A Killer of Dead Men

Issue #189

Otranto knew better than to ask why any man must die.

Yet in the case of Vixara Ixar, it was a simple enough question to answer. For Vixara was young, handsome, rich and growing richer by the day and, even if all of those offences could have been ignored by the populace of Cold Harbour, a visitor from a distant land that few could so much as pronounce. He and his family were different, in a city that tolerated difference only dimly.

In so much as Otranto had an opinion on the matter, he felt that such were poor reasons to take a life. It didn’t matter. A deal had been struck, a payment made, and so Vixara Ixar would die today.

Otranto had watched them ride out before, from his perch in the forest that bordered Cold Harbour on its eastern side: Vixara, his sister Vixalla, and their entourage, all impossibly graceful in the saddle. They were a curious people, Otranto had to admit. Strange in their appearance—their features small and somehow inchoate, their skin a shade of grey that should have been dull and was in fact lustrous—and strange in their habits. Every day they set out, not hunting, merely trotting along the forest pathways, and always by the same route. Nobles of Cold Harbour, routinely suspecting their lives to be in jeopardy, would never have made it so easy for a potential assassin. For every resident of that ancient city understood that, more than trade, more than fishing or whaling, assassination was Cold Harbour’s foremost industry.

Having for five days studied the Ixar’s route, Otranto had picked his spot for the sixth. There was an area where the trees and brush thinned, and there Vixara liked to put his horse to the gallop. It was something else no wise citizen of Cold Harbour would have considered, since for a matter of a half-minute it took him out of view of his bodyguards.

An entire half minute. Some jobs, truly, were too easy.

This time, Otranto had chosen to wait amidst the lower branches of a stocky, overarching cedar. He heard Vixara before he saw him, first as the merest tremble and then as a rising drum beat, which reverberated through the trees. Then Vixara hove into view, galloping at full force across the sparsely wooded ground. Close to Otranto’s position he began to rein in, at a point where the path was besieged on both sides by shocks of fern; he bobbed upon his mount’s back with the effortless grace of the expert horseman, guiding smoothly around one curve and another. However at the last he picked up speed once more, thrilling at one final stretch of straight and level ground that ended in a narrow gap between two mottled trunks—and the trip-cord Otranto had rigged there.

Whatever poise Vixara possessed, it was for nothing when his horse’s forelegs crumpled beneath it. Vixara had been riding bareback, according to his people’s fashion. With nothing to hold him in place, he was flung forward like a shot from a cannon and on into the foliage that hemmed the path before him.

Otranto had judged the cord’s height with care, so as to minimize the risk of harming Vixara’s mount. Too, it was composed not from metal but fine rope wound from the fibers of a broad-leaved local plant, strong enough not to break but sufficiently pliable so as to leave no mark. The imperatives of his contract aside, no one had paid him for the beast’s life, and he was gratified to see it climb dazedly back to its feet.

Otranto dropped to the ground. With a single swift gesture he cut one knot free and began coiling the cord as he dashed to the second tree to slit the second. Vixara, in the meantime, was struggling to rise. It was evident from the way his left arm drooped that it was badly fractured. Even as he saw Otranto, even as his eyes fell upon the small, serrated blade Otranto held, he seemed more confused than fearful. The puzzlement in Vixara’s expression only deepened when Otranto slid the knife back into its sheath; he could not know, as Otranto did, how ill-suited such a blade was to the taking of a life.

Vixara began to speak but stopped when Otranto placed gloved hands upon him; one gently cupping his chin, the other at the point where neck and shoulder met. For a moment they stared at each other, the killer and the condemned. Otranto, whose memory was flawless, made himself absorb every detail of that stricken face: the soft-contoured cheek bones, fine black hair, wide-set eyes with irises the shade of slate, and the delicate nose broken once at its apex and carefully reset. All of this he committed to memory, as was his duty. Then he wrenched. Knowing the precise pressure points as he did, it took only a calculated application of his strength. Vixara’s neck broke with a clean crack.

As those grey eyes faded into lifelessness, Otranto lowered Vixara’s body face first upon the already-crumpled bracken and began once more to run. By the time he had ducked behind a bank of foliage he could already hear the sound of approaching hooves.

