The assassin cast an indifferent glance down towards the bustling streets as she flitted across rooftops. Even at night the clamor of the city below clashed sharply with the calm of the chimneyed expanse she traversed as a shadow, dark even against clouds of coal dust. With apparent ease she climbed, leapt, and dropped distances that should've ended a normal person, or at least broken a lot of bones. Yet the unwilling killer kept her course towards the Cathedral of the White God, the dreams having burned the target's image hard in her mind. A starry disc atop the Cathedral's highest spire perfectly eclipsed First Moon from her vantage point, eliciting a pause. An omen, maybe, she thought. Good or bad? I'll know soon enough.
By the time she reached the Cathedral, the moon was higher in the sky, and a glint of silver bounced off a metallic collar encircling her neck. It shimmered brighter for a moment as she leapt from a dizzying height. Instead of plummeting to the ground as any natural thing should, she glided down to alight atop the upper gables without disturbing a single tile. Another wondrous gift from the Red God, she thought with bitterness. Would that He took 'em all back. The assassin had been His tool for so long she'd even forgotten her own name. But not those of my targets. Oh no, never those...
In the candlegloom of the Cathedral's rectory, a mouse scurried in alarm at a loud click followed by the outward swing of a bookcase. The wall opened to present Archabbot Trastavere adjusting the folds of his scarlet cassock to hide a stain. "Go on, get." He tossed a handful of coins at the young, raggedy peasant girl who followed. Despite the pleasures of his "private ministering" sessions, he always found himself in a foul mood afterward. The girl lifted a strap of her gown over a skinny shoulder before kneeling to retrieve every last copper. "Damn the Red God, I said go! And remember, not a word." He needn't have warned her of course; her family's massive debt to the Cathedral was reminder enough. Of course, one could never be too careful.
As the girl fled the office, Trastavere poured himself a cup of brandy and called for his aide. "Reynal. Reynal!"
After a wholly unsatisfactory interval, a young fellow wearing a plain brown version of Trastavere's vestments appeared in the doorway. "Yes, Eminence?"
"What was today's haul?"
The cleric produced a slip of paper Trastavere knew he would have ready even before being summoned. "Eighty-seven ducats, Emin--"
"That's all? Those ungrateful worms, after all the Cathedral's done for this city. Very well, reduce the bread ration to the poor by two-thirds. See if beggars clogging their streets moves my congregation to greater charity. What about that business with Baron Curlew? Will he sell?"
Reynal swallowed a lump in his throat. "Erm, well..."
"Spit it out!"
"The baron seems... disinclined to let go of the land."
Nearly choking on his brandy, Trastavere flung the goblet across the rectory. It didn't break, but rolled away into the darkness of the open passageway behind the bookcase. "Bastard! Fine, I'm done playing games; I absolutely require that land. Get rid of him."
"Get rid... you mean, you want me to kill a noble--"
"No, we can't risk anyone finding a body. Not even the pigs can be trusted in this sewer of a city. But he must disappear. The Silent can take care of him--give the order."
"The Silent," Reynal whispered, shivering. "Eminence, it that really necess--"
"Now, don't start with me! I see the same look in the mirror every morning, I don't need it from you. Haven't I advanced you well beyond what you deserve?"
Reynal shifted nervously in the doorway, the light from the hallway making him an awkward shadow puppet. "Yes, of course you have. It's just--"
"Then a little loyalty's no great expectation! That's all for tonight, now leave me." He made a sarcastic benediction in the air as Reynal slunk from the rectory, swallowing hard like the lad had eaten a bad snail.
There's one. Hold still now... The assassin had studied the Order of Vigilants carefully before her mission. Each night the soldier-priests patrolled the Cathedral, on the lookout for those who might threaten the church. But as Trastavere had long ago dealt with any fool enough to try, they usually spent the dark hours bored and decidedly not vigilant. So when one of them moved in her direction near the balcony, perhaps glimpsing some tiny movement out of the corner of his eye, his investigation began with a yawn and ended with a shrug. Still, hold still... All was dark and silent, the balcony doors secure. "Hmm," the Vigilant grunted before returning to his regular course.
When the hall appeared empty again there was a ripple in the air and the assassin blinked into visibility, clad in tight-fitting charcoal-gray cloth. She tore a mask from her face to let out a breath. That was close, she thought, cursing her clumsiness. Another step and the Vigilant would've walked right into her. She sometimes wondered whether she made such mistakes because she wanted to be caught. It'd make an end to things, at least.
Following the map committed to memory, she crept along the walls where luxurious tapestries offered a little extra cover. Left, left, now right, down the stair... almost there. She turned a corner, then froze.
Another Vigilant. She drew back just enough to study his movements as he prowled the section of corridor outside the rectory and adjoining bedchamber--the Archabbot's bedchamber. Back and forth he walked, scanning side to side with one hand on the butt of a powder pistol and the other on a sword. She ducked into the shadows, listening to the clomp of his boots. Patience, wait for it... When she was sure she had his rhythm she darted forward, reached out and laid a hand on the back of his neck. Her collar flashed, and the Vigilant fell backward. She dragged his unconscious bulk behind a reliquary cabinet without any measure of grace. Having expended a good bit of effort for that particular trick she knelt to rest a moment, hoping the Vigilant's snoring didn't draw attention.
