Joseph Palmer Just Another Job 8
Blayne stood in silence at a small thicket of trees as he looked out at the opulent manor through the silvery sheets of pouring rain. Fat raindrops bounced violently off the intimidating granite spires, or glided smoothly across slate shingles to cascade down the stone walls, giving them a glossy sheen. The windows on its front face were stained glass, a smattering of colored geometric shapes arranged in a gradient so that they faded into one another. He might have felt compelled to admire it for a while, had he not seen similar displays of unrestrained spending at every home his line of work took him to. It certainly wasn't the most modest manor he had ever seen, but it was far from the most impressive. His experienced gaze went to the windows on the second floor. It didn't look like they could be opened at all; besides, the smooth stone offered no handholds, so the endeavor of climbing there would be beyond foolish, especially in this weather. Regardless, bursting through windows would be poor form. There were few ways he could announce his presence more effectively.
The heavy oaken double doors of the main entrance were suspiciously devoid of guardsmen. There were, upon closer inspection, several discreet arrow slits on either side of the doors, betrayed by the rivulets of water trickling down in front of them. Still, it unnerved him that there were no visible guards standing watch. It was a universal practice among men of the Baron's social standing, less for protection and more just to show that they could afford it; indicators of their importance were always in short supply, to them. The absence of guards outside could indicate that there had already been a disturbance inside the manor. He hoped that they were just waiting inside due to the weather.
Blayne unconsciously smoothed his damp brown hair back as he looked down at the servant's livery he was wearing. The tunic and trousers were mostly white, with diagonal slashes of red and gold that led from the left shoulder to the waist. They belonged to a servant that went to the city twice weekly to shop for the manor's supplies. Blayne had caught up to him on his way back, not a few hours ago. He would awaken in a few hours' time, lying in the hayloft of a barn on the outskirts of town, wearing only his underclothes, with a carefully planted half-full bottle of liquor grasped in his hand. Blayne smiled at the explanation that would no doubt form inside the servant's head; he had to find enjoyment wherever he could, in this profession. Besides, he preferred not to kill anyone unless it was his target, if he could help it. Other assassins he knew were not so noble. It was too easy to become numb to the deed of killing, and from there it was a short journey to murdering casually. It wasn't ordinary for an assassin to dwell on such matters, customarily. Blayne, however, wasn't an ordinary assassin.
He emerged from the small cluster of trees, hoisting the sack of supplies over his shoulder and lowering the hood of the uniform over his head. He walked briskly along the path, trying not to let his eyes linger on the doors, windows or arrow slits. For the moment, he was a weary servant who had traveled this route a hundred times, and was understandably sick of it. About fifty feet from the door, he let the sack slip from his hands and tumble to the cobblestones. He muttered a few choice curses as he bent down to scoop several items back into the sack. It was small performances like this that really helped your disguise, the little details that observant guards would pick up. He wasn't even sure he was being watched now, but it couldn't hurt.
He raised his arm and banged heavily on the door three times. A pair of eyes appeared through a horizontal slit in the door. Blayne almost sighed with relief – he wasn't too late after all.
"Supply run," he said in a loud monotone over the pouring rain before the guard had a chance to say anything. He hefted the bag to show the guard, and stepped forward as if he was expecting the guard to open the door right away. The guard did.
If the manor's exterior was inadequate, the interior certainly seemed to be trying hard to compensate for it. Gilded crimson carpets marked the center of the walkways, surrounded by speckled marble floors. Fluted columns lined the walls every few feet, which were arranged in a pattern of ornately carved alcoves and protrusions, constructed from more marble. Small torches held in place by what looked to be obsidian brackets lined the walls. Before him lay the main hall, where the alcoves of the walls all contained pedestals bearing various statuettes and earth-toned pottery. To either side of him were two smaller hallways. The aroma of roasting pig and herbs drifted in from the left-hand side, clashing with the stale smells of rain and sweat that permeated his uniform. He was unsure where he was supposed to go to stash the supplies, or to reach the Baron's chambers. He hated coming into a job with so little information. He started off towards the left hallway. He just had to pick a direction right now, and –
"Halt!" came an authoritative call from the guard who had let him in. He resisted the urge to freeze in panic, as that alone would validate the guard's suspicions. He instead turned and fixed the guard with an impatient glare. It wasn't really feigned; his back did hurt from carrying the dense supply pack so far, and the livery was uncomfortably itchy.
