Monday, 1 September 2008

The Karskoe Assassin: Chapter 3 - Fantasy Novel

The Karskoe Assassin:
The Third Day

The morning was his and such times were the worst times the occasions when he had nothing to do. The cell never met more often than was necessary and never without a specific purpose, but that could leave many days when he had to find ways to fill his time. He could never have other friends outside the cell. To do so would be deadly. Ikhrane agents infiltrated every secret group they could. Even the City Proctors went undercover and looking for a smuggling ring they occasionally fell across people who worked more in the Ikhrane’s political sphere. Roske had drunken acquaintances in the bars where he gambled during the day like a sailor. At the Library which sat to the North of the Cantonment he knew a few sufficiently well to nod to. These days, no longer being a student, he went to the public section of course, where the large halls were full of elderly tutors and governesses in dispute with their charges. These things filled some of his solitary days. Often he slept.

Roske threw open the shutters onto another day of fine weather, already the river was busy with commercial and transport traffic. The streets around his house were quiet as only fishermen set off from these wharfs; the trade berths and warehouses were upstream, where Keeper’s itself was based.

This morning Roske decided that rather than heading North to the Library he would go over to the South Bank to stroll Chilpen promenade. Only the wealthy, and the eccentric like himself, were there this early in the day. The honest people were at work all around him, each as oblivious as the other to his passing. It was only a short journey, back again over Tariq’s Bridge; at this time of the day it was clogged with the sluggish flow of carts and rickshaws. To look less unusual and ape the rich Roske took a rickshaw. To flesh out his disguise he had dressed in the tan-coloured cotton breeches, a long blue and red striped cloak and fine riding boots: he might as well go the whole way. Roske’s life often fell into pretence and extra stolen items at times helped him affect a grand impression. Play-acting did not seem to clash with the life which to many people would have seemed unreal in itself. To Roske and, he guessed, others in the cell, such pretence helped to suppress the fear that they constantly lived with.

Having abandoned the rickshaw on the South side of Tariq’s, Roske now walked the wide tree-lined cobbled bank. He knew all the tea and wine houses that sat along it, but made sure he was never a regular at any one in particular. A few of the city’s wealthiest sat dealing, reading or dozing in the sunny weather. He turned to Xerxes teahouse, popular but discrete. He scanned the clientele and catching sight of Dephe he paused. He briefly overheard her speaking with a young man in fluent Jykil. Her linguistic skills allowed her to take the roles even further: she easily passed as citizen of numerous states. The gentle stroke with her fingers across her fine hair was the only indication she had noticed him. Following their code of what to do in public, Roske moved on. Soon he found another location an almost empty bar, off the main promenade. He sat with his drink and a cheap pastry. Roske scanned the bundle of news-sheets. Some were regularly issued, others with satire and comment came out more occasionally, and of course, there were the official decrees and other announcements.

“Lord Karr announces moves against murderers.” Roske read.

This was the man who had most to lose from the killing Roske had carried out. As Castellan he controlled the Yanisorys and the Imperial Guard in the Cantonment. Despite his exalted position, he rarely featured in the political deals. Many said he was simply far more concerned with his Aker lands. In the day since the assassination he had arrested many of the minor nobles on suspicion of conspiracy. This was a drastic move and one that broke the privilege of the Twelve Score. Few but the sharpest critics of the government had seen this kind of response coming. Now it was happening the news-sheet writers remained cautious in commenting, as they feared this new repression.

Roske smiled: Faiba would be laughing as his long held strategy seemed to be finally materialising. Himself, the assassin, was pleased that the search had turned inwards rather than out into the city. He still checked his step when the Proctors or any military passed, but perhaps he was clear. However, he knew, whatever the outcome was at the highest level Roske expected it would be many weeks before the concern in him had faded back to its usual furtive level, at the back, rather than at the front, of his mind.

Roske wasted the morning until he had to leave, this time he walked and cursed that his pride had led him to dress so richly for what was going a covert task. In an attempt to make up for his error he entered the hide on Tariq’s Bridge even more cautiously than usual. He sat in the light of the candle, on the upper level the weaponry that they were to move in bundles around him.

Roske heard the doors click below him and soon after Szev clambered up the ladder.

“Ah kind sir, what do you require?” Szev ridiculed his dress.

Roske knew Szev was aware of the stress the cell’s activities placed on its other members, whilst he had always simply treated it as a mundane job.

Seeing Roske annoyed, however, Szev changed tack. “Pleasant morning on the Chilpen?”

“Fine.” Roske replied, rising.

“I see Karr is pressing hard.”

“It is his reputation in jeopardy, he needs to. He is looking the wrong way though, I think we are safe, a few weeks and his fury will have burnt down.”

“Come on, we have to be hasty.” Aspoh chided them from below.

The two men turned to the bundles of firearms. Then Szev positioned himself on the ladder from where he could lower them to Aspoh.

The last package having been lowered Roske followed his comrade down the ladder and out to the cart which waited in the street outside. As Roske locked the door he thought over his role in the cell. With Szev and Keeper, occasionally Aspoh, he had to shift the weaponry around load and unload carts and barges like a docker. The others - Faiba, Dephe, Huyit, spied, bribed, and as for Cjiek, well, who knew what he did, but whatever it must be more interesting than humping.