From his concealment, Otranto considered the scene he’d left and decided that it was satisfactory. The ideal assassination looked like an accident, yet an accident that could never have occurred. Like the melodramatic seascapes that hung in the merchant halls, it mirrored reality even while exceeding it. Vixara might have been thrown from his horse, fallen badly, broken his neck. But he hadn’t—and they would know.

It was Vixalla Ixar, Vixara’s sister, who was first to arrive. Otranto watched as she absorbed details, one by one: the panicked horse, the scuffed ground, the shattered ferns and the expensive leather riding boots that protruded, their angle alone sufficient to imply what she must already be fearing. Vixalla dismounted and hurried to where her brother lay, and even at a distance Otranto could see how her features contorted. Then, to his surprise, she glanced up. He had rarely seen such utter desolation in a human face. Her dark eyes scoured the woodland thereabout, and for an instant it seemed that they even fell upon his hiding place. Had she already suspected the truth?

But the moment passed. Vixalla slid to her knees beside the corpse of her brother, hid her graceful, grief-contorted features behind hands fine as sparrow’s wings. The wail that escaped her lips was awful to hear.

Finally the Ixars’ entourage was arriving, half a dozen horsemen in identical livery of palest blue and silver. It was time for Otranto to leave, via the route he had painstakingly prepared.

Perhaps they would think to search for him. They would not find him.

Meetings with the guild High Brothers were a privilege Otranto had long ago come to find more dreary than edifying. He knew, without pride, that he was a master of his craft, a killer almost without compare, and there was no more pleasure left in hearing those accolades from the mouths of others. These days their encounters bore the character of a ritual, compliments and feigned modesty exchanged without enthusiasm from either party.

This time, however, Otranto’s summons came late in the evening of the next day, a circumstance unusual enough to rouse in him the faintest unease. Nevertheless, he hurried through the lamplit streets, hood drawn well up, and when he arrived at the guild hall—a nondescript door in a nondescript street—knocked a dozen times in precise pace and rhythm. A narrow hatch opened, Otranto discreetly held up his left hand to reveal the tattooed glyph on that wrist, and the door swung open.

Within, Otranto was led through narrow passageways to a room on the second floor. It was customary to be kept waiting, as a means of emphasizing the careful order of things within the House of Dusk. Thus, Otranto was surprised when he saw a man sat waiting, and more so when he recognized Argen Spiria. Spiria was most senior of the High Brothers, and Otranto had rarely had cause to speak to him, for he’d long since retired from the House’s day-to-day business.

So something was amiss after all.

“Otranto,” said Spiria, his voice a gritty rasp, “you are the finest craftsman in all the House of Dusk—which is the greatest gathering of killers in all Cold Harbour, and so in all the world.”

Ah... this was more familiar. It was to be the usual hyperbolic praise after all, and Otranto tried to form a suitably unassuming reply.

“For this reason,” continued Spiria, “what would be disappointing from another is a thousand times more so from you: your failure has brought shame on all of us, Otranto Osario.”

Something in Otranto’s stomach turned cold. It was the word failure, he realized—that word he dreaded over any other. “Master,” he said, with calm he didn’t feel, “Vixara Ixar is dead. I killed him with my own hands, witnessed his last moment with my own eyes.”

“Ixar is not dead,” Spiria hissed, “Ixar is quite alive. At this moment, he is taking cocktails at Oegel’s Theatre of Revels, awaiting tonight’s late performance of The Dragon’s Mistresses—and his presence has been confirmed by our own agents, amongst many others. You failed us, Otranto, even knowing that the rules of our house brook no failure.”

There was no use in arguing; the High Brothers could not be contradicted. “It would appear so, Master.”

“And what should be the punishment for your failure?”

Otranto didn’t hesitate. On some level, he realized, he had been anticipating this moment, or one like it, for a very long time. “The punishment for failure should be death by my own hand.”

“It should,” agreed Spiria, with a tone like cold iron. “However... the fact remains that you are our best operative. Understand: you are not irreplaceable, for none of us is. But you’re valuable, and you’ve served us more than well in the past. Therefore, Otranto, you will have one more opportunity to extinguish Ixar’s life. This is all I can grant you and more than you deserve.”

