Perfect shadow, p.1
A Night Angel Novella
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Chateau Shayon is supposed to be impregnable. I love it when they say that. Crushing a bare rock just offshore with their weight, the chateau’s sheer walls ring the entire island, actually overhanging the waters of Lac Shayon in places.
This was to be my first kill for hire. It’s good to start with the impossible. Make a name for myself. Enter with a splash.
I emerged from the water with little more than a ripple. The walls loomed before me, above me. There were no shallows to stand in. In those few places where there once had been, some lord or another had sent masons to chip away rock to a depth of three paces below water. I was naked to the waist, skin smeared with fat and ashes for insulation and invisibility. Clothes would have simply filled with water, slowed me down.
As it was, I was bleeding from a slash along one cheek and several cuts along my forearms. Defensive wounds. I didn’t want to stay in the water any longer than I had to. There were more of those damned things out there.
But I waited. Clung to the rocks, buffeted by the waves, studying the wall. There were easier ways to do this, of course. The ka’kari could make most anything easy. Except those things that it makes damn near impossible.
~You don’t want to do this, Acaelus. Murder for hire? You?~
None of that. That’s not my name. Hasn’t been for a long time.
The overhang of the walls was lined with machicolationsor rocks, murder holes for arrows, and spouts for jellied fire. I could see two sentries above me in mail and wool, chatting, checking the lake from time to time. It was a clear night, lit by a full moon. Not a night that required much vigilance. I saw six other men atop the wall, eight. Far enough away that I shouldn’t have been able to see them in the darkness.
But darkness welcomes my eyes. It was one way I couldn’t help but use the ka’kari. It forever altered how I see.
Almost every window of the chateau was shuttered against the cold night breeze. I wasn’t looking for an open window, though. Every window was barred, and every iron bar was in good condition. There were no balconies over the picturesque lake; that would only give grapnels a place to hook. This chateau had been built for defense, and not by fools.
A simple assassin would fail.
Only on the third story did the windows of the chateau—again barred with stout iron—glow with cheery firelight, shutters thrown open. That would be the great hall, where Baron Rikku was entertaining his vassals. Baron Rikku was a proud man. Proud of his parties. Proud of the fine Sethi wines he served. Proud of his ornaments, his silks, his art. Proud of his piety. Proud of seizing this little island chateau from its previous owner.
Unfortunately, the previous owner of the island hadn’t actually owned the island. He’d merely been holding it for another. One who wished to keep her ownership anonymous. One who wasn’t impressed by the baron. One who wouldn’t forgive him for his ignorance, or his theft.
But that’s what sucks about running an underworld, isn’t it? Tell people what you own, and you invite attacks from those strong enough to challenge you; don’t tell people what you own, and you won’t dissuade those who fear you.
Right, poor Sa’kagé, you really get the ass-end of life.
I checked the position of the moon, judging how far it had moved since I’d entered the water on the other side of the lake, some two thousand paces distant. The baron would retire from the party, make love with his wife in her chambers or with one of her ladies or a maid in a side room he kept for the purpose, and then use the lords’ privy before retiring to his own chambers on the top floor.
Classic defensive weaknesses of any fortification: how shit comes in and how shit goes out. Here, the garderobe overhung the water, so I was able to find the privies by their smell. The chute was narrow, probably as much to minimize how much wind blew up on your nethers as for defense. The chute didn’t start until five paces above the water, and its narrowness meant every surface was slick with effluents. With slimy fresh diarrhea caked over the top of crumbly feces dried and aged into soil, there was no telling where the cracks in the rock were.
I glanced up, saw that none of the guards were looking, and then something caught my eye behind me: a shadow in the waters.
More than one. Dozens. Fucking fanged fish. Undeniably stupid, but I’d heard they could smell blood for a league. Apparently I should have believed it.
With a surge of my Talent, I shot out of the water. I stabbed fingers and bare toes into the shit-slick walls, pushed off, twisted, leapt for the inside wall of the chute, twisted, and had both my left hand and left foot betrayed by bad holds.
I fell, fingers clawing at the walls, toes scratching, tearing off toenails, finally stopped. I gave myself a few deep breaths and then launched upward again with magic-augmented strength. This time, I bounced lightly from one side to the other.
Almost at the top, I found the remains of a grate. It must have been installed hundreds of years ago, because the iron was corroded to little more than nubs sticking out of each wall. Too much trouble to replace, apparently, or too gross. Now it made good footholds for the very kind of man it had originally been intended to keep out.
The problem with a place like Chateau Shayon wasn’t that it had a weakness. Every castle has weaknesses. The problem was that when you steal a chateau from Gwinvere Kirena, you have an enemy who knows your weaknesses exhaustively. If I’d thought there was a grate in the chute—well, I could have made it through regardless—but most assassins wouldn’t have tried the garderobe. Certainly not first.
Balancing on the stubs of the grate, ignoring my bleeding toes, I drew a plane saw. The privies were a simple board: oak, with three holes in it. Three so you and two friends can drop mud together, I guess. Call me unsociable, but no thanks. Regardless, if Gwinvere’s intelligence were still accurate, the board was fitted with a lock and bolted down. No one even had the key to that lock any more. I picked the middle hole, setting the plane saw to work inscribing a circle slightly larger than the current one.
