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Shadow Walker

By Quillblade

In one dark corner of a scummy little pub, on a dark night nearing the eleventh hour, a voice like honeyed barbs spoke two short words: "Let's play."

His hands toyed with a pack of cards, shuffling them with intricate skill despite the man's attention being entirely somewhere else. The cards flew over and under one another in delicate aerial displays, and then, squared off with one deft movement, were dealt out toward the second person at the table.

The Raptrin scooped his cards up and looked at them suspiciously. "I don't trust these deals of yours, old boy," he said, Ingallish accent suspicious. "They're entirely too ostentatious for me."

The dealer, an assassin known to most as Hunter, gave a fleeting smile. "This from the master of extravagance," he murmured, picking up the four cards in front of himself without actually sparing them a glance.

Hunter was not an imposing man, and, though he wore clothes to make him seem taller from a distance, he was not a very large one, either. Behind his sunglasses lay a pair of cheerful blue eyes and a good-natured smile, but his features were not stunningly handsome. There was, however, an air of deadly competence about him that more than made up for his lack of physical presence. "So," said Hunter, "you require a service from the Dirae."

"I want you to kill someone for me, yes." The man started the game by getting rid of a card.

"Inhume," he corrected with a polite cough. "The term is inhume." It was almost a reprimand, and Hunter saw his opponent frown. Hiding a smile, the assassin looked down at his cards, picked one and placed it down on the table -- a red two of stars -- and picked the blue one of suns the other had thrown out.

The cards were unique, particularly for this game known worldwide as Glacier, for its very slow play. It was said that ice ages could come and go during just one game. The number four was very important in Glacier. There were four different types of cards: suns, moons, comets, and stars, of the numbers one to four, each in one of four colors. Match four of any kind and you won the round. Win four times in a row and you won the game. Hunter was very good at Glacier.

"Whatever." The man dismissed it with a wave of his hand, and then flicked a green three of suns onto the table, picking up another card. "The target is the leader of the Brotherhood of the Blade."

"Hm." Hunter picked up the card his client had thrown down, and tossed out a red four of moons. "A highly placed and well guarded target. The risk is great. The price is high."

"Name it," snapped the man harshly. "I'll pay whatever it takes to get rid of the bitch." He looked down at his cards again, and tossed out a blue one of stars. Hunter ignored it, picked up a yellow two of comets, and promptly threw it out again. "I want the Brotherhood."

"Ah, yes, of course. But your last attempt to dethrone Ms deSilver didn't quite go to plan, did it, Falcone?" The assassin gave his client a pleasant grin.

"How do you--" Falcone broke off and scowled as if finally realizing that the assassin he was here to negotiate with was far better informed than he'd originally let on. At his discomfort, Hunter's grin only widened. "No. I tried the direct approach, and that didn't work. She has more support now than she has ever had before."

Hunter nodded. "So now you try the subtle approach. Using the Dirae."

"You're the best, after all."

"Flattery will get you nowhere."

Falcone absently picked up the two of comets. "Maybe not," he replied, "but I expect you to. Now name the price, and I'll be happy to pay it."

From the pile came a blue three of comets. Decision. Out went the one of suns. "One million."

The Raptrin's eyes bulged comically. "One million?" he gasped, struggling to regain his composure. "For Leila?"

"The Brotherhood and the Dirae have been less than neighborly over the years. They dislike our line of work, and we consider their valued Lore hypocritical. There's always been some... animosity between us. But, ah, you knew that already." And Hunter smiled pleasantly again.

"Very well," said Falcone stiffly, throwing a yellow three of moons onto the table. Hunter ignored the card for a while before picking it up with a show of indecision, and Falcone's mood seemed to brighten a bit. "Of course," he said, "you'll be paid on--"

"In advance," Hunter finished for him. As he spoke, his hands moved independently, continuing the game.

"Then what guarantee do I have that the Dirae will complete their job?" the Raptrin asked, his voice harsh.

The cards paused. Hunter looked up, frowning slightly. For a few moments the two stared at one another across the table, but it was Falcone who blinked first and looked back at his cards with a scowl. Hunter waited until the man had made his move, then sat back. "There is never a guarantee, Falcone. All of my operatives are well trained and very efficient, but there is always the possibility of pure, random chance to enter into the game. Once an assassin has accepted a contract with intent to carry it out, by our laws it means death for him to back out on the deal. Inhuming the Leader of the Brotherhood will be difficult, dangerous, but it can be done." He studied Falcone's scowl for a moment. "To put your mind at ease, we have a policy that if the contract is not fulfilled, the client gets his money back -- barring of course a small compensation for the loss of that operative. But we always take the payment in advance. It stops difficulties from occurring should the client be unwilling to pay up after a successful assignment."

Falcone sighed, and picked up a small brown case from beside his seat. He opened it, rifled through various things for a moment, most of which clinked and clanked, and then produced a very large star ruby. "Hm," he said, pretending to study it while watching the assassin carefully over its gleaming surface. "This was priced at the required million, as I recall."

Hunter's eyes widened behind his sunglasses, but he didn't let greed get the better of him; greed clouded your business sense, and Hunter was in every inch a businessman. Obviously Falcone had brought this ruby along for just this reason, and he even wondered whether the Raptrin was being truthful about its price. "Need I remind you that we're an assassins guild, Falcone," he said, mildly, "not a pawn broker's? We only accept money, not trinkets, in return for our services."

"I'm sure," said Falcone irritably. "But by morning it will be your million dollars in cash, that I can assure you."

The assurances of a thief and traitor , Hunter thought bitterly. The levels I stoop to, to make a living these days. "If that is the case, then you may consider the deal done. I will arrange for someone to retrieve the money here at noon tomorrow. Right now, however..." He nodded at the cards. Falcone looked at his options, picked up, and threw out again with a grunt of disgust.

"Well, this round isn't over yet," he declared, reaching for the pile to shuffle again. Hunter stopped his arm, slowly turned over the final card -- added it to his hand, tossed the odd one out -- and put down on the table a full set of four-threes.

He smiled. "Care to play again?"

*****

Hunter's cheerful mood had ended by the time his car pulled up in the garage of a neat little white house -- the kind of house any normal citizen might live in -- and he'd taken the keys out of the ignition. He sat there for a while, his face impassive but thoughtful. He was no fool. This was going to be a suicide job, and not only that it was possibly the strangest job anyone had contracted the guild for. They'd discussed it further after Falcone had announced that losing all the time was distracting him.

Inhuming someone was one thing -- that was, after all, the job of the Dirae. Driving that person to insane paranoia beforehand was needlessly cruel, even to an assassin like himself. By nature Hunter was very practical. He expected, even demanded a job to be completed quickly -- not out of sympathy for the target, but out of prudence. An assassin lingering too long at any one location ran a higher risk of being caught.

Drumming his fingers lightly on the wheel, Hunter concentrated on whom he would pick for the mission. There was only a small group available right now; the Dirae itself was a large society, but many of its operatives were currently out on jobs -- half of them in other countries. He ran the remaining choices through his mind.

Angel was altogether too vicious, and probably wouldn't bother with the 'make her suffer first' approach. The same went for her partner, Demon. Quietus was heavily pregnant, and neglectful enough of her unborn child without added encouragement. Tracker could have been spared, but the possibility that the assassin may not return scratched him out -- the Bookmaster was an almost constant thorn in Hunter's side but the Dirae simply wouldn't run without his efficiency. Eon and Messenger were simply not suited to this kind of job, both leaning toward more technical crimes, and they were likewise indispensable.

Which left Asp. Hunter's thoughtful frown deepened. Asp was very good at his job, certainly, but he tended to be a little -- well, erratic. He didn't always follow the orders given, sometimes coming up with flourishes of his own ingenuity that disregarded the exact details of the assignment. While in most cases Hunter was all for ingenuity, method of assassination was a prearranged part of a contract; if a client wanted death by drowning, it was bad form to knife the target through the heart. And although since the Occupation Asp had been somewhat quieter, he was still quite a handful...

The assassin leader nodded to himself. Yes, Asp would be the perfect one to go -- if he never made it back then no one in the guild would miss him, and if he did, then perhaps he would have learned from the experience. Either way, as long as he got the job done.

Slipping out of his car, he locked the doors, and then set the burglar alarm. The building was by no means a sham, for he lived in it himself. This was his house, his garage, and his car. He had all the licenses to prove it. What the police and the rest of the outside world didn't know was that underneath the simple house was the headquarters of what was currently Puckworld's largest assassin's guild. The original base had been in central duCaine Metropolis, but was completely destroyed during the first week of the occupation.

Hunter jangled his keys for a moment, then stuffed them in his pocket and opened the door into the hallway. The lithe black fel that had adopted him some time ago appeared at his feet, rubbing against his legs and meowing plaintively. Hunter sighed; he'd forgotten to feed her before he left.

"All right, keep your fur on," he murmured, taking off his infrared sunglasses and blinking a few times. Calhoun Flockhart flicked the hallway light on and then, as an afterthought, locked and deadbolted the door. He, of all people, needn't have worried about burglars, but as he didn't really like to kill unnecessarily he did everything possible to discourage them.

The fel, purring loudly, skittered into the kitchen; Calhoun found her pawing hopefully at the bag of MIAOW. He picked the bag up, grabbed a bowl from the floor, and poured the fel biscuits into it. "There you go, little minx," he said, putting it down. "Enjoy."

Calhoun watched as the fel eagerly attacked her meal, and then, his mind wandering off in another direction, walked into the lounge room. Placing the sunglasses on a low bench, he flopped onto the sofa and lay there quietly for a while. He tried to think non-Hunter thoughts. When he took those sunglasses off he was not Hunter, leader of the largest assassin's ring on Puckworld, but Calhoun Flockhart, mild-mannered librarian at the National Athenaeum. A librarian did not wonder about whom he was going to kill next. Except maybe on very rare occasions. He clicked his knuckles together a few times, staring up at the ceiling. There was a crack up there that leaked every time it rained. One of these days he would have to get it fixed.

His pocket-watch beeped.

"Blast," he muttered, pulling it out of his coat. There was less and less time for poor old Calhoun Flockhart these days, and more and more calls for Hunter. Reaching for his sunglasses he flicked up the watch's lid to show the hands that never gave the right time, and a holographic face appeared, floating an inch above the glass. It was a face that, he thought dryly, he could have done without seeing for a while. "Ah. Giles."

"Welcome back, sir." Giles Steelbeak -- more commonly known as Tracker -- put the same amount of warmth into his greeting as contained in a sheet of ice. "I happened to be at the monitors and I saw you coming in the driveway. The client has paid?"

"The deal is accepted. The money will be handed over tomorrow."

Giles' expression became critical. "You should have refused to accept until the money was in your hands. It is the way things are done."

