Nightingale floor. Rope still outside. Give up? Forbidden. Go on? Rouse the household; break the law of silence. Marisa looked up, examined the ceiling – it was lower than she’d thought, thanks to the floor above, and the joists were exposed. One chance. Drawing the adze once more, she crouched low, swinging her arms back and forth, eyes fixed on the long joist midway down the corridor, breathing soft and deep, losing herself in the rhythm of the breath and the swing until there was nothing left of her but the movement and the tension and the target – and then she leapt.
The adze bit deep with a thud and a splintering crack, and her free hand wrapped around the back of the hilt, holding her aloft. Marisa let out a slow breath, forcing herself to breathe slowly, stay calm, hold the rhythm, as she brought up her other hand to strengthen her grip. She hung, listening for doors, for alarums. Her arms stretched, and stretched, the burn welling up in her muscles, catching like kindling – and a door opened, spilling faint yellow light into the tinted night beneath her. Gritting her teeth, she swung back, braced her legs against the joist behind her, flattened herself against the roof, her muscles rigid and hawser-tense.
Beneath her, the floor creaked and squeaked its treacherous rhythm; the red-faced girl tip-toed across the corridor, oil lamp flickering in her hand, making for the window at the front of the house. Her nightgown trailed behind her, pale silk rising into the dark fur stole thrown across her shoulders – she raised the lamp to her hatchet of a face and moved to the stairs, peering out into the garden.
Marisa relaxed her aching legs, swung forward, legs curled, and back, letting go and dropping onto her toes, as gently as she could. The floor gave its warning squeal. With the law of silence breached, what mattered now was redemption – a clean, successful kill, and a penance done. Marisa spun, already striding as the girl turned to see a mask and a shadow and a handful of dust spilling between outstretched fingers; she gasped, breathed in the powder, and stumbled as Marisa locked around her waist and arm, catching her as though to waltz her back to bed with the lamp undisturbed – and so she did, through her chamber door and down onto the coverlet and out. No time to take in the blur of luxuries, the lace and velvet, the scents and polish – onwards and outwards, setting down the lamp by the door and pulling it almost shut behind her, moving slow and light, crossing the floor and halting on tiptoes inside the frame of Roilane’s door. Her breath hovered and quivered; she shut her eyes and deepened, slowed, settled back into her skin.
Fingertips probing the gaps around the door, she checked again for runes and traps and wards, extending her senses; the palm of her right hand twitched as it passed the lock. Warded. Her left hand found the pouch of iron filings at her belt, poured a measure into her right palm; she rubbed her hands together as though washing them, coating her fingers and palms in metal, and placed her right palm against the lock while her left hand drew her picks. One pin, then another, a rattle of steel – and the door opened outwards. Marisa peeled it out a little way, wrapped her hand around the edge, and swung herself around, one foot just inside, then the other.
Roilane’s cabinet lay before his chamber, bleached in the starlight and smelling of old smoke and it was littered with paper; maps and deeds and letters impaled on a spike on a low desk by the window. Comfortable chairs, in a rough hemisphere; Marisa ran the back of a hand over the velvet as she passed by. A travelling cloak and hat, on a stand in the far corner, out of the starlight. The final portal; the door beyond which Roilane slept.
Something blurred on the edge of her vision – a movement, in the dark. Reflexively, she turned – not left, to face it, but right, to swing her cape and fist at some assailant – like the man in the travelling cloak and broad-brimmed hat and off-white half-mask with the pointed shrike’s beak nose, the man who slammed down his forearm across hers with a sudden blunt throb of pain, and drove his fist into her stomach. All her breath passed out of her in a rush and a wheeze; she doubled up around the force of the punch, felt the crack of her back against the doorframe, and dropped to the ground. The masked man – the other assassin – looked down at her, impassively, and opened the door without a sound, passed through it like mist over water.
Marisa swallowed, and gulped, and gasped for air; she felt the weight and heat and slickness of her tears and hated them, hated them with a blush that scalded them from her cheeks, hated them almost as much as she hated this brute who had hurt her and would steal the soul ordained for her to take. Scowling and blinking, she crawled in a circle for the leg of a chair and hauled herself upright, and straightened, slowly, tugging her wire free and wrapping it around her hands.
