Fiction: The Worst Assassin in Kalbrin

The Worst Assassin in Kalbrin
(From the short story collection Tending the Fire)

In the city of Kalbrin, capital of Helkirith, if you wanted a man killed quickly, effectively, and without fail, you would go to the order of magi, whose arcane powers could handle any job with ruthless efficiency. If, on the other hand, you wanted a man killed after seeing his family slain, one by one, the dark cults of Locintri could accomplish the job – if you were willing to pay their price. If you hated a man so much you wanted his death to take days, even weeks of agonizing torment, the dwarven killer, Yermir, could make any nightmare pale in comparison. Placing enough coins in the palm of Serig Jaraldil, the captain of the guard, could purchase the death of almost anyone in town, as well as ensure that no legal recourse was brought against you.

There had never been a shortage of methods to kill a man in Kalbrin. Yet there was only one assassin you could hire if you wanted that man to survive.

There was no assassin in all of Kalbrin, or in all the nation of Helkirith for that matter, as ineffective as Leit Pesril. In five years of working as a hired killer in the streets of Kalbrin, Leit had yet to successfully murder a single target.

This isn’t to say that Leit was a fool. He knew his shortcomings and embraced his reputation. His brilliance was in his fee. No one can say what drove him to enter the profession, but when his flaws became clear, rather than retire or concede defeat, Pesril doubled the price of his services. Without ever having to admit his failings, he drew the attention of the rulers of the underworld, who saw a unique opportunity in the would-be cutthroat.

In a sense, Leit was more a messenger than an assassin. If you awoke to see him awkwardly holding a dagger over you, if your bodyguards found him unconscious after falling off your roof, if you heard the quiet whisper of a crossbow jamming, or if you saw a shadow move in the dark, only to walk into a wall, then you knew that Leit Pesril had been hired. And, if someone was willing to pay Pesril so much to send a message, you knew to take the threat seriously. If you didn’t make amends, there were so many others they might hire....

It was a cold night in early spring when the undisputed worst assassin west of the Seakreata Mountains crept silently over a bridge. He slipped on a patch of ice and fell, quite loudly, to the ground. He regained his footing to find that his ankle was twisted. He cursed his luck, as he so often did, and limped, as quietly as he could manage, towards a building on an unlit street.

He stumbled in the cold, blowing into his hands and rubbing his palms together. He was cursing so loudly, he didn’t even hear the guards around the corner, and he nearly walked into them.

The guards were well trained, more than prepared for a skilled thief or killer. They knew a master criminal when they saw one, and consequently took Leit for a beggar.

"Son of–" one of them muttered.

"Get off, you drunk!" the other yelled into the startled assassin’s face. "Ye ain’t getting a coin this time o’night. Sleep it off in the alley!"

It took Leit a moment to realize they didn’t recognize him. He nodded and lumbered down the alley beside the house. By a rare stroke of luck, he found a window he could reach. Using what little talent he had, the assassin pried it open. He pulled himself in, fell a good three feet to the floor, cursed the gods, then got to his feet.

The house was dark and cold. Leit was standing in the dining hall, and his pulse began to pound. This was no small job for the humble assassin, but a task of great importance. His target was a man of wealth and privilege who had amassed a sizable debt with Kyril Werdin, a crime lord of tremendous power. When Kyril came to collect, he was turned away. Few men could speak to Kyril in such a way and live, but this was no ordinary debtor: this man was brother to the captain of the guard. Not wanting to upset the captain, Kyril ignored his urge to have the debtor’s entrails removed by Yermir. Instead, he paid Pesril a handsome sum to put a dagger as close to the target’s heart as he could manage.

The assassin knew nothing of this disagreement; only that the job was a significant one and that his employer would most certainly be pleased to learn that he managed to get the knife inside the house this time.

Leit made his way to the foot of the stairs, stumbling only once on the way. He started up, and the steps creaked beneath his boots. He cringed each time the noise sounded, but finally he reached the top and looked around. He hadn’t seen a guard since he got past the two outside, and he reasoned that the target felt his brother’s position afforded him all the safety he required.

There was a thick mahogany door leading to the bedchambers. Leit pushed open the door and slipped inside. There was a large bed before him, surrounded by curtains. A slow snoring came from within.

The assassin took out the dagger the crimelord had given him. It was a short blade with a decorative wooden handle containing the initials, KW. Leit flipped the dagger upside down, so he was holding the edge between his thumb and index finger. He lifted it above his shoulder, preparing to throw it.

