"These men are foolish... and desperate."
Ruarc acknowledged the statement with an absent nod. "Yes, they are. Foolish, desperate... problematic." the assassin paused, "Problematic for you, that is."
The speaker nodded, his eyes darting around the noisy bar. "So... you can take care of this problem for me?" he asked, his voice betraying an undercurrent of anxiety.
"Perhaps..." Ruarc mused, looking into his mug. It was almost empty... not that that was really a bad thing, the wine in this piss-poor mockery of an inn was terrible.
"What would it take to seal the deal?"
At this, the assassin smiled, and looked up at the man sitting across from him. "Your boss' political rivals have been making me a lot of money, Nathan." The thin, nervous man across from him almost jumped upon hearing his name. "What? Does it surprise you that I know who you are? Or who your employer is?" Ruarc grinned.
"It makes no difference if you know who we are, Ruarc," Nathan said, more boldly than the assassin had expected.
'So, the little man has a bit of a spine after all,' Ruarc thought, as he said, "I'm thirsty, and its far too hot in here, so lets cut the shit. You want five men out of the way -"
"And we're willing to pay you... One thousand gold for each." Nathan said, interrupting Ruarc.
Annoyance flashed across the assassin's thin features. "What makes you think I need gold, fool?" fear and confusion showed plainly on Nathan's face. It wasn't every day that an assassin snapped at you.
"If not gold... what?"
"The original works of Alister Hylan."
Ruarc watched Nathan's reaction with amusement. "The prophet? What makes you believe that I can get you his original writings?"
"I don't expect you to get it. I just expect you to deliver it. Pass my request to your employer, I'm confident they can... pull some strings."
Nathan laughed, "So... the writings of a delusional madman, for the lives of five very real threats." he snorted, "I will see what I can do, Ruarc. I have the feeling we're getting the better of this deal. Its not too late, you can still take the gold."
The assassin stood, and smiled. "Your gold is no good to me. I'll see you soon, Nathan. You've got two days to speak with whoever you need to speak with."
"How will I contact you once its done?" Nathan asked, as he too stood up from the table.
"You wont," Ruarc replied, "I'll contact you. When, and where, I want." With that said, he turned and threaded his way through the crowd, and out into the bustle of Dumar's city streets. Within a minute, the assassin was gone.
Night found Ruarc as it often did; the assassin sat motionless in the darkness, the cold stone of the cathedral's bell tower was almost comforting. Dumar sprawled before Ruarc, its buildings and streets as familiar to the assassins as his own body. Ruarc had lived his entire life on the streets, and like a caring mother, Dumar had provided for him. Merchants with too much product would throw excess to the street kids, partly to discourage thefts, and partly to get rid of spoiling goods. Growing up, Ruarc had stolen what he could, when he could, and by the time he was thirteen, he found himself working as an independent thief.
It wasn't long before that too, changed... For two years, Ruarc helped others relieve themselves of troublesome wealth. For two years, Ruarc ate food that was fresh. For two years, he slept in a real bed, with real blankets, instead of sleeping huddled with the other forgotten children for warmth. Days would be spent among friends, sharing what wealth he could spare on food and clothes for others, some who's names he didn't even know. Nights were spent prowling the alleys and streets of Dumar, picking pockets and slipping into unlatched windows.
The day change found the boy was unremarkable. The sun rose, splashing pinks and purples across the sky like the pastels of an artist. The city came to life as it had on every other day. Men and women went about their daily routines, while children ran and played in the streets and parks. For Ruarc, it was like any other day. Even now, ten years later, the assassin struggled to recall the particulars of the day.
But then, it wasn't the day that had changed Ruarc, it was the night. The night greeted Ruarc as it always had, he had pulled on a pair of black pants, and a tight black shirt and gloves. The boy had learned early that loose clothing was prone to catch and snag on things. He slipped out of the single window in his room, and climbed up onto the roof, making his way for that nights target house.
The target itself was a small manor, owned by a minor noble. He was unimportant, but wealthy. With no influential contacts to speak of, the man was a good target. Someone with an abundance of money, and no connections to later cause the young thief grief. Getting into the house hadn't been hard. The manor, as any house with money, was walled off from the general public. It was hardly an obstacle for Ruarc, even at fifteen. The boy knew that the lower level doors and windows would be shut tight for the night, and so instead scaled the drain pipe on the side of the house, and slipped onto a second story balcony. As he had hoped, it was open to let the nights breeze into the house, and he slipped into the bedroom beyond with barely a whisper.
