People call him the Gentleman of Chaos, but he is not gentle.
By popular count, he’s assassinated thirteen kings, seventy-two princes, one thousand nobles, and five queens.
By popular legend, he’s immortal, a god of commoners, a death-demon summoned to feed on corruption, a shadow that devours the unjust. He never unmakes the innocent, it is said.
He is not gentle; I have seen what he does.
But I tell you this: part of his title is true. He is a man. And men can die.
My brother the king was cautious. He took the throne when he was twelve, the night after our father was murdered. With the crown not yet heavy on his head, he called me to his private chamber.
My brother said, “I need your help, sister.”
I was six. I said nothing.
He nodded, grim-faced, and sent me away.
Three days later, when I was locked inside the Abbey of Mercy, I heard that I had been declared dead; a tragic drowning accident. My funeral was spectacular, I am told.
The Gentleman of Chaos has been painted, illegally, in a thousand different ways: as a winged shadow descending like a hawk against the moon; as a tall, thin wraith cloaked in starlight; as a man with knives for hands and eyes like an owl. He wears armor, or he is naked. He dances across rooftops or rises from the cobbled streets like mist. He smiles or he is faceless.
Always, somewhere in the paintings or the stories, there is blood. Blood on his fingers or in his mouth; blood dripping from his clothing or falling around him like salted rain. Blood that pools for a thousand miles beneath his heels.
He has no name, for it was banished long ago. By royal decree he has no face, for he does not exist. No one has heard his voice, soft like velvet; no one has seen the exhaustion and pain in his eyes; no one has felt his hand, scarred and calloused, on their cheek in an apologetic caress.
No one has heard him whisper, “Not yet, child. Not tonight.”
Because he knew how our father died, my brother laid his plans in delicate layers over slow years. I did not see him again in person until I was twelve, when he visited once to ensure I was what he had commanded I become, but I always knew his voice, his words, his will. It wrapped around me like iron cords. Not a day had passed in six years that I did not know my brother’s wishes.
My brother shaped me, built me into the perfect bodyguard — skilled in lies and unable to lie to him; deadly in the arts of poison and steel; loyal only to him; unremarkable in looks but my body trained until I had exacting control over every muscle, every breath. I had no title and no name. My brother called me She.
I was forged with one purpose: to serve my brother, to protect his body and soul, so that he might reign long.
The Gentleman of Chaos has no past. Or perhaps those in power wronged him, had his lover murdered, imprisoned his child, broke and re-shaped his body, strove to take away his will and identity.
It doesn’t really matter, because he doesn’t exist.
“I dreamed ill omens last night, sire,” I told my brother.
The king clutched his goblet until his knuckles paled. “What omens?”
“The Gentleman of Chaos is coming for you.”
He scoffed. “With you, She, I am always safe. Isn’t that true?”
“Yes, sire,” I said. I did not lie.
My brother the king married twice, yet both wives died in childbirth, their stillborn infants strangled with bloody umbilical cords. Courtly tongues spun rumors of sorcery, a curse carried in the king’s seed.
“Did you do this, She?” he asked me, tears glistening in his eyes.
I told him no.
“Then how?” he screamed. “Who did this?”
“The Gentleman of Chaos,” I said.
The king did not remarry.
On the day I was released from the Abbey of Mercy, my brother the king summoned me to his side. He held a slim iron collar engraved with old magics.
“It cost a fortune to have this made by the reclusive wizards to the north,” my brother said, “and even more to have them killed afterwards. But it will be worth any price. This is yours, She.”
I held motionless as he snapped the collar about my throat.
“She,” he said, “will obey all orders from my lips. She will never harm me or let me come to harm. She will never lie to me. She will serve until death.”
The collar was unbreakable, permanent.
I did not let the king see my hatred; it was private, mine alone. Though tempted, I did not ask him, If you had a brother, would you be as merciful?
I simply bowed and said, “What do you command, sire?”