“Be grateful for a safer life.” Szev said from behind, apparently reading his thoughts, “you’ve had the glory, what do we get?”

Roske nodded and clambered into the back of the cart, pulling a rough cloak over his rich dress as Aspoh jerked the horse into action and it trotted over the crowded cobbled streets of Greater Tariq’s to the southern bank, just another delivery amongst the thousands that mild afternoon.

The covered cart wound its way up onto the river terrace which sat above Chilpen. Rather than the cosmopolitan and grand imperial styles of the city core, or the wealthy residences off to the West in the Vyrwe district here the buildings more resembled those of the countryside around. The dark wood beamed homes walled with daub replaced the clay, stone and brick below them. Roske peered out at the people they passed. There were few merchants or sailors here. Dressed in their coarse wool trousers, wide smocks and with dark features local artisans and labourers predominated here.

The cart pulled through the gates of the yard, which, like those of Keepers’ dock were closed quickly behind them, by the metalworker’s staff, in order to prevent curious eyes seeing too much. The heat of furnaces and the wafting smoke and steam, however, were apparent even outside the workshop. The three alighted into the cobbled yard which was wide in this area of cheap land; far larger than any closer to the town centre.

A stocky man just less than Roske’s height approached, his shoulders were broad and his arms strong. The fingers which clasped and unclasped around his hammer seemed out of place: they were slender and nimble, but reflected him overall; he was as skilled as he was strong. The man nodded his brazen haired head towards Roske, as he greeted Aspoh and Szev more warmly. Roske tagged along whilst the smith’s men emptied the cart. Then the four of them sat down in a side office. Again it was like so many Roske had seen, if larger and certainly less organised with papers and parchment diagrams filling the tables and the barrels which passed for chairs.

“I can have this load ready for you to collect in, let’s say, ten days. The fee will be as agreed before.” The red-haired man outlined to the others.

The woman, who came in with the jugs of wine was similar in appearance to Roske himself and answered his silent question on why this man was interested in a foreigner’s struggle. She smiled as she set the drinks down and then disappeared back into the basement.

The smith supped his wine as he continued business, “I have completed the last of the sample you gave me, with mine own hands, my men are loading them, now.”

Roske stared disinterestedly through the small windows, which were surprisingly glass filled, back out into the yard to confirm what the man had just said. His mind drifted to the raid tonight; that excited him far more than another round of business dealings. He swallowed more of the wine, not to his taste, but Rajyers like this smith were renowned for their hospitality and their dislike of it being snubbed.

“... not only for my wife, but I too can see your country’s plight. I can rest in peace that they would never even pass our shores to reach one of the citadels, of my nation...” The metalworker spoke of his own homeland.

The four rose now, shaking hands, as the metalworker continued to boast of the invincibility of the citadels which his people inhabited on an island that had not had seen an invader this millennium. Roske could have added who wanted that barren mound, compared to the lush Homeland, but he remained diplomatically silent.

The cart moved quickly down streets that were quieter now, back towards the river.

“He is a fine man.” Aspoh said, typically terse. “We are indebted to him, his hard work is a bonus.”

There was no response to that, but Szev took the opportunity to outline his thinking. “We might as well take these straight back to the butcher’s stores, and from there I’ll go home to rest; prepare for tonight.”

Roske grunted agreement, none of the cell knew where any of the others lived, but Roske presumed that unlike him, most of them lived in the cheaper southern bank river area, where their activities were mild compared to what many people got up to.

The streets were beginning to fill again as the cart pulled up behind the butcher’s. Roske scanned around them as the firearms, this time disguised as firewood bundles, were unloaded into the room. Aspoh took the last bundle, and Roske tied up the horse in the yard and followed. The small room was as they had left it. Soon they had these new weapons stacked in the cellar alongside the batch from the previous day.

Now Szev slipped on a habit left hanging for them. “I will see Huyit first to confirm the movements we have done today. Roske I will see you later. Aspoh, have good fortune.”

The two acknowledged as he slipped out to disappear in the street’s crowds.

“I am in no hurry now,” Aspoh said charitably, “where can I take you?”

“Tariq’s will be fine, I can walk from there.”

Aspoh nodded and the two left, locking up behind them. Roske clambered into the back of the cart and lounged on the empty sacks. As he did, he realised his stomach was already churning. He needed food but his sub-conscious realised that, with this job complete, there were only a few hours before he would be atop a roof only streets from where he was now, gazing down on his comrades breaking into a warehouse.

Though progress through the streets was almost as slow as it had been the day before, it was still not as slow as walking. As the cart continued along the fringes of the main market a man stepped out of a doorway just to the side of them, almost falling beneath the horse’s hooves. Aspoh pulled up suddenly.

“Ho! Are you blind?” The man shouted up at the merchant.

Aspoh sat calmly and moved to start the horses walking again.

“No, you are not going anywhere.” The stranger pulled the horse’s bridle sharply. “Come down and face me you lout.”

“I have no need to.” Aspoh said quietly, his voice in contrast with the pedestrian’s shouting.

