By Alice Nuttall
'Tis all a chequerboard of nights and days
Where Destiny with men for pieces plays
Hither and thither moves, and mates, and slays
And one by one back in the closet lays.
The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám
The moment she woke up, Renata knew it was going to be a lousy day to die.
She yawned and stretched. Her hand smacked against the doorway.
"Crap!" Rubbing her sore knuckles, Renata got to her feet. The doorway she'd been sleeping in had a gorgeous view, but she'd spent more comfortable nights in ditches.
She rubbed her neck and looked around. When she'd arrived in Octa last night it had been too late to do anything more than settle down till morning. Now, as the sun rose, the Golden City was starting to live up to its name. The columns and arches were glowing like warm honey, the fountain in the middle of the piazza was sparkling in the light, the women drawing water were staring at her and whispering
Renata smiled as she pulled on her cloak. The guards at the city gate had given her exactly the same look. The only time your average Octan saw someone with skin darker than milky tea was when that person was serving them the tea in question. She'd had to sit through three hours of interrogation before they'd deigned to let her into their city. Mind you, Renata thought as she pulled up her hood, the guards themselves were a good deterrent. Any foreigner would think twice about visiting a city where "If you saw the Emperor, would you: a) bow; b) curtsey; or c) shoot him in the neck with a crossbow?" was the authorities' idea of subtle questioning.
A little way off, on the hill where the Palace stood, a deep chime rang out from the clock tower. Quarter to six. Five minutes to go.
Normally she'd just have shrugged it off. But yesterday stupid, meaningless people and their stupid, meaningless lives had been the last thing she'd needed getting in her way. She'd been somewhat annoyed.
"I remember when your family were swinging from the trees by their tails," she'd hissed at the officer. "As for your men, they look like they should still be up there."
Renata sucked on her split lip. Maybe it hadn't been the most diplomatic thing to say, but she'd been in a hurry. She knew just how easily this could all go wrong. Now where was her bag-?
She caught herself and gave a short laugh. No need to worry about that any more.
Still stretching, Renata wandered across the square. Suddenly the women realised how late it was getting and how long their husbands would have been waiting for breakfast. By the time she reached the fountain their dust was starting to settle.
She splashed the lukewarm water over her face, looked around, and headed for the nearest alley.
Three minutes. She slipped into the narrow gap between two teetering buildings. The sun was still low in the sky and the street was dank and cool. The cobbles were slippery with kitchen waste and other things she didn't want to think about. The air stank. Clearly the place was little more than a long thin midden for the citizens on either side.
Renata studied the walls as she walked. If this was the city's hidden face, it was guarding its expression less carefully than it used to. Among the usual scribbles, gang symbols and educational diagrams - one of those girls was going the right way for a dislocated hip - there were pictures of a very different nature. Musclebound workers, skeletal children, chains, whips and four well-dressed pigs who bore a striking resemblance to the Emperor and his Senators. Renata rolled her eyes. Any time, any world, people were always the same.
Two minutes. She stopped in front of the largest paining. A caricature of Middle Senator di Finri. This one was actually pretty good. He did look like a vulture
There was a hiss and a sudden thud against her side. Renata staggered and grabbed at the wall.
"That time already?" she murmured as she looked down at the arrow.
" 'Our turn to do some work'," the younger man muttered as he stared out of the window. "She's got to be the most arrogant woman I've ever met."
"You don't get out enough."
"Huh," He drummed on the steering wheel. "How long have we got?"
"Ages. Her cousin's not even here yet."
"What about Ren? When does you know?"
The older man shrugged. He was flicking through a thick wad of papers. "God knows. I've never been able to get my head around the time difference."
"Useless, you are," The young man looked across the road. "How many?"
The man glanced at the last page before sliding the papers into an old backpack. "Only one."
"Which means one is all they need."
The man held out a paper bag. "Do you want a sandwich?"
"Not if you made it."
"Please yourself," He bit into a thick ham sandwich that was dripping with mustard. While he ate, Damien fidgeted in the driver's seat, tapping the wheel, fiddling with the radio, checking his watch against the car clock.
"What if we screw up?"
Raoul swallowed and thought. "If we screw up "
"Then we thank our lucky stars Renata's going to be dead when it happens."
"Christ, you people are sick!"
"Not really," Raoul leaned back in his seat. "Just flippant."
"That too," Damien muttered. "I don't know how you can both be so calm about it."
"Simple," The older man kicked a battered leather bag that was lying at his feet. "We both know this is safe."
"I meant the part where she's going to die!"
"Oh, that. It's no worse than a bad hangover," Raoul took another bite of his sandwich. " 'f course, 't'd b'nice - sorry - it'd be nice if the Power that Is made us invulnerable as well as immortal, but hey, we're in no position to be picky."
Damien shook his head. "I'll never understand you."
"I should hope not. Coffee?"
Raoul put his head on one side. "You're not nervous, are you?"
Damien gave a short laugh. "Nervous? Why would I be nervous? I'm lying in wait for a homicidal maniac with a man who can't tell the difference between death and a good night out!"
"You didn't have to come if you didn't want to."
"Yes I did," Damien sighed, pressing his fingers against his eyes. "I want to help. That doesn't mean I'm going to enjoy it."
"Fair enough," Raoul went back to his sandwich.
"What if they know what we're doing?"
Raoul was silent.
"Then we won't even get the chance to screw up," he said finally.
Damien shut his eyes.
"Hey," Raoul punched him lightly on the shoulder. "Don't chicken out on us."
"Heh," Damien chuckled. "I wouldn't dare. Renata would skin me alive."
"That's the spirit."
"You should feel sorry for her," said Raoul, jabbing his sandwich towards the house across the road. "Tonight's just going to scare you, but that girl? It's going to ruin her life."
The arrow was poisoned. Whatever it was, it was quick. Her knees had already given way.
The assassin jumped lightly down from the roof. He watched as she sank to the ground, smiling that arrogant smile they all wore when they thought they'd won. To be fair, they were almost always right.
"What's that going to do to my blood?" Renata asked hoarsely. "Shouldn't think it'd work so well now."
"It's still your blood, Keeper, even if it is more tainted than usual. We'll cope."
She squinted at his face. Dead-white skin, deep black hair, eyes and uniform there was no mistaking them. It was all going as written.
"No you won't."
"Over your dead body?" He laughed. Renata joined in, with difficulty, and he stopped.
"Why are you laughing?"
Renata gave him the most withering look she could manage.
"Try usin' those famous eyes of yours, Shadows."
The man blinked. His smile disappeared.
"Where is it? Where's the bag?"
Grinning, Renata shook her head.
"What have you done?" the man shouted.
Renata coughed again. Her breath rasped in her throat.
"Raven won' be happy," she whispered.
Then she died.
In the house across the road from the men in the car, Liana Coleman was watching television.
Li wasn't special. Besides a talent for music, there was nothing that made her very different from any other seventeen-year-old girl. She was tall, big-boned and not entirely happy about it. Her hair was long and mousy, and she would have killed for it to be black. Her eyes were hazel brown, and she could live with them. She was reasonably bright and reasonably happy.
This time next week she would be famous. No-one would get her name wrong or forget it completely. Her picture would be in all the papers. People would talk about her on TV. She'd dreamed of something like this.
Destiny has a wicked sense of irony. The price of dreams is always high. Tonight will cost her, in almost every sense, her life.