The room was small, but comfortable. It contained the bare necessities: an iron-framed bed, over which someone had courteously left a towel and wash cloth, a set of drawers, a table upon which sat a washbowl and jug and a mirror that hung crookedly on a rusted nail. All the items had obviously seen better days, but Jordan was not going to be critical of any of it. Having spent so long on the locomotive from Tor to Ma’arnar and with the very real possibility of meeting his maker as early as tomorrow, the notion of being contrary didn’t sit well with him. Indeed, there were matters more pressing to worry about than lumps in a mattress and crusty growths over the mirror’s surface.
It would be best to keep your consternation somewhat private, Aldernon had counselled. The remark had caught him off guard, but was sage advice nonetheless. Peering at himself in the scabrous mirror, he tried to find what it was in his expression that could have tipped Aldernon off as to the thoughts inside his head. There were no answers forthcoming.
From outside came the muted rumbling of the city. Silence, it seemed, was a luxury very few city denizens could afford. Next door, he heard Melvin crashing about. The boy was both excited about being quartered somewhere where he didn’t have to fight flea infested rats for a place to sleep and apprehensive about an excursion into the wider world. He was at pains to pretend to be dissatisfied with the quality of the room furnishings, but Jordan saw through the façade.
Just as Aldernon had seen through his own.
It irked him that he had been so easy to read, but he chalked it down to the other man’s experience. Yet even that was making excuses. How could he deny the reality of his fear?
The face staring back at him was his face, but the mind underneath it seemed alien. Doubt nestled comfortably inside that mind, a nest of rats. It wasn’t an unknown feeling, but never before had it been so pervading and so... foreboding.
Jordan latched onto that word, for it perfectly described the darkness he felt dwelling inside his head: a sense of premonition that was nearly tangible and had only been in evidence since Felipe Belsair had announced that their mission was compromised. Before this time, he could recall no other instance of prescience, at least not in the same calibre as that he felt now. There were hunches aplenty, and the occasional prickle of intuition, but in those moments there was solid evidence upon which to ground them. Now, he wasn’t entirely sure. It could just be a matter of feeling spooked, of genuine nervousness before the single hardest mission he had ever undertaken and therefore a natural feeling that would awaken in him the need to remain constantly alert. But what if by some unlikely chance, there was a clue somewhere that he hadn’t noticed that could unlock the true message behind this dark contemplation?
“Psychic you are not,” Jordan muttered to himself, glaring long and hard at his reflection in the mirror.
There were dark smudges beneath his eyes that spoke of missed sleep and the shadow of four days of stubble on his cheeks and chin. When coupled with his ruffled, unkempt hair, it gave him an almost manic look that did little to improve the situation. He looked like a man on edge, and was probably, on a subconscious level, acting like one, too.
“Get a grip,” he told his reflection.
He turned back to the room with its austere furnishings. It was as humble as Jordan thought himself to be. Humble, simple; practical. There was nothing superfluous here. Even his meagre travelling kit was simple and practical: soap, shaving brush, razor, comb. The exemplar of a highly organised mind, of someone who was meticulous and desiring full control of their life.
Was it any wonder then that he now felt haunted by this sense of foreboding, given that the plan he was supposed to follow was compromised?
He dry washed his face with his hands, feeling the coarseness of the stubble on his skin, hearing it rasp against his fingers. The sound seemed very loud in the room as if he were buffing wood with sandpaper. It served as a prompt for the action of unrolling the travel pack and extracting the shaving equipment.
The shaving ritual proved an adequate distraction from his inner turmoil. It was part of his preparation for any mission, the sake of grooming a rare instance of vanity for a “just in case.” While that reason seemed grim, Jordan found the mechanical process comforting, even if the water he used was tepid and the smooth skin of his face was dotted here and there with pinpricks of crimson by the ritual’s completion.
He was just finishing when he heard a polite knock upon his door. “Maurice?” a voice inquired. It was Belsair, he of the cool and detached manner.
“Come in,” Jordan said.
The door creaked open and Belsair’s shadow poured into the room. The man himself was a momentary shadow until Jordan blinked away the aura the sunlight threw around him. When he set foot inside the room, turned slowly to close the door and just as slowly back to face Jordan, Jordan could see that he, too, had taken time to make his appearance less haggardly.
“You have the look of a man deep in thought,” Belsair stated.
Jordan nodded, a sigh escaping his lips. He tossed the towel back onto the bed. “It would seem so,” he concurred. “Am I that easy to read?”
The tiniest trace of a smile momentarily flickered at the corner of Belsair’s mouth. With it was an equally transient spark in his eyes. Then the veneer of detachment returned. Belsair ventured a few more paces into the room and the shadow peeled away from his face. He, too had shaven, though unlike Jordan, had left a goatee styled beard behind. His hair was captured in a ponytail that snaked around behind his head, disappearing into the folds of his cloak and exposing more of his weather beaten face.
“You’ve been thrown in at the deep end,” Belsair said. “So I’d be more worried were you not deep in thought. As for being easy to read, to be honest, any signs shown are purely psychosomatic.”
“...and that means?”
“That by suggesting you’re showing signs of being a man deep in thought, you actually exhibit those signs.” Belsair paused, waiting for Jordan to reply. When Jordan didn’t, he continued. “Take it from someone who knows, you’re handling yourself with aplomb. Given the twists and turns this plot has taken. I guess this is why the Powers That Be tapped your shoulder for the assignment.”
