Belsair talked and Jordan listened. No longer was it the talk of mentor to pupil, but rather, raconteur to captivated audience. The tidings were not altogether new, but hearing them from a different source, and so fully from this source, gave them a life that hitherto did not exist.
“Some would argue that the Black Hoods are a scourge on the realm,” Belsair began. There was a tireless quality to the Master of the Knife’s voice that suggested to Jordan that even though the tale was old, the telling of it still held a quaint charm within the older man’s soul. Whether or not the prose was practised and recited word perfect each time was immaterial. It was the tale and not the telling that mattered and each telling was like conjuring a magical spell anew from the air, every word building onto the mythos, layer upon layer.
“And in some instances, they would be right.” Belsair paused here for dramatic effect, aware perhaps that with that one sentence, he had garnered Jordan’s full attention. “After all,” he continued, “what else could reasonably be thought of an organisation whose sole purpose is to bring death?
“Naturally, most people abhor the idea. It’s hard enough eking out a living through plagues and famines and the spurious wars of our exulted leaders without having a group of... common murderers... taking their toll. In this light, it is easy to paint our work—the work of the Black Hoods—as being indiscriminate, and our roles as being merely ravenous wolves amongst the sheep of society. And again, in some instances, that assumption would be right.
“But that, my friend, is viewing our organisation from the outside looking in. And though I’d rather not use the term ‘victims’ to describe those whose lives we have to... end... that is how these people, or those closest to them, would view our organisation. What they see is the surface of a very deep and very still lake, which is fine, because that is exactly what the Black Hoods want these people to see.
“That is why, for example, our main recruiting drives obtain the services of fellows such as Melvin. Young men whose blood runs cold with hatred of the society they feel shuns them and who would stop at nothing to exact some kind of revenge.” Belsair paused once more. Jordan watched the old man’s face screw up at a private thought. “Though with this one, the recruiters may have blundered somewhat,” he elucidated.
They shared a wink then, a silent chuckle. The beauty of conspiracy, Jordan mused.
“The idea that the Black Hoods could be kingmakers is anathema to most. And yet, we have been present, if not active, at many pivotal moments in the realm’s history. Your date in Ma’arnar shall be no exception. If our strike is successful, then we’ll have saved the lives of countless thousands. Not just those whose lives will be thrown away as a result of the King’s latest foreign policy faux pas, but those caught in the political and social crossfire of this unpopular policy. If we strike hard, and remove the head of the serpent, then the body will wither and die.”
“What of the succession, though?” Jordan suddenly quipped. “King Julian has no heir.”
Belsair surprised Jordan by drawing a long breath and releasing it with an airy sigh and a slow shake of his head that set the long strands of silver tinted hair to sway. The lined face became older once more, though briefly, briefly enough for Jordan to surmise he’d only caught Belsair at an odd angle in the lantern light.
“Such things happen,” Belsair said. There was a thick inflection in his voice at that moment, hinting at melancholy and perhaps empathy. The combination seemed weird for one whose sole vocation was killing people. “It is neither here, nor there. Many capable statesmen could fill the void, plenty of whom can see the error of Julian’s ways.”
“Men like Darellion Kraithé?”
A rueful smile teased Belsair’s lips at the mention of his nemesis. “Kraithé is more than capable, that is certain. But he doesn’t strike me as a man with the patience to sit and wait while the cogs of politics turn. He is more a man of action. Hence my trepidation with our mission. Once he has sniffed blood, he won’t stop until he has located its source. And having located it, it is but a matter of stemming the flow... or opening it further.”
“You have great admiration for this man?”
The Master of the Knife nodded, his movements deliberately slow and purposeful. “Know thine enemy,” he stated. “And afford him his due respect.”
Jordan nodded, once more the pupil. This philosophy was certainly not new to him, but to hear it from Felipe Belsair about Darellion Kraithé gave it an entirely new perspective. One that Jordan grasped instinctively and suddenly, feeling as if a dark cloud had suddenly been whipped clear of his vision.
“The two of you have met?” he whispered, the words escaping his lips before he could control them.
Belsair didn’t have to answer with words. His body language alone told the story. The adversaries had met, quite probably more than once. But because at the time of their meetings they weren’t in pursuit of one another, their honour codes prevented them from striking out. It was a dance of politesse among equals; and the greatest dishonour would be to throw this in the other’s face. While there was no honour amongst thieves, amongst Black Hoods—and seemingly their most dire adversaries—the honour code ran thicker than blood and just as true.
Jordan could only nod. There were no words that could adequately convey what he wished to say. To have this man in his presence, and Darellion Kraithé on his trail, made Jordan feel as sick to the stomach as he was elated. The world beyond the confines of the train carriage suddenly constricted on him. Maurice Jordan was a marked man.
For several long minutes there was naughty but silence, save for the rattle of the carriage windows and the steady chugging of the locomotive out front. In that silence, Belsair returned all the papers to their place inside the battered suitcase. Once secured there, he shoved the suitcase beneath his bunk.
“We should be catching some sleep,” he announced.That was the final word for that night.