The Last Trap
by Simon Kewin
Swan halted half-way up the wall of the North Tower of Emperor Xanthe’s palace. The wind had picked up for a moment, gusts threatening to pluck her off and hurl her to the distant ground. She dug the spikes of her climbing gauntlets as far as she could into the cracks between the granite blocks and hung on. She’d allowed for this. A slightly windy night was best. In still air the clinks and scrapes from her ascent might be heard from inside the tower. The noise covered her just as the darkness of the moonless night did.
A few feet farther up there was a single window, the only break in the entire wall on that side. In her two years of planning she’d toyed with using it as a way inside. Cut through the slab of translucent quartz with a diamond-tipped blade. The arched window was narrow, but she could squeeze through by temporarily dislocating a shoulder. She was slight enough to fit through gaps most male assassins couldn’t. But it was too obvious; the window was clearly one of the traps laid by her opponent. The nameless, faceless Steward whose defences protected the Emperor’s life.
But the narrow window ledge would be useful. Swan waited for the wind to die down then climbed to it, taking great care with the placement of each hand, each foot, testing each fingerhold and toehold before putting any weight on them. The cracks between the stones were tiny and it was always possible some of the edges had been angled to prevent someone doing just what she was attempting. It was the sort of detail the Steward would think of.
The ledge was a lip of stone an inch wide. Swan studied it carefully, looking for anything that could alert those inside. Nothing. She pulled one end of a fine cord from her belt, looping it around the ledge and attaching it back to herself. Always wary, she gradually let it support her weight. It held. She relaxed her muscles, dangling there from the slender cord, two hundred feet in the air. She’d practised similar climbs often and didn’t need to stop, but doing so would pay benefits. Within the palace there would be many dangers between her and the Emperor. She needed to be as fresh as possible.
She let herself hang for five minutes while her strength returned. Down below, guards paced the grounds of the palace, following the irregular routines the Steward assigned to them. Swan was confident they couldn’t see her. Black skin swathed in black against the dark sky, she was a shadow within the shadows.
She ran through her preparations once more. There were many unknowns; she would need to react to what she found inside. She wasn’t the first to be employed to kill the Emperor. To her knowledge none had ever succeeded in even penetrating the inner fortress. Or if they had, they hadn’t returned to tell anyone. Intelligence on what she’d face was scant. She knew only what everyone knew: that the Steward’s defences were famously devious and famously deadly.
But no one had employed her before. The Blade in the Shadows. The Black Swan. She was the best. Okay, so perhaps everyone thought that. But if she succeeded tonight she’d know it for sure. And, one way or another, this would be her last job. Either she’d die in the attempt like all the others or she’d succeed and be paid enough to live out the rest of her life in luxury.
She didn’t enjoy killing. People didn’t understand that. She was merely very good at it, which was a different thing completely. In truth she’d be glad to stop. A blade slipped into the Emperor’s heart tonight would be the end of it. What happened to the empire afterwards was no concern of hers. Naturally enough she didn’t know who her employer was. The ruler of a neighbouring land? A jealous relative hoping to ascend the throne? A resentful noble? An ex-lover?
All possibilities. The range of reasons people found for killing one another always surprised Swan. She’d never wanted to kill anyone her whole life, although one or two lovers had come close. No. Her job was to slay without asking why. That was what she did. Except, more and more, she did ask herself didn’t she? Agonized over the rights and wrongs. She’d known assassins who enjoyed their work, took pleasure in each death. That had never been her. She loved the challenge of it, the game of it. The death at the end was the price that had to be paid. Paid by the victim mainly, of course.
And did any of them deserve to die? However evil? Perhaps, perhaps not. The question troubled her more and more. And that was why she had to stop. Doubt slowed you down. Doubt was a killer. But first she had to know whether she really was the best.
She flexed her fingers and toes, then reattached herself to the wall. Releasing the cord, she climbed sideways around the window in case anyone was looking out, then began to pull herself upwards once more.
