She could only guess at how long the house had been abandoned, and as she struggled toward it at the Assassin’s side it seemed too decayed to still be standing. In the moonlight it crouched half-lit and ghostly, eaves sunk like an old man’s brows, door hanging ajar to reveal a black grinning mouth, and Regina would have frozen on the step if her hand had not been so tightly grasped in the Assassin’s. As it was she pulled back with a burst of panic, crying out, “I cannot go in there!”
“Nonsense,” he returned flatly, drawing her on. “It’s perfectly safe.” He set the door open one-handed and led Regina into the blackness on the other side; there he let go for just a moment, leaving her horribly alone with no sight, no idea where she stood or what might be around her, no assurance of having a living companion. Behind her the door groaned—like an opening skull, she thought—and the dark was complete, but then something scratched twice on her right and five small flames burst upward to light a circle around them. Regina turned gratefully toward the fire, ready almost to catch it up and cradle it, but as she saw the flames she shrieked and the sound echoed shrill through the room.
The Assassin caught her mouth in his left hand, flashing the fingers of his right, and the red tongues that danced on them, before her eyes. “Hush!” he snapped. “I said the house was safe; don’t put it to the test.” He waited a moment longer, then withdrew his palm and straightened slowly.
Regina could not pull her eyes from his burning fingertips, but with difficulty she managed, “You—you are a sorcerer.”
“Maybe. Now come along.” He took her by the elbow and, holding up his hand to light their way, brought her across the chipped and broken tiles of the atrium to a fountain long since dried up. At its base he crouched, dug his left fingers into a jagged cut between one tile and another, and wrenched one up to reveal a huge, rectangular hole; a pungent smell rolled up and choked Regina, but when she backed away, the Assassin caught her hand once more and made her stand still. “Well,” he said, curling a weird, firelit smile, “after you.”
She was too dazed and frightened to hazard a verbal protest, but she shook her head mutely.
The smile dropped off the Assassin’s face. “If you want me to help you, you must do as I say. If you don’t want me to help you, you can leave—by yourself. I don’t have time to waste carting you about. Move along.”
Regina caught her breath and struggled to keep back the scream that was mounting in her chest. It was a nightmare, she thought, a horrid nightmare made more awful by the knowledge that it was real and that she could not wake up from it. One step, then another, and she was on the edge of the hole with all that darkness at her feet and the light only dancing on its surface. She sank one foot into the shadows and felt stairs, froze again, then forced herself to go on. Down, down, down, her fear struggling with her pride as the light grew farther and farther away and the emptiness surrounded her. The stairs seemed to go on forever, never turning, always descending straight as though into a tomb.
Suddenly light flared up behind her and she turned round on the steps, half expecting to see some further sorcery; but the Assassin had merely put his fingers together and lit a torch that hung by the opening, brightening the tunnel in a warm flash of yellow on marble. Then he help up his hand and blew out the fire on his fingers, took down the torch, and nodded to Regina to go on. She did not like turning her back on him, but she shivered and continued as she was ordered.
There were three more steps left before she came down onto smooth tiles whose chilliness swept up through her body and seemed to invade her soul. It was so cold, so cold and empty, and miserable like a huge, unlit grate, and when the firelight danced down the stairs and through the chamber, Regina was too glad for it to care where it came from. She glanced over her shoulder at the Assassin and the torch he held, then turned her gaze back to the room.
It was not large; the blaze of light filled it easily, glimmering on the mosaic pattern of the floor and on the close dirt walls, and she thought it looked as though the man who had paved the chamber had grown bored and left the rest as it was. That awful smell was thicker than ever, and as she looked a persuasive sound nudged at her consciousness—a bubbling, chortling sound, unnervingly low, underlying both the stench and the other sounds of the room. She followed it and in the corner behind the steps she saw a rude wooden table and a steaming flask, and on the ground beside it, a place where the tiles had been torn up to create a fire pit.
