Ill-Met at Midnight

Issue #128

Otranto clenched the garrote, leaned back some ten degrees, sucked in and held a sharp, chill breath of night air.

What surprised him most—and much about this situation seemed remarkable—was that his target seemed actually to understand what was happening. Most people tried to peel at the cord, to pry it free. The impossibility of success, the fact that they were actually assisting their own strangulation, never even occurred to them.

This one, however, had gone straight for Otranto’s hands. Not only that, they’d dug a nail deep into the joint between his fingers and thumb, where the flesh was most tender. Otranto had had to choke back a bark of pain. Since the advantage was entirely his, he’d put the pain aside—though not without difficulty.

The garrote was made of fine silk laced with steel wire, designed to choke bloodlessly. Its ends were looped to small grips of cherry wood. He’d crafted it himself over a period of three weeks, designing for speed and efficacy. Still, the target was thrashing hard enough that the smooth handles were biting his palms. Otranto drew harder.

Normally when a victim began to slacken he would release his grip. This time, Otranto determined to hold on for a full thirty seconds. At the twentieth, the figure in his grip began to buck again, their last sly breath exhausted, and Otranto allowed himself a brief, grim smile.

When they went limp for the second time, he felt confident the job was done. He spun his hands in a deft whirl, not only sliding the garrote free but looping it ready to slip onto the clasp at his belt. Sure enough, the smack with which the target struck the paving slabs confirmed that they were past the point of deception.

Still... something wasn’t right. Any number of things weren’t right.

With eyes conditioned for darkness, Otranto scanned the nearby hedgerows. Not so much as a stem twitched in the low breeze. Satisfied, he hefted the body by its shoulders and drew it into the shadow of the outer wall, which less than a minute ago he’d been silently climbing over. He rolled the corpse onto its back and stepped back.

If he’d hoped for answers, he was disappointed. If he’d been wanting more questions, on the other hand....

Guards didn’t commonly dress only in black—or if they did, it wasn’t without some mark of livery, some insignia. Guards traditionally carried swords, sometimes longbows, but never in his experience anything like the compact crossbow sheathed against this one’s hip. Guards, also, were invariably male. On the rare occasions they weren’t, the perceptible differences were so scarce as to be considered similarities. Nothing like this frail raven-haired girl, whose beauty had been marred by violent death but not erased.

“What in the nine bright hells is going on?” Otranto muttered, though it broke at least two tenets of his code to speak without good reason whilst on contract.

He crouched back into the shadow of the outer wall, scanned the shrubberies and trees until he felt comfortably certain he was alone, and then allowed himself to consider. Since the beginning, there’d been much that had struck him as strange about this assignment.

First, there had been the imbursement, which was extreme—a sum a man might retire on. Second had been its manner of payment. Normally, one received a portion up front, never quite half, rarely less than a quarter. On this occasion, compensation depended entirely on completion. He would never have agreed, not so much as considered, were it not for the eye-catching nature of the amount.

Third were the instructions. Not a name, as was usual. Rather, a message, so precise and yet so vague that he’d had no choice but to commit it exactly to memory: Go to the fountain at the center of the pleasure gardens, and slay the one you find there at precisely the hour of midnight. Beware of any who cross your path, and take care to defend yourself.

Again, he might have rejected the assignment for that alone, were it not for the money, and even then he’d have thought twice. The guild High Brothers, however, their aged eyes stuck fast upon the percentage share they’d take as brokers, had made it clear that this obligation would be settled, however odd it might seem, and that only their most brilliant artisan should dare attempt it.

No surprise there, for it was a long time since money had flowed easily into the House of Dusk. Now a dozen guilds vied for the work of one in the city of Cold Harbor, and coin was at a premium. Otranto couldn’t blame the high brothers if they’d developed an eye for gold, any more than he could blame himself. Things were difficult where they’d once been easy and the idea of retirement, once an unimaginable impossibility, held more appeal than he dared admit.

So here he was—and his options were limited indeed. His oath as a guild brother bound him: either settle the target or, in the name of honor, formally immolate himself, an option that held no appeal at all.

