Story by Neil Davies / Illustration by Jihane Mossalim
“It’s not very flattering, is it, M’Lady?”
Lady Nadina Samangan paused in fastening her body armour and stared at the maid who had spoken. Outside, a moonless night had fallen on the city of Vernevance. The variety of shape and colour usually seen from the Samangan Mansion windows was reduced to the dark silhouette of roof and spire.
“Would you prefer it moulded around my bust and followed the line of my waist?” said Lady Samangan, her voice quiet but, to those who knew her, dripping with hidden danger.
“I… I don’t know, M’Lady.”
“Do you want me to compromise the structure of my armour so my breasts can titillate any adolescent boys who might be watching?”
“No, M’Lady,” said the maid, lowering her eyes. “I’m sorry, M’Lady”
Lady Samangan looked out over the dark cityscape. In the distant sky she thought she saw the faint burn of a dragon, but she could not be sure. When she was a child she would spend hours watching the dragons play-fighting in the skies above the mansion, but the few that remained were getting old, as was she. They rarely flew over the city anymore. Their mere existence was frowned upon by the Church. How long would it be before her family were also frowned upon? Her recent opposition to the promotion of Bishop Edright to the role of Archbishop was widely known. Perhaps she should consider retirement before it was forced upon her? Her younger brother, Guyth, was already impatiently waiting to take her place.
She turned back to the maid, feeling old, tired and angry. “What’s your name?”
Lady Samangan finished fastening her body armour with quick, decisive tugs. She smiled. It was not a pleasant smile.
“This is a high profile contract,” and one she had used her position as head of the family to appropriate from her brother. “Perhaps a second pair of eyes might be of some use. Grab your things and put on some nice, shapeless armour, Celesta,” she said. “You’re coming with me.”
— ♦♦♦ —
The tall spire of the cathedral, lit from below by burning torches, dominated the skyline. Like the family mansions, it was built of stone. The black silhouettes of the surrounding wooden structures, dark this long after curfew, seemed insignificant in comparison. For the most part, the city of Vernevance was sleeping.
“Impressive, don’t you think?” Lady Samangan whispered to her reluctant companion. “I don’t suppose you get out much after curfew?”
“Never, M’Lady,” stammered Celesta.
“How’s the body armour?”
Lady Samangan smiled. “Yes, I suppose it is. But believe me, if we’re attacked you’ll be grateful, both for its lack of curves and its weight. Now, follow me.”
She led off, at an unhurried pace, down the narrow alleyway opposite the side door of the mansion. Although the mask and cowl she wore kept out most of the night’s stiff, cold breeze, it still stung her eyes. Winter was on the wind. Through her gloves, her fingers ached with the cold, and the creeping advance of arthritis.
At the far end of the alleyway, she turned right onto Wells Street. The wide thoroughfare, sometimes called The Spine of Vernevance, ran through most of the city, skirting the cathedral complex, and finishing in the suburb of Saberhagen, where it met the ragged coastline and the Cartparry Sea.
Lady Samangan had no intention of travelling that far. Her path led off The Spine long before it reached the cathedral.
“I would have liked to avoid Wells Street altogether,” she said under her breath.
“Then why didn’t you, M’Lady?”
The voice startled her for a moment. She had almost forgotten that she had the maid, Celesta, with her.
“It’s the only way to get to my destination,” she said, a little testily. She was not even sure why she was bothering to answer. “The buildings here form a more or less solid block. They have no paths between them.”
“Could you not go across the roofs, M’Lady?” said Celesta, her voice muffled by her own mask.
Was there a tease in that question? Lady Samangan was not sure, but she frowned nonetheless.
“I’m too old for that kind of thing,” she said. “And you’re too inexperienced.”
“I’m sorry, M’Lady.” Celesta bowed her head. “I do not wish to be a burden.”
Lady Samangan drew Celesta into a cluster of dark shadows thrown by the trees lining the street.
“How old are you?” Her whisper was quieter, more sibilant than ever.
“And what made you apply to be my maid?”
“M’Lady,” said Celesta. “It is a position of much honour and respect to be maid to a senior member of the Samangan Assassins family.”
There was no time for Lady Samangan to respond. She motioned Celesta to remain silent as a curfew patrol of armed militia marched by. None looked in the direction of the hiding women, and would not have seen anything if they had. Lady Samangan was a credit to her family and her profession.
“Perhaps it was a mistake to bring you along,” she said, as she watched the backs of the patrol march further away. “I thought I was teaching you a valuable lesson, but in reality I’m just risking your life, and mine.”
