by Rob Steiner
Karak quietly slid his dagger into the Swornman’s back, held his hand over the man’s mouth until his struggling grew weaker, and then stopped. Karak gently lowered the still twitching body to the cobblestone streets of the alley where he was guarding the entrance to Silek’s house.
Karak bent down, grabbed the dead man’s feet, and pulled him into a corner of the alley that was nice and dark, then he wiped the blood from his knife on the man’s coat. Karak did something he normally did not do with his victims—he studied the man’s face. No, he did not know the man. Not that it would have made a difference if he had, but Karak did not like to kill people he knew personally.
Unless they had betrayed him.
Karak glanced up and saw a homeless boy sleeping beneath a stack of empty, discarded crates he had built around himself to keep out the rain and wind. The boy was wrapped in several blankets and staring wide-eyed at Karak. Karak bent down, removed the Swornman’s coin purse. He felt the weight, knew there must have been at least twenty han in it. Karak tossed the purse at the boy. The boy let his blankets drop as he caught the purse. He opened the strings and he gasped as he inspected its contents. Karak grinned, then put a finger to his mouth. The boy nodded. He got up and ran out of the alley without taking his blankets. With all that gold, the boy could buy himself a new blanket a day for a year.
Silek’s townhouse in the center of Calaman’s Low City was one of his “quiet” homes—anything that took place there had to remain quiet. Karak knew of four such homes scattered throughout the city, but this was Silek’s favorite. It was in a place where most constables would not venture in groups smaller than ten, and it was closer to Silek’s favorite brothels. And it was farthest from Silek’s wife in their estate north of Calaman. Judging from the four Swornmen he had just killed, it was likely Silek was here. Silek never posted his Swornmen in a location where he wasn’t. The Overlord had grown too arrogant over the years, a fate that might have overtaken Karak if the events of four nights ago had not changed his life forever.
Karak saw lamps burning in three of the four rooms on the third floor. The fourth window was dark. Karak grabbed hold of the drainage pipe that ran down from the flat roof three stories up and began to climb.
He was pleased to find that the stealth of his youth had not deserted him in his mid-thirties. He had done this many times while making his way up the Klahdera ranks, slitting the throats of Silek’s competitors as they slept. All orders had come from Silek, and he had never questioned his orders, only obeyed.
His foot slipped on one of the wet struts that held the drain pipe in place, but Karak quickly regained his balance. He mentally berated himself for losing his concentration while on a job, and he refocused his thoughts on the climb.
The piping took him between two of the three lighted windows, and he paused a moment to listen for any voices within the rooms. The windows were closed, and thin lacy drapes covered them, but he could see well enough inside. The one on the left was a guest bedroom decorated with ornate lamps, white paneled walls with several landscape paintings, and a four post bed with a privacy curtain. One lit lamp in the room showed that it was empty. The other room was similarly decorated and also empty.
Karak continued his climb until he reached the roof and peeked over the edge, searching for more guards. Two men leaned against the closed door to what looked like an outhouse in the center of the roof. Karak knew the door opened into a stairwell that led to the attic below the roof. Both men smoked pipes and talked in low voices. Neither was looking his way.
Karak quietly and quickly pulled himself onto the roof, then moved behind two large brick chimneys. Two roof guards meant that they had keys if the door was locked. A locked and barred door had concerned Karak more than guards, who he could kill more quietly than trying to break through the door.
He peeked around the corner of the chimneys and saw that both men were still looking the other way, talking in low voices, and even laughing once or twice. Karak shook his head. He knew how overconfident Swornmen of the Overlords were. No one had dared to take on an Overlord in over a generation, not even the constables, so long as the Overlords kept their activities to the Low City. They’d become so complacent that they only posted six guards who wouldn’t notice a train wreck on the street below.
Karak scampered from chimney to chimney on the roof until he was within several paces of the Swornmen. Karak picked up one of the small stones that covered the entire roof and threw it toward the far side. It made a loud clang when it hit one of the metal gratings that covered the top of the chimneys. The Swornmen immediately turned in that direction, both drawing their revolvers.
“I’ll check it out,” said one of the men in a Kingdomer accent. “Stay and watch the door.”
“Right,” said the second man nervously.
The Kingdomer who spoke first walked warily toward the other end of the roof. After a few moments, when Karak was sure the first Kingdomer was on the other side, he hurled another stone into the corner on the left. This caused the remaining Swornman look that way, turning his back to Karak. Karak pulled his knife, rushed forward, and gave the man two quick thrusts into both lungs. Unable to scream, the man thrashed about and gurgled until Karak plunged the knife into his heart. The man twitched a moment longer, and then went silent. Karak lay the man down against the door, then crept back to his hiding place behind the chimney three paces away.
When the first Kindgomer came back after several minutes, he stopped when he saw the young Swornman leaning against the door. He kicked the younger man and said, “I leave for five minutes and you take a nap?”
When the younger man did not stir, the Kingdomer bent down to check him. Karak sprang forward and killed the Kingdomer in the same way he had killed the first. Karak felt no regret that he had killed one of his ethnic cousins. Back in the Kingdoms, the men—and most women—killed each other for far less.
Karak searched the two men and found rings of keys on both of them. After Karak trying several keys, the third key on the ring he held opened the door’s bolt lock with an audible click. Karak eased the door open and crept down the dark stairwell. Light from the city illuminated the stairs enough for Karak to see that it was only ten steps to another door below. A dim light shown around the edges of the door. When he reached the door, he put his ear to it, slowed his breathing, and listened. There was silence on the other side. He turned the handle. The door was unlocked, so he opened it a crack.