The guard leaned back against the door after closing it, folding his arms and raising an eyebrow. The guard uniforms were very similar to the servants', except that the stripes went down from the right shoulder, and there were fringes of chain mail just visible past his sleeves. He yawned slightly. "And just where are you planning on putting those supplies?"
Blayne made a show of bringing his hand to his right temple for a moment, closing his eyes, before lowering it again. "The kitchen staff's been at my neck this entire week, what with me 'forgetting' a few of their requests last run. I didn't forget a damn thing; if you need something, you put it on your list, and I get it. It's a simple system. Things not on the list, shockingly, are not purchased." Blayne let the words flow fast and freely; most guards would not put up with this kind of annoyance if they didn't have to. "They could put down 'Life-Size Horse made of Solid Cheese' on the list, and I'd...well, damn, I'm not saying it'd be easy to buy, and the demand for that sort of thing, well, it's a niche market at best, but if anyone could find and buy one, I'm just saying it would―
The guard coughed and kicked the door with the back of his foot. "Are you going to answer my question any day soon?"
"She wants me to bring the supplies to her first, this time, to make sure I got it right. I know she's not supposed to issue orders like that, but I could honestly care less if it spares me one of those tirades, and I'll move 'em right along to the storeroom once I'm done. If I don't get to her right now, she's liable to erupt, and I'm going to have to honestly say that you delayed me. That'd be enough to inspire her to draw blood, in her current state."
The guard waved him off impatiently with a gauntlet-covered hand, his brow furrowing as he came to realize he didn't want anything to do with 'her'. "Just keep her away from me," he finally said. Blayne gave him a nod and turned away again, walking quickly toward the kitchen in keeping with his story. If 'she' hadn't been made up on the spot, Blayne would have had to thank her later. The combination of a detailed alibi and a vague threat had worked for him more times than he could count.
He hurried past the main room of the kitchens, the rows of tables bustling with activity. Cooks were chopping vegetables and adding them haphazardly into pots that emitted a spicy steam; the pig must have been roasting in a back room. He headed for the nearest storage closet – this bag was only weighing him down, and without it he could better maneuver his way through the manor – when he nearly collided head-on with a young serving girl brandishing an impressive butcher knife.
Instinctively he dropped the bag and dove to the side, trying to place as much distance as he could between him and his would-be assailant. No one could have known of his coming. How did they even know he would be coming through the kitchens? The plan was falling apart already, just when it had been going so well. He lifted his forearm to shield himself from the blow, but instead heard the weapon clatter to the floor. He looked up to see the pale girl clutching fistfuls of her bright red hair in both hands.
"Oh no!" she squeaked in a voice quite unlike that of a trained killer. "Oh god, are you okay? Did I hit you with the knife? Oh my god, I've killed you, haven't I?! I'm so sorry, I just had the knife and I was in a hurry and oh, I'm so sorry. I'm a murderer," she added in a high-pitched whine, clamping her hands over her mouth in horror.
Blayne strained to get his heart rate under control. "Keep your voice down!" he hissed, cautiously getting to his feet. "I'm okay," he went on in a gentler tone, "I just tripped and fell, that's all. The knife didn't even touch me." Tears had already welled up in her eyes, but she lowered her hands and nodded. His legs were trembling slightly; he didn't need any more surprises like that tonight. He followed her gaze down to the floor, where the bag had spilled much of its contents. She wordlessly ducked down and began carefully picking up loaves of bread and stuffing them back into the pack. He grabbed her wrist and caught her gaze.
"Don't worry about that, I can manage that myself. I'm just glad we're okay." The girl smiled and nodded, retrieving her knife from the floor. He was grateful for her temporary muteness. Another idea struck him; perhaps the bag could still be useful. "Listen, I have a question for you. The Baron wants to inspect a few things from this load. Says I forgot some things last time, and he wanted me to come to him directly next time."
"I'm so sorry," she said again, her tone approaching normalcy. "I've just gone and ruined it, now. He's bound to be furious; you know how angry he can get."
"That's okay, he's always furious at me." She smiled and offered a hand to help him off of the floor, which was starting to pool with cooking oil leaking from a shattered bottle within the pack. "But I'd at least better get to him right away. Can you tell me which way is fastest to him from here?"
She paused in thought for a moment. "Keep going down this hall, turn right at the end, and then turn right at the end of that hall. After that it's just up the stairs and to the left. But please, at least let me clean up this mess up for you here."