More, too, than I’d ask for, Otranto thought. He had lived by the guild rules for so long that the idea of breaking them seemed anathema. Still... he had fulfilled his contract, as fully as any man might.

“Thank you, High Brother,” he said, “for your generosity.”

“You have no reason to thank me,” said Spiria. “Unless you can perform miracles, I’ve extended your life by a mere few hours. Because the client dictates that it must be tonight, Otranto. At Oegel’s. Before an audience. This time, Cold Harbour must see Vixara Ixar die.”

Otranto planned while he ran.

He didn’t fear death—or not in the way that most men might. After all, it was essential to his profession that his head be always in the lion’s jaws. At any rate, Otranto wasn’t hurrying because his life was on the line. He was hurrying because he had a contract to fulfill, and its terms required speed.

How was it possible Vixara Ixar had survived? Otranto had heard of men recovering from the most outlandish injuries, of grave-caskets opened only to reveal the frantic marks of fingernails gouged within their lids. Perhaps whatever people the Ixars belonged to, their dissimilarities went beyond mere customs and appearance; perhaps their anatomy was different as well. Yes, though it was exceptionally unlikely, it was possible. And ultimately it made no difference. Whatever the unique difficulties its subject might pose, Otranto once again had his contract to fulfill.

He ran north-east first, over the rooftops. One thing was certain: he would need equipment beyond the ordinary. Public assassinations were always a hazardous gamble, and the odds became all the less favorable in an open space like Oegel’s. Add in the fact that the intended victim was surely forewarned and the probabilities in Otranto’s favor shrunk to a sum that only a madman would consider gambling upon.

Otranto returned to his home first, a garret apartment in one of the seedier portions of Cold Harbour. There he discarded his cloak for a close-cut outfit of black cotton velvet over a vest and guards of finest chainmail, and filled a pack and certain pockets with the items he’d determined he would need. Then Otranto set out again across the roofs, this time in the direction of Oegel’s. By his estimation, The Dragon’s Mistresses would already have finished its first act.

Otranto had previously scouted Oegel’s Theatre of Revels, as he’d made himself familiar with all of Cold Harbour’s landmarks. He scurried across the thickened glass roof, careful that the moon should not cast his shadow into the gaslit gloom below, and found the access hatch where he remembered it. Otranto descended the ladder beneath, to find himself in the rafters of the playhouse.

The noise rising beneath him was overwhelming. From the stage, the actors were bellowing to make themselves heard over the audience’s laughter. It was the part where the dragon—played by Vincenz Lisparo, if Otranto’s ear didn’t deceive—discovered that his two mistresses were themselves lovers, and the actor’s tone was appropriately strident. With each line the crowd’s hysteria rose, until it seemed that they and Lisparo were locked in a duel where mutual deafness was the goal.

All to the good. Oegel’s might not offer much in the way of cover, but it held more than its share of distractions.

Otranto crouched to gaze down into the theatre, waiting as his eyes adjusted between the gloom of the rafters and the brightness of the stage. His keen gaze quickly sought out Vixara Ixar, seated, as Otranto had expected, in the box Oegel kept reserved for visiting foreign dignitaries. It was as much insult as compliment, for the Ixars had lived in the city for six months now; but there would have been uproar had Oegel allocated them another box, and Vixara appeared happy enough, even if his careful smile was a mile from the cacophonous jollity around him.

At any rate, Otranto thought, he appeared very much alive and his neck very much unbroken.

Behind Vixara sat his sister Vixalla, her elegant features set not in anguish, as when Otranto had last seen her, but in studied pleasure echoing her brother’s—though she could hardly have seen the stage from the seat she’d chosen. Around them stood five men who could only be bodyguards; they had the same somewhat flattened features as the Ixars, the same dark, lustrous eyes and unforced grace, and they also all wore swords conspicuously at their hips.

That was to be expected. The element of surprise was lost—but not, Otranto hoped, irretrievably.

He scurried to the place he’d picked out, hooked his grapnel to a beam above and placed the remainder of the rope on the rafter before him. Then he slipped on the mask he’d brought, an oval of deepest black covering all except his eyes.

