A Death in the Night
Death. Every time it's the same. Every time it's different. Tonight's would be just another.
The wrappings around her feet made no sound as she moved swifly across the tiled roofs of the decaying, mud-brick structures that passed for houses here in the Shanty District. Squat, ugly buildings that huddled together in fear. Fear of the open plazas of the Market District to the west with its shops and stalls, now deserted and skeletal but waiting to be dressed in extravagant banners and piled high with goods that only the Elite could afford. Fear of the gaudily painted mansions that rose up high into the hills to the south of the city. High enough to allow their inhabitants to feel both safe from and superior to those in the squalid districts below.
Inhabitants like the Grand Marshall. It was his mansion she would be visiting tonight. His death she would be delivering.
She felt a tile crack and loosen under her foot. Without missing a step, she continued to move effortlessly forward, seeming to glide across the tiles, ice grey in the moonlight. She heard the broken tile skitter down, across the roof; was aware of the second or so of silence as it fell; and noted the metallic clatter as it shattered against the cobbled street below.
No one would come. The residents of the Shanty District knew better than to brave the narrow streets at night. They'd cast a nervous eye towards the door, take some comfort from the fact it was bolted and barred, and look away. Probably a cat, they'd say. The City Guard never patrolled here either. The Shanty District was a dangerous place after dark, even for armed, trained militiamen. No, they'd focus their patrols in and around the Market District as they always did; partly because the open squares made an ambush unlikely, and not least because the Merchants' Guild made it worth their while to do so.
If there was anyone in the streets of the Shanty District they'd be conducting business of their own. The kind of business that can only be conducted in narrow, unlit streets after dark.
Behind her she could hear the faint cries of the last of the gulls still haunting the docks she'd left barely fifteen minutes earlier. Ahead of her she could see she had just three more terraces to go before the grey slate roofs of the Shanty District began to give way to the first modest mansions at the foot of the Hillside.
Without breaking her pace, she calculated the number of steps she needed to reach the end of the terrace, adjusted the length of her stride to ensure the last would take her to very edge of the last roof and, in one fluid, unbroken movement, launched herself off into the void between the houses. Stillness. The air that, just seconds before, had been rushing coolly past her face as she ran seemed to stop. She gave no thought to the drop below or to the hard stones that would smash her as surely as they'd smashed the tile if she'd mistimed her jump. For the briefest of moments she seemed simply, impossibly to hang, suspended in the air, unable to move. At peace.
Was this what death was? A stillness? A silence? She'd brought so many to their deaths but, after years in the service of the order, she was no closer to understanding its true nature.
And then, instinctively, her legs were moving again, cycling through the air, preparing themseves for the best possible landing; flexed, just enough to cushion the shock of her feet hitting the grey tiles of the next terrace; tensed, to allow her to spring forward, immediately continuing her sprint across the Shanty District rooftops. She felt the hard tiles once more under her bandaged feet, adjusted her balance to compensate for the slope of the roof, and was instantly on her toes, propelling herself forwards.
Grand Marshall Harlan would be alone, she knew, for less than an hour. She had to time her arrival precisely. Too soon and she'd never get past the mansion's security. Too late and she wouldn't have enough time to finish the job and escape before someone came to check on him. He was a sick man and never left unattended for very long.
Did he deserve to die? To most of the general population here in Tremayne, Harlan had been a hero, but there were many in the neighbouring island state of Brael who still considered him a war criminal. The war with Brael had ended more than thirty years ago, but the prominent role played by Harlan in the city's political life in the years since had ensured that diplomatic relations between the two islands had remained strained. There were undoubtedly many who would be gladdened by the news of his death.
As she reached the end of the terrace Sandrine put these thoughts from her mind. She had a contract. She'd see it fulfilled. She allowed her momentum to carry her off the roof of the final house in the terrace, rolled deftly as she hit the ground and came silently to a halt, pressing her back against the perimeter wall surrounding a tall house opposite.
Made of white stone and decorated with a dazzling array of multi-coloured glazed tiles, the house was modest by the standards of most that studded the Hillside. Her research had told her it belonged to a minor government functionary. From here the houses wound their way up the hill in an uneven, ragged line. The higher they climbed, the more expensive were the materials used in their construction. At the highest levels the walls and pillars were clad in white marble, and many of the decorative tiles were rumoured to contain precious stones and metals.