Two guards patrolled the battlements of the high tower. She’d studied them from afar for many hours. They weren’t so assiduous as the other guards, their remoteness making them complacent. They also weren’t replaced as often as those on the ground. They were her opening.
From just below the top of the wall, Swan used an angled mirror to study them. They walked and paused and walked round their little circle, gazing into the darkness, boredom clear in all their movements. She waited until both had their backs to her then vaulted over the wall to attack.
Afterwards, she lay on the flat of the roof, listening out for any cries or alarms. Nothing. She’d thrown two knives in rapid succession and the two unnamed men had died. She resented it. Any death other than the one she’d been paid to carry out troubled her. It was an imperfection. But she’d had no choice. With luck she would have time, now, to move into the palace without the alarm being raised. And if she was very lucky she might even be able to return that way. Much depended on how quickly she could accomplish her work.
She peered over the battlements, across the gulf of open air to the inner fortress. So, Steward, what have you got planned for me in there? And which of us will win the game this night? In the long months of planning she’d found herself talking to her opponent more and more. It was, perhaps, not a good sign. Not healthy. She’d never met the Steward, never even seen him. But still she questioned the imaginary figure in her mind. Conversed with him. Sometimes she saw the Steward in her dreams, too, laughing at her from the shadows. Watching as she fell into some fresh trap…
Swan unravelled the grapple from her backpack and fitted it to the collapsible crossbow she’d fashioned. There was a barred window towards the top of one of the towers of the inner fortress. She’d studied it as openly as she dared on reconnoitre missions, disguised as dancer or trader. The bars looked solid. She’d designed the muffled grapple very carefully. The hinged blades would pass between the bars but lock when she pulled back. She’d get only one shot; if she missed she wouldn’t have time to haul in the line before it clattered to the ground. And there was always a chance she was falling into one of the traps. Bars that came away when she pulled, perhaps, or that rang a bell when they were struck. But sometimes you had to take a calculated risk.
She waited for the gusting wind to die down. She breathed out, putting everything out of her mind, relaxing her body as much as possible. There was only her and that distant window. She’d rigged up a small spyglass on the barrel of the crossbow, an innovation she was particularly proud of. By setting the lenses at just the right angle to the quarrel she could take aim very precisely. The trick, of course, was to allow for both the wind and the rise and fall of the shot over such a long distance. She’d practised it hundreds of times in the quiet of the woods.
She aimed five and a half feet above the centre of the far window and squeezed the release mechanism.
The crossbow thrummed, sending the quarrel darting through the night air, line playing out behind it. She lost sight of it in the darkness, then felt a slight skip in the line as the grapple struck. Had it caught the bars or hit the wall? She began to pull it in, praying it would go taut.
She reeled in far too much. She’d missed and the grapple had fallen to the floor, visible to everyone. She’d heard nothing, but perhaps it had struck something soft down there. She should leave now while she could. Beaten.
But then, gloriously, the line went taut, angling slightly down to the far window. She’d done it after all.
She lashed the line to one of the crenellations, then slipped silk shoes onto her feet. She would tightrope-walk her way across to the inner fortress.
Now the wind was her enemy, each gust making the line sway like the plucked string of a lute. Repeatedly she had to stop and work simply to stay on the bucking rope. Below her was four hundred feet of air and the hard stone of the courtyard. She could hear the murmured conversations of the soldier, smell the greasy smoke from their braziers rising through the air. And if any of the guards did look up to see her she would be an easy target. She’d have no chance of dodging their shots.
Best not to know. She didn’t look down.
She was halfway across when a rush of air overbalanced her. The wind around the palace’s towers was turbulent, something she’d tried to account for in her practice runs. But suddenly she was overbalancing, the rope swaying alarmingly to one side.
She teetered, nearly recovering, then fell. The world became a blur of rushing air.