They were at the point in which the dragon confronted his wife about her infidelities, only to be resoundingly scolded for his own. Though Otranto had little interest in such things, he knew that the scene was legendarily funny. He chose his moment carefully: a line delivered by Lisparo with perfect comic bathos left the crowd in paroxysms of delight. As the laughter swelled, Otranto nudged the rope free, grasped it with both hands, and slid down.

Nearing the Ixars’ box, Otranto gripped tight to slow his descent and instead flung his weight forward. Letting go, he landed neatly upon the balustrade. In the same instant—and even as Vixara’s eyes widened with shock—he slipped a tiny globe from a pocket and dashed it to the floor. Immediately, thick clouds of purple smoke engulfed them both. Before anyone could react, Otranto had lunged forward, and then the blade now in his hand was buried hilt-deep in Vixara’s throat.

It was an ugly way to kill a man. This time, though, Otranto needed to be utterly certain. He twisted the blade, once, twice, felt blood bubble beneath his fingers.

He waited long enough to be sure that Vixara could not possibly have survived—and long enough, too, for Vixara’s bodyguards to begin to react. Then Otranto kicked hard against the balustrade behind, propelling both himself and Vixara to the floor. As Vixara’s chair and its lifeless passenger crashed against the boards, Otranto somersaulted free.

Through the already-clearing smoke he could see that Ixar’s men had done exactly as he’d anticipated. Three had moved to gather round their master’s seat—or rather, where it had been a moment before—whilst the remaining two, more enterprising or perhaps only pessimistic, had chosen to block what they’d imagined to be Otranto’s escape route, pressing closer to the balustrade and the rope that dangled there.

Only one person had accurately anticipated Otranto’s next move. Vixalla Ixar was not looking at her brother, nor at the dark pool already spreading towards her feet. Her eyes, showing nothing this time but unmitigated hatred, were fixed upon Otranto crouched before her—as was the delicate single-shot crossbow she held outstretched in one hand.

It was not the trinket of a noble that Otranto might have mistaken it for at a glance. Though its compact form limited its function, he had no doubt of its lethality at such close range. And he had no time to consider. She would expect him to flee for the booth’s entrance, or to attack; therefore he could do neither.

Otranto sprang back, instead, towards the balustrade. Three of the bodyguards were heading for where he’d just been, once again a step behind him. All they served to do to was to impede their mistress’s shot. That, however, still left the two who’d moved in the direction of Otranto’s dangling rope and the escape route he’d originally rejected. A kick against the upraised leg of the chair that had until moments before seated Vixara Ixar flipped it into Otranto’s grasp, and he flung it at them with all his strength, forcing them to dodge aside. Then he hurled himself after the chair—and into empty air.

Even as he began to fall, even over the screams that met the chair’s inevitable collision with the seats below, Otranto heard the crossbow’s distinctive click. Vixalla, disregarding of her bodyguards’ lives or else certain of her aim, had fired after all. Pain lashed through Otranto’s wrist, and for an instant he was certain his fingers would fail to close upon the rope. What grip he managed felt tenuous, unsustainable. He swung out helplessly into the auditorium and caught a sickening glimpse of players and audience below, all of their too-small faces turned towards him.

It was that, perhaps, that saved him. He was not prepared to die like this; would not allow his life’s conclusion be the pathetic highpoint of a comic play. And somehow he clung on, just long enough for momentum to carry him back towards the Ixar’s box. Judging his moment, he let go, fell more than leapt, and landed with all the grace he could muster on the balustrade of the box below. He hesitated for the fraction of a second it took to recover his balance—which was also long enough to register the expressions of horrified astonishment upon the faces of the corpulent lord and lady gaping up at him. Then Otranto was springing easily over their heads, pushing indelicately through the curtain at the back.

He turned left in the corridor beyond, ignoring signs that declared the next area forbidden to patrons. He flung himself down a flight a stairs, dashed through a darkened area filled with painted scenery and bric-a-brac and, ignoring also the startled cries of stage hands, hurried on through another curtain, into dazzling artificial light.

