There are certain moments in life that nothing can really prepare you for, days you can’t really understand until they happen to you. The day you pass out of childhood, for instance. The day your parents die. The day your first child is born.
Or, in my case, finding out that you’re aiding and abetting a capital crime with a group of people who won’t hesitate to kill you if you get in their way.
I could have done without understanding.
They were professionals about it, I had to give them that. They’d killed the guards quickly and efficiently, with as little fuss and bother as possible. It didn’t make the situation less terrifying, but it did provide a kind of assurance. If I’d thrown my lot in with a bunch of hardened killers and I didn’t even know what they were killing for, at least they weren’t stupid killers.
Still, I couldn’t keep myself from staring at the bodies as the others readied for the next ascent. Had they deserved to die, I wondered? A part of me certainly thought so. They were imperials, after all, and ones who worked for a high noble family at that. It wasn’t like my friends at the Comedy. Odds were quite good that the people who lived in this manor had participated in the planning and execution of the attack on the Whitewood. They supported an emperor who was responsible for the deaths of countless people, the suffering of even more.
And yet, a part of me couldn’t quite believe that. About the nobility, yes, but these men hadn’t been nobles. They were just guards. Just…normal people doing their jobs. They hadn’t done anything to deserve death, and even if they had, it had nothing to do with why they were killed. Miles and his people had killed them just because they were in the way.
I was grateful when Miles beckoned me over, the rope already dangling from the higher balcony.
I scurried up it with the rest, finding an identical scene at the upper balcony. The strangled guards were already lying on the stone, twitching and gasping for air in their final moments.
“This way,” Miles said, without waiting for the guards to finish dying. He strode to one of the doors facing onto the balcony, a small one made from some dark red wood I didn’t recognize. Imported from the south, perhaps, or more likely the eastern jungles. It wasn’t native to Akitsuro or Skelland, that was for sure.
Built for style, not defense. Who could blame them? Five stories up, with guards posted every night, this door was hardly somewhere that you would worry about an intruder gaining access from.
In fact, the door wasn’t even locked, a fact Miles proved when he simply turned the handle and pushed it open. Inside was a wide hall, paneled in rich walnut and with statues and paintings at regular intervals. The floor was covered in a deep red carpet so thick it felt like walking on a bed of moss. The light was cast, not from simple wall sconces, but by chandeliers of alchemical lights.
This was clearly a part of the mansion frequented by those of high birth, and I found myself relaxing a bit at the realization. Apart from the guards, anyone we ran into here would be someone I could see dead without weeping.
Miles seemed to know his way, and proceeded into the manor at the kind of pace that covers ground without actually appearing to hurry. The others followed him in a tight grouping, weapons at the ready. They had drawn long knives now rather than garrotes, and I found myself rather glad to see it. Not only was I better equipped to defend myself against knives if it came to that, but it meant that they weren’t planning on killing more people in here.
In any case, we followed him deeper into the building. He took one turn after another, before finally ducking through a door that looked like it was a closet. Instead it opened into another, very different, hallway. This one was narrow and just slightly too short for comfort, with walls and floor and ceiling of simple whitewashed stone. More mundane alchemical lamps lit it uncomfortably bright with all the white, and made the stains and dirt all the more apparent.
A servants’ hall, then. Meant to get people who were meant to remain unseen by their betters from place to place. Likely they ran throughout the building. Something like a set of secret passages, hidden by the way that people chose not to look at their occupants.
My dislike of the nobles that lived in this manor was growing.
The servants’ hallway twisted and turned, but eventually Miles opened another door, this one leading into a grandiose hall much like the one we had been in minutes earlier. “This way,” he said, turning right and continuing briskly forward. He turned his head, looking at us. “The study is just ahead.”
With his head turned, he didn’t see the guard step out of a door just ahead. No one else was close enough to reach him before he shouted a warning.
I didn’t think. The rational, cognitive part of my mind didn’t get involved at all. It was all instinct and reflex and fear. Before I’d even properly registered what I was seeing, my hand was coming up, holding a handful of sharpened triangular pieces of metal. A quick throw, a quicker twist of magic, and they were shooting forward. One of them very nearly clipped Miles on the way by, but my aim was good for once, and all of them struck home.
The guard collapsed, blood rushing out from the ragged holes in his head and face. He never had time to scream. Miles didn’t even flinch. “Excellent shot, Silf,” he said, turning back and continuing on. “With that amount of blood, I believe we’re better off counting to speed and luck to prevent detection rather than trying to hide the body. Quickly now, ladies and gentlemen, the clock is ticking.”
And as simply as that, we were continuing down the hall, moving somewhat faster now.
I barely registered it as we walked past more fine art pieces, now garishly splashed with blood. I was too busy thinking about what I’d just done.
I’d killed before, more times than I liked to think about. But it had always been…different. I’d been defending myself, or someone else. Even when I’d made the deliberate decision to kill Hideo, I’d done so with the intent of protecting the residents of Branson’s Ford. I’d killed, but I’d never murdered.