The boy waited off to the side of the door, letting his eyes adjust to the darker shadows of the room. A huge bed dominated the room, canopied and plush. Two small end tables sat on either side of the bed, covered in small trinkets that glittered in the dark. A womans room, clearly. Perfect, for what the boy intended. He moved quickly and quietly, helping himself to the contents of a small jewelery box before rifling through the single oak dresser, which proved to be a wasted effort. Nobody would buy stolen clothes, and whoever lived in this house wasn't the type to hide things in their dresser.
Ruarc paused at the door, listening for sounds of movement deeper into the house. A slight babble of voices penetrated past the closed door, faint and indistinct. 'Probably in the livingroom,' the boy thought, as he took hold of the latch and pulled. The door cracked open on silent hinges, and just as quietly, the boy-thief slipped into an unlit hallway. The house was huge. Several doors lined the hall, but Ruarc ignored them. Out here in the hall, the voices below were louder – clearer – and what Ruarc had mistaken for the babble of houseguest and host, betrayed itself for what it was.
A man and woman argued below. Not loudly, they weren't yelling or Ruarc would have noticed before, but the hushed tones were filled with conflict. This was new for the boy, and it intrigued him. He slid closer to the stairs, pausing for a second at the top. His heart was pounding, adrenaline coursing through his veins. Before he knew what he was doing, he was at the bottom of the stairs. The couple could be seen through an open doorway to his right, they were in the livingroom, as Ruarc had guessed. To his left, the boy could see what looked like a darkened study.
He moved unnoticed into the study, and slowly shut the door until it was all but closed. The room pitched into near total darkness, and the boy was forced to stand dead still, letting his eyes adjust to the darkness. A small sliver of light from the fire across the hall – where the couple were arguing – was the only light Ruarc had as he searched the room. A solid wood desk sat in the center, polished so that it gleamed even in the poor light. A bookshelf hugged the wall to the left of the door, and opposite that, a large painting that couldn't quite be made out.
The boy-thief slid across the room to the desk, quietly opening the top drawer. He paused then, as the voices beyond the door suddenly silenced. The light coming in the door shifted, as somebody went past, and up the stairs. Ruarc kept dead still, as a second person moved past the door and up the stairs. For five long minutes, the boy stayed perfectly still, leaning over the desk with his left hand on the drawer, and his right hand resting on a pile of papers inside.
When he was sure that the danger had passed, he went back to searching through the desk. It was filled mostly with papers that, in the poor light, couldn't be read. Sighing quietly, Ruarc shut the last drawer of the desk, just as a woman screamed above him; a scream that ended in a dull thud on the floor above the boy. For the first time in his life as a thief, Ruarc was scared. It was a sensation he hated. Growing up on the streets had been tough, and the boy had long ago steeled himself against fear. Now, as he had every time he'd found himself truly afraid, he forced his mind to quiet, and he quietly crossed the floor. Opening the door was probably the hardest thing the boy had done in a very long time. He did, though, and he moved up the stairs to the top before stopping. There he hesitated as he listened for noise, anything, to point him in the right direction.
The boy-thief moved down the hall to his right, to the first door on his right – which he thought should be the room directly above the study. He paused and listened at the door, but the only sound he could hear was the pounding of his own heart. Forcing himself to be calm, he touched his ear lightly to the door and listened again. This time, he could hear a faint rasping sound, but other than that everything seemed quiet. Ruarc stood still, took three deep breaths, grabbed the doorknob and pushed the door open. He pressed himself against the wall in the hallway, waiting to see if anyone came out of the room, listening for anything that might mean someone was waiting in there for him. After a few minutes, when he was satisfied that nothing was going to happen, he poked his head around the edge of the door.
A man lay on his side in a pool of blood, in front of a canopied bed like the one in the room Ruarc had used to enter the house. The canopy blinds were tied to the bedposts, and on the small bedside table to the left, a lamp lit the room with a small flame. The boy pushed himself to take a step into the room. Looking past the bed, he could see a door leading outside, to a balcony; to his right, a giant book case took up half of the wall, packed full of books and scrolls. Beside that, a large wardrobe took up the remainder of the space.
