[You are aide and bodyguard to Lord Maximilian Anselm, a diplomat charged with improving the tenuous relationship between your two empires. Tread lightly, for every action you or your charge makes will be scrutinized by a dozen courtiers and spies…]
You hold the draugr’s gaze as sharpened silver punches through bone and into tissue with a wet thud. It gasps and shudders, limbs twitching and spasming as its – his? – body betrays him. Tapered claws rasp weakly against the stone floor as he reaches for the bolt sticking into his forehead, complete and utter surprise in his eyes.
You do not look away. You watch him silently as the light fades from his eyes, his presence flickering like a candle on the verge of burning out…
Then it is gone. Life dwells no longer in the man-shaped lump of meat that lies before you – no hopes, no fears, no dreams. Nothing. Every living being is different, but every corpse is the same.
You sigh and turn on your heel, looking away at last.
It is nearly dawn as you head uphill, toward the heart of the Northern Capital. The local populace is beginning to go about its daily business, filling the cool air with the sound of a thousand greetings and conversations and arguments, the smell of food steaming and roasting and frying. You take in your surroundings as you walk down the road, everything in crystal focus at once.
Slowly, the rush of battle deserts you, and the world begins to… fade? You haven’t come up with a better word for it yet. Colors become less vibrant, discrete conversations re-weave themselves into a vague buzzing, and you become acutely aware of the thumping in your chest.
Civilians mill and mingle nervously, and you can feel the tension in the air like a thick cloud. Lawmen in red lacquer stand watch at street corners, ready to leap into the crowd at a moment’s notice, and people on the streets watch you with subdued wariness as you pass. Nothing overt – minute shifts in position so their faces are harder to see, subtle glances from downturned heads, subdued murmuring in your wake–
You can’t blame them. Anything out of the ordinary is worth a second glance – or a third, or a fourth – for today, of all days, is special.
The organized chaos of jumbled shops and dwellings stops abruptly as you reach your next destination – the Jin Estate. The Jins are one of the most powerful of the Great Houses, and their estate is an enormous plot of land ensconced behind high walls. A broad walkway separates intricate stone from haphazard wood, and guards in blue and purple livery circumnavigate the outer perimeter in pairs.
Wrought iron gates swing open as you approach the main entrance, and four guards bow at the waist. One of them – the most senior, from the looks of it – says without looking up: “Honored Guest, Lord Anselm wishes us to inform you–” his voice falters for a moment, “–that he is waiting in the study.”
You nod in acknowledgement. “My thanks.”
The guards shiver almost imperceptibly, keeping their eyes on the perfectly-manicured lawn until you pass. When you’re out of human earshot, one of them murmurs “–it talks–” before his comrades shut him up.
You should be used to it by now – five years in service of the Republic ought to have acclimatized you. But the guard’s comment still stings a little. One of your many failings, or so you’ve been told.
You quash the unpleasant thought and proceed to the guest manor. The building resembles a giant flower of pure jade, delicate-looking petals of pale translucence reaching heavenward from a bed of vibrant green in an exquisite spiral.
It doesn’t look very defensible to you – the petals are one good trebuchet hit away from shattering and collapsing inward, and the front entrance is far wider than necessary. But you suppose it will have to do, for now.
The study is on the fourth floor. You make your way through a corridor and up a staircase of priceless sandalwood. The house servants give you a wide berth at all times, and there’s something about their body language that you can’t place…. You’re still puzzling over it as you push the ornate door open.
“Ah, there you are,” Lord Maximilian Anselm says from the balcony, and you lose your train of thought. He looks out over the city, watching the first rays of dawn paint the world in liquid warmth. “Is it done?”
“Yes, my lord,” you reply. Your superior is a tall man, pale-faced and golden-haired. Even reclining against the carven balustrade, his posture screams of authority – of an absolute confidence that the world is his.
“Excellent!” He says. “Rouse your colleague and report to Lady Jin once we’re done here.”
Most men would not be so at ease in such a situation, you think as he turns around. Then you see the loaded crossbow in his hand.
Metal limbs snap open to send six inches of sharpened metal whizzing across the room, and you make a split second decision…
The bolt is smooth and slightly warm in your grip as you pluck it out of the air. Two of its fellows follow suit as you approach Lord Anselm, and you catch them without breaking step.
“Is this entirely necessary, my lord?” You ask, keeping your voice steady as you kneel down at his feet. It would have been easier to dodge the shots entirely, but you suspect property damage wouldn’t have gone over well with your hosts…
Lord Anselm’s aquiline features break into a smile. “Tell me, Forty-Seven. A good soldier tests his spear regularly to ensure it remains sharp, does he not?”
“He does, my lord.”
“I will need you to be sharp in the days to come,” he says, “for he who smiles the widest also hides the keenest knife.”
“That might be you, my lord,” you reply.
