Sunlight-Golden Treason, by the Candle's Waning Light
The assassin's paper was her last tapestry, and she painted treason in brilliant scarlet and sunrise gold in the fading light of a candle.
The assassin waits in Serekha's chambers until she returns from her evening meal.
Serekha removes her headdress and sets it aside. Her hands clasp behind her back when she stands over the assassin. Their tray is spread out on the floor before them, and Serekha's quick black eyes dance over its contents. No surprise ignites in her expression; the Judge's favorite painter knows precisely which deed severed the thread of his favor. To create an unauthorized work is forbidden; to create such a thing and present it not to the Judge but to the uncomprehending masses that he rules--that cannot be forgiven. Not by the one who holds the power to forgive.
The assassin might choose otherwise. But they are only the tool of the gods, and through them, the Judge.
Serekha does not weep, or run, only takes a seat on her cushions opposite the assassin. An unusual choice, and a graceful one. The assassin has ended more lives with the blades on their back than with the poison on their tray. There is some room for dignity in poison, but not on the thin edge of a knife. The assassin offers this small kindness where they may. They have few enough opportunities, despite the volume of their work.
Serekha gestures and breaks the solemn silence. "Do you light the candle first, or after?"
"After." They give her the fluted vial first, and light from the brazier catches inside, turning the liquid pale gold. Some drink slowly and some drink fast; Serekha drains it in one swallow. Somewhere deeper in her rooms, a handmaiden lets out a muffled wail. Serekha does not react, except to start speaking, so quickly that the assassin is made graceless for the first time in their memory as they fumble for their pen and ink.
Most people talk about plans unfinished, regrets and loved ones to be left behind. Journal entries, not poetry. It is no great surprise that Serekha, bearer of the Judge's laurels for her sweeping frescos and textured portraits, speaks art and not minutiae. The assassin's paper is her last tapestry and she paints treason, in gorgeous scarlet and sunrise-gold, by the candle's waning glow.
"Have you no regrets?" the assassin asks, breaking the flow when she pauses for air. It is not customary for them to interrupt; they scribe their own words into the narrative now, nib scratching paper.
Serekha smiles. The candle is little more than a nub, flame clinging to an eyelash's worth of wick. "Regret cannot be carried into death, no more than silk or precious stones. Regret is for the living."
"You do not regret, then, the--business that brings me here tonight?"
Serekha closes her eyes, reclines deeper into the pillow. "Have you seen it?"
"It has been painted over." Swaths of black cover the city wall where Serekha touched it, but edges peep through, and these slender patches whisper of blood shining, banners trampled. All of it mirrored in the street below, where dark spots stain the dirt and tributes to Serekha have been crushed into the dirt beneath soldiers' boots. "It's gone."
"I didn't ask if it was gone. I asked if you had seen it." The assassin's silence is answer enough. Serekha closes her eyes. "What have you to fear, little cupbearer?" She sighs, her chest stilling under the poison's gentle hand.
The assassin looks down to where they have scratched the words deep into the paper. Words of treason. Words of betrayal. What have you to fear, little cupbearer? They have carried out so many worse deeds, and yet this faithful transcription might be the one to damn them, just as Serekha's honest depiction of a city in chains damned her.
No: as they damned her.
They are only the tool of the gods. But a knife is a tool; one which can cut two ways.
They are waiting, come the dawn, while the Judge files into his chamber-room at the head of the usual parade of functionaries and officers of the Godcourt. A meal has been prepared for them, served on the pink, trembling bodies of slender youths. Papers rest upon the tables and petitioners mill in the halls below, awaiting rulings. The Judge nods brusquely, seeing the assassin--he will have been expecting a report--then takes a seat to select the choicest morsel from the choicest stretch of glistening muscle.
As he chews, his eyes catch the assassin's tray where it rests on the table. He knocks his chair over in his bid to escape, and his panic swiftly infects the rest of the Godcourt.
The Judge does not choose dignity.
He does not get far.