The next day Raulin cheerfully crossed the short bridge to the barbican and entered the bailey through the tunnel. He stopped short at the entrance and people slammed into his back and grumbled. “A castle,” he said in a wowed tone.
“Yes, we have two of them!” a man said, adjusting his bowler hat.
“Two!” Raulin exclaimed. “What an amazing city.”
He stopped to finger the banner of Sharka hanging on the wall, a gray banner with red stitching of the crest. He turned suddenly, as if he had just realized there was more to the castle, and gasped.
Now that he was up close, Raulin could see why there was a separate garrison for the guards to train. The bailey had been transformed into a garden, complete with a fountain in the middle. Several beds of flowers picked out a pattern by color. Short, trimmed hedges outlined everything. It was a dainty paradise that served no function in war, not even to feed people in a siege.
Outside the circular garden were tables and booths arranged in rows, several dozen crammed side-to-side. Raulin stood in the middle, pondering which way to go, until an irritate man grabbed him by the shoulders and twisted him to the left. “That way!” he said and harrumphed before saddling past Raulin.
“Thank you!” he said, but the man was already in the crowd.
And what a crowd there was in that small bailey. A few hundred packed in to get great deals on items already reduced in price. Societies looking to recruit spoke in animated gestures to guileless young men with deep pockets. Restaurants and patisseries sold finger foods at high demand. Shops from all over Carvek had their wares displayed on their tables, hoping to catch someone’s eye instead of dust in a shop.
Raulin made his way around slowly. He scaled back the country bumpkin act a bit; now that he had been noted as bothersome and boorish, he could slide into the crowd. Should anyone remember him, no one would connect the bumbling oaf with a skilled assassination.
Still, he needed to make it seem like he was there to pry and buy instead of scoping out the castle. He looked over the price list of wines and the menus of restaurants, shook hangs with politicians he’d never vote for, and examined several pieces of jewelry sprawled across several tables. He haggled down the price of an earring and necklace set made of crystal and aquamarines. In his line of work, it was always nice to have a gift for a woman ready. He’d have to work on the story to go with it.
When he had gone once around, he found the busier tables and pretended to listen or wait while he took in as much information about the bailey as possible. How easy would it be for him to climb on the roof? Where did they store the tables when they weren’t in use? What could he guess was the floor plan for the chateau?
When listening to a man drone on about men’s fashion, he spotted a young couple drift over to a garden next to the manor. The woman took off her glove and gently brushed one of the trellised flowers. When her beau leaned in to smell it, she pushed several in his face to his alarm and delight. They laughed and walked arm-in-arm farther into the garden.
Raulin looked around and saw no one else watching them. He sauntered towards the back of the bailey, admiring the little beds of irises and lilies, and timed it so he passed the couple as they left the garden. He looked closely at the wisteria, taking in the aroma, and slipped behind the trellises.
A few years prior, Raulin had been struck by curiosity and seen a play involving a trirec. He had sat with a small smirk as he watched the man hide behind a tree until night fell. His friend had leaned over and said exactly what he was thinking. “Rather cliched, isn’t it? Will he also be hiding in a wardrobe and using a secret entrance?” And yet, here was Raulin doing exactly that: hiding in a garden until nightfall. He supposed that, if he had wanted to do this with panache, he should have allotted more time.
Once he crawled into a rhododendron bush, he quickly changed, putting on his mask before taking off his clothes to reveal his arong-miil. Once his knapsack was packed and cinched, he considered himself somewhat safe. If he was going to get caught, he’d rather get caught in a role that would allow him to do the most damage and wouldn’t expose his identity.
All he had to do was wait. He had a minimum of five hours before the estate would be settled enough to enter. It did risk the guards returning, but he suspected they would just watch the gate and not add to the number in the household.
Raulin’s training kicked in. His mind grew quiet and his body still as he litanied many things. Rules of engagement. Training sequences. Every detail he had pulled in as he had walked through the grounds and from Armone had told him.
Arvarikor knew that such repetition would dull the mind to boredom, so they allowed the students to include something personal. A great day in training or fantasies of them achieving a top ranking in the organization were acceptable memories. They had asked each student to share their’s and Raulin spoke of his favorite day. His family had gone to the beach and he had played in the waves for hours, his skin pruning and browning in the sun. He spoke of the details, of the color of the sky and sand and the waves He spoke of the joy and excitement of the day. Then, he had been dragged to the front of the class, a bucket of cold water poured over him, and he was caned twenty times. He was made to yell, “I forget them!” at the top of his lungs in between each hit.
He learned to lie about his memories, but he never forgot them. He had gone through stages where he thought he was stupid or weak for holding on to his memories. It had taken Afrek Menrak, his favorite mentor, to set him straight. “The world is filled with people who say one thing, but understand everyone is pretending to follow it. The organization is full of them, those who say ‘here are the rules that can’t be broken’ and yet break it themselves. I remember my mother,” he said, knowing that Raulin could tattle on him in for that admission. “Remember yours and tell no one. They can’t steal that from you.”
