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The air was on fire, searing lungs with each pained breath. His breath sounded hollow in his ears, an echo that mingled with the thumping of a heartbeat. The burning turned to coughing, spreading a fine mist of blood, the remnants trickling down his chin as he turned dead eyes to his attacker. He knew he was going to die, but he wanted to choose the method in which to die.

Sweat had plastered his hair to his head at odd angles; it had also sucked his clothing against his skin, constricting his movement. Or was it blood that stuck his clothing? The dark stain had mingled with the black cloth, letting it glisten in the light. The expensive fabric had been torn in several places, olive skin exposed to be left torn and bleeding.

The rapiers met once again, blue steel meeting blue steel, the sound ringing against the hollow breathing in his ears. His opponent was talking again, a look of frustration flashing in dark eyes. He couldn't hear the words through the ringing and his breath in his ears. The man across from him, Luca, was unparalleled in swordsmanship, his true match. His stomach convulsed, bringing forth more of the precious warm blood past his lips and to the floor, forcing him to his knees and leaving him hunched on the floor. Something was wrong.

He saw Luca's boots in front of him, shining despite the grisly scene about them. Leave it to Luca to always look polished even in a charnel house. He felt his hands shake, trembling as he attempted to pick up his rapier. The aches and pains of battle felt four-fold, unable to pick up the blade.

In the moments of death, things become clearest, came through his mind. Luca reached down, kneeling in the puddle of blood, hand reaching to grasp the collar, pulling him to stare at his face. Dead eyes met dark blue, two sets of emotions flickering. Acceptance through dead, topaz eyes, and concern mixed with fury in dark blue.

It's no wonder women fawn over him, came the errant thought as he looked to Luca's face. The chiseled features were ones that belonged to the nobility, not of the Black Guard. Not someone who was tasked with carrying out the Will of the Emperor. He belonged in a tavern, dandling maidens on his knee and drinking rum. Not killing a fellow Guard for treason.

“Andres,” came Luca's voice, harsh in his ears as his hearing returned and the ringing went away. It couldn't have been much more than a whisper in the audience chamber.

Andres, yes. That's my name. Why can't I think straight? Andres wondered to himself, eyes drooping. Luca looks upset. I didn't think he'd show emotion in fighting. Always cool-headed, that one. He forced himself to stare at the face that so many women adored.

“I have to kill you,” Luca said, his voice soft, eyes echoing the pain he heard in the other man's voice. It was the Will of the Emperor. To kill the traitor, the man who dared speak against him, who dared to question the rightness of an order.

He tasted the odd tang of iron mixed with nightshade on his tongue. They used poison. They never intended to give a fair trial. The nightshade explained the numbness, the burning in his lungs and chest, the hearing loss. The pounding in my chest and ears. “Do it, Luca.” He gave a grisly smile to the other swordsman.

There was a scant sense to hesitation coming from the other swordsman, the rapier sliding carefully between two ribs in a slow, deliberate push. Luca closed his eyes, hand firm on the rapier as he drove it into Andres' chest, to the hilt. “I'm sorry, Andres,” he whispered.

Breath left his lungs in a soft whoosh, chest hitching and unable to draw another. Luca was an expert in his art. I know, Andres mouthed silently. His heart slowed, the beat in his ears falling fainter. His sight faded to a gray fuzz, the last sight was that of Luca, tears flowing from those dark blue eyes that so many women fawned over.

Death was simple. One just had to let go. Unless one was not truly dead. The soul and body clung to each other by a filament. The filament changed colors in his mind's eye, fading from a brilliant blue edged in yellow to a pale silver. Everything hurt, from his lungs to his toes. His head felt amazingly fuzzy, numb nearly.

"Change his appearance and make certain he does not return. If he returns, he will be executed," came the rich, rolling baritone. It was familiar.

Luca, came the thought.

"Of course, of course. You tell an old woman how to work her craft, ehn?" Another voice, gravelly with age. It held some bitter quality to it. "You are bold, Luca Mar--"

"Don't utter it, witch," he interrupted. "Just do as I asked. The money will be delivered as promised. You have my word on it."

"You have no need to promise your word, boy. I know its worth. Now, go. I will tend to the Garibaldi."

"Wake up." It was the old woman again, echoing in his ears. A groan of frustration came from Andres as he shifted slowly, testing each joint. Something felt strange.

"It is time you were out of bed, Garibaldi." Topaz eyes opened to look at the old woman sitting in the rocking chair nearby, knitting quietly. "Your clothes are on the other side. The Wolf left you a travel pack, clothes, and money in which to get you far away from here."

"Gracias," Andres said and stopped, cold. His voice! It sounded lighter, more sultry than his old voice. His hand rose to his throat. it felt softer, no stubble of beard growth. Smoother than when he was a young boy. A shiver ran down his spine as his hands moved down.

"The Wolf wanted you changed. This was what I felt was best. You can admire my handiwork in the mirror, Garibaldi." The crone continued to rock in her chair, knitting needles clacking quietly together. "I trust you will find it adequate."

Mirrors could not lie. The naked body of a svelte woman was before him, his same eyes staring out of a youthful face. Bronze hair about his shoulders, curled in ringlets. Every detail of a woman's body; no trace of maleness remained. Except in the mind. The pale scar on his ... no, her chest stood out, pink and puckered. Where Luca killed me.

"There is a city to the east of here, Garibaldi. I suggest dressing and going soon before questions are asked as to why there is another Garibaldi in Rozarria, Andrea." The crone went silent, clacking the knitting needles together as she continued her work.

Then there is no more Andres. She is right, he thought bitterly. I am simply Andrea, now.

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