An entry for a short story contest
| "Masquerade, seething shadows breathing lies,"
~The Phantom of the Opera
To a casual observer, Meliora seemed too delicate an elf to be walking through the dark streets. Too fair, her features fair and delicate, and her pale skin gave Meliora the appearance of an alabaster sculpture come to life. She flowed through the dark streets with an ethereal grace, sticking only to the shadows and blending effortlessly into them, each step taking her closer to her prey. Nearing one of the larger buildings in the locale, this one a lavish mansion, Meliora eyed the walls, her keen eyes searching for the finger-holds they could provide. The flowing gown she was clad in did not encumber her movements as it might have a lesser skilled climber, for in a matter of seconds; she had already reached the window that led into the room her prey stayed in. As she crept through the open windows, barely even stirring the drapes, the assassin reached slender fingers towards her flowing skirts, and drew her weapon from an unseen sheath.
Slowly drawing her blade forth, Meliora eyed her quarry, ever so blissfully asleep. A magnificent sword gleamed in her hand, burning with a cold fire, reflecting the soft white light of the moon. A sliver of moonlight entered the room, showing the elf in all her beauty. The gown revealed supple shoulders, but its flowing sleeves hid her fingers in a swirl of sapphire blue and snow white. A circlet gleamed softly upon her forehead in the moonlight, her auburn hair blowing out behind her in soft ribbons, as a lone tear flowed down her cheek, an early lament for the man she was about to kill. Her blade glinted pure silver for an instant before plunging deep into his relaxed form. An agonized gasp escaped him, and she twisted the sword brutally, silencing him forever before he could even give a cry. As Meliora withdrew the weapon, shining a metallic red in the moonlight, the steel shared the color of his lifeblood, as it had shared the same dull shade of red as many others before him.
In a moment, the room was as quiet as it had been before the midnight assassination, save that the body that had belonged to the senator of a neighboring country now lay in his own blood that had dyed the white sheets red. Far in the distance, hoof beats could be heard, but there was not a soul to witness Meliora’s disappearance from the scene of the murder that had just been committed only a few minutes ago.
Soft, sad music flowed from the Silver Stag, as if mourning for the death of the senator the night before. The clear sound of the flute held all attention, as the harp that accompanied it played a flowing accompaniment. Had any noticed the elf playing the flute, rather than the strains of music that flowed from it, and had seen the assassin pounding off into the distance the night before, managing to place the musician as the murderer of the man, no one showed it. Yet how could they know, for the killing had occurred in the dead of night? The song ended, and the two musicians stopped for a while. The barkeep came over, handing the pair a glass of honeyed wine each.
"These be from the gentleman over there in that corner." The pair nodded their understanding, and moved over to him.
"Are you two Jethros and Meliora?" He asked, a slight tinge of contempt in his voice for the two minstrels.
"Who’s asking?" The male elf, named Jethros, retorted.
"A man with two things you will want. Money, and a job."
"Give us the details." Meliora’s voice enquired in its soft and mellifluous tone.
"I would prefer discussing this in private. Too many ears here, if you catch my drift."
"How can I know you will not betray us as soon as we are in private, and have your men apprehend us?" Jethros replied, as suspicious as ever.
"If I wanted the pair of you dead, I would have sent my men after you yesterday, when your sweet lady friend assassinated the senator from Ithlia." He answered.
"I see. So do tell us more about your proposition now, so that we might decide whether to accept it or not." Meliora replied.
"I do not believe the pair of you even have a choice. See, the man I serve knows everything and anything about you siblings. Including your less than glamorous past. Anyway, King Athelstan wishes a peace with Ithlia, a little something my master does not mind, but he is also planning on removing all power from the nobles, preferring to replace them with men of talent. I represent those reluctant for this new idea to take place, the same men who would wish to see the king dead, if only for the simple reason of being able to sit on their pampered behinds and drink spiced wine, without any worries of their river of gold ever drying up."
Without waiting for their answer, be it to voice their displeasure or to accept, he stood up and left, leaving two very shaken elves behind him, as well as an address on a scrap of parchment.
After the last patron had left the inn that night, the pair retired to their room. Jethros drew some arcane symbols in the air, and flames began to dance on the wicks of the tallow candles. Meliora sat herself on one of the room’s two beds, and began to polish the silver flute that lay in her lap. An uncomfortable silence followed, at least until Jethros broke it suddenly, by whirling around to face her from his place at the window, his golden hair flying out behind him.
"Damn the gentleman and all his gold! How are we expected to kill the king single-handedly?"
"It should not be too difficult, for all we need to do will be to enter the ball he will be throwing in a week, and the rest will be child’s play."
"But Meliora, why should we do it? Let us run as far as we can, for we had decided that killing the senator would be the last death we would have on our hands."
