Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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Issue 19
Stories
Expendables
by Orson Scott Card
Schadenfreude
by Michelle Scott
Deathsmith
by Pete Aldin
Bonus OSC Story Serialization
Eye for Eye Part Three
by Orson Scott Card
IGMS Audio
Expendables by Orson Scott Card
Read by Orson Scott Card
Tales for the Young and Unafraid
Growing Pains
by David Lubar
InterGalactic Medicine Show Interviews

Deathsmith
    by Pete Aldin

Deathsmith
Artwork by Nicole Cardiff

Light twinkled from the coin as it spun. Aris watched the woman watching it, his hands splayed on the trestle table he had set up by the roadside in front of his home.

He could set a coin spinning far longer than it should, much to the awe of customers, and without magick involved. Usually he enjoyed this part of the ritual of trade. Today he glanced at the copper circle turning on its edge with a hollow feeling, despite the obvious wonder on the face of the woman before him. The fact that he could think of no other natural talent in his possession but this . . . this parlor trick -- well, it took the shine off the moment.

Lately he had been increasingly troubled by bitter thoughts such as this. Perhaps it had to do with all the gray he was finding in his hair since Summer. Perhaps it was the approaching Winter. Perhaps it was the lack of recent business . . .

"How are you doing that?" the woman asked, her head pulled so far back that her jowls formed a second chin beneath the first.

He slid the sleeve back from one wrist and waggled the fingers of that hand.

"Madam. You sought a mage and a mage you have found." He snatched the coin from the table before it could begin wobbling. "You also seek a death, I take it."

She popped her chin forward out of the grip of her jowls, and said, "I'm told you are a deathsmith." She said the word oddly, as if she were speaking it for the first time.

"You are well-informed but for one detail. I am not a, rather I am the Deathsmith," he added when she didn't follow his verbal subtlety.

"Oh."

"You have paid me my attention fee." He opened his fingers briefly to display the copper coin one last time before pocketing it. "You have my attention. Whose death do you desire?"

She smiled in a predatory way. "It's my husband, you see."

Aris didn't see. Aris didn't care. But Aris nodded anyway, swallowing his impatience. His grain supplies were running low and he needed a good meal in his belly, which rumbled in response to his thoughts. He rubbed it like a man pacifying an attention-seeking cat.

"Why do you want to kill your husband?"

The new voice caused both Aris and the woman to jerk and twist to the right and left respectively. The girl was no more than seventeen, a waif in mismatched clothes and fur boots too big for her, thick blonde locks fused by grime and grit. Where had she come from?

"Does he beat you?" the girl asked.

The woman sputtered. Aris slapped his trestle.

"Be gone, girl! We're at business here!"

The girl smiled. "As am I. I'm here to see the deathsmith."

Aris regarded her more closely. He saw a girl with no money. No money meant she had no business here.

In response to his doubtful expression, the girl lifted a hand and a copper appeared between the knuckles of the third and fourth fingers as if conjured.

"Alright," he sighed. Two customers were better than one after all, and it was the first time in years that two had arrived at the same time. He waved a hand. "Wait there, that log across the road. I'll summon you when the lady and I are concluded."

"How do you want your husband to die?" the girl asked the woman instead.

The woman turned red and looked to Aris imploringly. He stabbed a finger at the log and barked, "Now!"

The girl shrugged and complied, skipping lightly across the wagon-rutted road.

"Madam, though her presence is bothersome, the girl asks a pertinent question," Aris said. "What kind of end do you seek for this man?"

The woman fussed with her hair as she thought. "I hadn't thought of that, not specifically. I really just . . . wanted him . . ."

Aris took charge. If he didn't, this kind of awkwardness was likely to go on for an hour. "Very well. Answer me one more question, then I shall offer a suggestion. Can you bear for him to suffer?"

A hard look flowed over her face to set there like resin. "Yes. Yes, I can."

Aris rubbed his hands together, considering the objects spread on the table before him. "I think a mauling will do nicely. I hear they hurt quite a lot. This will only take a moment. The fee will be twelve sovereigns."

"Twelve!" The word came out in a kind of strangled shriek.

Aris pursed his lips and played on that look he had seen in her eye when she had considered the prospect of her husband suffering. "If that is too much, I can do a swift killing more cheaply. Perhaps a death-in-his-sleep for three --"

"Twelve for the mauling will be fine," she said hurriedly. With a backwards glance at the girl, the woman fished about in her purse, then counted out coins on her side of the trestle. Aris' own eyes flicked to the girl for a moment, wondering if she were really a thief.

"Actually," he lied to the woman as she counted, "the mauling is my cheapest painful death."