The cast were frozen in tableau, their memories of the script apparently not extending to a brutal assassination or to the perpetrator arriving upon the stage. Otranto disregarded them, rushed on. Before he could reach the farther curtain, however—beyond which he knew a ladder led back to the safety of the rafters—a cry rose from the auditorium, loud enough to overrule the general panic.

“He’s alive! Ixar’s alive!”

Otranto, against every instinct for survival he possessed, could not help but look. And there, sure enough—in his box, surrounded by his blank-faced guards—stood Vixara Ixar: unmarked, unscarred, not so much as a graze upon his ashen skin.

Ixar was alive. It was impossible. Yet somehow, again, Otranto had failed.

There would be no second chance tonight. Even he couldn’t kill from the stage of a theatre in which every man, woman and child was alerted to his presence.

Otranto turned and fled.

Escape was little challenge, for no one made a concerted attempt to impede him. They were stunned, as he’d known they’d be—but not, as he’d hoped, by his remarkable feats of prowess. No, those who knew enough to guess the identity of the assassin who’d struck so daringly beneath the bright lights of Oegel’s would be speaking the name Otranto Onsario for entirely different reasons tonight.

Once he was well clear, Otranto inspected his injured wrist. As he’d thought, his bracer had deflected the worst of the impact, leaving only a purple welt of bruising. Still, he could not but be impressed at Vixalla Ixar’s aim, which had come so close to ending his career forever. Truly the Ixars were a formidable pair; if Otranto should live so long, he would be careful not to underestimate them again.

That if, however, was a significant one. This time, Otranto didn’t go home. He went instead to a safe house he had rented under a false identity—or rather, a safe attic, since the remainder of the building was occupied by numerous poor families of a type not inclined to pay undue attention. Otranto, who refused to indulge in paranoia for its own sake, made a check of the traps and alarms he’d set. Finding them undisturbed, he settled down to sleep, determined that the fact of a few master-assassins set upon ending his life should not deprive him of a crucial night’s rest.

If the High Brothers knew of this location then nothing he could do would save him. If they didn’t, it was useless to waste energy on worry. Tomorrow he must kill Vixara Ixar for a third and a final time, and he must do so without revealing himself in the meantime—for there was every chance that Otranto’s own brethren were already hunting him by now.

Otranto woke with the dawn, disappointed to find himself feeling hardly rested. No strength of mind could have protected him from the dreams that had troubled his night. The one image he recollected was of Vixara Ixar’s face, smiling though blood streamed freely from his throat. In the nightmare, Otranto had known that that smile was meant only for him, and that it was a covenant between them. Kill me, it said, and I will live again. As the wound closed before his eyes, as its ragged edges sealed, Otranto had known that the vow was true.

Breakfasting on dry biscuit and figs, Otranto weighed his limited options. To show his face in the streets of Cold Harbour was to invite certain death. His one hope, for survival and for reclaiming his reputation, lay in completing his contract once and for all. Yet he had no idea what measures would be required to extirpate Vixara’s life. Would drowning suffice? Could the man possibly recover from beheading? One thing was clear: there was more here than Otranto currently understood.

In the end, Otranto set out in disguise, his appearance adjusted in perfect imitation of an elderly beggar, down even to a peculiarly fetid odor culled from the less pleasant portions of Cold Harbour’s extensive sewer system. This costume was one of three he kept in the safe house, and the one most suited to the day’s business, which was the gathering of rumor and supposition from amongst the good folk of Cold Harbour.

By late evening, Otranto had accumulated a cupful of loose change, mostly tin fints and the odd greenish copper noble, and had heard much of what the city had to say regarding both Vixara Ixar and himself. Ixar, it was agreed, was surely a demon, a warlock or some monstrosity peculiar to foreign parts. Whatever the case, it was widely accepted that he was immune to harm, though the precise means of that immortality defied consensus. A few stalwarts held that they’d expect to see at least one more attempt on Ixar’s life fail before they subscribed to any such nonsense. However on the whole, the populace were only too willing to accept the notion of a deathless visitor from beyond the sea; just as they were depressingly eager to impugn Otranto’s own name, which a mere day ago would have been spoken in only the most apprehensive whispers.

