It seemed like a simple job. Duggan sat across from him grinning over his drink, yellowed and crooked teeth peeking out through his mashed lips. His watery blue eyes stared intently into Faux's, an air of expectation about his large, oversized frame. Faux leaned back in his chair, his eyes wandering around the mostly empty common room.
A thin haze of pipe smoke drifted among the low ceiling beams, a lazy phantom spying on the patrons. The tables were clean if well worn. Initials, threats and crude comments were etched into the grainy wood giving each table its own unique character. The salt crusted windows facing the harbour filtered the early afternoon sunlight. Scattered lanterns lit at irregular intervals heaved the room into disorganized shadows.
The few grizzled patrons that shared the room with them all seemed absorbed in their drinks or huddled in low conversation among themselves. No one seemed to be paying the remotest attention to the thin half-elf and his bulging companion.
"What's the pay?" Faux asked.
"Five hundred marks!" Duggan slid thick fingers under his thin coat, jingling, what sounded to be, a rather heavy purse. "The first hundred up front. It's a small ransom Faux, I could hardly believe it myself." His eyes bulged, but at five percent he was looking at a sizeable take for himself. A goodly amount for doing nothing more than sitting with the half-elf and drinking.
Faux took a long pull on his ale, trying to hide the manic grin that was threatening to break out on his own face. Laying his mug on the table, he leaned back in the creaking chair. Five hundred marks; minus the five percent after he paid Duggan for fronting the deal. It was a lot of money. Then again, the target wasn't exactly a common street thug either.
"That's the going rate on a magistrate then? Why Norward anyway? I know a lot of people would love to see him rotting in the bay but not many have the coin to make it happen."
"Rumour is he's a slaver. Taking servants who fall out of favour or beggars off the street and selling them to ships here on the docks." Duggan turned to spit on the dusty floor to let Faux know what he thought of that. "He's also bringing in opium and selling it around the docks. Making a bloody fortune by doing the things he's supposed to be stopping, seeing as how he's the bloody harbour magistrate." Duggan glanced around the common room himself before lowering his voice even more and leaning over the table, his rank breath assaulting the half elf's nostrils.
"I think this is coming from the top. Irbella himself, or maybe even Keswick. They know what he's doing and it's a bloody embarrassment."
Baron Keswick himself, or the city's chief magistrate, Auron Irbella, wanting one of his own eliminated. This was big. Too big? The five hundred marks were tempting, but of course whoever was setting this up knew the money would have to be there to make it worth the risk. And of course, there was the challenge. Faux prided himself on being able to go wherever he pleased.
He'd started this life humbly as a simple thief. He quickly realized that he had a knack for getting into places undetected and enjoyed the thrill of breaking into areas that others said were impregnable. He'd started attempting some of the most heavily guarded places in Estermont, breaking in for the sake of being able to say he did it. To prove he'd been there, he started leaving a silver piece behind. It wasn't long before people began looking for 'The Silver Shadow' for other kinds of work. When you could get to places no one was supposed to be able to get to, you earned a reputation.
This job pulled at his pride as much as anything else. The money was a bonus, but he wanted this for what it represented; a high stakes test of his skills. He gave a curt nod of his head.
"I'll take it."
Duggan's grin split his pockmarked face in two. "Excellent! I knew you would!" He reached under his coat again, this time producing a thin, thread bare, leather purse. The strings were barely able to contain the bulging contents as Duggan laid it on the table.
Faux plucked the bag off the well-worn wood and undid the strings with a deft twist of his fingers. He counted out five of the solid golden marks and laid them where the bag had been. Duggan swiped the coins off the table with one of his oversized hands. The other one nearly swallowed the half elf's hand as they shook to seal the contract.
Duggan's chair scraped along the floor as he pushed it back and scurried to his feet, staring down at Faux.
"There is one other thing though," he began, clearing his throat and spitting to one side. "They want it done quickly, tomorrow actually. They were very particular about that. Tomorrow!"
Faux raised an eyebrow as he looked up into Duggan's sweating face, his green eyes narrowing. Duggan wouldn't meet his gaze for more than an instant before looking away. Time requirements weren't unusual but it would have been nice to know that earlier. Still, it shouldn't be a problem.
"Sure," he said, his voice frosting a little. "Tomorrow."
Duggan bobbed his head and began shuffling for the door, his bulky frame knocking and nudging chairs as he weaved his way across the common room. Faux watched him go, his mind wandering.
A magistrate. On a time line. Five hundred marks, minus Duggan's fee. It seemed like a simple job, but something wasn't sitting right. The tickle at the back of his mind was interrupted by the clunk of another full mug being dropped on his table.
"Another contract then?" The scorn in Lydia's voice was hard to miss.
