The evening, like any other calamity, began with much promise. It should first be noted that the Y'vondan was not just any restaurant, but instead the premier dining establishment on this side of the continent. The chandeliers were twirling pieces of art, each one of them worth millions upon millions of the most exquisite jewels, and the wines were peerless to the point of disbelief. It was said that one taste of a Y'vondan cocktail could reduce a man to tears, and this was true to a limited extent. It depended on the sort of man, and whether or not he was allergic to excessively red cherries.
Lord Almsador watched the servers glide from table to table, their feet invisible but fleet under their long dresses, and turned back to his guest. "A fine evening," he said, trying his best not to be turned off by his companion's withering stare.
"Finer wine," she retorted, but didn't seem very happy about it.
"They tell me your family . . . it is from the East?"
"Further than you have ever traveled," she said, flatly, and illustrated with a smooth gesture which encompassed the room. "My father is a Dongmorean, a supplicant of the Empire, he whose footsteps fall in service to the Monarch of Three Heavens. His halls are more beautiful than these, for it was built by men who loved their work. But," she admitted, "the wine there is not as good." and she lifted the glass for another taste.
Lord Almsador blinked. Somehow, "that's nice" seemed insufficient as a reply, but he used it anyway, out of desperation more than anything else. Sure enough, it earned him a cold sort of look, dripping with intelligent condescension.
"My mother once stood by the Dowager's side, and served her until her death. They tell me that you, my lord, are but a minister. A parliamentarian in a court that obeys no master, and more often than not falls to infighting and decadence."
"Well, we're not entirely . . ." He paused, trying to regain his footing in the conversation. "That is, Ans is only what it is today due to the care and vitality of its caretakers, madame." He winced a little, fully aware of the high-minded idiocy of what he was saying. Still, he felt the keen pain of being gradually outwitted, and continued with the dim conviction that this situation was fixable if he were only to continue speaking. "We do all that we do so that the people's voice might be heard, not the whims of one party or two."
She raised an eyebrow at that, long and skeptical, and then she gave a breath of laughter that cut him like a knife. "The more anxiety you give an Ansiat," she mocked, "the wordier he will become." But then, her smile settled into something a fraction warmer, and for the first time she seemed almost sympathetic to the situation. "And yet," she said, "I do not think you invited me to trade philosophy on politics. Tell me, what is there to eat in the finest dinery of the West?"
Almsador cheered up at once, and snatched up the menu before him. "Eel stew," he said at once, with all the eager assurance of an expert. "For starters, at least. They have this special method with the meat, you see, they'll ferment them in these barrels"--
But she shook her head. "I may not consume the meat of others," she said with a scowl. "I assumed you would know this."
"If you are about to apologize, do not. You do not have the chin for it."
"I shall have the mixed greens," she said, "these, here, with the mushrooms and the essence of spring." and with that she slid her menu very gently aside. She seemed to think for a moment, then said, "and a bottle of this." She raised her cup, swirling the dark red wine inside it, and Almsador felt his heart fall a few hundred feet down a very dark hole, banging on rocks the whole way down. A bottle? Of Haimvortelan Red? He'd sooner buy a carriage bedecked in varnish and gold, and still spare himself much expense. But there was no arguing with the flowing angle of those shoulders, the enticing scent which wafted over the table and made him forget, if only for a moment, the smell of the kitchen's meat. . . .
He waved over a server. "We'll have a plate of the eel stew," he began, waiting for the girl to get it down before continuing with, "and a plate of your best . . . er. Your best salad. With the mushrooms." He glanced over, catching the lady's eye with a mixture of giddy excitement and withering melancholy. "And . . . a bottle, if you will."
The girl hesitated. "Of what, my lord?" she asked, and her voice was slow with surprise. For a moment, Almsador found this curious, and then he felt a sudden urge to slam his head into the wooden table. Of course, the girl was thinking of her tip. It'd blot out the sun, he was sure, and with this grim thought in mind he pointed weakly at the half-empty cup of Red.
"The Haimvortelan," he muttered, and despaired for his pocketbook as the server nearly skipped back to the waiting kitchen. Across the table, the visiting Lady Chinfai was once again staring at his face.
"Yes?" he inquired, taking pains to maintain a veneer of courtesy. He was, after all, a Lord.
"You are young," she said. "Much younger than I anticipated. What are you doing, courting a Lady of the East?"
"Obeying my parents' wishes, I suppose. To which I wonder, what is a Lady of the East doing, accepting such a proposition?"
There it was. He'd almost made her smile. The lips twitched so suddenly upwards, then sharply back down, that he was almost convinced he'd made it up in his head. But it'd been there.
"Do not be ridiculous," she drawled, and traced the rim of the glass with one hand. "This matter with the sea routes demands at least a superficial union of the Houses." Her hand paused halfway around the glass, and she sighed. "At least, so my father informs me."