~This goes against everything you’ve lived for. Gaelan, this isn’t you.~
No, this isn’t Gaelan. There is no Gaelan. I’m nameless.
No one came to use the lords’ privies in the time I was there. Lucky. It does happen. That’s the thing. If you’re prepared to get shit on and do your work anyway, sometimes you get lucky. Over the distant sounds of laughter and carousing—You will be alone. You will be separate. Always.—I listened for footsteps.
None. I scraped some feces off the wall next to my head, reached my hand up through the right side privy-hole, and plopped the feces on the seat. I pulled an empty leather winebag, smaller than my clenched fist, from where it was rolled flat under my belt. I opened it, balanced somewhat precariously on the grate-stubs, and pissed in the bag.
Then I poured the urine liberally around the left-side privy’s seat.
I’d barely finished when the door banged open. The baron. He was preceded by a soldier carrying a lantern.
The soldier searched the room for intruders, though there wasn’t much searching to do. The room was bare rock with a low ceiling and only the one entrance. Apparently the baron was nervous.
The soldier walked toward the privies. I pressed myself against one wall and drew the shadows around me. It wasn’t anything like invisibility, but it helped. And the lantern’s light was diffuse—that’s the problem of using a lantern to look straight down: the base gets in the way. The man’s head appeare
“Quickly, would you?” the baron said. “I’m going to die of a burst bladder here.”
No, you’re not.
The light above steadied as the soldier put it on a hook, and then the door closed.
distantt="0em" width="1em">A moment later, I heard the baron swear, mumbling to himself, “…swine. Can’t even piss without missing the hole…whoreson Alitaerans.” There was a rustle of clothing as he dropped his trousers, and his ass blocked out the light over the middle privy. “…wines from Seth, chef from the best Modaini…Probably shat on the edge on purpose.” He was a lean man, but the wood groaned slightly where I’d incised the larger circle. But it didn’t give way. Not yet.
I let him finish his business. Never say I’m not a gentleman.
I was once the avatar of retribution. Now I just try to be polite.
A moment later, the baron disappeared down the privy without a trace. When his soldiers grew suspicious and checked, he was simply gone. You’ll forgive me if I don’t dwell on the details. You see, this isn’t the tale of Baron Rikku’s death. It’s the tale of mine.
But afford me a moment for my professional pride and let me say this: in the Chateau Shayon, no one ever again shat unworried.
* * *
“What I don’t understand is why you came to Cenaria. There’s nothing here. It’s a hole,” Yvor Vas says. He’s a skinny, freckled redhead who—improbably enough—hails from Ladesh.
“They don’t know me here,” I say. I’m drinking ale. He’s drinking ootai—all Ladeshians are addicted to the bitter drink, apparently even the redheaded ones—in a little safe house I’d purchased in the Warrens on the edge of swampland. This conversation is too dangerous to risk it being overheard. “In the last fifty years, I’ve become famous in most of the great nations. There’ve been so many wars, and I always seem to end up in the middle of them.”
He says, “You were Vin Craysin in eastern Alitaera, Tal Drakkan in Seth, Gorrum Quesh in Modai, and Pips McClawski in western Alitaera?” Trying to impress.
“You know I found a collector who had Pips’s dice in Aenu? And no, I wasn’t Gorrum Quesh, though I fought with him for a time. You Society folk, always so curious.” I wasn’t Vin Craysin either, but I don’t like to reveal all of my cards, even when it doesn’t matter.
“The Society of the Second Sun would like to be an asset for you, Master Starfire. Allies who will help you, regardless of your circumstances. Think of it!”
“I have,” I say. I pause, deep in thought. “And I want to tell you everything.”
His eyes light up.
Everyone thinks they’re special. It’s what makes lying so easy.
* * *
“Gaelan Starfire! What an honor. Thank you for agreeing to meet me.” Gwinvere Kirena owned the kind of beauty that made a man remember being twelve and unable to speak in the presence of a girl. Gaelan had met great beauties before. The truth was, most of the encounters left him convinced that people were idiots. Great beauties and stunningly handsome men were accorded virtues: people found them funnier, smarter, more insightful than they actually were.
Conversely, he’d met women reputed to be great beauties who’d been merely attractive but with great confidence, charm, eeing tivacity. Gwinvere Kirena might be the former, but she definitely wasn’t the latter. He’d heard her described as “the courtesan of the age.” She was maintained by many men, owned by none. And this, at perhaps thirty years old.
His pause had to have been obvious, but Gaelan guessed Gwinvere was used to men finding lead in their tongues—and iron in their…elsewhere. “It’s not my usual kind of gathering, but you roused my curiosity,” Gaelan said.
He was looking at her eyes, not her generous cleavage, as he said “roused.” A beauty, much less a courtesan, would be accustomed to men’s advances, from the most vulgar to the most genteel. Her eyes gave away nothing. Either she’d missed it, didn’t care, or she chose not to give anything away.
“Are you enjoying the party?” she asked.
