My heart stopped for a solid minute as I pondered the implications of what I had just seen.
The princess? She was the only person I knew who possessed such a distinctive hair color- Even the coloring of her close family, of her brothers and sisters, was a duller shade than what I had just seen highlighted in the moonlight.
But that was extremely unlikely- Even as headstrong as the princess had proven to be recently, she was no idiot, so I doubted that she would follow me into the back alleys of the slums of all places. Also, I would have noticed her immediately, considering that the only advantage the princess had in going unnoticed was her natural lack of presence- She would never have been able to keep up with me, let alone follow me unerringly through the darkened alleys that I had traveled.
And, as if more evidence was necessary, there was no way the knight and the maid would have allowed the princess to leave the inn without them, and while I may have missed the maid there was no conceivable way for me to have not noticed that hulk of a knight trying to tail me.
However, even at the end of this obtuse line of reasoning, I was no closer to ascertaining the identity of the individual shadowing me, and so my musings were rendered utterly useless. So, feeling utterly aggravated, I tore my sword free of it’s cadaver-formed sheath and swung it twice to free it from the worst of the offal and gore before returning it to its proper, leather-clad place by my side.
“Sated, are you? I should hope so, considering how many souls I just gave to you. A word of thanks would be appreciated, you know.”
The blade didn’t respond. It never did. Though part of me did wonder if one day, after I had gorged it upon the blood of every enemy I had faced, it might speak to me. If it did, I wonder what it would sound like? The song-voice of the goddess the Sisters of Bloody Snow claim they trapped within its wolf-like hilt? Or perhaps it would reward me with something I’d never heard before, like a siren’s song or a mother’s loving voice.
Or perhaps it would be the voices of my victims, a chorus thousands strong screaming from hell to warn me of what awaited my soul once my mortal body turned to ash.
Not that I feared judgement, or even death for that matter. After all, when one has a plan, fear becomes muted in the face of a worthy challenge.
But enough on that- I had a spy to deal with before I could end the night’s business.
I turned and lunged towards the corner from around which my observer peeked, pushing myself to reach and round the corner in a matter of breaths so that my prey couldn’t escape my sight. Indeed they were fast, whoever or whatever they were, considering they had nearly made it a third of the way down the next alley by the time I had fully rounded the corner, but they were smaller than I, and not as efficient in their movements.
I caught them at the end of the alley, where it diverged in a split- One end leading deeper into the slums, and the other leading back towards my new inn. I snatched them up and slammed them against the wall, though I immediately had to drop them in order to catch the hand the struck towards my face with a glinting blade. A quick twist and a knee were all it took to disarm my prey and drive the breath from their lungs, and they fell to their knees gasping and heaving from the second knee I drove into their solar plexus. I took the opportunity to observe my new playmate as I tossed their taken blade back and forth from hand to hand. It was a clean little thing, a little shorter than my longest finger and half again as wide, unadorned but wicked sharp, and the plain wooden handle was well-worn with use.
As for the observer, they indeed had flaming hair just like the princess, and more in common besides. Small, lean, and lacking any sort of physical presence, this child- And indeed, they were a child- could have passed for the princess’s body double at a distance. I couldn’t speak for the face, or the gender, as they were still hunched over gasping, but I had already come up with a dozen potential uses for such an individual. It was a shame I would have to torture and maim them horribly for any information they might have.
A shame for them.
Tightening my grip on the stolen blade, I reached down and grabbed the figure by the back of the neck and lifted them to their feet, then promptly cursed and threw them up against the wall as they tried to slash wildly at me with a second blade. Casting away the other blade, I slapped the wildly swing hand away and moved in, pinning the child against the wall with my body while each of my arms seized one of theirs by the forearm and pinned those as well.
This brought me face to face with my little opponent, and I was struck by a number of things all at once. One was their gender- They had to be female, judging from the cheekbones and thin face. Another was just how similar to the princess’s face this spy’s was- Nearly the same eyes, though this pair was a duller green, and a similar pattern of light freckles on pale skin all combined to make this child a shockingly faithful artist’s rendition of the princess.
