Updated: May 20, 2021
He watched her running down the alleyway from his balcony.
A pretty thing, he thought to himself. But slow. The three figures behind, however, now they kept a fast pace. In all fairness, running down a muddy alleyway in the rain whilst wearing heels and carrying a baby would certainly constitute a handicap, but he knew if he had been running for his life he might’ve disposed of the heels at least.
Possibly the baby too, he mused as he made his way down the stairs, where he grabbed the cloak from his servant and left the house. Their trail was easy enough to follow, even in the rain, and he was in no particular rush. In truth, it did not matter if the girl had been murdered before he arrived - only that the killers didn’t leave immediately. He stifled a yawn. What an awful night for business.
The desperate footprints of the heel-clad woman were already filled with rainwater, and the man decided to quicken his step a little. Presently, he came across one of his associates, sodden and solitary at the corner of two lanes.
“Good evening, Master. The others have them cornered up ahe-”
“Yes, yes, well done, wonderful. What can you tell me about them?” The two began to walk together.
“The woman is a daughter of Valentino Ceresa, one of the heads of the Radice-Nargi Trading Company. Seems she’s been in hiding - was in hiding - ever since her dalliance with a commoner produced a bastard.”
“It’s always a commoner, isn’t it? What was he, a baker?”
“Fisherman? Surprised she was even let down that far into the city. So I assume this is a standard disposal job; find the daughter, kill the child, dispose of the daughter if necessary and so on.”
“It appears that way, yes. Although we aren’t sure who the client is yet.”
“Well I suppose we’ll have to ask the 'assassins' that ourselves. As long as they haven’t done anything stupid before we get there.”
“They are being corralled as we speak.”
The Master soon found himself in a small plaza; private, secluded. Out of sight. The slums stretched so high that the rain was struggling to reach the ground on its own. Several of his men loomed large over the four figures; two of the would-be murderers held their blades ready, whilst the third was using the woman as a shield. The Master’s men watched them coolly, bowstrings taught with a ready volley. The mud had been unavoidable, but he had hoped that his boots would be spared the worst of it. It seemed there was little luck for anyone this night, though hopefully he wouldn’t have to add blood to the mix. As he walked closer, he could now clearly see these assailants were no professionals. They hadn’t even covered their faces, and one of them had decided to use a sword for the job.
A sword! For a simple kill job! Might as well kill her with a fishing rod for all the attention it brings. Wouldn’t that be a delicious irony.
“Thank you for your patience gentlemen, my lady. My leg is not as trustworthy as it used to be, and in circumstances like this I’m afraid my slowness becomes all too obvious. My name is Master Zeno, and you four are unaccounted for.”
There was visible confusion among the assailants, their grip slacking momentarily. He retrieved a small, well-thumbed notebook from his jacket pocket, and continued:
“Mirta Razza - strangualtion and disposal on behalf or Sir Alfonse. Angsar Pohl - poison, administered in a public place on behalf of Ingulf the Salter. And finally: Athild, Wife of Walstan - throat cut, and body sunk to the bottom of the Royal harbour. These are all the appointments that we were made aware of today, which were paid for in advance and executed to a satisfactory result before the skies opened and I ruined my good cloak following your messy trail. My question, as you can probably guess-” A fat raindrop landed on the open book, and Master Zeno let out a defeated sigh- “My question is what you four are doing here when we have not received a contract for any daughter of Valentino Ceresa since… three weeks tomorrow?”
Their confusion was now palpable. The woman too. Even the baby had stopped crying. Finally, the boldest of the three men spoke up:
“We don’t want any trouble…”
“Says the man holding a sword and running after a woman and a baby. I really wouldn’t patronise me considering your position. I’ll ask again; who are you, what are you planning to do here?”
“Our boss would kill us if w-”
A swift signal and an arrow lodged itself in his eye. Blood. Wonderful.
“Two of you are left to tell me what I want to know. I strongly suggest that one of you grow a cock in the next five seconds or-”
“We don’t know who it was! Our boss just said to kill the baby! We don’t even know who she is! We don’t even know why!”
Master Zeno snapped the notebook shut and put it away, increasingly annoyed.
“The audacity of you three- two - to waltz into this city and start chasing our citizenry down our back alleys without our express consent is the most stupid, dangerous, and downright disrespectful action I’ve ever witnessed. Do you have any idea what the repercussions for this will be? I’m not even aware of any space in our cells at present, are any of you?” He gestured to his subordinates but received only uncertain murmurs and slight shrugs in reply.
