I love the idea that you can rate a story with how good it is. I just finished a short course on creative writing which tasked me with writing a 1500 word short story. So to determine whether I had passed the course or not my story was given a ‘goodness’ rating. Fortunately my tutor decided that my attempt was worth 80%. Reading the tutor’s comments though it seems that she was simply marking me for my use of structure, tense, point of view, mood and the rest of the tools and processes used in writing a story. Perhaps I could have written about the war of the jelly and the ice creams in the far future and, as long and I had still used the same structure and phrasing, still received a mark of 80%. Depending on my tutor’s opinions on vaguely historical/fantasy settings perhaps that what she felt I had done. Well, I’ll let you decide for yourself. Here is the story…
An Honourable Assassin.
I steady myself by locking my arm around the distended neck of the gargoyle next to me. It and I crouch and scowl at the crowded market square below. The Christians build these churches with their wonderful tall spires in an attempt to get closer to God. I like them because they let me get above the bustle and smell of the farmers and their pigs and sheep and chickens, away from the peasants and traders and quick-fingered children who would steal an empty purse in the hope that they could find someone to sell it to. Up here I can breath and think, that helps me control my anger.
A gentle breeze moves through the market, stirring up the smells of spice and incense. Up here it is a gale, whipping around the buttresses and trying to throw me down three stories to die in the mud and shit. I am prepared though. My suede gloves keep my fingers warm and my grip sure, my short padded leather jacket keeps the cold from my heart and my new, expensively soled sandals ensure that I will not easily slip.
Soon enough the mark strides into the market square from one of the city’s covered thoroughfares. His colourful but stained silk shirt and his cutlass’s gaudy scabbard leave me in no doubt that he is the one. Known as Captain Bulmer he is a pirate and a slaver. He is accompanied by a massive young man, no doubt one of his crew brought along as a bodyguard. The Captain is in for a surprise if he thinks a bit of muscle can stop the knife of an assassin.
My knife is concealed inside my jacket leaving my hands free for climbing but Master Gillen would have told me that it should be closer to hand. He taught me everything I needed to know about the blade in the small courtyard at the back of his town house. “Show me your knife.” he told me once. Carefully I drew my blade from its sheath and held it out the pommel clasped in my right hand, the blade lying cold across my left. Not unkindly my master asked me, “What is a knife?” His voice was stern but he betrayed the faintest of smiles letting me know that I wasn’t meant to have the correct answer yet.
Unsure what he wanted as a reply I allowed my gaze to fall on the implement in my hands. Even in the morning sunlight it was a dull steel blade but it was worked sharp enough to shave with. Other than a worn grip of woven leather thong it was unadorned. With some inkling of what my master was looking for, and what this lesson might be I tried to answer, “It is the tool of our trade. The fisherman has his nets, the carpenter his hammer and the logger his axe. We assassins have the knife, a razor edge and a fine point. It is for the killing of our marks.”
Behind his ragged beard he smiled. “You sound like a scholarly monk cataloguing another dictum. Your knife is your focus child.” His eyes saw through my own as he spoke, as if to ensure that I was understanding what he was saying. “Whatever task you are given, whatever goals you set, whatever you achieve, ultimately, you achieve with your knife. This focus is what gives you your power. By pouring all that you are into ensuring that your blade pierces the right heart at the right moment you can topple kingdoms.”
At the time I did not understand. I do now.
I climb down the quiet side of the steeple and move in the direction of the Captain. He is now browsing some cheap jewellery, perhaps considering a gift for one of his many wives. I fall back, wait and watch, almost drowning in the tension as I wait for my chance to sink my blade and my rage into the body of the traitor. Captain Bulmer will be an easy mark, but he is not for me. My mark is his assassin.
The faintest hint of a presence and he passes me. A short padded jacket and a loose dark tunic beneath, rugged leggings and new sandals I know immediately he is the one. He readies the long knife concealed in the sleeve of his tunic. He wanders idly like any other market goer and yet he moves straight towards the Captain. I relax my grip readying my own blade and move off matching pace with him.
