Here’s another excerpt from War in Arbin – Release date is March 5th
Maybe there was no such thing as luck. We can pray and beseech, take the same route to the market every fourth day of the new moon, stroke the head or phallus of some granite figurine—maybe it all meant nothing. Seemed like when the dice fell your way a few times it’s easy enough to put it down to skill or just desserts; but it’s when they’re falling the wrong way that luck seems real to me.
Maybe if you take it seriously enough you can turn your back when things are looking ill, crawl back into bed and wait out the day. Except when there’s a job to be done.
So were the dark directions of my thoughts as I gazed on the still-lit shutters’ edges. Two problems with the picture: the light, and the shutters.
The job was meant to be easy—the wife was due back the next day, and either she or whoever else had ordered the hit didn’t want her there or wanted her to come home to find him dead. So, tonight it was.
Except there’d been a damn party that was already well under way when I’d arrived. And I wasn’t invited. For hours I’d sat up on the opposite roof, hunched against the swirling wind, listening to the put-on joy of people that didn’t have to worry about the next day. I’d watched revellers stumble in and out of the street below, more than a few to empty their guts in the rain-puddled gutter, while the hired security lugs watched them with just enough attention to ensure they didn’t fall face-first and drown in their leavings. I felt some sort of brotherhood for those bored thugs; but there was envy, too. They’d be getting paid more, for starters. And they were out of the wind.
The shindig wasn’t part of the client’s plan; usually they’d pay more for a public gesture. That said, what jobs there were paid piss-all anyway.
That was half the problem. There wasn’t enough work to make bailing viable.
So I’d waited it out. I kept glancing eastward for the dawn, though I knew it was still hours off. And as winter reached its frost-rimed hands towards Arbin, those snow-capped peaks seemed to hold the dawn down longer with each passing day. My body knew the night had hours to go—I was just being impatient.
And I hated how that smacked of desperation.
The cold didn’t help none.
The chilled, taut cable of my bow had gone back into my cloak hours before, while the guests still gambolled on the lower floors, and the only light in the host’s bedroom came from lost or furtive torchbearers seeking a shrouded nook for a rendezvous.
I rubbed my hands. Despite the cold I had a late night thirst. It hadn’t helped when the guests stumbled out with sloshing wineskins and jars of ale. They seemed to find their way into the guards’ hands, no doubt along with coin-filled purses before the merrymakers were heaved up and carried round front and bundled in a cart bound for home.
It was almost an hour now since the festivities dampened and the last guest left. The security had made off an hour before that, their terms well-negotiated. My count was clear and, unless a latecomer slipped unseen into the noisy mirth, the host was alone.
And yet here I sat watching the flickering of candlelight around the first-floor shutters. He didn’t sleep with the light on—I’d established that the night before. Maybe he’d passed out drunk and neglected to snuff them.
This was the problem with winter. One of them. There was nothing to enjoy in it, yet it seemed to last forever as though the cold slowed the world’s mechanisms. I was convinced that one year it would just stop forever and we’d be trapped in eternal frozen misery.
Just when I’d resigned myself to a life of waiting, the lights began to go out. Three stages of dimming as the hit rounded the room snuffing candles.
I readied myself, checked my weapons, and secured my bow. I was about to stand when boot steps sounded smartly in the street below.
A hiss whispered between my teeth on a curl of steam.
Creeping to the edge on stiff joints I watched two soldiers sauntering down the street and then angling beneath the eaves to the street’s edge.
“Move along there,” came a voice that seemed to boom in the deathly dark of night.
A mumbled response, more a whine, then a scuff on stone followed by a thump. That whine again, then, “If you don’t move along you’ll wake in a cell.”
There was silence a moment as the victim pondered this option, then more scraping sounds and a groan.
“You stink. You shit yerself?”
There were more mumbles and a soldier backed up into my line of sight dragging a miserable looking fellow in a bright green coat. He could well have been jettisoned from the party after the guard moved on. The soldiers helped him to the centre of the street and he began laying down a complicated argument or a tale of his depravity while they shepherded him past the mansion and out of sight.
I waited a few more minutes to let their distant voices die down, and give the neighbours a chance to fall back asleep, then made my way across the rooftop to the adjacent house and down to the street. The mansion was actually an old warehouse that had been gutted and rebuilt and the front facing dolled up to look like a noble’s playhouse and secure it. The roof had been remodelled with steep sides and slick tiles. The near wall I’d been watching, which happened to bear the resident’s sleeping quarters, was the only easy access point.
Down in the street the smell of piss and spilled liquor was almost thick enough to hide the musty smell of damp stone. I picked my way between the darker puddles and stood beneath the window. There was no blending in with the pale limestone veneer, so a quick look either direction then I climbed above the shuttered ground floor window and reached up to grab the sill.
Feet balanced on the arched protrusion of stone below, I reached with one hand into my cloak and pulled out a twisted length of wire to open the shutter latch. I twisted my shoulder and my right foot slipped on a mouldy patch—my hand came off the sill but left a tranche of skin behind, the wire fell as I tried to balance myself with that hand, and I heard my cloak tear as it snagged on an out-thrust stone. For a moment, cursing myself colourfully, I sat splayed against the wall, one knee taking my weight, hand stinging, hoping the wind stayed down. I saw the wire strip balanced on my toe, wavering. I shifted a little, regained some balance, and reached carefully and grabbed it between two fingers.
I was about to smile in triumph or relief when a hacking cough burst from within the room just above my head. I paused then, an acrobat mid-tumble, and I realised how precariously I hung.
The coughing ended with a mumble and a smacking of lips. Limbs burning, I righted myself, taking care with my footholds, put the wire between my teeth and drew myself up on the windowsill. I blew on the cut on my hand, and clenched my fist tight to hide the sting.
I’d wasted enough time, so I crouched there only long enough to hear a handful of ragged boozy snores, then slipped the wire between the shutters and lifted the latch and pushed one side open enough to let me slip in.
The room was not pitch dark, even when I leaned the shutter to behind me. The bed was large and square, and flanked on either side by squat tables bearing candlesticks, piles of books, and on the far one a thrown-off shirt. A mirror hung by the door, and across the room from the bed was a tall double-doored wardrobe, the left door open two finger-widths and the round bow of a brass key sitting in its lock. The hit, a generously jowled fellow with oily sheened dark hair combed across his forehead, slept bent double with his mouth agape. A well-trodden carpet covered the floor and muffled the noise of my footsteps as I crossed the room to peer out the open door to the hallway beyond. The house was quiet, as though the very walls slept exhausted from the night’s depravity.
I backtracked into the room and drew a dagger from my belt.
As I got to the foot of the bed, boot steps sounded softly out on the street and I paused, waiting for them to pass. They faded as their owner went around the corner. Certain there was no one else passing, I breathed out and turned to my target.
He was sitting up in bed, silently, eyes wide open, watching me.
We stared at each other for only a heartbeat—a long one, for I think mine stopped—then his eyes shifted towards the door and he let out a wordless roar.