The next moment was a blur, Ruarc felt, more than saw, the figure to his left drop from somewhere above him; faster than he could comprehend, the woman was pressed against him, a knife to his throat, slamming him against the wall beside the door. This was obviously not the first time this woman had held a knife. Probably not the first time she'd killed a man either. It might, however, have been the first time she'd killed a boy. Ruarc would never know for sure – she hesitated, gleaming blade against his naked throat – and he reacted, grabbing her arm in a flash and pushing back, with every ounce of strength in his fifteen year old body. It was surprisingly easy. The tip of the blade entered her at the base of the throat, just above the ribcage. In her shock, she let go, and Ruarc used that moment to pull the blade out, and plunge it into her heart. She collapsed against him as she died, and he pushed the body to the floor.
For a long time, the boy stood staring at the ceiling of the room, the knife he'd used to defend himself clutched firmly in his hand. The blood had dried, caking his hand, and was beginning to itch. Ruarc swallowed, and closed his eyes, forcing his tensed muscles to relax. He opened his eyes, and looked down at the body. She looked... like a porcelain doll, he decided, not at all like she had when she'd been alive. Even with a knife to his throat, she had been beautiful, he had to give her that credit. But, this... husk... was empty. The color had faded from her flesh, turning it pallid and frail looking. Even her eyes had lost their intensity. Ruarc had left, then. Out the same way he'd gotten in. Only this time his hands were covered in blood, and he had a knife sticking out of his belt.
Ruarc couldn't remember the walk back to his room that night. Somehow he wound up sitting on his bed, staring at his bloody hands. Just staring. No thoughts stirred in him, no emotions pushed at him. He felt like the eye of a storm must feel – empty, and yet part of something greater. It felt like there was a storm around him, but it couldn't touch him. Eventually, that feeling wore off, and exhaustion claimed the boy.
Ruarc shifted his position in the cathedral's bell tower. That night had created him, essentially. There had been other factors, of course, but that was the beginning of his real life. It had set into motion the actions that had brought Ruarc to where he now sat – in a belltower, overlooking his city, moonlight playing in the streets. And it really was his city. So far as he was concerned, anyhow. It had taken ten years, from that day as a boy, to become death. Now though, the city knew. They knew death lived among them. They knew, and they feared.
His life as a boy ended three days after he'd killed the woman. Or, more appropriately, it ended three nights after she'd died. Ruarc had been right, and that part at least, was satisfying. It hadn't been the first time that the woman had held a knife. Nor had that been the first man she'd killed. She had been a professional, and she had been good at her job.
Good enough that she had friends.
They found Ruarc as he was walking back to his rented room, two men in black leather armor, faces masked. He'd given them a struggle, though short-lived. Two professional killers against a boy of fifteen... the sides were stacked. They tackled the boy, ignoring his punches and kicks, one man slapping a hand over his mouth, as the other man bound first his hands, then his feet.
"Couldn't be this little runt... we should just kill him now and have done with it." one of the two growled as they dragged Ruarc between them. They'd thrown a gag in his mouth, and covered his head with a sack before starting what the boy would remember forever as the longest walk of his life.
"My orders were clear. The boy goes back. You..." Ruarc felt his body shift, as the man on his left shrugged. "You're replaceable, if you can't follow orders."
"No... no, forget I said anything. Lets just deliver the little bugger and grab a drink."
The man to Ruarc's left laughed, "Alright, I'll forget you said anything. But you're paying."
The rest of the walk was quiet. The three wound back and forth through the city, and by the time they stopped, Ruarc was well and truly lost. He was comforted by the fact that they had walked though. It meant they were still in the city, and that meant he could run, if he could get a glimpse of his surroundings. The boy didn't get that chance. The trio stopped for a brief second, and Ruarc could hear a door open. The man to his left led Ruarc into the building.
Ruarc counted the steps from the door, thirteen to the stairs... fifteen stairs... right, down the hall, seven steps... The men stopped with Ruarc again, and, once again with no apparent signal, a door opened. He was pushed inside, at the same time as the sack was ripped off his head. The boy stumbled in the sudden light, falling to his knees a few feet inside the door. His hands were still bound, but they'd loosened the bindings on his feet about halfway to their destination.
