Tornmile: Part 30
Part XXX: The Silver Blade
“What are you waiting for?”
Johreel stood still, staring down at Seren, and realised that he had been doing so for some time. Her hand was still wrapped around his and though he still held the dagger in his hand, the urge to use it, to end her life, had gone out of him. He was curious what secrets she meant, of course, but that was not the reason that he was not going to kill her. There was something else, something about the touch of her hand, something about her soft voice in the darkness.
He pulled his hand back, drawing the dagger away from her neck. At first she resisted, but as the steel of the dagger left her skin, she relented and let her hand fall to her chest. It was all Johreel could do to suppress the shiver as the warmth of her hand left his own. He replaced the dagger in its sheath at his belt and then leant against the wall. He could see the light reflecting off her eyes and could just make out the faintest touch of the colour in them. Blue.
The silence between them was almost tangible, like a block of ice between them. Ice he knew would melt as soon as she broke that silence. He wanted her to and yet did not. It was an odd feeling; one he had never experienced before. He tried to keep his face still, but he knew that he was frowning slightly. He was wrestling with something he had never had to before.
Seren shifted slightly in the bed – the soft movement of the fabric sounded awkward in the unspeaking darkness. She had shifted so that she could sit up. He could make out the pale skin of her chest, the slight prominence of her collar bone. She looked like a star seen through a mass of cloud: a faint light on the edge of sight.
She spoke in little more than a whisper, but he heard the disbelief in her voice. But that was not all. There was something else there too, something nestled alongside her doubt of his motives, something that spoke with a warmth he had never heard in all his years in the Order. Hope? He thought that was what it might be, but he couldn’t be sure. Very few Assassins hoped for anything, except maybe a swift death, when the day came.
“You should live.”
His voice sounded strangled. It was not his own.
“You should live, because I may need you. I may need an ally in what I intend to do.”
What do you intend to do? He had asked himself that question numerous times during his return to The Shieldmaiden and still had no answer. Durandal was just the beginning of the affair – the way through which he had come to know that there was something wrong. But he did not yet know anything else. He did not know who was responsible for ordering the deaths of Minham, Seppo, and Remiel. The Magister had given the contracts; suspicion fell on him, but suspicion was not proof, no matter which way you looked at it. The Magister alone did not run the Order, as much as there was reverence for the position and the man. It is like any other contract; I need more information about the targets.
“What would you have me do?” Seren asked.
Her voice was still that whisper, which broke through Johreel’s thoughts and made him look towards her. Think! He reprimanded himself, forced himself to lay out the steps that needed to be taken. He was the Dagger, which meant he was the Magister’s left arm. There was no one higher than him in the Order, save the Magister himself and the Sword. Serkan. The man who had sent Seren with him on this contract.
“No other hand but mine.”
“What?” Seren asked, surprised by this response to her question.
“Your words – no other hand but mine – have you spoken such to anyone else?”
She did not speak this time. She shook her head by only millimetres. Was she embarrassed to have spoken them? She had thought she was going to die and now he had taken the threat away was she regretting those words that tumbled from her mouth? Words often got you into trouble. Much better not to speak at all. Inwardly, Johreel laughed at that. He was planning to spy on the Order, the only home he had known since he was a boy, and he thought it was better not to speak at all? The laughter was hollow; echoing off the thousands of thoughts connected to what he was intending to do. Climbing these steps was dangerous and there was no safety at their top.
He nodded to Seren and knew that she would see it as surely as he had seen her shake her head. If she had not spoken these words to anyone else, then there was little chance that Serkan knew. She was very good at schooling her face, keeping her emotions within, keeping her head level. If Serkan did not know then he had not sent her in friendship.
“Did Sword Serkan order you to kill me?”
“No,” she replied, “I don’t think he believed that I would be able to.”
“Do you think you would?”
“I don’t know,” she said, “perhaps one day we will find out, but it will not be today.”
Johreel nodded. He had not seen much of her abilities in the field yet – there had been no need. If there was one thing that he knew how to do, it was kill. But it did not do to underestimate an opponent: she was not a Recruit, she was an Assassin, and that was a hard rank to achieve. Not all Recruits made it. The few that did make it did not always survive long. She had been a ducal guard, so she knew how to fight like a soldier. She knew how to fight like the best soldier. That made her a dangerous companion and a powerful ally. He hoped that her words would make her the second rather than the first.
