Tornmile: Part 29

Tornmile
Part XXIX: Treacherous Steps

Johreel walked through the courtyard, his feet making no sound on the cobbles, as he tucked the sack containing the man named Straton’s head under his belt. His injured hand was still not fully healed and there was always a possibility one of the City Watch would get curious and enquire the contents of his pockets. If so, Johreel would need quick access to his weaponry. He could have taken the rooftop route, of course, thus avoiding most unfriendly eyes, but that required more of his attention and his mind was distracted with turning over the question of Durandal. He had never before let a target escape unharmed, especially when he had been face to face with one. He’d been playing a dangerous game from the moment the smith had spoken of the sword, and now he was entering treacherous waters indeed.

But he could not shake the feeling that Mishak the Stamm ought to live, that there was something wrong with the list of targets he had been given recently. Why should they all be connected? Why should they all know something of this sword relic? But there had been nothing suspicious in the contracts. Everything had been in its place. No two payments from the same person and no suspicious reasoning. These contracts came from the Magister himself. If they were under scrutiny, that meant putting the Magister under scrutiny, and if there was any treachery that an Assassin would not encompass in the course of his life, that was one. The Magister was almost sacred. It was the one position that could not be gained by killing the previous incumbent. Johreel would have to take small steps if he was to walk that particular path.

The streets of Tornmile were rarely deserted, even at this time of night, especially with the influx of refugees from the parts of the Empire that crumbled into dust. Johreel paid the people as little mind as he paid the situation. Lines on a map meant nothing to an Assassin, just as it meant nothing to the Reaper and his levelling blade. All the Sanctuaries in the cities of the Empire would be concerned with the political condition, of course, but only insofar as it was political upheaval that brought in the most pay. Instability also meant fewer idealists attempting to root out the sort of evil practices that the Assassins were often accused of. In Tornmile there was talk of worship of the Enemy, the opponent of their Emperor of Heaven that they named as if he was God. They talked of blasphemies and improper rituals as if their own faith was not all a blasphemy against God, as if their pomp and ceremony would save them after death. And will you be saved, Devil Child?

Johreel crossed the street and entered the marketplace, which stood where the noon shadow of the Spire would fall. At night, the tower defined the night sky, its dark bulk still visible to the entire city. It seemed to be an absence of light against the lighter cloak of the sky, lit as that was by stars and the moon. In the marketplace, people slept in common with one another, people whose practices were widely different and whose languages were not always known to those on the next bedroll along. Johreel picked his way cautiously through the crowds. They were not above thievery, starving people never were, and he wanted to give them no cause to delay him or bring attention to his activities. Few stirred in their blankets at this hour, even those who had not eaten in days.

Johreel looked about him as he walked and saw several lying there who would never stir again. He felt sympathy for them, something he rarely felt when looking at a corpse, but he also thought them stupid. They had come to the city thinking that the Empire’s governors would care for them, would feed and clothe them because those nobles once owned the dust they were born in. Fools! They should have stayed where they were born; one overlord was much like another if you were poor – what did it matter whether it was the Tornmilian Empire or the land of some local warrior who has summoned a horde to carve him out a territory? He wondered how many of Lapion’s citizens had left following its fall and come to the heart of the Empire only to die of hunger, whilst at home their neighbours who had stayed behind ate as though nothing had changed.

Sometimes bread isn’t enough. It was a small voice, but it spoke with clarity from the back of Johreel’s mind. It asked him why he did not let the Durandal affair go if it did not matter who governed or how they governed and only that there was still bread on the table and work to be done. What did it matter to him if Durandal had been in Minham’s possession and that everyone who knew anything of it was killed? Would he not be rewarded for the work? He looked down at the pale body of a young woman, her lips cracked and dry, breath coming in rasps. She would not last the night. He answered the voice: it matters.

He was glad to exit the marketplace and move into the side streets where he could no longer see the mass of humanity that had gathered there, no longer feel the losses that hung over all of them, the weight and stench of death as they died. He moved quickly now, the strange weight of Straton’s head bumping at his waist. Ahead there were two men carrying a lamp; its light reflected off helms and spear points. City Watch. Mounting a small wall nearby, he clambered over, dropping down to the tiny yard behind.

Someone had tried to grow grass in the yard, sowing it in an irregular fashion, for it now grew it clumps that looked sickly even in the half-light of the moon. One solitary flower grew in the centre of the makeshift lawn, its head drooping till it almost brushed the bare earth beside it. Above the flower a clothes line was stretched from the wall of two adjoining houses. The line was slack, the hook that held it almost out of the wall, and pale tunics hung from it like ghosts that had lost interest in haunting the living. At one end of the line was a cloak, dark as the earth below it. Johreel pulled it down hurriedly, threw it about himself to disguise the location of the sack and pulled the hood up to shield his face from unfriendly eyes. He pulled back to the wall he had mounted and watched until the Watchmen had gone past. Once they had moved out of sight, he rejoined the road, heading for The Shieldmaiden and the room in which Seren waited.

