A Death before Dawn: Part 1
Febros. I hated Febros. Well, that wasn’t exactly true. I only hated Febros in the Winter, when the cold Northerly winds blow storms laden with freezing rain and salty spume against the cliffs below the town. It’s a misery I can do without, which is why I generally avoided taking contracts in southern Cheute in winter. This was Midsummer, and it should have been comfortably warm, with gentle sea breezes taking away the worst of the heat, but it wasn’t. An unseasonal north wind was blowing and every wet, salt laden gust of wind tasted like Winter. “Hunt today?” Mairin asked from her perch on my shoulder. “It’s supposed to be warm and sunny!” I grumbled. “Only weather.” She advised gravely. “Hunt warms blood.” “I suppose it does.” I sighed. “Hungry.” “No nibbling Mai. It’s supposed to look like an accident. If you’re hungry find a mouse or something.” My little companion stamped a tiny foot on my shoulder, her dark red, feathered wings buzzing to maintain her balance. “Not desperate, Marek, want something nice.” “Something from the kitchen?” “Bloody.” I rolled my eyes and nodded. Arguing with an Aoshee was an exercise in futility, especially if they were hungry. Less than a foot tall, the carnivorous creatures had an intimidating appetite for fresh meat. They were intelligent and loyal, but with a very short-term view of life. Unless they were engaged in something to do with mating or hunting, they were as likely as not to wander off and forget what they were doing and why. “I’ll make sure it’s bloody.” I assured her. “And then I’ll go out. You’ll be ok here?” “Yes. Watch rain.” She brushed her cheek against mine affectionately then dropped off my shoulder, flitted to the window sill and sat down. Drawing her knees up to her chest, the little Aoshee arranged her wings and long hair around herself, before glancing at me impatiently and tapping her sharp nails on the window. “Hungry Marek!” * I stepped out of the inn and into the narrow muddy street, pulling up the hood of my cheap woollen cloak against the rain. A contract had brought me to Febros. A contract called Eldon. Eldon was a merchant who imported small luxuries, expensive trinkets, and charms of questionable effectiveness. He then sold them to what passed for the wealthy in this provincial town. I didn’t know what exactly the man had done to warrant the contract, and I didn’t care. I had been in town for several days now. Some careful investigation and a few coins in the right hands had revealed much. His store was a front. He did enough business to turn a profit, but the contacts he had grown from his store had led him to far more fruitful ventures. He supplied drugs for the most part, Pas, and Thal, both highly illegal, highly profitable, and an almost central part of certain high society events. If word was to be believed, he also trafficked in illegal slavery. I cursed as I stepped out on to Febros’ main street as a passing cart lurched through a rut and splashed cold muddy water over my boots. Wonderful, I’d only bought them recently. I sighed and began walking towards Eldon’s shop. His store was on one side of the main town square, where the local Lord made his announcements and public punishments were carried out. Opposite the shop, on the other side of the square, were the gates to the harbour fortifications. I normally don’t visit with my contracts prior to killing them, but the contract stipulated that Eldon’s death look accidental, so I wanted to get a look at his shop before committing to a line of attack. The shop was easy to access and easy to get away from. If Eldon could have his accident here it would make the job much easier. A cunningly wrought bell rang softly as I pushed in the door, and a short, balding man in expensive clothes looked up from behind a counter. A chair somewhere in the back of the shop out of sight scraped slightly. “Can I help you?” The man behind the counter asked dismissively. “I’m looking for Eldon.” I answered, shifting my tone to appear less threatening. “And you are?” Eldon asked sourly. I knew that he had been sizing me up from the moment I opened the door and I had altered my appearance enough to look like a low-level factor. He’d believe I was someone who travelled a lot running errands for a Master. My sandy hair was rough cut to chin level, my beard in need of a trim. My clothes were worn but not too cheap, but my boots, even mud splattered, were what revealed me to be more than a simple traveller. They were expensive, comfortable, and made for long travel. I watched Eldon’s expression and saw the acceptance in his eyes. The next part came easy. “My name is Betlic.” I announced brightly. “I’ve been tasked by my employer to purchase a certain type of trinket for her.” “I don’t sell trinkets.” “Then you are Eldon?” “Yes, yes. Look either tell me what you want or be gone. I have business to tend to.” “Well, yes, of course. It’s just that the matter is one of a very sensitive nature and my employer bade me to seek you out and speak only to you.” I explained, sounding a little deflated. “And who would that be?” “I really couldn’t say. A sensitive matter as I said.” “Well, get on with it then, what are you looking for?” I was starting to enjoy myself. Eldon obviously felt dealing with agents and factors to be beneath him, being used to dealing with Lords and Ladies, but he couldn’t afford to be too rude on the off chance that I was employed by someone powerful. “My employer, a lady of means, is married to a man of some importance, but she is less than satisfied with, well, I hate to be blunt, but, his performance.” “Ah.” Eldon snickered. “A delicate matter indeed.” “Would you have, by some chance, a charm or some potion that could alleviate the, ah, problem?” “It just so happens that I do.” Eldon said with a predatory smile. “But I warn you it isn’t cheap.” Of