At sixteen, my brother gave me an ultimatum: by my eighteenth birthday I must have given birth to a healthy child. He did not care who I bedded. I was to have my pick of any man not of noble breeding, and as many of them as I liked.
Not a tiresome order as I enjoyed the company of men. I fucked a dozen of them, experimenting in what I liked, what I didn’t. They were tools, just as I, and I used them as such. I never learned their names; they were guardsmen or bakers or stable keeps or scribes.
At seventeen, I was pregnant.
The first public attempt on my brother’s life came during the autumn ball when I was eighteen. The Count of Dunfly, an unambitious cousin twice removed, hosted the masquerade. My brother had crushed the Redgrove Rebellion in the spring, prevented the Ishzaven from uprising on the northern border with carefully executed genocide the winter before, and eradicated the Musavo from within the kingdom that summer.
A very successful legacy in so short a time, said the court, a reign worthy of celebration. He would continue to do great things, his advisors told him. He made examples of commoners who dared to insult him and call him the Bloody Prince. (“I am king!” he told me as we watched the executioners make public spectacle with screams and gore.)
My brother the king was invincible so long as She was there to guard him.
As my brother danced with the Countess of Dunfly, a woman twice his age, I drifted in the shadows of gaudy gowns and pleated suits, gilded masks and lacy-scoured hats. As always, I wore black: trousers and a tight-fit vest that flattened my chest; no loose threads or stray fabric that might be used against me.
I smelled the sweet rot of lilac before I saw the assassin, dressed in a beautiful lavender suit and carrying a fan sewn from dyed swan feathers. I threaded between the dancers and caught the assassin by the wrist before the fan, tipped in needles, could brush against my brother’s skin.
“Dance with me,” I whispered, and spun the assassin away.
“You will never protect him,” the assassin said between clenched teeth. “You will fail one day.”
“No,” I said. “I never fail.”
Fifteen steps later, at the end of the waltz, the assassin slumped in my arms, the fan’s needles embedded between his fingers. I let him fall like a drunk beside a marble pillar and continued to watch my brother.
I knew what the baby was. Leverage, a thing to hold over me.
My brother the king, who thought he had a sister, was not so arrogant that he did not fear me. I was with him always. I shadowed him when he went hunting, when he held court, when he danced, when he fucked whores and married duchesses alike.
I could not become soft, so I did not nurse the baby. She was given to a wet woman and I could only visit her once a month, under guard, in my brother’s presence. He watched me, all but unblinking, as I stood with arms folded at my back, staring down at the thing I had pushed from my womb.
She looked like me, the baby did: she had my eyes, brown and wide, and my nose (but not broken yet). Her complexion was lighter, like the man who had fathered her. I thought, one day, she might grow up and smile.
I did not ask what name my brother had given her.
The Gentleman of Chaos is not cruel.
He is a sadist. He tortures his victims and rips out their souls.
He kills them painlessly, quickly, and they never know they are dead.
He says rites over the corpses; he curses them before life flees their eyes.
He wears the trophy-teeth of his victims and he leaves a black-dyed rose with each.
No one has ever conversed with him and lived to speak of it.
“There’s too much inconsistency!” my brother spat. “How can he be a sadist and also show mercy? You’re lying to me, She.”
I pointed at the collar. “She can’t, sire.”
He paced in his bedchamber, empty tonight of female companionship. I sat like a bird of prey, a great vulture, on the leather ottoman at the foot of the bed.
“Then tell me how all these stories can be true!”
“All stories contain truth, sire,” I said. “One must be willing to see it.”
The guardsman’s name was Vyren. He was stationed in the outer city, keeping nebulous order in the streets in the aftermath of the unsuccessful coup against my brother’s throne.
I asked him if he wanted a child with me. My brother, after all, did not care who fathered my offspring. When Vyren agreed, understanding it would be some years before he could know who the child was, I fucked him for weeks until I knew the seed caught and I conceived.