“I’m sorry, M’Lady.”
“So am I.”
Lady Samangan looked back the way they had come, and forward towards her destination. Her brow furrowed. She could see no easy way to solve the situation.
“I don’t have time to escort you back,” she said. “And you’d be caught if I let you try on your own. So I guess you’re coming with me.”
Celesta said nothing. She looked apologetic, sorry for the trouble she was causing. But in her eye there was a spark of excitement.
— ♦♦♦ —
They avoided three more patrols as Lady Samangan followed dark side streets and darker alleyways. One building loomed ahead of them with some consistency: The Guine Building. Home to the leading family of Vernevance, and the only building, other than the cathedral, lit by torches kept alight throughout the dark hours. It did not have the grandeur of the religious icon, but it held equal power. The coalition between Guine and the Church had ruled Vernevance for almost one hundred years.
“Are you looking forward to the centenary celebrations, Celesta?” said Lady Samangan as they paused in the shadow of a high wall.
“No, M’Lady,” said Celesta. “I don’t know any who are.”
Lady Samangan’s eyebrows raised, but she did not speak. She knew there was discontent with the current, oppressive regime, but she had not realized it to be as strong as her maid’s comment suggested.
“Is our target in there, M’Lady?” said Celesta, as she followed Lady Samangan away from the wall and closer to the tall building.
Lady Samangan ignored the use of our and, against her usual nature, chose to tell the truth.
“The target is Kevil Guine.” She smiled as she heard the slight intake of breath from behind her.
“But he’s the head of the Guine family, M’Lady,” said Celesta, a touch of both horror and awe in her voice.
“That’s why I took the contract for myself,” said Lady Samangan. “It was originally accepted by Guyth, but he isn’t ready for a job of this importance.”
“But who would want..?”
“I don’t know who the client is, and I don’t want to know,” interrupted Lady Samangan. “It’s of no importance to me. Now quiet. We’re getting close.”
Keeping to the shadows between the spluttering torches, Lady Samangan and Celesta crept to the wall of the Guine building unmolested.
“Why are there no guards, M’Lady?” whispered Celesta.
“Overconfidence? Arrogance?” Lady Samangan shrugged. “There will certainly be guards inside, and that’s why you have to stay out here.”
Finding a small niche, placed beneath the opening of a garderobe that, by the dry excrement on the stone and about the ground, was little used, Lady Samangan waved Celesta in. The maid grimaced at the smell but complied without comment, barely fitting inside. It was not pleasant, but with the niche in shadow, she was unlikely to be seen.
“You stay here until I return,” said Lady Samangan. “Here, take this.”
She handed Celesta a dagger, the long blade sharp but unreflective. An assassin’s blade.
“Do you have any idea how to use it?”
“All maids have some basic training, M’Lady.”
“No doubt it will stop you stabbing yourself, at the very least,” said Lady Samangan. “Now, stay quiet, and don’t move from here until I return.”
She looked carefully about the deserted grounds, listened for tell-tale sounds of movement, sniffed the air, pushing the odour of the garderobe to the back. She could almost imagine the faint smell of dragon breath within the biting cold, just like the old days. But there was no time to reminisce. Her way seemed clear. With one final glance at Celesta, she was gone.
— ♦♦♦ —
She gained entrance to the building through a low window, the expensive glass removed with a tool obtained surreptitiously from the very family who provided it. The high price of glazing made it affordable only to the Church and senior families of Vernevance, so her intent was to keep breakages to a minimum.
Unhurried but alert, she dropped into a dark room, the light of the torches outside fading quickly in the shadows. Crossing to the opposite wall, she came to a doorway that opened onto the entrance hall. A guard of two men and two women stood together in the hall, talking in low voices. Lady Samangan noted, with a wry smile, that all four wore identical, shapeless body armour. She would have to tell Celesta on the way home.
The guards seemed more concerned with their conversation than with their job. Lady Samangan, with silent speed, slipped into the hall unseen. A flurry of fists, feet, elbows and knees left the guards scattered about the floor.
Lady Samangan hurried unerringly through dark corridors to an old service stairwell. She had discovered it while perusing the original plans of the Guine building, borrowed and returned to the Vernevance Records office before they were missed. The entrance had been sealed before the official opening, but that was no barrier to a seasoned assassin.
The stairwell was dark, the steps narrow and steep. But, most importantly, it ran to the top floor of the building, the seventy-fourth floor, without interruption and was, for the most part, forgotten.
