Assignment Fourteen: Chancellor Aren Pale

Everyone bleeds the same, but we all speak differently.

    That morning when I woke up, I thought about the person I was going to kill, and what words he would say that day. What he might mumble to himself as he examined his reflection in the mirror, fixed his hair, had his servants do him up in an outfit that cost more to make than most homes. 

    I thought about what greetings he might exchange with his friends, his advisors, his guardsmen, as he walked through the streets and arranged for a carriage to his favorite café, how he might tip the coachman too much, filled with pride that he was so generous, and then say something that only he thought was witty. 

    As I pulled on my undergarments, trousers, shirt, vest, overcoat and halfcloak, I imagined what he might say to his wife as he left that morning. Was he the kind of man to remind her of his love before each leave, or to take hers for granted, if she did indeed love him at all, that is. (A small chance, I surmised.)

    As I pulled up my boots and watched dust drift in the light coming through the windows, I wondered what thoughts he’d always had, but never spoke aloud, not even to those he trusted and loved the most. If a man like that was capable of love, that is.

    As I wove the lacing through my armguards and tightened the belt that hung the throwing knives on my chest, I wondered if just because I felt justified killing a man who likely did not understand the notion of unconditional love, if I was capable of it.

    As I checked that my daggers were snug in their sheaths, and that I had enough bolts in my quiver for my hand crossbow, I wondered if he ever murmured words aloud that he thought was interesting, the way I often do when I read.

    “Sigmund, are you ready?” a voice, accompanied by a hand on my shoulder, asked me.

    As I stood up and looked at Gendrid, I wondered how his blood might spill. I reminded myself that all blood spills the same, that precious little would be a surprise, and that my nerves were nothing to entertain. 

    Her high cheekbones and sharp eyes seemed to soften as she looked at me. I grinned and returned the touch on her hand. “I am.”

    “We thought we’d be arriving early, but in truth, we’ll be late. The ceremony starts half before midday, not half after.”

    “How did you find this out?”

    We stepped quickly down the stairs, passed the quiet living room of the Dawn inn.

    “The crows told me.”

    “No, truly.”

    The light was harsh after she opened the door. I squinted at her through the sunlight before she gave me her back and kept walking. “From one of our messengers, this morning.”

    “Why didn’t you wake me sooner?”

    The noise of the market was ringing out in the streets, but far off. We were in a quiet section of a more wealthy part of the city, where the majority of the noise came from blacksmiths with certificates and orders strictly from royals and castles needing armor for the guards that would seldom face any kind of combat.

    And birds. Lots of peaceful, cheery birds.

    “The chancellor has a reputation for being late, even for ceremonies such as this. Not to mention, I thought you could use the extra sleep. You were tossing all night.”

    “I appreciate that. But must we risk being late for such an important life event of his. That is, his death?”

    “Hush now. Crows might hear you.”

    “You and your damned crows.”

    “I wouldn’t speak so brutishly of those creatures. They hear things.”

    “Of course, my dearest, whatever you say.”

    “You’re not in the best of moods this morning.”

    “It’s not a killing type of day. The sun is out, there are sparse, puffy clouds and even the birds are singing. I’m just not in the mood for it. To make matters worse, we were given orders to do it in broad daylight, in front of as many people as possible. A peculiar and rather tedious detail.”

    “Requirements are requirements. In any case, a highborn’s wedding is as good a place as any for that.”

    “It’s not unsettling to you, working under the sun?”

    “If average folks are at a disadvantage because they fear the night, are we not at a disadvantage when we fear the day?”

    She never was one to pass up an opportunity to stomp irrationality with a heel of reason. “Well said.”

    We passed by a few citizens, who thought nothing of our raiment. A pair of well-dressed individuals is not unusual, even if their uniforms are strange or outlandish. Representatives, guild members, or people apart of some faction or another often visit wealthier parts of cities to propose plans, make trades, or arrangements.

    Two assassins in broad daylight may not even be a bad idea, come to think of it. As long as we dress similarly, with a regard for cleanliness, who would suspect something of two individuals going about their business casually? Weapons in abundance are sometimes a sign of status, are often ignored if it matches the rest of the garb. I chuckled at the absurdity of having missed the opportunity all these years.

    When we could hear the chatter of a large gathering two streets down from the gardens of the Pale family’s mansion, we stopped our walking and checked around the impeccably clean streets. The stones were polished, and so white that it reflected the sun horrendously. I was nearly convinced it would eventually turn us blind.