The woman thanked him and he inclined his head before returning his attention to the table top.

Yes, those two, he decided. The thorn and the tuft of wolf fur held in place by a pebble. Using thumb and forefinger, he dropped each carefully into a tiny rabbitskin pouch, raised it to his mouth and mumbled his incantation into it. Across the road the girl shifted so as to see him better around the woman's bulk. His irritation at her nosiness almost caused him to stumble in his spell, which would have undone the entire rite, rendering that particular combination of words useless until sunset. When the final syllable was spoken, Aris tugged the drawstring tight and plopped the pouch on the table. He pushed it across to the woman as she pushed the pile of coin his way.

"And what do I do with this?" Her eyes almost glowed with anticipation.

She must really hate the fellow, Aris told himself. "Empty the pouch onto his seat -- the seat of his cart, his seat at dinner, it matters not. As long as he sits on it and is pricked by the thorn. I would keep my distance from him thereafter, for he will be set upon by wolves. Possibly eaten," he added, as if this were value-adding to the transaction.

"And . . . how long will it . . . take?"

"As long as it takes for a wolf or wolves to heed the spell. A day, a week, certainly no more than a month."

She turned away, sweeping up the pouch, disappointment melting her hard expression. Apparently, a month was a long time to wait.

"Handle it carefully," the girl called out, rising and stretching. "Be a shame if the wolves took you instead."

The woman paled, gathered her skirts, and scuttled back to the small two-wheeled cart, whipping her donkey into action.

"No sense of humor," said the girl, taking up the woman's station at the table.

Aris hoped that her acid wit hadn't cost him repeat business with the woman. "What can I do for a girl like yourself?" he asked evenly. "You say you have business here? Place your copper on the table and you'll have my attention."

The girl produced the coin, caressing it for a moment before settling it on its edge and giving it a spin. She watched it absently, the tiniest of furrows between her eyebrows the only hint that it hurt her to part with it.

Aris focused on the copper. With growing agitation he watched it revolve without sign of slowing. Eventually he snatched it up, repressing the urge to ask how she had done that.

That's my trick, he complained to himself. No one had ever stolen from him, but watching someone use his talent, he felt the way others must feel when robbed.

I could kill her. Then only I would have this talent again. The thought was infantile, petulant, but he dismissed it for a different reason.

He didn't know much about the gods who had endowed him with his death magick -- if the glowing silver wisps who'd visited him that evening had even been gods. What he did know was the rules they had laid down that night, including the express warning that using the magick to slay another person on his own behalf was an imbalance they would return to punish. Defensive spells were allowed, offensive were not.

He swallowed his irritation, pocketed her coin, and fixed her with an expectant look.

"How do you do it?"

He blinked. "Do what?"

"How do you mumble sounds into a bag of rubbish and cause the death of someone miles away?"

"Do you wish to purchase a death or to ask me foolish questions I will not answer?" The girl stared back. Aris grunted. "I'm a mage. You're not. I will not divulge the secrets of my art. You are fast losing my attention and with it, your copper."

The truth was that he couldn't answer the question even if he wanted to. He had no idea how the magick worked, though it stemmed from the amulet he wore beneath his tunic. He had found the silver charm in his youth while exploring a cave in woods near his home and had rushed it outside into the scant afternoon sunlight to study the odd workmanship and symbols, fascinated. He had almost leapt from his own skin later that night when the silver wisps appeared, oozing from the very air of his bedchamber. They spoke in breathy tones, outlining the amulet's powers before vanishing as inexplicably as they had arrived.

Since then, the amulet sort of whispered to him, its voice like the nagging ache of tendon pain. It guided his magick, taught him combinations of words and tones that worked in concert with the objects he chose, lead him to more objects which he could use to perpetuate his art.

"Alright." The girl showed both her palms in a gesture of appeasement. "Sir, I may want you to help me kill someone."

"You 'may'? Well, who is it then?"

"I don't know yet."

"You don't know?"

She pointed east. "I heard about you in the village a day's walk that way. I was raised in the mountains, you see, and left my home a year ago to seek my fortune."

Ah, a mountain girl. That explained her lack of manners and her flat vowel-sounds, if not her physique, for mountain folk were stockier. Perhaps the year's walking had trimmed her down.

Aris cleared his throat, began packing his things away in a polished wooden box. If he left now, he could make it to the Gammerstedt inn just as the pork and potatoes were coming out of the oven. His mouth watered at the thought of it. "You've wandered around for a year. Yes, that certainly explains your interest in killing a random person and paying for the pleasure of it."

"Sir, you're packing your trinkets. Am I to take it you refuse to help me?"