“We should leave the city,” Johreel said, “and return to the Crucible.”
“You should rest,” Seren said, “you will not be able to sleep as soundly or as deeply once we have returned. There will be enemies everywhere and you will always have to be on your guard.”
“I always am,” he replied, “the sooner we start, the earlier we might finish.”
“As you say, Dagger.”
Seren swung her legs out of the bed, standing with the sheets pressed to her chest. She moved across the room noiselessly; her pale skin almost making her seem a ghost. Johreel could see the depression in her back running from her shoulder blades down towards her pelvis. It looked like a silver blade. He turned away, allowing her to dress without his eyes on her, though part of him longed to turn to see that blade again. He quietened that part of his mind and busied himself checking the supplies in his pouches. He also checked that his daggers drew without sound, and that all else was in order for their journey.
Seren took little time to dress and ready herself to depart. Before long she was strapping the habitual sword to her hip and retrieving another from its resting place against the wall. This was the one she would strap to her saddle. Both swords spoke of her soldier’s past, but she that did not seem to worry her. It was a sign of her martial prowess, Johreel supposed, almost a defiance to anyone to try her worth in battle. He could respect that. He had the sudden urge to see her fight, but pushed it away, and picked up Straton’s head in its sack.
“That isn’t the Stamm’s head, is it?” she said, though it was not really a question.
“No,” Johreel answered. The honesty concerned him.
“Who was he?”
“I don’t know – his death was not my doing. He was a Vitelian who worked for a minor noble. No one will know his face.”
Seren nodded, seemingly satisfied with this explanation. He was not sure that he really needed the head anymore. He had let Seren live, which meant that she too could testify that Mishak had died as he should have done. Presuming that anything she had said recently was genuine – he knew he was taking a lot on faith. The way she had been willing to embrace death at his hands made him think she was not manipulating him, but he had been paranoid too long. It was time to trust someone, just as long as it wasn’t too far. He tucked the sack under his belt so that he would not have to carry it and moved towards the door.
“Is there nothing else to say?” Seren asked from behind him.
He turned around to look at her. She had pulled the hood of her black robe up so that her face was in shadow. He could only make out the shape of her in the darkness because he knew where she had been standing before. He wondered what expression was on her face, if there was one there at all.
“What else would there be to say? We can talk strategy on the road – there will be fewer ears to hear it there.”
“I did not mean the strategy,” she said.
There was hope in her voice again – that sense of something more beyond the words she was using. Johreel gave the smallest of frowns before returning his face to its usual blankness. He cursed himself for this slip, though he knew she would not be able to see it. He was slipping all too often lately; one slip on the stairs he was about to climb and his body would break on the rocks below. He could not afford one slip.
“No other hand but mine,” he said.
She nodded; it was a movement he only caught because the shape of her hood changed.
“What is there to say? I am the Dagger. My life is in death.”
She moved towards him, the barest scuff of her boot on the floorboards. He could feel the warmth of her body close to his own, the slightest touch of her breath on his skin. He imagined those blue eyes looking into his own through the darkness and that silver blade that shifted just beneath the fabric of her robe. He tucked the sack containing Straton’s head into his belt.
“No,” she said, her voice barely a whisper again, “you are more than that. I have spent a long time in your presence, though you have not noticed me it seems. I have stood in rooms with men and women whose only purpose was murder, whose only path was to walk hand in hand with death. I have looked into their eyes and seen nothing looking back at me, but the surety that they would strike me down if there was need. That is not what is in your eyes. Death is what you do, but it is not who you are.”
She was right in front of him now, her body inches from his own. He could feel the rise and fall of her chest as she breathed. Instinctively, he reached for one of his daggers, but did not go so far as to close his hand around its hilt. He strained his ears for any sound that might indicate that she was about to attack him: trust only went so far. No sound came but the gentle drawing of her breath. She was looking up at him. He suspected that she was looking directly at his eyes. The eyes of the Devil Child. Few saw those and lived.
“There is work to be done: death is what I have to be.”
She reached her hand out and he felt her fingers brush lightly against his cheek.
“Only if you want to fail.”