The hour drew late. A thin fog scraped about the grounds, and a biting frost had long ago usurped the peaceful calm of autumn. The sky was dark, made flat by stubbornly uninteresting clouds that spoke of dreadful secrets behind their low-hanging curtain.
In other words, the weather was absolutely perfect.
S'vitari leaned against the garden wall, chewing the scabbard of a dagger. His patience, never considerable to begin with, had shortened considerably in the last hour. Where were they? He eyed the dark windows of the manor with a frown. I'll give them two minutes, he promised himself, and then I go in. Regulations be damned . . .
Something told him that their opportunity was closing. Soon, the city clocks would be tolling the half hour, and then where would they be? Postponing the job. Again.
A shadow draped itself across the wall, before disappearing into a patch of rhododendrons. S'vitari snapped around, blade in hand, before relaxing.
But only a little.
"What kept you?"
Romley strode purposely across the garden, brazen under the cover of clouds. "There were . . . complications," he said. S'vitari eyed his belt. There were blades missing. He gave his fellow assassin a cool stare, in which a hundred accusations and forceful interrogatives jostled for prominence.
Finally, Romley added: "Daglin turned. Knicked me with a shot on the way here." S'vitari's gaze flicked to a centimeter of exposed red, halfway down the assassin's chest, as Romley added: "Bastard."
A thorn of suspicion clutched immediately to the back of S'vitari's mind. For a moment he considered pressing the other assassin for details, but an overwhelming part of him urged against it. Enough time had been wasted. This would have to wait.
He drew from his belt a small spring-loaded hook, covered with black cloth. "Come," he said, and took careful aim at the predetermined window of the house.
There was the faintest of clink!'s, and in ten seconds he was balanced lightly against the prominent ledge of the window; Romley waited for him to step through, before following in equal silence.
Inside, the house was dark. They had ascended into a small foyer on the top floor, and the neatness of the extravagant furniture attested to the vigor of the house's servants. The two men crept by with barely a glance, their motion a whisper carried on padded boots. The halls were spacious and, had there been any light, would have been quite the sight. At even intervals, portraits of mustachioed men in military attire and women with stern, intellectual expressions looked imperiously downward at the intruders, and furnishings along the border of the walls yearned to shine as gold.
"Don't linger, Romley," S'vitari hissed. "Our object is close at hand." His eyes fixed upon an opulent pair of mahogany doors. Twin knockers, carved in the shape of dragons, played centerpiece to a masterpiece of ornamentation and design. Behind him, Romley sucked in a breath. Out of necessity, S'vitari joined him in inspecting the many patterns in the wood. Unlike the glassy-eyed awe of Romley, though, his gaze was analytical, a tool to be wielded as necessary, without time nor inclination for distraction.
In the upper left, twin snakes devouring a lion, set in brass. Juxtaposed, a number of horned deer jumped over a river that ran, exactly five units down, into a forest of twenty-three trees and a foreground of five maidens led by the goddess Earamia. On the right, the third unit was a patter of silver clouds lanced with dragon fire, which was really just wood embossed with - his tongue darted out for a fraction of a second - gold. Interesting.
He swept his fingers outward, cracking the knuckles in preparation for a sequence of heavily practiced motions.
The assassin turned the knocker upward for three seconds, then down exactly forty-five degrees, and waited.
A small, surrendering click. In the wood, a small panel sighed aside and revealed a lock with three concentric rings, intersecting at a rune that was surely decorative, but which concealed, behind the mechanism, a very real canister of deadly iron shrapnel. His fingers whizzed along the locks, pulling reference from the patterns. He was aware that Romley had quit his fascination with the door, and had now assumed his own stance for the coming sequence. A hand played across the pommel of his remaining knife.
S'vitari closed the final wheel and slipped through the ensuing crack in the door. Now a curtain of red slipped over his eyes, as memory guided the flesh.
Five steps in, then a short leap to the right diagonal would place him here, where his study of Lord Uruta's sleeping positions told him to throw two daggers in rapid succession, in areas which would certainly pierce either the neck or the vulnerable flesh of the stomach. The poison laced in the metal would cleanly finish the job.
He landed gracefully, soundlessly, with a subtle pleasure pounding the blood in his ears.
Regards from the Maralym, my friend.
Romley was on the other side of the bed. His knife should have landed squarely in the lady Uruta's back, but he was frowning, and a momentary parting of the clouds outside the window showed a flicker of steel, still clutched in his hand.
