Tornmile: Part 12
Part XII: Trial & Error
A hazy sunlight fell through the tall windows set high up in the side of the building, falling on stack after stack of heavy leather bound tomes. Motes of dust danced with one another in the shafts of light and gold leaf lettering sparkled between the shelves’ dark wood. Johreel walked along the row, finger tracing the title of books as he passed, finding little of use. His left hand throbbed dully and he glanced at the sun’s position in the sky to reckon whether it was time for another does of the painkilling remedy the surgeon had prepared. It wasn’t, and Johreel sighed, hoping that the time would come before even his will to ignore the pain was broken.
It had been a difficult journey from Tubal, hand useless for carrying his gear or even holding reins and his progress had been slow. He knew enough to strap a few of his less well kept arrow shafts to his hand to stop the bones from moving but there was nothing else he could do to treat the injury or the pain it caused. He hoped that the surgeon at the Crucible would know more than the city doctors. They were little but butchers, cutting off limbs wherever they could. He could cut meat better and more quickly than they could, but then he was an Assassin. Cutting was his business.
Normally he relished his return to the Crucible, the round low building, almost like an amphitheatre, except set on a cliff top overlooking the sea. He’d been told that it was an old fortress of the people who had lived in the area before the city of Tornmile had been built in the shade of the cliffs, but he was not sure he believed that. Maybe it had existed before the walls of Tornmile or maybe it was an old look out fort abandoned to the Assassins. Death swiftly found unwelcome visitors to the Crucible, whether they represented the local authorities or not.
There were two entrances to the home of the Assassins. The first was a long climb through caverns, used for storage and training, accessible from the bottom of the cliff when the tide was out; this was the usual route of entry for Assassins. The other was a long, winding track from the main road to Tornmile up the cliff; a journey which took several hours, all the time watched by concealed Assassins who could strike the traveller down at any moment. Johreel loved the climb through the caverns, loved the feeling of bare rock beneath his fingertips, and sometimes took this route even though he had been told of the hidden shortcut that avoided the majority of the climbing. Recruits learned much from the precarious ascent and it made the Assassins impossible to follow, even if guards dared to come to cliffs that were haunted by shades of the dead – a rumour the Assassins had started to keep people away.
With his hand injured so badly he could not climb even the basic first levels, and was forced to use the track, aware of eyes watching him approach and weapons readied in case he was not welcome. The scouts, however, had let him pass and the guards at the door the same, though they had been curious about his injury. Injuries always made Assassins curious; they were a weakness that held the possibility of personal advantage to the healthy. Johreel had gained his position through skill, dedication, and perseverance, and he was not keen to allow some young recruit to slit his throat to take a quick route to the top.
Having left his report with the Warden on duty, he made his way to the surgeon, who had poked and prodded at his hand. Johreel was glad of the herbal infusion the man used that relaxed the patient, making them insensible to pain. He could feel the bones of his hand shifting easily, hear them crunching as they slipped back into place, but he felt nothing until long after the surgeon had strapped the bones with thin, straight wood, and wrapped them in stiff leather bindings. He had marked Johreel down for light duties, which was another blow. Light duties meant contracts less interesting than the blacksmith, if there were contracts at all. Otherwise he would be reduced to acting as Warden or scout on the track. He was relieved that he would not lose a hand though. Few kept their positions when they were not fully fit to operate and had he lost the hand he would have been lucky to be sent to run a Sanctuary in one of the cities of the Empire, where it was less likely he would be stabbed in his sleep. Competition was fiercer nearer the capital.
At last his finger touched the spine of the book he had been looking for; a guide to mythical and culturally significant items called Relics of the Gods. The leather was cracked and peeling away from the wooden boards, but the lettering was well preserved in the spine. He drew it carefully from the shelf and took it over to one of the single desks under the tall windows, so that a shaft of sunlight fell directly on the tome. He cast a furtive look around before opening the book; he had no reason to suspect that he was being watched and the library was one of few places, along with the Great Hall, the Magister’s Chamber, and the Little Corridor, where it was forbidden to spill blood, but his own curiosity made him nervous. What was Durandal and why did the smith think the Assassins wanted it?
He carefully turned the pages, examining the contents; Durandal was not listed. Johreel was disappointed, if not all the surprised: the book was old and took account of only Tornmilian legends and he did not know for sure that Durandal was an old Tornmilian artefact. His instinct told him it was a weapon, but only because it had been passed to a smith. He could not be sure, even, that Durandal was its only name or that it was not a Tornmilian name for an object from elsewhere in the Empire. He knew so little that he would have been amazed if the first book had yielded a result. He could have asked the librarians if they knew of a better book or even if they had heard the name – they were repositories of knowledge almost as much as the books under their care – but he didn’t want to broadcast what he was researching, especially within the walls of the Crucible. Asking the wrong questions was not encouraged. He returned the book to the shelf intending to find another; perhaps in one of these books there would be an answer.
“Where does it end? What does knowledge bring but more questions?”
The silken voice mirrored his own thoughts but he was not glad to hear them spoken aloud, even if they were only a quotation from an old volume of Assassins’ lore that all recruits were made to read. Johreel continued to browse the shelves, taking down a few volumes, keeping his back to the speaker. Lack of fear was important in talking to other Assassins. Lack of caution less so.
“Knowledge opens our minds to new possibilities, Serkan,” Johreel said, piling books in his hands, holding them only gingerly with his injured left, “and it guides us to avenues we have not been down before. Exploration strengthens the mind. A strong mind is more useful than a strong body, especially to an Assassin. Any fool can kill a man with blade or bow, any fool can make their body strong, but an Assassin needs a strong mind, one that sees opportunity, sees danger, and sees a time to strike. Is that not what our Magister says?”
