Tuesday, March 21, 2017

You Get What You Pay For

“You Get What You Pay For” or “Something’s Rotten in Mylesia”
by TB Schmid

By the dead and rotting gods, her hood stank.  Or maybe she had it backwards: the sack covering her head smelled like dead, rotting gods, rubbish, cats - take your pick.

Maybe I should add a nose hole, or at least cut the mouth a little bigger.

She knew as soon as the thought crossed her mind it was a bad idea, but then bad ideas were something of a specialty of hers. Under the hood, she allowed herself a sly smile.  Maybe a new name is in the offing.

“You hear they found Zara’s body?”

Her ears perked up and she slowed near the fishmonger’s stall.  The speaker was a thickset man with heavy gloves shoved into the back of his leather apron.  Tor, the blacksmith.  

“Aye, that’s all anybody’s been talkin’ about this mornin,” answered the fishmonger.  “Poor girl.  Bled dry and dumped in The Sludge.  Riigha and his boy found her caught up in their nets.”

The Sludge was a foul, boggy delta where The Viper bled into the eastern end of Niht’s Haven.  Since Mylesia squatted on the river’s banks, The Viper tended to receive the bulk of its waste.  It stunk worse than the girl’s hood, but it was a good place to get rid of a body.  Usually.

“Poor dumb girl, you mean.  Pretty, but a head full of bad ideas.” Tor dropped his voice and leaned across the table of fish.  “Had it from Tamora it was The Red Smile, so she must’ve got on the wrong side of The Coil.“

“Oi, dumb or no, I still say she’s poor- hey, go on, off with ya! Place smells bad enough without yer help!” The fishmonger swung her empty basket at the hooded girl, but she ducked under the blow and scuttled away.  She shoved the eel she’d pilfered into one of the many pockets of her ragged clothes and patted it satisfactorily.  Eels didn’t stink much fresh, but give it a few hours in today’s heat and that’d change.

Her mark was still haggling over some rare cheese (speaking of stench!), so the girl in the hood shuffled and limped to a shady spot between a cart laden with fresh hides and the stone wall of the tannery that had produced them. Between the animal skins, the harox pulling the cart, and the tannery, she couldn’t decide which ranked the worst. She decided it was still the hood, though not by much.  

Jez Cassock made a disgusted face and spat a small sample of cheese onto the ground, then began berating the merchant, waving his arms around wildly.  The girl in the hood knew what came next, and a moment later, while Jez waved an accusatory finger in front of the merchant’s face, he swung his other arm down and palmed a block of cheese from the table.  The motion was fluid and natural and the cheesemonger never saw a thing.  Jez finished with a rude gesture, which the merchant heartily returned, and then her mark moved on down the street.  The girl in the hood shuffled after him.

“Don’t touch me!” a man in an expensive cape and tunic barked. A rough mercenary nearby turned towards the outburst, his face hidden by a menacing helmet. The girl in the hood was careful not to look directly at him as she scurried away. “Gods-damned rotter,” the man in the cape muttered as he moved off, too busy worrying about catching the sickness to notice his purse was gone.

The suns were high and hot at mid-day and The Quay was humming noisily with life, packed to capacity with merchants, customers, shippers, smugglers, and citizens of every stripe and status.  Normally it would be a very profitable kind of day for someone of her talents, but today she had a Job. A Job that needed doing, no matter how much she didn’t want to.

Wearing rotter’s robes was a highly effective disguise if you could remain relatively stationary.  It was less so if you had to follow a moving target, as the very nature of the disguise simultaneously repelled people while attracting their attention.  Parked in one place, you could bet on most people leaving you alone (as long as you were downwind); but tailing someone down the street for long stretches just wasn’t practical.  

Fortunately for the girl in the hood, Jez wasn’t going very far.  He was tailing his own mark, an old jeweler from Chutuuku named Shiiva.  Shiiva’s modest shop was one street over, so the old man came here every day to buy fresh fruit and cheese for lunch.  She knew he was Jez’s mark because Shiiva told her so when he hired her to kill Jez: the rake had been extorting the old jeweler on behalf of the Coil - or at least in their name.  This was a freelance job for her, so the details had been a little on the thin side.

That was Reason Number Two why she did not really want this particular job.  She was a professional, and in her experience, when things went wrong, you could usually trace their origins back to the details.