"They're not trinkets, they're --" He'd never really had a name for the objects he used. But they certainly weren't trinkets! He let that sentence drop and started another. "I'm hungry, I'm tired, and you are wasting my time."

"But I paid your fee. One copper, the village folk said. One copper and the deathsmith will help."

"One copper and the deathsmith will listen," he corrected. "At least until he is bored or irritated by you. I am both. But I'll offer some advice. You could stab some poor soul to death in an alley in Amramak. You'll have your killing without further wearying me with questions. And you'll have the profit of looting the corpse."

"I'm surprised that the King has not hired you," the girl said then.

Her words stopped Aris' hands as memories surfaced. The King hadn't always ignored the strange mage loose in his kingdom. In the early days of Aris' work, word of it had obviously caused the ruler great concern. He'd thrice sent assassins to finish Aris. It took that many attempts before it occurred to him that Aris was on the dealing end of death, not the receiving end.

After that, the King invited him to his palace to offer him a deal: Continue trading unmolested as long as you swear not to venture into the King's City ever again or to cast a spell against the Royal Family. A gift of a hundred sovereigns had sweetened Aris' humor and he had accepted.

He'd settled here soon after, largely content to live in the empty space between Amramak and Gammerstedt on the route to the border. Customers had still found him when they had need. Although over the last few years, they seemed to find him less and less . . .

He shook his head to clear it and fastened the clasp on the box. "Are you going to stand here all afternoon?"

She dipped her head. "Sir, if I might return to the subject of our trade before you completely dismiss me and close shop for the day . . . I did wish to make a purchase; I merely wanted to find out more about you and your methods first."

He sighed. "If you seek my help, you must ask questions related to your purchase, not how I do this and why I do that. Lay a silver florin upon this table and I'll happily help you choose a mark and even suggest a death for him. Or her. For a few more coins, I will craft it here and now."

"I have no more money. The people in the village said --"

"You were misinformed." He started toward his front door, box wedged beneath his armpit.

"Wait." A note entered the girl's tone, somewhere between plaintive and angry. He half turned. She said, "I'm hungry. I spent my last coin on your services and have nothing for food."

Not a thief then, but a beggar.

He pointed west, the opposite direction from where the girl had come. "I'm heading into the next town. You may follow me and there you can ask for alms."

"Or I could do a job for you and you could bring back food. Perhaps I could watch your house for you, protect it from bandits."

Aris laughed. For the first time in ages, he really laughed. The idea was absurd on so many levels. He laughed all the way inside his house. He kept laughing as he put his box on the shelf and donned his coat in preparation for the evening air. He was still chuckling as he closed the door behind him and spoke the incantation that would protect his home from break-in and fire in his absence.

The girl hadn't moved and was clearly unimpressed with his laughter. "What is so funny?" she asked, teeth clenched.

Now who has no sense of humor? he thought.

He took a breath and counted on his fingers. "One, I don't need your protection. The house is well-protected, thank you very much for your concern. Two, you are but a girl and no match for bandits. Three, you are but a girl with only the smallest dagger -- I can see the hilt beneath your tunic. You are clearly under-equipped for combat. Four, who's to say that you are not the bandit?"

"I don't steal. I pride myself on earning my bread. Or my chicken leg, should you choose to be so generous." She allowed a puppy-like pathos to enter her expression.

Aris had never been accused of being compassionate. But something about the girl gave him pause. It reminded him of that injured blue-jay that fluttered around his yard the morning after the silver wisps' visit, stalked by a feral cat. A small child had been distraught at its plight and he'd conjured a merciful falling-asleep death for the creature from a pinch of valerian and a feather it had left in the gravel.

He narrowed his eyes toward the girl. Perhaps if he offered her one kindness, she would leave him be. "Do you know how to milk a goat, repair a window shutter?"

"I am skilled at both."

"Then go ahead. You'll find both at the rear of the house. Don't enter the house. I'll return in three or four hours with something for you to eat. Agreed?"

She nodded, then performed a curtsy. "You're too kind, sir mage."

He scowled, climbed onto his horse without further comment, and rode toward the town and a hearty dinner, sovereigns rattling in his pocket.

Upon his return, Aris expected to find the girl dead of mystical causes by the front door, having attempted to rob him. Instead he found her asleep, half submerged in his haystack. The tasks had been performed to his satisfaction, the shutter repaired especially well.

He woke her and passed her a rough sackcloth napkin containing a chicken leg and a small wedge of cheese. He watched her eating noisily in the graying post-sunset light, the thin grime on her face smeared worse with chicken fat. She smiled at him and pieces of chicken-skin peeked at him from between her teeth.