Surprise was chased by fear was chased by a horrifying realization. If Romley held his knife, the Lady still breathed. But if Lady Uruta was alive, why were there no screams? Though soundless, death knew how to exert its aura over the living. She should have awoken, should have emptied her lungs to the guards who were assuredly patrolling these very halls . . .
"You damned fool! Kill her!"
Romley looked up, into the other assassin's eyes. "S'vitari," he repeated dully. "They . . . they're not here."
"No . . ." He threw aside the comforter, the multitude of expensive cloths that served as blankets for the Lord and Lady, and found his daggers firmly lodged in the carcass of a feathered pillow. "NO!" He looked up at Romley, fighting to remain calm. It would be all right. He had to remember . . . remember his training, yes? Logic and steel. Steel and logic and agility, like the tiger. Logic and -
"They must have heard, somehow. Or . . . perhaps they're out, in the town some"-
"Daglin," S'vitari interrupted. "Tell me once more, what happened with Daglin."
Romley's stare was suddenly pierced with a shadow of understanding. "You can't be saying"-
"A high prefect of the Maralym, turning on his own troops . . . it is unheard of. That you survived the encounter, more so."
"Luck of the Goddess," Romley muttered. "I turned just as the knife went by. He was dead before he hit the alley."
S'vitari strode to the other side of the bed, and grabbed the other assassin by the collar.
"I knew Daglin, Romley. He wasn't a turncoat. He wasn't a good man, but he was a loyal one, which I value more. You, though . . . " He sneered, and Romley felt suddenly cold. "You, I'm not so sure of. So I'll draw a picture for you, shall I?" He slammed Romley into one of the bedposts, covering his mouth to muffle his protests. "Uruta's a rich man, isn't he?"
Romley's eyes widened. Something changed in the set of his brow.
S'vitari whirled in a wide arc, cloak flaring around him. An arrow whistled through the black fabric, leaving a small hole. His knife caught the guard in the throat, and he staggered into the room, choking and bleeding. In the hall, someone cursed.
It was like that, then, was it?
S'vitari spared a glance for Romley, standing almost awkwardly near the bedpost. As he opened his mouth to say something, or perhaps to call out to the guards, S'vitari caught him in the chin with a quick jab, and the other man collapsed softly into the covers. One less flank to cover.
"I know you're there," he whispered, in the direction of the open door. "I do not know your faces. So run. Run now, and the Maralym will spare your lives."
The message was met with silence. Straining his ears, S'vitari heard the sound of creaking bowstrings. Heavy boots shifted on the carpet, trained to react at the slightest motion in the door. Their sound was mirrored, though very faintly, in the open yard far below. Uruta had spared no expense, it seemed, in the hiring of his security personnel.
"I have given you one chance. You shall not receive another!"
Stubborn silence. S'vitari cursed. He had no choice, really. He sheathed his daggers in silence, and pulled the gloves very gently from his hands. They were simple leather, lined with wool. They would not survive the fire, so he stored them in an inner pocket of the cloak. Romley was . . .
. . . still out. Good. He sucked in a breath, drew back his hands, and closed his eyes. He was ready. Now . . .
He darted into the hall, fingers poised above his head, already blazing with purple flames. Arrows fired not with the wild salvo of desperate or frightened men, but with deadly precision that by all rights should have skewered him seven times over. Assassins, however skilled, had the downside of remaining ever so vulnerable to pointy objects.
It was the fire that saved him.
It streamed from his hands in a single flow, like the roots of a rapidly aging tree. The bolts had barely left the mechanism of the bows when they became flying slivers of bewildered ash, which soon scattered onto the carpet. Now there were shouts, running up and down the hall. The fire raged on, rushing through men, walls, armor, paintings, leaving only ash and bones and melted lumps of steel in its wake. Outside, a bell began ringing in earnest. The sound was echoed once, twice, in at least a dozen locations throughout the city. The flames faded from S'vitari's hands.
A scowl deeper than most lakes creased the shadows on his face. This assignment had gone from worse, to an abject humiliation. Soon he'd have the entire Brigade coming down on his head, and then even the Goddess Herself would be unable to spare his life.
Raising a hand, he shot black lightning into a pair of guards rounding the hall, and felt nothing at all. A gesture found all of his daggers back in their sheaths, and he had just begun to make for the window when something made him stop.
"I know who you are," said a voice. It held no fascination, no wonder. It was stating a fact. One that it knew very, very well.