Otranto glanced once more around what little he could make out of the pleasure gardens. The vast grounds, located far enough from the dockside and the center of the city to maintain an air of quietude even during the busiest portions of the day, should not have been guarded, especially not at this hour. They were open to the public, at least those of the public well-off enough not to look out of place there. Here, as in most cases, the codes of society asserted themselves without the aid of sharpened steel, and the inconsiderately poverty-stricken kept a wide berth. Unless something had changed recently—and Otranto’s meticulous research said it hadn’t—he should not have encountered anyone besides the occasional trysting pair of late-night lovers.

Young lovers did not commonly carry crossbows, nor dress entirely in black. Another mystery, on a night already sick with them. “No choice,” Otranto murmured, for it struck him that there was no use in adhering to a rule once broken. “No choice but onwards.”

He summoned up the map of the pleasure gardens he’d consigned to memory. He had purposefully entered on the northern side, where the foliage was dense, rather than from one of the more sculpted edges. To his left was a neat avenue of orange trees, to his right a region of interlocking water features; but ahead were shrubberies and stands of high grass, a veritable excess of cover.

It had seemed the only logical route, when he’d studied the plans in his secluded garret room above the Knife and Spindle. Now, that unarguable logic filled him with unease. What was obvious to him would be obvious to others.

Otranto sprung to the shadow of a statue, two entwined women carved in the classical style, and from there to a neat corner of hedgerow. He took the barest moment to make sure his senses had registered no change—everything was as it had been, no unexpected noise or scent had stirred his senses—and then darted round the hedgerow to the slim shadow of a raised flowerbed and on to a display of miniaturized trees.

Nothing struck him as unordinary. Yet—for all that he saw nothing, heard nothing, smelled nothing—his senses strained like a mad dog at its leash. He pushed his face a little way into the moonlight. It went against all his training and his every instinct, but he had to find out what was setting off his mental alarms....

The faintest tremble in the air—and something stung Otranto’s throat.

It felt like an insect bite. He knew better. With extreme care, Otranto drew out the barb with the nails of thumb and forefinger, held it to his nostrils. Around the tinny scent of blood were other odors: bitter lemon, copper, a foul undercurrent of rancid butter.

Black Ovid venom. Rare. Expensive. Invariably, fatal within a minute.

Thank all the gods.

Otranto feigned limpness—though it was only partially an act, for he could already feel the poison going to work—and staggered to his knees, keeping his back to where he judged his unseen foe to be. His fingers dipped within one of the pouches at his waist, the fifth to the left of his buckle, and drew out a few strands of red-orange fiber. These he slipped between his lips, chewed thrice, swallowed, and Otranto finished by tumbling onto his front, taking care that his right hand fell beneath his waist.

The lugweed would neutralize the poison coursing through his veins, though he’d have the grandmother of all headaches in the morning—if he should live that long.

A professional would check their kill. A true specialist would follow the dart with something more definite, preferably from a safe distance. Which was he dealing with? He strained his ears; could just make out footsteps in the wet grass. A good sign. The soft swish, swish drew nearer, clearer.

Noisy and overconfident. Better and better.

Still, neither guaranteed stupidity. They might be aiming a bow or readying a knife this very instant. Then again, more than a minute had passed; by rights, Otranto should be dead. Sure enough, the footsteps continued their approach. Otranto tried to map the sound over his recollection of the surroundings. Weren’t they passing those tall purple flowers now, coming from his left? Closer... a little closer....

Otranto rolled onto his back and flicked his wrist, with all the deft grace of a temple dancer. The number three knife he’d drawn from his belt sliced the air with a thin whistle, ended its journey in the mark’s left eye.

A lucky throw. He’d been aiming for their throat. Still, not bad for the circumstances.

Otranto was on his feet and under the mark before they could hit the ground. They were unexpectedly light, like a man-sized puppet carved from worm-eaten wood. With his right hand he retrieved the throwing knife, wiped it on the target’s sleeve, and replaced it in his belt. Then, more from habit than practicality, he hauled up the target’s body and tipped it into the stand of miniature trees.