"Very well, never let it be said that I'm not a fair man. You've worked well for me. I permit you to remain in the hay for the night. In the morning, I expect you to be gone, so that I may be about my work and you may be about a dozen miles from here by nightfall."

She nodded, looking unhappy. Her body language said she found him interesting and was in no hurry to leave. He hoped his body language radiated his desire that their short-lived relationship be just that. On a whim, he fished into his pocket, plucked out her copper and dropped in the soil by her feet. "Here. You may need this."

She was gone in the morning.

Aris shrugged off the memory of her presence and spent the day searching the nearby vicinity for objects he could use, and even purchased a polished wooden button from a passing merchant. He had never seen this peddler before; it was his first time traversing this stretch of highway. After some small talk, the peddler thanked him and headed west. For the remainder of the afternoon Aris chopped wood against the coming Winter.

The next day the peddler returned, making small talk until eventually admitting he wanted to purchase a death. His target was the tax collector who manned the road between the village to the east -- where the girl had been told of Aris -- and the town of Amramak ten miles further on.

Aris had traveled to Amramak the year before and knew the tax collector from that encounter and from the frequent complaints of other passing travelers: a grim, unjust individual who made theft a lawful pursuit.

The peddler told Aris that the toll for the use of the road was the highest he'd ever encountered; he didn't look forward to paying it again on his way home. But there was no other route from this part of the country back towards the King's City.

"How much did he charge you?"

"Twelve sovereigns!" The man spat on the ground. "Can you believe that? Twelve! Five would have been a high price! But I can't refuse if I value my life, for he has two of the heaviest and hairiest bodyguards I've ever seen."

Aris grunted. "I remember them. He probably spends half his tolls keeping them fed." A thought occurred to him and he pondered it for a time, scratching at his long nose. "Master merchant, I wonder whether this man is the cause of the decline in my trade of recent times. Perhaps the reputation of his increasing tolls keeps people away."

The peddler interjected, "Well, I certainly swore to myself I would never again travel this road. But then I spent the night in Gammerstedt --" He pointed west along the highway and patted his pocket with a conspiratorial wink. "A most undersupplied town for the goods that I sell. And," he added with a gesture of respect, "there I heard about your . . . expertise."

Aris made a gesture of humility. "So you're telling me that you want to return to this region often? And you would be encouraged to do so should a certain tax collector meet with tragedy? Then you've come to the right man. And although I'm aware you carry much coin from your dealings in Gammerstedt, I won't rob you of it the way the taxman would. Solving your problem may well solve mine. I'll offer you the death of not just the tax collector but his two pets, so that nothing may prevent you from traveling freely upon your return journey. A triple death like this might ordinarily cost you upwards of twenty-five sovereigns. I'll craft it for just six."

The peddler looked suddenly shrewd, bargaining instincts kicking in. "But if you benefit from this, you can do it of your own accord. Why should I pay?"

Aris made a slashing gesture with one finger. "My magick precludes me from killing people at my own whim. I may place protective spells over myself and my belongings. I may craft deaths at the behest of others. But I may not kill people willy nilly. You'll need to pay."

"Still. Six seems high for something you benefit from, since it brings you more trade."

"Master merchant. I'm saving you another six upon your return journey. Besides," Aris smiled, "the more people bargain, the more my price goes up."

The merchant bowed to Aris' wisdom and paid him the fee. Aris crafted a death spell by placing three slivers of wood on top of a sovereign and blowing them off onto the road. He explained to the suitably fascinated peddler that within the week, the tax collector and his men would die by trees or the limbs of trees falling on them.

"How does that work?" the peddler asked.

Aris made a frustrated sound. Not another one. "It matters not; it simply works. Go on your way and return after one week and your travel will be free when you pass toward Amramak."

The peddler nodded his thanks and climbed aboard his horse. "You should thank the young girl who spoke highly of you outside the Gammerstedt inn."

"Girl. What girl?"

Aris' frown deepened as the peddler described the girl who had slept in his haystack. She sends me business now? Well, at least my great kindness did not go unrewarded. Perhaps I should be compassionate more often.

The peddler left to make more trade in Gammerstedt, and Aris put his money in the house before chopping more firewood. He felt good that the tax collector would be gone soon and hoped the news of it would bring more customers his way.

Hm. It will. Until a new taxman takes his place. That sent a little rain upon his picnic. Well, at least in the interim my prospects have improved. He oiled his axehead and went inside for supper.

