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Entry D - The Job
 
Old 11 Aug 2008, 20:13   #1 (permalink)
Shas'O
 
Join Date: Mar 2005
Location: Ontario, Canada
Posts: 9,807
Default Entry D - The Job

The man in front of me hesitates for a second, and in that second my left hand reaches for the knife I carry tucked behind the back of my tunic.

I reach, and I stab. The cracking sound of his armor and the soft wheezing sound he makes as the air is pushed out of his lungs tells me that the knife is in deep enough to kill.

But not deep enough. And so the man in front of me has a few seconds of life left.

It is enough.

He squeezes the trigger, and the distinctive dull sound of a round bullet pushing itself through human flesh and bone reaches my ears, hollow and distant, as he falls to the ground.

I slump down next to a brick wall, the red of my blood mixing with the red clay behind me. As a force of habit now really, my right hand reaches for the herbs the alchemist gave me, to stop the memories from flowing-but they don’t seem to work, and so my mind wanders back, to a beginning…

**************************
The alley is calm and quiet, unusual in the market district of Fenshong, one of the largest cities of Cathay. Even the crickets are silent these late hours of the evening, as Wen Hua and I walk along the carved stone blocks, uneven with age and slippery from the rain that pours from above. Wen breaks the silence.

“How sure are you that Man Zuo will show? That this isn’t a setup?”

“I’m not. But this is the assignment we were given, and we are obligated to fulfill it.”

Wen laughs, the sound of which rumbled through his brigandine armor and faded green war mask. “But one petty opium peddler? Such a job is too simple for ones such as we.”

“That our task is simple does not mean it will be easy.” I whisper. “Which is why we are here tonight, Wen. You would do best to remember that, and to remember our purpose. Our employer wants no mistakes and no witnesses. If the whole district wakes up to dispute that claim, then they will have us both killed.”

The clank of weighted footsteps silence the conversation, and from the shadows at the opposite end of the hallway two large men emerge, both clad in the rough, dark red armor of the Chin Die opium cartel. They were followed by another dressed in faded greens, whom carried with him two sacks, labeled as rice, but even from this distance we could see the opium underneath. They stride forward, every step designed to intimidate.

The man in green narrows his eyes as he saw us and spoke warily.

“You are not one of the usual couriers.”

“That is correct, Man Zuo.” Wen steps forward, slowly removing a scroll from his side and handing it to the man. “But our usual man has been…arrested for trafficking, and our employer finds that business with your masters is too lucrative to interrupt because of such minor details.”
Man Zuo eyes us again, but hands the scroll back to Wen, satisfied of the parchment’s authenticity.

“Very well. Do you have the money?”

I pretend to grope for my gold as I reach for the poisoned throwing knives tucked in the corner of my sleeve, but as my hand finds the knives, Wen laughs aloud in disdain.

“We have our money now!” Wen cries, drawing his broadsword and driving it deep into one of the armored men, whom coughs up blood in surprise.

I curse to myself at my partner’s brashness, as the other bodyguard drew his sword and Zuo backpedaled towards the dark end of the alley. I duck a swipe from bodyguard’s broadsword as I throw three daggers in quick succession, and Man Zuo crumples to the floor. I spin backwards to draw out the distance between the red armored man and I, but when I turned I was too late.

The man was already bringing his sword straight down upon me.

A booming sound, like that of thunder, strikes my ears, and a pool of blood spurted from the man’s chest. He looks down at it, as if in amazement, and then falls.

I look behind me to see Wen, smoke winding out of his foreign weapon (I could never pronounce its strange sounding name, but it reeked of black powder), a small barreled contraption, and a smile on his face.

“Well now, that wasn’t so bad now, was it?”

“The Three Hells it wasn’t.” I spat at the ground in frustration. “You almost got me killed. What were you thinking? “We have our money now?” You sound as if you are trying to be a martial hero, like those in the printed stories. Don’t embarrass yourself.”

“Bah! If you can’t have fun with what you do, why do it, at all, Bei? Someone as old as you should know that by now!”

I stare at him darkly. “This line of work was not a choice for all of us, Wen. You would be wise to remember that.” I whispered.