The alarm bells rang as she passed the twenty-third floor. Her work in the entrance hall had been discovered. Another fifty-one floors to go and she already felt the strain on her legs. Ten years ago, she would have run up the steps, but age was beginning to tell, despite her rigorous training regime.
She pushed on, maintaining a fast pace. With the alarms ringing, someone might just have the bright idea to check the supposedly sealed stairwell. She thought it unlikely, but, nevertheless, she needed to reach the top as quickly as she was able.
By the sixty-fifth floor her pace had slowed. Muscles ached and her breathing was heavy. The alarms continued throughout the building but she had not, so far, been detected.
Was that a footstep below her?
She stopped and tried to slow her breathing, peering back down the dark stairwell. She was not sure. She thought she might have heard the slight shuffling of a foot, the merest hint of a footstep. But there was nothing to be heard and nothing to be seen.
Listening for further anomalies, she forced herself to continue the climb. Perhaps, after this contract, she would consider at least partial retirement. It was certainly getting harder to face the physical challenges of her profession.
Another shuffle somewhere below. Then silence.
Just the normal shifts and creaks of an old building? Or was someone following?
But they would not follow. They would attack.
Again she listened. Again she looked. But there was no further sign. No evidence to suggest there was anyone there. Perhaps she was getting paranoid? Add mental exhaustion to her physical state, and the argument for some kind of retirement grew stronger.
— ♦♦♦ —
The seventy-fourth floor of the Guine building comprised one, single, enormous office. Thick glazing ran its length, looking out across the city to the cathedral. Such an expanse of glass was a statement of the Guine family riches. There were few, even among the other senior families, who could afford such a window. Actual workspace was confined to a few chairs and a large table at one end, a huge tapestry of an ancient Guine family conquest hanging behind. The remainder, with its statuary and ornate carvings, and long, lonely walk to the table, was designed to impress and intimidate. It was currently almost filled by guards.
They were armed, nervously facing the main stairway, unsure what was heading their way. Whoever disabled their comrades on the ground floor had not yet been found.
Kevil Guine sat at the table, seemingly unafraid. Closer inspection would show the sweat on his brow, the nervous twitch of his right hand. He had called in extra manpower. Whoever, or whatever, was in the building could not get close to him. He was almost sure of that.
— ♦♦♦ —
Lady Samangan, stepping silently out of the maintenance stairwell onto the seventy-fourth floor, had analysed the situation before the guards became aware of her presence. They would leave her no alternative, she knew. Deadly force was her only option.
A hail of arrows, crossbow bolts, shurikens and lances peppered the exit from the old maintenance stairway. Lady Samangan was no longer there.
Unleashing her own array of weapons, she ducked and darted towards her opponents, spitting death in all directions. In close, with a third of the guards already dead or disabled, she turned to the traditional weapon of her family: the short sword.
She slashed and stabbed with control and poise. The body armour worn by the confused and disoriented men and women of Kevil Guine’s bodyguard, was no barrier as her blade found exposed throats, gaps under the arms, unprotected legs. Many drew their own daggers and swords in response. But those few who were able to stab or slice ineffectively at Lady Samangan’s own, superior body armour, were quickly disarmed, often dismembered.
In less than a minute, the Guine guards lay bleeding on the floor. A few groaned in agony. Many more were dead.
Lady Samangan wasted no time in the satisfaction of victory. She turned and ran towards the table, her blade trailing blood in a staccato line on the polished floor.
Kevil Guine was no longer there.
She slowed, alert, looking for locations that might conceal. She doubted the head of the Guine family had the courage to fight her. His cowardice and dependence on his guards was well known, and derided, among the families. But she dare not be complacent. Any cornered animal could be dangerous.
Did the tapestry move? A slight shiver through the brutal but heroic scene?
Holding her sword ready, she approached, cautiously, and pulled the heavy artwork to one side.
Kevil Guine cowered against the wall, squatting, hunched over. His eyes pleaded through his tears as she placed the point of her blade against his neck.
“Whatever they’re paying you, I’ll double it,” he said, his voice whining.
“I never renege on a contract. You should know that about me.”
“Lady Samangan, please.” He was sobbing now, barely able to force the words out.
A remote part of Lady Samangan felt some pity for him, but mostly she felt revulsion that so powerful a man, the head of the most influential family in Vernevance, could be such a coward. She had hoped he would face his death bravely. Perhaps she expected too much of people these days? Perhaps her values belonged in a different age?
She decided to think no more about it. She had a contract to fulfil.
