The first thing I remember was that the man’s pudgy pink face aroused this deep, hidden anger within me. Thinking back now, I should have paid more attention to it. No, not the damned face. The anger that boiled inside me.
You know part of my story already, don’t you? Then you know how contracts work. I’ve killed men like that one before, from the bidding of others just like him. A few words, a sketch of a face, some silver, and that’s all it takes for someone to die in these wild parts. Then again, without these same men hating each other, I wouldn’t have had a job to do. Hush now; let me get into the story.
The air reeked of a peculiar smell that morning. I couldn’t figure out if it was the tavern that blessed me with the stench of rotten mutton, or if it was simply the foul odours of that man sitting in front of me.
“Ah yes, your past employer spoke very highly of you,” the plump man said across the table. A smidgen of spittle landed near me after the word ‘spoke’.
“Just call me Jimmy.”
“Sure. So Jimmy, you’ve been quite the dedicated employee to our mutual friend. He’s told me that you had fulfilled every contract without a single rejection. It’s like a contract with the God of Death itself.”
“That’s right,” I said. No point in being humble. Humility usually translated to fewer silvers for a contract, and a mediocre reputation that stuck to you like horseshit wherever you went.
“Well then, I have an offer for you. I work for someone who wished not to be present.”
I don’t think he noticed the groan that escaped me. Here was another man who was frustratingly new to this. Everyone feels so damn powerful when they have a big bag of shiny silver coins. They think the metal inside can promise to get rid of any enemy they choose. Like a damned silver genie where you replenish your wishes with more expensive coins.
And you know what? They’re right. Why the hell did I keep doing it? I should have called it quits after little Ashley was born. It pains me to think how many seasons have passed since that moment. I admit—I’ve lost track.
“If you succeed there’ll be a thousand silvers for you, boy.”
Holy hell did that take a moment to sink in. That was vastly more than any of my past contract payments.
“You’ll find a hundred silvers as an advance in the apartment I’ve rented, the name under which I have completely made up, mind you. Be there two hours early. You’ll find the sketch sealed in an envelope. Memorize the face well,” he said, and took a generous sip of his dark red wine.
“I have a keen memory for faces, don’t you worry about that.” Goddamn, he really had to mention that it was rented under another name? Was this really his first time ordering a contract? Maybe it was all a scam. Who the hell would pay a thousand silvers for a single bloody contract? You know, I even thought that I should have been a little more kind to him at that moment.
The man’s lips tightened as he looked across the table.
“And I have a keen memory as well. If you, for any reason, decide to take the money and leave, well then,” the man paused for a moment, and looked straight into my eyes. “Be assured that the next sketch will be of you.”
“Don’t be making any threats, now. At the end of the day, I’m the one with the musket,” I fired back.
“And I expect you to use it. Come on, Jimmy. You’ve done this before. Don’t make it harder for either of us. You’ll find all you need to get the contract done here,” he slid an envelope towards me on the table.
“I know. And once the contract is done and whoever you wish to die is dead, I expect full payment, to the very last silver,” I took the envelope, and headed towards the exit.
“Come back here tomorrow, one hour after the job is done. Call me Alfonso, by the way. I’ll be waiting.”
I walked out the tavern feeling a thousand silvers richer. I thought I would finally call it quits after that one, and pay more attention to Asha, my love, and little Ashley. Maybe I could have finally started to be a real father, and be there for them.
Well, a man can dream, can’t he?
The next day rolled over like clockwork. I gave my usual excuse to Asha before departing on horseback: I had a high paying elderly customer waiting at my shop today, but this one’s a lot wealthier than I expected. I was supposed to be an owner of a shop that sold these beautifully designed canes, and I was wearing my only white suit on that sunny day. I’d come to think of the suit as the “White Lie”. Every time I had put it on, lies spilled from its deep pockets. The suit shielded me, telling me that no harm came from all of my dishonesty. It was almost a ritual. New contract — put on the suit.
I kept thinking that if Asha ever found out what I did, it would have been the end of me. Especially my little Ashley; she didn’t deserve to bear the pain of understanding who her father really was. She was only twenty seasons of age at the time.
Then again, I remember I didn’t really know what I had become. A cold killer for the city’s rotten elite? Or am I just another means to deliver justice, to those who escape the rule of law by bribery and corruption? I tried my hardest to believe in the second one. But money also blinds those whose eyes have not gotten used to seeing it much. And so it blinded me.
