The storm ended abruptly about a quarter of an hour after the stranger humbled Melvin. There was no question of the younger man surrendering his bunk, that which was closest to the door and skulking over to the one that hung over Jordan’s. There was no hint, either, of that pout when the younger man leapt deftly onto his new bunk and sat there, stone quiet, legs folded underneath him. He was no doubt glaring at the stranger who with only seven softly spoken words froze him in his tracks.
The stranger, unconcerned with having dented the younger assassin’s pride, duck waddled his suitcase underneath his bunk and then sat down. For a few moments, all he did was stare into space. Then he curled his fingers around the edge of his hood and drew it back. Tangles of silver-streaked hair unfurled down to the man’s shoulders, some of it spilled over his face, hiding it momentarily from Jordan’s view. The action was slow and very deliberate, his limbs moving in awkward jerking movements a lot like a marionette manipulated by a street vendor. What could this man have done had Melvin not frozen?
“A most unpleasant night.”
Jordan jerked alert. Had the man spoken again?
“A most unpleasant night,” the man said again.
“Yes. Yes indeed. And you were unlucky enough to be caught in it.”
The stranger nodded and a new grin etched across his parchment face. Trying to fit an age to that face was impossible.
“Is your destination Ma’arnar?”
“It is. Yours, too, I heard?”
“Yes,” Jordan admitted.
“A long, long journey in this confounded contraption.” The stranger ran a critical eye over the bedding he sat upon. “This hard bench is going to play merry havoc on my back.”
“That bench is quite comfortable, sir,” Melvin chimed in from his watching post. He was attempting to sound jocular, and carried it off until he put the emphasis on the word “sir.”
The stranger gazed languidly up at Melvin now, turning his face into the light. Jordan saw a landscape scarred with lines and forested with salt and pepper stubble. The eyes assessed the boy swiftly but carefully, narrowing momentarily into a slight squint. “You can’t be much older than… seventeen…?” the stranger ventured.
“I am twenty-two,” Melvin snapped. If he were a dog, the hairs on his back would be standing on end, and his lips would have drawn back to expose rows of sharp teeth.
“Twenty-two you say?” The stranger looked away, found something of more interest on the floor. “A bit old to be wielding that child’s pig-sticker, then?” he remarked. “At the advanced age of twenty-two you should have sense in your head to not be so eager for the kill—don’t you think—Melvin?”
At mention of the young assassin’s name, Jordan almost sprung to his feet. Above him, he felt Melvin tense, heard the younger assassin give himself away with a hissed intake of breath. The very air in the carriage became suddenly colder, suddenly thicker.
Then, the stupid question: “How?”
The stranger shrugged, flicked stray strands of silvery hair from his face.
Jordan felt heat flush his cheeks. He wanted to know how as well, but sure as hell wasn’t going to ask. Asking how put you into all sorts of complicated—and submissive—positions. Asking how someone knew your name gave you no room to manoeuvre and escape, not without bloodshed, anyway. Lastly, asking how someone knows your name was giving them power over you, power an assassin was wise to keep to himself.
But Melvin was a young assassin, inexperienced with such subtleties. Worse than that was the fact that he didn’t know how to keep his damned mouth shut.
“Are you going to answer me?” he asked roughly. The voice sounded tough and was spiced with genuine anger, however Jordan could sense that behind the mask of aggression, the boy’s desire to know the answer to this question did not outweigh his fear of knowing it. He hadn’t moved from his bunk to reinforce his coarse words with matching body language. Jordan didn’t think that was likely to happen anyway, not only because he’d already been bested by the stranger or because the stranger had named him and wrested that power from him…but because…
…because there was something about the stranger that was… well… strange. His posture. Sure, there were the ravages of time and those from the environment that bespoke years of experiences, ravages that even now bent his frame giving an outward appearance of weakness… but that was only on the outside. On the surface there was no reason why the man shouldn’t be dead right now, drowned in his blood from a simple stab wound in his lung. The man looked like an invalid, moved like an invalid… hell, he was even sitting on his bunk like an invalid.
But he’d detected Melvin’s movement without so much as a glance over his shoulder. Melvin wasn’t exactly loud in his movements, either, and he had the storm outside to cover some of the more obvious sounds he’d have made. Melvin hadn’t even cleared his knife and the stranger had detected it, had named the knife for what it was: a stiletto. Not a throat slashing blade, but one solely for backstabbing.
Had Jordan given Melvin away? No. Jordan didn’t think so. He could admit now to some vague sense of perversion at wanting to see blood spill even if the blood was innocent. Besides, only a poor assassin would flinch at the critical moment and Jordan was anything but a poor assassin. The stranger couldn’t have seen Melvin’s reflection either because there were no reflective surfaces behind Jordan. The window in the carriage was behind Melvin and all the trimmings were wooden. There was no shadow because the lantern was in front of and slightly above the stranger, pooling the darkness at his feet.
Then there was the manner in which the stranger called Melvin’s play… not even turning to confront him or maybe produce a weapon of his own. He just raised a finger like some mystic diviner, spouted his mantra and froze Melvin in his tracks. And then… he had named Melvin.
Who are you? Jordan thought but didn’t ask. Sometimes knowing too much too soon was dangerous. Besides, it was more fun to watch Melvin dig himself a hole to jump in.
It was a stalemate. Melvin wasn’t going to get any answers or satisfaction, because like a dog that has been kicked once too often, he was all bark and no bite, and even that was losing its effectiveness. The boy would have been better off biting his tongue from the get go, waiting for the right opportunity to pounce. Instead he’d shown himself for what he was: a beginner, a fool and a loudmouth. Secretly and inwardly, Jordan smiled, even though underneath that smile he was apprehensive. After all, this stranger knew Melvin and Melvin was a relative unknown, a mere babe in the ring of assassins and Jordan was… well, a veteran sprang to mind, but in the face of this stranger and his chunky suitcase and his impenetrable mien…
Presently the stranger had eyes only for Jordan. Since his last retort to Melvin, he hadn’t even so much as glanced in the boy’s direction. It was almost as if the boy didn’t exist, and didn’t Melvin know it! Jordan heard a snort of barely contained disgust, heard the bunk creak slightly as Melvin’s weight shifted. Once more he wondered if the boy was pouting.
The thought didn’t have time to germinate. A brown envelope materialised seemingly out of nowhere in the stranger’s hands. He turned it around a few times as if trying to ascertain exactly where he had got it from, as if maybe he was as beguiled as Jordan was about its sudden magical appearance. Only the stranger’s smirk gave him away. It was just a show, twirling the envelope so; just a show because only a blind man would have failed to see the insignia pressed onto the wax seal. Jordan’s mouth went dry in a heartbeat. He was looking at the insignia of the Black Hoods, but it was more than just that, because hovering over the crossed key ideogram was a crown.
The stranger was one of the Three.