The blade pushed deep into Kevil Guine’s neck, severing the major arteries. He was dead in seconds.
She let the tapestry fall back. The Guine ancestors, so lovingly sewn, would be disappointed at the way their descendant had died.
The voice startled her. She span on her heel, sword raised.
Standing among the blood and the bodies were at least fifty of the Church’s elite soldiers, each one with a crossbow, longbow or lance aimed directly at her. To one side stood Archbishop Edright, his casual dress strangely anachronistic on a body usually draped in ceremonial robes.
“Very impressive indeed, Lady Samangan,” said the Archbishop, smiling. “I had wondered whether your age might be a problem on this contract. I can see I needn’t have worried.”
“You took out the contract.” Lady Samangan kept her sword raised, even though it would be useless against the numbers in front of her. She glanced at her surroundings, but there was nothing she could use, nowhere she could move. She was trapped. It was not a feeling that was either familiar or pleasant.
“Kevil was getting a little greedy,” said the Archbishop. “I thought it time for a change in the dynamic between the Church and the Guine family.”
“Then I have completed the contract,” said Lady Samangan. “So why am I under threat from your soldiers?”
The Archbishop paused, as though considering.
“You see, Lady Samangan, we really had hoped you’d be too old for this. The Guine guards should have killed you, and then we could have quietly dispatched Kevil ourselves, later.”
“We?” Lady Samangan sneered. “I should have known you wouldn’t have the guts to do this yourself.”
“You should be dead, sister.”
Lady Samangan felt her stomach turn as she recognized the new voice before the man, dressed all in black, stepped from the shadows at the edge of the room.
“Guyth!” she said, bitterly. “So this is why you gave up the contract so easily?”
“It was always meant for you,” said Lord Guyth Samangan. “It was to be your last. You would have gone out in glory, attempting to assassinate one of the top men in Vernevance. But you didn’t die!”
“Sorry to still be good at our profession, brother,” said Lady Samangan. “I presume your motives are the same as the Archbishop’s? Power? Money?”
“Of course, dear sister. With you dead, I will be the elder of our family. I will have control of every assassin, every contract.”
“Between us, we will rule Vernevance,” said the Archbishop, grinning widely.
“Using assassination contracts to remove opposition,” said Lady Samangan. “Using the law that gives Samangan family assassins protection from retribution or harm after the fulfilment of a contract.”
“Exactly,” said the Archbishop. “Although, we are about to break that law in your case.”
Lady Samangan calmed her nerves, suppressed her feelings of betrayal and hatred. Surely she could find a way out of this? Unfortunately, at first view, and given the Church soldiers waiting to shoot her down, no avenue of escape was apparent. As much as her pride railed against it, she was trapped and about to die.
The Archbishop raised his arm, a signal to his soldiers. Lady Samangan readied herself, staring, unblinking, at her brother. She would not close her eyes. She would show nothing but contempt as she breathed her last.
There was a scream, dragging Lady Samangan’s glare from her brother. The bloodied point of a long dagger poked from the chest of a soldier, withdrawing before he fell. The next died with blood gushing from his sliced open neck.
The soldiers were in temporary disarray, no longer aiming their weapons at Lady Samangan.
She would not miss such an opportunity.
Lady Samangan moved, faster than she had ever moved, every muscle straining to maximum effort. Four of the confused soldiers were dead before she caught a glimpse of her rescuer, pulling Lady Samangan’s own dagger, dripping with blood, from another dead body.
“Celesta!” Lady Samangan breathed the word in amazement, staring at the grim face of her maid, spattered with the blood of her victims.
“Yes, M’Lady,” said Celesta, disarming a nearby soldier with apparent ease, and driving the dagger into his chest.
Lady Samangan had questions, but they would have to wait. Realistically, there were still too many soldiers, even for the two of them. As many as they killed, more were beginning to regain their organization, their composure, under the desperate, shouted commands of the Archbishop. Before long, weapons would be raised, fired. They could only delay the end, not avoid it.
Movement in the darkness outside the window as something briefly obscured the spire of the cathedral.
Soldiers turned towards it, as curious and puzzled as Lady Samangan. There should be nothing in the sky over the night-time city.
A spear of flame shattered the thick windows. It stabbed into the office, white hot, burning a deadly path through the soldiers of the Church.
Lady Samangan staggered back, her eyebrows singed, her face flushed with the blast of heat. But it had been precise, consuming dozens of soldiers but leaving her relatively untouched. Through a shimmering haze, she saw Celesta, also unharmed, on the far side of the scorched path, smiling.