Vyren was a good man. He wrote me notes and left them where only I might find them. He cared for his younger brothers and his elderly mother with his wages as a guard. He smiled, for he still knew what happiness was — warm food, sleep, laughter with others, sex, watching the rising sun, defending his family from injustice.
“What if I told you I don’t see myself as a woman?” I asked him one night, as we lay together in the dusty hallway, away from spying eyes and wagging tongues.
He propped his head up, elbow crooked, and looked down at me. “I’d tell you I like you just as well.”
“You wouldn’t be lying?”
“No,” he said, and kissed me. “I like you, Vessai. Man, woman, something else — it doesn’t make me feel different. I like all of you.”
Something in my chest cracked, like glass beneath a booted heel. Not a physical rending of muscle or bone, but as painful, as vivid.
“I fear I love you,” I whispered. He laughed, but I couldn’t join him. “I’ve never loved anyone since … my parents.”
“Not even Free?” He used our daughter’s name with care, for that was what he thought we should call her, no matter what the king decreed.
“I don’t know how to love her yet,” I said.
Vyren pulled me closer to his chest, his sweat and mine mixed into pungent musk. He stroked my shaved head; hair was a liability and a vanity. “One day, Vessai, things will change. I don’t know how or when, but they will. We’ll see our daughter again.”
I shut my eyes, a luxury I did so seldom. His heart beat steady and sure against my ear. “I need you to do me a great favor,” I said.
The Gentleman of Chaos visited me in the Abbey of Mercy when I was ten. He stood in the high, narrow window, a silhouette of death against the moonlight that lit the chapel vestibule.
I knelt inside the granite penitence circle, my wrists chafed bloody by ropes, my back aching from the Mother Superior’s cane. I had not been fast enough; the cloth and clay mannequin representing my brother had been stabbed before I could put myself in the knife’s path.
“What do you need?” asked the Gentleman of Chaos.
“Nothing,” I said. “I need nothing.”
“Be careful with that word,” said the Gentleman of Chaos. “It holds more than you imagine.”
I glared at him.
He drifted down from the window, with rope or silent, unseen wings, and prowled toward me. I saw no weapons; I saw only death.
“No,” he said, and sat cross-legged at the edge of the penitence circle, a band of iron inlaid in the floor, with razors set against springs that would snap at the slightest pressure. With one finger, one smooth caress against the iron, and I would die, pierced by a thousand razors. “It is not your time, Vessai.”
That was my name. Not the one bestowed at birth, but the one I called myself.
I gritted my teeth. “Why not?” I was the only one in my family save for my brother. My mother, so my brother wrote, had died of grief after I left. The weight of two lives bore into me heavier than the Mother Superior’s cane.
“You are nothing yet,” he said. He reached out, his hand long, but only his shadow touched my cheek. “Be patient, child.”
Then he stood and vanished again through the window.
“He comes closer every year,” I told my brother. “I feel him. I hear whispers from the vultures and the ravens.”
“Hunt him down,” my brother said. His voice cracked in tension.
“I would,” I said, “but She cannot leave your side, sire. I will be ready, however, when he arrives.”
He stared at me, his teeth grinding.
In the end, he did not send me away.
My brother the king was not a kind man.
The guardsman and I stood before my brother in a small, private study left to spiders and dust on royal decree. It was where my father had been killed so many years before, where I had once played under the table with toy soldiers and horses.
“You’ve consorted with an assassin,” my brother said.
“Sire,” the guardsman said, still at attention, “I would never —”
“She.” My brother gestured at me. “She is an assassin.”
The guardsman swallowed and glanced at me sidelong. I remained motionless. When I’d spoken with him, roughening my voice, meeting his eye as men do, he’d never known my brother called me She. It was an odd-fitting word, one that chafed like the collar.
“Do you know what assassins do? They target royalty. They target me.” My brother paced. “You’ve slept with her. You gave her a daughter. You would turn her against me.”
