Thursday, April 21, 2011

FICTION: The Contract By Mark Smith

         Rose almost dropped the glass of brandy that Alam had poured her.
         “You found him?” Rose asked with great skepticism.
         “Yes, I found your famous Horn Helm. I must say, you certainly have interesting tastes when it comes to holding grudges. Do you know of the Shadow Walkers?”
         Rose put her glass down on Alam’s mahogany desk, who squirmed at Rose’s deliberate avoidance of her coaster. She rubbed her choker, which held the faces of five signet rings, one for her mother, father, and her three sisters. Rose could still hear their screams as Horn Helm massacred her family.
         “They are the city’s dominant faction of assassins. They get their orders directly from the Nebula.”
         Alam refilled Rose’s brandy snifter. “Ah, the Nebula. Our city’s enigmatic collection of dark patrons.”
         Alam took out a wax sealed envelope and slid it across the desk. Rose picked it up and looked at the dagger fanged snake constricting the moon stamped deep in the red wax. It was a stamp that Rose never thought she would see. She picked up her glass, condensation fighting to keep it on the table, and took a long sip.
         “What does this have to with Horn Helm?”
         “My dear, there is a reason why you haven’t been able to find him. He is the head of the Shadow Walkers.”
         Rose almost dropped the glass of brandy. “Are you sure?”
         Alam leaned in close to her. “As sure as my brother is dead.”
         Rose broke the seal on the envelope and took out the letter. On the thin paper she read:
         Ms. Alema,
         We have been following your career for quite some time. We recently have come across an opening in our organization and wish to offer it to you. Should you choose to accept membership into our distinguished brotherhood, we require a display of loyalty and dedication. But first you must profess your many sins, preferably before the eleventh bell tonight.
           Raphael Françoise
         “So  Raphael Françoise is Horn Helm?” Rose asked.
         “No darling. I have no idea who he is. Upon receiving your invitation, I discreetly looked into the Shadow Walker’s organization and learned of their horn helmet wearing leader.”
         “How is it that you, a humble merchant, come into possession of this?”
         “It seems that the powers that be believe that I am your, dare I say it, friend. I suppose they thought that you visit me enough for me to be your personal mail carrier.”
         Rose downed the last of her brandy, then tucked the letter away. “Thank you Alam. I’ll see you soon.”
         Rose walked into the Montclair Basilica, located in the center of the city. Even this late at night, the place of worship was filled. Sanctuary for all in the city,  the church received donations from many of the city’s powerful men, even from Rose herself. The decor showed it: the high walls were painted with murals of gold-leaf and paint, depicting religious allegory, colored moon light, courtesy of the elaborate stain-glass windows illuminated the large cathedral . Rose looked at the large marble statues of the saints, overlooking the worshipers from high above the alter.
         I suppose even thieves and cutthroats need religion.
         Rose sat in the last row of pews and bowed her head. She usually only comes here once a year, on the day of her family’s tragic end. Rose brought her palms together in prayer, and opened herself to the faith.
         Dear family: Mother, Father, Nina, Alexia, and Christina, I am close. The beast who took you from me is soon going to be sent to the fiery depths. I have taken an apprentice. Did you five see that coming? I certainly didn’t. She reminds me of Alexia, suborn, fire hearted, and loyal. Please watch over the both of us in the days to come, I feel that we will be knee deep in blades and deceit. The clock tower sounded the eleventh hour. I must take my leave. May your souls soon find peace.
         “And may yours too find peace,” the congregation repeated to the priest.
         A puzzled look came across Rose.
         That was reassuring, yet somewhat disturbing.
         Rose walked around the seated members, and into a small chapel that held the confessionals. There were seven, six of which had both doors open. Rose walked into the the occupied one, sat down and closed the door. This confessional differed greatly from the one that Rose went to as a child. Where the one from the past was musty, and dark, this one, made of cheery wood, smelled of the fruit. The colored light from the windows shined in through small glass windows near the ceiling of the booth. Rose could barely make out the figure on the other side, but could tell that he was not of the cloth.
         “I would say bless me for I have sinned, but something tells me that you have more bodies to your name than I do,” Rose said to the man across from her.
         “Ah, her wit is as sharp as her blade. It is a pleasure to finally meet you Death’s Rose. I would do this face to face, but one can’t be too careful in this dark world of ours.”
         “What shall I call you? Padre?”
         “Ah, she bears her wit again. To call me Padre would be an insult to all men of the cloth. You may call me Françoise.”