What happened next would depend on silence – absolute and perfect silence. Step by shuffling step, she crept through the doorway; the man had his knee on Roilane’s bed, his poignard out to strike. Marisa advanced, feet not leaving the floor, creeping inch upon inch until the choking rattle from between the four posts sounded and muffled her leap, arms swung up for lift and down to bring the wire across his throat. Her knee struck the rival in his back, and he fell onto the wire, across the wheezing bulk of Roilane as she drew her hands back with all the strength she had left. Blood pooled between the two men; his hands flexed and fumbled the empty air; Marisa threw back her head and hauled until, at last, he fell limp and stank, voiding bowel and bladder into air and bedclothes already fouled by his victim.
Marisa whipped her wire free and wiped it on his cloak, sniffing back the last of her tears and regretting it. Nothing else for it. She slid the mask up, looked around; took one of Roilane’s kerchiefs from his ornate dresser and wiped her eyes and cheeks, took another and knotted it over her mouth and nose against the stench. She might have seconds, at most; she rolled the other assassin off the bed and prised his mask from his face. Older – perhaps thirty – and not unhandsome, square chin, wavy auburn hair, dark eyes. Santorini, perhaps; too pale to be from Oahu. She took his spare poignard, spun it thoughtfully in her hands, and looked to the doorway.
“You jest with me,” Fanatayne hissed through her teeth, more the serpent than ever, legs coiled beneath her and arms twined out of sight, around the arm and leg of her couch. She blinked at Marisa, who knelt before her with palms upraised, head bowed, neck bared in penitence. “You have taken leave… of your senses. Dare I ask – what did you do next?”
“Why – I left, in haste, and I brought you the poignard, not recognising the maker’s mark.”
Fanatayne extended a lazy hand, and her consort patriarch Nen held up the offending weapon. The matriarch cradled it between her long fingers, turned it this way and that in the firelight, and nodded to herself.
“You did better in that, at least. Mmm… the mark is unfamiliar, but the fashion of the blade is not. It was doubtless made in Veles; this heavy hilt, this slight curvature, this curled deformity of hilt… all familiar. Nen… is there a great house in Veles?”
“There are thugs, and there are savages skilled in the silent death, but there is no recognised household, my love. No compact has been sworn.” Nen’s voice was hushed, reverential – the voice of a kindly priest, a voice that could scarcely be reconciled with the proverbial blood on his hands. His mask was owlish, with wide eyes and a sharp nose; rumour had it his own had been bitten off by some long-ago quarry.
“And you say… the man you fought seemed Santorini?”
“He was pale, reddish hair, dark eyes; he was not Oahur, I would swear.”
There was a silence, in which Marisa imagined the skull and the owl exchanging a glance, eyes meeting in the dim light. At length, Nen spoke again, in that voice like the still air of an empty church: “Santorini Facula lies on the Veles tradeway but so do four other cities, Veles itself among them. Roilane had interests along that way. It is not impossible that some rival from another city might commission his ordination…”
“It is quite against custom. No great house ought to reach out so far, meddle in the affairs of another. Do I send my children to Santorini Facula, or to Crete Facula, or Vis Facula, or Kergeulen Facula? We take lives, we set society to shivering, but we do so with discrimination.”
“Was this not a discriminating death, my love? If the cosignior’s society extends to half a dozen cities, may not the ripples of his passing?”
Marisa fought hard not to smile at the hiss of breath, and fought harder not to shiver as she heard Fantayne untwine herself and stand. Was this the moment? It seemed hardly fair; she had broken the law of silence, but she had only failed in the kill because the other had interfered. Was this worth dying for? She steeled herself for the blow; she would welcome it as a child of the great house Oahura should.
“A great house has overreached its boundaries; one of its children lies dead in Roilane’s chamber. We are assassins; our cause is common, our allegiance shared. Amends must be made… and truths uncovered. You will travel the Veles tradeway. You will find this great house that has meddled in our affairs, Marisa, my niece. You will convey to them my displeasure… and offer your life to their matriarch. You have slain a cousin assassin in anger… had it been you who fell to him, I would have him quartered at the next new moon. You are hers to do with as she pleases – ”
“Forgive me, great-aunt, but… am I disowned?”
“Don’t be a fool, girl.” Nen laid a hand on the back of her neck – palm, not edge, and her tension evaporated. “If you’re spared, you’re free to return.”