Tornmile: Part 42

Tornmile
Part XLII: Necessary Sacrifice

Johreel flexed his left hand as he moved down the corridor, enjoying the freedom from the splints. The surgeon had been surprised at the rate of recovery, but pleased that it had healed so well. Johreel was pleased to have his hand back in working order, though it still hurt if he flexed too hard and when pushed the bones made a sound like cracking tinder. Most of all it would cease to be an invitation to other Assassins to try their hands against his one. He had already been treated to two attempts on his life since he had returned to the Crucible. On one occasion, the door to his quarters had been crudely booby trapped with a tripwire linked to a loaded crossbow. The wire had been obvious from the irregular patterns of dust around it and Johreel had simply stepped over it and disarmed the crossbow. The second had been a little better – a blade coated in spider’s venom hidden inside the pages of the Dagger’s ledger, which held a copy of the Crucible’s latest business. Both had been clumsy in their own right though – leaving a trap never guaranteed a kill and even if it could then it could not guarantee that the person it killed was the person you wanted it to kill. Much simpler just to stab them in the heart.

The blade in the ledger had briefly made him suspect the Moreana traitor, whoever that was, had placed it there, but it wasn’t much of a trap and the Moreana traitor had to be much better than that to worry Isra. The blade’s place in the ledger though made it seem as if someone didn’t want the arrivals and transfers looked at, but then again trying to stop someone looking would make them want to look all the more. It only drew attention to it. No, it was the work of a Recruit or a newly promoted Assassin looking for advancement. The Moreana traitor had been so careful in killing and arranging deaths at his own Sanctuary; they would not be as careless and clumsy as to draw attention to the transfer lists. Johreel was still going through them, watching the outcome of all the Moreana transfers’ contracts. So far all was in order.

He put the Moreana traitor from his mind and turned into the Little Corridor, where he was meant to be meeting Seren. So far her investigations had turned up nothing new, but he hadn’t expected them to. The Magister had not met with anyone except potential clients and only those wealthy enough to necessitate a personal discussion of their requests. The old man hadn’t left the Crucible once and spent most of his hours in his study, frustrating Johreel’s plans entirely. He needed to get into the Magister’s quarters and investigate. What was the old man planning? Was Durandal already in his keeping? Not being able to do anything was frustrating, but at least with his hand more or less back to normal he could make the ascent up the Crucible’s walls if the opportunity arose.

Seren was already waiting for him when he arrived, sitting on a bench below a red and gold tapestry of intricate design, which had clearly been made in the east. A taste of home, perhaps. She was reading a book, eyes focused on the page, a small square of silk held in one hand so that she could mark her page. Silk? Her father’s? Her mother’s? He thought about the story of her life as she had told it in The Pride of Tornmile. More likely her father’s.

Feigning a need to adjust the straps on his belt pouches, Johreel took in the rest of the Little Corridor. The name was deceiving – it was not at all little. The vaulted ceiling was high above and the Corridor itself was the length of the Great Hall, if not a little longer. Benches were placed along the sides beneath tapestry and in between them stand lamps cast a yellow glow. The floor was wide to allow for Recruits to wait here before they processed into the Great Hall to be promoted to the rank of Assassin. Today, there was only one Recruit here – a young faced boy with splints on his left arm and left leg. He, too, was reading. Fell from the cliff whilst ascending into the Crucible. Johreel had seen Recruits fall before and come off worse. There was also an Assassin at the far end of the corridor – a Stamm called Egon, who very rarely spoke to anyone. At the moment, he was leant against the wall, his eyes shut. Johreel could almost have believed he was sleeping.

“An instructive text?” Johreel asked in a whisper, sitting down next to Seren. The whisper was in deference to the quietness of the Little Corridor – always a relatively silent place – rather than out of desire to hide his words. Try too hard to hide and you drew attention to that hiding.

“It has its uses,” Seren said, not looking up from the page.

