Tornmile: Part 38

Tornmile
Part XXXVIII: Traitors Within

Riding the long path to the Crucible once again, Johreel missed the long climb that usually waited at the end of his journeys: that at least would have busied his hands and kept his thoughts on the ascent and Kamahl, rather than the task awaiting him inside the fortress above. It was all the more imposing for the light of dawn striking its pale grey stones, making it look as stark and unforgiving as the warriors it held. The feeling of eyes on him came again, but it was not bandits that waited in the shadows and behind the rocks along this path. Assassins assigned to watch the road would be there, making sure that the approaching travellers were kept away and enemies swiftly dealt with. He made sure that the dagger badge of his rank was clearly displayed on the breast of his tunic. Seren rode cautiously to Johreel’s left, looking this way and that. Clearly she too felt uneasy.

He was glad of her presence, though, and not simply because of her effectiveness as a fighting companion. Though it was true he would be dead if not for her timely intervention, he was glad that he had someone who knew what was coming, if only a little of it. He was grateful to be alive, but he wasn’t stupid. There was still a chance that she was a spy for the Magister or Serkan, and there was no guarantee that she wouldn’t be put to the question if she wasn’t. When Serkan asked questions the captive usually came out piece by piece. With the Magister they came out whole, but only in body. Johreel had never before seen someone walk, but be so completely dead behind the eyes.

Accompanied by dark thoughts, Johreel urged his horse up to the Crucible, with Seren following just a little way behind. It seemed an age since they had begun the ascent, but at last they rode into the fortress, the gates of black wood swinging mechanically open to receive them. Two Recruits came from the stables to take the horses and Johreel took his weapons and the severed head from the saddlebags, turning to Seren as he did so.

“Your service has been commendable, Assassin,” he said, loudly enough for the Recruits to hear and then dropping his voice to add: “as we discussed, we meet daily in the Little Corridor or the library. I will look for you in the Records Room if I need you.”

“Thank you, Dagger,” Seren answered, inclining her head in a bow of perfect deference.

She said nothing more, but she looked at him for a long moment before heading away from the stables into the corridors. Johreel waited until she was gone from view, lost to sight amonst the gaggle of Recruits wandering to their first lessons of the day, and then entered the building himself, climbing the stairs to check in with the Warden.

The Warden on duty was a Vitelian Assassin called Ettore, who Johreel had performed a double assassination with early on in his career in the Crucible. Johreel nodded in acknowledgment as he approached the Warden’s desk. Ettore returned the gesture, though a touch low in his bow, and then he looked at the sack in Johreel’s hand.

“Not like you to take a trophy,” he said, taking up a quill to record Johreel’s return.

“Not a trophy,” Johreel said, “I thought it best to take the head for identification. One escaped convict looks more or less like any other and the kill must be confirmed, Warden.”

“I meant no disrespect, Dagger Johreel,” Ettore said, giving a small gesture of conciliation. Johreel waved it aside.

“I know. Is the Magister present?”

“Yes, Dagger. He said you were to see him immediately on your return, though you weren’t expected to do so this soon.”

“Got lucky, I suppose,” Johreel said, raising the bag slightly to indicate the head.

Ettore nodded and returned to making his notes. Johreel moved away just as a young Assassin whose name he did not know came up the stairs, travel stained and with blood on one cheek. There were scrapes on his hands. A new transfer from one of the sanctuaries. Johreel didn’t dwell on the newcomer, but turned back to the winding staircase that would take him to the Magister’s study.

The corridors were busy with Recruits moving to the first lessons and tasks of the day, but being the Dagger, Johreel was able to move relatively freely. Recruits stood aside to allow him to pass. Those Assassins that were moving along the corridors cast looks in his direction, lingering on the sack. Few would be fooled by the grain which had been added to hide the head’s features, especially the nose, chin, and eye sockets. It was not usual for severed heads to be brought back from missions, though some Assassins did collect trophies – hair, teeth, even fingers. Johreel thought it an odd practice, generally one confined to newly promoted Recruits. After a time Assassins needed no reminders of the dead, and, anyway, missing body parts created patterns in targets’ deaths, which raised suspicion of links. It compromised the Order and meant that the Assassin would have to spend longer on dull contracts after a high profile kill.

Once he was out of the main corridors, Johreel moved more quickly – even the passages created by the Recruits were not enough to allow him to move at top speed. He thought about what was to come: he needed to mark the window in the study so that he could return. He hoped that there would be an opportunity to do so in the interview ahead. The Magister was a man of few words usually. Once he came to the Magister’s study, he knocked lightly on the door, made of the same dark wood as the main gates.

“Enter.”

Johreel lifted the iron hoop and latch and pushed the door open. The Magister was stood with his back to the door, moving between the cages of birds, feeding their occupants. Johreel was relieved to see that Serkan was not there as well. He crossed the room and stood in the centre of the wide rug on the floor, in the middle of a filigree design worked on the scarlet fabric in golden thread.

“I did not expect to see you so soon, my Dagger, even with all your skill,” the Magister said, his back still to Johreel.

“I did not expect to return so soon myself, Magister, but the contract is complete.”

The Magister half turned from his feeding of the birds, his eyes touching on Johreel’s face and then moving to the bag at his side. There was no trace of expression on the Magister’s face; the man gave nothing away.

“If the contract is complete, then why bring back his head?”

His tone was even – the words could have been any words – but these ones had weight in Johreel’s mind. It was unusual to bring back such a token, and the Magister wanted to know why. Did he suspect that Johreel had not killed the Stamm? Did he think the head was a proof too far and therefore suspicious? Had Seren already reported to the Magister and told him of the deceit? Wheels within wheels, all spinning together.