Suppressing the urge to cry out, she reached out to grasp the rope as it flashed past her. She grasped it with her left hand. For a moment she thought she might jerk it loose from one of its anchor-points but it held. She hung by her finger-tips, swaying in the air.
She reached up to grasp the rope with her other hand and made it on the third attempt. With a trapeze-artist’s motion, she swung herself to-and-fro, and then round to land once more on the rope, squatting there while she fought to regain her balance.
Finally she stood and continued the crossing.
The barred window on the inner tower was too small to squeeze through however many joints she dislocated. Leaving the rope in place – it was still one possible escape-route – Swan replaced the silk shoes with her boots once more. Now she worked her way down the tower. Half way to the ground there was a large balcony overlooking the courtyard. The balcony was guarded, but the soldiers gazed outwards, not expecting someone to drop behind them.
Making no noise whatsoever, Swan descended. Two more guards stamped their feet in the cold of the night air but didn’t look up. She didn’t have to kill them. It made her feel better. Her boots had soft pads on their treads. She dropped to the ground as quietly as a leaf falling to the floor of the woods. Placing each foot with infinite care, watching the guards all the time, she stepped through an archway and into the tower.
Keeping to the shadows she crept down two flights of stairs to the ground floor. She didn’t know these rooms and had to rely on her sense of direction. The doorway to the Emperor’s inner sanctum lay somewhere down there. In truth she felt sorry for him. Not just because she was about to kill him, but because he’d lived his whole life in a gilded prison. The Emperor was the Empire and the loss of the one meant dire consequences for the other. Xanthe stayed in the palace, living out his days until a child or a grandchild was lined up to succeed him. He had everything he could ever want except his freedom. Perhaps he would welcome death. Perhaps that was just wishful thinking on her part.
Ten minutes later, Swan hid behind a screen of pillars, studying a large, golden doorway that led to the sanctum. Four guards stood in front of the doors, swords drawn in constant readiness. She couldn’t fight them, certainly not without alarms being raised. There was no way she could sneak by. A charm or a spell might have helped, but the Imperial Sorcerers suppressed all magic within the area of the palace.
Fortunately, she’d prepared for this eventuality. She’d spent almost all the wealth she had accumulated so far in her career on a few drops of a certain rare and precious toxin. Aqua Lethis. Poisons to put people to sleep – or to kill them – were common enough. She’d studied many over the years. But none would do here. If these guards fell it would be noticed too quickly. The Steward had guards guarding the guards.
Would the Aqua Lethis work? She’d given the slightest dot of the clear liquid to a rat captured in her stables to observe the effects. At first nothing had happened. The rat drank, then stood unmoving, nose twitching. Swan had wasted her fortune on mere water. But then she’d moved a hand towards the rat. It didn’t react. She touched it and still it remained stationary. It was alive and awake, its eyes open, but it didn’t move. Did it know she was there? She couldn’t tell. But it appeared the Aqua Lethis did what it was supposed to.
Swan took out four darts and tipped each with a speck of the toxin. She would have to hit all four guards before any could react. Again, she’d practised it. Again, doing so when her own life was at stake was a very different thing. But that was the game. You felt most alive when you knew you might die.
Wondering if the Steward had ever heard of Aqua Lethis, Swan raised four blowpipes to her lips and took aim with the first.
She hit the first three guards sweetly in the neck before any could move. But the fourth, seeing the darts streaking towards his comrades, had a moment to react. He half-turned and stepped forwards, a shout forming in his throat.
Swan aimed – harder at a moving target – and fired a fourth time. The red-feathered dart found its mark at the guard’s left jugular vein. Aqua Lethis worked rapidly, another reason it was so fabulously expensive. The fourth guard halted mid-stride, mouth open wide, sword held forward, as if he’d suddenly forgotten what he was doing.
For a moment no one moved. Swan waited to hear the sound of running feet, shouts of alarm. Once again, there was nothing.
