Beyond the human cattle pen that was the Ma’arnar Railway terminal, the world was relatively calm. No longer did the group of Black Hoods have to elbow their way through the crowds, forcing open gaps through which their number had to spill through swiftly for fear of it closing and separating them from the pack. Out here on the streets, there was room to move; Jordan could even feel the air freeze nervous sweat to his back.
“Is it normally this chaotic?” he wondered aloud, not expecting anyone to hear him over the general hubbub.
“It gets worse,” someone replied.
“Much worse,” another concurred.
“You should see when the militia have been called out during a bread riot,” a third added.
“Yes. When the markets run out of food to sell... not necessarily bread... the people tend to get a tiny bit militant...”
“Run out of food? How can a city run out of food?”
“Let’s just say,” the first Black Hood said, “that the reality does not in any way match the expectation.”
The trio exchanged sly glances and wry smiles before the first answered. “There are simply too many mouths to feed in the city... and not enough food being provided for them. The population of the city has trebled in less than a decade. And the means to provide for them haven’t been able to meet their demand... and so, we have food riots, housing shortages, mass unemployment... and so, to combat this, the Powers That Be—or, let’s face it... his Royal Highness, King Julian—decides to make war on our neighbours. A pleasant distraction to remove our focus from our empty bellies...”
“Surely things aren’t that simplistic?” Jordan offered, eliciting guffaws from his escorts.
“Maybe not if you wanted to write the history books, but for the purposes of the task at hand, it’s enough.”
Briefly, their eyes met. Jordan saw a maelstrom of mixed emotions. There was anger, disillusionment and bitterness, mixed together in a veritable cauldron. Doubtless, Jordan would see the same emotions in the eyes of all of his companions, or even any of the citizens had been shoving his way past since disembarking from the locomotive. It was the smouldering rage of the disenfranchised and the powerless, those enslaved by the drive of the market forces and the belligerence of out of touch lawmakers. King Julian and his ilk would rely on those sentiments to encourage volunteers to enlist in the army, where they’d be kitted out with the most basic weapons, given rudimentary training, before being shipped off abroad to scream frustration at their enemy. Inevitably, the volunteers are mere fodder, the meat in the grinder. And in the eyes of their monarch, if they are dying in the service of their realm, then they’re not dying from starvation or disease; the crisis is averted.
“I guess we don’t see this side of things from Tor,” Jordan admitted.
“Give it time,” a voice from out front said.
Jordan was so deeply entrenched in his private thoughts that he failed to notice that not only had Belsair and his companion stopped, but it was the latter of the two who now spoke to him. “Give it time and this whole accursed realm will be ferreted off to all points of the compass, fighting these trumped up wars. Fighting a fictitious enemy offshore, rather than the real enemy in the Palace.”
The man was smiling, but the smile touched his lips only. His eyes were cold and fierce. If ever Jordan was asked what the eyes of a killer looked like, he’d only have to recall this man in his mind.
“But now is not the time for such talk,” he said. “Not out here in the proximity of so many ears.” He rolled his eyes around to illustrate his point. Even though the crowd had thinned somewhat, there was still a significant number of people present, some of whom might disapprove of such seditious banter. Then, without skipping a beat, he closed the gap between himself and Jordan, thrust out a hand. “Never too late for introductions, though you can understand why it couldn’t happen at the station. The name’s Aldernon. Though I am certain you’d have guessed that already, Maurice.”
“Maurice Jordan,” Jordan replied, taking the calloused hand of Belsair’s lieutenant in his own hand and shaking it firmly. “Well met.”
“Well met, indeed,” Aldernon said.
But before he could so much as take his next breath, there was a commotion at Jordan’s side, followed by that annoying nasal voice that had dogged him from one side of the country to the other. Melvin pressed forward, his hand extended towards Aldernon in the same manner he had attempted when first meeting Jordan. “What about me?” he bawled. “Do I not feature in this meet and greet session?”
The flicker of annoyance that flashed across Aldernon’s face was brief, but telling. Jordan saw it in all its glory for the few seconds of its existence. He saw the eyes crystallise, the pupils draw to pinpoints, fixing Melvin to the spot as sure as nails would have fixed him to a crucifixion post. Melvin, though, naïve to these developments, simply kept his hand thrust out towards Aldernon, unaware of the faux pas he was committing. Melvin closed the gap between them in long, confident strides, a cloud of sweat-stained cologne hanging about him.