There was a sharp pain as the blade cut his thumb. He bit his tongue to keep from crying out, and the dagger slipped from his hand, falling behind his back to the floor, where it bounced beneath a desk against the wall. Leit whispered yet another curse against the gods, who he truly hoped did not keep a count of such things, then dropped to his stomach and pulled himself halfway under the desk. He stretched his arm out, and his fingers searched the floor. When he felt the blade, he breathed a sigh of relief. He pushed himself up, and his head slammed into the underside of the desk.

The assassin cried out in frustration just as the "thud" echoed through the room. He heard a short scream of fright as the man behind him sat up with a start.

Now Leit only had one thing on his mind: run! Dagger in hand, he pulled himself out from the desk and leapt to his feet. His ankle, still numb, gave out from under him, and he tumbled backwards. Screaming in terror, arms flailing, the assassin fell into the curtains surrounding the bed. The cloth ripped, and there was a scream and a gurgle beneath him.

Leit Pesril felt a warm liquid on his hand. He tried to move, but realized the dagger was stuck on something. He let it go and climbed to his feet. He could hear the distant sound of footsteps as the guards charged into the house. The assassin looked at the bed, then at his hand, and a cold wave of shock and fear overtook him as he realized that, despite his fumbling, mishaps, and stupid mistakes, he had indeed murdered the man he had been hired to kill.

Leit heard the guards reach the stairs. Instinct overtook him, and he threw open a nearby window and leapt out. That he was no longer on the first floor must have slipped his mind.

It should be noted that no less than a lifetime of ill luck had brought Pesril to this predicament. That luck can be traced all the way to his birth, which occurred, of all places, in the city of Kalbrin. It is not necessary to outline the story of Leit’s life and the misfortunes he had endured, only to mention that his life was one bad turn after another, that nearly every chance he had taken with fate had come out against him. If all of the bad luck of an entire country were counted, audited, and taxed, it still would not equal that of Leit Pesril.

But let it not be said that fate is entirely merciless. After a thousand events had gone against this one man, this one chance in a thousand went in his favor. For a fall from that height should certainly have crippled the humble assassin, leaving him easy prey for the guards, but in that instant, his fortunes changed. For whatever reason, fate smiled upon Leit that night and placed beneath him the soft embrace of a cart freshly filled with manure, which broke his fall rather than his legs.

Covered with the saving grace fortune had given him, Leit rose to his feet, immediately slipping again. This dance went on for a moment, until Leit half crawled, half swam to the edge of the cart and managed to pull himself over.

And with that, he ran into the labyrinth of streets, as fast as his twisted ankle would permit. His hand was still covered in blood, but that blood was covered in excrement, concealing the crime. If anyone was walking the streets so late, if anyone saw him, they did not know him. And what they smelled made them turn away, without a good look at who he was or which way he went.

Leit made his way back to his home, where he cleaned himself as well as he reasonably could and fell asleep in his bed. In the morning, he reasoned, he would go in search of Kyril Werdin. Leit could hardly guess whether the crime lord would be overjoyed to hear of the assassin’s success or outraged that things had gone so far. But, whatever the reaction, Leit was certain that it would be best if he delivered the message personally.

Of course, by the time Leit found his bed, Kyril had already heard about the assassination, and he wasn’t pleased in the least. As far as he was concerned, he had technically hired Leit to not kill his prey, for such was the unspoken agreement between the lords of crime and the worst assassin in all of Kalbrin. Knowing that the captain of the guard was not prone to forgiveness, and further that the dagger he had given Leit was marked with his initials, Kyril thought it best to be forthright. He sent a letter to the captain, expressing his deepest regret, a thorough description of the tragedy, and the name of the man who had killed his brother.

If the captain had believed a word of it, Leit would have woken with a blade in his stomach. As it was, Leit awoke rested the next morning, though more than a little troubled by unpleasant dreams. Though he had tried on many occasions, he had never before taken a life, and the experience had left him dazed and frightened. He saw now that life was a truly fleeting thing, and that something so common as a blade could mean its end, in such situations where the blade was actually introduced to a body.

Deciding that he ought to be better cleansed before visiting one of the city’s powerful and elite criminal masterminds, Leit traveled to the cleanest stretch of river he knew of, where he washed himself and changed his clothes. Those he had been wearing, now horribly stained with an odor Leit doubted could ever be removed, he cast into the water.

