by Dan Hiestand
Once Upon A Time ...
Once Upon A Time ...
Dorsey entered Mirror Lake in silence—a lonesome silhouette cloaked in starlight, heavy boots pounding the dust. The shops he passed were closed, but wide-eyed spirits were etched beside each window, their vigilant gazes smeared with ash to blind them to the passing of night traders.
Cult symbols of animals hung from wooden poles, their sharp claws and fangs picked out with red dust. On these streets, the darkness was not an intruder to be denied by bolted doors alone.
On the western side of town, just one path of ancient stone wended its way toward the Republic of Veil'driel, out of the Commonwealth. It was very rarely used. On the other side, dirt roads sank and squelched breathlessly into the peat, just as they had since long before Dorsey was born.
Whenever the locals’ ambition sufficed to scythe the grass and rake the dirt, the passage of night wiped away their efforts more surely than death itself.
It was like the sound of some lonely, ambitious man slowly going mad.
Only the night traders – and Dorsey – walked this road with spotless boots. His destination was a livelier place, livelier, that is, than the two handfuls of grave dirt he saw on either side of the thoroughfare.
An inn: The Faraway Cry.
On winter nights like this one, an outland tavern was good enough to huddle in for warmth, even for travelers accustomed to better. None of them seemed to notice that the hearths were never hot enough. That the halos of light were short and all the shadows were far too long—
But there was one thing even a blind man could see:
In that tavern, all the clichés were true.
Right about now, deals of every kind would be flowing in whispers through the taproom. Bards would strum their lyres and pretty girls would flit from one table to the next. By dawn, whatever happened would be lost to the locals, simple men with petty lives. They would never think on the strange glances, strange accents, and even stranger tastes betrayed by passing foreigners.
Dorsey was counting on that.
“You’re seven minutes late,” a voice said behind him. “I’ve slit men’s throats for less.” The young assassin stopped in his tracks, turning beneath a flickering roadside lantern that rattled on its post in the wind. “And what have I told you about wearing that god-damned hood?”
“It’s cold,” Dorsey said, smirk hidden in the black of his cowl.
The shadows seemed to melt away from the man who had spoken, but only just so, leaving him ensconced in darkness. The leathers he wore were dark—dark as his eyes, which peered, hard and disapproving, into Dorsey’s own. Only the curve of his jaw was outlined by light, revealing stubble there, and giving a hint of broad, weathered arms crossed.
“Lose it. Now.” As Dorsey reached up to pull it back, the man stepped into full light. “You wanna kill this son of a bitch or try to recruit his ass into a cult?” A hum emanated from his throat, which had felt the touch of too much tobacco smoke. “Come on.”
Dorsey stepped from the island of lantern-light to match his mentor’s stride into the shadowy sea beyond. As they walked, Donovan Kerrick kept watch ahead of them, his gaze always scanning the streets, the alleys, the windows and doors.
What is he looking for?
Was it all just a test?
Even after all these years, it was hard to know.
“What is it, Donovan?”
The master did not look back.
“You have not earned the right to use that name, greenhorn.” Donovan paused, considering a moment before setting off again. “I am still Kerrick to you until you prove yourself. Is that understood?”
Dorsey found himself growing tense, an electric feeling dancing all over his skin. A heavy mist lingered in the streets, broiling hot despite the chill of winter. Further in the distance, road-lanterns barely tickled the edge of his peripheral vision, each one glowing green.
Dorsey remembered what he’d read about the place ...
He peered down the alleys. Each one seemed a ragged gash in the night that swallowed up even the suggestion of light – glowing gazes looked back here and there, but they were only stray cats. The alleys were mad with them, infesting half-tended shrines.
“Yes, sir, what?”
That some old mad widow had released a pair of cats ...
Dorsey sunk his hands into the deep pockets of his cloak.
... And now, barely a generation since, anyone with sense prayed only to the cat-god.
“Yes, sir, Kerrick,” he said.
No one spoke of Mirror Lake anymore except to say this:
It’s a magical place.
The master assassin nodded, but said no more. The only sound was the odd screech of some far-off, nocturnal bird searching for a nest. Sometimes they would hear one take wing from the desiccated boughs of a tree bent low with frost. There was a lingering, sickly sweet smell; the last testament of dead fruit, withered on the vine when a storm had rolled up without warning.