He hoisted the bag over his shoulder again and glanced down the dark hallway. With any luck, no one else would come upon him. "I'd appreciate that very much. Thank you for the help...sorry I gave you a fright back there."
He heard the rustling of glass shards being shaped into a pile as he walked down the hall, keeping an eye to the doorways as he walked past. He couldn't afford any more of these little detours. He was short on time when he had arrived. If the job was not done tonight, he would miss his chance completely. With one guard posted at the door, and a feast being prepared, the Baron obviously didn't expect anything dangerous to happen tonight. For most assassins that would be a great relief; it would make Blayne's job harder. Sometimes he regretted taking these harder jobs, but he took solace in the fact that this was the last one. If tonight went right, his work would be over. If only he were here to kill the Baron; it would have made things much simpler.
He had just barely rounded the corner when the bag ruptured with an awful tearing sound. Carefully wrapped packages of meat, bread, fish, and eggs, along with spice jars and what looked to be a replacement torch bracket, thundered across the floor, leaving him holding the sack's tattered remains. He cursed under his breath as he looked inside, noticing the small, fragmented perfume bottle that had entangled itself in the fabric of the bag as it had torn its way through. He dropped the bag on top of the pile in exasperation. The serving girl had almost certainly heard that tumult, if not the whole kitchen. He didn't have the time to deal with anyone, if he didn't have to. He set off down the hallway at a dead run, keeping to the carpet to soften his footsteps as much as possible. Priceless marble statuary lining the walls was a blur to him. He pulled out of his sprint to slide to a halt inside the last alcove of the right-hand wall before the corner. He could just barely hear the idle chatter of a pair of guards coming up the next hallway, over the sounds of his own breathing. He pressed his back against the cool marble; he felt a disturbing wetness where the pack had been touching his shoulder before. Glancing over his shoulder, he recoiled at the odor of what seemed to be mustard mixed with the strong perfume. He dimly realized that the smell would give him away, if nothing else.
Ignoring the sensation, he flattened himself as deeply into the alcove as he could. The two guards rounded the corner, one of them detailing his exploits with the serving women while the other egged him on. As one of the guards came right up next to Blayne, he glanced at the pile of rubbish at the far end, and then turned to look Blayne directly in the eyes. His eyebrows drew up; his knuckles flashed white against the hilt of his sword; his mouth turned up at the corners to prepare a shout. He reminded Blayne of a spring coiling itself.
Blayne let out a deep breath.
He stepped forward and punched the guard's forearm, causing him to lose his grip on his sword. Twin cries of steel rang out as Blayne used his free hand to liberate the guard's weapon from its scabbard. He pivoted in the same motion, entangling the guard's leg and sending him tumbling backward. His boisterous friend raised his drawn sword in preparation for a fight. Using the momentum of his stride, Blayne swung his arm in an arc, striking the other guard squarely in the forehead with the flat of the blade. The man toppled like a sack of meal, his sword clattering roughly against the stony floor near the wall. Not stopping for a moment, Blayne turned to kneel beside the first guard. With practiced grace, he drove his fist into the man's cheekbone, just hard enough to render him unconscious. Breathing in once more, Blayne rose to his feet, the guard's sword still grasped in his left hand. The entire scuffle had lasted three, maybe four seconds. If you had time for only one movement, you had to make that movement count.
He turned toward the refuse pile to see the serving girl some distance away, hands clasped over her mouth once more. Luckily she seemed too shocked to let out a scream. Firelight from a nearby torch reflected off of the tears in her eyes. She couldn't have seen, in the flurry of activity, that he had dispatched the guards without killing them. The betrayal she felt was evident in her expression. He very nearly gave in to the urge to yell to her, that it wasn't what she thought, that he was only here to help. Instead, he turned and disappeared around the corner.
He felt his pulse quicken, his grip tighten, and his vision sharpen as he ran. The adrenaline-fueled sensation always came to him right before he encountered his mark, especially if his cover was blown. Whatever help the serving girl could summon would be too little, too late. He bounded up the carpeted stairs three at a time, avoiding the gem-encrusted mahogany banisters to either side that looked horrendously impractical. He could see as he reached the top, from the gold and silver inlays that covered the door, that this was the right place. He took another deep breath. His success or failure would be determined by the state of the room beyond. Time seemed to slow, slightly. He gripped the rounded brass handle and wrenched the door open.
