The doorknob turned slowly and smoothly. The mechanism within didn’t let out a single click or rattle.
The door itself opened quickly, only allowing the hinges to let out the briefest of creaks. A steel hairpin, previously wedged into the crease where the top of the door met the frame, fell into a waiting hand, where the soft leather of a glove silenced it before it could ping against the hard stone floor.
With a deft toss, the intruder sent the hair pin gently onto the cushions of a shabby but comfortable chair set next to the wood burning stove in the corner.
“It’s time.” He spoke into the quiet room, voice barely above a whisper. “Come.”
And then he was gone, quietly pulling the door closed behind him. The tiny vibration set of by this caused a second, carefully balanced hairpin to fall from its precarious position atop the molding surrounding the door frame.
The resultant ping was just loud enough to let the intruder know that their infiltration hadn’t been completely successful, but it wasn’t needed to rouse the woman sleeping in the room. Anyone who didn’t sleep lightly enough to have heard the summons wasn’t ready to answer it.
Rakne nil Thraeci was ready. After three years of study and traveling to the various retreats and enclaves of the Fellowship scattered across the world, she felt she rather should be. Like any other initiate, she’d slept through her first summons to a Hearing of Grievances, but since that, she hadn’t missed a single one, even when she knew she wouldn’t be called on.
Tonight, she did have a chance though. Earlier in the evening, a small parchment envelope had found its way into her pocket during dinner. The contents were unimportant gibberish asking her about an elderly uncle she didn’t have and a family vineyard that didn’t exist. The important part was that it was addressed to Hilde Teppereas of Kithon Province, Mindforme. Tonight, that was her name and point of origin—there was no Rakne nil Thraeci.
Taking time to smirk at all the curses she imagined were going through the summoner’s head, Rakne slipped out of bed and began her preparations. Tonight might be the night that she finally joined the official ranks of the Fellowship of Assassins.
She didn’t have to dress. One of the early lessons she learned was that Assassins (the capitalization was important) made too many enemies to afford going to bed in any sort of bedclothes one couldn’t run or fight in. Not only that, but she knew that, should she be called on at the Hearing, she might need to get straight to work. With those two things in mind, she’d gone to bed wearing a long-sleeved shirt of cotton and snug trousers of the same.
They weren’t black. Black showed up readily in the half-shadows at night. Instead, she went with midnight blues for both shirt and trousers and hunter green for the sash and greatcoat she shrugged on. Her boots and gloves were both plain brown leather, as soft as she could afford.
She quickly picked up her hairpins and used them to secure her hair into a quick but neat bun. When she had time, she usually braided it and hid the sharp pins inside as a surprise for anyone who thought to grab for it in a fight.
Once that was done, she took a quick inventory. Tucked into a hidden bandoleer, sewn cunningly into her sash, were a number of vials. Her specialty among the many Assassin trades was poisoning, so she kept several mixed concoctions along with emergency antidotes on her person at all times. Inside each of her sleeves, she kept a spring-loaded holster containing a single throwing knife and a wad of wool soaked in a plant toxin she was immune to. The coat held concealed pockets bearing more mundane tools of the trade: lockpicks, oil for hinges and other mechanisms, and smoke bombs chief among them; as well as several caches of coins from various nations of origin.
There was also a rope woven from spider silk hidden in the lining. Rakne couldn’t imagine a situation where she would need that however, as she was a lasconti: a spider hengeyokai.
It still felt odd thinking of her heritage as useful. Her parents were traveling merchants, and growing up, she’d spent most of her time in the company of humans and half-elves. At best, people her age had read one too many dime novels and thought every lasconti they met was a dashing, guileful hero. They couldn’t understand why Rakne didn’t have at least a dozen exciting tales to tell about her parents, if not herself. At worst, they knew vaguely that lasconti could take the form of spiders and another somewhere between ‘human-ish’ and spider called the almaga form, and found it disturbing. As if she were just some huge arachnid playing at being a person.
