The walls were wet with blood. It flowed from the images of the people he had killed, all perfectly arranged from the first to the most recent. They were there to remind him of his cruelty, to accuse him of his crimes. To drown him in the blood that stained his hands. He was suffocating, held down by the weight of the knowledge that he was a monster of the worst kind. A killer. These people had done no wrong, he had. Only letting them destroy him would right that wrong.
Then he was drowning. He held his arms out, accepting the end, accepting his death by their ever flowing blood. Perhaps this time it would truly happen. Maybe this time he wouldn't wake from his nightmares.
Then the familiar stranger arrived. Shrouded, as usual, in dark colors that masked all details, the figure moved through the sea of blood to his side. A gloved hand reached out and touched his face, lifting away all the guilt and misery. In their place was left a strange peace that he only felt when the figure appeared in his dreams.
And the dream vanished, leaving peaceful sleep.
Which was disrupted by a heavy pounding on his door.
Coulta sat up in bed and was amazed to see the brightness of the room. He rarely slept past dawn when the dreams haunted him. And he actually felt rested, which was just as unusual.
The pounding on his door came again and he reluctantly forced himself out of bed. At the door he found Yerik, the aging castle servant who seemed to have the sole job of fetching Coulta for their master.
"Master Varin would like to speak with you," Yerik told him, as if his appearance at Coulta's door could mean anything else. "At your earliest convenience."
Coulta knew enough to understand that he was expected immediately. "Thank you."
Yerik nodded and left. Coulta closed the door behind the servant and quickly set about making himself presentable. He changed into black trousers and a tunic, yanked on his boots, and settled his shoulder-length black hair with his fingers. Shaving could wait until he returned. Whenever that would be.
Varin was waiting for him in his lavish office where the red-hued tapestries and upholstery reminded Coulta of the dream he'd had that night. It was a dream he was familiar with, a dream that haunted him through his days as well.
Lord Varin wore a gaudy gold dressing robe and was eating his breakfast at his desk. When Coulta saw the other man in the room, he struggled to hide his scowl. Roane was dressed much like Coulta in dark colors, though he had pulled his brown hair back so it couldn't hide the half-healed cut on his left cheek.
A cut Coulta had put there.
Too bad he'd missed his mark.
"Ah, there you are," Varin said when he saw Coulta walk into the center of the room.
Coulta bowed. "I apologize, my lord."
Varin waved him off. "I have a job for you. This one is more important than any other."
Coulta didn't believe that considering Varin said the same thing about every assignment. "I'm yours to command," he gritted out.
Varin grinned. "Very good. The bastard Grand King is sending an envoy here to attempt to bribe me into surrendering to their demands. You will kill the envoy and his escort. And I want his head delivered to me."
"Yes, my lord." Coulta knew nothing about the politics that surrounded his life – he was kept ignorant and he knew it – but he doubted Varin had a good reason to want these men dead. The earl of Arren was just a cruel, bloodthirsty monster.
"His name is Wildas," Varin continued. "My sources tell me they left the capital yesterday. That gives you six days to prepare for the arrival. I will allow you to observe them on their first night in the city. They are a large group and you can only devise so much of a plan without seeing how they act here, I'm sure. If you do not take care of them the second night, however, Roane will finish the job for you."
"I thought you could use the test," Roane told him with a sinister smile. "I was offered it first and passed it on for now. When you fail, I will have my fun."
Varin didn't comment on Roane's interruption, simply continued as if he hadn't spoken. "The envoy is traveling with thirteen other men, all soldiers. One is a captain of some degree and will likely be guarding him closely. I want them all dead."
Coulta nodded. "I understand. I will do it."
"I know," Varin replied with a cruel smile. He picked up two sheets of parchment and held them out. "Now, I have a few small jobs for each of you in the meantime."
Coulta didn't read his sheet of information until he had eaten, shaved, and made his way over to the room that adjoined his. Teeya was there working on someone's clothes, as usual. She hardly looked up when he entered.
"How did you sleep last night?" she asked.
She never asked about the jobs, because she knew he hated them, but she always asked how he was after them. The job the night before had been his typical work, as he was sure all the jobs on his new list would be. All citizens guilty only of taking up religion, wanting to have families, or being too poor to pay their taxes. If it were up to him, he'd help them all leave the city instead of killing them. But he couldn't.
He was physically incapable of stopping himself from killing those he was ordered to kill. The curse saw to that.
"Fine," was all he said in answer as he took a seat on her narrow bed.
She glanced up with a small smile. "I guess that means your mysterious man visited you."
"We don't know that it's a man," Coulta reminded her, something he did frequently. "We don't even know that it's human. I've never seen more than a shadow."
And felt what seemed to be a very human touch, but that was beside the point.
"When you were a child you always called it a boy," Teeya pointed out. "You'd tell me how the other little boy came and played with you in your dream so you weren't sad or scared anymore."
Coulta unrolled his sheet of parchment and shrugged. "I'm not as oblivious to the world as I was then."
"Well, I still think it's the person from your father's letter," Teeya went on, turning back to her sewing. "He visits you in the dreams so you can remember that someday the two of you will meet and be free of the curse. He's trying to tell you not to give up."
Coulta snorted. "So you keep telling me. There's nothing I can do, Teeya. I'm trapped here."