The flame was followed through the shattered windows by the great head of an enormous beast, eyes swivelling back and forth, mouth open. Faint trails of smoke curled around the long tongue and between rows of pointed teeth. Scales, looking more like armour-plating, glittered in the flickering of the bright torches lighting the office.
The smell was unmistakable.
“A dragon!” gasped Lady Samangan, her initial fear turning to joy. “I never thought I’d see one in the city again.”
The great head withdrew. The dragon peeled away from the building, back into the anonymity of night, the faintest susurration of air the only sound of the elegant beast’s flight.
The paralysis that had fallen over all at the dragon’s appearance faded quickly. The stench of scorched flesh hung heavy in the air, smouldering corpses littering the blackened floor. The few soldiers remaining alive seemed drained of any will to fight. Lady Samangan and Celesta dispatched them quickly. It was too dangerous to leave any alive.
The Archbishop, who had been standing well away from the fighting, ran for the stairway. He screamed, all sense of decorum, of his high religious office, destroyed by fear and panic.
Lady Samangan pulled a throwing knife from its sheath at her waist and threw, instinctively.
The blade thudded into the base of the Archbishop’s skull. For a moment he seemed to keep running, but then tumbled, his limbs loose, uncontrolled. He died at the top of the stairway, so close to escape.
Her brother, lifting an unfired crossbow from a nearby corpse.
She threw another knife, but her brother was fast enough to move aside. By pure luck, the blade clipped his hand and he dropped the crossbow. He was running towards her, drawing his short sword, before the lost weapon clattered to the floor.
Lady Samangan turned to face him.
It was over in one, violent clash. There could be no lengthy battle between two such highly trained assassins. The first to strike a blow would be the victor. That first blow would be fatal.
Seconds passed as the two Samangans stood frozen in place, locked together as one.
With no one left to kill, the maid, Celesta, could do nothing but stand and stare, and hope. The dagger hung loose in her hand, blood dripping from the point, pit pattering on the floor like drops of rain.
Slowly, Lord Guyth Samangan folded around his sister, sliding almost gracefully to the floor, his abdomen sliced open. The sword fell from his fingers. He shuddered and lay still.
Lady Samangan wiped blood from her sword and re-sheathed it. She stood, looking at her dead brother for a moment. There was no remorse, just a heavy sadness. But she would not let it consume her. Turning to a smiling Celesta, she frowned.
“You said you had basic training,” she said, as she took the dagger back from her maid.
Celesta blushed. “I, perhaps, did not tell the full truth, M’Lady. My father taught me to look after myself from a young age. He was a soldier with The Vernevance Specials.”
“The Specials,” said Lady Samangan, nodding. “And the dragon? I refuse to believe it was just a coincidence.”
Celesta blushed again, a deeper shade of crimson. “My mother ran a dragon breeding farm, before they were outlawed. I grew up among them. Rowesha was my favourite. I raised her, until she had to be set free.”
“Rowesha? That was the dragon who saved our lives tonight?”
Celesta nodded. “She has remained close over the years, M’Lady. But this is the first time she has come into the city itself. My mother always believed there was a near telepathic connection between the dragons and those who raised them.”
“I would say your mother was right,” said Lady Samangan, remembering the distant flare in the night sky, the faint smell of dragon breath on the air. “Your parents did a very good job raising you, Celesta. And it would seem you did an equally good job raising Rowesha. I’m grateful to you both for your help today.”
“I would have been here sooner, M’Lady, if the guards hadn’t partially blocked the exit from the maintenance stairway with their loosed weapons.”
Lady Samangan laughed. “It was you following me up the stairs.”
“Your father taught you stealth as well?”
“You’re wasted as a maid, Celesta,” said Lady Samangan, smiling. “When we get back home, I will need to consider your future role in my family.”
Other guards had arrived via the main stairway. They moved aside as Lady Samangan and Celesta stepped through the still hot, still smoking morass of burnt flesh. The law forbade any aggressive move towards an assassin of the Samangan family after they had completed their contract. The Guine guards, unlike the Archbishop’s soldiers, had no intention of breaking that law.
Before they turned the first corner on the stairs, Lady Samangan looked back to the night-time city through the broken glass of the once impressive window. She thought she saw a distant shape against the dark sky, perhaps the brief flame of a dragon in flight. She turned and smiled at her maid.
“Thank you, Celesta.”
“My pleasure, M’Lady.”
Lady Samangan laughed. “Call me Nadina.”