“So, a troublemaker.” The man leapt forward so that he stood at the cart’s side and in the same motion his long blade flashed from the narrow scabbard on his back.

Still Aspoh stayed seated. Roske sat frozen as if willing himself to be somewhere else. Glancing from the rear of the cart he could see the flow of traffic had stopped and was clustering around them with a crowd forming.

“Have the courage to come down, you hog.”

“Have the wit to walk away.” Aspoh replied matching the man’s manner.

“This man seeks to run me down,” the man turned to address the crowd like a performer, “and then insults me, and yet, has no courage to fight.”

“I do not fight the simple, but even a child has to learn his lesson.” Aspoh stepped down.

Roske quickly slipped out the rear of the cart, seemingly unnoticed by the pedestrians more interested in witnessing the fight.

“Look at the fat man!”

Now down in the street Roske could see Aspoh’s opponent clearly. He looked like no city dweller. He was dressed in buff riding gear and tan riding boots; his face was mostly masked by scarves. He had discarded a long dustcoat on the cobbles. Despite the masking of his travelling gear Roske could see the pale skin which marked him as an Akeran. To most people, however, Roske imagined that his clothing and colouring were not what caught the eye, but the slender, razor sharp sword that shone in this light.

The crowd had now cleared into the typical semi-circle. Though Roske feared always feared intervention by Proctors whenever he was about in the city, he now prayed for it. As the moments passed, however, none came. The stranger snatched a kris of high quality to his sword, into his left hand to allow him to parry.

“It is I who teach, not learn, and my lesson is pain.”

The stranger spouted the usual bravado that the crowd supped up, both to instil awe and fear and to boost the strength of his own mind. Aspoh just stood calmly, and it appeared that the crowd could almost sense the smooth rock-like tranquillity of his mind, something they might more expect of a Yanisory than this stocky merchant.

“Where is your weapon fat man pupil?” the stranger taunted.

“Just wait patiently. You are in too much of a hurry to feel its bite.” Aspoh turned back to the cart box, to reach for the battered sabre stored below it.

As he turned the stranger’s blade flashed out like lizard’s tongue, it scored a bloody line across the merchant’s back, slitting his doublet. Aspoh span back with a speed that startled even his attacker. The sabre dashed across the stranger’s knuckles and then the head of the axe in Aspoh’s other hand followed close behind. The stranger reeled back. The crowd shouted and shrieked, confused at the speed of the moves, cursing the dirty trick; praising the skill. Roske felt carried along by the enthusiasm.

The stranger stood back a little, still facing his opponent. It appeared that his own attitude had been shaken by the riposte but Aspoh seemed to flow only with calm and with power. His build and strength allowed him to wield both a long camel sabre and war axe against the stranger’s light duelling weapons.

Then Aspoh lunged, closing on his attacker with a jaw of steel. The stranger was now aware of the skill of his opponent but his only response was to form his two blades into a locked peak. The axe and sabre crashed against them. The stranger exploited his parry and pushed forward, sending Aspoh backwards into the crowd; the momentum almost pulling this thinner man after his adversary.

Aspoh cried in pain and spasmed against the crowd that stood around him. People scattered, the human fence moving the arena across the square. Then there were screams as Aspoh staggered on his feet clear of them and a slender dagger could be seen protruding from his lower back. It was clear the stranger had allies in the crowd.

Then Aspoh roared as his opponent stared at him in silence. Then, suddenly, the merchant cannoned forward, head down, his axe swung down swiftly like a scythe. The stranger had only moments to react and even his responses seemed unprepared. The crowd roared; Roske looked on in fear and excitement. The stranger blocked and replied with his short kris, the blade bit the merchant’s shoulder and blood soaked into the cloth.

The weapons continued to move, blurring in the speed of slash and block. The clanging metal was barely audible above the crowd’s encouragement. The stranger made a desperate lunge, up from below Aspoh’s guard and into his belly with his sword. This allowed, however, the merchant to make a quick slice down with his axe; its haft snatched the parrying blade to the floor. The axe head tore crunching into the stranger’s skull as Aspoh slashed his sabre through his opponent’s neck and his chest. Apparently painfully but still with speed Aspoh’s knee raised up into the stranger’s groin throwing him sprawling across the cobbles.

Aspoh staggered, arching his back as if weary. The crowd surged forward, the event finished. Roske was stunned: should he hurry to his comrade? Then, at last, came the shouts of the Proctors running in with their cutlasses drawn. Sections of the crowd dispersed, while others linger around the fringes to watch the next episode. Roske could see Aspoh bent double, supporting his bulk on his twin weapons. The Proctors were bent over the stranger when the monk appeared.

“Shame, citizens, help this man, who is sorely wounded.”

Beneath the affectation, Roske recognised Szev’s voice. The crowd had fallen to a whisper, as the stranger’s body seemed to be quickly bundled away by the Proctors, surprisingly uninterested in his killer. The monk supported the merchant and drew out the poniard from his back, as the merchant did little but wince from the pain.

“You young man: have some charity.” The monk indicated Roske and the milling citizens parted from him as from a leper. “Help me with this man to his cart.”