The guardsman backed away. I’d already taken his sword when we entered the study. “No, Sire, I’ve never —”
“Kill him,” the king told me.
I slit the guardsman’s throat and lowered his body, half-shielding his face from my brother’s sight. His blood spurted over my tunic and I tasted salt. His gaze never left me, even as he choked.
“I’m sorry,” I murmured in his ear, and it was not a lie. He had died in Vyren’s stead; a man who looked similar, one with whom I’d let myself be seen around so my brother would suspect.
I was a vulture, circling the dead.
When I was twenty-one, my daughter asked to see me. Ever benevolent, my brother allowed me a visitation. He watched us from the balcony as we sat on the garden bench by the fountain.
“Do I have a father?” the girl asked.
I watched her, emotionless. “Everyone does.”
“Yes, but who is mine?”
I did not respond. She had inherited my shrewdness; she would know if I led her astray.
“The king says he’s my father,” the girl said quietly. “But he’s lying.”
“Do you know who your mother is?” I asked her.
She shook her head. “He says she died when I was born.”
We stared into the fountain. Our eyes were so alike.
“Maybe she did,” I said. “But if a king is your father, that makes you heir to the throne, doesn’t it?”
“I guess,” my daughter said.
“And that means one day you will be queen.”
She kicked her heels against the fountain’s rim. “Could I be a good queen?”
“Yes, child, you can.”
The Gentleman of Chaos lives in nothingness. The dark of the moon is his bed, the twilight his dawn. He appears to the wicked in their time of destruction.
By popular account, he never fails when he chooses a target.
Popular legend is a lie.
“Sire,” I said to my brother as we ate in private. He had taken a fancy to the old study; I had left several tiny bloodstains from the guardsman’s murder on the stone. “It’s time we acted.”
“No one gives me orders!” He grabbed my throat. I watched him, unmoved, and waited until he loosened his hold, leaving the imprint of the collar pressed into my skin. “I am king. I! I decide when it’s time!”
He sat back, breathing hard. His eyes were bloodshot. He had not slept well in weeks, haunted by nightmares. Every sound startled him; every footstep made him twitch. I tasted his chamomile tea each night before bed, and never had it been poisoned; he did not understand why he could not rest without waking in a sweat, screaming.
The nightmares were delicate beasts, carved from lace and feathers, bright teeth dripping and cold. They paraded the faces of the dead before his eyes, skeletons wearing the masks of murdered innocents.
“Your word is law.” I tilted my head. “What does the law command?”
He threw his plate across the room. The shattered glass made him flinch. “I want the Chaos man dead. Do you hear me, She? Dead. In torment, damned forever! See it done!”
“Of course, sire.”
When he retired to his bedchamber, I tasted his tea, let the dreambane wash off my tongue into the warm chamomile, and gave him the cup.
I sat in the steam bath adjacent to my brother and considered my body. Hardened, scarred, shaped with binding leather straps and cloth to give it a more masculine profile. I was indifferent to my breasts; they would never nurse, and I had no sensation in my nipples from the hardening agents injected into sensitive flesh by the Sisters. It was only on my brother’s orders that they had not sewn shut my cunt, because he wanted me to bear a child one day.
Every time I sought out men to fuck, for enjoyment, for myself, I pictured the Mother Superior’s face and laughed. The Sisters made competent assassins out of girls who were deemed undesirable.
I never admitted to the Mother Superior that she had been tricked into training a man.
At fourteen, on the eve before I was released from the Abbey of Mercy, the Gentleman of Chaos returned to me.
He slipped through the window, a shadow against the dark I lived in, and I leapt upon him. I laid a blade against his throat as he did mine.
“Is it time?” I whispered. “For our deaths?”
“That is your choice.”
Temptation ached inside my chest. “Why didn’t you kill my brother from the beginning? You could have spared me all this.”
