’t matter now,” I snap. 

“Thank you,” he nods.

Voices bounce against the library door and I shoo him away. Only when his steps on the garden path disappear, and the hallway returns to silence, do I let out the breath I’ve been holding. Exhaustion jumps out at me and I slump against the wall, welcoming being alone. Except I cannot relax. Not entirely. What have I got myself into?

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