Illuminated by an oil lamp, the Baron looked up from a stack of papers piled atop his absurdly magnificent desk, complete with small gargoyles perched on the ground to either side. The bookshelf to his side held ancient, decrepit volumes, the likes of which probably cost more than Blayne would ever make. Finely embroidered rugs and animal furs lined every inch of the floor. Out of the corner of his eye he saw an impressive globe to his right, nearly as tall as he was, its base inlaid with jewels. What dominated the room, though, was the stained-glass window on the right-hand wall. Flanked on either side by torches, it depicted a likeness of the Baron, brandishing a crystalline sword while standing atop a chariot being pulled by warhorses, an emerald cape streaming elegantly out behind him. It was highly idealized; the only characteristics that actually matched the Baron were the piercing blue eyes and the short-cropped white hair.
The Baron's expression soured instantly at the realization of what Blayne was. Without hesitation he lunged forward, toppling his massive desk to the ground with a crash. A cloud of papers and ink flew through the air; the oil lamp landed with a dull crunch on the bear fur that lay directly in front of the desk. The desk made a formidable barricade to hide behind; this was a man who was clearly no stranger to assassination attempts.
Blayne stepped forward, intent on putting out the small fire of the oil lamp before it started devouring the room – the man's carelessness was going to get them both killed. He hadn't taken two steps, however, before he knew he had just barely made it in time.
The window exploded inward with incredible violence. The glittering storm of glass shards nearly cloaked the entry of the hooded figure that landed with catlike grace on the carpet. Blayne let muscle memory take over as he loosed a small knife from his sleeve towards the intruder, before diving toward the globe, arms protecting his face from the glass onslaught. It would have taken a madman to make that climb, and it appeared that one had. His target had arrived.
Blayne couldn't tell if the intruder hadn't seen him, or if he just didn't deem him a threat. The man leaped up with impossible speed and closed the distance to the Baron's overturned desk. A knife grazed Blayne's ear as he launched a second of his own; this one connected with the intruder's thigh, causing him to miss a step and pitch forward. Blayne wasted no time launching a third knife, and a fourth, as he circled around the back of the man now sprawled on his stomach. The man remained surprisingly impassive as the knives found their marks on each of his forearms. The sudden silence was broken by a muffled scuffing noise, as the Baron maneuvered the desk to shield himself from the true threat. Blayne knelt down hard on the intruder's back, pressing the edge of his sword at the base of his neck.
"Strevin the Revenant," Blayne spat as he stripped the remainder of the knives from the man's sleeve. "It's been too long. I've had to settle for killing those that work under you."
"Blayne the Bladebane," Strevin answered gruffly, managing to sound absolutely calm despite having his lungs crushed. "You're right on time. See, it's your kind of punctuality I look for in a potential hire. As it so happens, I have had some positions open up within my organization. Three just this last week...or was it four?"
"I'm in no mood for your games, brother."
"It was four," he went on calmly, not struggling one bit. In fact, he had completely relaxed against the floor. "I had forgotten about the one you poisoned. Not really up to your flourish. Seems like it hardly counts, doesn't it?"
"You know my terms." Blayne kept the blade where it was, touching the hairs on the back of Strevin's neck. Granting him any leeway at all would be almost certain death. "You've known my terms since you started doing what you do. Dissolve your group, stop taking jobs, stop killing innocent people, and you and your men can live in peace. Otherwise, I keep on killing your best men until I can kill you." Blayne smiled. "Since I am dangerously close to fulfilling that objective, are you sure you don't want to reason this out?"
Instead of falling silent like Blayne thought he would, Strevin let out a muffled guffaw against the carpet. "Best men? You haven't even scratched the surface. At best you've been a solitary wolf picking off the occasional sheep from a flock ten miles wide." Blayne could almost see his brother's poisonous smirk through his hood. "Oh, and there was one more thing he wanted me to tell you."
Blayne's blood froze in his veins. "He?"
"Why, your beloved brother Strevin, naturally. He wanted me to tell you that he encountered a pressing engagement, leaving him unable to attend tonight. He wanted to thank you for making this little experiment a success."
Blayne pulled the man's hood back, revealing short black hair. Black, not brown. Damnation. It wasn't him. But he had so meticulously planned this night. Several reliable sources had helped him pinpoint Strevin's whereabouts tonight. He yanked the man's head back by his hair, keeping the blade to the back of his neck. "Experiment?"
