"I know you're there, Morion," Geth said to the shadows behind his back.
A young man, only an inch shy of six feet tall, stepped into the candlelight and sat down at the kitchen table across from Geth. A panther – his Familiar, Aisha – curled herself around his legs affectionately, then sat beside his chair. Morion rested his hand on her head, scratching absent-mindedly behind her ears. She purred softly.
"You're late again," Geth told him, not looking up from the book he was writing in, his pen scratching away. "An hour past curfew."
"I had a contract."
"Nobody gets sixteen contracts in a month."
"Not anymore. Not since my services went on the market."
The young man began unsheathing his various weapons, setting them down on the wooden table as quietly as possible. Geth watched him, thinking to himself. It was true; ever since Morion's services as Kindaar – an assassin of immortals – had gone on the market, he had begun drawing more contracts than the graduates and other students at the Academy. Morion, with the black hair and eyes that seemed like coal. Morion, the assassin who moved in political and socials circles that could not; the assassin who survived what and where others could not; the assassin who gave death to even those whom the Academy Masters would never have been able to kill, even for all their skill and expertise.
Geth was convinced that it was not blood that flowed in Morion's veins, but the waters of the River of Death.
"There was a dirakón in Alcubron," Morion purred, stroking Aisha's lustrous black fur. She licked his hand. "I took him in his room at the inn where he stayed. It was far too easy."
"You took him while he slept?" Geth asked, his hair, the color of old gold, falling partly in his gray eyes.
Morion scowled. No. Of course I made sure he was awake. Without any challenge at all, a contract is not worth the ink it is signed with." He met Geth's eyes. "You don't really think I'd sink so low as to kill a man in his sleep, do you?"
Geth, grown man of thirty years as he was, realized that he was afraid of the young man sitting across from him. He was afraid to realize that he wasn't entirely sure what Morion would or wouldn't do… or what he could and couldn't do. It was enough for now that Geth could still hear Morion whenever he was in the room. The young man was nigh undetectable, except to the most skilled of ears. Tanks the gods that Geth had very highly skilled ears, lest someday Morion accept a contract on him!
"No, Morion," he said at length. "I know you to be better than that."
There was a lull in their conversation, during which Geth turned back to his writing and Morion sat in a silence that became more and more sullen with each passing moment. After a long while, the young man pulled a half-empty glass bottle out of the recesses of his black clothing. Without a word, he drug his chair over to the red sandstone fireplace and sat there with Aisha, petting her absent-mindedly. Eventually he pulled the stopper out of the bottle and took a long pull from the amber contents. Geth looked up in mild surprise. "What is that?"
"Drinking isn't permitted on Academy grounds."
"This time, I think, you'll make an exception."
It wasn't a command, and it wasn't a threat. Geth had heard Morion issue words with both connotations, and the words he spoke now lacked those tones. His words now were merely a statement of personally known fact without doubt. And Morion was right. Geth would let Morion slide by with almost anything. The young man was an excellent student and a frighteningly excellent assassin. Yes, Geth would allow him to enjoy his spirits; Morion had earned it.
It soon became apparent, though, that the young assassin was not drinking merely for the enjoyment of doing so. He was drinking to get drunk. This became even clearer when he produced another bottle, this one full.
"You'll drink yourself to death, son!" Geth breathed.
Morion smirked and pulled out the stopper. "Unfortunately, no, I won't." His words were slightly slurred.
"Not nearly enough."
There was silence again. Geth watched his star pupil take another swig of whiskey. After a few moments, he asked, "What are you trying to forget, Morion?"
"Assassins drink hard."
"True. But most assassins don't try to down a bottle and a half of whiskey in one sitting."
Morion fell silent, and Geth knew he'd hit the mark. He put down his pen and rested his elbows on the table, steepling his fingers and looked at Morion over top o them. After a few more swallows of whiskey, the young man said, "Do you know what today is? I mean, the day that started an hour and a half ago." The firelight danced on his rugged, handsome, pale features.
Morion scowled at the burning logs. "Well, I do. And I plan to get drunk enough to sleep through the entirety of it." His voice had taken on an edge of anger, something Geth had learned to respect. Fear? No. While Morion had power – physically and magically – that was unlike anything before seen at the Academy, he was young yet, and Geth was still capable of curbing him.
Finally, Morion snarled, "It's the day they brought me here. Twelve years ago, Geth. Do you remember?" The question was rhetorical; of course Geth remembered. The youth had arrived as uncontrollable as an untamed wildcat that was having an angry fit. The elves he'd arrived with had said that they'd tried to drug him, but it hadn't done any good. Only when a seventeen-year-old student had finally swung and laid the boy out flat on the cobles in the Academy courtyard had they been able to get him up to a guest room and properly restrained (e.g. with ropes and chains). It had taken days for him to calm down enough for them to untie him.
"They took me away from my home," Morion murmured. He covered his face with one hand, leaning over to partly hide the action, partly because emotion was beginning to overwhelm him. Aisha whined softly, her feline tail lashing back and forth. "Gods… I can still hear her screaming… calling my name…"
"Ah. So there was a young lady."
"Yes. A little girl."
"Were you betrothed?"
The only reason the thrown chair missed Geth was because Morion threw it and Morion was drunk. The sound that escaped his lips was almost a roar, almost a growl. Whatever it was, Geth was able to make out the words, "My sister!"
There was silence. Then, placidly, Geth asked, "Was she taken as well?"
"Yes. I should have prevented it. I should have protected her."
"Where was she taken to?"
"I don't know. Not a place like this. Not a place of death. She had the magic of the light."