“We’re being watched,” Kerrick said. He paused before adding, “I’d wager my soul on it.”
Across the road, a suspended sign carved with the words Victor’s Arms & Wares creaked as it blew in the wind. The proprietor's wide, wooden smile was rotted from rain. Wind chimes jingled on the edge of Dorsey’s hearing from somewhere deep in the night.
Kerrick raised his hand, commanding quiet.
“I just said I’d wager my soul, greenhorn.”
In a flash, Dorsey’s weapons were out:
Single-shot crossbows, one in each hand.
“I don't see anything,” he confessed in a whisper.
Donovan pointed off the road.
Dorsey turned in that direction, but the voice came from behind them.
“Take heed, Sir Donovan Kerrick, Lord of His Majesty’s Assassins ...”
Dorsey shot a glance to his mentor.
“It’s behind us!” he shouted, spinning to face the threat. “... and it spoke your title! In public!”
“Heel your puppy!” hissed the scratchy voice.
Kerrick turned toward his apprentice.
“Turn around and shut your mouth, boy! It’s an Overshadow. Voice comes from wherever they want.” He grabbed Dorsey’s shoulder, crushing it like a vise as he spun him. “I just told you where it is.”
“But it ..." Dorsey stuttered, stunned. "It said your ..."
“Quiet!” Kerrick growled, then he motioned around. “This look like a crowded market to you?”
“Does the fool think himself wise?” Up and down the tone went, like an echo – the last word, a stab. “Woe be it to that would-be knight of the night who deigns shout so loud,” it said. “His world of false pride betrays a tower of ignorance. Kerrick, are you losing your touch?”
Kerrick turned away from Dorsey, staring into the darkness.
“If it’s all the same to you, I’d rather not leave his apprenticeship to a glorified party magician. Deliver your message and be gone.”
The reply drifted in from far down the road.
“As you wish.”
Donovan closed his eyes briefly. Dorsey knew that, even fleeting, it was a bad sign.
The master continued in a carefully level tone.
“You can dispense with the theatrics,” he said. “We know where you are.”
The whisper was far closer, a trace of amusement in it:
“Are you certain?”
Dorsey took a firing stance, aiming at the blackness ahead.
“Fairly,” Donovan said.
There was a pause.
The message came from where Dorsey’s crossbows were trained.
“By order of His Majesty, Graham Bryce III of the Adamant Gaze, the elimination of Tyrus Minch is annulled.”
Dorsey heard the tightening of gloves as his mentor balled his hands into fists.
“Why?” Donovan asked through clenched teeth.
A rattling noise followed, and Dorsey first thought of the snakes he had been taught to capture and hold in his youth. But no, the Overshadow was clearing its throat; and that was the sound of the wind over bleached bones.
They could make a staff appear out of thin air, Dorsey knew—
“New evidence has been brought to light, clearing Mr. Minch of association with The Blades.”
The kiss of barbed wire across your back in an instant, flaying your skin so it would never heal.
“And who discovered this ... evidence?”
Whatever you did, when you heard one, you weren’t to look.
Close enough to make their ears ring, the voice boomed: “That is not your concern!”
Dorsey was jerked from his thoughts by the echoing shout. It should have been enough to bring everyone in the community running, their heaviest tools in hand. But in the wake of it, there was nothing but the crowing of restless birds and the occasional answering wail of the cats.
Dorsey released the safety catch on his weapons with two simultaneous clicks.
“His High Eminence, Viceroy Neville Katic!”
“Katic is a backstabbing politician! I don’t trust him as far as I can spit!”
The Overshadow did not hesitate.
“YOU do not have to, assassin! My message is delivered! Further action in this matter will be punished without warning or mercy to the fullest extent of Sindell law! His Majesty’s eyes are always upon you, Donovan. Do not ever forget it.”
There was no sign the Overshadow was gone, but Dorsey was suddenly aware of the sounds of night slowly filling the well of silence it left behind. When Donovan turned away, Dorsey followed his lead, carefully hooking the crossbows back to his belt.
“Well,” Dorsey said. “Looks like we won’t be on that first name basis just yet.”