Not three days later, a young couple arrived in a rickety cart. They paid Aris three sovereigns to give the woman's sick father a merciful passing in the night. At midday the day after, an old man riding an emaciated donkey paid Aris to craft a fatal illness for his son's bullying employer. Late that same afternoon, three foreign noblemen rode up to his house and happily parted with thirty sovereigns to remove their wealthy father from the world. All these customers came from the west and all told him that a skinny girl with greasy blonde locks had engaged them in conversation and talked them into seeking a solution from the deathsmith.

News of him usually spread by past customers whispering his name and location when others complained to them of an unfaithful spouse or oppressive officials. But no one had ever gone about willfully spreading the news of the deathsmith as if it were the message of a new god.

On the fourth day after the trio of noblemen had visited, Aris was inside the house when he heard hooves. Poking his head out the door, he saw it was the peddler on his way home from Gammerstedt. On the back of his horse sat the girl. Aris frowned. She waved brightly. He nodded politely to the peddler and shut the door.

Moments later, her voice came from outside. "I found the woman whose husband you enchanted. He died. Before sunset of the day following your spell, a lone wolf came out of the forest and killed him while he cleaned his boots."

There came a soft and persistent knocking at his door, in tempo with the receding hoofbeats of the peddler's horse. She called out again, "You won't open to one who sent you trade? Surely I'm due something for my efforts."

Aris mumbled profanities to himself but found himself unlatching the door.

The two considered one another for a moment before Aris spoke, pointing to where bread and roasted onions and a half-eaten pigeon lay upon the table. "There. Eat your fill. Don't touch anything else in the house or you may find yourself dead. I'm not in a mood for carting away bodies, no matter how thin."

The girl smiled and skipped past him. She ate hungrily from his leftovers and watched him as he puttered aimlessly about his home, completely forgetful of what he had been doing before she had arrived.

Eventually, he asked simply, "Why?"

She swallowed. "Why did I sing your praises to the people of Gammerstedt, to each and every unhappy face I saw? I will not tell you. You refused to answer my questions; I refuse to answer yours."

"Childish."

Her eyes glittered beneath the fringe of lank hair. "In that case, so are you."

"Hmph. Have a care, girl. You know what I'm capable of."

She laughed.

He scowled. "Very well, you've eaten. Be off."

"Oh, I will be. I'll happily go and promote your services loudly in the villages and towns to the east. I've heard there's no longer a tax collector to inhibit people's travel this way, and they need to be reminded of the amazing mage who lives here. But I think it fair that I'm equipped with traveling money to aid me in my efforts."

Aris refused, making loud grumbling noises. Over the next few hours the girl dodged all of his attempts to send her away, although she did agree to move to the haystack when it grew dark. In the morning, he found her hard at work gathering wild potatoes and apples from the fields and woods nearby. She divided them equally with him before she chopped wood in the afternoon. While Aris serviced another customer who came from the west -- a man who acknowledged the girl with a terse nod -- she watered his horse and filled in a mouse hole in the side wall of the house. Once more, Aris felt obliged to offer her supper. Once more, she slept outside in the hay.

At one point during the night, Aris awoke and wondered if she were cold, then turned his shoulder to the idea. Pulling his woolen blanket about his neck, he returned to a thick slumber until dawn.

When he arose, noises outside turned out to be the girl scrubbing his trestle down. He waited until she had finished, then poured all of the coppers he had collected over the past month into her palm and told her to head east and advertise him well.

The girl looked momentarily disappointed; perhaps she'd thought he would offer her a permanent home here. He snorted at the idea. She slid the coppers into a hidden pocket inside her tunic and held out her other hand. He frowned at her.

"Food," she said. "You don't think I'd make it beyond Amramak on an empty stomach, do you?"

"You made it here on one," he said. But he went into the house and returned with a small bag containing smoked fish, bread, and two of the apples she had collected. "Goodbye, girl," he said sternly.

"Goodbye, master mage. I shall send you many more customers and return here for Winter to collect my commission."

Though he made his expression as discouraging as possible, he suspected he wouldn't refuse her if she returned. The girl still evoked memories of that injured blue-jay tinged with pity -- but then she also reminded him of the cat which had stalked it.

No, if she were to return, there was only one reason to continue their association.

She made him money.

The sun set earlier with each passing week, the rains increasing in frequency and fervency. Despite the inclement weather, people began arriving at his trestle more and more often. Soon he was seeing two or three people a day.

She returned in the seventh week after her departure, when the first of the Winter snows lay fresh on the ground. She was a passenger amidst a group of disreputable-looking horsemen. Aris knew them instantly for bandits, surprised they hadn't harmed her.

In fact, she looked healthier than usual.