She patted the eel in her pocket and wedged herself in between two large casks standing upright against a nearby wall.  The wall was cool and the barrels offered both protection and some limited cover, with a clear line of sight to both Jez and her client.  Well, as clear a line of sight as one could get in between the throngs of people making their way up and down the busy market.  It was enough, though. They had worked out a plan, which called for Shiiva to linger as long as possible at the fruit stand he was now approaching, then cut straight back across the square on his way back to his shop.  He would pass within a few strides of her.  

She fished out a ball of clean cloth from another pocket and teased the folds apart to reveal a fat peach.  Slipping the fruit up inside the hood, she bit into it, slurping at the succulent flesh, the juice running freely down her chin.

The discovery of Zara’s body was Reason Number Three she did not want to do this job, at least right now.  Fishing and crabbing were pointless in The Sludge, so Rhiiga and his son must have been hunting hroates, the giant, poison-spitting toads that lived in the fens just north and west of Mylesia. Bad luck that a couple of frog hunters should stumble onto her body so soon after it had been dumped there.  If they’d already attributed the work to The Red Smile, then the corpse must have still been in pretty decent shape.  Very bad luck.

The handle of her punch dagger was digging into the small of her back so she shifted until she found a more comfortable position.  She preferred to keep her favorite weapon in her boot, but rotters didn’t usually have the luxury of boots.  

While she waited, she scanned the market square that capped off the western end of The Quayside District, known simply as “The Quay” to the locals. The square opened onto Barker’s Lane, which ran due east along the shore of Niht’s Haven, lined with a sundry of shops, taverns, brothels and warehouses on one side, and the bustling port of Mylesia on the other. From where she sat, she could see ships’ masts swaying beyond the people on the street in front of her, and the ramshackle upper floors of several buildings to her left.

One building in particular caught her eye, for reasons other than it was the most eye-catching in The Quay.  The Den of Dark Delights loomed above the other buildings, a giant wading through drunken revelers. What drew her gaze was a lantern of a specific  color hanging in a particular window, inviting her to visit.  Reason Number Four: the individual who’d lit that lamp did not know about her current job, and she needed to keep it that way.  Stringing so many jobs together in such a tight window of time was a bad idea.  She smiled inside the hood.  Here we are again, back where we started.

By themselves, Poor Zara and Not-So-Poor-But-Soon-to-be-Dead Jez were simple, straightforward hits.  No big deal.  Mylesia was a snake’s nest of cartels, syndicates, grudge-keepers, merc’s, political pieces, power players and good, old-fashioned plotters. There were dead bodies turning up all the time, and in most cases as long as they weren’t a member of the governing body, they didn’t garner much attention.  There was one exception, however: if multiple bodies started piling  up courtesy of a single person or organization, then everybody started paying attention.  That meant someone was Making a Play, and the other players had too much skin in the game - literally and figuratively - not to pay close attention.

So the girl in the hood had adopted a few different personas, each with well-known eccentricities and kill styles.  The Red Smile was one of them, named for the curving red cut left on her targets’ neck after she strangled them with a custom-made garrote. The weapon was a nasty piece of business; she’d commissioned an Ashen to fuse crushed glass to a strand of braided sinew. It did a nice job of cutting through intervening fingers, thick neck tendons, and finally arteries, which was extremely useful when trying to strangle someone bigger and stronger than her.  

She spotted Shiiva making his way back across the square much sooner than she would have liked.  Jez was a dangerous, capable agent in his own right, as adept with the large knife he carried at his hip as he was with the four daggers he wore concealed about his person. That was Reason Number Five, which she was all too familiar with because of Reason Number One, which she had been deliberately refusing to think about.  She had hoped to keep him out in the hot sun as long as possible, where he might lose some of his sharpness to boredom and irritation. The thought never occurred to her that it might have the same effect on her.

Shiiva tottered by without giving her a second glance - she watched him carefully through the rough-cut eyeholes in the sack to be sure.  They had specifically discussed keeping Jez out in the square as long as possible, so this slight deviation from their plan was prickling her instincts. Shiiva had no idea what she looked like or where she might be, only that she would be following Jez as he tailed the old jeweler back to his shop.  It is harder than most people think to walk by someone you know without giving some sign you’re aware of them - it might be a quick glance or an awkward turning away - but the girl in the hood saw no such indication.