“I find the wild poisons in this part of the world do not work quickly enough,” Johreel said, glancing at the page. It was a book he had read when he had first arrived in Tornmile – The Hand of Death: A Guide to Poisons in the Wild. Nothing beat Najhayya venom.

“I was thinking the same.”

She tucked the silk square between the pages and closed it, setting it down on the bench between them. The cover was a deep green and the lettering picked out in gold. Idly, Johreel ran his hand over the letters, still enjoying freedom from the cast. Seren faced ahead, not looking at him. She had her hood down, the first time he had properly seen her face since the night at The Shieldmaiden. He couldn’t fathom how he had mistaken her for a man – her jaw was delicate, her face in the shape of a heart, and there was the faintest hint that she would have dimples in her cheeks if she ever smiled.

“The Magister has had no meetings since last we met, though I cannot say what news he receives through his birds.”

Johreel nodded – the birds were a problem that they couldn’t overcome. The only person who looked after them was the Magister, except when they were taken to the other Sanctuaries so that they could return with messages. It would be impossible to capture them from the air without killing them and that would raise suspicion. Even with the smokescreen of the Moreana traitor to work behind, capturing the birds was a risky move. What moves have you made recently that haven’t been risky? He silenced the questioning voice at the back of his head.

“I need to scale the wall; it is the only way. We may have to risk the possibility of doing so whilst the Magister sleeps or arrange some kind of diversion.”

“That makes it more risky. It would be better to wait. Only you know what you are searching for and if you’re caught that will be the end.”

“Some sacrifices are necessary.”

“Not that one.”

Her hand strayed from her lap and stroked across his own, still tracing the letters of the book. He was surprised when he did not flinch away – any contact with another Assassin could mean death. He had administered poison with less of a touch on several occasions. Why didn’t I draw a dagger? There was silence in his head for a moment. Her skin was smooth. Bloodshed is forbidden in the Little Corridor. You aren’t in danger. That seemed a reasonable explanation.

“Your hand is healed then?” she asked, letting go of it and returning her own hand to her lap. She picked at the edge of her leather belt, as if cleaning it of dust.

“It is.”

He could think of no other response, but it seemed to satisfy her. She nodded, keeping her eyes fixed on her hands as they continued to pick at her belt. Johreel moved his hand away from the book and touched the piece of silk between the pages.

“A keepsake?” he asked.

“It was my father’s.”

Johreel nodded and let go of the silk square. He thought of his own father, far away in Abboral. He wondered if they still ran the butcher’s shop and whether people still whispered about him behind them as they walked the streets. He hoped not. He hoped he had been forgotten; that he had simply become one with the other sand in the deserts of his homeland. Better that than shame forever.

A Recruit appeared at the end of the Little Corridor and clutched at the wall as if she had run a long way. She was short with blonde hair and bright blue eyes. There was blood on her forehead, across her nose, and a small amount on the right side of her jaw. None of it was her own. Dirt was also streaked across her face. Looking towards them, she moved quickly down the corridor and stopped in front of their bench. Seren looked up at her.

“Dagger Johreel, Assassin Seren,” she said, bowing low.

“What news, Recruit Tylar?” Seren asked. Clearly she knew the Recruit better than Johreel did.

“You assigned me to watch the Magister and tell you when he leaves the Crucible,” Tylar said, her blue eyes fixed on Seren, “He has just left with saddlebags full of food.”

“Thank you, Recruit. You have done well – you may proceed to the next part of the task.”

“Yes, Assassin.”

Tylar bowed low to them both once more and then sped off down the corridor, before turning the corner and being lost from sight. Johreel turned slightly towards Seren – she had been using Recruits to keep watch on the Magister?! Was she mad?

“Training,” she said, before he could speak to remonstrate with her, “I tell them to follow different high profile Assassins and keep a watch on their movements. That way I can tail the Magister whenever I want without raising suspicion. The Recruits think of it as training and nothing more. The next stage is to set a trap on an Assassin’s quarters.”

“You organised the trip wire and the hidden blade?” Johreel asked.