"Told them I was your apprentice," she whispered, sidling up to him. That certainly explained the extra plumpness in her cheeks. Presumably that black lie had made the bandits too afraid to hurt her, and more inclined to feed her.

They poured a pile of silver and gold onto Aris' table, then asked how many deaths and what kind it would buy. He had not seen so much money in one pile since the time the King purchased his compliance. He plucked the amulet from around his neck and kissed it, thanking the silver wisps for their generosity.

"Good sirs, you have purchased yourself horrendous deaths for up to six people."

"We had hoped for seven," the leader of the band grated from between thick lips.

Aris shrugged. "I'll throw in one for free," he said.

The men slapped each others' backs, then leaned in close to hear what he would say.

Aris rubbed his hands together and considered his trinkets -- objects! Objects, not trinkets! Damn that girl!

"Who are the targets?" he asked.

"Rivals," was all the bandit leader would say.

More bandits? Well. Perhaps a violent end for violent men, then.

Aris began humming to himself as he set about devising a way to remove more troublesome miscreants from the world.

Without him knowing quite how she did it, the girl wormed her way into his home for the Winter.

Once, while a raging blizzard forced their internment, she talked for an entire day about growing up without a father in the mountains to the north of the King's City; about how being born out of wedlock branded her as cursed in the hill culture; about how she had left her hag of a mother upon turning fourteen and had begun exploring the towns of the lowlands and the alleys of the King's City before heading west on her current adventure.

When it came time for her to prepare their evening meal and still she nattered on, Aris could no longer keep a lid on his temper. Her incessant babblings reminded him of the noisome scuttling of the mice about the rafters and he told her so.

"Then you talk," she demanded.

"I don't want to talk," he snapped back. "This is the trouble with women and the reason I live alone. Words are tools, to be utilized sparingly and with purposeful intention. Not to be worn away to worthlessness by constant use."

"I wondered about you and women." She laid two wooden bowls on the table and began to pour broth into them.

"And what does that mean?"

"Nothing. Just that you have no wife here and obviously no mistress in the towns nearby. I wondered if you might be . . . you know, a eunuch."

Aris banged his fist against the wall. "A eunuch! The effrontery! Wretched girl! I will have you know I had several mistresses in my younger years. I merely find in my middle age that I have no more need for such distractions."

The girl shrugged, replaced the broth on the potbelly stove and took her place at the table, sitting on the short log she'd dragged inside for her own use. "And I am certain you regret having a mere woman here to cook for you."

Aris made a dismissive sound with his front teeth and bottom lip. He sat in his high-backed chair and blew on his spoon, muttering, "You're not a woman, only a girl."

"And that bothers me as well. You always call me Girl. Not once have you asked me my name."

He sipped and replied, "Because it's of no interest to me. I would have thought that obvious."

She scowled, picked up her bowl, swiveled on her log, and ate the rest of her meal with her back turned.

The next morning the sky cleared and the two set about clearing snow from around the house. They didn't speak for the entire day, falling into the rhythm of work until evening. Once again the girl cooked a broth and ate it with her back to him before retiring early to her bed in the alcove by the stove.

Aris happily spent a quiet evening reading an old spell book he'd purchased many Summers earlier. He couldn't practice any of the enchantments in it, but sometimes reading other people's magick helped him understand the whisperings of his amulet more clearly.

In the morning, he awoke to find her standing above him holding out a piece of hardbread. He snatched it away and held it to his chest.

"You are a mean and evil man," she said.

Something about her caused him a pang of fear. The way she narrowed her eyes perhaps, or the broad carving knife in her left hand.

He reasoned away his instinctive response. She can't kill you.

"None can kill you by blade, by poison, by any form of violence," the wisps had told him. She would die if she tried it and he wouldn't have to lift a finger. The amulet hummed against his breastbone reassuringly.

He forced himself to sit up, spine creaking just a little. "Me? Evil?" He forced a chuckle. "Because I kill people for a living?"

She took the slightest of steps back, more to keep his face in easy sight than to make room for him. "No. Because you don't care for any creature but yourself."

"Not true," he said, tearing off a morsel of the bread with his teeth. "I care for my horse and goat."

"No person, then!" she growled. "And you only care for the beasts because they're of use to you."

"And your point is?" He stood and rubbed sleep from one eye.

She whirled, stomped to her sitting-log, flopped onto it. "No point. Just a realization. I thought . . ." Some emotion stopped the words in her throat and she bit into her own bread to cover it. "I thought we might be friends," she finished softly after a time.

Aris refrained from laughing. They still had weeks of forced proximity before Spring came and he could shoo her away to chase up more business. And there was no profit in provoking her.

