Night Work


The following is a short fantasy piece I wrote earlier this month. I’m not sure if it will go anywhere or if it will tie in with the other fantasy bits I’ve written in the past couple months. But, for what it’s worth, here it is.

Mags tested her footing cautiously. The roof had been left dark and slick by the earlier rain and she had no desire to fall. As was her custom, she offered up a short, silent prayer to Ilithyia. Then she slid out of her garrets only window, into the night. Her feet slipped a little on the slated roof, then her boots found their traction and she steadied herself. Staying low, she headed out along the rooftops, slow at first and then with greater confidence.

The rains had stopped some hours before, yet the clouds still hung low, dark and heavy. There were glimpses of the moons between them, casting narrow shafts of silvery light. It was enough for her to see her way ahead, perhaps a dozen feet at a time. Beyond that, it was darkness. Below, at street level, there was the flickering of torches but their light was no worry to her. It was more likely to blind those below, conceal more than illuminate. Still, it would serve as a reminder of her path, should one be needed.

She padded carefully along the rooftops, vaulting the gaps caused by the narrow streets. She skirted along the edge of the domed Beggar’s temple, hearing the low drone of midnight prayers from within. She smiled. It must be midnight; the monks were nothing if not punctual about their devotions. She paused there a moment, listening to them. Their chants echoed around the temple. Mags had been in there once, years ago; and her memory was of wide halls and marble columns. She’d had to be additionally cautious to ensure no sounds she made carried to unwanted ears.

She roused herself, taking a deep breath before dropping a few feet to the ledge below. She landed on the balls of her feet, then froze. There was a sound from the street beneath; a gasp or possibly a groan. One of the tavern whores working her trade maybe; or a cutthroat claiming another victim and his purse. Either was possible, even likely in this part of the city. She held still, her ears straining. There was silence for a moment, then the sound of retching and she relaxed. A drunk then, and one probably too intent on emptying his stomach to pay much heed to any noise she might make. No doubt she could pass within feet of the man and he would be unaware of it.

Years ago she might have done so for the sheer amusement of it. But she was older, wiser now. And she had business to attend to.

Mags carried on along the rooftops, moving gradually into a more affluent part of the city. More chance of the city guard patrolling the streets now. She slowed her pace, listening carefully for the tell-tale measured foot-falls of a guardsman. Ilithyia was with her. Only once did she hear one below and he was easily enough avoided.

There was a light breeze springing up, still carrying the scent of rain. It rustled the black silks she wore, the fabric whispering against her skin. The clothes had been expensive, silk was rare and hard to come by in Tamaris, but she had earned the cost of them many times over since. Lightweight and dark, they let her move swiftly, and unseen. And that was worth far more than the hundred Drachii. She would earn more than that tonight, if everything went as planned.

Mags smiled ruefully to herself. Aye, and when did things ever go exactly as planned? There was always something to go wrong, another trick of Nemestes to send things awry. Still, there was no sense in borrowing hardship before it was freely given.

She stopped for a moment atop the roof of the toll house. It stood at one corner of an open square, positioned deliberately at the meeting of the poor and wealthy sections of the city. The same square where she’d seen executions held three days before. In this light, there was no way it could be seen, but in her mind’s eye she could still see the scaffold and the three bodies dangling from it. She doubted they were still there anyway. The magistrate was sure to have ordered them removed by now, perhaps sent to the gibbets adorning the walls around the northern gate. She hoped that fate had not awaited the boy, that he might have been given a decent burial. Many of the crowd had not been pleased to see one so young dancing on the end of a rope. Putting his body on display would have only further inflamed them, but who was to say the magistrate cared about such things. With command of the city guard, he could afford to risk the ill will of the some its populace, especially those from the poorer areas. Men like him had little use for those below them.

She left the square, moving deeper into the new city. It didn’t take much longer to reach her destination, a large and well-appointed house. It stood on its own, an island alone among cobbled streets, far enough from any neighbor to make getting to it a challenge. Added to that, there was a guardsman keeping watch outside. She could see the faint light of the shuttered lantern he carried.

She perched at the edge of the nearest building, waiting until there was enough moonlight to judge the distance. Fifteen, maybe twenty, feet. Certainly too far for her to jump, even at her best. She unwound a silken rope from around her waist, weighing the small steel grapnel in her hand. The chimney would be her best option. She measured out the length of rope, began twirling it about her head.