An ugly piece of architecture that Alfonso called “a four story hotel” appeared before me. I dropped down from my horse, and tied her to a post beside a water trough. The building looked completely out of place; the walls looked like they haven’t been painted in gods know how many seasons, and a pale yellow colour stalked around the edges of the building. The neighbourhood itself was in a wealthier part of the city, with the governor of East Chefron’s palace around the block, and the lavish Eastwater Theater on the opposite side of the hotel. I had the keys, and I knew the room that Alfonso rented. I wasted no time standing outside, even though it was a gorgeous sunny day. Sunny days are always in short supply here, aren’t they?
Inside the room, the few objects inside made the whole damned place feel so empty. With only a tattered bed and a small, old wooden table, the poorly lit room felt stretched, and much larger than it really was. The rough wooden floorboard creaked heavily after each step of my leather shoes, and a soft echo bounced around me. Each creak felt like a lute string snapping. No, not just the sound — the hollow feeling that accompanies it… It didn’t sit right with me.
I dropped my bag near the couch, and in it my disassembled musket and my pistol clanked against each other, along with my other tools. The musket had never failed me; a special weapon made from a fine gunsmith many seasons ago. He had experimented with adding what he called ‘hexagonal rifling’ inside the barrel. From what I know, it had never been done before. I enjoyed my unbeatable range advantage. With that musket, I was invincible. I was the finger of death that took and could never been taken in return.
Fuck. The finger of death? Is that what I called myself? I was a bloody hitman for the elite of this forsaken city of liars and cheats. I got a pretty silver for pulling the trigger and taking a life that had made too many enemies and too few friends. Far less than a thousand silvers should have been enough for me to quit that shit in a heartbeat. Anything would have looked better on my resume than an endless list of contract killings.
Even my humour was slowly starting to die — no hitman required. Hah.
Oh, shut up. At least I’m trying to brighten the mood. It’s going to get a lot darker from here.
Assembling my special musket took almost no time at all. I had done it so many times that I could do it even if I was blind. Not that it would be much use to me if I was. I sat down under the windowsill, and poured the perfect amount of firedust down the barrel. I dropped some paper filler and the smooth lead ball tumbled with it. I swung open the window. Fresh air and the warm light of the Season of Fire rushed into the old room.
I left my musket leaning against the wall and looked at the wooden table near the couch. A large white envelope, almost the size of the small table’s surface patiently waited for me. I ripped it open and found what I needed, a sketch of the target. I had about an hour before the target was supposed to exit from the Eastwater Theater.
I took a good long look of the sketch.
I’ll tell you honestly: my hands trembled, and a cold sweat immediately ran across my back.
It was the face of a young boy, just barely escaping the comfort of childhood.
I couldn’t take the life of a child. I never had, and never will. Perhaps not all the men I’ve killed deserved to die prematurely, but none of them were clean slates. They were all hated by someone. Perhaps by a lover scorned, or a wife cheated. Perhaps they were businessmen that looted the land, or politicians that lied to the people. You’ve heard of them before — the clichés of contract killings. Maybe they killed someone special and escaped justice, and the relatives came to me as a last resort. But a child is none of these. A child is innocent. Even now the thoughts of my little Ashley are running through my mind.
I returned to the windowsill and slumped down, feeling a thousand silvers poorer.
What did the boy do to have their sketch bound to a contract of death? Was this some kind of vengeance against his family by Alfonso’s client? Perhaps his anger is not with the child, but with the mother. Maybe the child was not his, and he wished to get revenge not at the mother, but at whoever the father was? Contracts arose from spoiled passions and broken marriages all the time. But children were always left out of contracts.
And yet, what if that was not the case? Perhaps the boy had troubled someone themselves? What if he had a disturbed mind that skinned cats, and nailed birds down to wooden planks? What if he killed someone else’s child in a deadly outburst? What if he wasn’t a clean slate after all?
I needed a reason, any reason at all. My mind was racing, trying to justify the contract as much a doomed climber clawing at cracks in the mountain before a fall. I lifted my musket, and tried to hold it steady in my hands. I knew that in a few minutes, the orchestra that the child and mother attended would end, and they would both come out. As per the letter in the envelope, they will wait for a personal carriage to arrive, and when the crowd is gone and they’re all alone, I should make my move.