He then saw another set of clothes floating near his, and, never one to overlook an unclaimed article of value, no matter how modest, Leit waded after them. When he touched the cloth, he made a startling discovery: the clothes still housed their owner, whose skin was now a light blue. Mortified, of course, but nonetheless curious, Leit turned the body over to look at its face, and he found he recognized the man. This was one of the magi, Leit realized, who commanded the power of the world, and traded their services for gold and women, for what other use was the world’s ancient knowledge?

Leit saluted the mage, for though a wizard, this was also an assassin, and there was a kinship between the two men. Had their roles been reversed, the mage would never have afforded Leit the same honor, but this did not trouble him in the least: the mage was a greater killer than he, and deserved a higher tribute than the humble assassin could give.

Then he saw another form in the water. The body of another mage, this one torn almost in two, floated by. Leit returned to the shore, frightened and confused. Again, he showed due respect, raising his arm to bid farewell. After that, two more, cradled by the current, passed before him. And more after that. Like a procession they came, floating down the river, face down or up, it was the same: the magi came, dead to the last. And Leit stayed there for the better part of an hour, saluting as they drifted by. Only when they all had gone did he stop to wonder what force had undone such power. Together the magi were all but invincible: to slaughter them and cast their carcasses to the river would take more than the might of the city guard.

Saying a short prayer to gods he was certain wouldn’t listen, for no god of good repute would ever hear the prayers of an assassin, let alone those spoken on behalf of sorcerers, Leit set off on his errand. Traveling in daylight through crowded streets, Leit was not overly concerned about repercussions. He had never faced resentment from those he had hunted or their families in the past, and something as trivial as a success did not seem to warrant a different reaction: after all, there were many other assassins in Kalbrin, all of whom fulfilled their contracts regularly, and they seemed to escape unscathed.

He did pass several groups of soldiers, though these were busy with other tasks. Indeed, had Leit’s mind not been so preoccupied with the previous nights events, the upcoming meeting, and what he had seen at the river, even he would have noticed that they were far more active than usual.

Before long, Leit arrived at the tavern owned by his employer, who used the back for his own manner of dealings. Only the tavern was no longer there. Where once it stood, now there was only a shell, a skeleton of charred logs and boards, which had yet to completely collapse. And at the door was a body lying on the ground, a body no larger than that of a child. It was a halfling, or had once been, at any rate, for now it was shorter still. The head had been taken – where, Leit didn’t know – but the shoulders were bare save a stump.

Leit saluted the body, for he knew well that this was a killer extraordinaire, a master of poisons and subtle work, who had fallen. Something caught Leit’s eye: a small pouch at the halfling’s side, which had not been taken. Indeed, the body must be fresh, for even the boots remained on the feet.

With a muffled apology, Leit knelt beside the halfling and undid the knot on his pouch. He peeked inside at the vials, tins, and coins, all tossed together.

"Stealing from the dead, eh?" a gruff voice came from behind. Leit leapt back and saw none other than Yermir, the dwarven butcher, watching. "Sorry to scare you there, Pesril. Aye, I know you, for we share a trade, do we not? As for the dead, I know them as well, and am sure that pouch won’t go missed. I’d have grabbed it if you hadn’t."

"There’s some gold," Leit said, offering the pouch. He knew the dwarf was capable of killing him in a hundred and seven ways, and, if angered, liable to experiment until he found a hundred and eighth.

"The eyes of the corpse go to the first crow that flies by, if I remember the saying. Hold on to what’s yours, Pesril."

Leit nodded, tying the small pouch to his belt. "What’s happening? How did this–"

"I’ll tell you what I know," the dwarf replied. "But first, we should leave this place. Those that did this, they haven’t left for long, I’d wager, and you can see their treatment of those once working for Kyril Werdin."

The two assassins left by alleyways and underpasses, avoiding crowded areas, and they spoke in hushed whispers as they moved. "It is a war we’re seeing," Yermir explained. "A war begun last night, when Werdin spilt the blood of Jaraldil’s kin. He bragged about it, even, or so I’ve heard, leaving the captain a signed dagger stuck in his brother’s bloated corpse. And then again, by letter, he mocked the captain with a false apology, claiming the killer was Leit Pesril, noted jest among assassins."

Leit swallowed, then shrunk himself as small as he’d go, hunching his head into his shoulders.