The door opened into a large linen closet. Shelves filled the room on all sides with towels, sheets, buckets, and scrub brushes. Several brooms leaned against the wall in the far left corner. In the center of the room was a table where a startled maid, in the middle of folding a small face cloth, stared at Karak. From the looks of her, she was a Kingdomer—her hair was pure yellow and her skin was of the palest white.
Karak hated to kill innocent people who just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. The Swornmen on the roof and in the alley below chose this life knowing its risks and rewards; this maid was just trying to earn a living. Some Klahdera assassins he knew chided him on this weakness, but Karak chose to look at it in a practical way. The constables essentially let the Klahdera fight it out with any other crime syndicate they wanted, so long as the body count of innocents never rose to attention-grabbing numbers. The fewer the civilian casualties, the less chance the constables would get involved in Klahdera business.
Of course, Karak was no longer in the Klahdera. But that did not mean he would give himself the all-clear to start killing innocents. You have to have a code, something you stood for, or else you weren’t a man.
Karak put a finger to his lips. He stepped into the room and shut the door silently, all the while watching to see if the maid would make a move toward the door. If she tried to warn anyone, or even took in a long breath to scream, she would no longer be a civilian. She did neither.
He stared at her a moment. “You are a Kingdomer, yes?” he asked in his native language. It had been so long since he had used it, and it felt good coming off his tongue.
The girl’s eyes widened even more, and she said, “Yes, I am of the Hlaan kingdom.”
Karak grinned. “I too am Hlaanish.”
The girl still stared at him warily. “What are you going to do to me?”
“What is your name?” Karak asked.
“Jelia. I will not hurt you…unless you force me to,” Karak said. “My business is elsewhere in this house, but I cannot leave you behind to raise an alarm. I must tie you up and put a gag in your mouth for five minutes, and then I will return and release you. Now, to compensate you for your troubles….”
Karak pulled one of the coin purses he had taken off the Swornmen he’d killed tonight and handed it to her. She took it tentatively and opened it. She stared at the contents for a moment, licking her lips. It was probably more han than she saw in a year.
“When I return,” Karak said, “I will give you another just like it. Do we have a deal?”
When Karak finished tying Jelia to one of the shelves, he asked, “Is that too tight?”
She looked up at him and shook her head.
“Good,” he said.
He was about to put the gag over her mouth, but then asked, “Where is Silek sleeping tonight?”
Jelia’s eyes hardened, and he was ready to gag her quickly if she screamed, but she said, “Sleeping with his new whore in the master bedroom. Third door on the right. The man is Hlaan, but he has no honor.”
Karak expected Silek’s servants to show him some loyalty, but Jelia’s reaction meant Silek still slept with his maids and probably promised them the stars to keep them from whispering to his wife.
Karak said, “Thank you, Jelia. Now I must put the gag on.” He tied a small hand towel around Jelia’s mouth. When asked if she could still breathe, she nodded.
He went to the door to the linen closet, then looked back at her. “I will return in five minutes. My word from one Hlaan to another.”
Jelia blinked, then nodded.
The linen closet door was at the end of a long hallway about twenty paces long. Two lit lamps, ten paces apart, sat on small tables on the left side of the hall. At the far end was a window, and then the hallway turned right. Karak quietly closed the closet door and walked as near to the wall as he could, where the boards tended to creak less. The rooms behind the two doors he passed were dark and quiet. When he reached the third door on the right, he paused. There was no light coming from the other side. He put an ear to the door and heard Silek’s heavy breathing. He put his hand on the knob.
And then paused.
This was too easy. Silek was a Klahdera Overlord, not some captain in the ranks (like Karak used to be). Why was he only guarded by six Swornmen who did not seem to know the sharp end of a knife from the hilt? Why was the door to the roof guarded by two incompetent men, and not double barred from the inside? And why had a Hlaan maid just let him enter her master’s house when she knew Karak was going to kill Silek? Hlaan were loyal to a fault, almost voluntary slaves to their masters.
Karak had honed his instincts over the years to the point where he knew to trust them when things did not feel right.
He let his wits take control of his thirst for vengeance, and let go of the knob. Karak backed away from the door, then turned and crept toward the closet. The uneasiness he felt only increased the farther he got from Silek’s door, and he tried to calm his pounding heart. Every instinct in him wanted to bolt for that door, the noise he’d make be damned. The trained assassin in him, however, controlled those urges. Barely.
With sweat beginning to trickle down his back, Karak opened the closet door to find the Hlaan maid crouched behind the folding table with a revolver aimed at his head.
“I will not hurt you,” she said, smiling, “unless you force me to.”
Behind him, the doors on either side of the hall burst open and a dozen of Silek’s Swornmen filled the hall, all with revolvers pointed at him. Silek’s door opened, and the Overlord walked out, fully dressed in one of his finest blue suits. He stared at Karak with a mixture of fury and sadness that seemed to match Karak’s feelings at the moment. Karak opened his mouth to explain to Silek the meaning of loyalty when he froze at seeing who exited the bedroom after Silek.
Crane in his garish white suit with white top hat strode out, clicking his black cane on the wood floor. He looked paler than the last time Karak saw him in the silo. Thin blue veins crept around the corners of his eyes and grinning mouth.
“Mr. Karak,” Crane said, “is this any way to repay your patron?”
Karak turned his revolver toward Crane, but a sharp blow to the back of his head stopped him from firing. Darkness took him.