It was testament to Marisa’s training that she thought she heard her footsteps. Testament in two ways; the softness of her every footfall, the reflexive care with which she stepped on the dark flagstones, and the straining of her senses to catch her missteps, the echo of imagined ineptitude. The Family had taught her well – there was almost no sound to hear, and still she listened, listened as she moved with precise arachnid grace through the household’s corridors. There was no need for stealth, as such, within these confines – no need for masks and shadows when all who paced these floors were by long custom used to them. Marisa was young, though; young enough for self-consciousness, young enough to need the mask.
“How do you know an assassin?” they asked, in the streets of Oahu Facula. “How do you tell?” It was a question with a dozen answers, depending on who you asked. A stranger, from Selk or Veles or some such uncivilised place, might say there was no distinction in assassination – a killer was a killer and that was all. A local might harp on the signifiers: an assassin always wore a mask; killed without a sound; took nothing but the last breath from their victim. The problem being, of course, that many a hired thug wore a mask; that killing silently was an advantage in killing illegally; that outside the Families, there were many reasons for killing and many of those involved no theft. The truth – if there was a truth – was in the details.
Marisa’s route took her into the outer loop of the household’s snail-shell curve. It felt warmer, here, and she drifted from one strand to another of her imagined web of possible pathways, staying close to the outer wall. Beyond that wall, the sun’s rays would be sprawling through an ugly sky, tatters of grey and purple commingling with the burning embers of a dying day. This close to Dilmun, the sunsets were spectacular; Marisa had heard, on eavesdropping exercises in the markets and the boulevards, that travellers from Antillia Facula or Texel Facula or Shikoku Facula came all the way north just to see the sun; that they’d stay for hours multiple just watching the sky change and the light dance; that they’d turn and go back with their journey ended (or, rather, its ostensible purpose served, and the less aesthetic business of holidaymaking yet to do). She’d done it too, of course, but not for the sake of seeing it; for the sake of stillness. Still, she liked the warmth; standing on the ridgeback roofs of Oahu Facula’s high places had been a more pleasant aspect of her training.
At length, she drifted inward again, inward and upward through the curls and whorls of the household, a spider scurrying among other spiders, other figures in capes and cloaks and, here and there, in masks. She recognised – or thought she recognised – the spike of Etoile’s chin beneath one half-mask, the crustacean sway of his stride, but she didn’t stop. Time was a-wasting.
Spinning backwards every forty strides or so to eliminate dizziness, she pressed on, up into the very heart of the house, and emerged in the matriarchal parlour, the tiny twist at the apex of the shell, before the house turned in on itself and plunged down through spiral shafts to the catacombs, to the reliquaries of its recollected ancestors. Great Aunt Fanatayne’s chair was curved, flush with the wall, facing both the door and the drop, and Fontayne herself was curved, coiled around its fixtures like an elderly snake, her heavy left eyelid blinking in utter unsurprise at her silent, tiny world. Her right was concealed, by the tilt of her neck and the light of the low fire and by the skull mask that enclosed a hemisphere of her head from chin to scalp. Marisa bowed and abased herself, hands held out to show their emptiness, head down to accept the prospect of a killing strike.
“You may rise – niece.” Fanatayne’s voice hung oddly on Marisa’s senses, like an ill-fitting suit; it paused and rise and fell in strange places, as though questioning rather than addressing her. She obeyed; her mask still faced the old red wood beneath the matriarch, rather than the woman herself, but her eyes were cast upward, meeting his gaze indirectly. “How long has it been?”
“Twenty-five days, great-aunt..”
“Then it is high time you were – assigned, yes? Let me think, now. What would you prefer, Marisa? First, second, third estate? Mean, meek, mighty? Ah, hah – I have it. Roilane – cosignior of the second degree, end-by-dawnways. He thinks himself safe from us…”
“A previous client?” Marisa asked. Fanatayne’s tongue wetted her dry lips before she answered.
“Does that affect you? Niece Marisa, you know there can be no sentiment.”
Marisa closed her eyes, and in the dark behind them framed her answer. “There is none, great-aunt. I ask only if he knows our methods, having recognised the name.”
