From the author: Mirri wants revenge on her sister, but the price may be more than she thinks.
"You're sure you want to do this?"
That was it. No greeting, no discussion. Mirri nodded and swallowed around the lump in her throat, proffering a lock of golden hair tied with a thread.
The Surrogate reached for it, and gestured her into his house. Inside was different than she expected. His sordid profession as the fourth party in assassinations, dying over and over to inflict those death on others, had left their marks on his body. The main room of his house was light and airy, the wooden floor honey-coloured and the ceiling hung with dried herbs that provided a delicate scent. The furniture was well made and well maintained. It was no different in that respect to the house Mirri had grown up and still lived in.
"Perfect," the Surrogate said of the hair. "This will make a strong link." He shuffled over to the fire to make his preparations. Mirri couldn't help but pity him: he moved like an old man. His hands and forearms were twisted with scars. Brown hair hung lankly to his shoulders, framing a face that was lined from years of pain. His eyes were sunken and his cheeks hollow. Mirri couldn't guess his age, although he was probably no more than thirty. His kind didn't live long.
"Are you sure?" he asked as he clattered about the tools of his profession. "She is your sister."
"She stole my husband."
The Surrogate glanced over his shoulder and Mirri saw his eyebrows go up. "You never married."
"I would have, if Terra hadn't taken my man."
"But he left you. She may have saved you from a loveless marriage."
She met his gaze. His eyes were pale blue and, Mirri thought, full of pity. No doubt he saw a lot of jilted lovers here.
"I could accept that, if it hadn't been Terra. If she hadn't said yes to him." The betrayal, so unexpected, stung as much as when she'd discovered it. "Please. I have no sister any more."
The Surrogate didn't answer. Mirri supposed he heard all kinds of reasons for the killings he facilitated. None of them mattered, the end was the same in any case. She shook herself. Now she was getting maudlin, and she needed to be strong for this. One betrayal deserved another. "I'm sure."
The Surrogate shrugged, a curious gesture with only one shoulder. He was mulling wine over the fire, it filled his small house with a sickly scent like fruit left too long in the sun. As she watched he took a ladle-full and added it to a shallow bowl, along with the poison she'd chosen. He held Terra's curl to a candle flame. It burned with the acrid stink of burning hair, then he sprinkled the ashes into the bowl. He added another pinch of ashes from a pouch, and stirred.
A few moments later he was back at the table placing the bowl between them. It was half full of the rich red potion, and Mirri gagged as she imagined the coppery tang of blood.
The Surrogate touched the back of her hand. His skin was dry and papery.
"There is a condition," he said as she wiped her eyes. "Since you bring this death, you have to stay until it's over."
"Yes." She owed Terra that much. He, at least, had been paid handsomely.
"Then we'll begin?"
Mirri nodded, and steeled herself.
The Surrogate picked up the bowl, swirled the contents, and drank deeply. Once finished he moved to sit on the edge of a straw-stuffed mattress close to the hearth. At Mirri's questioning glance he gave a humourless smile. "I fell from a chair once and cracked my head on the flagstones." He winced, curled his hands around his stomach. "Now it begins."
Mirri felt a sympathetic pang in her stomach. This was it. Too late now to back out, to save her sister. Whatever she saw the Surrogate go through here, Terra would be going through herself on the other side of the city. The only difference was that Terra would be gone and the Surrogate, after a few days' rest, would be ready to do it again.
Her stomach heaved and she heard the Surrogate give a stifled groan. It was a quick poison she'd chosen, if not a pleasant one. A sudden stabbing pain lanced through her and she slipped from the chair to see the Surrogate curled into a ball on his mattress.
What was this? Had something gone wrong? She hadn't touched anything, ingested any of the poison. She reached out for the Surrogate, but he was absorbed in his own pain.
His eyes cracked open, bloodshot and red-rimmed. "Your sister came to see me." He forced the words through gritted teeth.
The realisation came like ice water. Terra had always known her best of all. "She bought my death? How could she?"
The Surrogate shook his head. "Only if you-" He gave a scream that rattled in the back of his throat. "-bought hers. Then, you both die." He finished the sentence with a gasp.
Mirri saw him spasm at the same time the convulsions began to shiver through her. The flagstones were rough against her flesh.
"Won't be long, now," the Surrogate said. "Sorry."
This story originally appeared in Sorcerous Signals.