“Yes,” she said, “There was never any chance you would not notice them and the practice is good. Traps can be used to kill or delay guards, giving an Assassin time to strike unnoticed.”

That made sense. Traps weren’t effective as tools for completing a contract, but they could be useful in ensuring that guards did not burst in on the scene, or for slowing them down if they had been alerted. Plus, it meant that a number of faces were following the Magister and he would likely dismiss the presence of Recruits more readily than Assassins. It was a neat idea and he nodded his approval. Then he thought about what the Recruit had said.

“The Magister is gone for a time then?”

“It would appear so.”

“This is my opportunity.”

He said no more, but raised himself from the bench and walked down the corridor, passing the Stammish Assassin and the Recruit. Both raised their heads as he approached and seeing him made an obeisance. Johreel was not used to it yet – he had always paid his respects to those above, of course, but he was not used to Assassins paying him respect. That was the price of the Dagger badge on his chest though. He looked down at it and wondered if he should even have the right to wear it; he was about to betray the Order further than he already had. It had to be done though. He had to know what the Magister intended and how deep the cancer went.

Turning out of the Little Corridor, he cut through the Great Hall, empty and unlit, and from there made his way to the back corridors of the Crucible. These were not used very often, since they were smaller than the ones nearer the centre. The many Recruits moving about the Crucible made it unfeasible to use the smaller corridors on a daily basis. This meant that they were largely deserted, and Johreel moved quickly through them to the postern gate which opened out onto the clifftop. It was an old door, wood bound by metal pitted by sea water. It required much of his strength to make it open, the hinges stiff from lack of use. Eventually, though, it gave and he moved out of the corridor onto the windy cliffs.

The sound of waves crashing against the rock below was loud in his ears, mingled with the sound of gulls crying and calling as they followed fishing vessels from the city as they drove their way back to port. The harbour at Tornmile was just visible from here, the white sails hanging in the air like low clouds. Johreel pushed the door shut behind him and turned away from the city to pace around the tower. The clump of rocks below the Magister’s quarters was easily identifiable; Johreel halted, pulled on his spike gloves, and looked up at the sheer walls, tracing a path in his mind. He may have to alter it as he climbed, but it would serve him for the first part of the ascent at least. Firmly gripping the stone of the walls, he began to climb, feet and hands finding cracks in the mortar and using them to his advantage. The spike gloves aided his grip and he lost himself in thoughts of Kamahl as he climbed, winds pounding his body as they circled the building.

The mortar that he had marked with the dagger below the window came into his view before he had expected it. He looked down at the drop below and realised he was nearly at the top of the building. Time seemed to be irrelevant when he climbed. His body ached now, though, from gripping the slightest holds and resisting the wind’s efforts to knock him from the side of the building. He was grateful when he was able to pull himself onto the window sill and out of the path of the winds.

The Magister’s study looked the same as it had when Johreel had returned, except that the papers had been cleared away from the desk. That was his first target – where had those papers gone the last time he had been here? He crossed to the desk, ignoring the twittering of the birds expecting to be fed, and sat in the Magister’s chair. There were drawers on either side of the chair with golden handles, and Johreel slid these open, but they were heavy and scraped enough against the wood to be heard. Besides, they were all empty. Johreel checked each one thoroughly, testing for hidden drawers, false bottoms, and any other means of concealment that he could think of. His investigations yielded no results. Think! Where could you hide letters without being seen? He drew the chair back and scanned the wood for inconsistencies.

The birds began to twitter again and he glanced towards them. They silenced themselves, except for the beady eyed raven which seemed to look beyond him, opening its beak to let out a loud croak. The hairs on the back of Johreel’s neck stood up and he flung himself backwards from his chair, just in time to see a sword strike downwards where his head had been. Rolling his heels over his head and coming to rest in a crouch in the chamber beyond the study, Johreel drew a dagger and flung it towards his attacker, catching the man in the leg. He made no sound, not even taking the dagger from his thigh as he came towards Johreel, sword raised.