With the way now clear she stood before the door to the bedchamber and took a deep breath. Tensing for what came next, she drew a slender knife and nudged through.
Trastavere wasn't there.
The great crimson bed and its silken sheets and canopy lay undisturbed in the flickering lamplight. A complication. She almost welcomed it. The door to the left opened into the rectory. Surely he's not working at this hour. She peered through, wondering if she had the energy for another knockout touch... empty as well. Where could the pig be? She went over the map in her head again, trying to recall what other rooms she could search without being discovered.
Her gaze drifted to the great wall of books, and she noticed a slight misalignment with the rest of the room, a dark vertical crack that swallowed the low light on one side. Of course! She pulled the wall open to reveal the passageway, took up her knife again and pressed on.
"So much for 'that's all for tonight,'" Reynal muttered, cradling the sacred moonstone while he walked as though he might break it. As though the Cathedral's most prized relic had not survived forty-seven generations of handling. In his late night drunkenness Trastavere often sent Reynal to retrieve the treasure--a teardrop of the White God Himself, it was said. Whether or not he believed the story, the Archabbot would spend whole nights caressing the bauble, adoring the power it represented. His power. That's what he loves, not the White God. He's a disgrace, and there's nothing anyone can do about it. Reynal allowed himself these thoughts only in the smallest hours of the night, as if Trastavere could read his mind--a notion he did not completely discount.
He turned a corner to find the Vigilant away from his post. "Curse them, I told 'em a thousand times to piss before going on watch!" With an annoyed scowl he crossed the corridor and went back into the rectory. Empty. Of course. Trastavere spent more and more time in his accursed little room, and not just to tup young girls. As the man's power grew so did his fear of losing it, and the paranoia ate at him. Reynal took a lamp from the desk and descended the stairway. He wrinkled his nose at the stink and set the lamp in a wall alcove. "I have it here Eminence, just as--"
The scene greeting Reynal was a mixture of the familiar and the alien: Trastavere sprawled on a stained mattress with a brandy bottle spilled nearby, while a dark, lithe shape stood over him, brandishing a slender skinning knife. Acting on instinct, he threw himself at the intruder.
"Hwoof!" They both went down, rolling across the edge of the mattress to the floor, grappling all the way. The would-be assassin tried to lay a hand on his neck, and he clawed at her wrist to try and pin her. To Reynal's amazement, she seemed to flicker in and out of reality, her form transparent then disappearing and appearing again, yet always solid to the touch. He escaped one grasping fist only to receive a punch in the jaw from another, and he tasted the bitter acid of blood in his mouth. She drove her knee into his chest and he staggered backward to the floor, landing breathless near something hard. The moonstone. She came down on top of him and Reynal lashed out with the relic in his clenched fist, and as she fell against him, it brushed the strange shimmering collar the assassin wore.
As if struck by some electric shock she fell instantly limp, without a shred of fight in her. It slowed her enough for Reynal to shamble out from underneath, but when the stone was away from the collar the woman tried to rise and attack once more. Without understanding the effect, Reynal nevertheless held the stone near her throat and she fell helpless again, as though the collar had gained a weight to match the powers it channeled.
"W-what...have you...done to me?" She growled with frustration, but that was all she could do. Every drop of strength it seemed was drained from her, drained out through that metal band and into the moonstone somehow. Reynal ripped his opponent's mask away to reveal a dark-haired woman who could've been twenty years of age or forty, so much care was worn into her face, along with more than one violent scar. A professional.
"Guard... guard..." It came out hoarse and weak, his lungs still stunned by the blow he'd taken. Heart pounding, Reynal looked around the room for the knife lost in the struggle. There--under the bed, just out of reach. The woman saw it too but could not even lift her hand to grasp at it. Trastavere lay above them, still senseless throughout the violence, his labored breaths announcing that he yet lived. "Who are you? Answer me!"
She appeared to struggle, but it was like holding a newborn babe still, needing no effort at all. "Let... me go!" The woman began to weep. "You don't understand. He has to die! I owe... owe Him..."
Reynal looked from the woman to the moonstone, the collar. Realizing, he felt his balls go cold. He spat out a clod of blood. "Him. That's why the holy stone subdues you--you're a servant of the Red God, the Prince of Evil Himself!"
The assassin broke into a bitter sobbing cackle. "Oh, you pious fool! If that were so the Archabbot would be high in His favor. No, He's something much, much worse. And He lays a heavy penance on those that catch His gaze... on me." Though wracked with grief, her words carried an accent that spoke of education. Privilege, even. Not the guttural speech of most paid killers. Curiosity overcame Reynal's fear for his soul, and in spite of himself he asked, "Penance? For what sins?"
"Oh, sins to earn me a far worse fate than I would bring to your abbot, and brought to so many before him. Enough blood to drown this city, all by my hand until He decides my sentence is served."