Gaelan’s back stiffened. It was a masque, held in some absent lord’s rented manse. He hadn’t seen such degeneracy since the waning days of the first Alitaeran Empire. He was reasonably handsome and very athletic, but no less than three women had groped him in the time between his coming through the front door and coming to this study. He’d even recognized one of them—the young wife of an earl, her face covered with a swan mask, and not much else covered at all. She’d laughed and addressed her friends by name, apparently not concerned about being identified. Gaelan hadn’t seen anyone actually copulating, but the night was young.
“It’s been an education,” he said.
Gwinvere Kirena herself had opted for a thin, high-collared, shockingly red dress perfectly cut to show every curve. She was bedecked with narrow gold chains, crossing between her breasts, bound with a padlock that hung in front of her hips. On a ribbon choker around her neck, she wore a little golden key. Some tailor’s fantasy of a Khalidoran harem girl, complete with chastity belt.
“I held it for you,” she said.
“I’ve never had anyone hold an orgy for me,” he said honestly. Not in 680 years.
She chuckled. “I was testing your rectitude,” she said. A slight pause before rectitude. Setting him up for the double entendre, if he wished. Allowing him to pursue her, if he wished.
But what she meant was that she was seeing if Gaelan Starfire would turn around and leave such a party before he even met her, or if he would tolerate debauchery. What kind of a man is Gaelan Starfire? she was asking.
A good test, devised by an incisive mind.
“Say your piece. You didn’t invite me here for my wit, or my cock.”
Her eyes widened for a moment, then a smile curved her full, rouged lips. She lay back against her divan. “I hadn’t thought I had,” she said. “You’re making me reconsider.”
He folded his hands behind his back, legs apart, bearing military.
Her eyes played over his figure. She said, “Gaelan Starfire, farmer from nowhere turned hero of the Ceuran Campaigns, master of the longbow, master of the warhammer. Single-handedly freed a hundred of his imprisoned comrades. Five times refused promotions. Held the ridge at the Battle of Blood Grass all by himself. Suspected of being Talented, but twice refused to be examined by the Sisters. Quarreled bitterly with t="0litaeran commander, and then left suddenly. Recently accused of murder and hunted by armies from Alitaera and Ceura both.”
“Stories. Half true at best. They bore me.”
“The Alitaeran commander turned up dead a month later,” she said.
“Really?” he said, too slowly. How could she know that? “Serves that bastard right.”
“When he recruited you, he promised you vengeance on the Ceurans, didn’t he.” It wasn’t a question. “Then he took their bribe to call off the campaign.” Again, not a question.
“So you think I’m a murderer. You want me as an assassin?” Gaelan asked. “What? Some pretty rival slight you? A lover spurn you?”
He intended her to take offense. Wanted to see her angry.
She smiled indulgently. Full lips, beautiful smile, light in her eyes at being challenged. Enjoying being challenged. “I’m Sa’kagé, Gaelan.”
“Of course you are.” The underworld lords, the Sa’kagé, ran all of the significant crime in the city under the watchful eye of their ruling Nine, who were in turn watched by a Shinga, whose power would make kings jealous. One of those Nine ran all of the prostitution in Cenaria. That man, the Master of Pleasures, wouldn’t let a beautiful woman like Gwinvere Kirena operate independently. So maybe that was it. Maybe she wanted out.
“I wasn’t finished.” She stood, walked over to check the lock on the door. He noticed that the gold chains actually disappeared into a cut in her dress, apparently wrapping beneath her body to emerge at her bare back, which it covered in an artful golden lattice of bondage. Her beauty made his breath catch and his mind
It was not a secret to be casually shared. “Young to be—”
“I have a plan, and I need you for it.”
He thought about it. Gaelan Starfire was supposed to be forty-five years old now, and he looked at least a decade younger. Gaelan was famous, but he had few real friends, and many enemies. Maybe it was time to move on, let that name die. There were worse things than to ally yourself with a beautiful, intelligent woman.
“What’s your plan?” he asked.
She turned. “There’ll be time for that. First, we need to take care of something.” She extended her hand. He took what was in it.
It was the golden key she’d been wearing on her choker.
He cocked an eyebrow, trying to ignore the shock running to his loins. Having the body of a young man meant having the reactions of a young man, too. “Why?” he asked.
“Because if we don’t fuck tonight, you might fall in love with me. But if we do, you’ll probably still desire me—in fact, I’ll consider it a professional failure if you don’t; this is my work, after all—but you’ll never trust me. You’ll know that I’ll do the same with any other man who catches my fancy. It’ll make things simpler.”
~An honest whore. A rare woman in a dozen ways. She’s poisoning the well and telling you, Acaelus. Is tat really what you want?~
“And you?” he asked her. Are you in no danger of loving me?
She came close, slowly, gently, into his arms. The scent of fine perfume and the insidious softness of silk and skin. Cold gold chains on his skin and a warm breath in his ear. “I intend to enjoy my work tonight.”
* * *
In their little farmhouse, Gaelan held his wife’s bare ass, balanced on the edge of a table he’d made himself. She held his shoulder and the back of his head, her pupils wide, hips trembling against him with the aftershocks of their lovemaking.