She stepped into the open. Someone would notice the out-of-place guard soon. She had to hurry. Hurry and hope. Her plan depended on everything looking normal at the door. Someone might, if they glanced that way, think the guard was moving into position. Maybe. She thought briefly about giving up, turning back. But there was danger either way. Might as well press on.
She walked up to the guards. Their eyes watched her as she approached. They were awake and aware. She expected them to move at any moment, leap forward to grab her, haul her off to the Emperor’s dungeons. Had she got the dose right? She liked to experiment extensively with her poisons, understand their effects on the body. She hadn’t dared with the Aqua Lethis. She’d simply used all she’d been able to buy. If it wasn’t enough the guards could emerge from their waking stupor at any moment. And if it was too much their heart muscles might be paralysed. The latter would be bad for them, but either would be bad for her.
Quickly now, as well as plucking the darts from the guards’ necks, she took the key each carried at their belts. Four keys to unlock the door. Four keys that had to be turned simultaneously. She’d planned for this also, another invention she was pleased with. A folding steel frame around which four clasps could be slid until they were in the correct position. One for each key. Then a chain around a cog on each clasp. A turn of the handle and she could rotate all four keys at once.
With four satisfying clicks, the locks sprung open. Drawing a deep breath, she stepped through the golden door. Once inside, she used the frame to lock the door again from the inside.
She turned to see what she faced. There would be no more guards now. A thousand soldiers protected the Emperor and she’d made her way past all of them. But the Steward didn’t rely on human protectors that close to the Emperor. Guards could be bribed, befuddled, killed. They could make mistakes. From now on there would be only the Steward’s mechanical traps. Traps the Steward could rely on to never go wrong.
So, my friend, Swan whispered. Now it begins.
She stood in a great square room, its floor polished marble. Many, many doors had been set in the other walls. Identical doors. Fifty of them: each with a brass plaque depicting its number.
The meaning was obvious. One of these doors led to the Emperor’s private quarters. The others led to – what? Some manner of death. Fire, acid, spikes, poison. It barely mattered. Without knowing the right number she wasn’t going to make it any farther.
She began to study the doors in close detail, listening at each, feeling the wood with her fingertips for sensations of heat or cold. She got nothing. She walked right around the room, studying each door for subtle signs. Apart from their numbers they were identical.
She stepped back to consider. One of these doors would be in regular use. There had to be a way of working out which.
The answer was obvious. Smiling at her own ingenuity, Swan pulled a leather pouch of finely-ground limestone from an inside pocket. She started with the last door, Door 50. It would be just like the Steward to make that the one. Or so Swan imagined. She proceeded to brush a dusting over the brass handle. When she’d finished she studied the white powder. Nothing. She moved on to the next door and, being careful to preserve the amount of dust remaining, did the same.
She did this with thirty-eight of the doors before finding the faint smudges she was looking for. Smudges from someone’s hand opening the door. She’d found it. She put the pouch of dust away and reached for the handle.
She’d half-turned it before some instinct stopped her. Was this too easy? A smudge on a door-handle could be easily faked. A vision flashed into her mind: the Steward walking around the hall every night, polishing the handle of the real door then turning the handle of another in case any intruder managed to make it there. Yes. She was suddenly sure of it. It was what she’d do. She’d succeeded only in identifying one door she shouldn’t go through.
She stepped back to think again. Handprints could be easily faked, but what couldn’t? She dropped to her hands and knees, thinking to peer under each door to gain some clue. There was nothing: just a fine line of darkness between door and floor.
That was it. The floor was marble, but even hard stone showed signs of wear eventually. One of the doorways would bear the marks of the feet that had passed through it. She crawled around the room, studying the gap beneath each door.
She worked her way around to Door 3 before she found it. The slight bowing of the floor, a few hairsbreadths’ difference, but enough to show her.
You’re clever, Steward, Swan whispered. But you’re not clever enough.
She turned the handle and stepped through the door. Precisely nothing happened. No blades. No flames. No spikes. That was always good.