“Hmm,” Jordan replied. “While I shall graciously accept your compliments, I doubt that is the reason you’ve come visiting.”
“It isn’t. At least not directly. What I am here for is to update you on the plan.”
“Ah,” Jordan said aloud. In his mind, he repeated the mantra: the plan first, the plan last.
“Nothing onerous,” Belsair insisted. “In fact, we’ve been given a lucky reprieve. It seems our false trails have momentarily waylaid Darellion Kraithé. And making things even more delicious is the fact that Julian—against all advice—has elected to remain in the Capital.”
“So... what does this mean?”
“It means that we can strike tomorrow, if the final reconnoitre is favourable.”
“How likely is that?”
Belsair shrugged. “I cannot say. A lot can happen in the time between now and then.”
“When is the strike planned?”
“There are two options that would be best. The first—and easiest—is the change of guard just before dawn. That is the time when there are the least amount of people out and about and as such, it is easier to avoid detection. Having said that, though, the guards themselves are more alert, especially the reliving guards and anybody without reason to be within their perimeter are treated with some degree of hostility.
“Option two is the transitional periods before and after the King breaks his fast. There are crowds in abundance here, gathered either to join the King in his lavish morning feast, or simply to stand in awe at the galleries to watch. Mingling among the revellers and the gawking spectators will be the King’s servants, whom you shall recognise by their apparel and standing close to the King, his private bodyguard, all of whom will be attired in the livery of the Royal House.
“Slipping amongst the crowd will be no problem. Getting close to the Royal person is another thing altogether. Hence, the optimal moments are when he is arriving to partake in his morning fast breaking, or in the moments when he is taking his leave. Of the two, the latter would be more advantageous... when everyone has taken more than their fair share and are... burdened somewhat...” Belsair winked at Jordan after the last two words, illustrating the point by rubbing his stomach.
Despite the gravity of the situation, Jordan found himself laughing at the suggestion. In his mind, he saw the King and his entourage as a surreal pantomime, rubbing their swollen bellies lavishly as they prepared to rise from the table, their faces masks of gluttonous self-satisfaction.
“Does he break his fast with a banquet every morning?” Jordan asked.
“Every morning he is at the Capital. It’s a grand spectacle, or an ego trip; depending on which side of the line you’re standing on. But... at those crucial moments of entering the fray and departing from it, he is totally exposed. An assassin with their wits about them could easily use the commotion to their advantage...”
A rueful smile played across Belsair’s lips. Unlike most of the other smiles that enjoyed a brief life before being wiped away, this one remained on his face for at least half a minute. “An assassin with as much experience as you, Maurice Jordan, could not only commit the deed, but could affect their escape. And should the avenue for flight be—how should we put it... hampered?—then you play the ace up your sleeve.”
Impossibly, Belsair’s smiled widened somewhat. Jordan saw two rows of brilliant white teeth, all perfectly straight. He saw a pair of dark eyes glistening with malevolence. He saw every contour of Belsair’s face form a mask of sadistic pleasure.
“This time tomorrow, my friend, you could be on that locomotive back to Tor, your mark made in the book of history forever.”
“Even if they pop Melvin’s neck?”
“They will interrogate before they pop his neck. And he will squeal like a suckling pig after ten minutes.”
“So you’re saying he will name me?”
“Of course he will name you. And he will name me. And anyone else whose name he has overheard in the course of our little journey.”
“We will be ratted then?”
Belsair grinned some more, only this time, the malevolence became genuine mirth. “Oh, for sure. He will squeal and names will pour like vomit from his mouth. But seriously, what species of inquisitor is going to believe that what the street urchin is saying is the truth after only ten minutes of prodding? Especially a snivelling, wretched, effeminate, poncing thing that reeks of shoddy toilet water?”
Jordan let Belsair’s description of Melvin (just Melvin) hover in the air for a few seconds. At first, Jordan wanted to poke holes in the scenario, but found he couldn’t. Everything Belsair said of Melvin, directly and indirectly was true. Melvin was a self-serving gutter rat with no sense of loyalty. He had proven this many times during the train ride to Ma’arnar. Believing that his life would be spared if he named names, then he’d name them with nary a blink, just as certainly as he’d tried to open the throat of his travelling companion on their first night together. And while the idea of using Melvin as a pawn played havoc at Jordan’s conscience—but only on a superficial level, he was quick to realise—the premise and the promise shone like a brilliant white light at the end of an otherwise dark and claustrophobic tunnel.
In the time it took Jordan to fully appreciate that light, Belsair had produced from the many folds of his cloak a leather pouch and an ornate smoking pipe. He sat now on the end of Jordan’s bed and opened the pouch. Instantly, the rich smell of fresh tobacco treated with rum and wine filled the air.
“The evening before setting out on a mission,” Belsair explained as he proceeded to fill the bowl of the pipe, “I buy myself a pouch of the most expensive tobacco. That, my friend, is my ritual. We all have one. Everyone, that is, except the craven and the weak-willed. While we sit and contemplate, our Melvin is cavorting with all manners of low life scum. I bet you the contents of this pouch—which cost quite a few gold pieces I must say—that he returns of an early morning hour reeking of cheap wine and perfume. If he isn’t laid out in some back alley with his neck opened and his shirt soaked in blood.”
“I’d be a fool to bet against that,” Jordan replied, feeling the first true smile creep over his own face in at least a week.