"Do I tell you how to manage the accounts?" The Bookmaster said nothing. "Correct, I don't. So do be a good man and stop telling me how things are 'done'. Tradition is all very well, Giles, but we lose more clients that way." Thinking that he might as well get it over with, Hunter added, "Oh, and send Asp up here, will you?"

"Asp, sir?"

"Yes," he said, pleasantly enough. "Asp." Hunter closed the connection, and sat back against the cushions again with a grunt. He absently swung the pocket-watch around on half its length of chain, listening to the faint whirring sound it produced. "Sometime in the near future," he said to no one in particular, "I think I'll take a vacation."

*****

It was a morning two days later.

They stared at each other across her desk, eyes fixed on a point just beyond the other's face, in case looking into their eyes would make them stumble on their script. Leila took a deep breath, and then sat down again, shuffling a few pieces of paper about. "I'm goin' fer the Cope Diamond tonight," she said, and in front of her, Duke gave a nod. "It'll be a tough heist ta pull. I'll need a partner. You wanna go with me?"

Damn . She'd been phrasing and re-phrasing that over in her mind and now it came out of her mouth it sounded horribly like an invitation.

"Well, sure--" Duke bit off an automatic 'sweetheart', knowing exactly where that'd get him. "Yeah. Yeah, I'll come along. Days have been pretty slow recently," he added, "I could do wit' a bit of action."

She looked up. They made eye contact.

"All right," she said in an almost deadpan voice. "Eight sharp we leave here. It's an hour and a half's trip by car ta Angen via the motorway. We can get ta the exhibition house half an hour after closin' time, janitors an' curators will be gone by then so we'll only have the security ta dodge."

"Ah. Good." Duke cleared his throat, and stood up. "So. Eight o'clock, then?"

"Right." Leila watched as he left, and couldn't help noting the thoughtful expression on his face. She wondered vaguely what he was thinking, and hoped it wasn't if there were any restaurants near the Angen Exhibition Hall. Not that he'd be able to go in, anyway, having such a famous face and all -- that was, perhaps, a saving grace.

She squared some papers off, and looked around absently. Well, she thought, that didn't go as badly as it could've done. Her preoccupied gaze turned to a glare, as the amount of paperwork on her desk at that moment occurred to her as being unpleasantly large. She sighed through her teeth, and picked up a ballpoint pen with a determined look on her face. One of these days, she vowed to herself, I am gonna make some time for a vacation.

They left at 8:00pm.

They arrived back at 11:43pm, confused, angry, and without the diamond.

Leila stormed into her room but shut the door quietly. She wasn't giving in to the anger just yet. She wouldn't start slamming doors. But, damn it! The heist was perfectly planned, it shouldn't have gone wrong! But somehow, just that one night, at that almost precise hour, a darn truckload of security had been added to that surrounding the exhibition. There had been no way any thief, even the two of them, could have got in without being seen or setting something off.

So they had come back empty-handed. I should've tried! she thought angrily. It might've been hopeless, but at least my pride would... She gave a grunt, almost amused, as she realized what she was saying. My pride would still be intact? That's what I'm worried about? Huh, I can pick up another three jewels 'round the next corner but I only got one life.

"Momma?" Zakiya peered up from her cot where she was neatly scribbling on a large piece of paper with colored pencils. "Momma, you're back!"

Leila smiled and lifted her young daughter up onto her knee as she sat on the bed, chiding her gently, "Ya should be asleep, Zaky. What are you doin' up at this hour? I hope Nosedive wasn't babysittin' you again..."

Zakiya nodded, and her mother sighed.

"Lettin' ya watch cartoons?" Nod, nod, nod. I'm gonna have ta talk ta that kid about not lettin' my daughter come an' play those tapes so late every night. "Well, you'd better go ta sleep, honey, now that momma's back. An' momma needs her sleep as well."

Her daughter nodded again and slid down from her knees, bouncing back into her bed. Leila followed, tucked her in, gave her a goodnight kiss and removed the pencils and coloring-in-book to a low shelf where Zakiya could get to them tomorrow. She stood beside her own bed for a while, thoughts drifting slowly around in her mind, and then locked the door as a by now automatic precaution.

Leila changed quickly from her uniform into her nightdress, pulled back the covers and slipped into her bed. Folding her arms behind her head she gazed up at the ceiling for a while, letting her mind wander. Her thoughts led nowhere she wanted them to go, and after a while she gave a light sigh and turned onto her side, reaching an arm out to flick off the light.

*****

The Mess Hall was empty of people. It was almost three in the morning, and the Brotherhood was asleep; even thieves weren't entirely nocturnal. It was, in essence, pitch black -- you could just about see your hand in front of your face if you tried hard, but beyond that was a black so black it was almost luminous. So when someone dropped out of the ceiling, it would have been seen as barely a flicker of darkness in more darkness. But of course, there was no one around to see it.

Asp was feeling the cold. He'd been stuck up in the ventilation shafts for over a day now, only hopping outside -- right into the bitter wind -- in order to tip off the police. And the vents were hardly the most comfortable of localities, especially not for sleeping in. With all those sharp bits sticking out at edges, he was surprised that his clothes were still generally in one piece. So he'd decided that, while he was able, he'd sneak a quick meal from the kitchen and then find a more comfortable place to operate from.

He peered into the darkness, but not even his sharp eyesight could see very far into the gloom so he settled for feeling his way along the wall until he found the kitchen door. Once inside with the door firmly shut behind him he switched the light on, wincing as the sudden illumination caused his eyes to ache. They adjusted after a few moments, and he was able to look around.

They don't half stock up, do they? he thought, opening one of the three large refrigerators. It was vegetables only in that fridge, and Asp didn't feel like having vegetarian if he could help it. Come to that, he didn't feel like anything cold, either, so he searched for the tea bags instead.

Coffee was all he could find. Resignedly, Asp switched the kettle on to boil and grabbed a mug from one of the cupboards. There were no chairs, so he leant against the wall and waited, keeping one eye on the door and both ears open, just on the chance that someone might come in.

He knew perfectly well that this mission had about ninety percent chance of being suicide; he didn't like it but had no choice in the matter. No, he'd had a choice. It was do the job and possibly die, or refuse and die rather more certainly. Neither prospect was enchanting, but at least the former offered the chance that he might live to see another month out. And the job seemed, now he was here, far easier than it had before. But he knew it wouldn't last. The bugs he'd planted would be found within a couple of days -- three, at the most, if he was lucky -- so he hoped that Leila would try for the Cope Diamond again before that time was up.

The plan itself was simple: to make Leila doubt those around her, and, more importantly, doubt herself -- and then kill her. Whatever happened from then on was none of his business; he was just here to do his job. Truth told, however, he wasn't sure he liked the plan. He'd never been a fan of 'make them suffer before the final blow', preferring just to kill the target quickly and then get out of there. Asp was not so much a coward as he was prudent.

Ah! The water had boiled. Shivering slightly at the cold, Asp poured the hot water into the mug, and added a couple spoonfuls of coffee. He was about to add the milk, when voices sounded from outside the kitchen. Muffled whispers right then, but they were heading his way. Cursing, Asp flicked the light off, stuffed the coffee and mug into a cupboard, and looked around hastily for some way to get out of there. But apart from the doors and ventilation shafts too small to get into there were none.

The doors opened, and a candle lit the place up with just enough gentle radiance to let shadows dance across the walls. The two Juniors peered around the empty room, and one of them glanced back out into the Mess Hall.

"Marshall's gonna kill us, Dan," he hissed. "He don't like people messin' with his kitchen!"

"He en't gonna know, not if we're careful." Danny put the candle on the nearest bench, and then gave it a closer inspection. "Hey. Someone's been in here before us! Look, the kettle's still warm! Geeze, is everyone after a stash for the party?"

"Maybe," the other, whose name was Bryn, whispered miserably. He looked around without much enthusiasm. "Can we just get the biscuits an' leave? I keep thinkin' that someone's gonna walk in on us, Dan! I feel like we're being watched."

"Okay, okay," Danny grumbled, heading for the cupboards. He stopped in his tracks as something went clank in the darkness of the corner, and then stepped back hastily. Even in something as homely as a kitchen, the right cast of shadows could play terribly scary tricks on the mind. The Junior snatched the carving knife from the meat-cutting bench, hiding it from his friend's view as he crept toward the cupboards.

Something moved.

As the shadows seemed to bunch into something enormous, Danny gave a startled yelp and hurled the knife straight at the source of the motion. A cloud of white dust billowed into the air, snuffing out the candle and plunging them into darkness. Bryn gave a squeal of fright; the sound of rapid footsteps and doors slamming signaled his retreat. Determined not to be afraid, Danny willed his feet to move back toward the candle, and snatched the matches from his pocket.

Light flared into the room, but his relief was short lived as something huge and white rose up from the shadows and advanced on him...!

*****

Marshall was quite fast asleep and dreaming pleasant dreams when a hammering sound broke through to his consciousness and abruptly woke him up. He sat up, rubbing at his eyes sleepily, and heard a pair of frightened voices shouting outside his door.

"Marshall! Marshall! We got a ghost in the kitchen, Marshall!"

He paused, then slipped out of bed in his pajamas and opened the door to see Danny and Bryn with flour on their clothes looking up at him, their eyes wide. "Now, what's tha problem?"

"There's a ghost!"

"In the kitchen!"

Squatting to their level patiently, Marshall asked, "What makes ye think that?"

Danny sighed. "We saw it!"

"Get rid of it, please?" Bryn looked scared.

Marshall bit back a sigh, and gently pushed them in the direction of the kitchen, bringing his saber more for show than for the possibility that he might have to use it. "Okay. I'll have tha specter gone in no time, lads." Although, he thought, I've ta wonder why they were in the kitchen at this time o' tha night in the first place...

The kitchen doors were open, and there was a settling of white dust over the carpet just outside it, in a beautiful arc and two pairs of small, quickly fading footsteps that Marshall was suddenly too despairing to see the prettiness of. He groaned. "Oh, what have ye done to the kitchen?!"

"It wasn't us! It was the ghost!"

Marshall stepped carefully over the flour to avoid trampling it into the carpet, and then stared. The whole kitchen looked as though a blizzard of flour had been through it, everything, everything, was covered in a thin film of dusty white powder. Where something was a little damp, such as the sink area, the powder had turned to glue. He had felt his heart sink when he saw the carpet; now it was positively drowned. "Oh, lads," he sighed.

Danny looked around warily. "But there was a ghost in here, Marshall! It was all white!"

"Everything's all white!" Marshall shook his head, and headed for the sink cupboard where some rags were kept. "Come on, we'd better clean this up quickly, before the flour starts settling in."

"But..."

"No buts, lad. Bryn, you too."