She stood at one end of a corridor. At the other end, thirty yards away, was another doorway. She had, simply, to cross to the other side. The floor in between was a mosaic: swirling coloured lines that resembled a tangle of branches and leaves. The pattern was hard to follow, but there had to be significance to it. Pressure points, perhaps. Certain colours or shapes you had to step on. Or not step on. As before, there had to be a key. A way for people who were supposed to be there to cross.
Square slits had been cut into the walls, one on each side every few paces. They were clearly part of some mechanism. Something deadly would shoot out of those slits. The Steward hadn’t tried to conceal them.
Swan inched forwards, trying to make sense of the pattern on the ground, trying to place her feet carefully. She thought about walking up one side of the corridor. But then she’d have no time to react if something fired from the near wall. She had no choice. She had to creep up the centre of the hallway and rely solely on her reflexes.
She passed the first slit and nothing happened. Had she struck upon the correct places to step? She looked back at the particular colours and shapes she’d trodden on, then looked ahead for something similar. Although, that might very well be exactly the wrong thing to do.
At the next slit, the faintest click from the left-hand slit alerted her. She turned in time to see the spiked ball firing toward her. She ducked just in time, the ball whistling past her ear to clunk heavily into the opposite wall. If it had struck her in the head it would have dashed her brains out.
She stepped forward again, senses buzzing as she neared the next slit. Another faint click, this time from the right. She turned that way, ready to dodge. But there was nothing there.
It took her a moment to understand. Too late. The silent projectile from the slit behind her crashed into her left shoulder, sending her spinning to the floor.
Even as she lay there, agonies screaming through her, a part of her admired what the Steward had done.
Swan rose to her knees and tried to inspect the damage the spiked ball had dealt her. It wasn’t good. Her left upper arm was badly fractured, glints of white bone peeping out from her gashed skin. The arm would be useless from now on. Worse, it was the sort of wound that never fully healed. She pulled out a pod of Poppy-of-the-field and began to chew on it. Bitterness filled her mouth. It would dull the pain a little. She wanted to take more but dared not. She needed all her wits about her.
With a grunt of effort, she rose back to her feet and began to edge forward once more. She approached the next pair of slits. Where would the projectile come from this time? Left or right? Would there be another fake click or would it, perhaps, be a double-bluff?
She decided not to take the risk either way. She stepped in between the slits and immediately jumped backwards.
Once again, the Steward had outwitted her. Two spiked balls shot from the walls, but angled backward at her. The right-hand one missed, flying over her shoulder, but the left one thudded into her already-mangled left arm. Swan went down with a barely-suppressed cry of pain. The agony was sharp despite the poppy.
She lay on the floor, eyes closed. She was losing the contest, losing it badly. She had to think quickly. Had to outthink the Steward.
She forced herself to her feet and, without stopping, did the one thing she knew she shouldn’t. The one thing the Steward surely wouldn’t expect.
She sprinted for the far door, ignoring the pattern on the floor, ignoring the pain, ignoring everything. She triggered a barrage of clicks and metallic thuds but paid them no attention. She would outrun them all. Because the Steward was clever and anyone getting that far would be hesitant. It was a trap for the wary. Defeating it meant throwing caution aside.
In twenty paces, Swan reached the doorway. She turned back. The floor behind her was strewn with spiked balls. The splashed trail of her blood was clear, too. But she’d made it. The Steward hadn’t won yet.
She took a moment to bandage her arm as tightly as she could bear. Blood soaked through as she tied but there was nothing to be done. She allowed herself one more dose of Poppy-of-the-field, then turned her attention to the next door.
She studied it for long minutes, looking for a trap, a mechanism. She found none. It appeared to be normal. Could she trust her senses? Her head swam. She’d lost a lot of blood, and the poppy would be having its effect. But she couldn’t stand there looking for ever.
Warily, she pushed the door open. Nothing happened. She slipped through.