Something else had entered the air. Now, instead of being merely uncomfortable, Almsador also felt a prickle of awkwardness in his chest, and squirmed.
After half a minute, resolving that something should be said, he tried: "So, how old are you, exactly?" Which was a mistake.
Chinfai bridled. "I beg your pardon?" she asked, icily, and Almsador clamped his mouth firmly shut. He didn't talk again until the appetizers were laid out before them, dainty plates of sliced cucumbers arranged in blooming flowers; parcels of meat, lathered in trickling sauce; sprouts and berries and slices of strange loafs of multicolored bread.
Still cold, Chinfai reached for a sliver of cooked pine needles, chewing it with frosty malice. Feeling a change in the atmosphere was necessary, he stood with a muttered excuse about checking on the wine.
And so the arrow struck him not in the chest, but instead along the side of his thigh. As he fell, shouting, onto the floor of the restaurant, the projectile embedded itself in the seat of his chair, quivering with unspent motion. He scrambled to his feet, hearing more than seeing the second arrow hiss through the air behind him. Things happened quickly, faster than he could find time to become involved.
The server tasked with bringing the wine had been en route to his table, accompanied by six others who had been hoping for a share of the profits. These underlings scattered at the sight of the blue-feathered tail of the first arrow, pushing the wine-bearer to the ground and sending the bottle itself sailing into the air, where it intercepted a third projectile. A small fortune's worth of wine splashed darkly into the wood.
The distinguished crowd of the evening, finding the night suddenly a little too exciting (and, for that matter, sharp) for their liking, rose with the grace of a stampeding herd of moose, and made for the exits at the front of the dinery. There was chaos, and a final arrow which narrowly missed the Countess of Achemov as she staggered against the wide hem of her dress.
Almsador saw the chef, a portly man with curling moustaches, leap the counter of the kitchen in a single bound of passion, screaming curses in Pinchoni and flinging a knife into the rafters, from which it did not emerge. And Chinfai was getting to her feet, reaching into the depths of her evening gown for something that he couldn't quite make out, her delicate frame perched behind the security of an upturned table. She had a mushroom in her hair, and fiery rage in her eyes. A few of the braver or slower patrons had also remained, and after the initial rush Almsador could hear ragged shouts and heavy breathing from a few of the other corners of the restaurant. Most were confused. A few were frightened. A woman was asking about her Pekingese, which had ostensibly fled into the kitchen. Another arrow thudded against an unseen table, and someone cursed.
Almsador, heart racing, looked up . . .
Into the glinting eyes of a man who now raced across the wooden beams, the chandeliers insufficient to catch his frame as he shot through the shadows, the bow in his hands elegant and nocked with an arrow that ate the light . . .
The assassin swiveled, fired, and a wet scream slammed against the newfound silence. Again, he faded into the dark. Almsador drew his gun. It was small, more decorative than functional, but it held six bullets and could hit a pear at two hundred paces, and it calmed him to have at least the illusion of protection. He checked the barrel, cocked it, and pointed it at an arbitrary corner of the rafters.
"Lady Chinfai!" He hissed, and the girl looked at him with a crazed fire of intensity in her eyes. He started to beckon to her, but stopped. Something moved from above.
Almsador aimed with a wild but purposeful speed. The gun belched smoke and lead, roaring into the nervous tension of the restaurant like a lion released. There was a sound like a belt catching on a chain-link fence, and one of the vast chandeliers was falling, so slowly, to smash on the ground below. Almsador dived behind his cover as glass shards threw themselves against the table, the floor, the far reaches of the air.
Foolish, said a voice behind him.
He stood. Slowly. "Now, hold on" -- his throat felt dry -- "I'm sure this is quite unnecessary."
It is not I who determines what is necessary. Does the ax determine which tree is to fall?
There came a rapid hissing, loud and insistent, and Almsador, closing his eyes, screamed in desperation and swung around in a wide arc, firing his last bullet in what, when he found the courage to look, ended up being empty air. Somewhere, a window shattered. The assassin stumbled backwards, his robes flowing almost protectively around him as he fell bodily to the ground, where he landed in a storm of black robes and splinters of woodwork and glass. His hands clutched at his stomach, from which protruded a bright sliver of glinting steel.
"Silver," said the voice of Lady Chinfai, "kills all mongrels who fear the sun."
Almsador struggled with the gun, trying to load at least a single bullet before the man could regain his footing. "My lady!" he cried, in what he hoped was a very gallant voice, "stay behind me, for I shall protect you."
"You're the most ridiculous man I've ever met." Chinfai strode towards the assassin, another knife in hand, her face a mask of fury. "Did you think," she growled, "that my father did not warn me of the dangers I'd meet in Ans? Did you really think my family is one that has survived on money and comfort alone? I know your name, Maralite. I know who you are."