Faux looked up into her normally playful face. Muddy brown curls fell around her face, silty waterfalls splashing over her shoulders. Her small nose was pointed high and her full lips were drawn into a tight line. Her soft grey eyes had become chips of granite as they bored into him. Her arms were crossed tightly under her ample bosom and the set of her hips reminded him of an alley cat swishing her tail.
"It's a big one," he turned away, unable to meet her piercing stare. "It'll give us enough I think."
"Enough!" she seethed. "Faux, we've had enough for over a year now. It's always the same thing with you. One more contract. Just a little more money, a little more time. You're never satisfied." She glowered at him as he wilted under her assault. "And here I am, stupid enough to keep thinking that each 'one more' actually means one more, while I serve drinks in this shithole. I'm sick of getting my ass pinched and my legs grabbed wondering if you're even going to come back this time."
"Hey," he looked up at her, a cocky grin tugging at the corners of his mouth. "I'm always going to come back." He paused, shoulders slumping when her expression didn't change. His grin faded. "I hate that you're living this life too you know. I need to know once we leave here we're never coming back. I just need a little more."
Her expression didn't change but she rested a gentle hand on his shoulder. "We have enough," she said softly and turned to leave.
He reached out and caught her arm. She paused and looked up at him as he stood up. Placing the bag of coins in her hand he took some satisfaction as her eyes bulged at its weight.
"We're almost there, I swear it."
He'd broken into Magistrate Norward's estate without issue. One of Estermont's famous spring storms had blown in from over the ocean throughout the day. Deafening peals of thunder and a torrential rain masked his entry onto the grounds. He'd moved through the main house like a shadow, avoiding the bored sentries with ease. He was grinning, mentally counting his take of the five hundred gold marks.
Until he entered Norward's study.
The first thing his mind registered as he'd entered the room was, this wasn't the target. The man was much larger than the elderly Magistrate Norward. Even hunched over the small, plain desk, reading by candlelight, it was impossible to miss the heavy, powerful shoulders and broad back. His burnished armour reflected the dancing light from the thick beeswax candle. He hesitated. It was a trap.
"You might as well come in and get this over with," a deep raspy voice growled at him.
The large man stood slowly, turning to face the half-elf. His unkempt, shoulder-length hair brushed the top of his armor. Small piggy eyes, that looked used to cruelty, stared at him over a large and bulbous nose. A nose that'd been broken numerous times. A heavy sword hung from his waist, its hilt well worn but in good condition. He was half a head taller than Faux and his body exuded power and confidence. His armour carried the sigil of Baron Keswick.
This wasn't what he'd signed up for. He prepared to run. The hollow thud of boots, pounding on the hallway floorboards, forced him back into the room. He flicked a lock on the door. Better one than a dozen.
"Look, I think there's been a mis-" He opened his mouth to try talking his way out of the pile of shit he'd stepped in when the oversized guard cut him off. Lunging forward, his razor-sharp sword whistled in a vicious arc.
Faux stepped to one side and threw himself into a roll. The brute turned his original angry cut into a rising backswing, missing the half-elf by inches. Faux came out of the tumble and faced the large man. Recovering from his attack, he began to stalk his quarry. Loud thumps struck the door. The guards outside pounded fists and weapon hilts against the knotted wood. It made a strange counter rhythm to the pelting of the rain and the occasional roar of thunder that shook the house.
"You hear that, you elvish bastard?" The guard nodded towards the door. "There's no way out. This is where it ends for you!" He snarled, bringing his sword around in a large overhead cut.
Faux darted inside the swing. His own blade slashed at the man's neck. In the tight confines, his aim was off. The thin blade ran along the man's jaw and sliced across the lower portion of his ear.
Enraged, and with surprising speed for such a large man, his gauntleted fist lashed out. He caught Faux across the side of his head. He staggered. Before he could regain his balance, one of the man's boots drove into his chest, sending him sprawling backwards. His head snapped against the window panes, shattering the glass. Dazed, he lay on the floor.
"Are we having fun now?" The swordsman took several cuts through the air. His fluid movements were precise and effortless. He showed no care for the ugly slash across his jaw, or the half an ear he was missing. "Is this what you came for? Probably not though, huh?"
Faux groaned and rolled to his knees. A wave of nausea washed over him. He lifted a shaking hand, touched his scalp, and winced. His fingers came away bloody. A flash of lightning sizzled outside the window. Its bright flashes left streaks across his vision. Thunder exploded overhead. The floorboards shook and what was left of the broken window panes jiggled in their casing. Its deafening roar matched the ringing between his ears.
"I bet you were expecting an old man. Probably sleeping." His foe stood a few feet away, a sneer on his face.
Faux looked up at his attacker and sighed. The sad truth was, that was exactly what he'd been expecting.
"There's still a way to end this so everybody wins." Faux collected his rapier from the floor and backed away, trying to shake the feeling of his head being stuffed with wool. The other guards pounding on the door, the thunder roaring outside, and the throbbing in his head were blending together making it tough to focus. I need to end this quickly, before things get out of hand.