Wen smiles, a wolf’s smile, malevolent and cunning. “Suit yourself Bei. But cheer up. This is supposed to be a happy occasion! It’s not every day that one completes his final assignment-just imagine, in but a few day’s time we will be far away from here, basking in the warm sunshine of the isles of Waijin.”

“You act as if you think we work for a Magistrate, Wen. We will be lucky if our employer does not simply kill us to prevent us from talking to the officials, or compromising their activities in any way.”
Wen shrugs. “How about a drink, then? That will cure an old man’s cynical bitterness.”

My glare only deepens.

“So be it.” Wen flashes his wolf’s smile again. “I’ll see you when I see you.”

As he turns the corner of the alley and left, I sigh, and sit down with my back towards the wall upon a crooked old bench corner, letting the adrenaline and the creaks in my joints flow out of my body slowly. If would be a half hour at the earliest before the local city watch could reach these alleys from the Magistrate’s building, at any rate.

But suddenly, I get that feeling in the back of my head, when the hairs on your neck stand up, and I hear the sound of footsteps. Whoever it is is close, too close. I squeeze myself in the space between the bench and the alley, the shadows obscuring me from whatever shade of man approached. As I hear the footsteps pass, I jump out, grabbing the outline of a neck, pulling it forward to me as I squeezed my fingers sharply.


…It’s a little girl, undoubtedly a member of one of the many lower class families who live near this district. She bears all the marks of a night scavenger-her clothes look rough and sewn together of different materials, and as I pulled her I see several old metal cups, like ones discarded from the houses of the gentry, spill out of her tattered cloak. She’s a little girl, one of many innocents forced to dirty themselves in the slums of Fenshong.

And she is choking to death in my hands. She makes a small gasping sound, almost inaudible to my ears. It sounds like…it sounds like…

“Why?”

Quickly and quietly, I gently put her down, and bow low.

“I am very sorry, child-but you scared the Three Hells out of me.”

She glances at me, and then at the bodies strewn about the alley.

“Did you kill them?” She tries her best to hide it, but I can see fear beginning to grip her. “Are you going to…to kill me too?”

I kneel down, trying my best not to frighten her even more. “No, kid.” I attempt a rough smile. “These men were murderers, monsters. It is my job sometimes, to get rid of monsters.”

She nods, but I cannot tell whether her assent comes from her fear.

“You killed these people?”

“Yes.”

She stammers, afraid. “Are you…does that make you a monster too?”

“No kid, I’d like to think that it doesn’t. But sometimes…sometimes I have to act like one. It’s…it’s my job.” I allow myself a small smile. “It’s just a job.”

She stares back at me in that half-awkward, half-comfortably silent way. In the way that says, “I’m getting to know you” without saying whether or not you like what you know.

“Well…my father used to be acupuncturist.”

We smile, thinking about fathers. For some reason I’m suddenly reminded of something; one of those things you keep so close to you for so long that you almost forgot you had it in the first place. Out of the corner of my eye, I see a small jade earring upon her left ear. I reach clumsily into my tunic, and pull out a pair of old jade earrings. They are faded, but still beautiful, even after more than twenty-two years of neglect. For some reason, I find myself handing them to this young girl in front of me, as I mutter something to her about her keeping silent in exchange for the earrings. My mind swirls and throbs with a familiar pain. I shake my head, and reach for the herbs my alchemist gave me to stop the memories from flowing, but they don’t seem to work, and so my mind wanders back, to a beginning…

**************************

Twenty two years ago, my family was newly immersed in the life of the gentry. My father had only recently received a low-level district post as an official, a start to what we hoped would be a long and promising career in the Emperor’s service. I was recently accepted into an academy for young men of the gentry, and while I was only mediocre at my study of the Classics (meant to elevate the mind and spirit), I excelled in the martial forms that my masters instructed me in to elevate my body. My mother began teaching my sister, then only ten years of age, the arts of poetry and the zither, and she excelled at her endeavors. My father’s brief tenure as an official was marked with integrity and newfound enemies who did not appreciate his belief in the justice and virtue of the Empire, and of the Emperor’s officials. He was accused of meeting with and offering foreign traders some of the Emperor’s documents. That it was nigh impossible for a lowly district official to come into possession of anything carrying the Emperor’s seal was conveniently overlooked by his superiors. His reputation in tatters and his future damned, he chose to spare our family the pain and humiliation of public denunciation and committed suicide. My mother found his body, and while the alchemists all claimed the pneumonia claimed her, my sister and I knew that our mother perished of a broken heart.

