“Welcome, sir. Please come in, the Mistress is expecting you.”
The butler held the heavy wooden door open as the lone guest stepped inside the richly decorated entrance hall. Though he was dressed well he seemed almost out of place in his modernly cut coat and plain tailored shirt and slacks. His long black hair was tied in a simple tail and when he gracefully shrugged off his coat the cuffs of his sleeves pulled back for a moment, exposing the pointed tips and gentle whorls of black ink tattoos that graced his wrists.
He handed his coat over without remark, and to his credit the butler drew no attention to it.
“Thank you. Has your employer any particular rules she would like followed while I’m here?”
For a moment the butler looked open surprised. Given the nature of the guest, he clearly hadn’t expected such a humble question.
“No, sir. I think only that she will be happy to see you.”
“That is good. I’m happy to be of service.” He smiled, warm and pleasant.
The butler swept his hand forward and bade him follow. There was hardly the sound of a footstep as the tall, thin man followed through the opulent hallways.
The butler’s back was straight, his gaze ahead. He had to hand it to the man. Most people were uncomfortable in the presence of an assassin, and it was hardly usual to invite one into your home. The nobility had always had a strange fascination with the assassins guild and their work, despite also regularly being their targets.
But he wasn’t here today to fulfill the request of someone who had been wronged. In fact, as far as the guild’s research could tell, the woman he would be meeting had led a pretty clean life, all said.
No, he was here for another reason; one that marked him different from most of his fellows.
Their way led upstairs, and into a plush study. A grand oak desk stood in the center, along with fine leather couches, and walls filled with books. The scent of herbs filled the air, overwhelming a stubborn hint of tobacco smoke. He recognized them immediately as medicinal, no doubt meant to be a breathing aid. The dark curtains had been drawn back, bathing the room in sunlight, and a gentle breeze blew in through a set of double doors that opened onto a balcony overlooking a blooming garden.
Amber eyes swept the room, scanning instinctively for traps or danger, before coming to rest on the rooms only other occupant.
She was seated in an expensive wheelchair, thin arms resting on a blanket laid over her lap. From this angle all he could see was a thin halo of white hair atop her head, held up by a neck skinnier than someone her height should have been.
That wasn’t surprising, though, given why she’d called him here.
“Mistress, Master Sesha Liatos has arrived.”
Frail, thick-veined hands took hold of the wheels, and the chair turned slowly. It paused several times mid-turn, the shoulders of the woman rising and falling with the effort. Beside him the butler winced, his muscles straining with the effort of staying put; likely a prior order from his employer, though it was clearly not a popular one.
When she’d finished turning the woman’s face was pale from the effort, and she drew in several shallow breaths. Despite that, she seemed to still be fighting to sit up straight, and her eyes remained sharp on her guest.
Sesha always liked to think of it as the stubbornness of nobility, a desire to never appear weak, but it was quite clear to him that she was dying. He had the eyes of both an assassin and a doctor, but he needed neither to see that.
“Thank you, Arin.” The woman’s voice was thick, as if something was stuck in her throat. “Would you like anything to eat or drink, Master Liatos?”
“No thank you, Madame Villara.”
She didn’t press him, instead beckoning him further inside with a quaking hand before dismissing the butler.
He crossed the room and took a seat on one of the leather chairs near her own, running his fingers lightly over the supple fabric. It was real, as was everything else in this place; he knew old wealth when he saw it. Many would have killed to live in a house like this, to posses the wealth of its owner. He was sure many jealously stared at the building as they went past, even while imagining their own name on the postbox.
Sesha felt no such envy.
Though he was surrounded by another sort of opulence every day in his home at the guild hall, those finer things had never drawn his attention. Material goods were transitory, as was power, as much both civilian and assassin alike wanted to deny it. Unlike most of his fellows he was rather content with where he was. Having been chosen so young to be the Guild Master’s personal physician might have had something to do with that, but his position within the Ravens brought him into contact with another sort of death that most assassins rarely saw.
Up close Leise Villara’s cheeks and eyes looked even more sunken, and deep wrinkles creased the corners of each. Her was skin dry like parchment paper, drawn taut over her bones, and her veins were clearly visible through the thin skin. Still, he couldn’t help but note the tinge of red on her lips and a brush of blue around her eyes, the touches of makeup subtle but fitting. Embroidered birds danced delicately on her dress, flying with a freedom she could not hope to gain. Still seeking elegance, even at death’s door.
“Thank you for coming to see me.”
“The guild found your case worthy of our services.” He replied, bowing his head.
“So… how do we do this?”
Straight to the point. That wasn’t unusual in cases like this. Most of his clients weren’t afraid of him, and a good portion welcomed him.
“It is very simple, Madame Villara. Your application has been accepted, however in cases like these it is customary for us to visit and speak with the person in question before final approval. We need to be absolutely sure this is the path you want to take.”