    “Did you check the placements last night?” Gendrid asked me. She took out a pair of throwing daggers and began warming up her fingers by flipping them. 

    “I certainly did. There’s a terrace overlooking the ceremony, and it should be unoccupied. There’s shrubbery growing off the ledge, blocking anyone’s view from the ground. A quick shot, and a duck behind it, there shouldn’t be much of a trace.”

    “Unoccupied, not accounting for the guards, that is. And if your past behavior is any indication, it won’t be such a quick shot.”

    “As always, your undying support only bolsters my confidence,” I sighed. “In any case, we’ll have to be quiet,” I agreed. 

    “Anything else?” she yawned.

    “Please, act more concerned, will you?”

    “Another day, another coin,” she muttered before strutting off. I rushed and met her step.

    We went to the farthest corner of the mansion, did a quick peek over the wall, and found an empty garden.

    We slipped through. The roses were in full bloom, absolutely bursting, such that their weight was heavy on their thorny stems. Orchids, tulips, and cherry blossoms decorated the walkways.

    Gendrid stopped, leaned towards one of the pink roses, and stuffed the petals into her nose. I was in awe at it. Not the flowers, but the way her body looked as she bent over to smell them, how her short, rich, oak-colored hair fell down the sides of her face before she tucked the locks behind her ears. I forced myself to admire a beetle on the ground, for my own sake.

    After she was satisfied, we left, turning a corner that led to a small walkway between one of the mansion’s walls and the tall bushes that bordered the gardens.

    A guard at the doorway leading into one of the house chambers blinded us with his polished armor.

    “Halt,” he commanded.

    “We’ve done that much, already,” Gendrid stated with a cocky arc of her eyebrows and a matter-of-fact tilt of her head.

    I shifted my feet. She was a quiet one, to most people, but when it comes to picking fights, I’d never seen someone spit so many words so quickly.

    “What’s your business?”

    “Lady Mora. Heard of her, yes? We’re two senior members of the Silver Dawn here to discuss business with her.”

    “Silver Dawn? Never heard of it. What kind of business?”

    “Why would we tell you? I don’t believe I scheduled this meeting three moons in advanced, to discuss it with an uneducated brute at the doorway, who doesn't have the slightest inclination of our prestigious faction’s existence.”

    “N-no, m’lady. ‘Course not, m’lady.”

    “No, of ‘course not’, ” she said as she shoved her way passed him.

    I nodded to him and mouthed an apology for her behavior before following her into the home.

    “Treat them like horse shit, and you get your way. That’s how the highborns do it. Act timid and they’ll stop you short till you’re the one stuttering. They don’t know any different.”

    “It’s not my first time,” I hissed to her as we glided up a winding staircase.

    “I didn’t see you taking a breath to say anything.”

    “As I said: not in the mood today.”

    “Rather start the killing early, I see. Can’t get your way with words. You wanted an excuse to use your daggers.”

    “That’s not what I meant. You’re better with the words than I am, anyways.”

    “Saying my bladework is inferior to yours?”

    “Gods, you’re feisty today.”

    “I’m hungry. We should stop one of the servants before we get this started.”

    I touched her arm. “This is a man we’re killing, not an errand to run.”
    “Stopping for a loaf of bread, putting an arrow in a man who deserves to die. When you start to convince yourself of the difference, as an assassin, you become a threat to yourself. Sorry … I really am hungry. You know how I am when I’m hungry.”

    “I’ve worked with you long enough to know that,” I replied. “Let’s get some food in you. And I suppose I’m a better shot on a full stomach, anyways.”

    Gendrid found a kitchen upstairs with a staff that was bustling, preparing food for the wedding. She stopped one of the servants with a platter of buttered bread rolls with rolled meats and cheeses.

    We pulled up two chairs at a dining table, and ate while we admired the extravagant room. Tapestries hung from the ceilings, detailing scenes of battle and glory with seams as intricate as they come. The rugs matched their detail, and the chandeliers sparkled with gold embellishments.

    “Nice place,” she remarked, picking out a piece of meat between her teeth.

    “A little over the top, but I could see myself settling down in a place like this.”

    We laughed and dug into the food again.

    The terrace we were going to work from was one story up from the kitchens, but from here we could listen through the open windows at the ceremony proceeding. A woman’s voice was singing at the moment, with the intermittent clatter of teacups on dishes.

    “But I can’t be here much longer. It’s making me sick,” I said.

    “Me, too. I much prefer the inn. The walls here are too wide, ceilings too tall. I’m suffocating on space.”