My sister was only twelve, and at a training academy of her own for potential courtiers, when we were left on our own. As the heir to the family, and legally an adult under the Codes of the Emperor, the family shame passed onto me. Though I was discharged from the academy under honorable circumstances (the document even commended my skills with the broadsword and the calligraphy brush), no official would keep me as a retainer, not even as a low-rung clerk assistant. My sister though, she was too young to be touched by the scandal. So I hoped.

One day I found a small scroll, sealed with wax placed at the front gate of the family house. When I opened it that night, the letter stated that my skills with the blade had caught the eye of an employer whom needed such skills, and while the letter made full mention of the nature of the illicit activities I would have to be a part of, the offer was simply too good to refuse. My own honor was forfeit with my father’s. But my employer did not merely offer me the money to support myself and a budding young courtier-in-training; he offered to enroll her in a new academy under a different (and unsullied) name. The price was only twenty-five years of my unquestioning service, to be performed eliminating my employer’s enemies without question and without hesitation. Now, at least, I could do something to ensure that my sister would be able to continue her training as a courtier. She would have some kind of future.

And besides, what was 25 years of a life already forfeit, for a life yet unlived?

The day I read that letter was the day my sister and I parted. We often wrote letters to each other (under assumed names, of course). She was progressing well. I told her that I was serving as an assistant to a Warden of Security, and that my job, while dangerous, was fulfilling. I reasoned that it was only half a lie.

And so the months progressed into years. My partner, a young man by the name of Wen and I made name for ourselves in the local underworld as agents of vengeance, men to be feared for ruthlessness and efficiency.

Thus did two years pass, slowly and bloodily.

One day, Wen and I received an assignment from our employer, sealed with wax in a red envelope, much like any other. The target was an old scholar who specialized in music, a man who had run afoul of our master for refusing to share a concubine that caught my employer’s eye.

We reached his home, the second story unit of a modest walled scholar’s enclave, in the early hours of the morning. The sun had not yet risen, and Wen and I scaled over the walls with ease, landing onto the soft grass of a tended garden. He vaulted me onto the tiled rooftop of the second story of the building, and landed silently himself after a silent running leap. We crawled in through the window. The room, a sleeping chamber, was empty. There were two doors, one on each side of the chamber.

I nodded to Wen, and he silently moved towards the left door as I shifted to the right. I crept forward into the adjacent room quietly, each weighted footstep an eternity.

I found myself in a youth’s chamber-the sleeping form of a young girl in her teens outlined by a few candles mounted on a stand in the far corner. The chamber had only one exit, and from the open door I could see that the room beyond was lighted, and a man’s shadow was barely visible from the doorframe. When I eventually wound my way next to door, I leapt into the room, to find myself face to face with an old man, sitting by a desk facing towards me, calligraphy brush in his right hand. There was a lamp on a pedestal in front of me, casting the shadow that I had saw from the children’s bedchamber. He placed his brush down and nodded in my direction. If he was surprised at the sight of an armed man in his private quarters, he did not show it

“I did not expect your master to take such an offense so personally.” He whispered. His tone was calm.

“It is not my place to know what he expects.” I retorted softly as I drew out my blade slowly as to not wake up the child nearby.

The old scholar stroked his beard with his right hand as I moved forward, then gently raised forward a barreled weapon of some kind, that made a strange clicking sound as he pointed it near me.

“Do you recognize this kind of weapon?” He asked calmly, a condescending smirk appearing slowly upon his face.

“A foreigner’s weapon.” I stared back at him, my voice unwavering despite the rising beat of my heart. “Only a coward uses the foreigner’s fire stick. It is banned in Cathay by Imperial Decree”

“A coward?” The scholar mocked. “You come into someone else’s home while my wives are sleeping to threaten an old man, and you call me a coward? Accuse me of violating Imperial Decree when you work as a hired butcher for a monster of a man?” His voice rose. “The magistrate will reward me well for killing a dangerous criminal such as you.”