She chuckled, voice wheezing a bit. “You would think people wouldn’t just ask you to do this while playing around. Are there often problems?”
“Occasionally. Jealous or ambitious family members sometimes try to push through applications for the infirm, claiming it is their wish. Others apply, and are approved, but change their minds at the last moment. We take every step of this very seriously.”
“As you should. I admit, I assumed you’d show up in my bedroom one night to do the deed after my application was approved. You’re far more businesslike than I imagined. What if I change my mind?”
“These are the only applications where the guild allows retractions after a contract has been approved. In such an event we will keep your information on file and allow for reapplication. Our goal is to make things as easy and peaceful as possible.”
For the first time the woman’s expression soured.
“Peace? You do it out of pity, you mean. You must know we’ll come crawling right back when it gets to be too much. When you have to call an assassin to end your life what else is there but pity?”
“We do not pity those in your situation, Madame.”
“My situation,” she said, giving a hoarse chuckle, and fixing him with a withering look. “I’m dying, young man. You don’t have to sugar coat it for me.”
“Then I will not. You are dying, but I am here to do all that I can to help you, with dignity.”
“Then help me. Don’t you understand? Everything hurts. I can’t sleep anymore, can barely tolerate anything more than damned soup and bread. I can’t even get up. I’m stuck here either choking on those herbs or my own lungs. You must know who I am, the things I’ve done. To end up… here…” Her words shifted into wheezes and she laid her head back against the chair to try and get her breath. It took time, but when she was finally calm enough again she turned her head back to him, though for the moment it was as if the fight had gone out of her.
“There’s no dignity in death. There’s no choice. Just the pain, and the darkness.”
“That is where you are wrong, Madame. Death is welcoming. It is a warm embrace after a weary life. And, despite what you might think, you do have a choice.”
“Choice?” She laughed, voice ugly and guttural. “That’s easy for you to say. You assassins deal life and death with your own hands. You sweep through the rest of us like gods.”
Sesha was silent a few long moments, drawing in a soft breath before letting it out again.
“The truth is, Madame, I often envy you.”
Her eyes widened, and she looked rather incredulous, before her eyes narrowed.
“Don’t you dare play games with me. I won’t have it. How could you envy someone like me, sitting here waiting to die?”
“Because you have a choice.”
“The choice to die?”
“Yes.Tell me, Madame, why do you go out of your way to dress like you do, to put on makeup, even when you know what’s coming? It must cost you effort, and discomfort, and there’s no point, right?”
“There is a point,” she said, gently rapping her fist on the arm of the chair. “I don’t want to be like one of those people you see laying in bed in their nightshirts, all grey and wan. The ones who already look like ghosts. I won’t have myself seen that way. I still have that left to me.”
“Exactly. But, you also have more than you know. You submitted your application, and now the choice to live or die is yours. You don’t have to wait, if you don’t want to. You can choose to end your suffering right this moment, or continue on for as long as you desire. And those in your position are able to choose the method, if you want. Just like you won’t give up how you look, your situation cannot take this choice from you. Your life, your death, belongs to you. You are free to do with it as you will. Very few people have that opportunity.”
She stared at him, her dark eyes wide as she processed what he’d said. She almost seemed to be grasping for words, and as she thought, some sort of understanding seemed to come into her eyes.
“And you don’t?”
“Not like you. An assassin only has one choice, and taking our lives is not it. Anyone can come to us when they’re in pain, and take their life into their own hands. This is your choice, every part of it. We are not given such a luxury. Death takes assassins too, but we cannot choose it. Our deaths do not belong to us.”
“I- I never really thought about it like that. I just know I don’t want to keep diminishing, to fade away into nothingness. I was never the sort of woman who gave up on anything.”
He paused a moment, a somewhat sad look touching his lips. “Most do not. That is why I envy you. It is the choice I will forever be denied. I’m not glad that this choice is in front of you. No one who comes to us ever takes it lightly, and I truly am sorry you’ve suffered so much. But, you can take comfort knowing that you have control over that which is most precious. Something so important that it makes even an assassin envy you. If you do not wish to fade away, then stand and fight. That is what I am here to help you do.”
She was silent then, and turned her head to look out the open doors at the garden beyond. Sesha wondered what she might be thinking, but didn’t press her. Silence was a welcome thing too, and he truly did want her to choose her own path, no matter what his own feelings were. He might envy, but he would never force.
After a time, Leise lifted her head from the cushion on the back of her chair. She shifted and forced her sluggish body to obey, so she could once again sit up. Despite the weakness, the disease, her frailty, it seemed she’d made a choice.
“I refuse to fade away, or take what I have for granted. If this is my last hill, I will make my stand here. Thank you, Master Liatos. Now, if you would be so kind, tell me what my options are.”
Sesha smiled, a feeling of pride rising in him for her. He always held the greatest respect for his clients, and he had no doubt that she was sure of her path now.
“Of course, Madame. I’d be happy to.”