The rope made a low whistling sound as it whirled just above her head. She kept it going, faster and faster, one eye on the distant chimney. At just the right moment she let the rope slip through her fingers, watching the grapnel fly for its target. She heard the distant chink of the steel against the stone and dropped her eyes down to the guardsman. He showed no sign of alarm, too busy scratching his are and dreaming of better days, no doubt.

She gave the rope an experimental tug, felt it catch, and then hauled on it with all her strength. It felt secure, as secure as she could have hoped for. She unwound it further, stretching it taut, looking for something she could tie it off against. With the accomplished, she murmured another plea for fortune. She kicked her legs up, hooking her ankles over the rope, and began to pull herself along.

She made it to the other roof without any problems. She landed carefully, intent now on making even less noise than she had been before. She took a quick look at her surroundings, trying to orient herself with what she knew of the house. The room she had to get to had no exterior windows, the only route to it was through the house. She circled the roof once, twice, until she was sure of her approach. She unraveled another length of rope, looping it around the chimney and draping it over the edge.

She swung her legs over the edge of the roof, lifting her body up and spinning as she took hold of the rope, hanging on with all her strength. Her feet scrabbled from a moment, then she got them up under her, digging them into the wall. She inched her way down the way, letting an inch of the rope slip from her hands at a time. She stopped when she reached the window. Holding her breath, she slid a knife from her belt. She began working the thin blade between the shutters, enough that, with a twist, she had the latch open. She opened one shutter and slipped inside, glad to have solid footing again. She had no fear of heights, but there was always a sense of relief to be back on the ground.

She was on a stairway, the window above the small landing where the stairs curved back toward the uppermost floor of the house. House, she thought disgustedly. She’d seen smaller inns. The magistrate obviously thought much of himself. And he must have the coin to keep himself in such extravagance. Her fingers twitched at the thought of the riches she could be passing up.

There were a couple of strategically placed candles along the hallway, enough for someone to find their way at night but no more.

She crept along the hallway, attuned to the slightest creak and groan of the floor beneath her. She had a decent idea where the room she needed to get to was; but it was at the far end, past at least three door. She had to assume each of those rooms held someone who could sound an alarm if she was discovered. She’d never liked killing, even when she was being paid for it, and one of the conditions for this job was she had to get in and out without any sign. Easier said than done, but that was why she was worth what she was being paid.

She made it to the door at the end of the hallway, dropping into a crouch before it. She took a group of slim metal instruments from a pouch at her belt and went to work on the lock. A minute or so of careful manipulation and she was rewarded with a sharp click as it released. She opened the door, darted inside and closed it quietly behind her.

The room inside was pitch-black and she stopped, wary of running into anything. She withdrew a thick candle from her belt and lit the wick quickly. Her nose wrinkled with the sudden sulfurous stench of the match. She held the candle high, taking in the room.

It was a study, of sorts. One wall was taken almost entirely by a heavy looking bookcase, the shelves filled with leather-bound books. Maybe there was more to the magistrate than she thought. That notion was quickly dispelled by a closer examination. None of their spines showed and sign of cracking, no indication of ever having been opened, let alone read. Another superficial attempt at impressing, or intimidating, people; assuming he let people in here. Still, it was an expensive subterfuge. She knew some people, even some here in Tamaris, who would pay a goodly sum for these volumes. Once more, she cursed the restrictions she’d agreed to when she took the job.

The wall facing the books was occupied by a large painting, a portrait of a portly, balding man in stately robes. Whoever the artist was, and it was clear he’d had some talent at least, had obviously been trying to make his subject appear noble and grand. The result was faintly risible, somehow giving the impression of an overgrown child trying to appear adult. For a moment, she almost felt sorry for the magistrate, sure that the painting was him. Then she remember the boy dangling at the end of a rope and it acted like a dash of ice water on any sympathy.

She crossed to the centerpiece of the room; a large marble topped desk with an elaborately carved wooden chair behind it. Another minutes’ work with her tools sprung the lock on the drawer and she was almost done. She took the small bundle of paper from inside her tunic, slipping it into the drawer. She was careful to hide it beneath other, more mundane, papers. She locked the drawer again. It was time for her to be gone.