When she got older, it got worse still. Even those who knew nothing about lasconti and neither pestered nor shunned her thought of her as a highly unattractive human with too little curve and too much body hair. More than one ‘well meaning’ soul suggested she take a razor to the stiff, black hairs that peppered her skin. As those ‘hairs’ were sensory organs, that would have been like taking that same razor and peeling off all her nerve endings: painful and debilitating.
Since joining the Fellowship, she’d been able to spend time with other lasconti and people who knew more about her kind than what some spoony bards in Harpsfell penned. Among the Fellowship, she’d found an actual sense of fellowship; from the stern but patient proctors like her mentor, Jonnan, to the other initiates. And from those among them who were lasconti, she’d learned things about using her inborn abilities that her parents neglected because they had no application in honest, civilized work.
With a placid expression, she slipped on her last accessories: one dull iron ring on each middle finger, then a sword belt with her arming sword. Anything else she needed could be purchased on the road. Assassins traveled light for the same reason they slept fully clothed and trained themselves to listen intently even while asleep.
Now properly attired, she slipped out of her room and down the hall. It was late evening and she’d slept most of the daylight hours away. By the time she descended the three flights of stairs to the common room of the Lion of South Gali Inn, the dinner crowd had mostly given way to the drinking and gambling crowd. Most of the men and women there were too occupied with their games or conversations to pay her any heed and absolutely no one knew her true vocation.
After paying the man at the bar three Calleni silver swords for her room, Rakne left and made her way to the site of the Hearing through a roundabout route she had planned out a few days earlier.
The Hearing of Grievances convened once a month; never in the same location or even town twice in a given year. If they could help it, the Assassins avoided meeting in major cities altogether, but thanks to a far-flung membership, they required a meeting place to be at least within a reasonable ride from a location with airship docks.
This one was being held in the Principality of Khagan in the Kingdom of Novrom. Thanks to the fluid nature of Novish borders and the volatile nature of its politics, the place had been called South Gali the last time a Hearing convened there. That had been just two years earlier and that name had only been a year old, following the Gali Civil War. Even so, the actual town was still called South Gali, and the Hearing was taking place in the abandoned manor of the late Prince of Gali.
Built in a very brief period of peace in the region, the manor featured high walls for privacy more than defense. What remained of them came into view as Rakne emerged from a footpath running behind a row of shops. Sections had been torn from the walls and used in the construction of many of the newer buildings on the street, much like the east wing of the manor itself, which was so gutted that the roof looked fit to collapse.
No one was paying the least bit of attention to the old wreck. Anything of value has been taken long ago and the children were already spinning tales about it being haunted by the old Prince (even though he was still alive and living in the Novish capital, Kinos). As such, Rakne easily found a secluded break in the wall and slipped onto the grounds without being spotted.
A long overrun garden made reaching the building a simple matter of using the gnarled monstrosities that were once decorative hedges for cover. Entrance was a similarly easy task, thanks to the zealous looters of years gone by having taken most of the expensive stained glass windows on the first floor.
Rakne tutted as she dropped down into a room that was all bare stone and wooden supports. The years-worth of dust on the floor was disturbed by the passage of many feet. No doubt the feet of neophytes too excited about going to their first Hearing of Grievances to remember the principles on non-detection. She remembered when she’d been so young and eager.
Taking advantage to the mistakes of the young and foolish, she went across the floor on her toes, making sure that her steps fell in line with the ones of her younger and more clumsy peers. She followed them to a darkened stairwell leading down into the manor’s cellar. The moonlight streaming through the non-existent windows failed there, but light slipped up from around the bend in the winding stair, along with the heat of a welcoming fire.
Before descending, Rakne reached into her hood and pulled down a black lace veil sewn inside. There were childish legends in the world about the Assassin Veils; that they were spellworked to allow the wearer to see the blood in their victim’s veins, or that once the veil was drawn down, the Assassin was honor bound to murder someone before the next rising of the white moon, Gracelia. Or even that the veil collected the souls of those killed.