"Don't ask why He chose me, cursed me with His gifts and this damned collar, I don't know. No matter now, I've failed thanks to your little pebble. Strike quick--maybe He'll understand, let me die at last. I am...so tired." A tear streaked down the channel made by one of her scars.
Reynal glanced again at the knife. He'd have to surrender his grip on the moonstone to get to it, and it could be hours before anyone discovered them down here. "We seem to be at an impasse. Tell me, why Trastavere? Why must he die?"
"You must know," spat the woman, clenching her teeth with a new intensity. "He's a true prince of evil, makes even corrupt men blush! He steals, lies and murders all while hiding behind the White God's church. And you've helped him, I can see it in your eyes. The Red God hates hypocrites most of all."
"H-how do you know all this?"
"He comes in my sleep, when I can sleep. He's not really red at all, you know. Comes in the form of a decayed body with flowers growing from the eyes and tells me who's next on the list, shows me their crimes and says, 'Deliver justice.' Twelve years I've awakened praying the next one will be the last one."
"I..." Reynal swallowed hard. "I know the Archabbot's not a good man, but I can't let you kill him."
"Why, what is he to you? You can't-- wait, I think I see it now."
"What do you see?"
"I spent weeks memorizing my target's face," she said with a knowing nod. "I see some of that face in yours. You're his son, aren't you?"
Reynal pressed the stone hard against her collar, as if its power could silence her words. "Shut up! You shut up. He can't acknowledge me. Not even he has the power to openly defy church law. He takes care of me though, sees I'm provided for. Whatever else he's done he's still my father."
"Then you'd better hope you can hold that rock at my neck for a long, long time boy, because I'm not giving up. I can't after all I've done."
Reynal sat with the assassin held under him by the talisman, feeling his arm start to tire already. What she claimed about the Red God went against everything he'd ever been taught. Yet there was no doubt she believed it, and her powers were evident.
On the mattress above them Trastavere farted.
An idea took form in Reynal's mind, a terrible but maybe a brilliant one. Perhaps it'd always been there, just waiting for an opportunity. He licked his lips. "What...what if there was another way? You said the Red God commands that you deliver justice to the wicked."
"Deliver justice--are you certain that means to kill them?"
"What else could it mean? Make no mistake, my targets all deserved to die for their crimes."
"Don't you deserve to die for yours? Yet here you are."
She squinted at him. "I don't know what you're getting at. If this is some kind of trick--"
"No trick, a proposal. One that fulfills your obligation and mine."
"And if I refuse?"
"Then," Reynal replied, trying to summon up some of his father's viciousness, "we'll wait here for the morning guards, and you can explain your failure to the Red God in person."
The assassin sneered up at him, and her lip began to tremble. She opened her mouth, perhaps to tell him where he could stuff his proposal along with his precious rock, then closed it again. A new fatigue seemed to wash over her, as though the stone's power had reached to her very soul. "Tell me."
Reynal laid out the bones of his plan, and she had to admit it had a certain poetry to it. The barest glimmer of...something awoke in her swollen, red eyes. Hope? "But how do I know you won't double-cross me?"
"You don't, just as I don't know you won't do the same. But for what it's worth, I swear on my life, on the White God and on this holy relic the betrayal won't be mine."
She nodded. "Let me up then--we've work to do."
"What did you call them again?"
"The Silent," Reynal answered. The pair stood overlooking Baron Curlew's estate in the predawn grayness. The baron was not at home, however. They'd used her powers of invisibility and swift movement to smuggle Trastavere out of the city and now watched the Silent take hold of the groggy Archabbot, gag and bind him, then toss him into a wagon bound for the docks while ignoring his howls of confused fury. "Convicts condemned to death who chose instead to have their tongues cut out and their eardrums smashed--deaf and mute. They serve the church...well, in silence."
"Gods wept," the assassin whispered.
"They're penitents, like you. They don't know that's my father they're taking instead of the baron--they won't hear his protests. They'll just obey the orders written out for them. The orders I wrote out for them."
"What orders, exactly?"
"They'll put him on a ship to some far-off port where no one's ever heard of Archabbot Trastavere. Not even I know where. He'll live out his days as a slave, but he'll live. I owe him that much." He wiped away a tear. "Maybe that will satisfy your Red God."
"If it doesn't, He'll rip my soul apart. But let that be as it may... I can't do His dirty work anymore. I won't."
Reynal took the moonstone from his pocket and held it up to the sunrise. "Look at it this way: the Red God sent you to the Cathedral knowing I had this. Why would He do that? Maybe this was all meant to happen."
"Ha! Your church'd burn you for heresy if they heard you say that."
Reynal shrugged. "Maybe. I owe a penance too now, for what I've done."
Having no answer to that, she watched the ship bear Trastavere away to his justice.
The assassin went to sleep wondering what fate lay in store for her. The flowery corpse appeared and with almost obscene levity said, Took you long enough.
"I don't understand."
You defied Me. You could have turned on that boy. Instead you dared My wrath to deliver justice enough but also mercy, whatever the consequence.
"But I had to be forced to it."
Well... nobody's perfect.
She awoke to find her collar gone, and for the first time in a long time wept tears of joy as she at last remembered her name.