When he went to tuck in their straggling limbs, he realized something strange, something that explained why the body had been so light. The man was startlingly frail and deathly pale to match, little more than a bag of jutting bones sheathed in ivory skin.

Otranto had a feeling he should know this victim. Try as might, though, he couldn’t say from where.

Anyway, was that word, victim, really applicable here? Wasn’t it he himself who’d been the mark? Were it not for his exceptional preplanning and a large element of good fortune, he would be the one being left here as fertilizer.

At the thought, Otranto felt his stomach lurch, and foulness bubbled into his mouth from his suddenly roiling innards. He paced to the cluster of towering purple flowers and vomited. That was the lugweed doing its work; both it and the venom came up in a shower of whitish filth. The taste was bitterly acidic, but he felt better for it. His head seemed clearer.

He was exposed, standing in the open; but if anyone had been watching, he’d already be dead. Otranto would have liked to pause a moment, to consider the new evidence provided by his mysterious attacker. There was no time. Midnight was fast approaching, and his carelessness had already tempted fate enough. Stealth might not have been yielding many dividends tonight, but that was no reason to abandon it altogether.

His assailant had come from the direction of the avenue of orange trees. He’d dismissed that route before, but now his intuition said otherwise. Otranto scurried to the dark line of trunks, abandoning his usual poise in favor of moving fast and low. He tucked himself behind the bole of the first tree that he met and glanced to left and right. Now he understood. The foliage was quite dense at this time of year, laden with globular fruit and thick with shadows. Moreover, if his assailant had approached by this route, then there was a chance their poison darts had already cleared it of threats. He could see no bodies, but then he wouldn’t have expected to.

Otranto would never normally have dreamt of following anything as prosaic as a road. Perhaps in this case, though, the direct route was the best. Flitting from tree to tree, shrouded in the sharp tang of ripe oranges, he made up much of the time he’d already lost.

Sure enough, he reached the end of the avenue without anything else setting his mental alarms clanging. It wasn’t long, however, before common sense demanded he change his route once again. The entire center of the pleasure gardens was given over to a high-walled maze, decorated with statues and topiary to maintain the amusement of the easily bored on the way to Otranto’s own current objective—the elegant fountain at the labyrinth’s center. 

At the point where the road met the maze, it became a steadily diminishing triangle, designed both as easy access for the witless and as a clever optical illusion. From this point, the impression was of a track contracting to the horizon between two walls of even height; in fact, the walls became lower as the road narrowed, and the distant opening was only a short walk away.

It was also an ideal ambush point. Maybe the usual rules weren’t entirely reliable tonight, but that final narrow gap still stank like a waterlogged corpse.

After a moment’s thought, Otranto chose instead to scamper to and then up onto the wall. It was smooth and sheer, and more than half his height again, but Otranto’s speed and agility disgraced the most nimble feline. He swung the last distance and rolled flat, to lie pressed along the narrow summit. It was a good point for both vantage and defense—even if the labyrinth’s designers would likely have considered the strategy unscrupulous.

Once Otranto had confirmed to his satisfaction that there was no one nearby, he shifted to a crouch and began to pick out a path towards the fountain, visible now as a jutting spume of white. Just as he’d expected, the maze was considerably less of a challenge from this elevation.

Otranto was about to leap to the opposite wall when a flicker of movement caught his attention. It was the barest flash, and only his years of experience allowed him to find the point—the deep purple shadows behind a risqué statue of two boys embracing—and then to extrapolate where the figure, if figure it had been, was headed: an enclosed clearing, from which three petrified women stared back. Sure enough, something disappeared through an archway, just ahead of his roving eyes. He caught only the slightest glimpse, but both Otranto’s night vision and his memory were exceptional, and he felt certain it had been a foot and the black-clad calf of a leg.

Otranto hopped lithely to the next wall, keeping low. He landed without a sound, balance-walked to the end and around a corner, and leaped another gap, all the while keeping his perceptions focused on where he expected the figure to appear. Brief hints of motion confirmed his suppositions. He continued along a spoke of labyrinth wall, compensating for the slight decrease in height that made possible the optical illusion of the entrance.