“No?” Kerrick curved his lips into a razor thin smile, withdrawing a rolled cigarette from beneath his cloak. “Can’t say I’m surprised,” he said, lighting it. “Always knew you’d lack the stones.”
Donovan turned and started down the road towards the tavern.
His apprentice was motionless.
“The mission is over, Kerrick. An Overshadow speaks for the king.”
Kerrick kept walking.
“Kerrick!” Dorsey tried again, but his mentor didn’t stop until: “Donovan, please!”
Kerrick turned his head to the side. The coral glow of his cigarette splashed his features as he took a long drag. His expression, revealed in that instant, was blank. He could have interpreted the silence to mean Dorsey had walked away. Somehow, he knew he had not.
“You have always had the mind of a cutthroat, Dorsey, but never the heart of one.” Kerrick bowed his head to the ground. He was walking again. “Get out of Mirror Lake and don’t look back. If you don’t go now, you might never leave.”
Dorsey’s heart hammered, and yet, he felt calm.
He followed his master.
The Faraway Cry was waiting.
As Dorsey opened the heavy oak door, warmth and light and sound consumed him.
Stale ale on the floors, the steady, ambient rhythm of cluttered conversation: An instant shield against the grim night. Here and there, the first few notes of a drinking song would drift up before the chorus collapsed into disarray, each man crowing his own version of the words.
He just hacks, whacks—choppin’ dat meat ...
“You’re no longer just an observer, boy,” said Kerrick. “Remember what I taught you to feel.”
Kerrick stubbed out his cigarette against the wall, just beneath an old painting of a soldier. Some local hero, Dorsey thought – but the gilt was gouged where some had been scraped off the frame. All that could be made out was the first name Khayn, but the legend was too dull to read.
He found himself wondering how the man had died.
“Are you listening to me?” Kerrick asked.
Dorsey glanced from the painting back to Kerrick. “Yes,” he said, doing his best to sound reflective. “Feel the essence of the moment ... so nothing else exists.” Kerrick narrowed his eyes, sharpening his stare until Dorsey could almost feel heat from it.
“Patronize me again, greenhorn,” he said. “And I promise you will swallow your teeth.”
Dorsey sighed. Donovan went on.
“Every emotion, every change in the air, every turn in conversation has a pulse; a sound, a smell, a color. You do not exist in the moment; you become part of it. The messenger,” he said, eyes darting for a moment to take in their mixed company, “hides all he has, and thus, he falls. The first rule of keeping a secret is that no one should know you have one.” Dorsey nodded as he surveyed the tavern, but Kerrick waited until he caught and held his eye. “No one,” he repeated. “Not even you.”
Dorsey did not answer, but shifted uncomfortably.
“The last stroke, the last instant, that's the easy part,” the master went on, falling into a casual drawl. No listener could say he wasn't discussing the art of painting, or making love to a woman. “Mark this well, or someday soon you’ll wish you had.”
For a while, they said nothing further. Each had on a similar, contemplative silence; each was taking in the sight of those who did not quite belong Some of those types sank into the background; others were bright in their sight.
Night traders. Like old friends come back in the dark.
He saw a cute brunette speaking to one, and for an instant, he balled his fist; arresting his motion before he ever became aware that he wanted to reach out. How could she look at them and not see the difference? See the danger? They’d sell her in an instant.
To any man there or to the Devil himself.
Yet none, no matter how sly they were, ever looked back at him. Finally, Dorsey asked: “You’re not going to reconsider, are you?” Kerrick gritted his teeth, pitching his voice lower this time.
“You’ll be dead even quicker than him if you ask me that again,” he said, giving an upward nod towards a ragged-looking man sitting alone at the end of the bar. Dorsey’s eyes stayed on Kerrick a moment, then matched his line of sight.
“Who are we?”
“Prospective buyers for his pig farm,” Kerrick muttered almost to himself. “You’re my son.” Dorsey cocked his head back, raising his eyebrows.
“He’ll have to assume your mother was extraordinarily beautiful.”
Dorsey’s cockeyed expression intensified.
“Aw, shut your stinkin’ yap,” Donovan said, pushing Dorsey so hard he almost knocked him off his feet. By the time Dorsey recovered, his mentor was already walking towards Tyrus Minch. “Find a table and order the drinks.”
