It felt like a fist in the stomach. Suddenly he found it even harder to breathe, to concentrate. The world shimmered slightly, flicking in and out of focus. Even the cacophonous rattling of the train diminished, amounted to nothing, was lost in the steady thrum of coursing blood in Jordan’s temples.
Questions wanted to pop from his mouth. Silly questions, inane questions; Melvin-styled questions. Jordan stilled his mouth. Such a line to take was immaterial. The point is that the mission was compromised; Jordan didn’t need to know how, or why or even who. He sagged back into his bunk, warmth draining from his features.
In the meantime, the stranger was busy with his documents, flicking through them without reading them. Every now and then he’d snigger at something that amused him, or he’d shake his head. At length, he lowered the documents, stared at Jordan.
“There was a leak. A flapping trap. Much like your friend’s.” His eyes motioned above Jordan to where the kid slumbered without a care in the world. “That’s been dealt with. Cleanly and efficiently.” The stranger drew a finger over his throat: the gesture was clear. “It was such a shame that the leak came from so high up.” For the briefest moment, the stranger closed his eyes as if in remembrance. When he opened them, though, those dark eyes were a pair of flints. His lips were pressed together into a thin line, the muscles in his jaw wavered, trembled.
“At this moment, there is a small band of Black Hoods loyal only to me making pace towards Ma’arnar on horseback. They’ll get there tomorrow morning in anticipation of our much more leisurely arrival the day after. Their first mission is to ascertain how much damage our loose-lipped companion has done. There’s word in the grapevine that the information was passed onto no better set of ears than Kraithé Darellion himself.”
Here the stranger paused to allow the magnitude of the dropped name to have maximum impact. Once more, Jordan’s mind raced with all sorts of possibilities. Kraithé Darellion was definitely a man who you didn’t want hearing about your illegal activities, especially if they’re of the sort Jordan was so stunningly proficient at. If he caught so much as a sniff of conspiracy, he’d track the word down to its source, leaving no stone unturned. His tenacity was second to none. According to rumour, there was no price he was unwilling to pay, especially if the subject at hand sought to destroy his patron. That his patron was the most powerful man in the realm was also food for thought. Darellion operated not just with the King’s blessing, but the force of his arms behind him and the support of the entire treasury. There was little wonder, then, that rumours sprang forth concerning the myriad cruel machines employed by Kraithé Darellion to draw confessions and information from tongues formerly stilled and mouths supposedly sealed shut. Nor was there cause for wonder that such an elite organisation as the Black Hoods—or even its very core, the Three—could be infiltrated with the allure of gold. Any means to an end Darellion sought and if that meant loading his traps with blood money, then so be it.
So Jordan surmised that the presence of this part of the elite assassin trio was not so much because word had somehow got out about his most dire mission, but rather, that word had been picked up by the last individual in this godforsaken realm you’d want to have privy to this plan. In short, the Three were engaged presently in fighting fire with fire.
Jordan swallowed nervously, painfully aware once more of how dry his throat was. As little as a day and a half ago the mission had seemed easy. Reading instructions on sheaves of paper, walking the streets of Ma’arnar with the tips of his fingers, it had seemed so very simple. Only now was the true measure of complication revealed and revealed in a manner that suddenly changed the entire mission into a spiralling and dizzy free fall.
There were so many unknowns. Sure, the plan before was not without its pinholes, but now these pinholes were gaping, bloody wounds. At first, there was the presence of this stranger. Then the news that the mission had been compromised. Now, learning that the King’s own Minister of Security might be breathing down his neck, that there might be a welcoming committee at the train station in Ma’arnar, but not the sort that was likely to greet him with smiles. How swiftly things had changed.
“From what little information I have at the moment, I’ve rearranged your schedule somewhat.” The stranger was now producing a new sheet of paper. He accorded it a short once over before passing it over to Jordan.
Jordan was unable to stem the way that his hand shook as he read this new missive. But even before he trained his eyes on the small and neat script, he found his gaze dancing down to the signing line. He wasn’t wholly surprised to see which name was etched at the bottom. Tonight was proving to be a night of surprises after all.
In his head, a voice whispered, Master of the Knife.
Somehow it seemed apt.
Jordan read the missive, found that at least in the initial stages the plans weren’t overly different. There was a rendezvous with Belsair’s men at Ma’arner instead of the head of the local chapter of the Black Hoods. That was fair enough. If Belsair’s men weren’t at the station, then Jordan and Melvin were to use their spare tickets to catch the train back to Tor. That was the same as the initial instruction. Upon arrival, Jordan and Melvin were to be escorted to one of Belsair’s safe houses where the final tweaks of the plan would be made. From there, it would be made clear whether the mission was to continue, whether it was to be suspended, or if it was to be aborted altogether.
“I’m leaning heavily on a suspension,” Belsair stated once he was sure Jordan had read the note. “If Kraithé has wind of our plans he might move his patron out of the city for a while. Should that be the case, I will have some men tail and report. If the patron looks to be headed for the Grey Palace then we will abort. But if he is for the Summer Palace then I think we will be all right.”
Belsair rifled through more of his papers in a manner that suggested to Jordan that it was done as a show only. And maybe that was true. Should someone inadvertently walk in, they’d see merely a business transaction if anything.
He plucked another sheet of paper from his pile. This sheet was folded in half. He passed this one without so much as glancing at its contents. On it, Belsair had written: this is about your friend.
“Do I…?” he motioned upwards with his eyes.
Belsair shook his head. “It is for you.”
Jordan nodded, his hands shakily pulling apart the folds of paper. On it was written a note in the same hand as the instructions. It contained only a few simple sentences.
We’re not entirely sure where Melvin’s heart lies in this matter. All we can say is for you to watch your back. If he makes another attempt at your life, exterminate him. If he pulls his head in then you are to “deliver him to his destiny.”
With the meaning clear in his mind, Jordan passed the paper back. Belsair instantly tore it to pieces and secreted it within the folds of his cloak. Then he leaned back heavily on his bunk, suddenly old and tired once more. “Some would hate to have this level of disorganisation thrust upon them,” he ventured. “But if the cause is true and noble… then needs must dictate.” He paused, catching his fingers before they rifled once again through the miscellany scattered before him. “Sometimes disorganisation is for the best. It keeps you true, focussed. You’re less likely to make mistakes.”Jordan nodded once more. The initial shock of this night’s meeting was wearing off and sleep was now tugging at his eyelids. There was something of comfort in Belsair’s note, if not in the tidings that caused that great man to board this locomotive to Ma’arnar. As for disorganisation… give Jordan guidelines and a script to follow, so that he could take his frantically beating heart out of his mouth and the cold and clammy sweat away from his shirt!