Shiiva wobbled down Barker’s Way, turning left at the first intersection, appropriately named Smith Street. That narrow lane hosted the bulk of Mylesia’s smithies: from nails to tools to gems and fine metals, if a trade involved melting, hammering, and forging, you’d find it there on Smith Street.

As soon as Shiiva was out of sight around the corner, Jez abruptly broke away from the dye merchant he’d been haggling with and followed.  The girl in the hood waited a bit longer before struggling to her feet and lurching towards Smith Street on seemingly unsteady legs.  She had to time this carefully. Too close and she risked being spotted, but too far behind and she might not be able to save her client from the brutal beating that was coming.  

The street was fairly busy, so other than dodging an ill-timed kick from another fearful passerby, she had no trouble reaching the alley running between Shiiva’s business and the adjacent silversmith's shop. By the time she imagined Jez glancing down the street to see if he’d been followed, she was pulling off her rotter’s robes and dropping them onto a pile of filth behind Shiiva’s building.  Might as well season them up a bit.

She pulled up the two-piece cowl attached  to the collar of the tight leather jerkin she wore beneath the robes. Along with the loose-fitting hood, the cowl contained a cloth mask that covered her face from the nose down.  Good for close-in work.

She felt a surge of excitement bordering on elation.  Gods it felt good to be out of those robes, and it truly was a spectacular day.  But she knew it was more than that. Her blood surged, her muscles twitched in anticipation: she was alive. Not because she had to kill someone: that was just business. She felt this way before every job, whether it was eavesdropping on a secret meeting or disposing of a competitor.  The greater the threat to her own safety, the bigger the rush.

She took several deep, controlled breaths, inhaling through her nose and exhaling through her mouth. She had to be careful with this one. There was a lot of emotion involved because she knew the target.  Knew him well, in fact.

Reason Number One.

She slipped her punch-dagger from the sheath at the small of her back, wrapped her fingers around the familiar cross-grip.  She’d had the weapon specially made and it had served her well. It served her best  now by giving her something to focus on other than an old friend.  

Teeth set, she shoved the dagger into another sheath she kept on her right leg at mid-thigh.  The cross handle tended to show through the rotter’s robes when she wore it on her leg so she kept it hidden in the back sheath during more discreet work. But when things got loud, the leg was half a breath quicker on the draw. Details.

She leapt, catching the edge of the low eave on the back of Shiiva’s shop.  With practiced ease, she pulled herself up until she could wriggle her body onto the gently sloping slate tiles.  She’d checked her route yesterday and found several loose ones, but it was a simple enough task to avoid them on her way to the hole she’d made.

She heard a muffled crash below her.  Lowering her head carefully through the opening in the roof, she waited a moment for her eyes to adjust to the gloom.  The hole opened into the privy, and by the stench, Shiiva must have used it recently.  The room was empty, so she grasped the rafter she’d exposed and lowered herself through in a slow, controlled summersault. Fully extended, she let go and dropped the last couple of feet to land soundlessly on the floor.  

Not that it would have mattered; as she landed something crashed against the privy door.  More likely someone. The door shuddered in its frame but did not open. Still more likely it was Shiiva by the painful moan that followed.

“Can’t complain I didn’t give you fair warning, old man.”

“Please, I beg of you my lord, it was an honest mistake. I am old and my eyes-”

Shiiva’s words ended abruptly in a hard grunt.

“Don’t give a bloody rat’s bloody bunghole, Shiiva.  You had a deal with the Coil, and the Coil has sent me to collect.  The terms of these -” Jez grunted and she heard the smack of skin on skin - “negotiations, are flexible.  Fortunately for me, but perhaps not so fortunately for you.”

Shiiva was crying and pleading for mercy, and by the sound of his voice he was still up against the privy door.  She thought she could take Jez in a fair fight, but no sense in fighting fair if you didn’t have to. Besides, having to push open the door and get past her client made it less than fair.

Damn the details!  She’d missed the fact that the door swung out when she and the jeweler had discussed their plan; had it swung in, she could just open it up and let him fall out of the way. But by the sound of things her client might die right there against the door, and dead clients rarely paid their bill.  So she’d have to get Jez to open the door for her.

So she screamed.  

Well, squealed would be a better term. Truth be told, Tresha l’Sonjaro had never screamed in fear - once or twice while being tortured, and plenty of times when she was really pissed - but never from fear.  So she squealed, but it worked all the same.

“Fuck was that? Who you got in the privy old man?”