All of that was more or less as Otranto had expected. One fact, however, did stand out: it was evident that knowledge had become public of his first attempt on Ixar’s life. It might mean nothing, for rumor spread quicker than lice in Cold Harbour. Nevertheless, it was a noteworthy fact, and Otranto had felt an itch in the back of his mind ever since he’d encountered it.

Now, the last sunlight was being smothered by the northern mountains, and Otranto was crouched in a patch of foliage in the woodland surrounding the Ixars’ compound home.

The Ixars had purchased a manor on the very edge of Cold Harbour, close to where Otranto had first assassinated Vixara. The house had been derelict when they’d bought it, a relic of the old city, isolated by the great fire that had swept these streets a century ago. The Ixars had no neighbors, for the houses to either side had long since been demolished and their vestiges abandoned to the encroaching wilderness, which had made this dilapidated border of town more park than city.

It was within those ruins that Otranto waited now, with the bushes before him and at his back a crumpled section of brickwork that had survived the devastation: a finger of broken chimney pointing slantingly at the sky. As Otranto watched, a guard, dressed in dark livery that made his grey skin almost white, drew closer. The man was alert, peeking carefully to left and right, and held a wavering torch high in one hand. Nevertheless, he did not see Otranto. A minute later and the glow of his torch had vanished around the next corner.

Many such sentries patrolled tonight. Otranto had little doubt that their presence was for his benefit, and none at all that Ixar was expecting yet another attempt on his life.

Otranto had no wish to disappoint. It was rare that he indulged anger, for in general it slowed the thoughts and muddied the reactions. This night, however, he was prepared to make an exception. When he had been out-maneuvered and connived against, his named defamed and his flawless career sullied, it seemed to him that any other emotion would be too small for the occasion.

With the guard out of sight, Otranto scurried up the jut of shattered chimney, clambering with such lightness that he all but floated upon its near-vertical face. At the summit, he balanced, crouched and sprang, swung from a branch above and flung all of his weight forward, towards the perimeter wall before him.

For all his agility, Otranto’s fingers barely caught upon the wall’s edge, but that was enough for him to haul up one arm and then another. Rather than climb over, however, he peeked first to inspect the walkway beyond. There was torchlight to his left and right, and fainter glimmers from below, but this patch of wall walk was clear, and so he crept over.

The house and its enclosure were built from a pale stone no longer common in Cold Harbour, a color not dissimilar to the complexion of the Ixars and their servantry; perhaps it was the reassurance of that similarity that had drawn them here. The place had something of the fortress about it: at the front a great walled area containing the stables, patches of garden, and much empty space of no particular purpose; then, beyond that, the house itself, the lowest of its three tiers extruding to make room for a great, pillared portico. The remaining two levels were plain enough by the city’s standards, with a little ornamentation to window frames, gables, and such, and two wide balconies, one to either side of the doorway.

It was the rightmost of those which drew Otranto’s attention now. For while its twin was dark, the right balcony was lit by braziers spitting lurid fire—and in their light, Otranto could make out clearly the figure gazing anxiously into the night. It was Vixalla Ixar, sister to Vixara.

It was unlike Otranto to be impulsive. Nevertheless, he made his decision almost in the moment he recognized her. Gravely risky it might be, sure to jeopardize his mission, and yet he could feel the answers to his questions sliding closer as he gazed upon that blaze-lit figure. For the first time in his career, whys and wherefores seemed to matter, more even than the task in hand. Even if he should succeed against Vixara, Otranto might be none the wiser as to the truth of the man’s curious resurrections. That, he found, was a prospect he could not tolerate; for what value did an assassin have if his victims should refuse to die?

Otranto covered the rest of the distance to the house with little trouble; little for him, at any rate, for only one who’d trained to do so could have hung for a full minute by his fingertips, or vaulted effortlessly to the low roof of a stable block and back again. All the while, torches bobbed around him like predatory insects, and Otranto eluded them all, navigating the darkness as though he were a portion of it given life.