“It doesn’t matter, not like you’ll be alive to witness it anyway. Asha, take one of them to the head office while I talk to our distressed friend?” Another damp thud, and only one man was left standing. His hand trembled so much as Master Zeno’s associates approached that he dropped his sword, and a trail of urine began to blend with the mud and blood as he was escorted away. Master Zeno stepped over one of the bodies and bent down with a small groan to meet the glazed gaze of Ceresa’s daughter. She was sheltering the baby as best she could, but was transfixed on the arrows in the dead men’s eyes.
“Are you able to stand?” he asked. She managed to tear her gaze away from the corpses to look at him, and nodded slowly. “Let’s get you out of here, shall we?”
Master Zeno poured more hot water into her cup, and she hugged it to her chest greedily. The baby slept soundly in a cot as he resumed his place in his chair by the magnificent fireplace. Together they had returned to the Master’s house. The last ruffian had been escorted to the House’s private prison so he may be interrogated, that they may learn his employer. There was nothing more to fear tonight, the woman had been assured. Now she waited for a break in the clouds and a head-start on the day. The fire soothed the chill in their bones, and the damp cloaks dripped onto the rug as they dried. Steam swirled above their drinks, and between the murmuring rain and crackling flames, a conversation of sorts began.
“Terrible business in that alleyway. The last thing I craved tonight was a midnight walk. Now I’m afraid my cloak will never dry out. Though I’m sure a bit of rain was the least of your worries Miss Ceresa.” The girl remained silent, pressing the cup harder into her chest.
“You should be aware that what happened there was not an act of chivalry; those men were operating outside of their jurisdiction, without sufficient authorisation from our House. We will certainly not stand to be out-competed in our own front garden, and it just so happens to be the case that we were able to intercept them before the job could be completed, lucky for you. And your child.”
Her eyes flicked up, with a venom he had learned to ignore over the years.
“Do not doubt my ability to protect my child, Master. I would die first.”
“And die you very nearly did, might I point out. Bravado echoes pleasantly inside a warm hall but I wouldn’t make a habit of it. Certainly, I wouldn’t wish to convey to an assassin that I was willing to die. That would take all the fun out of the chase. Speaking purely from experience, of course.”
“So I was right. You’re a Lurker.”
Master Zeno leant forward a little in his chair, his mild tone slipping slightly at the slur.
“I’m a member of the House of Eidolon, and I expect you to refer to me as Master Zeno or simply Master, is that clear? You would do well not to insult the person responsible for saving your life. Make no mistake Miss Ceresa, I was under no obligation to intervene.”
“Why save me at all, then, if my life is so expendable? If our lives are so easily taken? Who am I to you?”
He relaxed again. “Nobody at all, which is precisely the point. There is no contract on your head that we have been made aware of. Our quarrel is with whomever sent those pantomime bullies after you. It was entirely unprofessional and we will need to organise a reply. As for why I brought you back with me, I find that questioning a near-corpse is far more agreeable than a full-corpse. So, consider whatever information you may be able to share with regards to a possible contractor - anyone who may want to kill either of you - to be your saving grace. Think of it as payment for services rendered; compensation for your continued existence.”
The girl’s icy stare faltered as Master Zeno sipped his scented tea. After several moments, and an exaggerated eye-roll, he added:
“I will remind you that by saying nothing you only lengthen the amount of time the killers have to try again.” She looked down at her cup, then over to her baby in its fresh swaddling. She could feel how damp her hair still was. The fire spat out an ember.
“I will tell you everything I know, but I cannot be sure of who it is exactly. I have been in hiding for no short while.”
“I understand. Whenever you are ready.”
The next morning, Miss Ceresa and the baby were gone. Master Zeno was finishing his breakfast upstairs on the balcony. His servant was brushing the crusted dirt off his boots by the front door when a courier with a missive arrived. It was delivered presently, and even before Master Zeno asked for his letter opener he had half-guessed its contents. He was no less disappointed by it once he read it himself. His servant cleared the breakfast away as he drafted a new letter; direct and succinct in its composition. Satisfied, he finished it with a flourishing signature and a wax stamp, before he handed it over to the waiting courier.
“Make sure this gets to the housemaster in Lopt as soon as possible, their party is already travelling that way.”
With a swift bow the courier was gone, and Master Zeno returned upstairs. The servant had left him a cup of tea, at his direction, and as he held it close he breathed deeply of its sweet scent. He let out a loud sigh.
She really had been far too slow, he thought. Such a shame.