She would have to be careful now. Private security forces patrolled the streets in Hillside. Paid for by the wealthy residents, these forces were heavily armed and well-trained. Protected by their influential patrons, they were completely unfettered by the rules that constrained the activities of the City Guard. Avoiding their patrols wouldn't be easy. The steep slopes and private grounds that surrounded each property meant she'd be unable to use the roofs as she had in the Shanty District.
The Grand Marshall's residence was among the houses peppered around the top of the hill. She had a long climb ahead of her and limited time. She allowed herself to pause for breath, made the Sign of the Circle as she'd been taught as a child, and pulled herself up to the top of the wall. She knew the way. She'd prepared well. She always prepared well.
Noiselessly she dropped into the garden on the other side of the wall and was already running as her feet touched the grass, grey-black in the darkness. The government functionary's house was in the centre of the garden to her right. Lights had been lit inside the house but she would not be observed. Green wooden shutters had been locked shut across the doors and windows. A dim light seeped between the slats and cast uneven golden stripes across the lawn, marking her path. The ground rose up away from her as she ran.
On the far side of the garden was another wall. She computed its height, adjusted the length of her stride and hurled herself up at the wall. She reached out towards it, barely brushing the top with her finger tips, gaining just enough leverage to allow her to clear the top, and drop weightlessly to the other side. She did not stop. She was in a street now, paved with white stone bricks. The street wound its way up the hill and Sandrine followed it, crouching low.
The mansions of the Elite lined the way, each hiding behind a higher wall than the one before. She counted them off, one by one. She was getting closer. There was a narrow side street just up ahead. If her calculations were correct, and they always were, she would have just enough time to reach it and take cover before the next security patrol passed by.
It would be close. Already she could hear the boots of the patrol grating against the stone paving. Another forty-two seconds and they'd be upon her. She could see the side street coming closer. Thirty-six seconds. She ducked into the side street and picked up her pace. There was a wall on either side, and another directly ahead. A dead end. Her research told her the wall ahead was sixteen feet high. Too high to leap. Twenty-three seconds. Without breaking her stride she calmly reached into one of the small pouches that hung from the sash slung diagonally across her chest and took out a small ball. Green and red clouds swirled across its surface. Fourteen seconds. It would be very close!
She threw the ball at the foot of the wall. Two more strides and she'd be there. Her eyes hardly left the top of the wall, but she was aware of the ball shattering as it hit the ground, exploding into a dozen tiny shards and releasing a sudden swirling vortex of muddy brown gas. She leapt into the gas and felt the swirling currents lift her high into the air. The top of the wall passed beneath her and she dropped to the ground on the far side. Six seconds. She could hear the boots of the security patrol as it entered the side street. Her calculations had been a second out.
She paused. The sound of marching had stopped. Had the gas cleared? Had the patrol seen it? She remained still, crouching down on one knee. She didn't breathe.
Finally she heard the patrol return to its regular route, the boots once more grating against the stone floor. This time the sound was receding. Good. She had a contract to fulfill.
The Grand Marshall's mansion rose up in front of her. A white marble colonnade ran down one side. Above that, three windows opened onto a balcony topped with an ornate balustrade. The middle window, she knew, was Harlan's room. She padded across the lawn to the mansion, unwinding a rope from her waist. She stopped below the balcony and threw one end of the rope around one of the pillars. With one end of the rope in each hand, she braced her feet against the pillar and began to climb.
She hauled herself over the balustrade and crept cautiously towards the centre window. The curtains were closed but, between them, she could see Harlan lying on a large four-poster bed. A number of bottles stood on a table nearby, some full of strange liquids she didn't recognise, others half-full of pills of every colour. She opened the window just enough to slip in and conceal herself behind the curtain. Once she'd satisfied herself there were no medical staff in attendance, she walked towards the bed, her bound feet making no sound on the rich, carpeted floor.
"Grand Marshall?" she whispered.
With some effort Harlan opened his eyes. His skin was pale grey, almost colourless, and blue veins were clearly visible beneath the surface. His eyes were hollow, sunken deep into his heavily shadowed sockets. Only his moustache marked him out as the war hero he'd once been. Although now streaked with grey, it still grew full and it had clearly been recently groomed.
"What ..." the Grand Marshall struggled to speak. "What do you ... want?"
"I hear you're dying," said Sandrine. "I've come to help you on your way."
The Grand Marshall closed his eyes and took a few shallow breaths, the interval between each slightly longer than the one before. For a moment Sandrine thought perhaps he'd died without her assistance. But she waited. Eventually his eyes blinked half open again and rolled towards her.
"About ... about time," he rasped. "I was beginning to think ... you wouldn't make it."
(C) David A J Berner, 2011. All rights reserved.