S'vitari paused, then stepped around. He looked at the owner of the voice: a lean man in long, purple robes, traced with the Universal Dialect and shimmering in the deep shadows of the doorway. A customary beard lightly traced the contours of the pointed chin, and spindly fingers hovered almost casually in the air, a stream of cerulean dust shifting around the tips. His eyes were lost in darkness, visible only as twin points of eldritch intellect, catching the reflection of his magic.
"I can't say the same," said S'vitari. He kept a hand on his knives.
"You may tell Yol Miraz," said the wizard, ignoring S'vitari completely, "that he will not have his prey. Lord Uruta is safe, far out of reach of the talons of the Maralym."
"No one escapes us."
The wizard arched an eyebrow. "He has. He will continue to. Shall I tell you why?" He took three steps into the light of the room, and his smile curled cruelly into the lines of his face. "Because this time, the Maralym must go through me."
S'vitari drew up his right hand with a snarl, and launched a bolt of purple flames. He did not see what came after - his vision balked at a sudden chaos of whirling verse and flashing lights, but it fully recovered in time to see the wizard calmly walking through the now ruined doorway, his feet sending up plumes of ash and incinerated brass.
"This is foolishness. Surrender, before the choice is taken from you."
"Uruta's coffers must be deep indeed, if he sends even your kind to die like dogs under our blade."
He felt no fear. He knew this, for he had felt fear's weakness before. Now, he was filled with only the expectation of power. He could feel it, rising through his chest and into his fingertips, lacing his will to the means of its enforcement. He needed only raise them up . . .
Lightning coursed through the intervening space, sucking all the light out of the coming dawn. The wizard raised his hands again, fired a verse at the coming onslaught, and widened his eyes as it thrust him into one of the few sections of intact wall. His hand shot up in an arbitrary gesture, and S'vitari tensed in preparation for another burst of light, which didn't come. Instead, he heard movement behind him, and ducked just in time to avoid the knife of Romley.
"Traitorous bastard!" he snarled, and drew his own knife up in an arc, catching Romley off guard. And it should have ended there, with a second blade spearing the other assassin's jugular vein, if S'vitari had not chanced to look into his eyes.
They had gone blue, ominously blue, as if the iris and pupil and white had been consumed by an alien sea. "Curse of the Goddess, Romley, what's" -
And then he saw. The wizard had regained his footing, and as he limped from the room, he moved his hands in a grand series of spiking gestures - the movements of a puppeteer. A charm.
S'vitari waved his arm, and a short jet of weaker fire threw Romley back on the bed. Then, with a cry of fury, he launched what remained of his lightning through the hall, from which came a snap of compressing air. Whatever had happened, it had been enough. It was as if a sheen of oil had been taken from the surface of a lake. The very air felt different. Romley stumbled to his feet, shaking his head. and leaning on the post for support.
S'vitari hesitated. From the stairs came more footsteps, but in his mind, a thousand considerations battled against each other at the speed of light. Boiled down to a point, it was the wizard. The wizard and his charms. How easily he had played Romley against him! There was potential there. Perhaps two truths were playing parallel. But there was always the other option . . .
Children are taught not to believe in coincidence so as to grow more full of wonder and dreams - so that they may better enjoy the strange workings of the world they have just begun to explore. Assassin-operatives of the Maralym were taught the same thing, but with a small twist in the logic. You couldn't believe in coincidence because the very second you did, you were likely to find an arrow in your back and a rival usurping your position.
"You'll face the justice of the Goddess," he decided, and threw his cohort's frame over one shoulder. On the street, guards still clustered like ants, but in the daylight he could see another residence, far opposite. Under normal circumstances, his hook would be insufficient to reach between two manors. But today . . .
He called upon the power once more, and found himself running on fumes. That would do.
He shot the rope and pushed, endeavoring not for flames, but will. The hook flew across the early dawn, catching on a point that was barely a glimmer of hazy morning light. Thrusting backwards with his mind, he sailed into the air, hearing the shouts of the men and the hissing of arrows as if from very far away, via a long paper tube. A single idea broke the murky waters of exhaustion as he sailed into the morning sun, an assassin on his back and at least two more dead in the streets of waking Ans, and it was this:
Wherever he had hidden, Uruta would pay. He would die. He, his Lady, his wizard . . .
It mattered not. In his mind, he called forth the first line of the Maralym Codem, and whispered it into the amassing fog.
"Ipsera Muer Fah'regoroth imdei."
For the Goddess shall wield your blade.