"Run? Run where? Back home, where we were banished from after we had slain the man who tried to steal some of our family’s treasure, after we offered him hospitality?"
"So we will be truly forced to kill another man of respect and honor." The bitterness in his voice was clear, as he turned back to stare out of the window. Meliora knew his feelings, and she moved over to him, resting a slender hand on his shoulder, her voice soothing.
"If you truly wish not to do it, my brother, I will not hold it against you. But our lives are already hanging by just that thread. If we cut it, there will be nothing to catch us when we finally fall."
Meliora awoke the next morning at the crack of dawn, to the tranquil sound of Jethros running his fingers over the harp’s strings, a thing he did when he was forced to make a difficult choice. He spoke first, his voice filled with resignation at the understanding of the bitter truth.
"Do I write to him then, to inform him that we accept the job?"
She stared at him, uncertainty in her gaze, as if she wondered why he had changed his mind so quickly. As if he had read her mind, Jethros answered her silent question.
"You are right; what you have said yesterday is the truth. Honor and respect are now far beyond our reach, for there is already too much blood on our hands to ever be removed by the sparing of one good man’s life, no matter who he might be."
The words, filled with regret and anger, showed Meliora more of the elf she knew as her brother than she could ever wish to know about. He sat down at the small table at a corner of the room, picking up the quill from the inkstand, and wrote a message on a crisp sheet of parchment in the flowing script typical of their people. Jethros sealed the paper, and handed it to Meliora, instructing her to drop it off at the address the man had given them.
The note had been dropped off, and the pair resumed their day job for the last few days, for come next week, both of them would have disappeared into the richer parts of town with more money in their pockets than ever before.
From what Jethros had gathered from a blend of people, from servants to nobles, even the fishwives who gossiped in the market, it was said that it was to be a masquerade. All the better for the assassins, for in a crowd that large, all masked in a never-ending variety of outfits, it would be no difficult task to blend into the rest of the revelers. Even the elaborate dresses and masks they required for the masked ball was paid by the same mysterious gentleman who had hired them, his only payment being that the king must be dead.
The rest of the week passed in a whirl of music, fittings, and carefully laid plans. The king would die on the stroke of midnight, they decided, when the dance floor would turn into pure chaos. Then it would be a simple task for Jethros to combat any spell casters nearby, while Meliora would strike at him from behind with her silver flute, a convenient weapon that would be by her side throughout the entire masquerade, serving a dual purpose, as a murder weapon, and also a part of the costume she would be wearing that night. The flute would leave no cut on the victim, only a quick bruise to the throat, a simple injury that could have happened during the chaos that would erupt during the midnight hour, caused by a reveler who had overzealous in his celebrations.
Time flew by, and the day of the masquerade drew to a close, for the sun had already begun to sink below the horizon, and the entire city was set afire in crimson and gold for but a second, with a soft lavender slowly smothering the land, chasing out the sun’s last rays, leaving the town in darkness. Night might have been the time when the tavern was filled with people, but this night they would not be performing. There was no way they could leave the tavern in their fine costumes, at least not without raising a suspicious eyebrow. A mansion had been rented for them already, in the richest part of town, and the clothes had been sent to the house as soon as it was confirmed that the garments they had chosen met their expectations. A carriage would be sent by at the appointed time of the masquerade, and they would leave together, a pair of supposed ambassadors from the homeland of the elves.
Jethros eyed his sister about an hour before the time arrived, already clad in the robes so favored by elven mages, trying futilely to hide a wry smile. His sister was still young, at least by elven standards, and probably did not understand enough of the truth of their nefarious profession. He hoped deep inside, for her sake, that after this last job, they could leave their dark trade, and live a life more normal than their current one. A curse punctuated his reverie, and he looked up to see Meliora all tangled up in the long, flowing sleeves of her gown. The mage shook his head and laughed, not for the first time wondering what in the entire world possessed her to favor gowns with such sleeves. He knew her current difficulty, but he did not make any move to help her, for Jethros knew his sister would have no trouble removing her arm from the voluminous sleeves of the dress. Meliora finally untangled herself with a triumphant smile, and arranged her sleeves in a way such that more than a few knives could be hidden inconspicuously on her slender body.
The sight that met Meliora’s eyes when she stepped into the great hall was a picture she would remember for eternity. Countless people brushed past the young elf in a flurry of colors and masks, and the dance floor seemed like a wonderful kaleidoscope of moving colors. Simply swept away by the beauty of it all, her grip tightened on Jethros’ arm. Yet he only smiled ay the activity going on around him, seeming completely in his element as his fingers closed around a goblet of the finest wine, chattering happily away with anyone who was willing to converse with him. To the assassin’s great surprise, a young man, masked and dressed in clothes that would have befitted an elven king, offered to dance with her. Looking at her brother, now merrily talking to a woman and her consort, Meliora was convinced that he would not notice her absence.