Roske ran forward, shaken from his anxious paralysis by the reality of Aspoh’s condition and the directness of Szev’s commands. Quickly both of them loaded the silent man prone into the cart.

“I will hurry him to care.” The monk declared to his audience almost theatrically.

Some cheered him; some mouthed prayers but with the morning’s excitement over, most drifted away, back to their trade or to some new gossip. Roske jumped up into the back of the cart which Szev hurried down the quieter back streets away from the scene as fast as he could. Roske looked down at the merchant lying beneath him with blood oozing from his deep wounds. Then his eyes flickered before he exhaled and died.

Szev stripped off his habit as they left the busy streets for quieter ones closer to the river. Roske guessed they were rushing to Szev’s home, it was risky, but he dared not question the decision, nor could he think of another solution. They pulled up in front of a derelict looking warehouse, lying well downstream from Tariq's. It was an area which had been superseded in the past few decades by the larger docks upstream where Keeper’s was situated. Roske realised that they could not be that far from where he himself lived. However, he did not know the streets of this decaying commercial area. Szev jumped down from the cart and quickly unlocked and raised the faded wooden shutter over the small main entrance. He led the cart into the gloomy hall and quickly lowered the shutter behind him. Then he lit a few large candles in their protective jars while Roske peered into the gloom.

The warehouse was narrow but tall, from when the land in this district had been costly. Even so it was small, probably having held high value goods. He looked up the wooden gantries and ladders, the shelves they ran between now only held empty dusty chests. High up, though, were some filthy windows shaded by aged calico blinds.

“How is he?” Szev spoke, calming down after his rush from the market.

“He is dead.” Roske said, himself trying to absorb the past few minutes’ happenings.

Szev did not look too surprised. “The guild will look after him, we must distance ourselves from his death.” He reached onto the cart and laid his discarded habit over his comrade’s corpse. “Tell me what happened, I need to rest, to drink.” Szev now looked drained; it seemed the energy that had driven him on from the crisis had now faded.

The older man led them upwards, zig-zagging along the levels to the office at the top. He opened the nondescript door and the two of them walked in. Immediately Roske was surprised. The room was comfortable; its floor covered with fine, if faded rugs, and a few chairs. There were also a number of easels with half-completed sketches, and tables with small pots of paint, sticks of charcoal and paint brushes. Around the wall were mounted paintings, in various mediums. Tariq’s Bridge was a regular theme, but other buildings from the warehouses to the state buildings were present; there were even a few portraits.

Szev returned from a side room, with some warm brew, and sat on a delicate wooden chair indicating a deeper one for Roske.

“Go on.” he murmured, obviously wanting to deal with the circumstances of Aspoh’s death as soon as possible.

Roske recounted how his comrade had been drawn into a fight.

“...Of course a crowd quickly formed.”

“Well, I was attracted to it myself, despite the risk.” Szev commented.

“The Proctors did not even appear until it was over, then they seemed more concerned with the other man.”

“That is no surprise, they follow their own interests rather than those of the citizens. What was this man like?”

“The man, an Akeran, I think, was a cheat, he slashed Aspoh when his back was turned. What was worse though, one of the crowd stabbed him, with that poinard.”

“Definitely a set up, but who would want Aspoh dead, a rival?”

“We must see Keeper.”

“The guild will know where to find him. Go to them now, you can take the cart. I need to rest. I have to see Huyit, early, to arrange the arms and the barge. I will see you out.”

Roske nodded agreement, drunk up and was led on out of the room. As he went he gazed at the sketches hung around the door. One nude was familiar: the sight of Dephe stirred up annoyance, possibly anger, possibly jealousy. He was too tired to explore his emotions at the clear flouting of the cell’s rules; rules that he held as strongly as the monks followed their brotherhood’s code.

The two men walked slowly back down into the warehouse. Szev stooped over the corpse and kissed both cheeks. Szev, as an older man, had always been closer to the merchant brothers than others in the cell. Cjiek was too aloof, suspicious and a noble; Faiba too secretive, and the others, including Roske, had been scholars rather than workers. Szev’s trade as a printer had bridged the gap. He was a townsman, if of foreign stock; he was literate but still a craftsman.

“You will need this.” Szev waved a leather thong holding a small clay tablet.

He tossed the guild insignia to Roske, who pocketed them. Szev then crossed to the shutter and pulled it up by its chain. He waved as Roske manoeuvred the cart cautiously into the street. The shutter slid down quietly behind him.

Roske drove on, along the line of the river, to the Merchants’ Guild building. It was large and ornate sitting back a short way from the river which gave its members their wealth and their current prime position in civic affairs. As he left the shadow of Tariq’s, he gazed at the ornate building which lay across a large square that stretched to the water’s edge. The way the cobbles were laid distinguished this square from the streets around it.

The building was of honey coloured stone, like those of Chandai Island, the original home of Ijahg’s Merchants’ Guild. Its style was that of two centuries past, resembling that earlier building, but now adorned with maroon-coloured painted patterns. Three circular windows peered out over the river, below them the balcony from which guild officials addressed their members, and underneath, the three arched entrance, the with ornately carved pillars. Roske pulled up to a side entrance which would give him access to the large courtyard which lay behind the headquarters and was concealed by high walls and large iron gates. Before these gates stood a guard.