         “So you are the one who sent me the recruitment letter. Good work with using Alam.”
         “Even the best of us need a port in the storm of graft and vice. Tell me, are you interested?”
         Rose paused for a minute. “Possibly. I have a condition or two.”
         “A skilled killer and haggler, you impress me more and more. Share with me.”
         “I want the invitation to extend to my apprentice, Jessa Deluna.”
         “The daughter of Frederico Deluna. This is a surprising piece of new. Yes, I shall extend the invitation, but she will be your sole responsibility. Maybe in time we can welcome her, but all of this hinges on you doing a favor for our group first.”  
         “What do you need done?”
         “In two days time, Jotun Alenko will be coming back to our city. He must not live to see the third day. He lives in the top suite of the building across from the clock tower. Will you remove him for us?”
         “Yes. What shall we do when it is done?”
         “I shall seek you out.”
         Rose entered her safehouse to find Jessa pouring herself a glass of brandy, her expensive brandy. Rose undid her scabbard from her belt and it crashed onto the ebony floor, startling Jessa. Rose gave Jessa a quick smirk, then she picked up Soul Cutter.
         “If you wanted to have a drink you could have asked.” She placed her sword on the counter and picked up her favorite crystal brandy snifter. She walked over to the table and sat down. “Why the sudden interest in the fire drink?”
         Jessa just looked at her glass. “I killed two men tonight. After I left the shop, I came across two men who were trying to rape a woman. I fought them both an killed them.”
         Rose picked up the bottle, poured herself a glass and filled Jessa’s cup. “Then you really do need this.” They clinked their glasses and drained the glasses. “How was it?”
         Jessa looked at her empty glass. “To tell you the truth, I liked it. I killed two people, saving a third in the process. Nothing could bring my father back, but it felt like the first stones of a rockslide tumbling down a mountain.”
         Rose bowed her head, and filled the glasses again. “After we finish these, we have planning to do. We have a job which will open the doors of vengeance.”
         Rose and Jessa stood outside of the clock tower. Now mid-winter, the air held a sharp icy chill. Along with the cloaks, the women wore heavy velvet doublets and gloves, Rose scarlet, and Jessa dark emerald green. Their fox fur lined leather boots covered where their heavy breeches stopped. The two assassins stared at their target’s building. The building was six stories tall, the tallest building on the block. Each floor had a balcony facing south, away from the tower, overlooking the sun rising from the Thousand Port Sea. Rose caught at least three different guards look down from the roof, and another two guarding the door.
         “At least three on top, two at the door, and God knows how many inside. If this is a trial run contract I can’t imagine how fun the actual ones are.”
         “Yeah, can you elaborate on that a little. Who in the hell are the Shadow Walkers?”
         “There are two types of assassins, the independent ones, like us, and the elites belonging to guilds like the Shadow Walkers. They are the ones that are financed by the rich and powerful. We could be the most feared assassins in the city if we play our cards right. First we must kill Jotun Alenko, which shall be difficult with all these guards about.”
         “Do we know anything about them?” Jessa asked, rubbing her hands together.
         “I asked Alam about Alenko. He’s the leader of the Crimson Blades, one of the city’s many mercenary companies. According to Alam, the Crimson Blades are rumored to have massacred a village that was under the city’s protection. He’ll have a few of his men in there, but I don’t think anyone will miss them. We just need to find a way to get inside.”
         Jessa stared at the building, mind adrift. “I remember my father telling me stories about secret tunnels underneath the city. He said that thieves used to use them to travel and smuggle goods about the city. I was thinking that a guy with a lot of powerful people after him would have an escape tunnel.”
         “That’s not a bad idea. I happen to know where one of the entrances are.”
         Rose rushed Jessa, and slashed at her chest. Jessa parried the attack with her left blade, then struck out with her right. The leather wrapped blade was a hair’s width away from Rose’s neck. Rose pulled her dagger out of her boot and jabbed Jessa in the ribs. The adept killer turned around and let out a frustrated sigh.
         “You need to focus. We are going up against skilled mercenaries. Their blades will not be wrapped in leather. They will kill you. I don’t care if you are afraid to hurt me, I need to know you can go through with your attacks.”
         She attacked Jessa again, this time, stabbing forward. Jessa spun to the left, using her momentum to strike Rose’s left leg with each of the blades. Rose broke away from the fight, taking three large steps back. She dropped the dagger, ran forward, and with a two handed swing, knocked Jessa’s left blade out of her hand. Jessa parried Rose’s attack, and elbowed the flat of Soul Cutter’s blade, slowly wrenching it from her grasp. Rose kneed Jessa in the stomach, grabbed Jessa’s wrist and twisted, causing her to drop the blade.