Finding a place to sit was not hard. Most of the patrons were crowded around the bar, endlessly talking rumors and local nonsense. There was to be a new clock in town square -- next week, next month? Perhaps no one would start keeping track until after it was installed.
There was talk of the clock-maker as if such knowledge made one a saint—
“I could do as good as that bastard,” said one bitter, sullen voice. “If I could get outta this place.”
Dorsey let his attention swerve as he approached a table, exchanging an easy smile with the pretty barmaid as he pulled out a chair. The same one who, just seconds before, had been within inches of disappearing from this town with a sigh and a scream—
Yet, in her green eyes he saw a sly spark; something told him she’d survive here after all.
He ordered three glasses of Orinel Lin, and was not at all surprised to see it was on the menu.
Kerrick was engaged in what appeared to be light conversation with Minch at the end of the bar. In another life, he might have been a complacent family man discussing a fruitful season’s harvest.
In a fairer life, Dorsey thought.
The maid returned with the drinks, three short glasses filled with liquid the color of fire. He
realized for the first time that her nails had been carefully painted the same color.
Dorsey thanked her, and while he could tell she sensed his stare, she pointedly focused on her work. As he dropped some coins onto her tray, he didn’t notice she had moved her hand at the last moment so it would brush his, or her glances to him as she moved to other tables.
And she wasn’t the only one—
Details Kerrick would have scolded him harshly for missing.
But Dorsey was staring as his mentor faked a laugh and struck Minch jovially on the shoulder.
Under the table, a quick twitch of the wrist drew a corked vial down from the sleeve of Dorsey’s cloak; clear fluid sloshed inside as he caught it silently in his palm. Using the other hand, he took a sip of the liquor. The two glasses stood across from him, and he looked at them for a time before elevating his gaze back to Kerrick, watching his lips.
His mentor was talking about the rain. How every time it rains his—
“—knee stiffens up like a plank,” Kerrick said with another very believable chuckle.
“Age just isn’t fair,” Minch agreed, shaking his head. “Where’s the time go? Honestly.”
“I really couldn’t tell ya,” Donovan said with a grin. He waited for Minch to finish his drink. “Speaking of youth. Should we get business out of the way? My son is waiting for us.” With his forearms on the edge of the bar, Tyrus Minch twisted to the side.
He spotted the only young man sitting alone at one of the tables— “That’s your son there?” he asked.
“Yes,” Donovan said, clearing his throat behind the man’s back.
There was a long pause as Minch studied Dorsey, then he took note of all the young ladies gathered around the hearth who were doing the same, some quite shameless in their quest to catch the boy’s eye. Yet, he never seemed to shift his glance.
Donovan frowned, then rolled his eyes.
“His, uh ... mother was extraordinarily beautiful.”
Minch laughed, giving Dorsey a little wave.
Dorsey could have sworn he’d seen the old man before – where, he couldn’t quite say.
“We should all be so lucky,” Minch said.
Behind him, Kerrick’s jubilant expression turned to stone.
Tyrus Minch was not what Dorsey had been expecting.
He was short and stocky, his bald head skirted by wispy gray hair. His half-stagger proved he was already drunk, and he greeted Dorsey with far more enthusiasm than anyone would call normal. He seemed like anything but a criminal mastermind who would soon leave the pub to plot the next morning’s robberies and murders.
Then again, thought Dorsey, we seem like anything but assassins.
“Pleasure to meet you, young man,” Minch said, extending his hand as they reached the table. Dorsey rose to his feet with a polite smile. “Pleasure’s mine,” he said.
Minch’s handshake was firm, palm sweaty. His cheeks flushed rose, and they ballooned as he sucked in and blew out air too hard, as noisily as his fellow bar flies might drink from the tap. Dorsey thought he knew it; a habit men who’d always been the nervous sort got as they aged.
Breaths too short, muscles of the chest too tight -- not a bandit’s affectation, a servant’s.
“Hope Orinel Lin’s okay,” Dorsey said, gesturing down to the table.
Tyrus exchanged an approving glance with Donovan.