    “The guard might see Lady Mora somewhere and wonder why she isn’t speaking with us. Worse yet, he might inquire and ask about it. Let’s get to work.”

    Gendrid rolled her huge, black eyes and set her head in her hand. “At least let me wash this down with tea.”

    “Oh? Have a little taste of the highborn life and suddenly you’re talking like them.” I picked up a bread roll and chucked it at her head. “More butter for your roll, m’lady?” I threw another at her.    

    “You … !” she growled and threw the butter knife at me.

    I ducked to avoid it and laughed.

    Some of the servants peeked their heads over the kitchen and started staring at us.

    “We’re not behaving.”

    “Evidently not,” I agreed.

    We left the chamber and found the other staircase leading up to the room with the terrace. 

    To our surprise, there were no guards. The majority of them were at the grounds, watching the ceremony or standing in boredom on the sides. It was a remarkably expansive view, once we picked the lock to the glass doors and stepped to the edge.

    “Doesn’t seem like we need two of us for this job,” Gendrid said, her tone a little more serious, now.

    “You never know. Remember the assignment on Capital Lane?”

    “I kept finding dried droplets of blood around my body over the next week.”

    “And then, we were thinking to ourselves: a peaceful, easy job. Not so. Those folks were well trained. You saved my ass, too. Keep an eye on the staircase for me, will you? It never hurts to have your eyes.”

    “Sure thing. See you afterward.” Her hand lingered on my arm, then left. 

    “Until then.”

    When her footsteps stopped I closed my eyes and drew in a long breath. 

    I undid the latch for my hand crossbow, felt the familiar weight of the steel handle slide into my palm, the metal worn from being squeezed, tarnished, and polished over the years. The cuts and scrapes along the edges played against the scars on my hand.

    I pulled the string back and heard the satisfying click of the locking mechanism snapping into place.

    A stray lock of hair. A sweep behind the ear. Another long exhale.

    The bolt slid out silently from the quiver, and the cork from the vial did a gleeful pop as the fragrance of the poison wafted into the midday air. I dipped the arrowhead into the bile colored substance, and placed it on the indent of the crossbow’s firing shaft.

    The shade from the roof was comforting from the heat of the summer sun, and kept me calm as I eyed the chancellor.

    I always told myself I wasn’t the type of assassin who enjoyed murder. That I didn’t find it beautiful the way some people died, or that I didn’t take a peculiar satisfaction from the way a blade feels as it twists inside someone’s side, how it quivers all the way down to the wrist with the sensation. It shudders up my arm, through my bones. My arteries shake with it. My heart erupts with euphoria at such motions. It has come to long for it. 

    I wake up most mornings, and tell myself that I only need the quiet of the sunrise, the calls of birds, the taste of well-brewed coffee or the texture of a perfectly baked loaf bought from a kind baker with a generous smile.

    When I sleep, I tell myself how lovely it is to rest after a long day’s work. How the serenity of life is fulfilling when we are able to escape chaos with brief, peaceful moments.

    Yet, without fail, no matter how temperate, dreary, or peaceful the day is, whenever I find myself looking at the soul of a body I am about to free from its constraints, I am filled with a sense of excitement I cannot quell. An unparalleled ecstasy that no amount of perfect sunrises could ever match.

    A smile as twisted as ivy grows on my lips, twists and curls at the edges. My eyes widen as I take in every detail.

    “Just a few more moments, chancellor,” I whisper to my crossbow. “Breathe slowly for me, will you? The poison spreads faster if you start panicking, and where’s the entertainment in a quick death?”

    My finger went steady over the trigger.

    It always pulls so much faster than I want it to.

    I wish I was a practitioner of magick. I wish I could intone a spell to slow the passing of time, just for that moment, when my mind and heart synchronize and decide to finally press down on the crossbow’s lever.

    The chancellor’s daughter approached our organization two weeks ago. Summoned one of our receivers with a blood ritual known to many, but attempted by few. Gathered all of the correct ingredients, and called one of our messenger wraiths to her home at two in the morning.

    She cried. She wept. She begged the wraith. She spilled out every last horrific memory of her father, how he had been creeping into her room since she was a child. The wraith told us, as the details became more excruciating, that she became unable to speak, choking on her sobs. 

    And as the visits became more and more frequent, he’d take her in the blatant light of day when nobody was around. He became arrogant about it. He’d even post a guard outside a room, have the door locked, and bribe anyone who caught a whisper of it to keep their lips tight.

    When she left scratches on his neck as she tried to fight him, the few times she was brave enough to do so, he told everyone the household cat did it. 

