The Assassin in a free short story set in the same universe as my upcoming sci-fi fantasy novel Rise Of The Shadow Lord.
The Kingdom of Mineralia sits in darkness, blanketed with smog from the steampunk industrial revolution. New civil wars break out every moon, kings come and go.
The overcast night hid any errant shadows as Tobias crept towards his destination. Without a breathing apparatus soot from the smog clung to his exposed face.
For his final test, Tobias must choose a mark and complete the job without assistance from his teacher. He was the best assassin ever produced by the Silver Serpents, and he would prove it when he assassinated Lord Jaden of House Calstein, son of the Lord Ambassador. Tobias’ breath came heavy, and he strained to hear over his heartbeat.
The closer the assassin came to the inn, the more he doubted his choice. He either succeeded, or he paid for the mistake with his life. If he tried to go back, his master would kill him. Minerale did not have a place for a hesitant assassin and Leopold would never let Tobias smear his name with such an act of cowardice.
The glare of an orange street lamp illuminated the sign, Helge's Inn. Tomorrow Lord Jaden would be off to the safety of his home, the Ambassadorial Halls, in the neutral lands. Tobias didn't know when the lord would travel outside the fortress again.
The assassin ducked into the alleyway and scaled the side of the nearby building. Mouthing a prayer to Avari, Tobias alighted upon the roof of the inn. Lord Jaden would be asleep in the innkeeper's own bed on the top floor, away from the windows.
Taking a deep breath to steady his hand, Tobias used his knife to remove the seals on the skylight and lowered himself into the attic.
A rodent scurried out of his way. Filthy peasants. A Senken would be right at home here.
Tobias crept with all the grace of a nimr, avoiding the rotten floorboards. A waft of mildew warned him the stairs would be noisy. He would use the laundry chute instead.
Bracing his back against the far wall and his knees against the front, he used his hands to control his descent.
On the third floor, Tobias opened the laundry chute, and the rusted hinge squeaked. No one lingered in the corridor. Climbing out, he kept the noise down to a rumble which he hoped sounded like clothes going down.
Lord Jaden's death would be a warning to Lord Ambassador Kern; such Senken children would not be accepted in the courts of Minerale.
The assassin made short work of the simple locking mechanism to the innkeeper's bedroom. Sometimes people overlooked such things as security to appear gracious to their distinguished guests.
The door swung open. The figure lying on the bed yawned, “You know I expected you to come about three hours ago. What took you so long?” The man did not seem in the least bit concerned.
Tobias clenched his jaw, closing his eyes for a brief moment. This could not be happening to him.
“You used the laundry chute, didn't you?” The man’s blue eyes danced with malicious glee. Lord Jaden had green eyes. This was Francis, the best assassin in all Minerale. “Well if you survive this, you'll remember not to make such a rookie mistake.”
Forgetting his training, Tobias activated his multi-colored extra sensory powerstone. An unpleasant sensation tore through his mind as the boundaries of his natural senses heightened. The scratching of rodents in the walls and the burning of soot in his eyes made him falter.
Francis flicked the light switch.
White blossoms blotted out his vision. The air rushed out his chest as Francis’ strangling hold slammed him against the wall.
Tobias kneed Francis in the ribcage.
The other man groaned, and the grip on Tobias’ neck weakened.
Pressing his advantage, Tobias dug his heel into the back of Francis' knee and pushed from the wall, knocking the two of them onto the ground.
Tobias raised his knife. His hands shook with adrenaline.
Francis twisted, throwing him clear.
Tobias’ blade clattered across the floor.
Francis dusted himself off and chuckled, “You're Leopold's newest apprentice, eh? The old man's gone soft if you're his best and brightest student.”
Acid bit at his stomach, anger working its way to his mouth, “How dare you speak of my master in such a way!” Tobias retrieved the two small daggers in his boots and launched himself at the man.
Francis blocked each his blows in succession and spun him around. “Do you have any idea who I am?”
Tobias stumbled. Francis was playing with him! “You are the student who betrayed him!”