The man wore the standard guild livery, a smaller version of the flag which flew the pole above him. Across the chief were four gold discs, and below it a cog in full sail on a blue background. This uniform covered a light breastplate. At his waist hung a slender axe backed by with a spike, his head was protected by a round helmet that was standard in design, but scored with spiralling patterns.

“Yes?” He said pointing his spear, the guardsman’s weapon, up at Roske.

“I have the body of Aspoh Keeper.”

Roske waved the guild insignia at the guard, trying to sound confident and important. The guard grunted and confirmed it by glancing into the rear of the cart. He turned back to the gates and bellowed something incomprehensible; the twin metal doors swung open slowly. Roske drove on into the courtyard, which he had thought never to visit. Carts, wagons and single horses were lined up along the four walls; men and women hurried to and from a warehouse and the guild building itself carrying papers and small packets of merchandise.

A guild groom pulled the horse into a free space and tied him up. Roske stepped down from the cart and glanced around for assistance, but already four men had appeared from the building, dressed in guild colours streaked with brown, the colour of death. They carried a stretcher between them.

“Please follow us.” One said clearly trying to sound consoling but firm.

The men loaded Aspoh’s bulk onto the stretcher. Roske was reluctant to mix with any official and turned back to the cart. Seeing this the man repeated in a stronger tone, “You must come with us, there are documents to complete.”

Roske again cursed his wealthy dress: a common townsman would still be at the gates, partially a suspect for the death. He followed slowly behind, up the stone steps into the long halls of the main building. They were floored with polished stone and the walls hung with tapestries and banners from around the known world.

“In here, sir.” The man indicated a side room. “You have the insignia?”

Roske nodded. Now he was just concerned not to be noticed and to leave as soon as possible. The Merchants’ Guild were not the Proctors, but they were any hardly safer for him to mix with. It was in their interest, their financial interest of course, to uphold law and order and, even more, to maintain the stability of the state in the face of actions by people like Roske. Civic and national pride ran deep amongst them and here was a revolutionary, a threat to their blessed society, standing in their own headquarters.

Roske walked on. A well-fed man sat behind the polished desk, his room lit by frosted glass, his walls adorned by subtle prints.

“Good day, Citizen?” He said in the affected tone, very much like that of the stretcher-bearer.


Roske replied with the first name he thought of, in this case he avoided his usual alias. It pricked his mind that was where he would meet Faiba, only hours from now. He walked forward reluctantly and did not sit. The guild official was dressed in a fine tunic and robe edged in fur. It was crossed by a sash in the guild blue and gold, striped with brown. He inked his pen and looked up again.

“I am Guild Sexton Yuma.” Roske winced at the title, the guilds so enjoyed them. “I am very sorry to hear of the demise of Aspoh, especially coming so close after the tragic loss of his brother, Nevsech.”

Roske was shaken by this revelation. Thoughts rushed in his mind, both were dead, that side of the operation was ruined. He had to stay calm or he risked making a fatal slip. As the man spoke Roske realised his surprise had been all too apparent.

“Nevsech’s body was found caught up in a fisherman’s net on Quadrant, this morning. He had been weighted down with stones. His body was terribly injured. We suspect he was robbed then killed, possibly tortured to reveal where he kept his wealth or other privy information. Of course, men of influence are always at risk. Our agents, I can assure you are working hard to accost these villains, and their efforts will be even more diligent now, you may be assured.” Noting Roske’s apparent distress he added, “I am so sorry.”

“I never knew either of them.” Roske added tersely; he knew he had to distance himself, for both the brothers’ and the cell’s sake.

“Ah.” The sexton’s attitude changed sharply, showing how much of a pretence he was acting. “But I assume you have the insignia.”

Roske handed across the clay tablet on its thong. Yuma copied down some details.

“Now Citizen Sandton, just a few questions for our forms. What was the cause of death?”

“Injuries from a duel, in the market place this afternoon. He was challenged by an Akeran swordsman. You can find hundreds of witnesses I am sure.”

“Very unfortunate, I am sure Aspoh fought bravely for his honour and that of Keepers’.”

“I am sure.” Roske just stopped short of sounding sarcastic.

“If you would be so kind as to sign here.” The sexton turned the paper to face Roske and indicated, with a pen.

“I am sorry I do not write.”

Roske lied as he always did. Illiteracy was very common in the city and was an easy excuse. For him the less contact with authority the better.

Yuma suppressed raising his eyebrows, his manner dropped a degree further. “Family mark ring will suffice.”

Roske had destroyed his ring when he had entered the cell; yet another one of its rules to conceal his true identity. “I have none.” To forestall any complaint, and the sexton’s growing exasperation, he added, “My mark.” and scrawled a deleted ‘s’ with the proffered pen.

“I thank you for doing such a charitable deed,” the sexton’s attitude was now blatantly aloof, sneering at the illiterate dressed so richly, “the now, erm, joint funeral will be in five days.”