The truth was, it was just a piece of lace to hide the wearer’s face. Not only that, but it was purely ceremonial, worn only at Hearings and other formal meetings. According to Jonnan, it symbolized the anonymity of Death as a force in the world. Rakne theorized that they just didn’t want the petitioners seeing their faces, the same reason they used false identities.
For whatever reason, the veil was required and a mark of a member of the Fellowship before outsiders, so she donned it with pride and continued downward.
The Fellowship had taken great pains in dressing the basement so as to set the formal and foreboding mood of the Hearing. The stone floor was covered by animal skins from dozens of different species, including some dyed and taxidermied so as to look more exotic. Instead of light spells or chemical lamps, torches were arrayed about the chamber, casting everything in weak, flickering light that was supplemented by a massive brazier at the back of the room.
Before the brazier was a dais about two feet high, upon which sat a low table in the Calleni tribal style, arrayed with small bowls of sipping wine, a haunch of meat from which a pile of thin slivers had been carved and arranged on a wooden plate, a large wedge of pricey Genmidi cheese, and a bowl of blue, pea-sized Nematta grapes dusted with sugar.
The Master of the Fellowship, Orlan Rache, sat behind the table, his legs crossed beneath him. He wore only a set of tough hide breeches, a set of copper bracers with stalking griffins worked into their ornate design, and the veil. Otherwise, his hairless chest and large belly were bare for all to see. Even with his girth, his Calleni heritage put thick muscles on display across his chest and down his powerful arms. His skin was like polished bronze and his brown hair and beard were neatly combed and tied—at least as far as they could be seen around the veil.
On the floor in front of the dais, kneeling and blindfolded, sat the petitioners; those who sought to purchase the services of the guild. The Hearing of Grievances would decide which of them, if any, had a worthy case and a victim in mind who deserved the intervening hand of an Assassin.
The other people the Hearing was meant for stood in silent ranks behind the petitioners. Every one of them was a member of the Fellowship who was untested in the field. The fully invested Assassins were trusted to pick and choose their clients on their own while the Hearing chose targets for the neophytes as a rite of passage. Rakne ghosted across the chamber and joined them without drawing anyone’s attention but Orlan’s.
Most people would have thought the room silent, but Rakne knew better. She closed her eyes, shut out her other senses and listened. Others took it for granted, but for an Assassin, the first step in the art of being silent was discovering the many ways a person could make noise without noticing.
Breathing was the first and most obvious. She could hear maybe one in ten of the newest students who hadn’t learned how to breathe properly and all of the petitioners. There was also a great deal of rustling from the latter, as they shifted around, trying to adjust clothing, surreptitiously scratch itches, and stave off cramps.
Minute shifts in the air, reported by her lasconti hairs, told her other students were arriving. Unless a person was very skilled in vin—air magic—they couldn’t do anything about setting off that sense.
Once the tide of students filing in slowed and finally stopped, Rakne opened her eyes again.
After long minutes, Orlan seemed to decide everyone who was going to come to the Hearing had arrived and started the proceedings by taking a wooden plate from the floor by his side. He placed upon it small portions of the allotted food, including thin slices from the cheese wedge he cut by flicking his fingers at it. Rakne knew the spell: the Subtle Knife, a minor vin-based spell. It wasn’t powerful enough to do more than inflict a shallow wound, but rumor had it that Orlan could and had killed with it.
Orlan set the plate and a bowl of wine directly across from him, then fixed a plate with the same amount of food for himself. It was all slow and methodical—ritualistic in the same way Orlan did most things when it came to Fellowship business.
Only when both plates were in place did he speak. “Death,” His voice was deep, rich and resonant. It filled the room and wrapped around its occupants like smoke. “Death is the fate of us all. Terrible. Irrevocable. The mightiest chief, king, or wizard and the lowliest beggar, urchin, or madman—all will one day leave this world to sink into the Well of Souls where their fate is between them, their soul, and their gods. It cannot be averted.”
He paused, scanning to sea of veiled faces behind the petitioners. “But it can be hastened. And to hasten death quietly and with minimum consequence is an art. An art that cannot and should not be taken lightly. This Fellowship was forged in the crucible of realization that no matter how many may wish for peace and light where all demi-humans and other intellects can live in a world without needless death, there will always be those whose death is greatly and truly needed.