And no one noticed that just outside, a little above the doorway, one of the ventilation grates was askew, and that there was a small trickle of flour on the frame.

*****

The next morning, Leila decided to go it alone. She told Duke at breakfast that she would be going after the Cope Diamond again that night, and his response was exactly what she had expected.

"Ya can't be serious," he said flatly. "There were cops crawlin' all over the place, you'd need at least three skilled members with you..."

Leila folded her arms as she leant on the table, frowning slightly. His reply both irritated and pleased her, and the fact that it pleased her only irritated her more. "Which is why it's easier for just the one a' us ta go," she stated. "A single thief is less noticeable than a pack of 'em." Duke's expression was becoming increasingly reproving, and she rolled her eyes. "I don't need a nanny, l'Orange. If it's still crawlin', I ain't gonna try for it."

Duke just looked grim, and, even more annoyed, Leila left the table, professing paperwork to do.

Once back in the safety of her office, Leila shut the door, and glared at an innocent wall. She was the Leader, not Duke; she didn't need his permission to do anything...

Childish, she chided herself, dropping back into her comfortable chair. She eyed the piles of paper sitting there with distaste; although they had been a convenient excuse at the time, the papers were very real indeed, and she had to fight an overwhelming urge to get up again and flee. With a sigh, she picked up the first sheet, and scanned the neat print. It was a request from the kitchen staff that they be allowed to padlock the larder doors after midnight.

In the quiet of her head, Leila admitted that Duke's opinion was only common sense -- it was more practical, not to mention safer, to take along an experienced team when the target was well-protected. And she was the Leader, and therefore was the one member they could not afford to lose... certainly not when the Brotherhood was in its current state of uncertainty.

Yet at the same time, she was convinced that this was something she had to do on her own. She wasn't sure why. A wry smile touched her beak. Maybe it's just a need ta prove myself...

But who're ya provin' yourself ta? A nasty little voice piped up. The Brotherhood, or him?

*****

Leila left at a quarter to one at night, just to be on the safe side. So it was with some shock and not a little frustration that she found the streets around the Angen Exhibition House completely jammed with cars, twice as many as before. Again, there was no way she could get inside, not unless she was suicidal, and she left frustrated, angry... and just a little bit worried.

*****

"I don't understand it!" she complained to Nylessa. They sat in her office, Leila behind her desk, sprawled tiredly in the chair, and her friend on the desk, paperwork shoved unceremoniously to the side. Normally Leila would have been annoyed at that, but today she didn't feel up to it. "It's like they know when I'm comin' an' where I'm gonna be, but no one but me an' Duke knew that I..." Her voice trailed off.

No one but me an' -- an' Duke?

The thought sank in her stomach, and her mouth went dry. No, I don't believe that, she thought sharply. He'd never tip his old gang off ta the police. An' I trust so much in him now after... He couldn't... he wouldn't, damn it...

Nylessa missed the look of panic that flashed past Leila's eyes. "I'm no expert in this sort of thing, I admit it, but it's almost as if someone's been spying on you. Unless it was Duke," she added with a laugh, not serious in the slightest, "and I can pinpoint everywhere he was today."

"I'll bet ya can," Leila grunted sourly, then flushed a bit as it came out a great deal more caustic than she'd intended, and her friend protested that it wasn't at all what she was thinking. "Sorry, Lessa I'm getting snappish. This is just so damn... frustratin'!"

"Maybe they just upgraded security because of the Diamond?" Nylessa suggested, voicing a hope that Leila had been toying with. But Leila shook her head.

"It's been there fer weeks, why upgrade now?" She bit her lower lip, and then shook her head, disgusted at that small show of her growing anxiety. Even with only Nylessa there, she wanted to keep up appearances. "Well, I'll have ta figure somethin' out," she said finally, giving a half-smile as she added, "While I'm sortin' through all my paperwork ya've strewn 'cross my desk."

Nylessa clucked her tongue and stood. "Well, I daresay that's one part of your job that no one envies you. I'll leave you to it, then."

Leila replied mechanically as Nylessa left the office, something her friend had said sticking in her mind. My job -- no, he couldn't, he'd have done somethin' 'bout it by now.

Unless he's looking for a sure win, something whispered in the back of her mind. Wouldn't be the first time it's been beneath a man's pride ta be ruled by a woman. Wouldn't be the first time they stabbed ya in the back ta take care of that, either.

"No," she hissed, bringing a clenched fist down onto the desk, and then swearing until the pain in her hand receded. It must be somethin' else. It has ta be. She stood up and paced frantically, giving her desk a glare that could very well have caused the papers on it to burst into flame. So someone's spying on me, she thought. I'll get Cutter in here; he'll know what to look for if there's somethin' mechanical goin' on. Maybe I should get him ta check my computer, too. An' if anything happens after that, I'll know...

But what if he's in on it? He's a man too, an' he's known Duke longer than you...

It can't be Duke. It can't be.

Why not? What if it is? Aren't ya capable of dealin' with a traitor anymore?

The door opened. The sudden sound and movement triggered her high-strung nerves and she spun around, drew her saber with one blink-of-the-eye motion and faced the intruder. Duke took a few hasty steps back.

"Uhh... this is a bad time, eh?"

Relax, deSilver, she told herself. Relax. Don't let him know you suspect him of anything. She deactivated her sword with a slightly sheepish expression. "Sorry, I was thinkin'... Ya startled me. Come in, Duke."

He swaggered into the room. "Thinkin' about that diamond, eh?"

"Yeah," she replied, casually, sitting back down at her desk. "Trying ta work out what could've convinced the APD that it suddenly needed a presidential guard."

"I've been wonderin' that, too," Duke said, and then turned to study the door. Apparently satisfied that it was firmly shut, he leant on her desk and gave her a serious look. "I don't like ta say it, Lei, but I think we've got a traitor in our midst."

Her heart... not quite leapt, but rose a bit. If Duke were the traitor, he wouldn't be bringing the subject up -- he'd be keeping it as far away as possible. Unless... Unless that's what he wants me ta think. Maybe this is just a big ploy ta throw me off his track, or...

I'm getting paranoid.

Leila nodded gloomily, more to the statement in her head than to the one Duke had given. The drake in question frowned at her, concerned. "You all right, Leila?"

"Eh? Oh, yeah, I'm fine. Busy busy busy."

"I didn't ask if ya were busy, I asked if you were all right." He touched her arm but she jerked it away again. He stood up, a little hurt. "Okay, I get the point. I'll leave. It's probably worryin' too much 'bout nothin' anyway. Sorry ta have bothered ya." He left without another word, and Leila sat back in her chair, holding her head in her hands.

Is that it? she wondered. Am I just paranoid? Or are they really out ta get me?

*****

Nylessa wandered a little aimlessly down the stairs toward her quarters, her mind still back in Leila's office with her friend. She knew Lei well enough to see that this business was troubling her greatly, and that was enough to make it start troubling her, even though usually Nylessa tried not to let things worry her much. But it was puzzling. Yes, certainly the Angen exhibition house was well guarded, well secured -- after all it housed many precious treasures. But until that night the police force had never set up watch on it. It really did seem as though someone had tipped them off, and Leila was getting suspicious about Duke...

On the staircase, she paused, closing her eyes and listening to the quiet of the hall. From much further along, the muffled sounds of laughter -- and was that singing? -- could be heard from the Mess Hall. Normally, Nylessa would have gone straight there to join in; she rarely missed a gathering. But she was in far too thoughtful a frame of mind, and whatever partying mood she might have had otherwise was now quite gone.

Poor Leila, she thought, stepping quickly down the remainder of the stairs. I really don't envy her that job or anything that goes with it. I swear, she needs a vacation or something...

A bang from above made her hesitate, and she looked up at the ventilation shafts in the ceiling. A hold-your-breath kind of silence followed. Lessa folded her arms. "All right, Dude, I heard you, come on down."

No reply.

"Dude? I am not amused."

Still nothing. "Fine then, stay up there. Goodbye."

Again, no response, and by this time Nylessa was getting a little bit nervous, which just made her annoyed. She stepped off the final stair and headed to her room. She had just reached the door when another bang... no -- a dull thud, not a bang... sounded from the shafts, as though it were following her.

"Dude! Joke's over, I know you're up there so go frighten someone else." She put her hand on the door, and waited. Silence greeted her. Nothing but silence. Dude, or whoever it was, had gone.

Then someone tapped on her door. From the inside.

Nylessa gave a small scream of surprise, springing back from the door as if it had grown fangs, then gave another, slightly louder scream as she collided with a figure standing right behind her.

"Lessa!" Jedar took her by the shoulders and turned her around. "I didn't think I was that scary," he said, in a mock-hurt tone of voice, flashing a crooked grin.

Her breathing started to slow. "I'm sorry, hon, it wasn't you. No, I tell a lie, but it's not all you. I didn't hear you coming up. I'm sorry."

"No, my fault. I heard you calling and came to see what the problem was."

Nylessa snorted. "Only the Dude being her usual irritating self." She gave a sigh and briefly touched a hand to her forehead. "At least, I think it was Dude. It may just have been a rat. Not that there's very much difference between the two," she added grouchily, "since they're both types of annoying little pests."

"Hope she didn't hear that," said Jedar dryly. "Or you might be introduced to the difference up close and personal. Dude seems to be quite fond of using dead rats in her little jokes. So, you're all right, then?"

"Quite fine," she lied, smiling at him. "But tired. I hope Dude or the rat or whatever it was has given up bouncing around the vents and will let me have a good night's rest."

"You can always sleep in my room, if you like." Neither his voice nor his face expressed anything other than a sincere, face-value offer, but she had to raise an eyebrow anyway.

"The key word there is sleep, hon."

He coughed. "I, ah, hadn't meant it quite like that..."

"I know." Lessa smiled again. "I appreciate the offer, Jedar, but if bumps in the night scared me all that much I wouldn't be a thief, now, would I?" With a wink and barely a hesitation, she opened her door and walked inside, scanning the room quickly. There was no one else in there. She couldn't help but breathe a sigh of relief, turning back. "Goodnight, hon."

He raised his hand in a half-wave half-salute, grinned, and headed to his own room. Nylessa was still smiling as she closed her door and -- slipping quickly out of her dress and into her waiting nightgown -- walked over to the bed.

She froze.

There was a flower sitting on the sheets.

Gingerly, her hand shaking, she picked it up and looked over the beautiful, pearly-white petals, the edges of which lined with soft purplish-pink. It was a snowrose, very hard to come by at this time of the year and impossible to find in flower. But it was perfectly real, in full lovely bloom, cold and slightly damp -- as if it had only just been picked -- with the stem ending in a smooth, professionally diagonal cut.

He's back. And then another realization hit. He's here...