At the house, he transferred—via a gutter pipe of sturdy lead, the vacant balcony, the tilted roof of the portico and finally a creeping spread of ivy—to a point where he could drop to the second balcony, making no more sound than a gust of wind might have. Crouched, he watched Vixalla steadily. And perhaps she sensed his gaze, or perhaps she’d only grown tired of the night’s chill, for mere moments had passed before she turned towards him.

To her credit, she didn’t cry out. Her breathing stumbled, her whole body clenched, but she didn’t otherwise betray her shock. Instead she asked softly, “Who are you?”

It was clear she meant to play for time, as most who kept their calm in his presence did. Since it would do her no good, Otranto saw no reason to be ill-mannered. “My name is Otranto Onsario. I represent the organization they call the House of Dusk.”

Vixalla nodded, a small tip of the head. Her face was delicate, but there was strength behind it. She wasn’t afraid, though she had every reason to be. “And you’re here to try once more to kill my brother,” she said.

He almost agreed with her; almost said, yes, that’s precisely why I’m here. But there had been a note in her voice he couldn’t place, though it jarred like a cracked bell. So instead of speaking, he replayed her words in his mind, exactly as she’d spoken them.

And there it was. He could accept that Vixalla was brave, enough to hide her fear or even divorce herself from it altogether. He could believe she was pragmatic; that she had witnessed enough of life and death to discuss both candidly. But he had seen the Ixars together, had noted the unconscious signs that marked out their sibling closeness, and he could not accept that Vixalla held no affection for her brother.

Because what he had heard in her voice was relief—and it could mean only one thing.

It was obvious, really. He’d have known the answer a day ago had he not been forced to rely on the smoke bomb, as any assassin was sure to have been for a kill at close range in so crowded a space. He knew why Vixara Ixar still lived, when Otranto had twice taken his life. He knew who had hired him to kill Ixar, hired him before anyone else could, and why. Only one question, in fact, remained.

“Who were they?” Otranto asked. “Who were those men I killed in place of your brother?”

For a moment it seemed Vixalla wouldn’t answer, or that she was striving to formulate some convincing lie. Then she said, “How?”

“The first man’s nose had been broken once,” Otranto said. “Though it had been carefully reset, the scar remained. The second man I killed had no such scar. Had I not been obliged to use smoke I’d have noticed its absence immediately. But, smoke or no, my memory is faultless, and if there’d been a scar I’d have seen it. However similar they looked, they were not the same man, and neither was your brother.”

“No,” Vixalla agreed, “they weren’t.”

“Then answer my question. Who were they?”

“Slaves of our household,” she said, “chosen and brought here for their likeness to Vixara. We arrived here with three such men. One of them you saw at Oegel’s, and waits now in my brother’s bedchamber. The other two you have already murdered.”

Otranto chose to ignore the implicit insult in her choice of words; she was, after all, only recently accustomed to Cold Harbour’s customs. Nor could she be expected to fully understand the distaste he felt at knowing he had ended, without recompense, the lives of two men whose names had never graced an official contract of excision. Still, there was an added coldness to his voice as he asked, “Did they know they were being set up to die?”

“They understood they were protecting my brother by imitating him in public. Would it have helped them to know more?”

“They might have lived longer.”

“Assassin... if it had not been them, it would have been my brother. If not you, then someone else. Their families will be generously compensated, even though they were slaves. Much good will be done with the gold we make here and send home to our own land. Who are you to judge us?”

“I?” Otranto smiled. “Merely a killer of some note.”

“Then kill me,” she said, “if that’s what you came to do.”

“Why should I do that?” Otranto’s surprise was unfeigned; the rules of the guilds were so well known in Cold Harbour that it was hard to comprehend how anyone could be unfamiliar with them. “I have no contract for your life; only your brother’s.”

“So far as anyone knows,” Vixalla said, “my brother is dead. Dead, yet still living.”

“What they believe and what they know are quite different things. They imagine your brother is a monster, or a demon. They imagine he twice survived my ministrations.”

“Yes, they do. Because they’re foolish and superstitious. Just as they’re so ignorant and blind that they can’t tell one of my people from another unless that person be dressed in gold and finery. We have carried out this trick before, in other cities, in other lands... but never was it made so easy.”