His eyes were filled with sorrow. “When I calculated the cost, I could not. If he died that night, so would you. Your mother would have her throne usurped. There have been jackals in the courts for years, ones your father barely kept in check. The king has eliminated them now. But then? War would have overrun the land. I hoped that if you lived, one day, you would take the throne and restore balance.”
“All this?” I hissed, leaning closer. His knife broke the skin of my throat and I did not care if it cut to bone. “For a hope?”
“I have made worse mistakes,” he said softly. “And so will you.”
He lowered his arm. I did not.
“You could have saved him!” My hand shook. “You could have saved my father.”
“We all fail,” said the Gentleman of Chaos. “You know your brother the king; you know what he will do.”
“Then end him,” I said. “Fix your failures.”
“I am dying, Vessai. I have been for years, since you came here. I ask you to take my name, become the next Gentleman of Chaos, as I did once, as the one before me did so long ago.”
“Because now,” he said, “you are nothing.”
He caught my wrist and guided my hand. I slit his throat and let him fall. His blood was no different than mine, spread along the stone floor.
It was the only time, since my father’s death, that I cried.
“Sire,” I told the king, “my ravens whisper that the Gentleman of Chaos is here.”
His bloodshot eyes were wild. “Tell me where!”
“He will come to the palace chapel, below where your father died. He will come alone.”
“I will have an army waiting, then!” cried the king.
“Sire,” I said, “I have lured him here with the rumor that on the full moon, you pray alone and will be unguarded. If he sees soldiers, he will disappear again and haunt you longer. Allow me to finish this.”
The king stared hard at me, his jaw working. “It will end?”
“Yes,” I said, and it was not a lie.
The Gentleman of Chaos glided from the shadow, through moonlight patches that danced from the stained glass windows in the palace chapel.
My brother knelt in a show of prayer, unarmored, unarmed, exposed, trembling as his ragged breath filled the chapel.
“She?” the king called. “Protect me!”
She was gone. She had been fading for years, piece by piece, eaten away by time and realization that She had never been a woman.
There was only the Gentleman of Chaos.
The night my father was murdered, I was hiding under the heavy table, my toys clutched in tiny hands. Blood spread under the tablecloth and stained my feet.
I’d watched my brother stab our father again and again after Father told him, quietly, in private, that he would not be named heir.
“You have no heart, my son,” Father had said with great sadness. “A king cannot rule without heart.”
“Lies,” my brother had shouted.
Neither of them had known I was under that table, because I was always a quiet child.
“I hear your grief,” the Gentleman of Chaos murmured, his hand drying my tears.
“Can you save Father?” I asked.
His eyes held all the sadness in the world. “I’m sorry. I can’t.”
I grabbed his hand and held on so he would not vanish and leave me alone. “Then will you kill my brother?”
“Not yet, child. Not tonight.” He kissed my forehead and whispered a promise, “But I will show you how.”
The king looked at me, wide-eyed, gasping without breath. I, the Gentleman of Chaos, carefully set the king’s heart in his own hands.
Impossible, formed on the king’s lips. His heart dripped and stilled in his fingers.
The Gentleman of Chaos unclasped the useless collar that had controlled She. It had never bound Vessai — it had bound a lie, and I had lain that lie to rest at last. I was not She. I was not the sister of the king. I was Vessai, and now the Gentleman of Chaos.
“Magic only binds the true self,” I told the king.
I would see my daughter on the throne, for the king had named her heir. She would always be safe, with Vyren at her side to guide her, and the Gentleman of Chaos would always be her shadow.
I would spread my vulture wings and I would haunt the world, as my predecessor had, and all those who had come before him.
The Gentleman of Chaos is not a gentle man.
His hands are red, his eyes are dark, and his heart is heavy.
He serves a just queen from shadow, and no assassin will touch her. She will bring balance; she will rule well. This loyalty, this service, the Gentleman of Chaos shows his queen is born from love.
He will never again let a king bind him.
Also available by A. Merc Rustad:
In the Day After the World Stopped Being (Issue 75, Poetry)