The delicate blossom fell onto the pillow as Nylessa's fingers went numb; she stumbled back to the door, flung it open, slammed it behind her, and rushed to knock on C10. After a grumbling from inside, the door was unlocked and Jedar peered out, in his pajamas. "What... Lessa?"

"I've changed my mind," she said in a gush, slipping inside before he could say anything more. "I think I'll take you up on that sleep-over offer after all."

*****

The flower was gone the next morning. Nylessa told no one.

*****

Dddrup. Dddrup. Dddrup. Her fingers hit the desktop with the sound of three separate drums beating just a millisecond before the next. Dddrup. Dddrup. Dddrup. She watched the time showing up in little blue numbers on her digital clock turn from 8:59am to 9:00am. Dddrup. Dddrup. Dddrup. She sighed. Dddrup. Dddrup. Dddrup.

Having had a terrible night, with no sleep at all, she felt incredibly tired and was sure she looked as horrible as she felt. Leila groaned and pushed her thick plume of hair away from her face, covering her eyes with the same hand and resting upon the elbow. "Helluva week this is," she mumbled.

Okay... think! she ordered herself. Be rational, deSilver. Who're the people ya know ya can trust? Yourself... apart from yourself. Nylessa. And Iliana. An'... She tried to think of others, but -- truth was, she didn't know many of the members around well enough that she could be entirely certain. Nylessa was her best friend, practically her sister, and Iliana, well, was the Loremaster. If the Loremaster thought the Leader was not doing a good job she'd come right out and say so, and not bother with duplicity and scheming. That, at least, offered some small encouragement.

But... Drake duCaine. Two people. Two people! I really am a suspicious bastard...

I'll go again, she decided. I'll go, an' this time I won't tell anyone. I won't even speak the thought out loud or look like I'm plannin' anythin'. An' I'll go by myself... no. She changed her mind as quickly. I'll ask Nylessa ta come wit' me. But not here, not here, in her room, maybe, or over breakfast this morning...

Breakfast... Leila glanced at the clock -- 9:13am. "Dammit," she muttered, pushing her chair out and hurrying from the room. By this time, what was left for her breakfast would hardly be worth having.

She made it to the Mess Hall in time to witness mass exodus, as most in the room were departing, having finished their morning meal and the chitchatting afterwards. She looked around for her best friend and saw her sitting with Jedar -- the guy with the bright blue hair and the one-point-six-million-dollar bounty on his head.

Leila hunted down the scraps of cereal that still skulked at the bottom of their cartons, topped her bowl up with some milk, grabbed a spoon and walked over to them. Nylessa looked up, smiled, and pulled an empty chair over for her. "Good morning," she greeted.

Jedar threw a rather lazy salute and received a dark look in return. He ignored it. "You look like death warmed up, if you'll pardon the cliche. Bad night?"

"Yeah," she replied, sitting down, trying not to yawn. She failed, and heard her ears pop as she covered her mouth with one hand. Silently, she started on her food, only vaguely aware of Jedar's questioning look directed at Nylessa, who shrugged in return. "Don't call me crazy behind my back, please," she said, meaning it as a joke although it rang hollow.

"Of course not, ma'am," said Jedar. "We'll only call you crazy to your face."

This earned him a full glare. He just kept on grinning, and after a moment Leila gave up and went back to her breakfast. Smart aleck, she thought.

Nylessa gave the man a light punch on the shoulder. "Oh, leave her alone, Jeddy. You know she's under a lot of pressure right now."

She told him?... Of course she did. She trusts him. The thought was bitter. Sighing, she looked down at her cereal. Frosty-Os bumped together on a sea of milk. Leila found herself staring at the cheery, bobbing little dance they were making, floating around in circles. She dipped her spoon in and watched the cereal bits float away from it.

"Leila? Hello? Puckworld to Leila deSilver..."

"Hm?"

"Is something wrong?"

Leila looked up at her best friend and almost told her everything right then. But then she glanced at Jedar and remembered that she couldn't speak her plans to anyone but Nylessa, so that ruled that out. "Nah. Just the bad night, mind not workin'."

"Are you sure?" asked Lessa worriedly.

"Yeah, I am." Can we talk later was what she wanted to add, but...

Jedar reached over and put a hand on her arm. Leila started in surprise, jerked away, and -- just as startled by her reaction -- he retreated as well. "I don't know," he commented, "you're very jumpy this morning, Leila. It seems to me that you could use a break."

She stared at him for a long time. Then, like a great tree felled, she slumped forward into her cereal.

Jedar blinked. "Did I say something wrong?"

*****

"As far as I can tell there's nothing wrong with her--"

"What do you mean there's nothing wrong with her?" Nylessa demanded, her voice pitching higher. "She blacked out in front of everyone in the Mess Hall!"

Tarrin Avias sighed, shaking his head. "You didn't let me finish. I was saying there was nothing wrong with her that a good night's sleep wouldn't cure." He paused a moment, glancing back at the unconscious woman on the bed, her hair in disarray and a little milky, even though he'd cleaned up the worst of the mess. "Perhaps even four or five good nights."

Sighing, Nylessa leant back against the wall. "She's been awfully stressed out just lately..."

"It shows," the doctor replied. "Has she told you what about, in particular?"

Nylessa hesitated. "Not exactly," she said a little evasively. Obviously unsatisfied by this but not about to press, Tarrin went back to hovering around. She took pity on him -- he had barely started his breakfast when Leila collapsed. "I'll watch her," she said, putting a hand on his shoulder. "You go back to the Mess Hall, hon."

"I shouldn't leave--"

"Go," said Nylessa firmly. "You said yourself there's nothing wrong with her. I'll be quite all right here, I promise."

Giving her a quick, grateful smile, Tarrin left. After the door closed, Nylessa stood where she was for a while, her gaze on Leila as her best friend slept on dreamlessly. Then, sighing, she pulled the chair over beside the bed and sat down. "Oh, Leila," she said softly, reaching out to touch her best friend's arm.

"Wha'?" Leila muttered sleepily, turning over toward her. A beat, and then she opened her eyes, blinking groggily up at Lessa's face. Confused, she looked around. "Where... no!" She sat upright sharply, startling Nylessa back as she did so. "I... where... what happened?"

"You took a dive into your breakfast bowl."

"I-I did?"

"Yes. There was a bit of a fuss over it, actually, but I daresay everything's calmed down by now." She gave her friend a critical look. "There's something very wrong, isn't there? Something that's stopping you from going to sleep."

Leila looked around again, suspicion drawing her face. "Are we alone? I can't trust anyone."

"That sounds like a line right out of a B-grade thriller."

Leila smiled briefly. "It does, doesn't it?" Suddenly she was all business again. "It's true, though. I'm bein' spied on," she said quietly. "We got a traitor somewhere in the Brotherhood, but I dunno who it is. I'm worried that it might... that it might be Duke."

"Oh, Leila, if Duke wanted your job... he's said 'no' a hundred times to anyone who's asked, and then there was everything that happened, with Falcone..."

"So maybe he changed his mind," Leila answered, bitterly. She looked up suddenly. "I'm goin' out again," she said. "Right now. Well--" She checked herself, touching her milky hair with a grimace. "Soon as I get myself cleaned up, anyhow. An' I want ya to come. Meet me in the garage in half an hour, an' don't tell anyone!"

"Oh, Leila, really..."

"I mean it, Lessa," she insisted, springing out of the bed. "No one!"

*****

Sitting back in the shadows of E Level, Asp tapped his fingers on the wall as he watched the tiny visual screen that viewed Leila's office from a pinhole camera in the corner of the ceiling. It was empty, and had been empty for over half an hour. Irritated, he switched views to her bedroom, then to the hallway outside, the Mess Hall, the lounge, and finally, out of sheer frustration, to the front entrance.

He was rather shocked to see her car drive past. "Oh, blast it, I missed her!" he yelped, and scrambled for his cellphone. Blowing on it a few times to get rid of the dust that had settled around it, he quickly dialed the KCPD and reported the unlicensed car and its occupant.

Then he stood, stretched, packed his things away, and headed after Leila himself.

Ten minutes later, a flashlight beam found its way in through the grating.

*****

Nylessa was also drumming her fingers, on the arm of the passenger seat in Leila's car, but she was feeling more perplexed than bored or frustrated. "Lei, dear, we're not even going in the right direction if you plan to drive to Angen."

"I don't plan ta drive ta Angen," Leila replied grimly.

"You don't?"

"No. I plan ta see who's settin' me up all the time."

"Ah, Leila?" said Nylessa tentatively. "I hope you're not insinuating that I--"

Leila shook her head. "I'm not sure of much," she admitted, "but I know I can rule you out."

"Well, thank you," she replied with a dry look. "How'd you come to that conclusion, then, when your suspicions would seem to involve the entire rest of the Brotherhood?"

"I'm sick of using my head, my logic is screwy enough ta begin wit'. I'm relying on hunches and gut feelin's right now... it's not you." She smiled slightly. "I sistered ya when you was a kid, an' ya think I'd not know if it was you?"

"I think 'mothered' may be a more appropriate term."

"Oh no, 'cos that'd mean I'd be able ta make ya stay in yer room when you're bad, an' you don't want that, do ya?"

"That depends on who I'm with."

Leila pulled a face. "Oh, thanks, Less."

"No charge, Lei."

They drove along in silence for another couple of minutes, until the familiar sound of police sirens cut through the morning air. A cop-car came up behind them, lights rotating wildly, and Leila moved to the side to let it pass. It didn't. She frowned, glancing in the rear view mirror. "Ah, shit," she muttered, speeding up. The police kept pace behind them. "They've ratted on us. We'll have to bluff it."

In an imitation of complaisance, she moved her car over to the side and slowed to a halt. The cop-car did exactly the same thing, and its occupants immediately got out. Nylessa gave a small moan. "Oh, no! Leila, go, we can't bluff this out! I know her!"

Too late. "Put your hands on your heads and get out of the car, right now."

Leila glared at the woman who spoke -- a little younger than herself, and blonder, but who returned the glare with one just as fierce. "Right now," the cop repeated. "You too, Drakely."

The two thieves reluctantly got out, hands folded over the tops of their heads. Leila's saber was tucked at her belt, sticking out from behind her jacket. She could see the police woman's eyes flick to it, and knew that the slightest movement could get them shot. Silently berating herself for her stupidity, Leila glanced up as more sirens hailed the arrival of a second car.

I should have known this would happen! Almost grinding her teeth, she could do little but glare.

"Leila deSilver and Nylessa Drakely, you may consider yourselves under arrest," the blonde woman said smugly, her gun dangerously close to Leila's head but not close enough that she could grab it before the cop would react.

"Who tipped us off?" Lessa asked, before the police could continue their 'rights' dialogue.