         Rose pushed Jessa back and brought her fists up. “One day, your steel will not be within reach. Your hands will have to become your weapons. She ran to Jess and thrust her palm forward, touching the tip of Jessa’s nose with the bottom of her palm. “If you follow through with this, your target’s nose will be driven into his head. We have delicate hands, so utilize the bottoms of your palms and your elbows. Strike with as much force as you can.”
         “Suppose they are wearing a helmet?”
         “Knees Jessa. Even if they are not weighed down by armor, people always collapse if their knees are hit hard enough.” She brought her boot to the side of Jessa’s left knee. “Kick them here and they’ll fall. Hard enough and the leg will break. Go practice.” Rose gestured to the dummy hanging in the corner.
         Rose walked into the next room, her office, and sat at her large oak desk. Spread out on it was a large yellow map with detailed sketches of the sewer and smuggling tunnels. Rose followed the major line, which ran under her safehouse, to the three left and two right turns to the intersection of tunnels right in front of the clock tower. A small X was placed in a side tunnel leading into the intersection. She remembered the night she added that section to the map, the contract she first used it as an escape route; and the scar on her leg from the stab wound in the fight previous.                
         Hopefully this outing will be smoother than that one. She heard the pounding of Jessa’s attacks against the dummy. I just hope she’s ready.  
         A day later, Rose and Jessa were below the trap door leading to Alenko’s basement. Each of the assassins had a stiletto dagger, and about a dozen throwing knives between them. To eliminate the groan of their leather armor, they both were dressed in black breeches, black leather boots,  and tight cotton shirts.
         “I think I stepped in rat droppings,” Jessa said, scrapping her boot on the stone floor.
         “This was your idea. Now you must enjoy the many flavors, and scents of wetwork. Remember, these mercenaries massacred a village, they deserve no mercy. Are you ready?”
         With a nod, Jessa took out a lockpick and began to coax the tumblers. When the last pin clicked open, both of the women drew their daggers and pushed open the door. Like they  planned, Rose and Jessa found themselves in Alenko’s basement. After waiting for a few minutes for their eyes to adjust. The room was filled with dust covered crates and several large selves holding wines of various vintages. The air was stale, indicating the infrequent use of the subterranean room. The assassins made their way pass the crates, to the stairs.
         Rose slowly turned the door knob and pushed the door open a few inches and looked out. To the left, down a hallway about ten paces long, was what Rose assumed was the parlor. To the right, Rose could smell food from the kitchen. She was just about to signal Jessa to move when she heard approaching footsteps, coupled with the telltale sound of a scabbard hitting armor.
         Rose closed the door and waited two breaths, until the guard walked pass the door. She pushed it open, grabbed him, and stabbed him in the back of the neck, driving the dagger through his spine and windpipe. Rose and Jessa picked up the body and rolled it down the stairs, hearing a thud when he hit the floor.
         The two assassins crept through the door, towards the kitchen. The servants were preparing dinner when a summoning bell sounded. Both of the men walked out of the kitchen, then Rose and Jessa took their places. The women quickly stripped and reversed their clothing. Reversed, the clothes matched the color of Alenko’s servants, and had fine slits in the side of the chest so their knives would be easily accessible. The women tied their hair into sloppy buns, and each slipped their daggers into their boots. Once they were done preparing, the cooks walked back in.
         “Ay, what are you two doing in here?” one of them asked.
         “Apologies Signore. We were told that dinner was ready. Do you need any assistance?” Jessa asked with a small bow.
         “Just begin bringing out the food. If the master is in the dining room, tell him that the main course will be out shortly.”
         Rose and Jessa waled to the counter and picked up the food. Rose carried a large bowl of steaming cream of mushroom soup, Jessa a large bowl of rolls with a jar of jam in the center. The killers walked into the dining room where Alenko awaited his dinner, with two guards standing behind him. Rose and Jessa walked to his side and placed the bowl of soup in front of him. Jessa placed the salad behind the soup bowl, backed up and looked at Rose.   
         Rose nodded her head slightly, and Jessa drew two small knives from the slits. With a flick of her wrists, the knives sailed through the air, one embedding in a guard’s neck, the other embedding in the wall behind him. Jessa ran to the guard, and shot her palm forward, slamming into his nose, dropping him on the ground.