"We're not friends," he said. "You're correct. I care for no one. I'm happy that way. Or was, until you showed up to question me incessantly."

"And you've answered none of my questions, though I've known you for months."

"Your questions are pointless. You want to know how my magick works. Only a fool casually reveals the secrets of his art."

"You could hire me as your apprentice," she said. When he looked at her, she raised her voice and added, "You won't be here forever, you know. Who will continue your art after you're gone?"

"Oh, so you seek to depose me --"

"I didn't say that!"

"Then to succeed me at least."

"And what is wrong with that? Most grown men, civilized and uncivilized, have a care for who and what they leave behind. Farmers and ironsmiths and cobblers, all teach their craft to a younger person or two. They hope they'll be well-thought of once they're gone, perhaps even to earn a place in a pleasant afterlife."

"Enough of this. I have no interest in teaching anyone anything. My craft is mine. It was given to me by the gods, not passed down from my father."

"Who was your father then?"

He waggled a finger. "Another question."

She nibbled her bread thoughtfully. "I already know how your magick works. I know all about enchanted amulets like the one you keep beneath your tunic, about how they whisper spells and secrets to their owners. No god bestowed your gift; I bet it was the silver wisps. I bet that's their charm you wear."

Aris jerked with such shock that his bread flew up into the air. "How do you know about them?"

"I spent last Winter in the rafters at the College of Mages. I learned no spells, not having any natural talent of my own. But I gained a lot of information, some of which I've been able to trade for food and money, some of which is simply interesting to an active mind like mine. I learned about enchanted trees and their fruit, about the crafting of sorcerer's staffs, and about the collection of dragon's tears. I learned about silver wisps and golden wisps, how they scatter charms throughout the world, bestowing magick upon the talentless people who find them, though no one knows why. Oh, and the golden ones are better than the silver," she added with a wink and a mocking look. "I also heard gossip about an unethical mage who lived out west and called himself the deathsmith. I thought that interesting enough to take a trip here."

"So I am a curiosity?" Aris dusted off his bread, then threw it against the door. "The silver wisps did visit me and the amulet is indeed a relic of their power, you clever girl. But before you think yourself too clever, and before you think to steal it, remember this: it's mine and none may take it from me while I live. And none may kill me."

"I assure you, the thought never entered my head." She stood and affected a curtsy, then set about cleaning away mouse droppings and checking the traps for their bodies.

They didn't speak for ten days after that. Then one fine midday, when the weather was unseasonably clear and the sun had melted some of the snow from the road, Aris made a decision.

He pulled on his boots, placed some items in a bag, and handed it to her. "Dried meat and silver coins," he said and threw on his coat. "I'm taking you to Amramak."

She frowned at him, looking inside the bag at the food and money. "You're feeling guilty for dismissing me? Recompensing me for the inconvenience?"

"Buying your cooperation," he admitted happily.

"I'm not surprised. You're mean."

"Mm. And evil. Get your coat."

She gathered her boots and the fur-lined coat the bandits had given her.

Her eyes found the trestle leaning against the wall by the door, and lingered there. "You know, there's one more thing you can do to recompense me for all of the inconveniences you've put me through. I'd never bother you again after that, I swear it."

He chuckled, heart warming at the prospect of returning to his solitary life. Almost anything would be worth that price. "And what's that?"

"Smith me a death."

He sniffed. "When you first came here, you told me there was no one in particular you wanted to kill."

"I lied."

"Who is this person?"

She took a deep breath. "The only death I have ever wanted is for the man who sired me. He made me a bastard child, destined to beg and whore and scavenge. Give me that, deathsmith, then take me into town and our business will be concluded."

The thought came to him fully formed, alighting in his mind with a jolt. Cold disquiet trickled into his belly. He studied her more closely, cursing himself for a fool.

How could I not have seen it before?

She was thin and fine featured like him, with his knack for spinning coins. She'd purposefully sought him out with a view to forging some kind of bond. And she was clever, like him.

She could easily have been spawned during one his dalliances two decades before. Any one of a dozen women could have been the mother, and each one knew his identity.

Vaguely he recalled a mountain girl . . .

Her father! And she wants me dead!

For a moment, Aris felt the flicker of a blurred and nameless sentiment. And then he turned his mind to dealing with the threat she posed, to considering options.

He could simply ignore her request, drag her along to Amramak, and hope she never returned. But this girl had worked hard to put aside a lifetime's acrimony, to give him the chance to warm to her. And he had dashed her dreams of family, burned away any fledgling affection she might have felt for him.

He didn't know exactly how he might be killed, if there were some chink in the magical protection the wisps had bestowed on him. But if there were one, a spurned and vengeful daughter might just be the one to find it. The hatred would eat at her until she did, until she eventually returned.