"You'll just have to hope he can whisk in and take you away then."
"Right. I've heard this idea of yours more times than I can count. Can we talk about something else?"
She abruptly turned from her work. "Yes. What happened to Roane's face? I saw him coming in as I was leaving for the market."
Coulta gave up trying to read the information Varin had given him. "I did it," he admitted. "I was going for his throat. My hand jumped at the last moment. It must have been the curse. I had told Varin I would work with Roane whenever I was requested to. I never promised not to kill him, though."
"Why did you decide to try?"
Coulta rubbed his eyes. "The job was to destroy a cult that he'd gotten word of. We broke up a worship gathering and had to kill all fifteen people there." He tried to calm his breathing as the images flashed through his mind again. "Some people had fled to other rooms. I cleared one. When I got back to what was their altar, Roane was torturing a girl. Cutting her with a knife while taunting her. I missed his throat but I still managed to throw him across the room. I think my magic got away from me, I was so angry."
"And the girl?" Teeya asked gently.
"I did what I had to," Coulta answered quietly. "The curse wouldn't let me help her anymore. So I told her I was sorry and I killed her. Quickly. I knew it was better than letting Roane drag it out all night. She looked right into my eyes. Another face that will haunt me for the rest of my pathetic life. Another life I cut short because I have no control over my own actions. If I could go back and save every one of them, I would."
"I know." She came to sit beside him and took his hand. "You truly are a good person. This curse is the only evil thing in you. That's what makes things so hard for you. Despite everything you've been through, you haven't let it destroy your humanity. Or maybe your mystery dream person hasn't."
"I wish I had no humanity," Coulta whispered. "At least I could live with myself."
She squeezed his hand. "I know."
"What if he told me to kill you?"
She smiled sadly. "I would understand. I would go peacefully and do my best to make it easy for you. But," she added, clearly trying to lighten the mood, "I'm his best seamstress so I don't see why he'd want me gone."
Coulta forced a tiny smile. "True. You aren't on my list, thankfully."
"And I know I'm not on Roane's because Varin would want you to kill me just to hurt you more. I'm your only family, even if it's not by blood."
It was true that, though she was only a few years older than him, Teeya had raised him after his father had left him at Varin's castle when he was only five years old. She was both a sister and a mother to him, and Varin would love the pain that killing her would cause him. She was also right about being his best seamstress, though.
Coulta squeezed her hand. "Do you have anything happier to talk about?"
She smiled. "I have to show you the ridiculous design Varin wants for his parade costume for his birthday."
Still not free of the pain – if he ever would be – Coulta forced a smile and followed her to her table.
"You aren't concerned at all, are you?"
Crown Prince Wildas, heir of Grand King Deandre, ruler of Phelin, glanced over at his uncle, Prince-General Decus of the Royal Guard, riding beside him. "Why should I be? I have you and twelve of the best men in Phelin with me."
The older man sighed. "I'm shocked that Shelton decided to send you to Arren, of all places."
Wildas loosened his reins so his horse could grab a few mouthfuls of the tall grass beside the road now that they had slowed from a trot. "It was the only option when I asked him to send me somewhere."
"So this is a stall tactic," Decus stated. "You're far too old for this."
"Funny, you sound just like my father," Wildas remarked, gazing around him at the empty land.
"Sharing blood will do that to you."
"So I've been told."
Decus grunted and, thankfully, let the conversation drop for the time being.
Wildas didn't want to admit that he really was concerned about the visit to Arren. Shelton had warned him that there were assassins in the city and that the earl, a man named Varin, hated anyone with any ties to the crown. Shelton didn't believe he would go as far as assassinating the heir to the throne, however. He'd always done just enough to avoid sparking a civil war in the past, because he could never take on the crown alone. Arren would be destroyed without difficulty were it to come to war.
Still, Wildas wasn't looking forward to the conversation he needed to have with the earl about unpaid taxes to the crown and the way he treated his people. The night before he'd left, he'd dreamed of watching his guards be murdered in front of him while he was told he would be ransomed back to his father. The mysterious figure had appeared then, calming his nightmare with a simple touch. Wildas didn't know who the figure was, but he'd dreamed of it his whole life – or, rather, for as long as he could remember. It always calmed his nightmares and comforted him when he needed it most. In all his life, through countless dreams, he'd never seen its face. He didn't even know if it was a man or woman, or something else.
One of his mothers had taken him to see the castle priest when he first started reporting the dreams, and they were able to determine that it was nothing evil. Beyond that, no priest or seer could determine why he kept dreaming of this mysterious person – he would assume it was at least human until proven otherwise. Not even Second King Shelton, the most powerful sorcerer in the world, could offer any suggestions.
Wildas had stopped talking about the figure after all the excitement had died down. The figure felt like his private friend and he didn't want to share it. Now no one cared what he dreamed about. Now he was an adult and needed to give up his dreams.
"So what are you going to say to Varin?" Decus finally asked.
Wildas shrugged away his thoughts. "I'll question him on the unpaid taxes and his treatment of the people. Bribe him. Let him know that we will help the people if he lets us."
"And you honestly believe he will give in?"
"No," Wildas admitted. "But at least I'm away from the capital for a while."
Decus snorted. "And it'll be my head if you don't get back there in one piece."
"Then keep me that way," Wildas replied as he nudged his horse into a trot again.