“Made with lava rock filtration,” Minch said, taking a seat. “My absolute favorite, in fact.” Of course it is, Dorsey thought, sitting again. Donovan sat down between them. “So,” Minch began. “Think ya got what it takes for the farm life?”
“We’ll find out,” Dorsey answered.
“It’s something we’ve wanted to do for a long time,” Kerrick added, relaxing and taking a generous gulp of his own drink. It was to Dorsey’s surprise that Minch didn’t begin to drink right away; faced with his “very favorite,” he paused a moment to sniff and savor in a way that—
Looked oddly genuine – a glimpse of truth Dorsey could not place into the bigger picture.
“Well then, fortune has surely smiled upon you both,” said Minch. He raised his glass in a toast. Dorsey and Kerrick responded in kind. “You couldn’t have found better land at a better price! Best slop you’ll find for twenty-two days’ ride!”
“I’ll drink to that!” Kerrick said. He slammed back the last of what was left in his glass.
Minch smiled widely as he saw Dorsey take a modest sip.
“Not much for celebration, buddy?”
Dorsey did not respond, and the awkward moment earned a glare from Kerrick, who snapped his fingers for the barmaid’s attention. She was closing in when Kerrick pointed down to his glass and twirled his finger. She diverted her path to the bar for the next round.
“Kid’s never been much for drinking ... or conversation, for that matter,” he said to Minch.
His glare was gone; now Kerrick was confused. Having to excuse behavior at this stage of training was unacceptable. Dorsey was sharp, too sharp to make a mistake like not minding his mark, not responding to him. It was one of the most fundamental elements t—
But Minch, rambling on about the finer points of pig enclosures, never noticed.
The master felt the sensation of pins and needles running up his right arm, and he tried to flex his hand to work it out. It subsided, but he soon found his left foot bouncing against the floorboards. He made no attempt to stop it. Instead, he picked up the glass as the girl set it in front of him.
He looked from it to Dorsey, and raised it to the boy in a subtle half-salute.
Dorsey took a deep breath, watching his mentor, the man who was like a father to him. Then he took his first glass and slammed it back. The second was gone in a flash as well, even before the barmaid could walk away. She jumped at a loud yell from Tyrus Minch: “That’s the spirit, lad!”
She gave the three of them a look like they were the strangest thing she’d seen here yet.
But Minch had paused only a moment in his rambling dissertation on preserved meats, and paid her not a moment’s mind.
“—solutely the best bacon,” he was saying. “It’s like magic, it is.” He motioned to Kerrick. “As I told your father. Truly, fortune smiles on us all.”
Dorsey was waiting for Donovan’s eyes to turn on him. Waiting for the rage.
Instead, Kerrick’s voice was calm when he said: “Leave us.”
Minch stretched his neck up like a confused turtle, brow wrinkling as he swallowed.
Kerrick looked into the farmer’s eyes.
“I said ... Get your silly, pig-loving, turtle-looking ass up from this table and walk away. Now.” Minch looked over to Dorsey, desperate for an explanation. None came.
“Well, I never ...” he said, rising to his feet. “Who do you think you are to waste my valuable time?” He wobbled slightly as he straightened to his unimpressive full height. Dorsey looked up into his eyes, and Tyrus instantly calmed. “No skin off my back anyway.”
See if you ever find another deal, he grumbled as he stomped off. Pigs the size of outhouses, I s—
Dorsey and Kerrick were silent.
They hardly seemed to be aware of him.
This only insulted Minch further, and he meant to give the door a good slam. But it opened just as he reached it, admitting another patron. Thrown off balance, Tyrus Minch stumbled past and was gone.
Dorsey Trent and Donovan Kerrick sat alone at the table.
A long sigh passed Donovan’s lips.
“The Overshadow,” he said. “You were expecting it?”
Dorsey moved his hands under the table, trying to hide their trembling.
“I was expecting a messenger, yes. Not one of them.”
“Well, you can get used to the ghoulish bastards. But they’re not to be trus—”
Dorsey noticed his mentor’s hand slipping casually into his cloak.
Donovan withdrew the narrow tin that held his cigarettes.
“Don’t be such a goddamned baby,” he said, placing one in his mouth. Attached to the case was a small flint box lighter. Kerrick struck it, but pain was twisting his hands, and he could not quite lift the flame to his mouth.