He could try to appease her with gold, but that wouldn't work either. Even if it satisfied her for a season, her murderous intent would eventually resurface.

He might give in to her -- maintain the business association and hope it was enough to assuage her anger. But, no. He didn't really need her and that course of action sentenced him to a lifetime of her infuriating prattle.

What option did that leave him? He couldn't kill her outright, not with magick anyway. The amulet's magick couldn't be used to attack people directly for Aris' own sake. It would only protect him from attack -- Aris had become so accustomed to relying on these magical defenses that he almost missed his solution. A primitively simple solution.

Why do I need magick?

He'd found his answer before she'd finished slipping on coat and boots. She stood up. The self-assured arrogance in her stare while she awaited his reply probably mirrored his own, he thought.

He let his gaze drift past her slight figure, rested momentarily on the axe above the fireplace, then moved on. He let out a phony sigh. "Let me consider it while you saddle the horse. You do know how to saddle a horse?"

Her eyes hardened further at the questioning of her abilities.

"Well, off you go then. I'll follow shortly."

She slipped past him into the frigid outdoors. The chilled breath of Winter flowed into the room. The fire flickered and faltered in the hearth.

He took down the axe and quickly followed her outside, snow masking his footsteps. The horse shifted slightly at the sight of him but settled upon recognizing his scent. The girl's back was turned to him as he'd hoped. It would be cleanest and quickest if she didn't see the end coming. Without hesitation, Aris raised the axe and brought it down between her shoulder-blades with grim finality.

When the axe bounced out of his hands, his first thought was that she'd hidden a kind of armor beneath her clothing. He stared at her, aghast. She turned, unfazed by the blow.

How --?

Something unseen brushed his chest. The cough that welled up from the base of his ribs felt like a living thing clawing its way out. Blood erupted on the expulsion of air, staining the snow at his feet a dark crimson. He staggered back, covered his mouth with his sleeve. Expressionless, she prodded the axe with one toe.

What had she done to him?

A second cough doubled him over. Hands on his knees, seeing stars, he stared up at her in horror as a possibility occurred to him.

No!

"I haven't been entirely truthful with you, sir mage," she said. "My Winter in the College of Mages was actually only a week. And I spent the time consulting them about various kinds of magick. As well as purchasing a protective charm of my own," she added, pulling it from beneath her shirt.

"An extremely expensive week, that was. Luckily the King values your death at a hearty five hundred sovereigns. Now, despite his great fear of you and the size of this standing fee, no assassin's tried earning it since the last three dolts died in the attempt." He noticed now that her vowel sounds had shifted to those of cityfolk and her face had lost its youthfulness.

She tapped her chest. "A while ago, when this apprentice assassin heard about the exorbitant price on your head, she knew the solution was so simple, she couldn't believe nobody had ever tried it. Maybe that's because most assassins -- and mages, mind you -- are men. So direct, so simplistic. Without knowing my plan, the King agreed to pay me half the fee up front -- though he swore he would hunt me down himself if I didn't return within the year carrying proof of your death."

Aris coughed again, knees buckling, and struggled to breathe in the wake of it.

"Proving your death." The girl frowned. "Ah, that presents a problem. I am not so stupid as to try to take any of your belongings, since they are no doubt tainted by death spells. Perhaps I will bring back some Amramak Guardsmen to view your body, that will have to suffice."

Cough!

More blood on the snow.

"You deserve this, you pitiless, selfish, ill-tempered fool. It was these flaws, rather than some oversight on the part of the wisps, that left you open to attack. I used your temper against you, and left you clues to make you think you were my father, in the hope that either strategy would lead you to try something like this." She poked the axe a second time. "But don't worry, Aris. Your art will not die with you. It's the amulet -- something that technically doesn't belong to you but to the wisps -- that holds your powers, not you."

He remembered the amulet, reached for it. But on the subject of his own impending death, it was silent. A new tightness in his throat made him think he would cough again, but his airway was choked with blood, as if a door had swung shut inside him. He clawed around him at the snow, knees sinking, world fading around the edges of his vision.

"Before you go, I want you to know that one thing I told you was true. I am a bastard child, an orphan, and no one -- not the townspeople, nor our beloved King, nor my instructors in assassination -- ever bothered to name me. But as I told you some days ago, a man should leave something of himself behind when he's gone. And since I'll soon carry your amulet with its powers undiminished . . ."

Her words traveled to him as if from a distance, a bird's song carried on the wind as the world turned black and Aris fell into a deep dark pit.

". . . I think I will call myself Arissa."


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