We thread our way through the crowd, slipping under awnings and around overloaded carts. I make sure to keep just outside of talking distance from him. He pauses and turns his attention to shelves of ribs that the local butcher is trying to sell off. Has he seen me? Trying to look as relaxed as possible, I move between two stalls stacked high with rough wool jackets. Of course it is ridiculous, if he has seen me he will know what I am as I know what he is. I stop and turn back showing the world, clear as a child’s conscience that I have chosen my mark.
His back is still to me, he has no idea I am stalking him. He pretends to study the racks of meat but the captain and his strong-arm bodyguard are the focus of his attention. He waits two heartbeats from the captain. The sailor is not disciplined enough to guard against the likes of us. He scans the crowd for trouble but his eyes linger on a young woman lifting a basket of apples.
Two steps and the assassin is behind the oblivious bodyguard. He lets his knife drop from his sleeve, catching its handle. One more step, he is behind the Captain, he pulls his arm back slightly ready to strike. Reaching up with his left hand the grabs the bigger man’s arm. The captain tries to turn, to see who has dared lay a hand on him but the assassin has reached around him and his blade slides deep into his twisting abdomen.
All is still. The assassin holds the pressure for a heartbeat as his victim stands stunned by the sudden invasion of his flesh. The captain’s face is a confused mess as his instincts try to find a way to run away from something inside him. The assassin pushes his knife in and up, hoping to pierce the heart or a lung, he lets go of the blade and his arm and walks away. The mark stands, blood starting to seep round the knife in his belly, he must know he is already dead.
It was the same when he killed Master Gillen. Two steps from the shadows of the house to the Master. He had been chastising me for another failed attempt at attacking one of my elder brother-apprentices. By the time we knew what was happening the knife was already hilt-deep in his stomach. The Master looked down at the wound. As he sank to the ground I thought I heard him quote one of his own lessons, “Forced in deep enough, the knife ensures your mark is dead, even though he might not know it yet,”
I was not ready then and the rival assassin got away but there are only so many assassins, even in a massive city-port like this. I shadowed every assassination this city has witnessed in a month. At last it has paid off…
I start to move before the commotion begins. Out to the side of the market square and along the cold stone walls to the gateway which the assassin must be heading towards. He passes through just as the screaming and shouting and accusations begin. I follow him through and down the narrow cobbled street. He is vulnerable and he knows it. He has left his only weapon in the Captain’s gut. He must hear me but he doesn’t dare look around – how can he when he is playing the calm walker? And that is how I will catch him, I will play along, just another of this dirty city’s temporary inhabitants going about his business.
But a stride behind him I call, “Excuse me, Sir?” He turns, a little smile tweaking his lips as he continues to try and convince the world that he is no murderer. A sudden leap, and I thrust my arm forward driving all of my rage to the tip of my knife. It splits his jacket, barely notices his tunic then sinks deep into his flesh just below his ribs.
Looking over his shoulder at me I see confusion and shock but then recognition, “Gillen’s boy,” he says, his voice rasping as his pierced lung fills with his blood. I want to leave him to die but he finds the strength to grab my wrist, holding me to my knife in his side. “The guild was right then to have him killed, he was training honour-less murderers. Or was there a contract for my life? Somehow I doubt it.” He manages to sound smug even as his blood flows over my hand and down to the dirt.
“There was no contract,” I growl, still enraged,”This is revenge for the death of my master!”
His eyes lose focus and his legs falter. Still he grips my arm as he holds onto life. I hold him up, not wanting to draw attention to myself.
“See?” his voice little more than a wet whisper, “No honour in you.”
“You fool!” I spit the words out, his ignorance infuriates me. I twist my knife, causing blood to gush from his wound. His grip fails. To restrain myself from shouting I whisper in his ear “What honour is there in any of us? We are all murderers. There can be no honour in that.”
I lean his dying body against a wall. He is crying, from remorse or from pain I do not know, nor do I care. With some haste I move down an alley and away. The assassin is too weak to move and the wound to deep to heal. Soon he will fall to the ground, a passer-by will notice the blood and come to his aid. If he still has strength to talk he might simply plead for help but he will know it is pointless. Maybe instead he will ask for forgiveness. But it is already too late for that. Too late for both of us.