          Alenko dropped his spoon and leapt out of his chair. “Guards!”
         Rose drew her dagger out of her boot, and ran to the mercenary leader. She reversed her grip on the blade and slashed forward, cutting his neck deeply, then turned to Jessa at the sound of heavy footsteps. Jessa ran to the two dead guards and drew their swords. She tossed one to Rose, and they both turned to each of the doors leading to the dining room.
         Four men entered the room, two on Rose’s side, two on Jessa’s. Rose ran forward, ducking under the swing of one of the guards. Rose stabbed forward with the stiletto, driving point through the armor, into his heart. Rose parried an attack from the other guard;who then swung his unarmed hand, clipping Rose’s chin, knocking her back and dazing her.
         Once the room stopped spinning, Rose drew one of her knives with her free hand and rushed the man. Rose deflected an attack from the man, and stabbed at his side, driving the knife two inches into the leather padding. Coughing up blood, the man fell to the ground, and was killed quickly by a quick sword poke to the throat.
         Rose turned towards Jessa, seeing the first guard’s body on the ground bleeding from a neck wound. She looked up to find Jessa driving her sword through a mercenary’s unprotected chest, then pushed him back with her foot. A third man, armed with a dagger, ran into the room and tackled Jessa. Rose ran to her apprentice, who was rolling the man’s body off of her, stiletto protruding from his chest.
         “Are you okay?” Rose asked as she helped Jessa up.
         “Yeah, I’m fine.” Jessa said, holding her side. “I just got kicked in the side. Let’s get out of here.”
         Rose and Jessa turned the corner, panting after their run from the sewer entrance. While Jessa paused to catch her breath, Rose unlocked the door to her sanctuary. Rose walked in, letting her moist hair fall over her shoulders.
         “You did a great job tonight.” Rose said, placing her knives on the table. Dead silence answered her. “Jessa?”
         Rose turned around and saw Jessa down on one knee. Rose ran to the fledgling assassin. Her skin was clammy and ashen, her breathing rapid and shallow. Rose pulled Jessa’s hand away from her side, revealing a bloody hole in Jessa’s side, near her stomach. Rose put Jessa’s arm around her shoulder and carried her to her bedroom. Rose ran to her work room and came back with brandy, a role of bandages, needle and thread. She rolled up Jessa’s shirt, revealing the two inch long wound.
         “This is going to hurt. Sorry.”
         Rose opened the brandy and poured it on the wound. Jessa screamed in pain, gripping the sheets with her hands. Rose wiped away the blood and brandy around the wound, and pressed the bandages against the wound.
         “Goddamn it! Stop it you bitch!” Jessa screamed.
         “If you think I’m a bitch now, you’ll love me in a moment.”
         Once the bleeding stopped, Rose dipped the needle in brandy and began to stitch the wound. Jessa began to thrash and scream.
         “Stop moving! Do you want a jagged scar?” Rose cut off Jessa’s leather knife harness, and made a large knot with the strips. Rose shoved it in Jessa’s mouth. “Bite down on this.”
         You idiot! Why in the hell didn’t you tell me you were stabbed? Are you really that damn stubborn? You ran through half of the damned sewer with a gaping hole in your side, losing God knows how much blood? For all I know, the knife could have hit your kidney. You could die in your sleep from an infection, hell you could die as I’m doing this.  
         Rose could see Jessa bite down on the leather, tears flowing down her red pain filled face, as she stitched the wound shut. After two minutes of intense pain, Jessa passed out, bringing her groaning and thrashing to a stop. Rose breathed deeply, focusing on closing the wound. The needle pierced the right side of the wound, to the left. With a careful pull, the edges met, next stitch, edges together. Once she reached the end of the wound, Rose cut the thread with a knife, and tied a tight knot to the last stitch. She took a clean linen cloth and wiped away the last of the blood. Carefully, Rose lifted up Jessa waist, and began to wrap her stomach tight with the bandage. Rose got up, shaking from the ordeal and dragged a chair to the bed. She sat down and drained what was left of the liquor, then stared at Jessa, eyes hot, with tears.
         Please God, send her back. I can’t go through this again. I need her to live, to keep me alive. You allowed my family to be taken away from me already, don’t you dare take her too. DO YOU HEAR BE YOU BASTARD! SEND HER BACK!
         Rose sat back in the chair, a lone tear rolling down her cheek.
         Please send her back.     

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