“Thank you.” Roske rose and walked briskly out and down the corridor, before the official could bid him farewell.

Roske hurried to the gate and rushed out into the street and away to his lodgings. The guild could work out what to do with the cart. He was just glad to be out of there. The death of Aspoh had disturbed him; being in the guild headquarters was little better. He slowed his steps: this was not the proper behaviour of Ijahg’s most wanted assassin. It was not long enough, he conceded, however, since he had been no more than a scholar. He wondered if he had to reach Szev’s age before he could tolerate this life. How did Dephe, Huyit, take it? Perhaps he would never know. In some ways they were so close but in others, all alone. His mind steadily cleared of his self-doubt and returned to thoughts of the deaths of both the brothers and their company’s future.

Roske awoke in the gloom of evening. His room was still filled with qat smoke. He opened the shutters to let the draught clear the air. He looked out, up the Jeona to the Merchants’ Quarter: there lay Sandton’s and the start of the night’s raid. The thrill began to surge again within in him moving up from his guts to flow throughout his body, reminding him why he lived the way he did.

Roske dressed this time into baggy black clothing, to hide both weapons now and, himself, later, in the dark. He hurried out into the street and then through the quiet back alleys passing only a few homeward bound traders. He followed the line of the river, westwards, passing the entrance to Tariq’s Bridge. He continued on into the Merchants’ Quarter, where cheap town houses gave way to the tall blank brick walls of the various warehouses. With the day’s business over almost no-one was about and only a few buildings still had pale lights shining from high narrow windows. He stared through the growing gloom to the disused warehouse that would be his look-out post and at their target across the street. Then he turned, going into a street leading back to the town centre. He was a little too early for the inn to open: a few dockers and clerks stood around the door to Sandton’s; Roske joined them to wander off now and come back later would be more suspicious. A bell from inside rang out the Thirteenth Hour and the bolts shot back and the customers hurried in.

Within ten minutes Roske was sitting back with his clay mug of perry. He passed the time looking entranced by the thudding mechanism of the clock stood by the hearth though its sound was soon drowned beneath the conversation of the rapidly growing crowd of customers. Roske watched in silence as the graded disc slowly rotated. As it came up to the Fourteenth Hour he snapped out of his relaxed state. He glanced around the room, and saw that, as usual, Faiba appeared on time. No-one paid attention to him. Sandton’s saw many characters far stranger and far more suspicious than either of them, and compared to many amongst his fellow drinkers, Faiba was lightly armed.

Faiba was dressed in a long travelling cloak, his prematurely white hair concealed under the deep hood. He nodded from the doorway, coming no farther into the cramped conditions of the inn. Roske rose and walked out to join Faiba in the mild autumn evening. They stepped briskly away from the inn and into the moonlit night. Faiba’s stride was confident though they skirted along the edge of the street keeping in the shadows cast by the warehouses. Reaching their destination Faiba motioned Roske to stop.

“We are doing well, on time.” Faiba whispered hurriedly as he turned to the door they had reached. “I did the lock earlier.” He explained as he fiddled with it.

In moments the door swung open into the expanse of the deserted building. Faiba crept in and Roske followed. Faiba turned back to shut the door and swung down a heavy plank to block it.

“Right, up on the roof.” Faiba said, apparently fired with enthusiasm.

Any excitement Roske felt had become suppressed by his fear and sorrow.

“Wait.” Roske snatched at his comrade’s sleeve.

“What is it?” The urgency of Roske’s order had clearly startled him.

“Go carefully. Aspoh and Keeper are dead.” He blurted.

Faiba paused then added “How?”

“Keeper, Nevsech, drowned, Aspoh was killed in a duel.”

Roske now wondered whether it had been the right time to mention it, but the news had been building up inside him and he was glad to have let it out to someone who understood. He saw now that Faiba had been keeping his own concerns concealed below the cover of enthusiasm.

Faiba stood and just muttered. “It happens.”

He lit a candle and walked briskly up the battered staircase. As he went up behind Faiba, Roske was reminded of Szev’s home. He followed looking up at Faiba’s back as the candlelight lit the next few steps. At the top Faiba pushed the trapdoor which blocked further progress. It fell back with a creak. He then passed the candle back to Roske, in exchange for the package. He slipped that on to the roof then clambered through after it. Roske returned the dripping candle to Faiba then joined him up there.

The two men slumped on the terracotta tiles of the slanted warehouse roof and for a moment stared out across the city. The warehouses quickly gave way to the quays and the river itself. Faiba unpacked first one jezail then the other. He lay them to one side. He then pulled out a loaded pistol, shot and powder, carefully balancing all of them on the roof.

“Szev said you had your own.”

Roske nodded, the two men poured the powder from their small pouches down the barrels and rammed the wadding and shot, down onto it. They lit the matchcords from the candle which flickered gently in the windless air and soon both longarms were prepared. Roske set a match in the strikelock of his pistol and that too was ready. The half hour bell struck, breaking the silence but not the state of calm and concentration that the two men had put their minds into.

Then there were footsteps. Roske could sense three people moving slowly in the street below. The others had arrived and he knew Faiba had sensed them too. Roske’s spirits rose as he could see, in the faint light that Dephe was at work on the door of the warehouse they were to raid.