She was nearly there. Before her, surely, was the last trap. Across a small, circular room stood tall, ornately-decorated doors marked with the royal insignia: crossed swords over a white dragon’s head. The dragon’s eyes glittered like huge rubies. Quite possibly they were huge rubies. They were surely the doors to the quarters of an Emperor.
Between Swan and that door stood a stone plinth. And upon the table was a half-completed game of chess. She crept towards the table, wary. Perhaps the trap was elsewhere and the game was merely a distraction. A feint. But no arrows or spiked balls fired at her. No pits opened up.
She peered at the pieces on the board. It was clear the game was the trap. Each of the sixty-four squares would press in if touched. Each was a button. The meaning was clear. Make the wrong move and some mechanism of death would trigger. Make the right and the door would open.
She imagined the Steward standing on the other side of the board, smiling as he awaited Swan’s move. A spider at the centre of its web. The numbness in her brain was a fog, threatening to sweep in and obscure everything. She fought against it. She had to think clearly. The Steward would have set this puzzle at his leisure, with all the time he needed.
So. Anyone getting that far would be exhausted. They would also be desperate to open the door before their time ran out. It would be all-too easy to rush in and make the wrong move. Swan closed her eyes and forced herself to breathe deeply. She counted to twenty, letting her pounding heart slow.
Finally she opened her eyes to study the board. They were at the endgame. She was black. Was that coincidence? Perhaps. Her pieces were doing well: advancing on the white king, pawns and knights and rooks closing around in their complex dance. But there were threats from the white ranks. Lurking bishops that would sweep her attack away if she wasn’t careful.
She studied the board for long moments. There had to be a particular move. The pain from her shoulder was flaring up again but she dared not take any more poppy. She forced herself to concentrate.
Yes. There it was. A pawn sacrifice that her opponent would have to counter. Which in turn would allow Swan to move a knight to check the white king. That, in turn, could be countered, but only temporarily. Within three moves it would be checkmate. That had to be it.
She put her hand onto the pawn.
But no. The Steward. The damned Steward. Was there a trap within the trap? Was Swan again making the one move she shouldn’t?
Her fingers left the pawn where it was. It was so hard to think clearly through the fog, through the waves of pain.
Damn you, she muttered to her unseen opponent. Damn your games.
She closed her eyes again for a few moments, then focused once more on the board. The question was, what would the Steward least expect her to do?
Then she saw it. The one move someone in her position would never make. A sacrifice to give the game away. A deliberate loss. Did she dare do that? She couldn’t decide any more. Couldn’t decide if it was brilliant insight or suicide.
She lifted a knight, opening up a channel for one of those white bishops to threaten her own king. Gently, she placed the knight back down, out of the way.
There was the faintest click. Swan sat with her head bowed, awaiting the blow, the flame.
She looked up. The sound had come from the gilded doors. They now stood slightly open.
She moved, slipping through the doors while she still could. Beyond was a bed-chamber. Were there further threats here? She could see none. It was a normal room. A room for an Emperor: sumptuous, luxurious. Designed for comfort rather than death. She really had overcome all the traps.
Is that it, Steward? she whispered to herself. Is that the best you can do?
Flickering candles lit the scene. The Emperor lay asleep in his vast, gold-framed bed in the centre of the chamber. He was utterly unaware of Swan’s presence. Utterly unaware, also, of the thin blade she drew from her tunic.
Swan stepped silently across the room until she was standing beside the bed. The Emperor slept on, a look of peace on his face. She raised the blade, but then stopped. It occurred to her she didn’t have to do it. She’d proved her skills. She didn’t need to carry out the killing. She could stop now.
But no. There was the base matter of money. If she didn’t slay the Emperor she wouldn’t be paid. And then she’d have to carry on doing the one thing she was good at. The one thing she hated to do.
The sharp blade slipped in easily and neatly, puncturing Emperor Xanthe’s heart. The Emperor half-rose from sleep but died even before he was fully awake. A flicker of the eyes, a gasp, and it was over. Blood bloomed on the white sheets as Swan placed the eagle talisman on the Emperor’s body. The talisman given her by her employer to prove the death was by her hand.