“It is for this Fellowship to decide who lives or dies by our arts. Under that edict do we heed the call at the appointed time to convene this Hearing of Grievances to separate those who our petitioners merely wish dead from those whom Death wishes to see early.”
With that, he clapped twice and nodded in the direction of the first petitioner. One of the veiled Assassins, likely not a student, stepped forward and urged the man in question forward, then up onto the dais. He continued by settling him down in front of the table, then pulling the blindfold off.
The first petitioner was a Nov with auburn hair falling in carefully cultivated curls down to his chin. He was wearing a fine orange shirt beneath a stylish wine-colored coat with aluminum buttons. He had tailored trousers to match and black boots so shiny that they threw reflections from the firelight.
His clear, blue eyes swept the table and what was on his plate before him. His nose wrinkled before he thought better of criticizing Assassins. Instead, he opened his mouth to speak, but Orlan silenced him with a raised finger.
“Say nothing yet. First is the show of trust. Choose something on your plate for me to eat and then eat something from my plate. In this way, you can be assured that nothing is poisoned.”
The man’s eyes shot to the food in front of him. It never occurred to him that he might be poisoned in his venture, but it was occurring to him now. “I… y-yes.” With a trembling hand, he picked up a slice of meat and offered it to the Assassin leader. Picking up meat with his bare hands seemed to worry him as much as the prospect of poisoning.
Orlan took it with a gracious nod and ate the morsel with casual relish. Once it was gone, he gestured to his own plate, from which the petitioner took a Nematta grape. Despite the obvious lack of trust the man had, Orlan gave him a nod of approval.
“Now, the one you want to see dead. Let us hear your grievances.”
Suppressing his inclination to shake his head at the odd ritual, the petitioner nodded in turn. “Yes. My cousin Kinthan Rodikes. He is the unworthy Prince of our family’s sovereign land, the Rodike Valley. Under his incompetent rule, treaties have been made with ancestral enemies, trade agreements have been drawn up that sell away our resources needlessly, and he’s been allowing alchemy—a practice our family has proudly kept out of the valley for fifty years.”
Rakne stopped listening. It shocked her that there were still people out there that thought the Fellowship would involve themselves in petty matters like Novish politics. Every Hearing featured at least one and they were always turned away. Yet the word never spread that ‘political inconvenience’ was not a valid grievance.
While Orlan let the fop ramble on about how shameful and disrespectful to their ancestors his cousin’s actions were, Rakne quietly moved so that she could get a better look at the other petitioners.
There were four in all, including the man who would be Prince. The one nearest her was a dark-skinned woman, probably from Rizen, Te’raan or southwest Novrom. She was dressed just as finely as the noble, with a silk blouse and flowing skirt. Beside her was a southern Nov, tan of skin and tawny of hair. He was in his middle years and those years hadn’t been kind, though she could see from his unstained shirt and breeches, he wasn’t suffering either. Finally, there was a tall, thin blonde man dressed in a homespun shirt and pants. He looked to be from Mindeforme and knelt hunched over as if it pained him to sit up straight.
The latter piqued Rakne’s interest and she silently prayed to Dey to see to it that she was assigned to his task.
Minutes later, the noble finished his litany. “…and that is why, for all the people of Rodike Valley, you should take my coin and put an end to my cousin’s foolish and tyrannical reign.”
“Indeed.” Orlan said with grave serious before popping a bit of cheese into his mouth and chewing thoughtfully. “However, there is nothing in that tale that justifies his death. The only suffering is to pride. The only thing harmed is tradition. And you make no case that you would be any better.”
“What?!” The noble sat bolt upright. “Were you not listening? Has he already paid you more to protect him?”
Orlan looked upon him blandly, unmoved by his outburst. “Your grievances have been heard. Your request and your coin… have been rejected.” He made a hand sign too fast for most of the room to catch and the Assassin who helped the man sit produced a hood from some hidden pocket and dropped it over the irate man’s head.