Lord Anselm lets out a soft chuckle. “You may be right.” he says. “Dismissed.”
Leaving Lord Anselm to his contemplation, you head down the hall and knock softly on another door. It’s unlocked and there’s no response from inside, so you push it open and enter.
Reality shifts as you step over the threshold – piles of clothing wriggle and squirm in the corner of your eye, words crawl spider-like across parchment in complicated loops and swirls, and unnaturally cool air clings to your skin in a viscous film.
“Hello, Forty-Seven.” Adrian mutters from his desk. You raise a hand in gretting, and he leans in to squint at two glasses of wine sitting in front of him. “I’m a little busy – do you want to sit down somewhere? This will probably take a while.”
You shake your head. “Lady Jin is expecting us in the Central Mansion.” Your colleague groans. One of the glasses floats upward, coming to rest a few inches above the surface of the desk.
You frown. “Is there a problem? You seem agitated.”
“Lord Anselm wants me to present a bottle of wine to her,” he replies. “But he gave me two and one of them has poison in it.”
“Are you sure?” You ask.
“He says it’ll be good exercise,” Adrian mutters. The second glass twitches and wobbles on its axis as he buries his face in his hands, and you reach out to steady it before it can spill its contents across the desk. He gives you a grateful look and goes on: “I’ve been up all night trying to figure out which bottle it is, but…”
He makes a hopeless gesture and withdraws his Influence. Reality reasserts itself – everything falls still, the air returns to normal, and the floating glass of wine sinks slowly to its proper place on the desk.
“Finesse wasn’t exactly prioritized during my training,” he says. “It was more ‘turn the training field into quicksand, Recruit’ or ‘burn this stretch of forest down, Recruit’ than ‘I need you to fiddle around with a glass of wine and tell me if it’s been poisoned’.”
You reach out and take a sip from the left cup. The wine is sweet sunshine on your tongue, light and exuberant. But a thread of menace lies beneath the flowers and honey, metallic and almost bitter…
“Arsenic,” you say, putting the glass down. “I wonder how Lord Anselm got it past the guards?”
“Firstly,” Adrian says, “you’re insane.” He rushes over to his travelling case, rummaging around for something.
“It was a very small dose,” you reply. “You would have detected anything stronger.”
“Secondly…” he trails off, too focused on his search to continue. “Ah, here it is.” He hands you a tiny vial of clear liquid, but you wave it away.
“I’ll be fine,” you say. “Don’t worry.”
Adrian frowns at you. “Are you sure?”
He shrugs. “Your funeral.” He retrieves a bottle of wine from under his desk. “Let’s go–”
You take a sip from the other glass, swirling the wine around your mouth. Rich and velvety, it leaves you with a lingering taste of elderberry… and the faintest hint of almonds. “Heart of peach.”
“Son of a–” Adrian puts the bottle of wine back on the desk with a clunk. “He poisoned both?”
You nod, and your colleague swears again. “Looks like Lady Jin won’t be getting anything today,” he says. “Do you think this is another one of Lord Anselm’s lessons? Trust no-one, or something like that?”
You shrug. “Possibly. Shall we head out?”
“I can’t believe it,” he mutters, following you out of the room. “I could’ve poisoned her.”
“Lady Jin strikes me as a very difficult woman to kill,” you say.
Adrian nods. “I suppose you would know–” His mouth clicks shut. “I… meant no offence. I merely assumed–”
“None taken,” you say, keenly aware of your Order’s reputation. “You were right to assume so.”
The two of you descend to the ground floor without another word. Then, as you exit the guest manor and head across the lawn, Adrian breaks the silence. “How many years have you been…” he pauses, trying to think of the right word.
“Active?” You suggest.
“Oh,” he says. “I suppose that’s, um, one way to look at it. So…”
“Five years,” you say. “I fought at Huntsman’s Pass, the Siege of Krakov, and Red Fields. You?”
“I was at Red Fields too,” he replies. “Fresh out of training. God, what a bloody mess that was.”
You nod. “Huntsman’s Pass was three weeks; Krakov was a full spring and summer of fighting. But Red Fields killed more men in one afternoon than all the other battles put together.”
Adrian’s next question hangs unspoken in the air – you know what it will be.
HOW MANY LIVES HAVE YOU TAKEN?
1. [Too many. Hundreds of sons and daughters and fathers and mothers lie dead by your hand, families and friends and lovers sundered by your blade.]
2. [Seven hundred and twenty two. You remember every single one. Some were defiant, some were resigned, some were fearful. All of them died the same way.]
3. [Not nearly enough. There are too many of them and too few of your kind. Your duty is a heavy burden to bear, but the alternative is far worse…]
4. [It doesn’t matter. Killing begets more killing, fortunate survivors taking up the sword to avenge their fallen. It will not end until one side lies in utter ruin…]