course it wasn’t going to be cheap, I was pretty sure that somewhere along the way I’d offended a God or two, and so now, nothing I ever did was easy. Or cheap. “I’m certain she won’t mind the expense.” I smiled. “As long as it works.” Eldon assumed the mandatory hurt expression. “You wound me! I would never sell an item for such a purpose if it didn’t work. My reputation would be ruined.” I didn’t bother protesting that Eldon had nothing to fear. A lady buying charms to revive her husband’s flagging manhood could never dare publicly denounce him. The repercussions would be too dire and we both knew it. I nodded and smiled in agreement. “Of course. What would this charm cost my employer?” * I closed the store door behind me and raised my hood against the rain. The shop wouldn’t do. Even if I could somehow arrange to have his shelving fall on him, they didn’t have enough weight to do him any lasting injury, let alone kill him. He might break an arm, maybe, but not his neck. And then there was the matter of who ever had been hidden in the back of the shop. A bodyguard I presumed. They’d hardly let me kill their Master without interfering. The shop was a bust then. I looked at the small pendant in my hand and rolled my eyes. I’d paid far too much for the excuse to check out the shop and get up close with Eldon. Still, it was a nicely designed pendant. I decided I liked it and hung it around my neck, tucking it under my tunic. Maybe I’d sell it on later if I found someone gullible enough. I walked away from the Main Square and passed through the market place, a smaller muddier version of the Main square, on the other side of the harbour fort. Even in the rain the traders were out in force and there were plenty of customers around to keep them there. A little way past the market square I turned up the narrow, paved road that ran up Merchants’ Hill where the Lord of Febros had his house. I call it a house, but it was more like a small castle, nestled in the ruins of the much older fort that had once stood guard over the town. In Febros, the closer you lived to the Lord the more important you were. It was a measure of Eldon’s success that his own house was a mere stone’s throw from the Lord’s house. The man was not short of ego. There were several other houses on the hill, but none so close to the Lord’s house as Eldon’s. I trod up and down that road several times, but short of riding over the merchant with a horse, there was nothing that I could use to engineer an accident. I’d have to kill him in his house. The house that was surrounded by a ten-foot-high wall and protected by hired guards. I was starting to realise that this town was nothing but bad luck for me. Well, the Gods knew I loved a challenge, and they rarely failed to deliver. * Mairin was curled up on my pillow sleeping when I returned. The cut of raw meat that I had left her was gone. Even the blood had been lapped up from the plate. She stirred as I walked past the bed and stretched. “The meat was ok?” “Not fresh.” She groused. “It’s a town Mairin.” I reminded her. “You know nothing is ever fresh. We can hunt a deer when we go home.” “I love deer!” The little Aoshee squealed in excitement. She really did. Usually she’d scout out and select the target and then let me know where it was. She had an unusually keen eye for good meat. After any hunt she knew she would be getting a choice cut, but it had been a while since we’d gone hunting together, even longer since we hunted deer. I hadn’t been thinking when I made the offer and hadn’t considered what her reaction would be. A look of undisguised, elemental lust crossed her face as she rose to her hands and knees, her wings spread wide. I swore, and turned away as fast as I could, cursing my tongue, and sat on the end of the bed to pull off my boots. Aoshee attitudes towards food tended to overlap with mating and while they had no qualms about displaying for others of their kind, they were intensely self-conscious about being seen by anyone else. If I didn’t handle this right, she might fly off and leave me out of sheer mortification. I pulled off my boots and waited till she calmed herself. A moment later I felt her land on my shoulder and she nuzzled my ear. “What now?” She asked softly. Okay, so we were going to pretend that I hadn’t just seen her having an intensely private moment. I was perfectly fine with that. “Now I sleep for a while. It’ll be a long night. Do you need anything?” Mairin shook her head and hovered in the air a moment as I lay back in the bed before landing on my chest and curling up. A moment later she was snoring softly. I smiled and closed my eyes. Tonight was going to be interesting. * I awoke in the half light of late evening to Mairin hissing and slashing at my chest. I yelped and swatted at her. She dodged, easily as I knew she would, and launched herself at my chest again. “Mairin!” I shouted, as I fended her off. “What the fuck are you doing?” She hovered in the air, spitting and snarling, and pointed at my chest. “Bad!” “Bad?! What’s bad?” She swooped in towards my chest, dodged my hand, and slashed at my chest. Again. “Fuck! Mairin! Stop! What’s gotten into you?!” Once again, she hovered out of reach and pointed at my chest. “Bad!” I brushed my hand over my shredded tunic and felt the pendant beneath. I pulled it out and showed it to her. “This?” “Bad!” She hissed, like a tiny boiling kettle. “It’s just a harmless trinket.” I protested. “Not harmless.” She insisted. “Burn!” “Are you sure…?” “Burn!” She shrieked. I grabbed my spark charm, covered the small ward with a finger-tip, and held it to the bedside candle. The wick smoked for a moment then flared to life. With the candle lit I held the pendant to the small flame and for a moment, nothing happened. Then with shocking suddenness, it was consumed in a green ball of flame. I grimaced and dropped the