"No one you need to worry about anymore," the thus far quiet man said, moving to clap handcuffs around her wrists as he spoke. He paused briefly, looked over at the two other cops who were coming toward them. "You took your time." A man of short sentences, it seemed.

"The contact said the car was heading for Angen," one grumbled.

"Funny, that. The road to Angen is on the other side of the city." The officer gave Leila a speculative look from narrowed eyes. "Where were you--"

BLAM! BLAM! BLAM!

The police ducked back as the ground shattered around Leila's feet. Yelling curses out loud, she grabbed an equally startled Nylessa and dove headfirst into the car, revving up the engine and slamming a foot down on the accelerator all in the one series of movements. She burst past the second cop-car, leaving behind four surprised and/or angry coppers. A few bullets were fired after them, but as they turned a corner it stopped.

"Uh, Leila, could you please stop swearing?" Nylessa asked, her voice pained.

Leila shut her mouth, realizing she was still yelling various obscenities concerning the parentage, manner of birth, and sexual preferences of the unknown squealer. "Sorry. But dammit! Who the hell was firin'?"

"I don't know, but thank the gods they weren't a great shot..."

"Oh no, they were a good shot all right," she said grimly. "I wasn't hit deliberately. No one could snipe that close three times wit'out hittin' unless it was on purpose. Shit. Shit shit shit... I know I didn't tell anyone, and you didn't, did ya?"

Nylessa coughed uncomfortably. "Well... I..."

Leila very nearly braked. "Less! I tol' ya not ta tell anyone!"

"It was only Jedar, and he--"

"Happens ta be a very good aim with a gun, don't he?" Leila asked dryly.

"Leila!" Nylessa snapped. "It's not him, I know it! And I only told him that we were heading out for a drive, I said nothing about Angen, it couldn't possibly be him... Lei, someone gave me a snowrose the other night."

The apparent non sequitur caught her off-guard. "Huh?"

"A snowrose. I-I think it's the same man."

"An' ya didn't tell me this because...?"

"He scares me, okay?" She looked about to say more, but then paled. "Leila! The river!"

Ripping her attention back to the road, Leila saw the murky waters of the River Keltor looming large before them. She spun the steering wheel, but the icy road gave little grip for the tires, and they spun twice before bursting through the barrier and plunging down into the slushy, dirty, foaming, freezing river.

She must have been knocked out in the crash, because when she next opened her eyes she found herself up to the shoulders in water, her skin numb under her feathers, still strapped into a gently sinking car. Turning her head with some difficulty, she saw Nylessa, unconscious, lying against the cracked side window. The car was tilted to the left, and water flowed in through various cracks, coming up fast underneath them.

Fumbling through the almost opaque brown water with the buckle of the seatbelt, Leila quickly admitted defeat when it appeared to be glued in, and struggled her way out of the straps. Ignoring various shooting pains through her body, she squirmed and splashed past the steering wheel and gently shook her friend. "Lessa? Lessa? Wake up! Wake up, dammit..."

The younger woman gave a small groan but otherwise didn't answer. Her teeth chattering, Leila struggled with Nylessa's seatbelt, cursing the safety devices that might get them drowned. Hers came undone with a flash of bubbles, however, and Leila turned her attention to the passenger door. It was stuck fast from the pressure of the water outside, and it wouldn't even open a crack.

Slowly the water crept up another inch, almost to her nostrils now, she had to kneel on the seat to reach the air. In a sudden burst of furious anger, Leila turned around, braced herself against the driver's chair and the steering wheel, and kicked at the window. The cracks spread. She kicked again, planting both feet heavily in the center of the glass, and the water began pouring in. Sucking in a deep breath, Leila once more swiveled around and stomped on the glass. Finally it shattered, and water rushed in, quickly filling up the car. The pressure now equal on either side, Leila forced the door open, grabbed Nylessa around the waist, and swam up to the surface.

Her vision was already blurring when she broke to the top, and for a moment she trod water, gasping, trying to keep Lessa's head above water. Her head pounded, but Leila managed to drag Nylessa up to the edge of the river, where she hung onto a protruding brick, one arm tightly curled around her friend.

It was raining, she noted distantly, her teeth chattering again. Raining hard and cold. Her grip was beginning to fail, but before she could even move to search for a lower shore, a pair of hands reached down and caught her by her free arm. She looked up in alarm, but her blurry vision saw nothing but rain and water. "Give me Nylessa!"

An unfamiliar voice, but with a cultured Ingallish accent. It reminded her of someone, but she couldn't place it in her current state. Numbly she obeyed the voice, handing the young woman to those unknown arms, which lifted her out with surprising gentleness.

After a few moments, the arms reached back down for Leila. "Take my hands, now."

Gladly she did, and as she was lifted out she realized quite suddenly just how cold she really was, and, groaning, she fell onto her hands and knees on the concrete. The blurry figure beside her rose to his feet, and Leila squinted up at the face, recoiling at what she saw.

A hooked beak.

Half-frozen to death as she was, this shock was just too much for Leila, and with a tiny sigh she sank down onto the stones.

*****

She felt the cold before she felt anything else, just a single slicing chill that broke her from a world where everything was warm and fuzzy. Shivering, Leila dragged open her eyes and managed to pull enough concentration together to focus on a dim, slatted ceiling above her. It was a high roof, patched with plywood, and it seemed to go on forever...

Abruptly she remembered what had happened and jerked upright, looking puzzled as a ratty old blanket slid off her legs. It came as a mild surprise to find that she was dry -- at least, mostly dry; there was still a certain irritating stickiness underneath her bodysuit. As her vision became clearer, and after the pounding of her head ceased, she noticed other things about the room, which was smaller than her first blurry impression made it out to be. At the other side, Nylessa lay sleeping on a mattress, with a thicker blanket tucked up under her chin.

Seated between them was a man she didn't recognize.

He was a Raptrin. He was also totally unlike any Raptrin that Leila had ever seen, although admittedly they hadn't been many. He was tall, spindly, without the muscular bulk that was normal for male Raptrins, and his feathers were a bluish slate gray instead of the more usual brownish shades. He was dressed in plain, nondescript black jeans, sneakers, and a gray polo shirt, all casual but immaculate -- and on top of it all a black and white fedora was pulled down so that it almost obscured his face, only his unnaturally black hooked beak showing.

Her eyes had barely rested on him for a second before man lifted his head quickly, one hand moving back in a reflex movement characteristic of people who carried guns. He hesitated a moment, watching her through strangely pale green eyes, then used the same hand to tip back the wide brim of his hat. "Good afternoon," he said, somewhat facetiously. His voice was deep and resonant, despite his lack of bulk. "Sleep well?"

Leila stared at him. "Pardon the lack of manners," she began haltingly, "but who the hell are ya?" It occurred to her that it was the same voice who had spoken to her at the river, and she paused a moment before adding, "An'... thanks fer pullin' us outta the drink back there."

He continued his study of her face a few moments more before giving a brief nod, though what at she wasn't sure. "Murdoch Scarhawk."

Studying him back a little doubtfully, Leila fought a deep and rather unreasonable twinge of disgust at his appearance. It wasn't so much how he personally looked -- though that was bizarre enough -- it was whom he reminded her of. Not much, of course, but the curved beak alone was enough. She drew a breath and let it out, calming herself, then carefully crawled over to check on her still unconscious friend. "I'm Leila," she said eventually. "Where are we?"

"At the top of the Dansiist church." He followed her gaze to Nylessa and a flicker of... some emotion... passed over his face. "She'll be fine, as long as she doesn't catch a chill." His voice again contained a note of amusement as he continued, "I don't think that your car is quite so undamaged, however."

"Ah shit! My car..."

"You can buy a new one," replied Murdoch, his tone and expression strange. "But it's not so simple to buy a life."

Leila hardly noticed this, though; she sighed and perched on the edge of the mattress, knees drawn up to her chest. "Yeah. So. Thanks fer all yer help, it's more than appreciated." She looked at him appraisingly, wondering why he was sticking around. "I think my friend an' I'll be okay from here. But if there's anythin' I can do in return..."

"I... don't think that's possible."

Her insides tightened, but on the surface Leila remained carefully composed. She raised an eyebrow as if surprised. "An' why not?"

"Nylessa can leave when she wakes up. You..." his voice trailed off. "Well, you see, I'm not quite sure what I'm going to do about you, yet."

Her icy facade cracked ever so slightly. "What do ya mean?"

Ignoring her question at first, Murdoch stood up and walked to one of the two tall, barred windows on the opposite side of the room. He peered out as if checking for something, before turning back to her with a slight frown. "You've put me in a difficult situation, Ms deSilver."

Her own frown was a lot deeper. "I'm tired of playin' twenty questions. Tell me what's goin' on."

"Someone was sent to assassinate you," he said bluntly. "I'm that someone."

Leila froze, stunned by his abrupt honesty, and rather stiffly said, "Well, that was direct enough. I'm hopin' the fact that ya not only pulled me outta the river, but ya ain't done the job yet, means that yer havin' second thoughts?"

"Not at all. I've been given specific instructions, m'lady. The when and the how are not my decision to make. The client did not ask for you to drown, so I did not let you drown. Also..." The man glanced across at Nylessa. "She was not meant to be with you," he snapped.

Letting her eyes wander around the room, Leila searched for a possible way out. But she knew that even should she found one, she couldn't leave without Nylessa. So she pretended a lot more bravado than she actually felt. "Well, seein' as yer gonna do away wit' me anyhow, the least ya could do is tell me who the client is."

The assassin gave her a speculative look. "Someone you know very well, I believe."

Her entire being darkened suddenly, as everything fell into place. "It's Falcone, isn't it. An' it's you who's been spyin' on me lately." Her voice was steely and a little disgusted. "Was that part o' the deal too? Make me paranoid before ya deal the killin' blow? I'll bet it was."

"In truth it was, yes," he admitted, rubbing his arm absently. "Crawling around in the air ducts was terribly uncomfortable, you know. It's a pity you can't appreciate all the trouble everyone's gone to for you."

"Forgive me fer not admirin' the effort put inta this," said Leila sarcastically, but she quieted down almost immediately, and fixed her eyes on the floor in what she hoped was a docile manner. Stupid, deSilver, she said to herself. Ya don't know if the guy has a temper 'r not, but if he does, you're goin' the right way toward triggerin' it...

 

But Asp only shrugged, saying nothing. Leila tried to buy herself some time as she scanned the room from beneath her hair. "The... end of the agreement?" she asked. "What is it?"

Murdoch was no longer facing her, but he sensed her movement somehow and turned back. "You know you won't be able to get out of here, m'lady. The only exit is up there..." He nodded up at the ceiling, and she followed his gaze to a small latched square in the roof, far above her reach even if she stood on someone's shoulders. "And as you're a bit, shall we say, vertically challenged, it's very much out of your capabilities to escape."

