Another careful aim (the assassin was conscious of his brothers behind and below him on the wall: he felt the grim weight of their impatience). A flick of the wrist, a momentary arc --
With a soft noise, the second dagger landed in the cushion, an inch to the other side of the prince's neck. As he slept, perhaps he dreamed-a smile twitched ghostlike at the corners of his mouth.
Behind the black gauze of the scarf that masked his face, the assassin frowned. From within his tunic he drew a strip of fabric, twined tightly into a cord. In seven years since the Hermit had ordered his first kill, his garrote had never snapped, his hands had never failed him.
With leopard's stealth, he slid from the sill and stole across the moonlit floor.
In his bed the boy murmured something. He stirred beneath his sheet. The assassin froze rigid, a black statue in the center of the room. Behind, at the window, two of his companions insinuated themselves upon the sill. They waited, watching.
The boy gave a little sigh and fell silent once more. He lay face up amongst his cushions, a dagger's hilt protruding on either side.
Seven seconds passed. The assassin moved again. He stole around behind the cushions, looping the ends of the cord around his hands. Now he was directly above the child; he bent swiftly, set the cord upon the sleeping throat --
The boy's eyes opened. He reached up a hand, grasped the assassin's left wrist and, without exertion, swung him headfirst into the nearest wall, snapping his neck like a reed stalk. He flung off his silken sheet and, with a bound, stood free, facing the window.
Up on the sill, silhouetted against the moon, two assassins hissed like rock snakes. Their comrade's death was an affront to their collective pride. One plucked from his robe a pipe of bone; from a cavity between his teeth he sucked a pellet, eggshell thin, filled with poison. He set the pipe to his lips, blew once: the pellet shot across the room, directed at the child's heart.
The boy gave a skip; the pellet shattered against a pillar, spattering it with liquid. A plume of green vapor drizzled through the air.
The two assassins leaped into the room; one this way, the other that. Each now held a scimitar in his hand; they spun them in complex flourishes about their heads, dark eyes scanning the room.
The boy was gone. The room was still. Green poison nibbled at the pillar; the stones fizzed with it.
Never once in seven years, from Antioch to Pergamum, had these assassins lost a victim.
Their arms stopped moving; they slowed their pace, listening intently, tasting the air for the taint of fear.
From behind a pillar in the center of the room came the faintest scuffling, like a mouse flinching in its bed of straw.
The assassins glanced at each other; they inched forward, toe-tip by toe-tip, scimitars raised. One went to the right, past the crumpled body of his fellow. One went to the left, beside the golden chair, draped with the cloak of kings. They moved like ghosts around the margins of the room, circling in upon the pillar from both sides.
Behind the pillar, a furtive movement: a boy's shape hiding in the shadows. Both assassins saw it; both raised their scimitars and darted in, from left, from right. Both struck with mantis-speed.
A dual cry, gargling and ragged. From round the pillar came a stumbling, rolling mess of arms and legs: the two assassins, locked together in a tight embrace, each one skewered on the other's sword. They fell forward into the pool of moonlight in the center of the chamber, twitched gently and lay quiet.
Silence. The windowsill hung vacant, nothing in it but the moon. A cloud passed across the bright round disc, blacking out the bodies on the floor. The signal fire in the harbor tower cast faint redness on the sky. All was still. The cloud drifted out to sea, the light returned. From behind the pillar walked the boy, bare feet soundless on the floor, his body stiff and wary, as if he sensed a pressure in the room. With careful steps, he neared the window. Slowly, slowly, closer, closer . . . He saw the shrouded mass of gardens, the trees and sentry towers. He noticed the texture of the sill, the way the moonlight caught its contours. Closer . . . Now his hands rested on the stone itself. He leaned forward to look down into the courtyard at the bottom of the wall. His thin white throat extended out . . .
Excerpted from Ptolemy's Gate, copyright (c) 2005/6, Jonathan Stroud. Reproduced by permission of the publisher, Hyperion Books.
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