She allowed herself to be led onto the dance floor, thrilled by the sheer number of dancers that filled the hall. Instantly, as soon as her dance partner whisked her into the quick steps of the dance, Meliora vanished into the sea of colors. And just as she entered that swirl of music, colors and dance, Jethros looked up from his conversation. An expression of anxiety crosses his handsome face, and the mage focused his mind on finding Meliora in the hall, finally picking up her aura. Curious about the man she danced with, he muttered a simple spell, and looked into the man’s mind. The moment he confirmed that the young man held no plans for hurting his sister, that he just wanted to dance with the beautiful young maid, nothing more, set Jethros’ concerned mind at ease. Turning his attention back to the young woman and her consort, he asked.
"Now where were we?"
Meliora was breathless after that dance, and leaned back against one of the walls. Her companion laughed, handing her a glass of wine he had taken from a waited, even as he asked her.
"Is this your first masquerade?"
"Yes, indeed it is."
"And who is this lady I have had the pleasure of dancing with? This beautiful Goddess of Music surely has a name was beautiful as herself, true?"
"I fear I cannot tell you my name, at least not until you tell me yours, fine gentleman."
"Fair enough. I am Eavarios, son of Baron Gayahuin."
"My name is Meliora. Just Meliora."
"A beautiful name, likely as beautiful as the maid beneath the trappings of a much adored Goddess?"
"Maybe. But we cannot remove our masks, at least not until midnight."
"The music is starting again. Dear Meliora, might I have the honor?"
She took his hand, and they reentered the kaleidoscope of a billion colors.
Yet even as Meliora danced and Jethros chatted, time was passing with the speed of light. Already midnight was drawing close, and the pressure of their job weighed heavily on both parties as they watched the giant clock ring the hours away. There was less than an hour now; they would have to move fast. Meliora excused herself, saying her brother was concerned for her safety as the midnight hour drew close, while Jethros only smiled an apology and rose from his seat, before moving away.
They met at the clock announced that half and hour was all that remained, and all the revelers began talking excitedly about the grand appearance of the king and queen. Jethros had already found out who they were, and the pair moved slowly towards the royals. The music had slowed, and the dance floor had begun to fill. Meliora continued steering them closer and closer to the regal couple, who seemed so in love that all that mattered in the world at this moment was each other. A twinge of sadness passed through the assassins for such love would be denied both siblings, at least after their banishment. Not for the first time, Meliora wished herself a member of the race of man. Short lived, without a doubt, in the eyes of an elf, but yet to experience so much more in that one short lifetime than Meliora ever would in her eternal banishment, it sent a wave of regret coursing through her.
Midnight was drawing close, and Meliora readied herself to strike, while Jethros prepared to unleash the first of his deadly spells. The clock rang out the stroke of midnight, and the King and Queen unmasked themselves to great cheer from the people gathered around them. As men and women alike threw off their masks, Jethros flung the first of his spells at the queen, but his pent-up frustrations of his loss of honor and the ever present feeling of shame over his dark career finally surpassed their limits, throwing off his aim, hitting the huge chandelier instead, sending the whole structure crashing to the floor, and men and women scrambling off in all directions. The king began to shout for his guards to capture the assassins who had tried to kill them, his voice going unheard in the chorus of shouts and screams that reverberated around the hall. Jethros stared at his fingers as if they had betrayed him, while Meliora tried to weave her way through the mess of people that crowded around every single exit.
For the first time they had failed, and from somewhere far above, a man, one ever so similar to the one that had approached them in the tavern, save that he was clad in the clothes of a lord rather than that of a commoner's, watched the pair trying to escape the main hall, beckoning with a hand for another man to approach, this one holding a longbow in one hand, the other holding an arrow. A cruel smile spread across the first man’s lips, and he motioned for the archer to fire. One arrow shot through the air, burying itself deep in Meliora’s back, stopping her escape permanently. The archer notched a second arrow, and at the same moment, Jethros noticed his sister’s limp body resting against him. He turned his head upwards, seeing the archer with his second arrow about to fly through the air, placing the connection between his sister’s lifeless body and the man up there immediately. The spells he had prepared beforehand shot out of his fingers then, bolts of pure energy crackling as they flew upwards, devouring the arrow as well as the archer. Another spell went off, one he had never prepared, and a spell he had never thought himself capable of casting, due to the high skill required of the caster. Yet he did it, the words barely even audible, as they were all drawn out from his constricted throat in grief-stricken screams of rage.
There seemed nothing dangerous nor frightening about the smoke that flew from his fingertips, save that it kept traveling upwards, towards the man who had killed his sister. The gray haze settled itself slowly around his body, before burning away at his flesh, consuming his body little by little, sending screams of agony echoing through the hall, as Jethros gave one final, self-satisfied smile, before blacking out from the lack of strength, an aftereffect of casting a spell of such great power.