"Think nothing of it, for the captain never believed a word of the letter. As to what really happened last night and who swung the blade, I don’t know myself the truth. If you know more, well, there are some questions one assassin doesn’t ask another. However it happened, the captain, in his rage, opened some choice cells, and created agents of his own from some of the worst killers this city has ever known."

"The magi," Leit whispered.

"What of them?" Yermir asked.

"I saw them this morning, dead to a man, in the river."

"Ah. Work of the demon-men, I’d say. Not even the cults of Locintri could have accomplished such a feat. I wonder which side recruited them, and why the magi were killed, if there was reason at all."

"The demon-men," Leit echoed, shivering, for there wasn’t a soul in Kalbrin without fear of the monstrous killers, whose origins and true nature were the stuff of rumor and never fact.

"I wouldn’t worry about them anymore," Yermir said. "Such slaughter would carry a heavy price, even for their kind. If one lived for every two that fell, I’d call them lucky. And, unless my guess misses its mark, even the survivors haven’t long. Those who practice such methods, who kill without subtlety, are hard targets to miss. And whether in the employ of Kyril Werdin, Serig Jaraldil, or another – for by now every criminal in the city has had to choose sides – their enemies won’t give them a chance to move again."

"Then... Kyril’s still alive?" Leit asked.

"Perhaps," Yermir answered, shrugging. "Not for long, I suppose. Even dead, his coin will live on, for there is no assassin in Kalbrin who would abandon his job once he’s accepted payment. Well, no assassin save Leit Pesril."

Leit bit his lip, his shame apparent. Yermir laughed at this, saying, "Don’t fret! You’ve always followed a different code than the rest of us, and we’ve all had our fun at your expense. But that fun has passed, to be sure, for you have already outlived a dozen killers who once scoffed at your name. I wouldn’t be surprised if we’re destined to be the last two assassins alive in Kalbrin!"

They followed the alleyways and streets until they happened across two guards, who saw the assassins and recognized Yermir. "Stop there!" one commanded, quickly going for his blade. But Yermir was quicker still, and he drew his knife, carving swiftly, cleanly, and deeply. The other, not realizing what had befallen his partner, had his sword drawn, and held it above Leit, who cowered on the ground and covered his face.

There was the whistle of metal through air, followed by an abrupt thud. Leit, assuming he was dead, uncovered his face to find that the guard was still standing over him. His sword was still held over his shoulder, though this fell to the ground in a moment, followed by the guard himself, who stared at Leit through one eye only, for there was a knife through the other.

"Think it a courtesy, professional in nature," Yermir said, retrieving what was his. "Let us go now. I know an inn not far, where those wearing the king’s colors don’t tread. We’ll last a while there, and, if luck has it, we’ll be able to sneak away when things quiet down, and find new lives in a city less perilous than Kalbrin’s become."

As ordered, Leit followed behind, until they reached the inn. While Yermir arranged their stay, Leit slipped in to order two mugs of ale; one he sipped and the other he set aside for his companion, who joined him shortly.

"We’ll be safe here," Yermir said, taking his drink the dwarven way, in one long gulp, then belching loudly. "The owner, he’s a friend, he is, and he won’t trouble us. Bad people stay here, but of them I’m the worst, so we won’t be bothered."

Leit just nodded, troubled, tired, and in shock. Food was brought to them, though Leit hardly touched anything before him. When his friend had eaten his fill, they each accepted a candle from the innkeeper and went to the room Yermir had arranged, which was at the end of an otherwise empty corridor. If there were other guests anywhere in the inn, there were none nearby.

When they reached the room, Leit staggered in and collapsed in a chair. When he looked back at the door, he found it barred, with Yermir standing before it, sharpening his knives. "I spoke true to you, Pesril, when I told you that we were destined to outlive all our kind, for they’ll most likely be dead within days, while you, I’m sorry to say, will linger on, here with me and my knives. I couldn’t let the soldiers have you: they’d have made a quick end, and I was paid for a longer job. You cost Werdin everything he’s ever had, down to his very life, and he’s paid me well to ensure your suffering lasts."

"I... I knew you were working for Kyril," Leit responded, shaking and stuttering. "Everyone thinks I’m a fool, and I know I’m not the smartest man, but... I’m not stupid. When you refused the halfling’s pouch... you wouldn’t have done so unless...."

Yermir raised an eyebrow. "Unless I intended to take it later. That’s impressive, Pesril. Then tell me this, if you aren’t a fool, why did you come along so willingly?"