pendant as the fire licked my hand. And then it was gone leaving only a scattering of ash on the floor. I stood there in shock, trying to comprehend what had just happened. Mairin swooped in and nuzzled against my chest, patting my skin where she’d clawed me. “Sorry Marek. Sorry.” I sat down heavily, and she landed on my lap, still patting my chest. I coughed to clear my suddenly dry throat. “Mairin, what was that?” I croaked. “Bad.” She said worriedly. “Okay. But what was it?” She looked up at me and cocked her head to one side as she considered my question, then shrugged. “Bad.” I sighed. I wasn’t going to get any more out of her. As I said, Aoshee are intelligent but their connection with the present can sometimes be a bit tenuous. If Mairin said it was bad, then I believed her. I just wish I knew what sort of bad it had been. * Being an assassin means learning the art of invisibility. I don’t mean that literally, although thinking about it now, there may be a few assassins knocking about with that ability. I mean the art of blending in. When you looked like you belonged somewhere you were effectively invisible, while being in plain sight. If you dressed the part and acted the part, and didn’t stand out, then people tended to ignore you, if they saw you at all. In popular stories told over campfires and warm tap rooms, assassins always look like assassins. Wearing all black and hiding in shadowed corners, faces covered and leaving dramatic messages on cooling bodies. I’ve told a few of those stories myself. Believe it or not, it helps me do my job. I stroll through towns and cities in the light of day. I’ve killed people at midday in the middle of a busy street. No one has ever seen me coming and no one knows what I look like. So rather than dress up in some sort of stereotypical black leather outfit and face mask, I pulled on my loose tunic and rough trousers. In a town like this I could pass for a sailor on shore leave, a dock worker, a general labourer or a farmer. I slid a knife up each sleeve, into the sheaths secured to my forearms. Two more, smaller, knives I secured to my waist, beneath my tunic and in easy reach. I tied a leather strap to my wrist and checked that the short needles it held were secure. I really did not want to get stuck by one of them. Mairin sat on the window ledge. She was still upset about hurting me, but that couldn’t be helped. She’d forget about it as soon as the scratches on my chest healed, that was her nature, but for now, she was upset. I stepped over to the window and gently scratched her back between her wings with a finger. She shivered in pleasure and glanced up at me. “We go?” I nodded, and she flitted up into the air and sat on my shoulder. I rolled my eyes and smiled. “Now you’re just being lazy.” She didn’t reply but just bumped the side of my head with a shoulder. I pushed open the window and stepped out on to the roof of the inn. The rain had stopped while we slept, but it had been replaced by a biting wind. The wooden shingles were wet and slippery as I crossed the row of buildings, but my bare feet gave me all the purchase I needed. The streets below us were quiet, with even the watch staying close to their fires. It was too miserable a night for any sane person to be out. We dropped down into a dark, muddy alley and crossed the street to the bottom of Merchants’ Hill without incident. Ignoring the paved road, I scrambled up the rough, grassy slope, passing behind all of the other properties on the hill, until we came close to the wall surrounding Eldon’s house. I crouched in the lee of an old tree and, for almost a half hour, we watched those walls. A guard walked the wall periodically, looking miserable, in a sodden cloak. I was sure there would be more guards, but from where we were, I couldn’t see them. There was nothing for it but to just go for it and rely on the darkness to keep us hidden. There was a very good reason for Mairin coming with me. She always did on night jobs like this. I could make an educated guess at where Eldon had his bedroom in the house, but I couldn’t be certain. Mairin on the other hand could actually go and find out. Being able to slip in and out of places was second nature to her. Anyone who didn’t know much about the Aoshee would assume that as distracted as they could be, something like this would be beyond their abilities, but they’d be making a fatal mistake. Mairin would treat this as a hunt, which meant that her entire attention would be focused on finding Eldon. She wouldn’t rest until she’d tracked him down. She also wouldn’t allow herself to be seen. Another half hour or so slid by while I waited for Mairin to return and I used that time to circle around outside Eldon’s walls. There were more guards than I had thought there’d be, but Eldon struck me as the paranoid type so I wasn’t totally surprised. They wouldn’t hinder me anyway; I’d be gone before they knew something was wrong. I wasn’t long back under the tree when Mairin landed on my shoulder with no warning. I almost bit my tongue holding in the gasp of surprise. It was a game for her, we were both ambush predators of a sort, but she enjoyed showing that she was clearly superior to me. For me it was an exercise in controlling sudden, unannounced terror. “Found him.” She informed me in a smug tone. “Upstairs at the back of the house?” Mairin nodded sharply. We’d gone over it earlier, but I needed to be sure. In houses like this, servants tended to sleep on the top floor, with the owner’s and guest rooms on the floor below, with maybe a private dining room and an office as well. The ground floor was usually given over to entertaining and the like. I sucked in a deep breath and let it out slowly before rising to my feet. “Okay, let’s go. Stay close and watch my back.” Mairin made a very human gesture of boredom and launched herself into the air.