She leveled a dark look at him. Add insult ta injury, why dontcha!

"As for your question, the end of the agreement is that you die horribly." This Murdoch apparently had a flair for the blunt. "Falcone wanted me to destroy all you had before you died... your confidence, your resolve... your sanity. However, seeing as I've taken it upon myself to change the rules, it's going to have to be done differently. I'm still waiting for details, so that's the most I can tell you. Until then, of course, you may consider yourselves my guests."

"You... you..." She stared at him with a mix of horror and disgust and sought to find the perfect adjective -- or expletive -- with which to sum this man up, but before she could Nylessa gave a small moan and opened her eyes. Turning swiftly from Scarhawk, Leila reached out and put a hand on her friend's shoulder. "Mornin', Lessa," she said, with a touch of bleak amusement.

"Morning yourself. Oooh..." Wincing, Nylessa drew a hand across her forehead and looked up blearily. "My head hurts," she said in a small voice.

Leila managed to force a smile to her face. "You'll be fine, kid. Ya just swallowed 'bout half of the river along the way."

She smiled back. "That would explain the horrible taste in my... mouth..." Her smile had faltered, eyes widening, as she caught sight of the man standing behind them. Oddly enough though, her expression was not so much one of fear as surprise and a little anger. "Asp," she growled.

"Lessa, I'm--"

"No, whatever it is, I don't want to hear it."

"I saved your life," he said mildly. "That makes it twice, now, doesn't it?"

Nylessa hesitated, glancing back to Leila. She must have looked as confused as she felt, because the younger woman tried to explain things. "He was a friend... once." The man grimaced faintly at the finality in her voice. Lessa continued in a rush. "Some years ago I found out that he was an assassin, but worse than that, during the invasion he worked for the--"

"I didn't have a choice."

"You had every choice!" she cried, her voice rising to an almost hysterical pitch. "And now... now what are you doing? Are you trying to kill Leila? Are you? Well, I won't let you, Asp, I won't, I-- I--!" Mid-sentence she gagged, and coughed, doubling-up.

A plain plastic bowl bumped against Leila's leg and she held it out quickly. With a brief nod of thanks, Nylessa turned away and proceeded to be violently sick. Leila politely averted her eyes, but kept a comforting hand on her friend's shoulder as she glared suspiciously at the assassin -- Murdoch -- Asp -- whatever his name was.

"She's bringing back much of the water she swallowed," said Asp reproachfully. "The river isn't particularly clean, and she only made things worse by screaming. I would never hurt her, Ms deSilver, nor let anyone try."

Her expression was flinty. "Gimme a reason ta believe that."

Asp lifted an eyebrow. "You're a very suspicious person, m'lady... if you'll excuse me for saying so, I think that's why Falcone knew this would work. But I admit I was surprised at just how easy you made this job."

"You bastard," she spat.

"Doubtlessly, yes," the man said ironically. "And just to get the rest over with, I am also a traitor, a spy, a ruthless butcher, and I have a large number of unsavory habits. Nothing that you could call me is going to make the slightest difference, and most of it will even be accurate, so why don't we just skip past the name-calling and try to be on civil terms?"

Leila closed her beak, and just glared at him. As she did so, Nylessa spluttered, coughed, and wiped gingerly at her mouth; her face was pale, but she matched Leila's glare. "How can you stand there and say that?" she demanded. "How dare you be so... so... unrepentant!"

"To regret something, you have to feel guilty for it," said Asp, once again rubbing at his arm without really noticing it. "And guilt is one emotion no assassin lets himself feel; otherwise we wouldn't be able to do our jobs, would we? I'd say I was sorry, Lessa," he added, in a surprisingly gentle voice that just made Nylessa's look of loathing deepen further, "but I can't be."

Neither of the two said anything, and Asp made no further attempt at conversation. He moved his seat to the opposite side of the room, but just as he was sitting down, something beeped from his pocket. Glancing quickly back at the two women, Asp straightened again, and answered the cellphone. "Sir? ...Ah, you got my message. No. No, they're both very much awake." This was said with a note of irony, which a few seconds later became shock, and irritation. "Sir? Well, yes, I suppose so... it's hardly necessary, however... no. No, I understand. He is the client." Asp sighed, sounding frustrated. "You know where I-- oh, of course. Yes, sir. Asp out."

He clicked the cellphone off, and stood for a while, staring out the window. Then, in striking contrast to the excruciatingly polite manner he'd displayed so far, Asp swore viciously. "Sweet Jorah, Mother of Ducks... of all the ill timing!" Swinging around, Asp looked straight at Leila who, despite herself, shifted backwards a little at the fierceness in his eyes. "It looks like we'll be meeting with that mutual acquaintance a lot sooner that I'd planned, m'lady," he said bitterly.

"Ya don't sound too thrilled by the prospect," she noted, keeping her voice neutral despite the icy fear crawling through her stomach.

Asp gave her a smile to match his tone. "I like Falcone nearly as much as you do, Ms deSilver. As I said, I've done many despicable things in my life. Some of them, though," he said, with a quick glance at Nylessa, "were not things I'd have chosen to do if I'd had the luxury of that choice."

Nylessa turned her head away, ignoring him completely. Just for a moment, Leila thought she saw a flicker of -- was it pain? -- in the assassin's hard face, before Asp also turned away and moved to stand by the window again, one hand resting on his other arm as he stared down at the street. Distantly, Leila could hear the noise of the traffic below them. It was worlds away.

*****

Duke knocked quickly on the door to the office, and strode in side with a determined look on his face that faded when he realized the room was empty. "Huh," he said out loud, peering into all the corners of the room as if Leila might be hiding behind one of the oversized pot-plants. That's funny, he thought then. She's usually here...

"Duke?"

Whirling around, Duke found himself face to face with Jedar, who had been walking downstairs. The blue-haired drake took a step back so that they weren't literally staring down each other's beaks. "If you're looking for Leila, she and Nylessa left earlier this morning," he said. "They haven't got back yet."

"Damn," Duke hissed. "I needed ta talk wit' her..."

"So did I." This was a new voice, Cutter's voice, and they looked up to see him walking toward them at a pace much faster than usual. His expression was grim as he held out a bundle of frayed circuits wrapped around a tiny lens. "I'd noticed some odd interference with the camera system, so I took a look at the wiring. This one, I found over the lounge. There are others, scattered throughout the Lair, so I followed the cables through the ventilation system, and ended up in a room on E Level. It's been used, and recently."

Duke's eye narrowed. "So someone has been spyin' on us!"

"'Has' been?" asked Cutter, one eyebrow raised.

"That's what I wanted ta talk ta Leila 'bout," Duke replied, rubbing the side of his beak as his frown deepened. "I was concerned... was gonna, well, suggest that we get you ta check it out, but looks like ya didn't need us ta tell ya that." He ignored Cutter's sardonic bow. "Damn. Damn. Okay, we gotta contact Lei some'ow -- she got a cellphone 'r--?"

Jedar coughed lightly, and they turned back to him. He seemed worried by something. "You didn't actually see the spy, Cutter?"

"No." The man shook his head. "But he'd obviously been there in the last few hours."

"Then wouldn't it be possible to assume that, if the spy isn't here, and Leila and Nylessa are missing, that he might well have gone after them this morning?"

After a short, terrible pause, Duke's response was considerably more vicious than 'damn'.

*****

Somehow, in spite of everything, Leila dozed off at some point during the next hours, her exhaustion (both mental and physical) finally too much for her body to cope with. She only realized that she had done so when she groggily opened her eyes and found herself staring at a slightly blurred wall. At first she thought -- hoped -- that Asp had left the room, but then she heard his voice and shut her eyes again, pretending sleep. It wasn't until he was halfway through speaking that it occurred he wasn't talking to her...

"--didn't mean for you to get caught up in this mess. It wasn't supposed to happen like this."

"No," Nylessa replied frostily. "I rather expect it wasn't. I'm sure it was supposed to go exactly as planned, for Leila to die and for you to get rich."

"Actually, you'd be surprised how pitiful a percentage we--"

There was the sound of a slap, and a short, stunned silence. Nylessa regained her voice first, but she sounded on the verge of crying. "Don't. I don't want to know about it. I don't want to think about it. You save my life twice but you kill everyone else you meet... gods, why did you have to turn out to be such a-- a--"

"Jerk?" the assassin offered dryly.

"It wasn't what I was thinking, but it'll do. I can't believe I ever thought you were sweet."

He sighed. "I have my moments, I suppose."

"It was the roses, I think. It started with the roses."

There was another silence -- longer this time, and more awkward -- during which Leila became aware that her entire right arm had gone numb, and she rolled onto her side with a wince. The two glanced up sharply, and Nylessa, looking a little relieved, crawled over. "Are you all right?"

She sat up carefully, flexing her fingers. "Yeah," she said quietly. "I'm okay."

After which point there was no more conversation. Although Asp offered them food neither of the women were in the mood to eat, and any further attempt he made to speak to them was ignored. So the next half an hour was spent in almost complete silence, broken only when Asp, apparently unable to bear the cold shoulder any longer, left the attic room abruptly. Leila watched, envious, as the lanky Raptrin took one impossibly high leap, caught hold of the bar beside the trapdoor, and swung up into darkness.

The little door closed with a clack, and Leila was immediately on her feet. Their one saving grace was that the assassin had not tied them down -- either he did not consider them a great threat, or he was certain that the risk of their escape was minimal, or both. Leila didn't care. As long as Asp was gone, she could as least try to get away...

Peering out of the window, Leila discovered that they were at least as high as she'd feared, maybe more. Recalling the layout of the Dansiist church was difficult but not impossible -- it was a singular piece of architecture composed of three interconnected buildings, each about four stories tall, with slender, steeply-sloping rooftops and its own personal bell tower. There were no bells in the towers any longer, however, and access to the towers themselves was blocked off. Leila guessed that they were in one of the towers -- the central one, from the angle of the road.

How Asp had got them both up here in one piece without any bruises or scrapes was either a miracle, or--

Or there was some way into the tower other than via the roof.

"Lessa!" she hissed suddenly, startling the girl, who had been lost in private thoughts.

"What is it?"

"C'mon an' help me look around," Leila insisted. "The walls, the floor, everythin'! Try ta find a door, or somethin' that might've been a door."

Within minutes, the two had uncovered a second trap door, this one located in the floor underneath a heap of old, heavy boxes that smelled thickly of must. It took the strength of them both to heave the stinking things aside. The door was locked tight on the other side, however, and, even though Leila risked stamping on it a couple of times, remained firmly shut. She swore, and knelt to inspect the hinges.