“Nobody - I mean, I have no idea, no-”

The door shuddered again as something slammed into it.  A boot by the sound of it.  Hopefully it wasn’t Shiiva’s head.  Another impact - definitely a boot.  Apparently Jez had also missed the fact that the door swung outward.

“Your loss, love,” she growled and kicked the door back.  It slammed open into her target’s outstretched hand - he must have just realized his mistake and been reaching for the handle.  Unfortunately for her he was holding his knife in the other and slashed out instinctively as he was knocked back. She got lucky and it glanced off the studded bracer on her left arm, but it still slowed her charge just enough that he was able to roll away before she could close and strike.

Tresha had learned the hard way she could not outlast someone who was bigger and stronger than her.  Dodging and parrying only worked so long before you got sloppy or they got lucky.  And running didn’t get the job done.

Speed and agility were her allies; time her enemy. He came to his feet as she lunged.

He was in a fighter’s crouch, large knife in a reverse grip in his good hand, chest level, the hand she’d hit with the door held up in a guard position. Two fingers were awkwardly bent, obviously broken.  She grabbed them as she closed, crushing them as hard as she could, driving his arm up even as she stepped below it.  He screamed and tried to block her advance with the knife, but she knew that was coming, twisting past him rather than crashing into him.

His knife swished through empty air; hers did not.
Jez Cassock made a surprised grunt and fell to the floor, dead.  The weight of his body pulled her punch dagger free from where it had sunk hilt-deep in the base of his skull.  She wiped the blade on his trousers and resheathed it.

Shiiva sat on the floor wheezing, his bent back propped up against a counter.  One whole side of his face was already turning purple and blood ran freely from a nasty cut across his forehead, but he was alive.  And that meant she’d get paid.

She had to concentrate to keep her eyes on the old man’s face; they kept wanting to drag back to Jez.  Her mark, she reminded herself.

“I need a vacation,” she muttered.  She crouched in front of her client and fished out the polishing cloth he kept tucked in his vest pocket.  He flinched, feebly trying to push her hand away as she blotted at the cut.

“Shhh, be still.”

At the same time she heard the floor creak behind her, Shiiva’s eyes opened, clear and focused on something behind her.  Some one.

She ducked her head and rolled to her left, kept rolling as something heavy struck the floor where she’d been.  She heard a grunt and a curse.

“KILL her you clumsy, stupid oaf!  If she gets away -” The table she’d rolled under exploded, showering her with splinters even as she continued her roll.  Something solid grazed her thigh, ripping the punch dagger and sheath loose. Her back slammed into a heavy beam she knew stood in the center of Shiiva’s shop.  Nowhere left to run.

But running never got the job done and at least now she could see her attacker.

“You?!” she spat, caught between rage and surprise, and more than a little bit of chagrin.  It was the blacksmith from the market, Tor.  Had he been following her?  And since when was he a player?  It was as ludicrous as it was impossible.

He was a bull of a man, with a thick neck and thicker arms, a torso like a keg of ale and legs as solid as the beam at her back.  He snarled and reached for her with his free hand, brandishing a heavy looking iron rod in the other.

She lashed out with her foot, striking the inside of his bent knee.  It was like kicking a tree trunk.  He clutched at her tunic but the tight leather jerkin did not have much to hold onto by design.  She brought her arm down as hard as she could, striking him on his bicep with the point of her elbow.  He yelped in pain and let go as she scrambled sideways.  She heard his iron bar whistle through the space she had just been. It thudded into the heavy beam, and she swore the building shook with the impact.

But it finally gave her a chance to counterattack.

She shoved her hand into a pouch at her back, felt the cool, reassuring touch of the powder and drew out a fistful.  She whipped her arm across her body, hurling the dust into Tor’s face just as he was straightening.  He brought both hands up instinctively, but it was too late; much of the spice had already gotten into his eyes, his nose, his open mouth.  Coughing, frantically wiping at his eyes, he was blind and helpless. In time, he’d be overcome with sneezing and coughing fits, but time was still her enemy.

Tresha snatched Jez’s discarded knife, stepped easily around the blacksmith’s desperate flailing, and rammed the blade home between two ribs and into Tor’s heart. She let go of the handle as the big man crashed lifeless to the floor.