So he did. He remembered her dark blonde hair piled in curls on top of her head, her slender neck showing off beautiful jewels and pearls. He remembered she played the spinet beautifully, her fingers dancing over the keys as she rocked softly with the music. He remembered her small features, which he inherited quite a few of, save his father’s strong jaw and broad forehead. He remembered her voice, her touch, her smell, her presence. He remembered.
He spent the rest of the time thinking about happier days. The memories gave him the warmth of comfort. He allowed this, since it was beneficial, but it touched again upon the things that kept getting in the way of him completing his work. At some point he would have to think of more recent things, like his vacations in Walpi or Kinto.
It grew quieter outside, followed by the sound of heavy items being moved. Some time later, he heard gates in the front being shut and chained closed. It was still light out, but that faded to sunset, then to night.
He shifted his position very slowly every fifteen minutes and lightly massaged his thighs and calves while he listened to the household. A maid had opened the window hours prior and had changed the sheets on the bed. Someone had recently blown out the candles in the room and settled down to sleep.
Raulin gave himself another fifteen minutes then slowly stood, so as not to disturb the vegetation. After brushing the leaves off and flexing his muscles back into working order, he pulled himself up and over the sill and into the room.
He let his eyes adjust and glanced to see if the room’s occupant was sleeping before standing. His breath caught in his chest. The count’s daughter, or whomever this was, looked so similar to the priestess that he had thought she was the same person. She was resting peacefully, hugging a second pillow close to her chest. Her dark hair tumbled across her face and neck. Her hair was shorter than the priestess’s and her features seemed better balanced. He made to walk across the floor but turned back once more to look at her before continuing.
Someone moved in the bed next to her, a man. Not the woman from the dream, then. This one was married. Forget her and keep moving.
Now it would be a guessing game. Where would the count’s suite be? Almost always the head of the household slept in the choiciest room with the best view. He would likely be directly upstairs with windows overlooking the well-kept garden.
Would anyone be awake? Most certainly. At least one servant would be on-call and there would be guards patrolling. He would keep areas in mind to duck into should he be caught.
He stuck close to the walls and worked quickly, but quietly. The second floor contained several rooms for events, but no chambers.
The third floor was much more domestic. He found the count’s room guarded by a man in a chair at the door. He was still awake, his pike laying across his lap. Down the hallway must his wife’s room, which might share a door. It was unguarded and unlocked.
The heavy brocade curtains around her bed were already drawn, so he assumed she was sleeping. He got quite the surprise when he saw she was at her vanity, brushing her hair. She was younger rather than older, her golden hair a fiery sunset in the light of the candle. She bore some similarity to his mother, which stung Raulin when he realized it. It wasn’t so much how she looked, but the memory of sitting next to his mother as she brushed her hair. It had become something of a ritual at one point, when he was six or seven. She would hum a tune she had been working on learning, brushing in time with the rhythms. Raulin would sit next to her and lay his head on her lap. When she was finished, she’d brush out his hair before bringing him to his room to be tucked in to bed.
Raulin moved back behind the bed, to the other side of a standing armoire and waited. He was beginning to feel more and more that he was coming apart at the seems, his past haunting him. He breathed slowly and deepened , washing the emotion away. He needed to be mist thin and wind fast.
He heard the sound of the brush being put down on the vanity, then a candle being blown out before she settled into bed. He waited ten minutes before he peeked out and heard her breath become deep and hollow. His feet made no sound against the floor as he walked past her to the door in the rear.
The count’s room was a mirror image. He was already asleep, his curtains open with a candle and book on his end table. He looked dead already, his hands folded neatly over his stomach above a crisply folded blanket. Every so often, he blew his breath out in a trill between his lips.
Before Raulin did anything, he needed to confirm the man before him was the count. Not his father or brother, or even a guest. Raulin searched the room until he moved over to the desk and removed the top page. He brought it to what little light was available from the lit torches in the courtyard and saw it was a letter he had finished before retiring, signed with his name and title below the script. It would be the most concrete evidence he would likely get.
Sleeping victims were very easy to kill. No resistance, no noise, and no dead weight to catch as they fell. Had he been face down or on his side, it would be easier, but unconsciousness in any way was the reason why Raulin had waited so long. He needed a quiet death and an escape unhindered.
Raulin slid his curved knife from his calf, then examined it as if he’d never seen it before. Do it, he said. You promised. You have no choice. He stabbed the man in the neck with a quick, practiced motion and pulled to the side to sever his artery. When the man’s eyes opened and he reached for his neck, Raulin grabbed a pillow and smothered his face with it. He didn’t need anyone to hear the count’s dying moans or his blood on his arong-miil. The count reached up and grabbed Raulin’s arms, trying to pull his hands off the pillow.
He held it there, watching the blood seep through the case, across the sheets. It appeared black in the weak light from the bailey and from the waning moon. It didn’t take long for the count to stop struggling. Raulin removed the pillow when the man stopped moving.
I’m so tired of this, he thought, realizing that the woman whose rooms he had crept through was essentially homeless and a widow. Their children wouldn’t have a father, just like Raulin. He wiped his knife on the pillow case, sighed, and resheathed it.
When he turned to escape the way he came, he saw three figures standing in the doorway. “You killed him,” a man said.