Dorsey leaned over in his chair, grabbed the flint box, and lit the cigarette for him. Donovan took a long pull.
“Thanks,” he said. Then he went oddly silent.
A feather-light tickle along Dorsey’s chest—
The tip of one razor-sharp dagger was pressed to his ribs, and that was message enough.
Dorsey glanced down at the weapon. Even now, he knew Kerrick could attack, give him a wound that would mar him for a lifetime. If they both fell here, they would be nothing but a rumor, buried in a shallow hole and carried on in drunken tales in this godforsaken backwater.
“Every emotion has a pulse, greenhorn,” Kerrick said, and then winced as his stomach clenched. He hid the pain as best he could while he slipped the weapon back under his belt. “You’re so much smarter than that.”
Dorsey’s eyes were bloodshot. He swallowed hard. At last, he asked: “Why?”
Kerrick flicked some ash before taking another drag, then slouched in the chair and crossed his legs at the ankle. The pain was subsiding.
“What are you blabberin' about now, boy?”
“You’ve been killing innocent people.”
“You’re the one who set me up, Dorse. I woulda thought you already had all the answers.”
“I know what you’ve been doing. I want to know why.”
Kerrick was staring into some far off, imaginary horizon.
“You’re a good lookin’ kid,” he replied, and the pause that followed was not about pain. “Smart.” His voice, deep and rough, was softer than his apprentice had ever heard. “Don’t let this happen to you.” Kerrick’s gaze went right through the boy he had raised.
Dorsey could barely manage a whisper: “Why?”
“I don’t know,” he said. “Hatred.” Dorsey knew that his mentor was fading, and had no desire to take even a shred of his dignity by taking advantage of his delusional state. But Kerrick went on all the same. “Hatred for everything.”
The master assassin’s head bobbed slightly, heavy on his neck. His eyes rose to Dorsey. And with great exertion, he sat upright. The cigarette fell out of his loose hand, and with a grunt, he leaned forward so his face was inches from Dorsey’s own.
“You be a vicious son of a bitch, ya hear? Remember all I’ve told you ...”
Breathing had become a chore. Soon, it would no longer be worth it.
“Everything ... I’ve taught you.”
Dorsey was struggling to stay steady. His nerves were as tense as a wire; if they went slack for a moment he would shake worse than his dying mentor.
“I will, Kerrick. I promise I will.”
“You ...” Kerrick put his hand on Dorsey’s shoulder to support himself. “You can call me Donovan now, green ... greenhorn.” Tears prickled Dorsey’s eyes. Donovan smiled when he saw it, his heavy eyelids drooping. “Oh stop your blubberin', you pansy ass mama’s boy,” he said with surprising vigor. He patted Dorsey lightly on the side of the face, then fell back into his chair. “I’ve slit men’s throats for less.”
And with that, Sir Donovan Kerrick, Lord of Assassins, mentor to Dorsey Trent, was dead.
Dorsey suddenly felt alone. He looked around, frantic, only to see that the place was as lively as it had ever been. At first, the cheerfulness mocked him – but it was followed by calm. No one was watching. No one had seen, and if they had, they did not care, and would not remember.
Moving quickly, he pulled off Donovan’s right glove and slipped the ruby ring from his hand. He opened his cloak and looked at his two daggers. Dorsey had only an instant to choose: He took the one decorated with an ivory dragon, leaving the onyx snake with its fallen master.
He even took the cigarette tin and flint box lighter, dropping them deep into his pockets.
He wanted to take Kerrick’s body as well, but knew he couldn’t.
It took all of Dorsey’s effort to shut himself down, blocking out all thought as he hunched the man who taught him the technique over the table and closed his eyes. Then, never looking back, he walked to the door. His hand was on the knob when he heard a girl’s voice behind him.
“Your friend ..." Dorsey’s shoulders eased just slightly as he opened the door. He could tell by the faint scent of rose oil that it was the barmaid. There was something so oddly familiar, something so soothing about her voice. “Seems like he’s had enough.”
In another life, he might have turned to her.
“My name’s Hazel, by the way.”
In another life ...
“Without a doubt, Hazel,” the assassin said simply, then he left her with the light behind him, for the shadowy sea beyond.
... In a fairer life.