"You're here, aren't you? And I'm not Strevin. Best results he could have hoped for. Now he knows just how simple it is to lead you along, on the path of his choosing!" The man cackled like a hyena. "You really are as good as they say. My knives didn't slow you down a moment." The man turned slightly, and Blayne saw his face for the first time, plastered with a simpering grin. "You and your brother would make quite the team."
Blayne drove his simpering face into the ground. He dropped his sword and swiftly, but carefully, drove a knife into his spine at a precise location, causing him to cry out for the first time.
"Your legs will no longer work," Blayne said in the kind of voice one would use to casually comment on the weather. "If you wish to keep the use of your arms, you can tell me where Strevin is hiding. Simple as that; you'll still live if I will it."
The man shook his head ruefully. "Haven't even scratched the surface," he muttered under his breath. "Don't try to bargain with me over my life. I came here knowing full well I might die. It won't matter, in the long run. You don't know who to trust, now, for your information. You'll never get to Strevin, and his work will go on. I'm willing to die for it. We all are. Do what you must." The man's expression now was more victorious than it had the right to be.
Blayne's guise of cool calm shattered as thoroughly as the window had. He rose to his feet, grasping the assassin by the scruff of his neck. He dimly realized that the uppermost air of the room was filled with choking dark smoke; the fire had raged yards away from him, and he hadn't even taken notice. Blayne dragged the man towards the flames, ignoring his winces as he slid over the miniscule glass pieces that lay scattered everywhere. The man let out a gasp as the back of his cloak caught on fire, threatening to spread to his hair. The man had to have been in unbelievable pain already, but Blayne was in the grasp of a boiling fury, now. This was supposed to be where it would end. It was just another job, now.
"Where is he?!" Blayne shouted over the roar of the fire. The magnificent desk was producing a tower of flame; surely the Baron had escaped by now.
"Out of your reach," the man said quietly. Every muscle in his face tightened as he fought the pain. This was the face of a man that thoroughly believed in what he was doing. Interrogating him further would be useless.
Blayne dragged the man back over to the gaping window frame and without another word tossed him through. He disappeared into the deluge. The last clouded sunlight had faded away, now. The pale crescent moon shone feebly through the rainy screen, lending an ethereal glow to the grounds that were barely visible below. Blayne stood for a moment, paralyzed, having nowhere to direct his anger. With a great effort, he took a staggered breath and grasped the side of the window frame. He didn't need to look down; even if he had survived, the man wasn't going anywhere.
The cacophony behind him eventually broke him out of his stupor. The Baron stood at the doorway, waving frantically at him, shouting for him to escape while he could. Servants and guards frantically fought the fire with hastily-filled buckets of water. Blayne turned to face them all, across the flaming barricade. The rugs and furs became shriveled and charred; the precious globe in the corner had completely burned away.
He leaped through the fire. The Baron clasped his shoulder, spouting his thanks, asking about his wounds, about who had sent him, about who had sent the other man. He heard none of it. A doctor hurriedly tried to tend to his scratches, his burns. He removed a knife from his leg that he hadn't even known was there; sometimes you completely ignored such things in the throes of adrenaline. He kept walking after he had applied only the most rudimentary bandage. Cooks and cleaning staff swarmed around him, wanting to know about the commotion, asking him questions, yelling at him, praising him. The serving girl penetrated him with her confused glare. He kept his eyes straight ahead, walking away from it all. He left a thin trail of blood in his footsteps; part of his sleeve had burned off. He felt every bit the murderer the serving girl had believed him to be.
The downpour felt stunning as he walked out past the bewildered door guard. The temperature outside was dropping quickly, and after the heat of the room it was like being submerged in ice water. He rose his arms and lifted his face to the sky, walking slowly down the cobblestone path, letting the icy downpour cool his face and rinse the blood and soot out of his uniform.
After some time, he pulled his hood over his head. He could see the Baron, the door guard, and the serving girl staring at him from the front door, all with frightened expressions. The Baron's expression, though, was tinged with understanding. Blayne nodded to him. He didn't need to collect his thanks, or a reward. He wasn't hired to do the jobs he did. It would be harder, now, to track down each new assassin. It didn't matter. Strevin had sealed, with his words, his own fate and the fate of everyone who worked for him.
He looked down to the blood that covered his sleeves. The rain had washed most of it off, but a persistent ring of it remained at the very edges. The rain wouldn't wash it completely off, he knew. It never did.