“You do well to ask. On four occasions the cosignior has seen fit to prosecute his rivals with ourselves as proxies. Now one such rival desires his removal. He will – not be easily surprised. You’re owed a challenge, niece; you’ve had an easy season. You have three days.”
Bowing again, Marisa exited, turning her back to her as she left. It was the prerogative of the matriarch, and of all senior assassins; it showed trust, and an acknowledgment of the seniority to strike one down.
At dawn on the morning after, two slender masked figures clambered their way along the sunwise viaduct, the sprawl of Oahu Facula clinging about its stony knees. They had their backs to it as it blossomed and burst in a halo of warm green; their eyes were spared the rush of brightness and directed down, down to the wiring wormcasts of the streets below them. Immediately beneath, the buttresses of the aqueduct formed three strong walls for paper-fronted buildings, scrounged wood and thin plaster fattened up with layer upon layer of handbills and notices. There was still a good deal of space between the lean-tos, but as the roads wound away from them on either side they became narrower, framed in by stopped carts and stalls founded in empty crates and refuse. Only at the far end, on the slopes of Esta Oahu, did the end-by-dawnways fraction – the Estahuysen, as its majority of immigrants from Kergeulen Facula called it – rise out of its genteel, industrious decay and present a stuccoed facade of decency to the rest of Oahu Facula. With its back to the sunrise, the crescent in which the old-money Oahu families dwelt cast a long shadow, as if to remind the Estahuysers to whom they paid their rents and to whom they owed their bustling ghetto. In time, the sun would pass higher – Marisa and Etoile would turn and face the crescent and plot their attack. In the meantime, they were killing time, rather than people.
“I wonder,” Etoile said, hugging his cloak around himself and perching with gargoyle flourish on the rim of the viaduct, his long chin and the pointed, drooping nose of his mask almost touching, “if they have assassins in Kergeulen Facula?”
“They must do. It’s a Facula. They’re not savages.”
“Facula just means the Church has gotten to them, not us.”
“Where one goes, the other goes. There’s no Church or assassins in Selk.”
“As if you know what goes on in Selk, Mara. You’ve never been to Selk. Can’t even point it out on a map, I bet.” Etoile was seventeen, two years Marisa’s elder; old enough to be attractive, young enough to aggravate.
“Can so. Due duskwards of us, on the other side of the Dilmun cloud. You’re welcome.” Marisa lay back against the warm stone and summer-dried moss, and decided to bask for a while. “Is anyone open down there yet? I want breakfast.”
“No it isn’t, and if you wanted food you should have done the decent thing and taken some from the house before we left. Or at least walked here instead of insisting we clamber up here like a couple of geckos.”
“A gentleman would offer to clamber down again and buy me breakfast. No – hold on. He wouldn’t even need to offer. He’d simply take it as read that breakfast’s what I want – and that it’s his job to provide it.” She smiled, childlike and smug, eyes still closed behind the bone-white of her mask.
“Mara Oahura, I am an assassin, not a cavalier. I’m not obliged to fetch anyone breakfast.” Still, Marisa heard the faint clink and whisper of his climbing rope and hooks, and she carried on smiling up at the sky. “Will milady be satisfied with Gobla, or should I seek more precious fare? I could be back with Mindanaon by noon…”
“Gobla will be fine, brave cavalier.” Marisa turned her head to the side; Etoile had latched two hooks into the cracks between the stones, and flung his rope over the side, clipped his harness into place. He caught sight of her looking and bowed theatrically, swirling his cape over his shoulder and fluttering a hand in the air.
“Try not to die of hunger while I’m gone.”
He swung out, over the vertiginous drop. Below him, the ghetto of Estahuysen was coming to life, early risers crawling through the decrepit buildings like maggots, flinging back their shutters and peering out at the world. By the time he’d climbed down, the goblin hawkers would be plying their trade – they rose early to catch the first movements of human traffic, and slipped away as the sun rose higher and the thoroughfares became more thronged, only to creep and scurry out again come evening. Goblins survived on the fringes of Oahu Facula’s society, and avoided the busy, self-centered callousness of its daytime; like assassins, they were at their best in twilight, and like assassins, they were a consequence, a side-effect of life, useful when they were useful, tolerated when they weren’t, and despised by a moral minority with too much time on its hands.