    The daughter couldn’t tell her mother, Lady Mora, since she was just as frightened of her father as she was.

    The gods know there is damnable madness in me, for loving the feeling of pulling this lever, of trying to imagine how the man will die before he does, and how I turn it over endlessly in my head the night before. It helps me sleep, to imagine such things. 

    But the gods know there is corruption in this man that is redeemed by only one, singular outcome. Death.

    I pulled the lever.

    The bolt flitted through the air, always too fast for me to watch, and landed in his chest. A little to the left of his heart, but that’s all right. I enjoy the simplicity of a center shot. The poison works all the same. 

    The force of it was so innocent, he only stumbled back two paces. The look on his face: pure bemusement, realization, and then horror. His fingers went to the bolt, and with a lovable stupidity, wrenched it out for me.

    The serrated edges of the arrowhead snagged on his veins, and tore them loose from their bindings. Such release is so irresistible. Tearing bandages from a wound. Picking a scab clean. Wrenching off clothes from someone you cannot possibly resist. Tearing into their flesh while they do the same.

    The predictable gasps of the crowd came, admittedly, a little late. It appears his speech wasn’t so enthralling, until now.

    Scarlet sprayed on the perfectly white table cloths beneath him. The lucky few who were close enough got a splash or two on their cheeks, in their bread pudding. He fell backwards, screamed out as if the sun burst just to spite him, pouring fire down his throat.

    I don’t usually watch so long, as much as I’d like to, since these situations become tricky quite quickly.

    But his daughter. The bride he was giving away. The one he’d traumatized for a lifetime. I simply had to see.

    Her smile. She could not suppress it. Not even as she tried to feign surprise and horror. Like an actor too overcome with laughter to keep a serious face, it broke out on her cheeks in hideously indulgent delight.

    And I smiled. I chuckled. I laughed. I cackled so hard I had to smother my face in my sleeve before it burst out of me. Her reaction was splendid in every possible way, and the first time I had witnessed someone enjoy my profession as much as I did.

    “His favorite guardsman, Gregory. His most faithful, will rush to his side,” the daughter had said through bitter tears to the wraith. “If you kill him, I’ll pay twice the amount, and have the second payment sent afterward. He’s the one who knew first, but told no one. Please.”

    The chaos had already broken out. They were looking. Some of them even saw me, the hooded figure with a wry smile on his face, staring intently from the balcony.

    I didn’t care. I waited.

    A guard rushed to his side. Of slightly larger build, and younger. There was a patch of his neck that was uncovered by ceremonial armor.

    I loaded up the crossbow, not bothering with the poison, took aim, and fired as soon as the intuition set in. The arrow sung for the guests. Someone screamed for him to move, but he was too overcome with worry for the poor, poor chancellor.

    The way it stuck out of his neck like a proud flagstaff. The black fletching quivered from the pulse. He, too, wrenched it free in panic, and because it was one of the largest arteries of the body, put on an even more vivid display.

    I savored the sudden burst of the fountain, the quick cessation of its crimson splendor. 

    Everyone bleeds the same.

    “Wrapping things up, Sigmund?” Gendrid’s voice was a little more worried than usual, as it came from the room behind me.

    “The Chancellor is the gods’ problem now.” I forced my eyes from the scene and glanced behind me.

    There were already three bodies around her, and a few locks of her hair had fallen from her ponytail, falling in front of her eyes. It gave her that look of concentration graced by a disregard for her appearance

    “You look stunning,” I said as I stepped off of the terrace and into the cool chamber.

    She blew the hair from her eyes. “Ugh. You always get so romantic afterward. There are more coming.”

    “To the worms with caution. I’m in the mood.”

    “Now you’re the one not taking this seriously enough. Hear those footsteps? Half a dozen, at least.”

    “You took out three,” I said as I readied another bolt and hung the crossbow on my belt. “Half a dozen, split between us two. It’ll be a dance, not a fight.” 

    “The rooftops will make for a clean break. They’ll see us, but if we’re fast enough, we can use the route we discussed to get to the backstreets. Then, the sewers.”

    “I don’t feel like swimming through muck today.” I unsheathed two daggers and flourished them. “Today is a beautiful day, Gendrid. Why squander such fine weather?”

    She snorted. “And this is why, perhaps regretfully, I love you.”

    I swept her in as the tops of the guardsmen’s helmets started bobbing up the steps, and pecked her on the cheek. “Guard my back, and I’ll guard yours?”

    “As always.”