The doors of the Theater flung open and a large crowd of jubilant noblemen and women spilled out, and carried loud conversations, but still walked gracefully and slowly. You know how it is. Nobility absolves you of any need for hurry.
Alfonso was right. A woman and a young boy remained, standing on the edge of the sidewalk while the rest of the crowd dissipated. I raised the musket and balanced it on the edge of the windowsill, with not even a sliver of the barrel protruding outside. I aimed for the boy, but my finger wasn’t going to budge. To think, even a small twitch on my side would have made me end that child’s life. Just a thoughtless twitch.
A bird landed next to my musket on the windowsill. I cannot help nowadays but to keep remembering how it looked like: wings of blue, short and stubby, with a black, shiny breast. A tiny chirp squeaked out of its tiny beak. And then it happened.
A vicious crack thundered in my ears. The boy in my crosshairs jerked, and fell to the ground without any resistance. Like a sack of rocks. Crimson red blood radiated around the exit wound on his back, and slowly crawled across his ruffled white shirt. The mother let out a terrible scream. A small echo ricocheted inside my small room.
What happened, you ask? I panicked, that’s what.
No, don’t look at me that way. I didn’t pull the trigger. I swear to you I didn’t. Everything afterwards had burnt into my memory so cleanly: I was confused, so I removed the ramrod and smelled the end of the musket just to be sure — only a faint smell of gunpowder, but not of fire or smoke. I flipped my musket, violently banged the barrel end on the floor, and eventually the guts of the gun spilled out: firedust flew out of the end, and scattered all over the place; the bullet escaped and bounced across the floor.
I didn’t shoot the boy. In hindsight, leaving the bullet on the floor with all that firedust scattered everywhere wasn’t even an amateur mistake. It was the most idiotic thing I’d ever done. It was on the same level as leaving your legal name etched into the wood at the scene of the crime.
Although, I still don’t think that’s that was the reason why I’m here, sitting with you. Stop looking at me like that. I mean no offense, it’s just… anyway. Let me get back to my story.
I saw the city guards rush into some apartment near the Eastwater Theater. Whoever shot the boy didn’t stand a chance; they were too close to the target. Escaping, at that point, was impossible.
I heaved a great, deep breath. Who was it? With the city guards running around, I decided being in a room with a musket, firedust on the floor, and a sketch of the child that died was not quite the best idea. So I quickly cleaned up as well as I could, and calmly made my leave, drawing no suspicions to myself. But you never know.
Under my white suit, I hid my small loaded pistol. I rode for the tavern.
Alfonso and I needed to talk.
It was mid-afternoon when I entered the tavern. I didn’t see Alfonso at first, but I’ll be honest with you: I took a whiff of the air, and smelled him before I saw him.
The tavern was almost empty at that time, and the smell coming from one corner of the room reeked of pig fat and alcohol. So I went up to him, and didn’t say a word when I sat down across him. It was a bit dark with the curtains drawn.
“Ah, Jim,” he said, finishing the last mouthful of his amber ale. He wiped his mouth with his cuffs, his greasy hands over his pants, and then tried to shake my hand. I just looked at him, trying to burn a hole in his skull with my eyes. Aye, but I’m no Ersidoni mage, but I wish I was. I would have broken his body at that moment with whatever terrible black magic that was popular down south.
“How was your day?” he licked his lips. My nails scratched the wooden table as I resisted the urge to strangle the bastard.
“Who killed the boy? Why did you order a child to be killed?” I scowled.
He picked at bits of food stuck in between his teeth with his tongue, and didn’t sever his gaze with me.
“Why my boss had the boy placed on a contract is neither of our concern. But I’ll tell you what happened, since you’re probably dying to know. You see, Jimmy, I hired two of you killer rats for the same job. Whoever didn’t have the nerves to carry it out, lost the contract. Thank you for admitting that it was you. You can keep the hundred silvers.”
“I want the other nine hundred.”
“You didn’t kill the boy. You don’t get the rest.” It was sizzling hot inside the tavern, and I couldn’t tell if he was starting to sweat because of our conversation. They don’t call it the Season of Fire for no reason.
“The other guy you hired, he got caught. He isn’t going to get paid,” I told him.
“That’s not my problem. He got caught, so yes, he doesn’t get paid. And you didn’t shoot, so you won’t either.”