They were old, but not rusted, the screws driven in firmly. Leila ground her teeth; her saber had been taken away from her while she was unconscious, and she felt its absence keenly now.

Hell, in these circumstances, even a crowbar would do...

"Leila, couldn't we...?" Nylessa made a vague gesture with her hand, indicating the boxes and then the ceiling trapdoor in one motion. But Leila prodded one of the boxes with a forefinger, and grimaced as she felt the damp give in the cardboard.

"Not a chance. They're too flimsy, an' heavy besides..." Scowling at the boxes as if everything was their fault, she drew back her foot and kicked the closest one. The cardboard ripped open, and her foot collided painfully with a very hard, metallic object at its center.

After her initial stream of swear words had subsided, Leila tore away the remains of the cardboard and stared at its contents. "Well, I'll be damned," she said.

Underneath a pile of old pots and broken dishes lay a very old, rusty crowbar.

*****

Asp stood at the corner, hugging his hooded parka tightly around his shoulders as the wind tried its hardest to sneak underneath and haul it away from him. His dark hair had been blown out of its usual well-groomed style, and rogue strands flicked back and forth in front of his eyes.

Finally, Falcone's car pulled up in the alleyway. It was a cheap model, expensively refurbished with snakeskin and plush fur seat covers, and a veneered dashboard. It looked hideous to anyone with a sense of decoration. But then, Asp thought dryly, Falcone had always been attracted by the expense of things, not the beauty of them.

The broad-shouldered Raptrin emerged from his car, brushing down his velvet-red coat with an expression of disdain. "Wonderful weather," he said sourly. "Shall we go inside?"

Turning, Asp led the way. The Dansiist Church was not completely empty -- there were still a few people and preachers over in the east wing -- so the path they took to get to the central tower unseen wound through the enormous, snow-flecked gardens behind the church. Asp paused to snip off a snowrose with one of his knives, and heard Falcone's snort of impatience. "If you can't stop to prune the roses once in a while, then what's life worth living for?"

"How did someone like you survive in an assassins guild?" Falcone asked rudely.

"The same way I've survived everything," Asp replied, staring at the rose in his hands. It was one of the last few that had opened out of their season, and he wouldn't be seeing them again for a good five months -- not unless another cold spell occurred this summer. "By finding another way. Come on, we shouldn't be dawdling out here. Our guests await."

"Ah, that's right, we have guests." Falcone rolled his eyes. "Plural. You haven't got rid of that compulsion to bring strays in out of the rain, I see," he added acidly. "Well, the answer's simple, of course. You'll have to kill her too."

Asp's jaw dropped. "What?"

"I said you will have to kill her," Falcone repeated, in the kind of tone usually reserved for talking to small children. "She's of no use to us, and we can't let her go or she'll bring the entire Brotherhood down on our heads! The bitch knows everything. No, she has to die."

"I was contracted to kill one woman, Falcone," said Asp, his expression cold, "and that is Leila. We of the Dirae generally try to avoid killing anyone we're not being paid to."

"Well," Falcone said, smiling slyly, "if that's the case, old boy, then I suppose I'll just have to do it myself... unless, of course," he added, "you have a more personal interest in the woman?" Asp straightened up angrily, and Falcone barked a laugh. "Oh, congratulations, my old friend -- you've managed to fall for the village whore."

Closing his beak with a snap, Asp turned away and didn't grace that comment with a retort. It took a matter of seconds to bypass the security system on the back door, and they slipped inside gratefully. It was warmer inside the church, although the only light came through the enormous stained-glass windows that arced up to the ceiling. The floor was bare stone, with a single strip of carpet running across the floor to the wide doors on either side of the room. Here at the back, however, there was a third door. It was covered with boards but partially open, revealing a flight of stairs running up to the central tower.

"What's that noise?" Falcone asked suddenly.

Asp cocked his head. A rhythmic thumping sound could be heard, filtering down the stairs... there was one final crash, and then silence.

He shrugged. "What noise?"

*****

THWACK. THWACK. THWACK.

Leila attacked the hinges with every drop of her strength, aided by anger and fear. When prying the trapdoor open had turned out to be a futile exercise, she had turned her attention to what was commonly accepted to be the most vulnerable part of any door.

THWACK. THWACK. THWACK -- CRASH!

The trapdoor's hinges collapsed under the strain, and as Leila sank back, panting, Nylessa took the crowbar from her and forced the door back upon itself. They peered down into complete darkness. There was no bottom in sight. "How far, do you think?" Lessa asked.

"Not a clue." She looked at the crowbar, but hesitated. It was their only weapon; if they lost it, they'd be completely defenseless.

Nylessa sat down with her feet dangling into the hole. For a moment Leila thought her friend was going to jump, but instead she kicked off one of her high-heeled shoes. It fell, hit ground at what Leila guessed to be about six or seven feet's distance, and clattered its way down a flight of stairs.

They were through it in seconds, landing as lightly as possible on the stone. As they descended the stairs, Nylessa searched in vain for her missing shoe, until she finally gave a sigh of frustration and kicked off her second as well. "Heels are no good for stairs anyhow."

It wasn't until they were halfway down that Leila heard the footsteps from further down the case -- heavy, angry footsteps, storming their way toward the two girls. Leila froze on the spot, her head snapping around to look at her friend. "Shit," she said quietly. "Someone's comin'."

"We can't go back! We'll be trapped!"

"Well, maybe we can--"

Sound was deceptive in the stairwell. Leila had overestimated the time it would take the owner of the footsteps to reach them. Falcone rounded the corner, and stumbled on the next step when he saw the two women standing barely two feet in front of him, his eyes widening in surprise. Leila's mind whirled, her stomach clenched -- she wasn't sure if it was nausea or fear. The last time she'd been this close to him, she'd been chained to a wall...

But she was not chained this time.

The thought burrowed its way through her mental lockout.

She also had a crowbar.

Falcone's eyes were narrowing, as if in slow motion. "How did you--"

Leila swung the crowbar at his face. Reeling back, Falcone flung up his arms to ward off the blow, and that was when she turned her wrists, adjusting the angle of her strike, and the crowbar slammed into Falcone's leg. The Raptrin let out a howl of pain, tumbling backwards into the corner -- grabbing Nylessa by the arm Leila fled down the stairs, taking them three at a time and ignoring whatever sound they might be making. Falcone's curses followed them.

The tower door was open, and they rushed through, pausing for breath and to slam the door closed. They could hear Falcone's furious yells coming closer as he limped after them. "Damn," Leila muttered. "I should've aimed for his knees. C'mon, we better get outta here..."

"Bad luck, m'lady," said Asp, materializing out of the shadows. "But I'm afraid you aren't going anywhere." He chuckled as Leila stepped back, hefting the crowbar. Dipping both hands into his parka, Asp brought out twin pistols and aimed them at her. "Please... I'm not Falcone. I don't go barging into any situation unprepared. Put the bar down."

"Hell no."

"Put it down," the assassin repeated, "or I'll have to shoot you."

Leila snorted. "You're gonna shoot me anyway!"

Asp paused thoughtfully. "Well, yes, I suppose that's true. Keep the weapon if you wish, m'lady," he said with a shrug. "It makes no difference in the end. It won't stop a bullet, after all."

A sick feeling was creeping inexorably through Leila's stomach; her jaw tensed as she fought it back. He wouldn't shoot to kill, she thought -- not while Falcone wasn't here. Falcone would want the chance to gloat before her death. If she died before he arrived, he would be robbed of that chance, and if Asp really did know Falcone from old he wouldn't want to be on the receiving end of the Raptrin's anger.

That didn't mean he couldn't them shoot in the legs...

She didn't see the movement until it was too late. Nylessa stepped forward, out of Leila's immediate reach, and walked slowly across the room toward the assassin. A single shot hit the floor in front of her, chipping stone and ricocheting into the near wall. Her pace faltered.

"Stop right there, m'lady," Asp said harshly.

Nylessa didn't listen. Leila bit her tongue as Asp raised one pistol to a level with her friend's chest. "Lessa, no. I don't want to have to shoot you to make you stop..."

She was barely six feet in front of him. Nylessa lifted her chin, giving him a cool look. "But you will have to shoot me eventually. Or perhaps letting Falcone do it would be more your style... that way you wouldn't have to sully your own hands by murdering the woman you keep claiming to be in love with."

"I am in love with you."

"But you can't be," Nylessa told him. "After all, Murdoch, love and compassion come hand in hand. You can't feel one without the other. You can't say that you love me and then try to kill my friend in cold blood. It doesn't work that way."

Asp's eyes narrowed, but he didn't take his gaze from her. "I'm sorry, but--"

"Sorry? You can't be sorry, either," she pointed out. "Remorse also needs compassion."

The assassin struggled for words. "Lessa, you're just trying to confuse me."

She smiled faintly. "I'm succeeding, too."

"Yes," he said dryly. "Yes, you are."

Reaching out with both hands, Nylessa carefully placed them, one on each pistol. Startled, Asp started to pull back, then sighed and -- to Leila's amazement -- lowered the guns. "I can't understand it," he said. "This shouldn't be happening to me."

"It happens to everyone at some time or another." Nylessa's smile had faded. "It's better not to fall in love. Life's much simpler that way. Now, please, let us go."

Asp gave a wry smile. "I wish it was all that easy," he began.

"Well, isn't this precious?" The oily voice came from the tower, and Leila's head jerked up. Falcone was standing there -- why hadn't she heard the door open? A vicious smirk twisted his hooked beak, and his cloak fell dramatically over his shoulders, hiding his arms from view. "Well, my old friend, you two certainly deserve one another... neither of you are very good at promises. Asp, old boy, I believe that you've just voided our contract."

Since the assassin's head was turned away from them, neither of the woman saw the hatred that flashed across his eyes, but Falcone got the full blast of it. His snide grin widened. "You've done a very good job thus far, however, and since I hate to let good work go to waste, I guess I'll just have to do the rest of it myself. But first..."

The shot fired from beneath Falcone's cloak hit Asp in a burst of red, and he crumpled to the floor. Nylessa, gasping, dropped to her knees beside him, and Leila started toward her, but halted when Falcone revealed the revolver he'd been holding the whole time. He sauntered over, with only a trace of a limp in his oh so cocky stride. "Ah, Leila," he said smoothly. "So good of you to wait for me. Put down the crowbar and kick it over here." She didn't. He aimed the gun at Nylessa. "Do it or I'll kill the slut."

Leila glared at him, but stooped and let the bar slide out of her fingers. It clanged against the stone floor, and she pushed it with her foot. It didn't slide all the way across, coming to a rest midway between them, but still out of Leila's reach. She straightened.