The man was tall with wide shoulders and wore the Assassins garb, with a leather belt dyed red. The small M shaped cut at the bottom of the man’s hooded tunic told Johreel that the Assassin had come from Moreana. This was the traitor and he had managed to sneak up on Johreel. He came on now, sword raised, looking to silence Johreel before he could call for more help. He did not look surprised that his first attack had failed. Johreel reached for his curved daggers, having left his sword in his chambers. He rarely carried it when he was in the Crucible. The two long curved blades came up to block the downstroke of the sword, and Johreel gritted his teeth as his muscles complained at the force of the blow.

Need to stand, need to move. There wasn’t time though, as his opponent raised the sword and struck again, all as one fluid movement. Again Johreel raised the daggers to block, but the blade slipped through, striking downwards across his forehead, tearing a gash there and passing only inches from his eye to bite into his cheek. Blood ran from the wound, the cut stinging in the open air. Johreel felt the blade jar on his cheek bone, but only for a moment. He managed to catch the blade with the daggers and stop its swing. Johreel thrust his daggers left, the sword going with them, cutting out of his cheek. The movement was enough, though, to allow him to kick the attacker’s shin, unbalancing him. Johreel kept the blades moving left and pushed himself upwards, regaining his feet and brought his forehead down onto the attacker’s nose. Johreel grunted with the pain of it; the cut was deeper than he had thought, but the blow had done its job. The traitor’s head cracked back and blood gushed from his nose. Johreel turned his hand over on the hilt of his dagger and swept it back, cutting into the man’s side, cursing the fact that he had not applied Najhayya venom to them today – the wound was superficial, not likely to cause the man to die.

He was not beaten either – with blood gushing from his nose and a gash in his side he was hurt, and he used his free hand to grab Johreel’s robes, pulling him forward to unbalance him and then throwing him backwards. Johreel clattered against the fallen chair, tripped, and had to take the impact of the wall against his back to remain upright, dropping one of his daggers in the process. Blood trickled into his eye and he blinked it out. The traitor used the moment to make a break for the window. Johreel flung himself after the man, catching hold of his tunic in one fist and bringing the other hand up to cut with his dagger into the man’s wrist as he struggled to bring his sword to bear. The long blade clattered on to the floor and Johreel kept his momentum going forward, driving the traitor into the wall by the window. The birds in their cages flapped and shrieked. Johreel span the traitor around, holding him by the throat and sticking the dagger to the man’s ribs to dissuade him from attacking again.

“Who are you?” Johreel demanded, “Why do you betray your brothers and sisters?”

The traitor looked across Johreel’s shoulder, recognition sparking in his eye, and then a throwing knife embedded itself in the man’s throat. Johreel span, drawing a throwing knife from his own sleeve and saw Serkan stood by the door, already drawing again.

“Not now,” Johreel said, lowering his arm. Serkan hesitated and then followed suit.

“The Moreana traitor?” Serkan asked, stepping further into the room.

Johreel nodded, blood from his face flecking the stones by his feet. He reached up and felt the ragged edge of the wound.

“I will fetch the surgeon,” Serkan said and turning on his heel, he was gone from the room.

Johreel imagined that he would find a Recruit to send for the surgeon, and that there was likely to be one close by if Seren’s tails had been set to follow Serkan as well as the Magister. Johreel looked at the traitor, blood running in a torrent from the man’s throat. He could have told us more. He was about to speak and then… Then he had looked at Serkan and he had recognised him, not just as a person, as an ally. The knife in the throat must have been a surprise. How are they connected?

He tried to push his brain for an answer, but he felt light headed already from loss of blood and the adrenaline streaming through his veins. He slumped down against the side of the desk, facing away from the door, clutching at the wooden top to steady himself. Something came away in his hand – a piece of wood sliding free of the desk’s frame, marked where the first blow had struck the desk rather than Johreel. Behind the sliding piece was a recessed space filled with parchments. A hidden cache. Johreel took them out and stuffed them under his robes, then turned to look at the dead traitor. Some sacrifices are necessary.

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