Honestly though, if I may confide in you my dear reader, what struck me the hardest of all was her forehead- It slammed into my own with much the same effect as cracking one rock on a slightly larger one.
Cursing again, I slammed her arm against the wall until she dropped the blade, then pinned both of her arms above her head with one of mine while my other hand seized her by the throat, preventing any more weapons or weaponized body parts from being wielded against me.
Snarling, I began to squeeze the girl’s thin neck even as she continued to struggle, trying to bite me. I didn’t have time for this.
“Listen to me, child, if you don’t stop making my life difficult by the time I reach one, I am going to wring your neck like a chicken’s. After I give you to my men, of course. They deserve some rewards now and again, don’t they? Five.”
There was fear in her eyes, I could see it now, shining through her messy hair as she tried even more desperately. I grinned as viciously as I could.
“You know, a pretty little thing like you wouldn’t normally last long under the attentions of my men, they can get pretty… excited, at times. But you are young, so I think you might be able to last longer than most. Four.”
She tried to kick me, but ended up just flailing at the air behind me even as the fear in her eyes grew, and I couldn’t tell if it was sweat or tears that stained her face.
“You might be hoping that I’m lying, or that I’ll just kill you. I’m not, and I won’t. As you’ve already seen, your age and circumstances don’t really matter to me. I couldn’t care less if you worked for Kail, or if you’re one of Velera’s girls, or even if that soon-to-be mausoleum of a castle sent you. The only thing I care about is seeing my plans through to the end. And you are making that difficult. Three.”
Her eyes darted back towards the previous alley, where she had witnessed me slaughter children much like her just moments ago, and I could see the resignation in her eyes as she went limp. I smiled again, much more kindly this time. Then I tightened my grip on her throat.
I let her gag and choke desperately for several moments, then loosened my grip and leaned in to whisper in her ear.
“If you attempt to move in any way, I will assume you are going for a knife and I will break you. And then I’ll make good on my promises from earlier, and destroy you. Blink if you understand.”
She blinked rapidly through the tears streaming from her eyes, and I let her down and stepped back, still keeping my hand loosely wrapped around her frail little neck.
“Good girl. We are going to get along fabulously. Now then, who sent you?”
She glared at me, still breathing hard, and coughed slightly as she spoke in a voice notably stronger than the princess’s.
“I was sent by Kail.”
I smiled encouragingly, then struck like a snake and smacked her across the face before tightening my grip on her throat again. As she gurgled and choked and struggled to remain standing, I sighed sadly and shook my head.
“Ah, well. That was my fault, I suppose. I didn’t even think to mention the punishment for lying.”
I loosened my grip just enough so that she wouldn’t pass out.
“I am extremely talented at picking out liars, and you aren’t even a very good one quite honestly. Kail would never send someone that I could notice so easily, and besides, I think he already knows a number of my plans regardless. So there would be no reason to risk my ire by sending some novice like yourself to shadow me. No, you are here either on the orders of someone in the castle, or… Velera.”
The slight shudder I felt from her confirmed my suspicion. I grinned in delight.
“Oh, that’s just wonderful! How is my old ‘friend’ anyway? I know she survived the assassins I sent, but beyond that I haven’t kept tabs on the old bitch, if I’m being honest. To be fair though, I’ve been… distracted.”
The girl watched me warily, still struggling to breath thanks to my rather unforgiving grip.
“She- she wants you dead. Mistress Velera hates you, you’re the only person whose name she won’t allow us to say. Every time she mentions you, she grimaces and rubs her arm.”
There was a question hidden in there, and I had to admire the girl’s guts- She was trying to fish for information while I quite literally held her life in my hands. She was definitely one of Velera’s.