"All right, Falcone, go ahead an' kill me," she said, with a lot more bravado than she actually felt. "D'ya really think that wit' me outta the way you'll just be able ta stroll in an' take over the Brotherhood? The moment ya set foot in the Lair yer life's forfeit."

"That may indeed be so," Falcone admitted. "But, you see, taking my rightful place as leader has been only my second greatest ambition for the past few months. The first has for a long time now been to take my revenge on you." He smiled cruelly. "Poor, dirty little Leila. Duke's not around to save you this time."

For a moment Leila felt as if she was falling backwards. She stood her ground, determined not to sway or show any other sign of weakness -- not now, not in front of him. "Alright," she said harshly. "Go ahead. Get it over wit'. I'll see ya in hell before long."

The safety flicked off the gun, the sound echoing through the silent room. Then Nylessa screamed and leaped to her feet. "No! Leila! No, no, please, don't kill her, please..."

Falcone's eyes narrowed, and a sly smile crept over his face. Leila's insides turned to stone, and sank to the bottom of her stomach, settling there with a sickening thud. She knew that expression. It haunted her dreams in the night. "Don't," she whispered.

"Very well," said Falcone smoothly, making as if to holster his gun. "I won't kill her... yet. After all, the Raptrin added, his smile becoming crueler. "It wouldn't be nearly so satisfying as first watching your expression, Leila, as your best friend dies."

As he swung to face Nylessa, Leila's mind went blank. Without realizing it, she ran forward, but before she had even taken three steps there was a blur of motion in front of her, and she was knocked to the ground as Falcone and Asp landed in a tussling heap on the floor. Leila sat up, and Nylessa took her arm, helping her up, and they stared at the tableau before them. The two Raptrins were locked, frozen, guns pointed inches from the other's face. Falcone's eyes were furious; Asp's were dead. Blood dripped from his shoulder to the stones.

"For an assassin, old boy, you seem a bit overburdened with morals," Falcone snarled.

Asp smiled coldly. "Call it last minute clarity. And since I'm going to die anyway, I may as well go out in style. I won't let you kill them, Falcone."

"You're a fool."

"Of course I am. What other kind of man ever follows your advice?" Without taking his eyes from Falcone's face, Asp said, "Lessa, Leila -- go. Don't say anything, just run. Now."

Leila looked at him for a moment, then nodded a thank-you. She didn't know whether he'd seen it or not, but spun and grabbed Leila by the wrist, all but dragging her out of the room, through the doors and into the snow. As they ran through the rose bushes, they heard the sound of gunfire. With a choking sound Nylessa tried to turn back, but Leila's grip was firm. "Keep moving!" she yelled, almost in her friend's ear.

They found a copse of trees at the far end of the grounds, growing close to the wall, their dense dark green foliage covered by a thin layer of white snow. Climbing swiftly up the trunks, Leila paused at the top of the wall and glanced back. Falcone stood at the doors, glaring across the grounds at them. Blood covered his hip. He raised his gun -- and then dropped it again with a snarl of anger. Leila and Falcone shared one last, hateful glare, before he turned and limped back into the church building, and was gone from sight.

Nylessa's face was numb when Leila dropped down into the snow beside her. She put an arm around her friend's shoulders. "C'mon, Less," she said quietly. "Let's get back home."

They walked in silence, heading along the familiar streets of Keltor in the direction of the Brotherhood base, slowly because Nylessa was barefoot and the pavement was cold. After a while, Lessa seemed to recover from her shock, but they still didn't speak; there was nothing Leila could think of to say. When a car pulled up beside them on Croat Street, Leila immediately went for the blank space where her saber used to be.

Duke scrambled out of the car, followed closely by Jedar. The two men stood awkwardly on the pavement for a moment, lost for words, until Nylessa calmly walked up to Jedar and laid her head on his chest. She was immediately enveloped in a protective hug. Leila felt her resolve waver as Duke took a step toward her, but she straightened up, and managed a weak sort of smile.

"Well, if you boys were expectin' ta find a couple a' distressed damsels awaitin' their knights in armor," she said, "you're all disgustin'ly late."

*****

Late that same night, Leila deSilver stood in her office, leaning against her desk and staring down at the papers lying there. They jeered at her, but she ignored their calls; if there was a time to take a break and do nothing, this was it. Her thoughts, in any case, were elsewhere.

She had sent a group of Blades to the church immediately upon her return to the Lair, more to gain a sense of closure on the events of the last week than through any hope of catching Falcone. He was gone long before the Brotherhood had arrived, and any trace of his presence there had been wiped away. Even Asp's body was gone, the bloodstains on the floor washed clean. It was as if nothing had ever happened -- the only things left to say that it had were her memories, and the sabers they found locked away.

She activated her saber, and ran her fingers along the shining silver blade. Despite her desire for closure, Leila's stomach was still a cold knot, and she doubted that it would go away any time soon. I almost went crazy, she thought to herself. I didn't know who to trust, who I could turn ta. It was like I was totally alone in the world. Another couple 'a days, an' I would've started suspectin' myself.

Glancing at her saber, she frowned. Falcone's sanity might be in question, but there could be no doubt about his professionalism. He had left their weapons there deliberately. Why? To prove that he thought them that little of a threat? Some obscure gesture of his imagined power?

Leila grimaced, and shook her head. I ain't gonna wonder. We got away. We survived. But if I don't start trustin' people more, she admitted, then he could do ta me it again. A shiver crawled up her back. He knows my mind too well...

She deactivated her blade, placing it on the desk, and slipped back into her room.

Hours later she woke, sweating, from a nightmare of staring eyes.

*****

EPILOGUE

The room was small, with book-covered walls and a narrow floor-space dominated by a large writing desk set in front of an open arch window. Hunter sat with his feet up on the desk, his fingers steepled in front of him as Tracker concluded his lecture. Sighing inwardly, the assassin swung his legs down and leaned forward. "I'm well aware of the laws concerning the matter, and I agree that we will have to forfeit the blood money, but I see no reason why we should take the usual percentage for the loss of the operative."

Tracker looked incredulous. "Replacing an assassin, even a journeyman, is expensive work, sir. The training budget alone grows higher each year, thanks largely to your, ah, improvements." The word was spoken as if it was something foul, green and sticky. "It is not only traditional but also common sense that we retain a percentage in order to partially cover that expense."

"I understand all this," Hunter replied calmly. "But the fact remains that our operative needs no replacement because he is not, in fact, dead."

"Yet," said Tracker, with relish, as he spared a brief but disgusted glance at the bandaged man sitting propped up in a chair. "His execution will be held within the week."

Hunter's eyebrows raised. He also glanced sideways at Asp, who was avoiding both their gazes by staring rigidly at the carpet. "Really," he said quietly. "When was it that I announced this?"

Tracker hesitated. "Sir," he began, speaking carefully as if to a student, "Murdoch Scarhawk is a traitor to the guild. Not only did he refuse to carry out the contract after initially accepting it, but he attacked the client, sir. Falcone has already sworn that he will have no more dealings with us. Asp has lost us a potentially lucrative client. That's three points already in his disfavor, and the first, by law--"

"I know the law," Hunter said, his normally smooth and honeyed tones gaining a hint of steel as he peered over his shades at the Bookmaster. "You've stated your case, Tracker, and it is under consideration. If you don't mind, I would like to ask Asp some questions in private."

His mouth set in a grim line, Tracker bowed stiffly and stalked out of the room. Hunter allowed himself to relax a little; dealing with the Bookmaster always made him tense. He swiveled around in his chair, and eyed Asp rather critically. The man still did not look up.

"You really have made a mess of things, Asp," he remarked. "I realize that you've a tendency to stray from the precise details of a contract at times, but I never thought you the type to blatantly disobey orders." Silence. Hunter pressed on. "You know, of course, that I half-expected you not to return from this assignment."

"Yes, sir."

"Ah, the man speaks," said Hunter dryly. "Well then, do you have an excuse for your actions?"

"Yes, sir."

Hunter raised an eyebrow pointedly.

"I'd rather not discuss it, sir. It touches on being personal." He cleared his throat nervously. "I was prepared to pay the price the moment I made my decision..."

"Hmm. Were you now. " Leaning back in his chair, Hunter regarded Asp sternly for a few moments. He knew, of course, the reasons for Asp's betrayal; Falcone had gone into them in great detail, using some fairly explicit language along the way... Hunter's severe expression was shattered when a smile tugged at the side of his beak. "Tell me, Asp. Did you really shoot Falcone in the derriere?" he asked.

There was a pause, before Asp said blandly, "It was the only part of him presenting itself as a good target at the time, sir."

Damn, thought Hunter. I'm not sure whether I should be sentencing him to death or giving the man a medal for shooting that pompous git. Only a pity that he didn't kill him; it would have made things far easier had there been no witnesses. "Tradition is quite clear on what should be done about you. Our laws are renowned for having neither mercy nor a sense of humor. If it was entirely up to me," he said with a shrug, "I would probably just give you a slap on the wrist and be done with it... we've too few operatives now to go around killing them ourselves. On the other hand, sparing your life might seem an act of weakness, of condoning disobedience to myself. You see my position."

Asp nodded, retreating into silence again. Hunter sighed. Sympathy and reluctance were nosing around the corners of his heart. Of course even if I did spare him, someone else here would only challenge and kill him anyway. A million dollars is not easy to come by these days, and no one would forgive him for losing that for us...

Why am I so concerned about his survival? he wondered. Last week I didn't care whether or not Asp lived through the assignment. Now I'm trying to save him from his execution. Why? He could find no answer to that -- no answer that he wanted to acknowledge, at least.

"You may go," said Hunter finally.

"Sir?"

He made his fingers run toward the window. "Go. Leave. Expedite. I really shouldn't be doing this, of course, but consider it a running start. I'll be expected to send men after you, of course," Hunter added, as Asp's eyes widened in realization, "but as we have so few assassins to spare at the moment, it may be some time before a proper hunt can be organized. In the meantime, I hear the weather in Tarctica is quite pleasant."

The Raptrin stood up, stared at him for a moment, and then swept his fedora down in a bow that was both grateful and somewhat ironic. "If Tracker finds out, you could be accused of showing compassion," he pointed out.

"That's my own problem, and I'll deal with it should it occur." Hunter pointed at the window again. "Now leave, Murdoch, before I decide you're not worth the risk and change my mind."

Asp bowed again, replacing the fedora on his head. Turning back to his desk, Hunter pretended not to notice as the renegade assassin vanished out of the window. He opened a drawer, picked out his favorite pen, and started to write.

A three thousand dollar bonus is offered to the assassin who brings back the head of the traitor Murdoch Scarhawk, code name Asp, who fled his execution after having committed crimes against the Dirae in a moment of misguided compassion...

It wouldn't motivate any great interest in Asp's head, but it might just save his own.

 

Return to the Library...