"I was contracted to meet Norward here tonight and that's not you. There's obviously been some sort of mistake." He spread his arms wide, "I've got no reason to kill you, you've got no reason to kill me. It'd be best for both of us I think if I just hop out this window." He gestured towards the window his head had broken. Another flash of lightning ripped through the sky as thick, fat rain drops fell through the gaping hole.
"I'll find a little out of the way back alley tavern to hide in and you can tell your buddies out there about how you caught the half-elf in the act. You made him piss himself, knocked him around and kicked his ass out with a fatal warning not to come back. We both win and it's a great night for everyone."
"Nice story but that's not how it's going to play out," the large man chuckled without amusement. "One of us will win and have a great night. You? Not so much."
The armoured man advanced again, his sword raised. He didn't rush the assassin this time, instead choosing to stalk him and time his strikes.
He probed with his sword, light jabs, backing the half elf towards the wall. Faux, edged away, creeping in a slow circle, trying to stay out of the brute's range without getting pinned against the back wall. He reached the desk that the man had been sitting at and slowed. He jumped forward with a quick stabbing lunge of his own.
Recoiling, the guard brought his sword around to parry. Faux cut the lunge short, reached behind him and grabbed the flickering candle that was the only illumination in the room. Gripping the soft wax, he gave it a quick toss towards the corner of the room. The candle rolled under a well-worn couch, pitching the room into a murky darkness. His ability to see in the near pitch black of the room, a convenient elvish trait passed on to him from his father, was an advantage the human guard was lacking.
With a yell of frustration, and only a vague notion of where his opponent was standing, he rushed forward. His sword whistled overhead in a massive overhead swing, aimed where he'd last seen Faux standing. The slippery half elf dodged to one side and the sword came crashing down on the desk, sundering the desktop and cracking one of the legs.
As the guard hurtled past him, Faux slid his sword along the back of the man's knee. With the tendons severed, the brute went crashing into the broken desk. A painful yelp was cut short as his head smashed into the split desk top, knocking him senseless.
Breathing deeply, Faux stood over the man and debated sparing his life or closing off a loose end. His decision was made for him as the couch in the corner suddenly burst into flames with a low whoosh. Greedy flames devoured the dry upholstery while waves of thick, oily smoke started filling the small confines of the room.
The latched door suddenly flew open, slamming against the wall with a loud crack, the broken latch hanging limply from the handle. Another guard stood in the doorway, holding a heavy war axe with a wicked half-moon blade. He held a hand in front of his eyes and tried to peer through the roiling smoke as it escaped. More soldiers began pouring through the smoky haze, choking and coughing on the dense smoke. They jostled against each other, weapons drawn, eyes watering.
They paused, eyes torn between the unconscious brute and the roaring fire. Faux dashed for the window.
"It's him!" One of the men shouted.
Trusting what he knew of the manse's layout, Faux leapt for the glass. The twang of a bowstring snapped behind him as his outstretched arms punched through the thin panes of glass. A fiery, savage pain ripped along his side as he dove into the chill evening air. Raindrops blinded him as they pounded his face and body as he floated, hanging for an eternity in space.
Finally, he came crashing down on the roof, the tiles pounding the wind from his lithe body. He started sliding on the slippery roof, his hands scrabbling for anything to hold on to as he sped towards the roof's edge.
His legs swung out into the empty space above the courtyard below before his fingers latched on to a water gutter running along the edge of the roof. He hung, dangling over the three storey drop, his fingers and arms aching while the heavy rain pelted him.
"Where the hell did the bastard go?" He heard the guards above him standing at the window.
"He's in the courtyard; what's left of him anyways. No one survives that fall."
"He'll have an arrow in him too, I'm sure I hit him."
"Not likely you sack of curdled goats milk. You couldn't hit the ground if you were lying on it."
"Hey, bugger you, I did too hit him, saw it take him right in the chest."
"Both o' ya's shut up. Arrow or not, he's on the ground in the yard. Let's go scoop him up and get some buckets in here to get this fire out. Someone grab Cap'n Dormund, pull him outta here and see if he's still alive."
Their voices faded away, an occasional shout for more water drifting over the noise of the rain drumming on the roof tiles. Faux took a deep breath, nearly losing his grip and falling, as his side erupted in a blaze of pain. He looked down, expecting to see an arrow jumping out of his chest. Instead, all he could make out in the darkness, was a long tear in the loose black shirt he wore. The pain that pulsed along his rib cage with each breath let him know that the arrow didn't miss; it somehow just didn't lodge inside him. Small miracle, he thought, but time to move. Once those dolts get to the courtyard and don't see my broken body splattered on the flagstones they'll figure out I'm still alive.