“Prudence,” Johreel said, “any man may call himself by a name and any number of men might be branded on the shoulder. That is no proof of the identity. I sought to find other proofs, but even my investigation may not have turned the right stones. His head can identify him and those who asked for his death are the only ones who could say for certain.”

“I have full faith in your judgement, Dagger, but you speak wisely,” the Magister said, holding out his hand for Johreel to bring the bag to him.

Johreel hesitated for a moment and then crossed the floor to hand the sack to the Magister. The old man opened it and reached inside, pulling the head out by the hair. The features had changed – the skin on the cheeks sagging away from the bone and the eyes had a sunken look. The ruined eye seemed a symptom of the malady, rather than the cause. Johreel watched the Magister’s face closely, especially the dark eyes, but there was no trace of recognition or any other emotion there. Johreel had not expected sympathy, of course, or any recognition of the life that had been taken, but even the best Assassin sometimes gave things away. Even secrets long buried could surface on occasion. The Magister allowed the head to drop into the bag and closed the cloth neck, before moving across to his desk and placing the sack down. Johreel looked at the window, wondering if he could move across to it now; a raven in one of the cages eyed him beadily.

“There is a traitor in our midst,” the Magister said, causing Johreel to turn away from the window and the cages.

The Magister sat watching him, leafing through the parchments in front of the chair. Johreel readied himself, shifting a dagger in his sleeve so that he could draw it more easily, but he tried to avoid looking concerned at the Magister’s pronouncement. He expected Serkan to enter any moment with a group of other Assassins – they would not expect arresting the Devil Child to be easy. His eyes back on the parchments, the Magister did not look at Johreel nor at the door, which stayed resolutely closed. Eventually, the elder man selected one and slid it across the table for Johreel to read. He whether it was a report by Seren.

Crossing the room and picking it up he saw words in a controlled hand across the page. He checked the sender’s name at the bottom of the message, itself long. It was from Isra, the Sanctuary Master of Moreana. Johreel remembered her from his time at that sanctuary. She was an exceptional Assassin with pale golden hair and a thin mouth. She was unusual in that she had a husband, a Vitelian Assassin named Orfeo, who acted as her second in all things. Both were talented members of the Order and they could both now be serving as Sword and Dagger, except that they chose to remain in the city of Isra’s birth.

The letter detailed a number of minor matters to begin with – the number of Recruits since the last letter and other such figures. There were some minor remarks and responses to whatever the Magister had last communicated to her, which Johreel did not fully understand without the context. But the latter half of the letter was what the Magister had wanted Johreel to see. In it, Isra detailed the disappearance of several of her best Assassins – some later found dead, others arrested and hanged, and some that had not returned at all. Isra wrote of her fear that there was someone betraying these Assassins, and the fact that she of all people had used the word ‘fear’ was unnerving enough. She wrote that many suspects had been put to the question but none had produced any leads. ‘If someone is trying to destroy the sanctuary from within,’ she wrote, ‘then they are succeeding.’

“Disturbing news, Magister,” Johreel said, “have any of the other sanctuaries reported problems?”

“No.”

He took back the parchment and placed it on the desk in front of him. The other parchments had gone and Johreel scanned the desk at noticing this. They were not atop any of the other piles that sat on the desk and all was as it had been when he had started reading, except for their absence. There was nowhere they could have gone and yet they had. That would have to be checked when he came to search the room.

“Then we must trust Isra and Orfeo to do their work; someone will talk soon enough.” Someone always did.

“Even so, we must be on our guard. Transfers come from the sanctuaries all the time and it may be that one of Moreana’s graduates now brings their treason to the Crucible.”

Johreel thought of the Assassins that had arrived when he was speaking with Ettore. It was true that transfers were regular: any good Assassin looked to the Crucible for advancement. The chances of high profile kills were also higher and there were honours to be gained here that were harder to achieve from elsewhere. Even Isra and Orfeo, who were content to remain in Moreana now that Isra was Master there, had come from their respective sanctuaries to the Crucible, where they had met. Johreel thought of potential traitors coming from Moreana and felt anger push the blood through his veins; the desire to protect the Order was strong. He pushed the feeling away – what were a few dead Assassins compared to what the Magister was planning and the intricacies surrounding the Durandal deaths? Assassins were often killed by others in the Order – advancement sometimes demanded it, though Johreel had to admit that it was rarely in such quantities. However, all Assassins kept on their guard, even amongst their own kind.

“We will watch as we always have,” Johreel said, “traitors reveal themselves in the end.”

“Yes, my Dagger. They do.”

When will I reveal myself? Or you, old man? Which of us will be called traitor? A sudden flapping of wings stopped Johreel’s thoughts and he turned to watch a pigeon alight on the sill, a parchment attached to its leg.

“Bring me the bird.”

Johreel nodded and crossed to the window. The bird did not flinch as he took it hand, using the opportunity to glance down. There was a small clump of rocks, stood alone at the cliff edge, and then the long descent to the sea below. Clasping a hand to the sill, Johreel pushed the dagger in and out of the mortar between the stones, leaving a series of puncture marks to guide himself back here later. Once he was done, he replaced the dagger in his sleeve and brought the bird to the Magister, who took it, scattered some seed on the desk for it, and then unrolled the parchment.

“Will that be all, Magister?” Johreel asked, assuming their audience concluded, but not wanting to simply walk out. He needed to visit the surgeon to check if his hand was close to healed; he would need it to climb the Crucible’s walls.

“Yes, that is all.”

Johreel gave a deferential nod and moved to the door. As he fingers touched the handle, though, the Magister spoke again.

“If you do find a traitor, my Dagger, you know what to do.”

“Yes, Magister,” Johreel said, through gritted teeth, “Always death for traitors.”

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