Our eyes met, and we paused for a second. In that second, I flung out my left fist at the candle in front of me, snuffing out the flame, and rolled forward in the same motion. Darkness enveloped the room, and I heard the old man grunt in pain as I collided into him, burying my sword deep into his chest. He was dead before he hit the ground.

It took me a few seconds to relight the candle in the dark using the flint that lay near his desk. As I finished reigniting the flame, I heard footsteps coming from the door I had emerged from only a few moments ago.

“Wen? I found him. Let’s go-” I said as I turned, only to stop in my tracks.

The person in front of me was no stranger. She was older, and her features were finer, but I would recognize that face even in the depths of the Three Hells. She still wore the jade earrings I gave her as a parting present the last day I saw her.

My sister stood there in front of me.
AuinMyrrath is offline  
Old 11 Aug 2008, 20:13   #2 (permalink)
Shas'O
 
Join Date: Mar 2005
Location: Ontario, Canada
Posts: 9,807
Default Re: Entry D - The Job

When the assignment read that the old scholar had refused to share pretty concubine, I did not imagine what his tastes would be. In the last letter she wrote to me, she mentioned being courted by a scholar, but she did not mention his age, only that he, like her, played the zither. It seems that she glossed over much in her letters. But then again, so did I.

She gasped at the sight of the scholar’s cold body. But the sound she made was not one of sorrow, but of relief. I could see small bruises on her face and her hands. As our eyes met, her face brightened in recognition. She ran to me, and held me close.

“I had hoped a Warden would come. He said they wouldn’t, that he was too far above the Emperor’s law-that he…” She began to sob. “I didn’t dare to dream that anyone would come to help me. But you came…you really came.” Her voice was scared, anxious, hopeful. “I was so scared…”

“I’m sorry. Don’t worry now, everything will be all right.”

As we spoke, I must have missed Wen walking into the room and examining the old scholar’s body. I must have missed him picking up the foreigner’s fire stick. Only when I heard the characteristic click of metal upon metal did I see Wen’s outline in front of me, the weapon pointed to the side of my sister’s head.

There is a flash of sound, like thunder, and my hearing went faint. I only felt her body sinking into mine. Her warm blood staining my tattered tunic.

I hear Wen’s voice, distant and cold.

“You know the rules, Bei. Our employer demands that we leave no witnesses. I’m sorry.”

The last thing I remember before the herbs begin working is a small hand in mine. She gives it a squeeze, and I squeeze back. And then…

silence.

The little girl in front of me stares, her eyes exuding a bright intelligence that hid beneath her ruined, scavenged clothes.

“These earrings-where did they come from?”

“It doesn’t matter now, kid. She…passed away.”

“Who was she?”

I fumble awkwardly with my words. “My sister. A cute kid, isn’t she?”

The girl is silent, wondering why a strange old man would give her a dead sister’s earrings. So she looks at the jade earrings again, and asks the only question that must have come to her mind. Her voice is a whisper, more statement than question.

“Did you…kill her too?”

My mind is suddenly blinded bright white with rage, and I feel myself grabbing the little girl’s throat and lifting her up off of the ground. She struggles and I hear her movements slow. I feel something on my face and notice that tears are falling from my eyes.

I gently let her go. I follow the tears to the ground, where I see out of the corner of my eye a pair of old jade earrings, gathering mud and collecting raindrops. I kneel and pick up the old green stones, and wipe away the grime and the dirt made slick with rain, as if wiping away the dust from a once familiar face.

My mind wanders. Past the haze of twenty years. I am in a room now, it is the living quarters I share with my partner in crime, Wen. In my left hand, I hold a pair of jade earrings. In my right, I hold the scholar’s fire stick.

I pointed the barrel of the stick inside my mouth, and heard the cold clicking sound of metal upon metal. Footsteps and a shadow emerge from behind.

“You might want to ask before you borrow that.” The voice is Wen’s. “And you have to load it with the bullets before it works. Just so you know.”

I put the weapon down, my face hollow and worn, my hand itching near the my sword’s hilt.

“You killed my sister.”

“I didn’t know.”

“She deserved better. I should kill you.”

“You can try. But it won’t bring her back.”

I swing with my left fist, aiming straight at his face. It is not the best blow I’ve ever given, but it was hard and brutal, the crunching noise I hear as bone breaks a release. I guess I too, wanted to destroy something whole.

“Damnation! You broke my nose, Bei.”

