May the Darkness Protect
A Clean Death: Part Four of Twelve
A Clean Death is the fourth in the Tales of The Lesser Evil and this is the fourth 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.
To read an introduction to this novella, and the backcover blurb, click here.
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May the Darkness Protect
‘I hear the best thing to do is to scrub yourself with salt.’
‘No, the best thing to do is salt your clothes, scrub yourself with ashes, then sweat them off.’
‘That’s not what I heard, I heard…’
Hedda walked out of earshot, carrying a pair of steaming mugs for her and Pepper, back to the table in The Generous Healing where they were eating their breakfast.
‘Everyone is talking about it. I’ve never heard a rumour spread so quickly, whatever Menna did, it worked remarkably well.’
‘Yes, and we have to hurry—the steams may open early if they have also heard the rumours. Eat quickly, then we go.’ Pepper did not ask if her student was ready, the time for that had passed; she would either succeed, or she would not.
They did not speak again until they had finished eating.
‘Let’s go.’ Pepper pulled on her plain blue coat, tools already concealed within her clothing, then placed a mask on her face and a locally-fashionable hat on her head. Today, she was wearing a green mask with scarlet swirls radiating from the eye-holes. It seemed fitting. The hat matched; scarlet with green detailing.
As she tied the ribbons and pulled the velvet over her the top of her ears, she noticed Hedda holding her hand out in front of her face and looking at it.
‘Steady as a rock,’ Pepper said. There was nothing more she could do to train her now. A roughly one in three chance, assuming their ruse worked and, by the time she went to bed, Hedda would have made her first kill.
Menna had taken the steams in Temples, near the two inns they judged least likely for Rinc to stay. He would be paid the same, whether or not he made the kill, and Pepper had judged it wise for her to take the most likely target in the Golds. Which left Hedda Laverside, and the Great Baths. Her apprentice needed to be blooded soon and this was a good opportunity.
At the back of her mind, she could not help but consider the chance that Rinc had not taken to an inn, that he had hidden somewhere else, or potentially passed straight through the Youlmouth to Youlbridge or beyond, into the mountain lands, a vast area where each valley was broadly independent of the others, some the home of humankind, some of other Talking Races, many utterly wild, home to legendary and terrifying beasts. Although the doubt was there, Pepper judged it unlikely Rinc would flee that far. He was an Eastsea native through and through; he would stay as close as he could until he judged it safe to return. Not that it would ever be safe to return, those who had hired Pepper had made that clear, but he did not know that.
After once more slipping out of the inn, this time by means of a rooftop and a tree, they stood together in the early morning cool, clouds hiding any sun and rain seemingly not far away. Despite the miserable weather, the streets were already busy. Pepper noticed several people passing with pomanders held under their nose, or strongly-scented handkerchiefs pressed across their lower face, eyes darting from side to side behind their masks. They would be lucky if a widespread panic did not develop. Disease—and the mere rumour of it—was wont to do that.
‘Here we part.’ The road she needed to take headed west, Hedda’s a shorter distance east. They would meet later, back at Menna’s house, once the steams were closed for the night. If one of them succeeded in the mission, then they were the lucky one, with the rest of the day to do as they pleased.
Hedda nodded, her own mask was deep indigo, with stars painted white and shining.
‘I shall see you later then.’
‘May the darkness protect and reject you,’ Pepper said quietly, in the language of Fea Little.
‘May the light fail and the sun avert her eyes,’ Hedda replied.
Pepper did not pause but immediately walked away into the crowded street, without a backward glance. There was no point in waiting, it would not help.
Kill, or don’t kill, that was all that was left now.
Hedda knew that Rinc the Fourth would use the Great Baths in Laverside. She did not believe in fate or destiny, or even any of the many Gods she had read about, but she just knew. It was time for her to become who she had trained to be, so it would happen.
She was scared, not because she had to kill a man; that did not concern her, or at least she did not think it did. It was a job. Rinc was not a good man and he deserved to die. Better that they get paid for his death, that the payment then be reinvested in Shoemaker and Family Traders. No, she was scared because she did not want to fail and let Pepper down.
To see any disappointment in Pepper’s eyes was as bad as when she saw the look her mother would sometimes give her when she thought she was not watching. She knew Merie did not entirely approve of her choice of career, more for reasons of safety than any personal scruples. Hedda knew the truth behind their leaving Fea Little. Her siblings did not know about their father, how he had survived the fire only to be killed by Pepper some years later. Merie and Pepper had determined it was important she knew everything. Strangely, the revelation had not surprised her, nor had it moved her as she had thought it perhaps should. Her father had died when she was tiny, as far as she was concerned, and a bare handful of years made not a difference, nor how he had died.