As they closed, Jordan saw Aldernon’s mouth curve into a sneer, watched as he shot his hand out, grasped Melvin’s hand. Then, with the precision of someone long used to playing the game, he stepped forward, tipping Melvin slightly off balance and turning his hand and wrist out of its former superior position. This he did with nary a pause, controlling the dark clouds that reigned briefly inside his eyes. He even managed to invert his scowl into a quasi-smile, not warm, but neutral, while once more offering his name. “My name is Aldernon,” he said.
And then, Melvin dropped the bombshell.
“Just Aldernon?” he enquired, an exact mimic of what Jordan had said those long days ago. He even went as far as to raise an eyebrow in mock bewilderment. Surely, one such as you would know the complete protocol?
To his credit, Aldernon did nothing. But Jordan supposed someone of Aldernon’s calibre faced insignificant little shits like Melvin all too often in their lives. To give them the time of day was to give them the power they desperately craved. But in this instance, Jordan could see that he was holding back from reaction, be it a verbal spar or worse, Jordan couldn’t tell.
With painful seconds bleeding out and Melvin not getting the reaction he desired, he gave up. “Well met, Aldernon,” he said, saving face somewhat, if not entirely. “My name is Melvin...”
When he turned away, slight touches of crimson staining his cheeks, Jordan saw and heard the pent up breath that Aldernon had been holding since the farce began. He was afforded a quick image of that scowl reforming, and Aldernon’s lips moving around silent words. While Jordan didn’t catch the entire sentence, he was well enough practiced to know what the words “kill you” looked like on someone’s whispering lips. However, before anything could eventuate, Felipe Belsair interposed himself between them. He glanced from Aldernon to Melvin, who thankfully had his back to them and didn’t see the look they exchanged. Jordan did, though. Saw it and catalogued it, knowing all too well what it meant.
“Enough of this idle chat,” Belsair said. He pointed across the street. “Just over there is the safe house. This is as far as I shall go with you this day. My mission shall be to put a nose to the ground and an ear to as many walls as possible. In the morning, I will bring tidings of whether we set out for sightseeing or not. Until then, you’re free to do whatever you wish. But keep in mind that discretion is the order of the day, so try and keep a low profile.”
With that, Belsair nodded to Jordan and Melvin, shook hands once more with Aldernon, then turned and ambled away. Jordan watched him go, utterly amazed at the apparent contradictions the man presented. Here was one of the feared three, whose reputation for the dealing of death was enough to make even the bravest of men tremble in their boots. Yet, he stooped over his suitcase, shuffling more than walking, an old man made older through a life of stealth, of shedding blood and prematurely ending lives before slipping away like a shadow.
Jordan watched him traipse back the way they had come. He didn’t stop; kept his head down, eyes focussed out front of him. In a matter of moments, he was around the corner and out of sight. With his being gone, Jordan felt the first teasing fingers of doubt and fear flicker across the nape of his neck. It was not an uncommon feeling on the eve of a mission. Only this time, the feeling carried with it a sense of foreboding hitherto unknown to Jordan.
Was he scared?
His initial reaction was—surprisingly—yes. And the admission of fear made it more poignant. Made it more real. Sure, the enormity of the task was enough to make his blood run cold at any given moment, but through years of experience, he was able to control enough variables to put much of the trivial fears on a backburner. Only now, the mission was out of his control and the variables too many and too varied to rein in. Furthermore, there were now outside agencies to factor into the equation, least of which was the Bounty Hunters and their tenacious leader. As much as Jordan would relish locking horns with the infamous Darellion Kraithé, it would have to be on his terms and not as it was now, with him playing the part of the petty thief trying to lose the local militia. But would Kraithé see Jordan as being a worthy enough adversary to deal with in any other manner than that? In Kraithé’s eyes, was Jordan just another piece of shit to sweep off the cobbles?
Before Jordan had any chance to chase that thought down, his introspection was broken by Aldernon. “We best make a move.”
It was then that he noticed that Melvin and the three other guides had advanced across the street and that Jordan and Aldernon were alone. As if he could read part of Jordan’s mind, he said, “It would be best to keep your consternation somewhat private. While I doubt your esteemed travelling companion is adept at reading faces, we cannot take any chances.”
He was staring into Jordan’s eyes, holding him in place. While the eyes were still those of a killer, there was a faint touch of warmth there. Empathy, perhaps. It was enough for Jordan to recognise a possible kindred spirit.