“Roske,” Faiba’s hushed voice alerted him, “check the street behind, I feel a group is approaching.”

Roske nodded, he chided himself as he shoved his pistol into his belt. He had been too involved in the street below, his sei focused on the rest of the cell rather than staying alert to others in the neighbourhood. A lookout was supposed to check all around him, he reminded himself. He scrambled awkwardly along the edge of the roof, one hand balancing, the other grasping the loaded jezail.

At the edge of the roof Roske paused to stare down the four or five storeys to the street, this side of the building was lit by the moonlight. Faiba had been right, there was a figure standing by two horses. Then the lone figure was joined by three others, all mounted. From this height he could not hear what they were saying. He waited; the horses snorted the mild evening air. Roske slumped back, flat against the tiles, his legs aching from crouching awkwardly on the roof edge.

Suddenly the sound of a shot came from the far end of the roof. Roske sprung up, his foot slipping across the tiles, sending him sprawling backwards. Below the figures moved, they and their horses seemingly as startled as Roske had been. He scrambled back to his feet but then stooped to make himself less visible.

Roske knew had to think, to assess what was going on rather than risk plunging into danger. Had the others in the warehouse been alerted? They had to have been. Where was Faiba? He crept back slowly across the roof. He could see an unfamiliar figure outlined in lantern light. Cautiously he lowered he rested his shoulder on the slanted roof and blew the matchcord on his jezail. He eased back the trigger as the figure turned to face him. The powder flashed and exploded. In the flash of light he could see the Yanisory clearly, clutching a bloodstained mace. The man was shocked, but his sei allowed him to dodged Roske’s shot, diving sideways. Then the scene plunged back into darkness as his lantern was extinguished.

Dropping his jezail, Roske cocked the pistol then drew his choora. His heart pounded, he breathed deeply trying to calm his mind. He could hear hooves hammering the cobbled streets below. Carefully he moved along the roof to where Faiba had been. He stared at the still smoking jezail discarded at the roof edge. Suddenly Roske’s whole body was torn backwards against the roof, the Yanisory’s chain wrapped around his neck. The man’s face gazed down at him emotionlessly as his strong arms pulled the chain tighter.

Roske choked, everything seemed distant; his concentration was fading. He struggled to keep hold of his weapons as he writhed in the grip. His fingers fumbled as he awkwardly twisted the pistol up to face his opponent. The pistol discharged, blood splattered over Roske as the shot bored through his opponent’s shoulder. Then he hand stabbed blindly into the Yanisory with his dagger. The pistol slipped from his grasp and he twisted round in the slackening chain and skidded dangerously down the roof. He managed to jam his feet into the battered gutter at the edge and spin back round to face his attacker who was balanced on the roof ridge. Roske lunged with his choora but his strike was blocked. He stabbed again and though the injured Yanisory dodged sideways he slid back down the side of the roof out of sight in the darkness.

Roske caught his breath, and scrambled up to the top of the roof to hunt his adversary. He could hear shouting from below but had no time to look down. Then the Yanisory was up again on the roof ridge and swung his mace towards Roske’s head. Roske ducked and caught his arm; he pushed him back hard to the edge, pressing hard against the wounded shoulder. The two struggled at the gutter each trying to assert his strength over the other. Suddenly blood burst from the Yanisory’s chest as an arrow pierced the unarmoured body. Roske stumbled as the dead weight of the corpse pulled at him dangerously. Then the body tumbled free, but its feet caught on the edge of the roof. Roske kicked at the corpse and finally the dead Yanisory plummeted to the cobbles below.

Roske’s muscles relaxed, bile rose in his sweating throat as he panted in the evening air. He felt sick; his mind was confused. Slowly he edged along carefully so that he could stare down to the street. He could see little but could hear horses in the streets around. Quickly he returned through the trap door and into the warehouse. He hurried difficultly down the staircases, burdened by the firearms he carried. He halted at the door and pushed it carefully open, but the street beyond was empty. He slipped out into the street and ran clamping the guns to his body to stop them rattling. He found Faiba lying dead in the street, his head battered and his body crumpled by the fall. A short way off lay the corpse of the Yanisory. Roske snatched up his dropped mace, an automatic reaction overriding his fear. Then he returned to his comrade’s body.

Roske slipped his arms under Faiba’s and dragged him to the gloom of a side alley where he halted and slumped over the body. He tried to calm himself. Where were the others? This had not been in the plan, what did he do now? He cursed his lack of control, he was the most wanted assassin in the city he should be better than this, but that thought that he had suppressed these past few days now just scared him more.

Roske stayed crouched silently over the corpse of his friend, regardless of the blood which coated his clothing. A few minutes passed without him moving as he reflected that this body had been his friend, alive, alert and enthusiastic. Aspoh’s dead body came into his mind’s eye, the larger man contrasting with the slender body in his bloodied hands.

There were light footsteps, Roske looked up into Huyit’s eyes.

“Roske?” she whispered loudly.

He replied with a nod.

“Come!” She exclaimed trying to stir him from his lethargy.

“I am not leaving his head to a stake on Tariq’s.”

