A Clean Death: Part Six of Twelve
A Clean Death is the fourth in the Tales of The Lesser Evil and this is the sixth chapter.
This is a fantasy series—not quite grimdark, but dark nevertheless—with complicated and believable characters doing their best to survive in a world simply indifferent to their existence.
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As she walked to the steams in the Golds, not for the first time that morning, Pepper forced down the thought that kept interrupting the task at hand. Her mind kept flicking back to Hedda, wondering how she was, what was going on in her student’s mind as she prepared to potentially make her first kill. She kept thinking back to her own first kill, how proud Uncle Pol had been, and how worried.
There were very few days that Pepper did not think about Pol. She liked this. As long as she remembered him and his teachings, he was still alive. She wondered if this was the immortality that certain sects and cults would preach. If your deeds last, especially if they last still associated with your name, you never truly died.
She also wondered if she would be so remembered. If she died today, would Hedda think of her? Or Merie or Guin? Would Captain Seven always remember her whenever he docked in Eastsea?
‘Woman, you’re getting old,’ she said it aloud. The woman walking nearest her in the street looked momentarily confused at Pepper’s statement.
Then she lunged at her, vicious, serrated knife thrust with murderous intent.
Pepper barely twisted out of the way in time, the blade snagging in her sleeve and coming out of the woman’s hands. This did not slow her, instead, she simply pulled another knife from behind her back.
Moving forward, Pepper grasped the woman’s arm and twisted, turning this new blade. It was a move she had used many times and it always worked. This time, however, her opponent somehow spun in the air, body flying with the movement, keeping a firm grip on her knife and kicking Pepper in the back as she came around, landing lightly on her feet.
The others on the street were already running, but some did not flee entirely—a knife fight in any city made for perfect voyeuristic entertainment.
Pepper did not spare them a glance. She already knew just how dangerous this woman was.
A feint, another thrust. She was getting the measure of Pepper’s responses, how she reacted to attacks, how she defended and countered. She was good.
It was a common misconception that the assassin was always a perfect warrior, the killer to end killers. In reality, Pepper knew, much of her work was surprise, careful planning and cold, simple murder. Fights were very rare and the result of something not going according to plan.
She was lucky, Pol had trained her after he had joined Merie’s team of tax collectors, knowing the chances of a fight were increased by this line of work. This made Pepper an exception to this rule, an exception she had passed along to Hedda.
‘Always foresee the unforeseeable. Think of every possible outcome, then think of more. Prepare when you do not need to, practice, practice, practice.’
She was glad of her training, it was keeping her alive but, for how much longer, she was not sure. This woman was lethal.
They circled one another, feet stepping sideways, careful not to cross them. Their eyes never left the other’s, hidden in the shadows of their masks one moment, catching the sun and glinting the next, both of them trying not to give anything away.
The other woman had bright blue eyes.
Pepper lunged forward and the woman skipped back, knife held low to her hip, her other arm—padded with a thick leather bracer—preparing to deflect any thrust that got too close. Pepper pulled her arm back just in time, as her attacker tried to grasp it, pull her close, knife poised to push up under the armpit, then back into the chest cavity and, finally and fatally, into the throat. Pepper knew the move, she had used it herself several times.
This woman was a professional killer.
A piercing whistle sounded somewhere behind her, but Pepper refused to look. For what seemed an eternity, neither did the other woman, those sharp blue eyes utterly focused. Then she made her first mistake, a swift glance beyond Pepper’s shoulder, eyes flickering towards the sound of another, closer, whistle and annoyed shouts from the gathered crowd.
Pepper lunged again, the woman bringing up her braced arm to catch the blow, but instead finding her legs swept out from under her as Pepper brought her left leg around in a semi-circle.
She crashed to the ground, the sound of the air leaving her lungs loud above the thrum of the onlookers.
Pepper seized her moment.
She ran, as fast as she could, sheathing her knife and shouldering her way between the onlookers. She did not look back, nor did she stop running until she was several streets away, then she shifted pace, ducking down one alley, then another.
Heart pounding, she quickly pulled off the light coat she wore and turned it inside out, likewise with the mask and her hat. She turned down her boots, exposing the darker leather within and pulled out a hidden skirt of silk from within her trousers. Then, she moved through the alley into the flow of traffic, now a bright canary yellow from head to waist, with a light brown skirt beneath. Slowly, carefully, always watching without being too obvious, she made her way to her destination.
She knew she could have taken the woman, pulled one of the smaller knives from her boots, their thick, carefully-manufactured sheaths protecting the toxin in the double grooves from either rubbing off too quickly or from accidentally stabbing herself. The woman would not have made it, had she been scratched with one of those, but then she would have killed someone in broad daylight, a crowd watching, the Guard arriving to find her with blade in hand and a dead woman at her feet. She had not been sure she had the time to do so.
Pepper knew she had been lucky. Had the watch not arrived when it had, she might have been forced to kill which, in turn, might have led to further unpleasantness within a cell, or worse. She wondered if the woman had managed to get away, or had been caught or, more likely, fought her way free, not caring for any collateral damage among the Guard or bystanders.
She knew Hedda would also be in danger.
If they had managed to follow her, despite all her precautions and care, then they would have also followed her apprentice. There was nothing she could do. She had a job and a job that was time-sensitive. Pepper walked on, clearing her mind of the worry, focusing on what she needed to do. Later, there would be plenty of time for retrospection and unpacking the events of the day. Later.
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