A hand pressing on each shoulder killed his plan before it was even done being formed. One of the men grabbed his head then, forcing him to look up, and forward. An old man sat, amidst a pile of huge pillows, with an amused look on his face.
"This boy? Are you sure?" he asked, his voice sounding full, and youthful.
"Yes, my lord. He sold the dagger." one of the men said.
The old man studied Ruarc thoughtfully for what seemed like a long time. "But did he kill her, or merely steal it?"
The men shrugged in unison, and Ruarc tried vainly to speak. All that came out was a muffled grunt.
"Take off the gag," the old man ordered, gesturing with one hand.
Ruarc spit out the wad of cloth once the strip keeping it in his mouth was removed. The boy coughed, and gasped for a second before looking back up, and into the eyes of the old man.
"I killed her." he said, "She tried to kill me after I found a body. Hesitated though, and I killed her first. With her own knife. I sold it later."
The old man regarded Ruarc with a solid stare, "And what did you do with the money?"
"Bought food, for me, and my friends."
He nodded, "Do you know who we are, young one?"
"No," Ruarc admitted, shaking his head.
The old man stood, long black robes draped over his slight frame. He gestured with his arms, spreading them as if to take in everything around him. "We are the Night. And this is ours. This building, this street, this city, this empire. We are the shapers of destiny... for a price." he smiled ruefully at that, before continuing, "We're assassins boy. The best, and the brightest in the world. And you've killed one of ours. Do you know what that means?"
Ruarc shook his head. Tears rising unbidden to his eyes.
The old man smiled. "Normally, we'd kill you now without a second thought. But, I'm a gambling man... and it crosses my mind that you might be more fun to use, than to kill. The choice, ultimately, is yours. You can learn from us, and serve our will... or you can die here. Choose, now."
"I – I …. want to live." Ruarc said, sobbing softly.
The guild's leader waved a wrinkled hand, "Take him to a spare room. His education will begin tomorrow."
The room Ruarc was taken to was small, fitting only a small cot on the floor, and a single stool. A small rectangle of light shone weakly through the single tiny window in the room. The door had been locked from the outside, once the men tossed him into the room. Ruarc's stomach growled, reminding him that he hadn't eaten anything since the night before. The boy sighed, as he sat on his cot. Supper seemed unlikely.
'I've gone without before.' Ruarc thought, shifting his position so that he was sitting with his back to the wall. He closed his eyes, trying to force his mind to quiet. Too many things had happened, too many questions shouted at him. Ruarc had been sure he was going to die, and yet... somehow he'd been spared. Death had looked him in the eyes, and... spared him.
The day passed slowly for the boy. A single, narrow, beam of light crept slowly across the floor making the passage of time agonizingly obvious. Hunger gnawed at Ruarc, as evening made way for night. Supper, as he had expected, never did arrive. The boy wrapped himself in the blanket provided, and curled up on the cot. Eventually, sleep claimed the boy, even though he'd expected a long and sleepless night.
Morning came too soon, in the form of a swift boot. Ruarc gasped, and grabbed his leg, glaring up at the short, muscular man that had kicked him. Ruarc guessed that he was probably in his twenties, callused hands and thick muscles implied years of labor, or possibly a history of soldiering. He was dressed plainly, in brown breaches and a common tan shirt. Short brown hair jutted from his head, and a trace of a beard framed a solid square-ish face.
"Up, brat." he growled.
Ruarc lept to his feat, not stupid or arrogant enough to argue with the man.
"G'boy. We've got some work to do." he said, as he turned, and left the room.
Ruarc followed behind him, taking the time to get a better look at the house he was in. The halls were paneled in a beautiful red wood, with occasional tapestries depicting scenes of battle. Torches burned in evenly spaced ornate black iron holders, shaped to look like vines and leaves growing from the walls. Closed doors lined the long hall, giving no hint at what lay beyond. The floors in most of the manor house were made of a paler wood than the walls, but were no less beautiful.