She scanned the room, but there were no more surprise “guests”.  Jez would have locked the shop door on his way in to discourage accidental customers, but she checked it just in case.  She knew it was just a half-hearted attempt to give Shiiva the benefit of the doubt. She wanted to think she’d heard him wrong.  Maybe he hadn’t yelled “Kill her!” and maybe Tor had just wandered in by accident - his smithy was right across the street after all. But when she saw the bolted latch, it confirmed her suspicions that something here besides the privy smelled rotten. Tor must have already been inside when she got here, which could only mean one thing...

“Didn’t like my fee structure, is that it, Shiiva?” she purred as she sauntered back to the old jeweler. She was surprised to find him still sitting on the floor. He had at least retrieved Jez’s knife, though he could hardly hold it his arms were trembling so badly.  

“I was already being raped by that grinning bastard and you took advantage me.  You’re no better than he is...”

She looked meaningfully at both dead bodies. “Huh.  I’d venture to say I’m better than both of them, actually.  You know, for a merchant, you’re a piss-poor negotiator.

“Now, where did that get off to...ah, there you are.”

She found her punch-dagger amongst the wreckage of the table Tor had smashed, still in its sheath.  Happily, only the straps that buckled around her thigh had been damaged and the weapon appeared none the worse for wear. Her leg was sore and would have a nasty bruise soon, but she knew if Tor’s iron bar had connected cleanly she would have been crippled for life.  Or dead.

“What ar-are you going to do with me?”

“Hm, now that is the question of the day, isn’t it?” She moved around behind the counter.

“First, I’m going to finish our transaction.” She swept her arm across the counter, knocking the dozens of gaudy trinkets he displayed there onto the floor. She slid her toolkit from its sheath on her left hip, and unrolled the soft leather case. His eyes widened and he fumbled the knife into a pathetic defensive position.

“No time for that, old man,” she tsked.  “That’s a different kit.” She selected a couple of slender instruments and bent to the strongbox he kept behind the counter.  It was a fine piece of work, most likely out of Gundlaan - Strossen by the looks of it. Well made, but familiar, and it only took a moment for her to manipulate the tumblers inside and free the catch.  

She swung the lid back, drawing forth the several trays that were attached to the arched hinges at either end.  They splayed out before her like a set of stairs, each tray lined with soft blue velvet and filled with glittering gems of every size and color.  There must have been several dozen, of which she only took three.  There were only a handful of gem merchants in Mylesia, and they tended to trade extensively between themselves, so moving gems you stole from one of their ranks to another could be… inconvenient.  Besides, what had started off as an unsanctioned side job had become a mess that she was going to have to clean up quickly. She couldn’t be certain Jez wasn’t extorting Shiiva on behalf of The Coil, which meant she had to assume that he was. Which made killing him a direct attack on their business, and The Coil would not take that lightly. She needed to make this look like something other than a hit or a robbery.

So she fished out the bag of coins from the bottom of Shiiva’s strong box, dropped the three gems into it, and tied the drawstrings around her belt.  Casting one last glance over the array of twinkling gems, she sighed and closed the lid. Gathering up her tools, she moved back around the counter to stand over the old man.  He was still holding the knife, but his arms had dropped into his lap.  His head was still bleeding and his skin had a pale, waxy sheen. Jez must have done more damage to him than she’d initially thought. She wouldn’t admit it to herself, but she was grateful she wouldn’t have to kill him.

“How much?” she asked, kicking his foot.  His eyes fluttered open, wandered around the room as if seeing it for the first time, then finally settled on her.  “What?”

“How much did you pay the smith?”

Shiiva coughed, then spat blood onto the floor. “Half.”

She gave a low whistle. “Why didn’t you just have him kill Jez?”

His eyelids sagged. “No way to contact you.  Didn’t know Tor was an option...till after we…”
She shook her head, then bent to pick up the blacksmith’s iron rod.  Gods but it was heavy.  She couldn’t imagine wielding it with one hand the way he had. She stood over Jez’s body, grateful her former drinking partner and sometimes-lover was lying face down. The hole she’d made in the back of his skull told a different tale than she needed, so using both hands, she brought the iron rod down with a sickening crunch. Damn the details.

She dropped the rod next to Tor’s body, near his meaty fist.  

“You should know better, merchant: you get what you pay for.” But he was past hearing.

She exited the same way she’d come in, retrieved her rotter’s robes, and disappeared back into the grimy streets of Mylesia, thinking she needed to get away for awhile.

Maybe a sea voyage, she thought. That sounded just lovely.

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