“What is this place?” Regina whispered, and her breath seemed to thread its way through the room.
“I live here,” the Assassin replied bluntly, driving the shaft of his torch into a bracket on the wall; a chunk of dirt fell from it and spattered at his feet. He grabbed a rough chair and shoved it toward Regina, adding, “Sit.”
Regina put her hand on the object’s splintered back, but she did not sit, only stood watching the Assassin’s movements uneasily while he tossed off his cloak and went to the table. He removed the flask from it, which did not lessen the stench, and kicked back the ashes in the pit until Regina could see twin red glows like dragon eyes—like the dragon eyes on the watch. Impatient, she raised her voice and demanded, “Why have you brought me here?”
He put the flask on the little spark of a fire and tucked it in before turning to her again, and his coolness made her angry. “For privacy,” he repeated. “You carry an odd thing there; you’re a fool to wear it so openly. Why do you not sit?”
Regina gripped the chair harder. “I do not trust you,” she said distinctly.
“You are an assassin; you kill for money. Why should I trust you?”
He quirked a little smile and for the first time she saw humour in his eyes as he replied, “There is no money in the case. And it would have been easier to kill you in the street; I would hate to bloody the tiles. Bring the thing here to the table.”
Regina did not trust him a jot more than she had before, but she obeyed because she had to, drawing the chain over her head and shaking back her hair as, fingers still on the metal, she showed the dragon to him. This time his face did not change as he put out his hand to it, but she saw that he was tense, almost to the breaking point, and his breath came a little heavily; he touched it, caressed it, then said, not unpleasantly, “May I?”
She let him take the watch, but she kept a finger on the long chain and watched his movements jealously. The Assassin explored the crevices of the dragon-head, not seeming to fear, as Regina feared, the garnet eyes or the snarling mouth, and then he clicked open the lid. His eyelids jerked and the dark eyes beneath them glinted and darted more quickly over the face of the watch, so that Regina tightened her hand on the metal. But he merely looked up at her. “Why,” he said, “have you brought me this?”
He was not resisting her death-grip on the watch, but Regina felt as though they were playing a stupid, childish game of tug-of-war with it. She thrust her jaw out and replied, “I was told you might be able to help me.”
“This. I come from the future—” Regina’s head swam as she said it “—and I must get back, but the watch—the watch won’t let me.”
For a long time the Assassin regarded her without expression, and she found his gaze as hypnotizing, in its own way, as the dragon’s. At last, though, he broke the spell with the remark, “I see. You say the watch will not let you; do you know why?”
“No. The hand won’t turn forward, I’ve tried. But I must get back!” she burst out, beginning to tremble. “I have a brother—I must take care of him. I can’t stay here.”
Her words rang in the silence, striking the marble tiles with slap after slap of desperation. The Assassin did not seem to care: foolish, Regina thought dully, to think that he would. He was considering the watch again, running his forefinger over the markings, and presently he said, “This is an old language, and a very curious one...” Then, eyeing her: “Who told you to seek the Assassin?”
“A woman.” He crooked an eyebrow at her, and she ground her teeth and added, “I don’t know her name.”
“You shouldn’t talk to strangers.”
“And what are you?” Regina lashed back, losing the frayed remnants of her temper. “Don’t tell me who I can talk to. It’s my business, isn’t it? Mine! I must go home—I must! I’ll do what it takes to get there; you can’t stop me. If you kill me I’ll haunt you—I’ll haunt your conscience, I’ll haunt your dreams! I won’t let go, not till you mind is broken and you can’t remember your own name. You’re the only man who can help me—please! For pity’s sake!”
Her voice had risen to a wail and then a scream, and she felt empty and dry and old as the words died away. She had nothing left; the room blurred and danced before her, all darkness and fire. Then it cleared and she saw the Assassin’s face and his hands toying with the watch. He felt again the symbols in the gold, then looked up under his brows and fixed his eyes on hers.
“I will help you.”