As she walked, she kept checking her back-trail, pausing briefly to look at a stall of tiny carvings, then an entrepreneurial vendor with trays of nosegays purported to ward off disease. It had become second nature to check whether she was being followed, but it was only on the second such pause that she realised she was.
The mask was the same as yesterday. The man—and, from the way he moved, she was sure it was a man—was the one who had followed them from the harbour.
Could it be some sort of test?
Pepper had done that many times before, tested her in various ways, whether her skill at disguise, her language ability, or even her ability to haggle for a good deal in their cover jobs. Hedda always assumed any and every interaction was a test. That had been an early lesson.
The man disappeared into an alley. She was sure she had not given away the fact he had been spotted, he must simply be taking precautions.
She moved on, heading to her destination, but also looking for opportunities to lose her tail. At another stall, this one selling nothing but tiny carvings of the Black Pyramid, each allegedly made from real stone taken from the interior of the pyramid itself, she checked her back-trail again. Nothing.
Hedda knew she had not been mistaken. It had been the same man. If it was not a test, for him to have followed her, despite Pepper being sure they had lost their tails, meant he was very good. Deciding to go ahead with her plan to lose him, even if she could no longer see him, she ducked into the next cross street, immediately crossing and moving down a smaller alley, stepping carefully to avoid treading on the piles of slippery refuse, the ground filthy with waste from food, from animals and humankind.
The smell was strong and Hedda found herself wondering whether there was a city anywhere that was clean, whether there was somewhere streets were swept clear of such scents. She would love to visit if there were. There were places in Eastsea that were so choked with refuse entire tribes of urchins dug around in the disgusting mess trying to find lost coppers or mouthfuls of dubious fruit or partially-rotten vegetables to eat. She had seen other children hunting the large rats or wild pigs that lived off such refuse, or the wild dogs and cats that preyed upon them and, occasionally, each other and the children themselves.
A brief flash from the corner of her vision was all the warning she had.
She threw herself sideways, shoulder catching a wall and luckily bouncing her around to face her attacker, already recovering from the missed stroke.
It was the man who had followed her.
The long knife he had tried to bury in her neck was already being pulled back for another attempt, muscles swift and trained. Hedda did not have time to think, countless hours of her own training instantly kicked in and she was rolling through the forgotten filth, tucking herself tight to propel her body away from the blade, muscles reacting swifter than mind.
‘Fuck!’ The man cursed in the local language and advanced swiftly, but Hedda was waiting.
As she had come to her feet she had drawn her own blade from inside her sleeve. Instead of attempting to flee, as most would-be-killers would expect, she pushed forward, her strong legs carrying her towards the knife-man, fast and true.
She twisted inside his reach, her shoulder colliding with his chest.
His mask slipped off as they fell back, rage instantly turning to shock, then horror.
Hedda pulled out her knife and rolled away from the man’s death throes. Already his eyes were bulging and his hands clawing at his throat and face. The toxin, freshly applied that morning, was the fastest acting she knew. Expensive, but worth every coin.
Then he was dead.
Hedda crawled forward and carefully wiped the thin blade on the man’s discarded mask, tossed it aside and re-sheathed her blade. Then she checked his clothing. A small purse held coins from Youlmouth and Youlbridge, as well as a pair of tiny rubies wrapped in unspun wool. She pocketed these and continued her search. Another knife tucked into his boot-top, another concealed in the small of his back, a fourth in a sheath that doubled as a bracer on his left forearm, hidden under his sleeve. She left these, she had no need for more knives—as good as they were, hers were better. His boots were good, with little wear and she pulled them off, tossing them on to a high balcony, disturbing several pigeons roosting there. Let people think the man had been killed for his purse and boots.
Around his neck, pulled out by his clutching fingers, was a silver chain with a pendant she did not recognise—a highly polished piece of jade, carved into a stylised hook. She unclasped the chain and placed it into her own beltpouch.
As she stood to walk away, she realised her coat was disgusting, soiled beyond all hope of cleaning. She pulled her hand into a stained sleeve and carefully removed something that looked and smelled uncannily like smeared human shit from her shoulder, wrinkling her nose and trying not to gag.
Looking down at the corpse, she paused, then shrugged her arms out of her coat, ensuring her skin avoided the outside of the garment as much as possible. The man had fallen in the centre of the alley, neatly landing in the only clear area she could see. After emptying the pockets and ripping open two seams to retrieve the items hidden there, she scrubbed her legwear and boots off with her coat, then threw it down beside him into the dirt, stripping him of his own.
It would not do to be caught with a dead man, especially not in a city where the Guard were renowned for their notoriously ruthless attitude to footpads and thieves—an attitude that usually meant behead first, ask questions later. If they got the wrong person, it did not matter too much, the deterrent was the same.
Checking her mask was neatly in place and tidying escaped hair, Hedda continued to the steams. It was only then that the realisation she had killed a man hit her—killed him, and had not even thought about the fact.
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