For the first time, Geth saw that Morion held in his hand a silver ring. He wondered that he had not seen it before; it was small, yes, but beautiful, and in the firelight it glinted prettily. Morion held it in the palm of his hand, looking at it, his expression carefully blank. After a few moments, Geth asked, "Why don't you return to Alavis? Your mother may know where your sister is."
"No." Morion's tone indicated that he had already considered the option, and had rejected it long ago. "I would not wish my mother to know what her son became."
"You are ashamed of your profession?"
A hesitation. "No. But she would be." After a moment, he slipped the ring back onto his finger, the pinky on his right hand, saying, "These twelve years I have been alone, Master Geth. And so it must remain."
Aisha whimpered sympathetically, a chirrup issuing from her throat. Morion looked down at her, and a very faint wisp of a smile touched his mouth as he scratched her ears. With his free hand, the one which his sister's ring adorned, he lifted the whiskey bottle to his lips again. It occurred to Geth that Morion would soon become one of those men who drank harder than those who simply drank hard.
He watched Morion fish a folded piece of paper out of his pocket and toss it onto the fire. Geth was aware of Morion's odd habit of destroying the actual signed contracts of the… occasions… for which he'd been hired. When questioned about this, Morion had simply replied that he was removing himself from the act. It was not Morion that had killed, he had said, but a deadly, ambiguous weapon. When further questioned, he had replied, "Can a sword be guilty of murder? Can a poison? Can a knife? I am hired out as a weapon; by destroying the documents that promise me payment – that is not to say I do not collect my fees – I acknowledge myself as a weapon, not a person, in relation to my contracts, and therefore am free of any legal and conscientious guilt."
Yes, for Kindaar, Morion was strange. Yes, he had his oddities. But when you were the best, you were allowed your oddities.
"I'm going to my rooms, now," Morion said at length. "I suggest you lock my weapons up until I'm sober." He turned and started on his way out. As he passed by, Geth reached out one hand and touched the young man's forearm, halting him. Morion did not look down at him, but he stopped and listened.
"Morion," Geth said after a moment of deliberation, "the Lord of the Dead, whom you serve, has great things in mind for you. He has told me so." He indicated the whiskey bottle. "Do not waste your life on the pointless."
Morion's tone was strained, and the tight control was audible. "My sister was anything but pointless."
"She is part of the life you had before you came here," Geth answered. "Everything about that life is pointless."
Aisha's eyes narrowed dangerously.
"Good night, Master Geth," Morion growled, and left the kitchen.
Morion's disquiet was echoed in Aisha's pacing to and fro in the room. Morion himself focused very heavily on getting drunk, as he had done every year on this day for the past four years. He drank to forget, but with every swallow, he only seemed to remember more clearly. Eventually, he gave up.
His room was large. The four-poster bed was laden with a dark-red and gold coverlet, surrounded by curtains; a dark-red armchair sat before the fireplace, and beneath the window sat a chest of various weapons and poisons, tools of his trade. There was also a blackwood desk, but it was seldom used; Morion did not often write letters or read.
He sat sullenly in the dark, in the armchair, before the roaring fireplace.
Your rampage of emotion astounds me.
Morion did not get to his feet to acknowledge his visitor's presence. The Lord of the Dead did not require such silly demonstrations of respect. He didn't care about the demonstration, so long as you respected him.
You did a good job this evening.
"I did what I had been told to do. Nothing more."
The dragonshifter society will be in a tumult by now.
"Good for them."
You do not care about the consequences of your contracts?
"Why should I? My employer pays the right price, and I'm merely a temporary blade. I'm apart from politics and their disasters."
What about family life?
Morion froze. Aisha, curled about his feet as he sat in his armchair, raised her head and bared her teeth at the visitor. Morion had not yet looked at him; now he did.
The Lord of the Dead had no actual physical appearance. He hid this by wearing black robes and a black cowl. With black-leather-gloved hands, he reached out and plucked the whiskey bottle from Morion's fingers. What if one of the Kindaar took your sister –
"They haven't," Morion interrupted. "You swore you'd tell me if and when she was to die." There was a hint of panic in his voice, echoed in Aisha's barely-perceptible growl.
The Lord of the Dead seemed to be disinterestedly inspecting the whiskey bottle.
You are right. I did swear it. He paused. Your sister has not yet entered my realm.
If he'd been alone, Morion would have breathed a sigh of relief. Now he merely nodded. "I thank you for your vigilance."
Abruptly, the Lord said, You may soon replace Geth.
"What?" The statement caught him by surprise. "Master Geth?"
Men do not live forever. You know this. When Geth's life is gone, you will take his place as Master of the Academy.
You would prefer it to be run by a fool?
"I'll have to fight others who want the position."
You fear failure?
Morion considered this. "No. I can best any man who challenges me. I just don't think the prize is worth the energy expended."
You will claim the Master's position.
Morion recognized it as a command. He nodded. "Very well."
A few seconds later, the Lord of the Dead was gone. There was no sound or vision to his departure that alerted Morion to his absence. It was simply that he could feel that he was… not there. In the same way that a person can sense death, he can also, occasionally, sense its absence.
Morion was not surprised to find the whiskey bottle sitting by his chair. He reached down and picked it up, considering the level of its contents with a critical eye. Then he sighed and patted Aisha's head. She mewed sympathetically.
"I wish you might have met her, Aisha," Morion murmured. "No one could have asked for a sweeter sister."
He glanced at the ring on his hand, then lifted the whiskey bottle in a toast.
"Here's to you, Kalina," he said, and renewed his determined attempts to get himself drunk.