Idly, Marisa wondered if there had ever been a goblin assassin – no. Perish the thought. Assassination ran in the families, and the families were all human as human could be.
They reached the end of the aqueduct and worked their way around the city’s edge at noon. From this vertiginous ridge, Oahu Facula was a caldera gone cauldron, rooftop gardens bubbling out of myriad lanes, all criss-crossed by the cruciform aqueducts. At its centre, the Well gathered the waters together and poured them down into the reservoir beneath the city. To their right, the Endwards End scrabbled up the caldera’s side, culminating in the domes of the cathedral and the cosignioral palace. Beneath them, the crescent curved, the rooftops at either end almost flush with the walls. Those in the centre had private gardens, irrigated by what little rainfall escaped the traps and spilled down the caldera through clean-cut artificial streams.
At the top of one such stream, Marisa and Etoile squatted, out of sight from the houses’ narrow rear windows. Marisa’s quarry dwelt in the next house on the left; it lacked a channel of its own, but this would still be the safest line of approach. Marisa poked her head half out of cover and squinted down her spyglass. Four rear windows on each floor, save the ground which had two doors; the right of centre opened onto a staircase that wound from top to bottom of the house. All of them were shuttered, and all the shutters were open; only the third floor’s were glazed.
“What do we know about cosignior Roilane?” she asked, bobbing down again. Etoile cocked his head from side to side before he answered.
“Ambitious, and direct. No sense of the spiritual. To him, we’re just a tool to eliminate rivals who can’t be bought. Born name is Orsoni. Cosignior for two terms; landowner, through his wife, and a stakeholder in the Veles trade fleet off his own back. Usual petty gentry, in other words. Two daughters – one’s something in the Church, estranged, the other’s engaged a third degree cosignior twenty years her elder.”
“What about the wife?”
“Never that close. She married him for the legacy, and his head for hard sums.” Etoile sniggered. “He’s a functionary to her, and it’s said that rankles with him.”
“Where do you even hear all this?”
“I get out more than you do, little sister – an advantage of seniority. I take my mask off now and then, I attend these little functions of theirs. You spend too much time in the House.” He preened, brushing dust from his cape and tunic.
“But why do they tell you things?”
“Because I’m so fascinatingly ugly. And because I listen. Any further questions?”
Marisa peeked up again, surveyed the windows; there were a couple of servants on the stairs, idling their way downwards. The glazed windows of the third floor were dark, and – a-ha – the leftmost door was open. A heavyset man in scarlet, with a balding pate and heavy moustache, escorted a stern, hatchet-faced woman into the garden, crossing it with no care for the trailing vines and pale blossoms, making for the domed gazebo. Others followed; the brace of servants, a younger woman in purple with a thin, ruddy face, a pair of elegantly mincing cavaliers, foppish in their sashes and medallions.
“No… he’s outside, though. He could look after himself, I think.”
“Do you ever wish you could just kill someone, Mara? Without going through the communion, without the laws of silence – just pick up a bow and shoot, here and now? Or an arquebus. Imagine that…”
“I imagine standing here making myself noticed. I imagine missing the shot, bringing shame on my house – assuming I even escaped. I imagine a wasted death, an unconsecrated soul gone to waste. I imagine a lot of things.” Marisa watched the movement in the garden in abstract fascination. The servants arranging capes and cushions; a cavalier flapping at the disturbance of his trinkets; Roilane leaning back, sending his servants in. “I wonder what they do all day, myself, outside the Houses. Is that all there is to it?”
“They’ll be discussing some scheme or other, you mark my words. All this frippery and finery is a veil; they’re all at each other’s throats, really. Disgrace and favour are just another ritual. What it’s really all about is ambition – if it looks like they’re exchanging pleasantries they’re sending messages, if they turn their back on one another it’s like a declaration of war. You’ll have to learn to play the game too, you know.”
“It doesn’t interest me at all,” Marisa said, though the heat behind her mask gave the lie away. She trained the spyglass on the servants as they stepped away, into the house; turned it back to watch the hatchet-faced lady address her daughter. Roilane’s attention was on the cavaliers – he spread his arms in apparent excitement, and they nodded. He was on the cusp of something; small wonder his death was ordained.