"Because I had no choice. If I’d tried to run, you’d have cut me down on the street."

"True. But it would have been a quick death. You’d rather this?"

"I’m sorry, Yermir. I... I didn’t have a choice. I had to do it." Leit took a small vial from his pouch and held it in the candlelight. The vial was empty.

Yermir’s eyes opened wide. He looked down at his stomach. "The ale...."

"I am sorry," Leit repeated.

Yermir chuckled, already feeling his legs stiffen. "Anyone else... if even a child had handed me a mug, I’d not have drunk. But you... I never thought...." The knives fell from his hands, which had started to shake.

"I’ll help you to the bed," Leit said solemnly, lending the dwarf a hand.

"Pesril, I underestimated you." The poison was working quickly now, and it was clearly hard for Yermir to move. Only with Leit’s assistance was he able to lie down. "I don’t want to die," the dwarf said.

"I’m sorry," Leit said again.

"Don’t be. You did your job. Did it well enough to last a while more. If you’re wise, you’ll move on. Kalbrin’s not for our kind, not any longer." Then, right before death claimed him, even though it clearly caused him great pain, Yermir raised his arm to salute the man who had finally outdone him.

And Leit Pesril saluted in return.

Leit thought on Yermir’s advice, of leaving Kalbrin behind and seeking a new home and new name. But he could think of nothing beyond Kalbrin to live for, and very little inside, for that matter, so he returned to his small home, where he hung a sign beside his door reading, "Here Dwells Leit Pesril, The Worst Assassin in Kalbrin." And there he waited, without fear, for the city guards or a surviving assassin or anyone else with a grudge, to kill him.

Yet no one came.

And the war faded in time, for they simply reached a point where truly no one was left to fight. As Yermir had predicted, the killers hunted each other, eagerly taking jobs against their kind out of fear that any other assassin alive might take a job against them. The survivors from the cults of Locintri, who once bathed in blood under the moon, were hung one day at noon – it is said so many necks snapped in unison that it sounded as if a forest of trees toppled together. As for Kyril, he lasted longer than Yermir could have imagined, until he found himself in the bed of the harlot, Fiseria, who he believed loyal to him above all others, then discovered at the blade of a knife that she was all too glad to accept the captain’s money. And Fiseria, in turn, was killed soon after, murdered over a dispute with the man who’d hired her.

The carnage was all but complete. The once orderly enterprise of criminal activity had fallen apart, torn itself limb from limb in bloody civil war, which had at last come to an end. And the man who had once held it in check, who had worked and lived on both sides of the coin (and pocketed it, too), Serig Jaraldil, once the honored captain of the guard, was now paraded through the street by men who had once served at his command. What crime had he been accused and convicted of? Few in the crowd could say for certain, whether it was treason or murder, blasphemy or forgery – for he might honestly be guilty of all. In the end, it mattered not a whit what charge the judges tried him on, for such was merely a matter of procedure. Whatever he was convicted of, he was killed for failing to maintain the peace, which is all that is ever expected of corrupt and powerful men.

When his head was placed on the stone, and the executioner lifted his axe, Jaraldil looked into the crowd, and his gaze met that of Leit Pesril, who saluted the captain as one assassin salutes another in death: with respect and honor. And the captain’s eyes widened, as though he understood something at last. It is possible, in that moment, he truly grasped what had happened, all the misunderstandings and unnecessary killing, and realized at last the absurdity of it all. It is, however, far more likely that he believed Pesril to be a man of far greater mental prowess than was truly the case, one who had invested five years in a plot to bring down the captain of the guard and all potential rivals.

The captain was indeed a paranoid man, so he may have been thinking such thoughts. It is impossible to say, because the executioner did not see fit to ask, and the axe’s edge silenced all.

And with the thump of a tumbling head, another killer lay dead in Kalbrin’s streets. Some gasped, some cheered, and others felt cheated: there were no further executions scheduled that day, and it wasn’t even ten. The crowd wandered off, while the head and body were tossed into a wheelbarrow and carted away.

Finally, there was one man left standing in the road, lost in his own thoughts. He considered all that had happened, how by luck alone he had survived to that point. He thought of Jaraldil and Yermir, Kyril and all the others, so much greater than himself, yet now gone to the grave. And in the end, he stood alone, Leit Pesril, the best, the worst, the most feared and most mocked; the only assassin in Kalbrin.

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