“You’re not leaving this tavern until you honor the contract. The boy was killed, and you’re going to pay what you promised for his death.”
Alfonso reached for his pack beside him, and I pulled my pistol from underneath my shirt. He was faster than I expected for a man of his shape. I knew he had a pistol pointed at me under the table.
“Shoot me in a public place?” I said.
“It’s quite empty at this time of day. Have a look around. It’s like the pathetic drunks of this city hate the sun, and come to guzzle on ale and mead only at night.”
“As opposed to you, you’re such a faithful drunken bastard that you’ll drink that crap anytime you want. Am I right?” I didn’t have a clear shot of his vitals under the table with my pistol. We were far enough away that there was no way anyone in the tavern noticed what was going on.
Gods, was it blazing hot that day. A drop of sweat ran down from my forehead, and pooled at the tip of my nose. I flinched as soon as it dropped. And then the violent burst of the pistol exploded right in front of me. Smoke filled the air, a horrible pain ripped through my hip, and my ears rung like one of those instruments at the theater, whatever they’re called. You know — the irritating metal ones.
My instincts took over, and I raised my pistol up to Alfonso’s head. He pushed the table onto me as he got up, and I pulled the trigger just before it toppled over on me. He collapsed onto the floor with a loud, dull thump. His head was a bloody mess.
“Guards! Gods be heard, guards!” the tavern keeper bellowed. I skittered out of there as fast as I could with a bloody hip, and took off on my horse before anyone could stop me. If you haven’t ridden a horse with a bullet lodged in your hip, you’re missing out on the joys of life. I almost puked from the pain.
I arrived at my home, and my White Lie was completely ruined by the blood, some of which wasn’t mine. Asha and Ashley ran outside as they must have seen me coming, and what happened next was a symphony of calm shock, then a hurricane of rage, and finally a downpour of tears. All in such quick succession that I didn’t know what to do. So I simply told them, “We need to get out of here. Grab the essentials, and pack it on the horse.”
While they collected their things, I changed clothes and bandaged my wound. I didn’t have time to remove the bullet, but I did the next best thing: I reloaded my pistol, and put it inside my satchel. It was the first time Asha saw me hold a firearm.
You must imagine my surprise when I came back outside and saw him, all proud and clean.
“Sir, witnesses saw you shoot and take off from the Silver Feather tavern. As Guard of the City of Eastwater, I place you under arrest for murder. Surrender peacefully.”
Asha came outside with a bundle of clothes in her arms.
I placed my hand on top of my satchel flap. I didn’t say a word.
“Jimmy, no!” Asha yelled.
There was nothing stopping me from killing him. He was young and naïve to come alone. He held his musket in front of him, but awkwardly, as if him displaying the weapon would be enough for me to submit. I’d draw my pistol faster than he could blink.
I looked back at my two girls. I could have left with the only two people that mattered to me, and buried the past where it would never return to haunt me.
But I didn’t. I didn’t want them to see who I really was. I didn’t want them to see what I’ve seen for years: death, close enough that you could smell it. The shudder a man makes once a bullet pierces his skull. The cloud of blood that follows. He was just a kid, probably had a sweetheart waiting for him after his shift. And frankly, I just didn’t want any more blood on my hands.
“Listen. I’ve got a bullet in my hip and I’m hungry. If you can solve one of these problems, then we can be friends,” I said.
I dropped my satchel, and surrendered to the guard. Ashley came running up to me, while Asha collapsed onto the porch and wept. Before the guard took me away, I whispered to Ashley: “Lift the floor planks under your bed. Do it after the guard leaves with me. Tell Mother to put the bags you find on the horse, and ride away, far away where no one can find you.”
“Ma’am, I ask you to stay here with your child. You will be questioned soon.”
I knew he had to send for more of his buddies to arrive. That left my girls with a bit of time to make their escape. I hope they did, but I’ll ever know for sure. If Ashley did what I said, they should have had enough silver to last them for dozens of seasons. All the contracts that I did, it was all there in those bags under the floor.
“Prisoner 1025, you are ordered to stop talking to whoever it is that you’re imagining. You are disturbing other prisoners. If you fail to stop, you will be locked in the isolation unit until you yield. Is that clear?”
Sorry for the interruption. The prison watch here is restless. Go ahead now. I’ve told you my story. You don’t need to know how it ends.