“Except to watch?”
“Studying my quarry.”
Night had fallen. Overhead, through the evanescent radiance wafting down off the Dilmun, the stars were coming out; white points peeking through the shifting grey-green. Roilane’s family had long since retired; the cavaliers were gone. Marisa had been watching the movements of servants up and down the stairs; as expected, the boudoirs were at the rear of the house, the master bedroom at the front. Etoile had offered to stand sentinel for her, but he’d been yawning as he said it, and she’d sent him away – this was her quarry, not his, and she preferred to celebrate communion alone.
At the head of the sluice she knelt and inspected the tools of her trade. The ropes and hooks for climbing; the picks and oils for stubborn locks and the adze for doors and sheer walls; the powders and philtres for sleep and slow death; the wire and the knife for quick. She took a deep breath, and began to recite, softly and clearly:
“I, Marisa Oahura, commend myself to house and host; to the laws of silence and the clean death. I, Marisa Oahura, commend my quarry, Alonso Roilane, to house and host; to the grave and beyond. I, Marisa Oahura, commend my weapons to house and host; to the unweaving of futures and the breaking of bonds.”
She picked up each weapon, each flask, and kissed them, sliding them into sheaths and pockets; she coiled and tied and hooked a rope about her waist and wrapped another round her shoulder; she rose, silent as the grave, and with a foot on either side of the sluice, commenced her descent.
The stars had shifted a degree or two before she reached the bottom, and crept beneath the eaves of overhanging trees to the endwards wall of Roilane’s garden, then followed it along to the rear wall of the neighbouring house. Driving a hook between two stones, wedging it in rather than swinging and risking a noise, she brought one foot up, knee level with her chin; planted her foot atop the hook, and in one movement propelled herself up and onto the wall. Flush with the rear wall of the house, Marisa waited – no sound. There were stairs, but they were frequented, and picking the lock with no cover seemed unwise. Instead, she planted another hook through a crack in the wall, and her adze through another further up; swung herself with a hand on the adze, her back foot on the hook, her front foot on the sill outside the shutter. Another hook; a pull on the adze-hilt; another handhold jammed in, higher up, those hours of staring at the back wall of Roilane’s house before sunset truly paying off. She clipped another hook to it, and her climbing rope to that, and her belt to the climbing rope, and handhold by handhold, she chipped and hauled her way to the second floor.
Now for the challenge, she thought, sliding a pick between two fingers and leaning across the outermost window as she clambered onto the sill. Barely, just barely, she could slip it between the shutters and run it upwards, reaching for a catch, lifting it and letting it fall with the tiniest chink, then twisting it into the wood of the shutter opposite, swinging it open and catching it on her fingers, creeping it far enough to slip inside. The room next door was a bedroom, this one a cabinet, and it was so far as she had seen empty; no lamp nor candle had been lit and no illuminating crystal glimmered. Sure enough, it was dark and still, the starlight showing her an empty desk, shelves furnished with a scant selection of books, an empty grate and veiled mirror, a wardrobe running along one wall. She slid down beside the desk, steadying it with a hand, and unclipped her climbing rope, letting it fall.
Softly as softly could be, she crept on velvet feet to the door; unlocked, and with a drop of oil on the hinges it opened smoothly. The room beyond was just as musty; an unaired bed, a cold pan and dusty chamber pot no doubt beneath it, a door beyond; latched. Dusting for runes of warding or sigils of protection, Marisa found nothing, so she oiled hinges and latch, lifted the one carefully and pulled the door ajar on the other, creeping around and through.
Beyond, an empty hall, two similar doorways at the front of the house and one opposite. In the dark she could see little of the furnishings, but the faintness of her footfall suggested carpet – no rug, she realised as her toes tapped on bare wood. Silence. Pause. No sound. On she went, creeping up the stairs on all fours to soften the impact of her movements; against her will, they creaked a little. She turned, and turned again, and came upon the third floor, starlight streaming diamonds on the shining, well-kept planks. Roilane’s taste seemed to favour red; deep dark rosewood on the floors, a slightly brighter plaster. Marisa reached out a hand and probed the board ahead – it gave, creaked, and chirruped just a little, as it slid down on the collared nails.