The assassin looked up, his hands still scrabbling at the knife, and Almsador dropped his gun. Those weren't the eyes of a man. Those were eyes you would imagine only in the maddest of dreams, yellow like a cats and lidded like a snake's and deep as the sleep of dragons. There was no anger there. It looked upon the second knife in Chinfai's hands, and then at her face, with a condescending smile.
You know nothing, if still you advance. Then he straightened, and moved too quickly for Almsador's eyes to follow, and then the knife was in the air instead of his stomach, and Chinfai was pivoting to avoid it, and a red line blossomed on the line of her collarbone. Almsador dropped to the ground, and scrabbled for the revolver.
You have no idea who you face.
Chinfai threw her knife. It was caught -- caught -- out of the air, in a gloved hand which followed a laughing face which thrust it behind him and into the back of a pudgy man who had been creeping towards the door. Someone screamed, and the sound was lost.
I am Yol-S'vitava.
The assassin drew two knives of glittering gold, inset with rubies that somehow spurned the light. Chinfai hesitated, then ran, her shoes flying behind her as she dashed over the broken glass of the chandelier, somersaulting out of the way of a dagger which curved to accommodate her motion. The assassin hissed in annoyance, and took a step forward.
And took three bullets to the chest.
Then he blinked, and looked downwards at three blooming flowers of red, blossoming across his vest. He sighed, and looked at Almsador with an expression approaching annoyance, but from very far away.
Be thankful it is not your day to die, lordling. A wolfish smile crossed the assassin's face. Someone wishes you alive; you alone, if necessary. But a man can function without his arms.
Almsador put down the gun with a shudder, then got to his feet, his eyes never straying from that gaze, a gaze that could swallow him whole and spit out the remains into the void. "I don't understand," he said, hoarsely.
The thing in black laughed. Do not try to. Man's subjectivity is his only salvation. He peered around Almsador's slender frame, his other knife twirling between his fingers. I can smell her, the assassin muttered, and then launched himself at the opposite wall. He slipped through it, as if it were not there at all.
As Almsador watched, open-mouthed, a man in dirtied noble's clothing ran up to the wall with a cry, and pounded at it with a rapier. The sword stuck into the wood, and the man stepped back in mute terror, to run out of the restaurant. A good idea, thought Almsador. Briefly, Chinfai crossed his mind. An image of her running through darkened streets, with that thing after her . . . but what could he do? The police would handle it, surely.
He pocketed his revolver, and grimaced as he made his way to the door. Pain filled almost every inch of his body, and His head whirled with fear and guilt and weariness. Outside, many shouts filled the suddenly crowded street, and he saw the glint of the moon hitting the helmets of nearly two dozen guardsmen, who greeted him with rifles raised
"Hands!" roared their leader. "Let's see 'em!"
Almsador hastened to obey. "I'm a Lord of the Assembly," he stammered. "Lord Almsador, House Tregebor. There was this man . . . He went through the wall. Shot the . . . that is, he had these knives . . ."
Two officers led him by the arms into the wider street, while another contingent made their way into the restaurant. Mutely, he allowed himself to be moved, sparing only two glances for the ruins of the Y'vondan. There were people still in there. Blood covered their coats, and arrows stuck out of the soft bits of their torso. Almsador whimpered.
"There you go, m'Lord," one of the guardsmen muttered. "Easy does it, you've had a shock."
"Something must be done."
"Of course, Lord."
"He must be stopped."
"We're on the case, Lord." One of them sat him down on a public bench, and threw a blanket around him.
He sat for a while in silence, feeling gloomy and surprisingly empty in the aftermath of the action. Abandoned of active will, his eyes flickered in and out of focus, the the Y'vondan became a blur of warm primary colors before his gaze. There was no way, he resolved, that the evening could get any worse.
Then he saw a tall white hat, pushing through the crowd, and stood with a feeling of faint apprehension.
"Excuse me, my lord!" The voice that was small, but terribly forceful even with its tinny accent, and it carried easily over the heads of the straggling passerby. The head chef of the Y'vondan was leering at Almsador with malicious satisfaction, a lucrative gleam in his triumphant eyes and a small slip of paper clutched in one piggy hand.
"Good sir, I'm so sorry," he said, drawing himself up with an officious and indulgent smile. "I expect this night will be a blow to your finances. Can I help you?"
Somehow, the little man's grin only widened, and in the orange light of the gaslamps it was truly terrible to behold. "In fact you might," he said, with joy, "and the blow might not be so bad at all." He unfolded the paper in his hands, easing out the creases, and held it before Almsador's terrified eyes. "For you see, my lord, your bill is yet unpaid!"