“He does, but all disciplines have their limits. Would you truly choose the library and its books over a new contract?”
Serkan was directly behind him now, and Johreel turned slowly to face him, as if he had intended to turn all along.
“Unfortunately, I have lighter duties to attend to; I serve as Warden tonight.”
“I heard about the hand. It’s a shame that your strong mind did not anticipate the blow. Perhaps the Devil Child is only human after all.”
“Even the wisest of men cannot foresee every eventuality. Besides,” Johreel said, stepping forward so that the books pressed into Serkan’s chest, “one hand is all I need.”
Serkan let out a faint low growl, though Johreel knew that he hadn’t meant to. Giving away emotions gave away intentions, and Serkan was usually in better control of both. Johreel sized him up; he was carrying six blades, only two openly, and he could get to all six of them without having to think about it. Johreel had his hands full and had only the two curved daggers he habitually carried. It was forbidden to spill blood in the library, but that did not preclude the possibility of a fight entirely. Besides which, Serkan had not got to his position by playing by the rules. He was from the East, like Johreel, but not from Abboral itself. He was from the great city at the edge of the Empire, known to Johreel by a name which translated to ‘the House of the Sun’, but which the Tornmilians called Moreana. Johreel had joined the Assassins in the Sanctuary there and Serkan’s name had been spoken in hushed voices, even though he had already graduated to the city of Tornmile and the Crucible. Now Serkan served as the Sword of the Magister, the highest position apart from that of Magister itself. Johreel prepared for the encounter, wondering idly how many men Serkan had killed. He suspected that the man himself did not know. Everyone stopped counting eventually.
They were interrupted by the tiny sound of fabric catching the wooden shelves; Johreel and Serkan both took a step back at the same time, before the Assassin rounded the corner. He was young, probably no more than sixteen summers, but he wore black, so he was no longer a recruit. Serkan looked down at the young boy, a challenging stare, but the youth ignored him entirely, addressing Johreel.
“The Magister wishes to see you, Assassin Johreel,” he said, and though he used the honorific he did not bow his head as a recruit would.
Johreel thanked him and placed the books back on the shelves, wondering what the Magister could want. They had little cause to speak, since contracts were passed through the Warden rather than by the Magister, even in cases where he personally decided who would fulfil the terms of the contract. Still, he put the books back more quickly than he usually would have, and followed the young Assassin towards the library doors, leaving Serkan to fume in the stacks.
When they had begun to ascend the sweeping staircase that followed the curved walls of the Crucible, Johreel looked at the younger man. He had eyes set back in his head, as if they were in caves formed by the outcrop of his brow. His nose was hooked and a combination of adolescent fluff and stubble clung to his jaw.
“You put off the brown less than two months since,” Johreel said.
“How did you know?” The boy’s question was a challenge.
“Only recruits and the Magister call Assassins by more than their name. Recruits use the honorific to show their deference, the Magister to show his power. Since you are neither, you do not have cause to use it.”
The boy nodded.
“Why do you still carry messages if you wear black?” Johreel asked, “An Assassin is a weapon, nothing less. The only message an Assassin carries is death.”
“The Magister asked me to bear the message.”
“Then you need to show the Magister that you are a weapon, not an errand boy.”
“I intend to.”
It was all the warning Johreel had before the boy had a knife in his hands and was thrusting it towards Johreel’s side. Johreel put his palm out, catching the blade on the leather and wood bindings on his injured hand. Pain lanced through the injury, but it ensured that the blade did not strike his heart as the boy had intended. A fist to the boy’s throat was enough to send him reeling backwards, stumbling against the wall. Johreel took the knife from his bindings and held it to the boy’s throat, using his shoulder to pinion the boy against the wall.
“Please,” the boy said, “please don’t! You don’t understand; I’m the Magister’s favourite.”
“The Magister doesn’t have favourites.”
Johreel thrust the knife forward, the point scraping against the wall. Blood ran from the wound in the boy’s neck and Johreel let go of the handle, watching as the boy slumped to the floor at his feet, eyes glossy and lifeless. Someone tutted from the top of the stairs; Johreel turned and inclined his head to the Magister.
“Why did you kill him, Assassin Johreel?”
“He begged me not to,” Johreel said, “Assassins embrace death, even their own. To do otherwise is weakness.”
The Magister laughed a full bodied laugh, which echoed off the passageway walls, making it seem as if a whole crowd of people were laughing along with him.
“Very good,” he said, approaching and taking Johreel’s good hand in his own. Johreel felt the boy’s blood squelch between their palms, “I though a test was in order.”
“For the boy, Magister,” Johreel asked, “or for me?”
“You see much and that is why I am naming you my Dagger. Vaimbert has succumbed to the fever.”
“An honour,” Johreel said, inclining his head, “Vaimbert was a good Assassin.”
“Indeed; so must you be. I need you for far more than killing boys playing at being men. Like your next target for example.”
Johreel looked down at his hand, examining the puncture in the bindings from the boy’s knife. The Magister smiled and handed Johreel a sealed contract scroll.
“Nothing too strenuous,” he said, “A librarian in the city. Not a fighter, but an important target nonetheless. I have plenty of Assassins far less skilled with two hands than your one, so we will not need you to serve as Warden tonight.”
“He will follow the boy, Magister,” Johreel said.
The Magister nodded and turned to ascend the stairs. Johreel opened the contract scroll and began to read the details of the target, already beginning to plan what he would need to take with him, what method would be best.
“Oh, and my Dagger,” the Magister said, turning to address Johreel over his shoulder with a smile and waving a hand at the boy’s blood running down the stairs, “make it less messy.”