I was surprised by the knock at my door; it was late, the night was dark and the wind shook the trees as if it were trying to break their necks. Nobody would want to be out in that. My surprise at the knock, however, was nothing compared to my utter astonishment at the identity of my visitor.
“I need your help,” she said without prelude. I thought about what it must be costing her to say those words, to me. We had never been friends, to put it mildly. She clutched her cloak tightly against the cold. The dark eyes that peaked out from under the hood did not quite meet my gaze.
“Why?” I wasn’t sure what I was asking. Why me? Why should I help you? Why do you of all people need help at all?
All hope fled her. Her face fell, her shoulders slumped, and her voice was that emotionless tone of trued despair as she murmured, “I shouldn’t have come,” and turned away.
“Wait,” I called, and she turned back towards me. Xaria had been an opponent, even an enemy, but a worthy one. At times I’d hated her; at times I’d feared her; at times I’d done everything I could to bring about her death. But I had always respected her, and seeing her like this, her spirit defeated, brought me no joy. I let her in.
I had a fire blazing, so it was warm inside. I offered Xaria refreshment; she declined. We sat down and wondered what to say. The silence grew uncomfortable, so I began with the obvious. “I heard you were dead.”
“Sorry to disappoint.”
“I didn’t believe it.”
“No? Then you have more confidence in me than anyone else, Diren. Unwarranted confidence, really. It was too close.”
I gave her a look. “I am aware that my lord is dead and yours is wearing a crown.”
“Yes, well, consider yourself lucky!”
“I do, actually. I find retirement rather pleasant. But that wasn’t an answer.”
“To put it plainly, I’m dispensable.”
“I spent ten years trying to dispense of you, Xaria. I assure you, it’s quite difficult.”
“If the arrow had been an inch higher, I’d be dead. Not my first close call, of course, as you know. Still, it was the first from my people. I’d given everything in his service, and the minute it pays off he tries to have me killed. Afraid to lose his newfound power, I suppose, so I got as far out of the way as I could and made it discreetly known that I had bowed out of that sort of thing. I bought a little house in a small town and started to live as an ordinary person. I think I would have stayed there, if I’d had the chance. I’d been there a month when my house burned down. I ran into the woods and stayed there for a few weeks—you know, far up north, where nobody goes. I was hunted down and barely managed to get away. So I went back to civilization. I still had friends, I thought, who could help me out until I figured out what was going on and how to stop it. I was wrong. You remember Madrithi? She pushed you off the cliff in Almingtorn? And Perd, I don’t know if you ever met him personally, but we worked together often. All three of us would have died for each other, once. Madrithi tried to blow me up. Perd poisoned me. When I woke up from that, lying in a dung heap, I decided to really go underground. I used a false name, took a job peeling potatoes in the kind of place no one would ever think to look for me, wore a disguise. A man with a knife showed up two days later. On my way out of the city I was attacked four times, and I was shot at twice on the way here. So maybe it used to be difficult to kill me, but Lord Okrilch, sorry, King Okrilch is in a position to do difficult things, because I put him there!”
I listened gravely. It scared me, hearing Xaria was out of her league, because she’d always been the only one who was my equal. We’d both been the best, and I doubted her abilities had changed with her victory. Perhaps it didn’t concern me. Why should I care that my enemy was being hunted? It only meant others were doing my job for me. But then, we weren’t enemies anymore. Lord Zaloth was dead and Lord Okrilch was King Okrilch, and there was nothing for us to fight over. It had never really been personal.
“Do you have a plan?” I asked her.
She hesitated, then shook her head. “No.” She sounded ashamed.
“Well, I do. There’s a reward out for your death?” She nodded distractedly. “I mean to claim it.”
She looked at me sharply, suspicion in her eyes.
“No,” I assured her. “But think about it. It would only seem natural if I’m the one to kill you, and if you’re assumed dead, your problems are over.”
“You’re right, that I’ll have to play dead, but I don’t know if it’ll be that easy. If I’m seen, the whole thing starts over again.”
“Obviously you’ll have to stay away from anyone who’d recognize you-“
“I’m a national figure; everyone recognizes me now.”
“If you stay hidden for a while, they’ll forget eventually.”
“Maybe, but I seem to have exhausted all possible hideouts.”
“You should be safe enough here; it’s the last place anyone would ever look.”
“You mean here, here? In your house? Diren, I can’t do that.”
We discussed it, and she agreed, eventually. We also agreed it wouldn’t be safe for me to go to the palace, so I sent a messenger to deliver the news that I’d killed Xaria, along with a pendant she wore as proof.
Two days later, the messenger returned with a bag of gold as a reward.
“So they must’ve accepted it,” I said to Xaria.
She nodded, and, impulsively, I think, kissed me.
“Thank you,” she said, when the kiss was finally over.
“You know, I had thought that I might end up killing you, but I never thought you’d thank me for it.”