“I should break more.”

The middle of Wen’s face is a bloody mess, but he flashes me his wolf’s smile.

“You can break my bones. You can even try to kill me. You can resign, quit, whatever. But it won’t bring her back. And you will only enrage our employer, or threaten him too much. He will have you killed.”

This time I was the one who smiled. “Do you think that frightens me?”

“No. But do you think our employer will stop there? He will not just kill you, Wen. He will destroy what is left of your family’s name. He will let the entire court know that your family ended with a courtier child as an old man’s slave-whore.”

My eyes lower. As much as I hate him, Wen was not threatening me. He spoke the truth.

For the first time I can remember, Wen actually looks mournful.

“I don’t think this is right any more than you do, Bei. And I don’t like it either. But look-you have a choice.” My eyes narrow. I hate it when Wen gives me one of his “choices.” They are almost always unsavory, and always the only real options I have. “You can stay and work, we can ask him a favor. Our employer is a man near high stations, after all. You can get your sister’s name cleared. Her reputation maintained.”

“Favors from him always cost more than they are worth.” I spat.

“Is it worth the risk? To your family’s name? To your sister’s memory?”

Some choice.

My employer carried out my favor, in a way. For all intents and purposes, my sister disappeared from all records. As if clerk made a mistake when filing a report and simply forgot to write her name down in the annual List of the Deceased, to be submitted to the County Magistrate’s office. After that, it was as if she simply did not exist. Her name was cleared from every document. She had no reputation to maintain. The only thing left of her was her two jade earrings.

The ones I am holding now, aged and worn.

I look up. The little girl is still there, eyeing me. There is more sadness in her eyes than fear. As if she is seeing not a monster, a killer, here in this dark rainy back alley-but some sad old man. I hand her the earrings and tell her to keep them.

“Did I kill her? Yeah…yeah, kid. …Yeah you could say that.”

We are silent now, taking in the cold of the air, the bite of the rain, and the warm feeling of the earth underneath our toes.

Suddenly I get that feeling in the back of my head, when the hairs on my head all stand up, and I hear footsteps in the distance.

I tell the little girl to hide under the bench. Hopefully everything will be okay.

Wen rounds the corner. He smiles a wolf’s smile and shakes my hand.

“What’s the matter, Bei? You look like you’ve seen a ghost! Come on, let’s go.”

He shakes my hand and motions for me to head down first. As we turn and head down the alley I hear a click, a cold sound of metal upon metal behind me.

I’m too old for this. Maybe I always was.

“Damnation, Bei-we have a rule! No witnesses-no one can ever know we were out here tonight. Our employer, he’ll kill us for failure. You know that. If you can’t do it, I’ll kill the witness. Just turn your idiot head around if you don’t want a part of it.”

“Death. Maybe that’s what we deserve, Wen.”

“Come on, Bei. Don’t do anything stupid. Just turn around and keep your hands where I can see them. No knife tricks today, old man. I took them out of your sleeve when we shook hands.”

Wen blinks and his eyes go wide. Sure he’s taken my knives, but I took the bullets he keeps hidden in a pouch up his own sleeve when we shook hands. He only has one shot-the shot he loaded in already. If he shoots the girl, I kill him. If he shoots me, then the girl has a chance to escape.

The man in front of me hesitates for a second, and in that second my left hand reaches for the knife I carry tucked behind the back of my tunic.

I reach, and I stab. The cracking sound of his armor and the soft wheezing sound he makes as the air is pushed out of his lungs tells me that the knife is in deep.

But not deep enough. He squeezes the trigger, and the distinctive dull sound of a round bullet pushing itself through human flesh and bone reaches my ears, hollow and distant, as he falls to the ground.

I slump down next to a brick wall, the red of my blood mixing with the red clay behind me. As a force of habit now really, my right hand reaches for the herbs the alchemist gave me, to stop the memories from flowing-but they don’t seem to work, and so my mind wanders back, to a beginning…

**********************
…there’s a girl next to me for some reason, holding me close. By the feel of it she’s scared-quite scared…but also quite alive. She’ll be okay. I see two jade earrings upon her head.

The last thing I remember before the herbs start working is a small hand in mine.

She gives it a squeeze
so I squeeze back…
and then,
silence.
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