The lock clicked, the sound like a musket shot in the still night air. He winced, sure it would carry to the sentries posted on the turrets above. Balancing easily on the slim ledge of stone, he listened for any hint of noise. The moments passed and he allowed himself to relax. His skin-tight gear faded into the stone he clung to, a shadow among shadows, and even if the sound had been heard, he doubted he could be seen.
Slowly, he pulled his pick out of the lock and let the window swing open, placing it delicately against the wall. He peered into the room for half a breath, then slipped inside and lowered himself to the floor. Crouched below the open window, he paused again to glance around, eyes searching the shadows for threats. Finally, he turned his eyes to the four poster bed on the far side of the room.
Pacing forward on silent feet, he came to a stop at the edge of the bed, his shadow falling over a sleeping form. Curled on the bed was a girl, not yet five years old. The same age as — he pulled back hard on that thought, taking a breath to calm himself. No. It wasn't her. He knew it wasn’t her. And yet. He shook his head fiercely. Focus. She was young, yes. And innocent. But she would not remain that way. Her brother would raise her, would corrupt her. She’d grow to be the same as him - nothing but a cruel, merciless overlord. Everything he fought against.
Unless he stopped it.
He looked down at her with hard eyes. She slept, unaware, her hair a halo of silk around her head as she softly snored. Peaceful, as only a child could be. A privileged child, he corrected himself with a touch of old anger. He had never slept like this. His sister had never slept like this. Their nights had been cold, sleeping with aching bellies and half lidded dreams, frightened of every sound and shadow.
He shook his head again and clenched his jaw. He knew the importance of this. Knew what it would mean - this simple act could change the course of the resistance. This was their chance. His chance. For revenge, for justice. For peace.
He knew it, and yet, his hand shook as he reached to his belt to grip the cold handle of a blade. It slid from the sheath with a quiet snick. He tightened his grip on the hilt, ridges biting into the skin of his palm, and raised the knife.
He’d sworn vengeance, vowed to bring the system down, but how far, really, was he willing to go? Would taking this girl’s life avenge his sister’s death? If he killed this child, would he be any better than the soldiers who’d taken her life? Was this justice?
Moments passed unnoticed as he stood, unmoving, knife raised, his thoughts rioting back and forth.
Beneath his blade, the girl sighed and shifted in her sleep. Her lids fluttered open, she looked at him and his breath caught. It was her eyes, sleep dusted and so like his sister’s, he saw himself reflected in them, a hooded shadow, looming, knife glinting silver. What must she think of him?
He opened his mouth and reached out a hand - to comfort, to kill - even he didn’t know why. The child’s eyes widened and she gave a small cry. Quiet and sharp, it cut through the silence of the room like the edge of his shaking blade. His heart wrenched at the fear in her eyes as she scrambled back, legs tangling in the bed sheets.
He had seconds to act - her cry would alert the guards, they would call others, soon the whole castle would be on them - but he didn’t move. His knife never fell. Even as the guards in the hall shouted the alarm. Even as they burst through the doors. Even as the soldiers shoved him to the ground. He didn’t try to escape. He didn’t try to fight. He’d made his choice.
They wrenched his hood back, took his knives, his gear. He let them. His back arched under the weight of armor and anger. He rested his cheek against the stone floor and closed his eyes.
He heard a shout from the door, the ring of a command. Looking up, between the boots and spears, he saw a man shove between the ring of men. It took a moment to see beneath the sleep rumpled clothes and flyaway hair, but as the man rushed towards the girl, still tangled in the bed, he knew. This was her brother, the emperor.
He felt a flash of the old anger. The bitter hate. It faded, though, when he watched the girl’s eyes shine as she reached for him. Crouching, he pulled her into his arms, curling around her as she clung to him, shaking and sobbing. He brushed the hair from her face and wiped tears from her cheek and whispered quiet words to calm her.
He remembered his sister’s fear, how he’d chased it away with a comforting touch and quiet words of his own. How he’d protected her. Until he couldn’t and she was gone. Because of this man. He’d had his chance to set things right. And he had chosen not to.
He smiled to himself, at the irony of it all.
His mission had failed. The girl lived. The resistance might very well fall because of it. He would most certainly die.
Looking at this girl in her brother’s arms, he couldn’t bring himself to care.