It was not a long journey to the inn – the streets were relatively straightforward once you had the hang of their locations, but he kept to the shadows the whole way, passing unnoticed, though he suspected that if the drunks he passed had seen him they would not credit him as being real the next day. He entered the inn through the main door, eyed suspiciously by a doorkeep, who wore a leather chest piece and held a massive cudgel lazily in his hands. He could swing that weapon with some force, but his arm would be slow and his neck, his eyes, and his thighs were all unprotected: Johreel knew he could kill the man three times over before the cudgel swung anywhere near him. The doorkeep made no move other than to turn his head and watch though, and Johreel crossed the common room and ascended the stairs.

The inn had three storeys and Johreel had taken a room at the back on the highest floor. The rooms were not much, but there was a bed and a washstand. He wondered if Seren would still be asleep; it would make what he had to do easier. He took the stairs slowly, not wanting to cause them to creak, and then made his way along the corridor to the room. Taking a key from his belt pouch he eased into the lock and turned. It did not squeal – a little oil applied before Seren’s return from Ferrer’s gate had made sure it would not. The latch was equally silent and the hinges made no sound as he pushed the door open enough to allow him in and no wider.

Once inside he shut the door and locked it. The cloak was discarded and he took the sack from his belt and laid it on the floor. The room was almost pitch black; the only light came from a knot hole in the shutters. Johreel moved towards the bed. If he was going to place the Magister under scrutiny he needed to take a step forwards. He had thought all along that Seren’s presence of the mission was for one of two reasons – either she was a spy or she was a test. He had killed the last person chosen to test him and another death would demonstrate his continued worth, even whilst injured, and with the contract to all eyes and ears proved fulfilled. If she was a spy her death was necessary to put Serkan or the Magister, or whoever truly controlled her, on the back foot. They would not know why Johreel had killed her, or whether he knew. That would provoke a reaction and their reaction would give him sure answers to a number of his questions.

He moved silently across the floorboards and stood at the head of the bed. Seren was turned away from him, but her hair fell across the pillow. She had not bothered to keep the Assassin’s garb on now that he knew she was not a man. Besides which, it would raise suspicion if the innkeeper were to come in unexpected. Her breathing was deep, rhythmic; almost like the lapping of water at the shore. Johreel reached for the hilt of one of his curved blades.

“You’re going to kill me, aren’t you?”

Seren did not turn; she did not even open her eyes. Johreel paused, his hand just closed around the dagger’s hilt. How did she know what he had intended? He slowly drew the blade and prepared himself to block a thrust if one came. She may well have blades concealed beneath the blankets. He was glad that he had not sat on the edge of the bed, where she would have the advantage. He waited to see if she would speak again. She seemed to have ceased to breathe and he realised she too was waiting to see if he would speak.

“Yes.”

There was no emotion in the word, no sense of regret, merely a confirmation. There was the faintest sound of fabric moving and he realised that she had nodded and then laid still. Johreel thought of the boy who thought he was a favourite, the way his voice had caught in his throat as he begged for his life, the desperation in his eyes. Seren laid still, unmoving, eyes still closed. Just a nod and nothing more. He was above her now, the blade inches from the back of her neck – one thrust would end it. Johreel stayed his hand.

“Do it.”

There was emotion in that, though most of it was bitten back, the words delivered through clenched teeth. She had resigned herself to the inevitable, but she did not want to die. No one ever did. For all Johreel’s talk of Assassins embracing death, he would not let it take him without a fight. Seren was doing something that he would not have done. Why? The question nagged at him and he kept his hand from moving. The blade hovered above her skin. No, she has to die. He pushed forward far enough that the point began to stretch her skin, but it had not pierced her when he stopped again.

She inched forward to free her neck from the blade and turned so that she was lying on her back. He could see the slight reflection of light that meant her eyes were open. She was looking at him, her brows pulled together slightly. She was shaking a little, but she inched the blanket down so that her throat was exposed. His blade was inches from her pale skin, which seemed to glow with a silver sheen like the moon’s in the darkness of the bedchamber. He thought he could see the pulse of her jugular in her neck, but dismissed it as a trick of his mind. She reached one pale arm from under the covers and closed one of her hands around his hand that gripped the dagger’s hilt. Her skin was soft to the touch.

“Do it now,” she said, gently, “Your secrets will die with me and there is no other hand I would rather die by than yours.”

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