“I am not leaving you to betray us, to be tortured, to be killed.”

“This would give them a victory, they would know they had us.”

“At what cost? Him?” Huyit gestured to the corpse, “Them?” She pointed across the street. Roske had failed to notice the bodies strewn in the gutter.

Suddenly Huyit slung her short bow back over her shoulder and snatched Faiba’s tightening legs. “Come or I kill you.” She seemed to be forcing the words from between her teeth.

The surprise shook Roske and he grabbed the other end of the corpse. Huyit set a fast pace despite the weight. Roske was forced to move rapidly and did so painfully as the assorted weapons banged against his hips and he kept shifting the bulk in his grip to get a firmer grasp. He ignored the discomfort as they hurried as best they could along the streets to the river.

Then Roske saw that Szev was ahead of them at the riverside. He was lit by the lantern he held and was scanning around him in a clear state of anxiety.

“Quick, quick, Dephe? Huyit?” He snapped, staring into the dark in direction it seemed he had heard running feet.

“It is me.” Roske replied. “We’ve got Faiba.”

With this Cjiek emerged from the boat behind Szev. Huyit and Roske lifted the corpse carefully to the bottom of the barge. It was small, but large enough to accommodate them all. A light canopy hung over the bulk of the boat but the sides were open.

Cjiek crouched over Faiba’s body.

“He’s dead.” Huyit said tersely, slumping down on the floor, panting heavily. “We leave now.” She ordered.

“No!” Szev shouted, he turned round quickly, and stepped back into the boat, rocking it.

Roske stopped, frozen, with the weapons he was setting down held in mid-air. Then he lowered them gently breaking the startled moment.

“There are mounted troops in all the streets.” Huyit asserted.

“We waited for you, Huyit. We will wait for her. If I ever see her head on Tariq’s, I will put yours beside it.”

“She knows the plans, she knows the risks. Without me we would have lost two, I saved Roske and we never knew Faiba was dead.”

“They had their own route out, this is hers.”

In a flash, Szev had drawn his pistol. He clicked back the strikelock, the barrel facing the leader’s head. He paused with the veins in his neck pulsating. Cjiek’s sword struck out, thrusting the gun upwards.

“If we do not leave now, all our heads will be sit side-by-side.”

Cjiek slashed the rope behind him, and the sluggish current began to slowly bear the small craft away from the hard. Szev stared silently as Cjiek began rowing the large oar. Roske gazed back onto the land as they moved into the gloom only broken by Szev’s lamp.

Suddenly the skyline upstream was set alight by flames leaping high into the sky, only a few streets away.

“Look!” Roske shouted, “a warehouse!”

The others had already wheeled round to look back upstream, the direction lit by the bright fire. The sound of hooves, close by on the hard, brought yet more alarm.

“Szev!” Dephe’s voice shouted.

“It is Dephe!” he shouted in reply, “Pull back!” he ordered Cjiek, and jerked the noble’s arm.

Silhouetted against the firelight the cell members could see her draw up the stolen horse and leap from it, twisting, into the water. Roske threw a rope to her, balancing precariously on the barge’s edge. Moments later three mounted figures pulled up on the quayside behind. Szev fired at them as Dephe struggled, exhausted, through the water to the boat.

“Take the oar!” Cjiek bellowed as he handed it to Roske.

The younger man paddled desperately against the current, trying to turn the boat about. Two of Dephe’s pursuers dived in and swam quickly through the cold night water. Cjiek fired but the lead pursuer dived under the water, escaping his arrow. The rider on land himself fired an arrow which ripped through the flimsy canopy that covered the middle of the barge. Huyit shot back, her arrow wounding the horse and it reared, throwing the remaining rider and then bolted leading the others all away.

Roske stopped rowing and reached the heavy oar out to Dephe what caught it. The barge shifted awkwardly and Roske was worried he had lost control of the boat. He preferred that to watching Dephe flounder and drown.

“Great! Hold on!” Roske shouted encouragement. He pulled the oar in towards the boat.

Szev discarded his weapons and leant over the edge of the barge to grab the young woman. Suddenly the water erupted as one of her pursuers broke the surface behind her. Szev snatched at Dephe, hauling her soaked body half on board. The Yanisory struggled to upturn the light boat. Roske heaved the heavy oar up and brought it two-handed down on the assailant’s head, dangerously upsetting the boat even more. However, the blow had hit its target and the man slid backwards unconscious and the water drew him down out of sight.

Regaining his balance as Roske pulled the oar back in position, Cjiek knocked an arrow and fired at the other Yanisory who was just a few strokes away from the barge. At this range the shot was easy even from a rocking boat and his arrow pierced deeply into the soldier’s chest and in moments his movements stopped and then the water closed over him.

Huyit let her jezail fall seemingly in annoyance. With the large oar back in its rowlock Roske paddled, with as much strength as he could muster, to turn the barge back on course, into the faster currents and away from the North bank. As he brought the boat back on line, he stared over the people in the barge before him. Szev was slumped over Dephe; Huyit was reclining, eyes closed. Only Cjiek remained alert, watching the fire-fighters hurrying along the dockside roads.

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