The man lead Ruarc down a set of carpeted red stairs, and after a few short hallways, into the manor's main entrance hall. The doors to his left were a massive set of oak, and the floor was tiled marble, with matching marble pillars reaching to a roof high overhead. To his right, at the far end of the hall, a pair of marble stairs ascended to the balconied floor above. The man didn't give Ruarc long to marvel at the view, he had paused for a second to let the boy look around, and then without a word walked toward the large doors. They swung open seemingly without effort, on silent hinges.
"Out we go," the man said, gesturing for Ruarc to go first. The boy obeyed without a word, emerging into the sunlit world that just the day before he'd been sure he'd never see again. Grass glistened with dew in the dawn's soft glow, stretching for an awe-inspiring distance to the base of the high stone walls enclosing the estate. Dumar was the crown jewel of the Empire, boasting a staggering population in excess of one million, and even in a city so massive, estates as big as this one were rare. The house itself was gigantic, a mansion to rival any lord or lady's.
"Stables first," the man growled, then, quieter and to himself, "Worst damned job..."
The stables were well behind the manor, situated near the rear wall of the estate. "What's your name, kid?" the man asked, as they crossed the huge yard.
The man nodded. "Im Gareth. I'll be one of your teachers. You'll meet the others in the months to come." Gareth paused. "Provided you don't die," he added, as an afterthought.
Ruarc nodded without a word, and entered the stables. Gareth directed the work, showing Ruarc what he expected once, and then simply watching the boy until the task was finished. Once one was done, another was demonstrated. Ruarc worked for hours, performing tasks he couldn't name. Eventually, just as Ruarc thought he'd pass out from hunger and exhaustion, Gareth called a stop to the work.
"C'mon," he said, gesturing impatiently at the door. "I'm hungry, and we need to wash up yet."
Ruarc nodded, setting down the brush he'd been using, and gently patting the horse he'd been brushing before following Gareth out. 'That wasn't so bad,' Ruarc thought. Gareth lead him back across the yard, to a moderately sized private well.
Gareth pointed at a ring of buckets around the base of the well, and then to the winch above the well. "Draw two buckets of water. I'm going to get soap. Be done when I get back."
Ruarc set to the task immediately, and by the time Gareth got back, he probably could've filled four buckets. His teacher tossed a bar of soap.
"I'm assuming you know what to do with that. You'll bathe later, so don't go that far, but you'd damned well better remember that you always, always, wash up before food. I expect you to remember everything I show you today. Tomorrow we'll see how many minutes I beat you for. Each thing you forget costs you a minute. We're assassins. Outside of these walls, a mistake will cost you your life. We demand excellence, right from the start. Failure will result in pain." Gareth paused for a minute, looking intently at the boy. Ruarc simply nodded, he'd expected something like that. After a moment, Gareth grunted, and poured out the bucket of water he'd used to wash his face and hands. Ruarc followed suit.
Gareth strode with familiar confidence through the back door of the manor and, after a series of hallways, threw open a door. The room beyond was crowded with tables and benches, though all were empty. A single, large, covered platter sat on one table. The pair sat down, Gareth uncovered the platter, revealing a loaf of freshly baked bread, a brick of butter, a large hunk of pale white cheese, and several strips of salted beef. Ruarc's mouth watered, but out of instinct, he waited until after Gareth had taken what he wanted before getting anything himself.
"Don't do that again." Gareth said, around a mouthful of bread. He had taken half of the loaf, and he waved it at Ruarc as he talked. "You're not a prisoner here. It won't always just be you and I eating. You've got to take what you want, while you can. At the same time though, don't be greedy. We all serve. We're all in this together... plus, nobody saves an asshole."
Ruarc laughed, and nodded. "Got it," he said, still chuckling. The rest of the meal passed in silence, each of them more interested in the food than making conversation. After they'd each eaten their fill, Gareth lead Ruarc out a different door than the one they'd entered.
"Most of the time, you'll be on this first floor of the manor," Gareth said, "You should only be on the second floor to sleep. That floor is strictly bedrooms for those like you and I. The floors above that, you shouldn't concern yourself with. It will be a good long time before you see any of them. Oh. And, as a word of caution... if you're caught above the second floor... we will kill you."
"Alright." Ruarc replied, nodding. "Where are we going?"
"To the kitchens." Gareth winked, "The pots an' pans ain't gonna clean themselves," he said, chuckling.