“Well, I should hope that she hates me! I went out of my way to make it so, after all. See we, and by that I mean my company and I, often worked in or through this city. Not surprising, considering its size and such, but I consistently ran into a problem whenever I was here for long periods of time- I was bored. Cripplingly so. We were usually just guarding a noble estate, or serving as enforcers and guards for merchants and visitors, and none of that really fell into my jurisdiction. So I was bored, like I said. And then I had a wonderful thought- If I created a source of continuous entertainment for whenever I was in the city, then I wouldn’t be nearly so bored! So I set about creating my own little production, a drama that would live and breathe and grow in my absence.”
I paused to make sure the girl was listening. She was. I choked her anyway, so she wouldn’t think I was getting complacent.
“Where was I, oh, yes. Do you know, this sytem where the slums are divided into thirds is relatively new? I mean, there have always been gangs and whores and murderers, and there were some Slum Lords, but none possessed the wealth or power that the Slum Lords of today possess. In fact, the slums were almost exactly like any other part of the city, except for the relative squalor and lack of guards. Well, I found that to be unacceptable, and so I set about looking for someone who I could elevate as a contender for ruler of the slums, so that I could more easily direct the ‘drama’ as it were. Well, in one alley I happened to come across quite the scene- A young woman, from some disgraced family of low nobles, being raped by a trio of thugs from one gang or another. Well, they had clearly been at it for sometime, and they weren’t being gentle either let me tell you, but the woman still hadn’t broken- Mentally, I mean. Physically, I wasn’t sure she would make it, but like I said- I was bored. So, I stepped in and broke both knees on each man, then offered the woman a chance to take her revenge. She did, and quite cruelly as well. Well, after determining that she did indeed have the temperment I needed, I began moving in the shadows to set her up as a powerful individual in the slums. It took a few months, but once she got started she actually proved quite adept at the practice. Eventually, I removed myself from the scene except for appearing now and again to offer advice, and all on her own she grew into an excellent position to dominate the slums, and maybe even bring some semblance of society to the filthy streets. Well, I thought that was boring, so I carved down a section of her organization, then propped up another individual as a rival to her power. Still, she kept trying to interfere and dominate the slums before my second ‘actor’ was ready, so I had to punish her. I poisoned her with a non-lethal and untreatable tincture that leaves its victims with consistent, agonizing pain in their limbs, and I sold the location of her secret family to the highest bidder. After that, she either fell into depression for a while or got my message, because I finished setting up her rival and split the slums equally between them without much more trouble. Of course, nothing can go according to plan and my other ‘actor’ went and got himself killed during some sort of coup attempt, which led to his faction splintering into the origins of the Butchers and the Rats, which came to be as you know them a few years later. But all of that is besides the point- Now you know, Velera has a lot of reasons to hate me, and I don’t think it helped that I occasionally sent assassins after her with unsigned messages so that she wouldn’t forget or ignore me.”
The girl was watching me with disgust and fear evident on her face, and I adopted a mockingly confused expression.
“What? My plan succeeded- I haven’t been bored in this city for a very long time. Besides, what are a few lives in the face of this wonderful, breathing play that I helped create? Or do you perhaps think that I am lying, fabricating a tale to hide a much more banal truth? Well, I might be. But again, that hardly matters- Rejoice child, I’ve a job for you, and it doesn’t involve dying. By my hand, anyway. I need you to go to Velera, tell her to expect me in the darkest of the night two days from now. Tell her to await me in that rooftop garden that she loves so dearly. Tell her that the scriptwriter has come to finish his production, and that her role has two possible finales- And that our meeting will decide what end I pen for her. Do this, and the finale you enjoy might actually be enjoyable.”
I released her fully, stepping back and kicking her discarded knives back towards her.
“Hurry along now. No, don’t speak, you have nothing to say anyway. Go.”
She glared at me as I waved her away, but quickly scooped up her blades and sprinted into the darkness. I gazed upwards as she departed, and was relieved to see the moon had only sunk a little towards the slum rooftops- I still had time to make my appointment.
Grinning, I turned and set my cloak aflutter as I strode deeper into the slums, my footsteps falling like the first few beats of a war-drum before the darkness enshrouded me, and the only trace of my passage left was my laughter echoing like a forgotten bell through the blood-stained alleys.