“Easy? You think so?” Otranto held her gaze—and for all her obvious strength of will, she could not quite disguise her fear.

Yet her voice didn’t quaver as she said, “Didn’t you say you have no interest in killing me? Don’t play games, assassin.”

Had she been cowed then, perhaps Otranto would not have made the choice he did. Certainly his own response surprised him, even as the words formed in his mouth. “No games,” Otranto replied. “What I offer you is a choice, Vixalla Ixar, to pass on to your brother. I’ll kill no more doubles. But I will kill him, should he—or anyone who looks like him—ever be seen again. If he’s prepared for a life of solitude then you may announce that he died of wounds sustained last night at Oegel’s. After that, do as you wish. Stay in Cold Harbour or leave.”

“What does it matter to you?” Vixalla spat, and there was sudden fury in her gaze, precisely as at the theatre the previous night, fire fiercer than that the braziers hissed at the cold night air. “Why not kill one last slave? So that the fools can tell their children’s stories and my brother can walk free?”

“Because,” Otranto said, “my own life is at stake—but more than that, my reputation. Because, in so much as could reasonably be expected, I’ve fulfilled the terms of my contract. Because, as I’ve explained, I dislike killing without recompense. You have until noon tomorrow to make your decision. After that it will be too late.”

Vixalla turned away. There was a choked knot in her voice as she said, “You’ve offered me no choice at all. Is this the only way?”

But when she turned back, Otranto was already gone.

Otranto had little interest in the comings and goings of Cold Harbour. Nevertheless, he found that he was a little disappointed when the next morning, once more dressed in his beggar’s garments, he first encountered the city’s latest rumor: that Vixara Ixar had passed away during the night, of grievous wounds that his people had managed temporarily to hide but could not mend.

If that dissatisfied him, Otranto found himself actually aggrieved by the news, later that day, that Vixalla Ixar was leaving with her brother’s body and her entire entourage, to return to their distant homeland.

Early that evening, Otranto watched their ship depart. Vixalla had picked old Captain L’Strange’s vessel The Doublegoer, and the deliberateness of the choice brought a smile to Otranto’s lips as he watched, in his filthy rags, from the harbor side.

He had liked the Ixars, it occurred to him. They had entertained him, when so little did these days. It would have amused him to continue their duel of wits. Yet perhaps this was for the best, for he’d have taken little satisfaction from ending either of their lives.

He would wait one more day, he decided, and let the rumormongers distort the facts of the Ixar’s departure beyond all semblance of reality, before he returned to the House of Dusk.

They wouldn’t ask him for the truth, and he would not volunteer it.


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David Tallerman is the author of the comic fantasy novels Giant Thief, Crown Thief, and Prince Thief, the graphic novel Endangered Weapon B: Mechanimal Science, and The Sign in the Moonlight and Other Stories, a collection of pulp-styled horror and dark fantasy fiction. His short fantasy, science fiction, crime, and horror stories have appeared in or are due in around seventy markets, including Clarkesworld, Nightmare, Lightspeed, Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, and previously in Beneath Ceaseless Skies; his genre-bending debut novella Patchwerk is due from Tor.com in early 2016. David can be found online at davidtallerman.co.uk.

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5 Comments on “A Killer of Dead Men”

5 Responses to “A Killer of Dead Men”

  1. […] Some nice stuff e.g. this story about an assassin having issues trying to assassinate somebody http://www.beneath-ceaseless-skies.com/stories/a-killer-of-dead-men/ Was nominated (slate-free) for a Hugo in […]

  2. laura hazelwoodf says:

    Excellent short story. Thank you for the read. It is much appreciated and enjoyed.

  3. […] “A Killer of Dead Men” by David Tallerman Otranto didn’t hesitate. On some level, he realized, he had been anticipating this moment, or one like it, for a very long time. “The punishment for failure should be death by my own hand.” […]

  4. […] Some nice stuff e.g. this story about an assassin having issues trying to assassinate somebody http://www.beneath-ceaseless-skies.com/stories/a-killer-of-dead-men/ Was nominated (slate-free) for a Hugo in […]

  5. Guest Post says:

    Very cool story! I like the podcast of it very much, the narration captures the suspense perfectly.

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