Another jump and he found himself almost at the fountain, near enough to note its vapor moistening the air. He could make out every detail of its elegantly engraved blue marble basin, could almost read the engravings round the rims of the four moondials set at each corner.

A noise, then, from the farther side and on the very edge of hearing: a ringing clink, as of metal against glazed pot. It didn’t strike him as a deliberate sound; more the kind one might carelessly make whilst hiding. Regardless, the upturned cone of water hid him impenetrably from that side of the clearing. Otranto bounded across one last gap and slipped down the wall into the band of darkness at its base.

Something sharp and very cold brushed his throat. “Make no sudden moves,” said a voice from beside him. “If I wanted you dead, you would be. Still. My wants have been known to change.”

“My left hand is already at my knife-belt,” said Otranto. “You have no way to kill me so quickly that I wouldn’t at least wound you.”

“Then perhaps we should consider a brief period of truce. Before one of us does something we might both regret.”

His assailant didn’t wait for an answer. Suddenly the blade was gone from Otranto’s throat. Otranto backed off three quick steps, considered drawing a weapon; decided against it. Though his response had been far from braggadocio, it was true that if this mysterious attacker wanted him dead, then he would unquestionably now be dead.

The other man had retreated also. Now he stood a half-dozen paces away, balancing the thin-bladed knife by its tip on the palm of his hand, smiling a smile at once engaging and sinister—as if to say, I could pin your skull to the wall there with hardly a thought if I so chose.

It came as a surprise to Otranto to realize he recognized this man—though given the strangeness of the night’s events so far, not a great surprise. Indeed, there were few men Otranto knew better; in a sense they were more akin than any two brothers. Yet until now, their entire association had been through reputation and rumor.

“Otranto Onsario, of the House of Dusk,” the other man greeted him. Recognition, it seemed, ran both ways. “An artist, in the truest sense of the word. Your handling of the Garmine brothers was a portrait of dexterity and restraint.”

“Jofus Klint,” returned Otranto, “who they call the Red Teardrop. Most skilful artisan of the Chamber of Tears. You do me more than justice. Lord Convolluci’s dispatch was your work, was it not? They said it was an accident, but I never believed it.”

“Ha! Perceptive as I’d expect. I doubt we’ve been brought here at this midnight hour to admire each other’s craftsmanship, though, however deserved. Would I be right in surmising you’re here on a contract, one exact in every detail but the name of its intended target?”

“Precisely right,” agreed Otranto. Most of his mind was observing Klint, noting each tiny movement, cataloguing details of musculature, hunting for the telltale bulges of further weapons—but what was left was more than capable of banter. “I fear we’ve been the victims of a hoax... or of something substantially worse.”

“I agree,” said Klint. “But what to do about it?”

Mere seconds had passed, but Otranto had taken the measure of his enemy, and though he knew he didn’t show it, would never show it, he was uncertain. He had been the death of many, many men. But this one? Was he capable?

Apprehension was useless. So was doubt. Speculation—that was more worthwhile. Jofus Klint was indeed his opposite, his greatest of rivals; the only man alive he had cause to fear or to respect. What forces could have brought them together in this place? And did Klint’s presence explain those others, so curiously accoutered, whom he’d met on the way here?

Of course. The woman had been from the Cat House—likely Cleo Thelasis. The man was almost certainly the one known as the Skeleton, head assassin of the tiny but esteemed splinter calling itself the Downward Ladder. Fine craftsman both; he’d been lucky to survive either encounter, let alone both.

A convocation of killers. What could explain such a thing?

Not what.

Who.

Not knowing quite where his thoughts were leading him, Otranto nevertheless called out ringingly, “You may reveal yourself. I’m not killing anyone else tonight without an explanation, even though it cost me my life.”

At first there was no response except Klint’s enquiring stare. Then a noise drew their notice, stone grinding against stone. When Otranto looked to his right, he was mildly astonished to see one of the huge paving stones of the courtyard rising from its place. The cobble hovered at a hand’s height above its brethren, rotated forty-five degrees and slid forward. It was followed by fingers, an arm, a head and shoulders, all rising spectrally out of the ground.

