Ithilia sat at a heavy wooden table, her hands buried in her lap as her stomach tied itself in knots. She was in a study of sorts, its walls lined with bookshelves. There weren’t any windows and the only source of light came from a dozen lamps scattered around the room.
She’d spent the past six months working undercover in an isolated village, waiting for the Queen’s agents to put her in the path of the Exiles. Ithilia had been doing that until yesterday when she’d been attacked by a group of the village’s guard who’d wanted to have some fun with her. They’d overpowered her, tied her up, and would’ve dragged her who knows where if the Exiles hadn’t chosen that moment to raid the village. Once the battle was over the Exiles–who seemed to be familiar with the guard’s antics–brought her with them back to their base. Upon her arrival she’d been unbound, brought here, and told to wait.
That had been an hour ago. She’d sat here, her panic level slowly increasing. Ithilia forced herself to take deep, even breaths and called on the strength of her Immortal Queen. She’d need it for what was to come.
Behind her, the door opened with a soft click. Ithilia whipped her head around, leaning out of the chair to see who it was.
A unfamiliar man stepped in and closed the door behind him. He had a dark complexion with vibrant green eyes and black hair that fell to his shoulders. He was in his mid twenties–not that much older than Ithilia–and yet there was something about him. He had an aurora of strength and assurance that caused Ithilia to sit up straighter. She couldn’t take her eyes off of him.
The man walked towards her, holding out one of his hands. Ithilia tore her eyes away long enough to glance at it. It was a plate of food.
Her stomach growled, reminding Ithilia that she hadn’t eaten recently. The stranger walked to the table and deposited the food in front of her, his arm brushing against her shoulder as he did so. The action sent a momentary shiver down Ithilia’s spine. She ignored it, clasping her hands in her lap, glancing from the food to the stranger uncertainly. The man smiled.
“Go ahead. It’s for you.”
Ithilia snatched up the knife and fork that lay upon the plate and dug in. She barely registered what she was eating and took just long enough to swallow before she jammed the next bite into her mouth. The stranger leaned against the table, his eyes watching her the entire time. Ithilia focused on her food, doing her best to ignore the inscrutable gaze. Eventually, the man spoke.
“You got lucky,” he said. “We just changed the timing of our raids. Had they cornered you on another day, you would’ve been in serious trouble.”
The memory of what those guards had intended to do made Ithilia’s throat run dry. Ithilia placed the cutlery on the plate, suddenly not hungry.
“I’m fully aware of my good fortune,” she replied quietly. “I didn’t know that the Exiles kidnapped those they rescued.”
“Only as necessary.” His lips twitched in amusement. “You know that your days there were numbered. Those guards weren’t going to leave you alone once we were gone.”
Ithilia knew it. And considering that she was exactly where she needed to be, she shouldn’t complain. Still, hauled from her work–even false work–wasn’t something to be instantly grateful for.
“I suppose you want my thanks,” she said, reaching for her fork. “Should I direct it to Tanor and Yera, or to someone who’s name is unknown to me.”
“I’m sure they’d appreciate a thank you,” he replied. “It is–after all–the polite thing to do. As for me, my name is Viln Safef.”
Ithilia’s fork slipped from her fingers and clattered across the plate. She couldn’t believe her luck. She was sitting five feet from the Queen’s greatest enemy.
Five feet from immortality.
“I see you’ve heard of me.”
“Who hasn’t?” Ithilia barely managed to remain composed. “Everyone knows of the traitor who opposes the Immortal Queen.”
Viln smirked, the brief twitch of his lips caused Ithilia’s heart to stutter. She ignored it, focusing on Viln.
“I prefer Exile to traitor,” he said. “But I suppose that the terms are interchangeable, given that we seek to bring Tifa down, thus ending her corrupt rule.”
“The Immortal Queen isn’t corrupt,” Ithilia protested. “She is wise, overflowing with kindness in abundance, and grants–”
“Immortality to her faithful,” Viln finished. “You’re not the only one who’s read that propaganda.”
Ithilia bristled at his dismissal of the Canticle, but didn’t voice further protest. To much dissent would cause her to be suspicious.
Viln walked forward, coming to stop beside her chair. He picked up Ithilia’s hand, sending an electric shock through her skin. Her entire body was aware of where Viln touched her, even as her eyes locked on his face. She felt him rub a rough finger over her palm, sending a shiver down her spine.
“I can see you work hard,” he said. “Is that effort for the service of your Queen?”
“Of course,” she replied hesitantly. His touch made it hard to think. “The Queen protects us.”
“The Queen protects those she wishes to,” Viln said firmly. “Everyone else she leaves to their own fate, like the village we rescued you from. The guards are able to behave in that manner because they give the Queen a portion of the Cut. In exchange, she ignores their actions.”
“That’s a lie,” Ithilia snapped. She wouldn’t do such a thing!”
Viln shrugged. “Believe your own eyes and not me. I have proof.”
“Then where is it,” she challenged.
In response, the Exile’s leader dropped her hand and walked to a bookshelf at the far end of the room. Silently, Ithilia cursed. Viln had stood within reach. A knife had been next to her hand. Why hadn’t she stabbed him and been done with it? At least it was easy enough to rectify.
Ithilia swept the blade off the table and slipped it within the folds of her skirt. The cold metal seemed to melt through the cloth, sending a sharp chill up her leg and releasing the doubts that she’d been holding back. Was she really going to kill a man–even a traitor–in cold blood? Could she kill him? A few hours of knife training suddenly seemed insufficient for an assassination. And Viln had been kind. He and the Exiles had been fairer to her than anyone in the Queen’s court, or the village.
“Ithilia.” Viln’s voice drew her attention. “Over here.”
Ithilia stood woodenly and made her way to him, hardening her heart. This man was a traitor to the Queen, she reminded herself, a man who’d destroy their culture simply because he despised their immortal ruler. He deserved death. And she wanted immortality. Still, Ithilia wavered.
Unbidden, the Queen’s last words to her rose in her mind. Don’t think of it as killing. Think of it as trading a mortal life for an immortal one.
Viln held up a document, his back to her. Perfect. Ithilia had been shown how to stab a man from behind and she wouldn’t have to look Viln in the eye.
“Take a look Ithilia,” he said, not glancing back. “See the truth for yourself.”
Ithilia took a deep breath, and struck.
Viln was fast. One moment she was lunging for his back, the next, he’d spun around and clamped Ithilia’s wrist in a firm grip. His other arm snaked around her body so he held her to him. Viln turned and grinned.
“Did you think I didn’t know? I knew who you were from your first day in the village.”
Ithilia stared at him, horrified. He’d known? How? Behind her, the door opened and someone entered.
“Another one I take it.”
“That’s correct Garvin. Take care of her as we did the others.”
Before Ithilia could blink she was disarmed and in the hands of Garvin. Viln deposited the knife and stepped closer so that they were inches apart.
“You know Ithilia,” he said. “I truly hope you change your mind.”
“I won’t betray my Queen,” Ithilia snapped. “I die proudly for my service and without the shame of being an Exile.”
Viln regarded her. He reached out, causing Ithilia to flinch. He caressed the side of her face, sending a warm tingling sensation across her skin. Ithilia felt her breath hitch.
“I hope you see the truth,” Viln said quietly. “You deserve more than what the Queen has permitted you to have.”
Without a word Garvin pulled Ithilia around and pushed her out the door.