Francis caught both the assassin's wrists, the daggers mere inches from his face. “No, I am his best student. The best assassin that the Silver Serpents ever produced.”
Tobias kneed the sore spot on the other man's ribcage.
The daggers drew closer to Francis' face, and he hissed, “You choose this mark to prove you were better than me, didn't you? Did you ever once stop to wonder why his best student would betray him?”
The assassin smiled beneath his scarf. “Because you hesitated!” Tobias stepped backward and to the side.
Francis stumbled forward; the assassin's daggers drew blood.
Francis touched the wound on his arm, “You are good, and given half a chance you might actually kill me, but you will never be as good as I am.” He raised his hand. “Belladonna, I tire of this game.”
A whisper and a sting, darkness pulled at the corners of Tobias’ vision. He lost control of his limbs, fell in an uncontrolled heap.
Leopold sighed. Another apprentice dead. Who had use for a master who failed to produce the best assassins in Minerale?
“You're getting old, Leo.” Francis glared right at him, and his skin crawled. “Oh I’m sorry, did you care for that one?”
Leopold squared his jaw, Francis would not bait him. He stepped out from the shadows, “He made the mistake of pride. I tried to teach it out of him, but he could not stop comparing himself to you. He wanted to be the best.”
Francis frowned and paced the room, “Who put the mark on Lord Jaden's head?”
“Take your pick; my apprentice could have collected from at least fifteen different lords of various houses.” Leopold paused, an expected swell of sadness overtook his heart. “Why did you leave, Francis? You were like a son to me.”
Francis stopped; the vein bulged on his forehead. “How could you say that? I was nothing but another tool to you, and we both know it. I pledge my loyalty to something greater than you, greater than your precious money. I pledge my allegiance to justice.”
Leopold shook his head, “Idealism. I never could train that out of you either.”
“Who has your loyalty this week, Leo?” Francis took two aggressive steps forward.
Leopold stepped back, his back pressed against the wall. “I remain loyal to the House Calstein.”
Francis scoffed in disgust. “So who was it then, Duke Markcus, Duke Jeffery? Tell me which one of the minor lines ordered this assassination.” Francis jabbed a finger at his chest.
Leopold put his hands up. “I am not here to fight; I am merely an observer. Surely, your oath hasn't been so far corrupted you would harm an observer.”
Francis clinched his hands into fists. Ah, Leopold had hit a nerve.
A woman's voice interrupted their conversation, “I have taken no such oath, master assassin.”
The tingling rush of adrenaline obscured Leopold’s senses, and he fidgeted. The orange aura of his powerstone brightened the room, revealing the dark skinned Elementien woman, Belladonna. Lord Jaden's notorious Elementien Apothecary.
Leopold bit his cheek. So it was her poison dart that had killed his apprentice. An assassin's immunity meant nothing to her natural toxins. “It was Duke Markcus. Wanted us to leave Lord Ambassador Kern a warning.”
Francis straightened his tie and regained his composure. “On my oath, if we ever meet again, I will kill you. Stay in your school, Leo, and be glad I didn't let her kill you.”
Nausea curled Leopold's face with revulsion, “So you have an Elementien woman do all your dirty work now?”
“You follow the old doctrine, 'Rely only on yourself and kill all the competitors.' ” Francis motioned to Belladonna with a smirk. “I have loyal allies, and I am not afraid of relying on them.”
“Lord Jaden has fed you lies, and you want so badly to believe them, you blind yourself to the truth.” Leopold shook his head. This couldn't be the same street rat he had taken in so many years ago.
“I think you should go now, master assassin.” Belladonna and motioned for the door. Her smile sweet and paradoxically threatening.
Leopold paused at the threshold, “Lord Jaden was never here, was he?”
“No.” Francis squeezed Leopold's shoulder. “I trust you will report to Duke Markcus; another attempt will be met with retaliation.”
Leopold swallowed hard and nodded. So it was possible to be horrified and proud at the same time.
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