A maintenance area, Otranto thought, for the fountain. Likely there were many such caverns beneath the pleasure gardens, subterranean stores and potting sheds and who knew what else. However, the man now clambering up from the depths was no gardener, engineer, or other such base functionary. He was smartly dressed in a uniform of blue and gold; his grey-shot beard was neatly maintained, and the ornamental sword and scabbard at his hip bore jewels and fine metals enough to purchase a small galleon.

This time, recognition inspired in Otranto only the barest hint of surprise. “Grand Constable Fex,” he said. “What unusual circumstances in which to meet a man of the law.”

“Do you think so?” said Fex, brushing dust from either sleeve. “Well, perhaps I’d have agreed until recently.”

“Our occupation is perfectly legal under the ordinances of the city,” put in Klint. “You have no dominion here, and no grounds to interfere.”

“Nor would I dream of it,” replied Fex. “Who do you think hired you?”

Otranto and Klint shared a glance, each trying to gauge the other’s reaction. Then both turned their attention back to Fex, for it was clear he had more to add.

“Do you have any idea,” he said, “of the damage you hireling murderers have done to Cold Harbor? For those who merely want to live a quiet life, for those who wish to pursue a business that doesn’t involve killing or being killed? The common, decent citizenry grow poorer every day. Most of the wealthy have departed to cities where they needn’t incessantly fear death. You are a cancer eating Cold Harbor. So I have plotted a means to thin your numbers once and forever.”

Otranto remembered his own earlier contemplation. “The cream of the guilds set against each other,” he said softly. “A gauntlet of assassins.”

“Precisely. The first and most spectacular of many I have planned. Six months from now, your surviving associates will be run to ground, fearful to take even the most innocuous-seeming contract lest it turn out to be a trap. In any case, once word of what’s happened tonight gets out, the guilds will be at each other’s throats. The best part is that, assuming both of your reputations can be believed, it will be a miracle if either of you survive your duel—so that the entire affair will be settled without a stress on the city’s coffers.”

Otranto recognized in Klint a man preparing himself for violence; all of the tension had returned to his body as he said, “I must commend you, Grand Constable. I consider myself a man of versatile morality, but even I could never have conceived so diabolical a plot.”

Otranto felt a drop of sweat start at his brow. He’d never faced death before, not truly, and if only half of Klint’s repute was true then the man was death incarnate. Otranto had already calculated the time that separated each of his own hands from their nearest blades, found the results too long. What did that leave him but to keep talking?

“So you hid to hear the result of your machinations?” he asked, addressing himself to Fex without taking his eyes from Klint. He understood now that this was the insight his instincts had gifted him before: anyone who would go to so much trouble would not want to miss witnessing the results.

Fex smiled a ghastly smile. “I wanted to make certain I received value for my money. I was content to listen if that was all I could do. Now that the opportunity to watch the two greatest assassins in the world battle to their deaths has arisen, however, I’m more than prepared to savor it.”

Otranto nodded. So there it was. He had been lured here by this drab, dull bureaucrat, and now he must fight a man he had no quarrel with, indeed felt nothing but admiration for. That it was a fight he could in no way be assured of winning seemed, just then, the least of his worries.

“Master Otranto,” Klint said. “Since I have a weapon to hand and you have not, I will give you one half of a second’s start. Because I respect you...” He nodded towards where Fex was standing. “And this, I respect not at all.”

Half a second. Otranto’s lightning mind roved through new calculations; considered angles, vectors, speeds. He might arm himself. He might move—just so. A wound, maybe. But a kill—and then to walk away unscathed? Doubtful.

“Is this how assassins fight?” asked Fex, with contempt. “Hurry, won’t you, there are those of us here with beds to go to.”

“He has a point,” agreed Klint. “We have a job to do, however distasteful. You know my terms; make your move, please, and let’s be done.”