She let out a breath. It was done.
“So you have killed him. You have done well, Swan. The Aqua Lethis was a nice touch.”
A voice from behind her, the shadows in the corner. An old man. There’d been no one there when she’d entered, she was sure. In one fluid motion, Swan spun around, slipping out a throwing blade from her sleeve in readiness.
“Please,” said the old man. “Best not do that. If you kill me who will pay you?” In his hand he held up a silver disk. An eagle talisman identical to the one Swan had just left. The meaning of it raced through Swan’s mind. There could only be one explanation. Which meant this could only be one person.
“You?” said Swan. “You employed me to beat your own traps? Kill the one man you are sworn to protect?”
The Steward smiled and stepped forwards, his movements awkward as if he was in pain. “Ah, but you haven’t defeated all my traps, my friend. There is one left. A particularly good one if I do say so myself.”
Swan glanced around, assessing possible threats. Were there crossbows aimed at her head? Guards preparing to rush in? Contact poisons somewhere?
“What trap? It’s a little late now the Emperor is dead.”
“No, no, I’m afraid the Emperor is very much alive. This poor wretch was merely a convenient double. A good enough likeness if you don’t know the original up close.”
Was that true? If it was she’d failed after all. It didn’t matter if she was the best because she wasn’t good enough. And whatever was going on here, the Steward wasn’t going to pay her for failing.
“Spring your trap then, old man,” said Swan, “and I can leave or die in the attempt. And if what you say about the Emperor is true I might as well kill you first. All your ingenuity won’t turn this blade aside, I think.”
“Oh, it might,” said the Steward, a look of amusement on his lined face. “Very well. Here is the trap. It goes like this. You are an unstoppable killer who has grown tired of killing. Am I right?”
“What makes you say that?”
The Steward began to pace around as if working out some knotty puzzle. “Because I study the people I employ. And because I was the same, once. I came in here to kill the Emperor’s grandfather. One last job and then riches for life, yes? Your name made. Although my approach was different. The palace was still being built in those days and I had myself walled into a cellar with enough supplies to last a year and a half. Then I broke out and came looking for the Emperor while all the guards were busy looking outwards.”
“You?” said Swan.
“Oh, yes. And I succeeded, just as you have succeeded. At least, I got as close as you have. And then the old Steward stood where I am standing and offered me his job.”
“He didn’t kill you on the spot?”
“He didn’t. Just as I haven’t killed you. Don’t you see? I was good enough to beat his traps. Which meant he knew it was time to hand over. And now it’s your turn. You’ve defeated my defences. Many have tried and failed. Now it’s your turn. To build better defences.”
“This is your trap, old man? This is it?”
“This is it. No blades or pits or springs. Just this. An end to killing and a chance to use all your expertise and skill for something else. To save a life for once. Oh, and there’s the untold wealth and luxury. Dukes and lordlings vying for your affections, if that takes your fancy. A palace for your own private use. What do you think? It’s a fine trap, no? I’ve been happily stuck inside it for many years now.”
Swan considered. She glanced over at the unnamed man she’d just killed. “So no one else has ever got so close?”
“No one else,” said the Steward. “You’re the best. You’re the one.”
Swan lowered her throwing knife. She nodded.
“This last trap of yours,” she said. “It is a good trap. I think I may be caught.”
Simon Kewin was born and raised on the misty Isle of Man in the middle of the Irish Sea, but he now lives in the English countryside with his wife and their daughters. He is the author of over a hundred published short stories and, in addition to prior appearances in Abyss & Apex, his works have been published in Analog, Nature, Daily Science Fiction and many more. His cyberpunk novel The Genehunter and his Cloven Land fantasy trilogy were recently published and his clockpunky novel Engn is to be published by Curiosity Quills Press in 2018. Find him at simonkewin.co.uk.