The sweat drop roved down Otranto’s cheek. Though there was no hand he’d rather see his life end by, the possibility still galled him. Yet what was the alternative? More even than a killer, Otranto was a servant of his word—and his word had been given, in contract sealed by blood.

Go to the fountain.

Slay the one you find there....

Slowly, casually, Otranto wiped the drop of sweat aside before it could stain his collar and indicated the closest moondial. “Master Klint, what time do you make it?”

Klint’s eyes didn’t so much as flicker from Otranto’s face. “We are men of deeds,” he said. “Prevarication isn’t for the likes of us.”

“We are also men of honor,” pointed out Otranto. “After our own definition of the word, at any rate. And a contract is a contract, is it not?”

For an instant, Klint looked puzzled. Then realization dawned across his hard-lined features, and he too considered the nearest moondial. “That’s true. That’s certainly true. So to answer your question, I would have to say... a little after midnight.”

“And when,” asked Otranto, “in your judgment, did we both arrive?”

“Ten minutes ago,” said Klint, with certainty. “No less.”

“This is absurd,” put in Fex. “Get on with your business!” An edge of worry had erased some of the pomposity from his tone.

Otranto ignored the interruption. “One final question, master Klint: when would you judge that the grand constable here made his appearance?”

Klint made a great show of considering before he replied, “I’d say midnight precisely. Now that I think, I remember hearing the toll of the temple bell.”

“Ridiculous!” cried Fex. “I heard no bell. Everyone knows the priests are drunkards who forget their campanology more often than they remember it.” Now he was sounding distinctly nervous.

Otranto gave the Grand Constable a hard stare, as if disgruntled by this slur against a blameless priesthood. “Go to the fountain at the center of the pleasure gardens,” he quoted, “and slay the one you find there at precisely the hour of midnight. Well, as I said, a contract is a contract.”

“As I think we are all agreed,” put in Klint.

“This is lunacy,” Fex squealed. “Anyway, if you kill me, who’ll pay you? Do you propose to loot my corpse like common thieves? I know your orders forbid you to steal, or indulge in your work for free!”

Otranto gave this consideration. Then he reached around his neck, careful of the bruised patch where the dart had struck, and drew off the chain of finely wrought silver he wore inside his shirt. It ended in a pendant, a bear’s tooth set with studs of iron. “Master Klint, I wonder, would you accept this trinket in lieu of your expected payment? An object more of sentimental than commercial value, but I doubt the commission will cause you much difficulty.”

“Master Onsario,” said Klint. “It would be an honor and a pleasure both to be hired by you. And now it occurs to me that I too have a little task that needs taking care of.” He reached into a pouch and drew out a single tiny coin—likely kept there not for its monetary value but for causing distractions like the one that had drawn Otranto into the courtyard. Klint held it out and said, “One copper eye is poor payment for an artist of your caliber, but I believe the task is one you’ll find to your liking.” He flicked the coin into the air.

Otranto caught it; slid it into a pocket. “Well then. Our contract can be honored, and all is well.”

Fex had backed against the wall now—and it was unfortunate for him that he’d arrived on the farthest side from the entrance. His fingertips hung on the hilt of his sword, but he’d made no attempt to draw it. Even through his terror, he must have understood that it would do him no good.

Otranto didn’t believe in revenge, or in notions of brotherhood. Nevertheless, it rankled that so much talent had been snuffed out in a single night—and that he would receive no adequate payment for his part in that extinguishing.

He spared a glance for Klint, who was working his way around the other side of the fountain, without hurry.

Fex had pushed himself into a corner. While he’d raised both hands to cover his face, Otranto could see that he was peeking between his fingers.

Otranto rested his own hand upon his belt, let his own fingers march around its circumference without any conscious thought to guide them, and started walking. By the time he had reached Fex, his undirected digits had made their decision. They had drawn the number sixteen blade, kept out of the way near the small of his back because he so rarely used it. Though extraordinarily sharp, it was little more than a scalpel and so inappropriate for most work.

Otranto allowed himself the smallest sigh.

He was not by nature a sadist. But the mark of any true artisan was knowing the right tool for the job.


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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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  1. Mike says:

    This is a really great story.

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