That man hadn’t intended me harm. He’d just been doing his job. We had been the aggressors here, we were the ones invading this manor. I couldn’t really call his death anything but pure murder. Not premeditated, or even deliberate–but murder all the same.
And I’d done it without a second thought. Hell, I’d done it without a first thought.
I wasn’t sure I liked what I was turning into.
The next thing I was really aware of, we were pushing through a sturdy wooden door into another room. Some sort of study, it was simply furnished with a desk, a padded chair, and several bookshelves. More art was on the shelves and on the walls, but it was less ostentatious than the rest of what I’d seen in this place. The enormous window behind the desk looked out over a smaller building towards the ocean. I could see the glimmering of countless alchemical lights blazing bright against the darkness, a web of light that looked like jewels scattered across the night.
Aseoto was beautiful at a distance.
“Excellent,” Miles said as one of his people closed the door behind us. “Now would be where you come in, Silf. I have reason to believe that there’s a safe in this room. Find it.”
I stared for a moment, uncomprehending. I felt like I was in a daze. Then the meaning of the words–and the implicit threat backing them up–reached me, and I nodded hastily. He’d already said that we were in a rush, and while I might not have been precisely a willing participant in all this, I somehow doubted that the law would see it that way if we were caught.
At least I understood why he had brought me now. I closed my eyes and opened myself to the magic again, shuddering slightly as I remembered how those pieces of metal had torn though flesh….
But I wasn’t using the magic for anything like that, not this time. I just opened myself, letting the energy flow through me and heighten my connections to the world around me. I could feel the metal in the weapons my associates were carrying, and once again had to repress a shudder.
At first I thought it wasn’t going to work. Then I realized that I was just thinking about it wrong. The whole reason that Miles had brought me was that the safe wouldn’t be in an obvious place. It wasn’t going to be behind one of the paintings or something equally silly. They would have put it somewhere that no one would think to search.
I focused my attention downward, and felt a large deposit of metal just below the desk. It was hard to be sure without seeing, but it felt roughly like a cube, and it was hollow.
“It’s in the floor,” I said. “Behind the desk.”
“Excellent work,” Miles said. “That does present a challenge, however. How do we get to it?”
“Chop a hole in the floor?” one of the men asked, fingering a heavy knife.
“That would take too long,” Miles said. “We need in quickly. Perhaps fire-oil….”
I barely paid attention to what they were saying. There was more metal there, I could feel it, and I traced its course away from the safe itself. It was harder than finding the safe; the metal was smaller, and more deeply buried. But I eventually followed it to where it ended at an unremarkable spot in the wall.
I walked over, ignoring their discussion, and tentatively pushed against the wall in that spot. It didn’t move–nothing so obvious–but I felt something shift under the pressure.
A small hole slid open in the floor, so smoothly that it had to be an alchemical mechanism. There was a black metal safe inside.
“Ah! You prove your worth again,” Miles said brightly, stepping forward to the safe. “Thank you kindly, Silf. I’ll take it from here.”
I would have expected opening the sort of lock that a noble this wealthy would put on their private safe would be difficult, that it would take some time. It seemed natural. Whoever owned this place, they could afford the best, and they wouldn’t have bothered with such an intricate method of concealing it only to skimp on the lock.
Miles had it open in under ten seconds.
I saw him reach into his jacket, likely stowing something from the safe away out of sight. More than likely it was what this whole thing had been about, though I still had no idea what it was for. Then he began grabbing handfuls of the safe’s contents, and dropping them into small leather bags from his belt.
“Here’s your bonus, ladies and gentlemen,” he said as he finished, tossing the bags to his thugs, one each.
Then, much to my surprise, he tossed one to me. I barely managed to catch it, and found it considerably heavier than I had anticipated. I glanced into it, more out of curiosity than anything, and then very nearly dropped it in shock.
The bag was full of gold coins, gold crowns, over a dozen of them. Each one was worth more money than I’d ever seen before starting at the Comedy. Under them, I could see the glimmer of gemstones.
It wasn’t just money. It was more money than I could possibly have hoped to earn. Money enough to make many of life’s problems simply….go away. I wasn’t used to dealing with numbers this large, couldn’t rightly process what the value of that bag even was.
And he’d thrown one to each of us.
Black gods, what was in that safe that was worth enough that he could afford to give this out as a bonus?
“Excellent work,” Miles said, sounding well satisfied. “Now, I believe I hear screaming outside. Shall we make our exit?”
The thugs nodded and moved towards the window. Within seconds it was shattered and we were climbing outside. We were above the balcony, but not far, and I jumped down with the rest of them. It hurt my legs, but I was used to pain.
A quick descent down a rope and we were out, running for the docks. The thugs vanished along the way; I was too deep into shock to notice where they went. All I knew was that they were gone when we reached the edge of the island, where the same unlit boat was waiting for us. Miles stepped aboard casually, while I scrambled onto it.
“Thank you kindly,” he said as the boat started moving back towards Ukiyo. “I know that was stressful for you, especially on such short notice. I do appreciate your help, though; that would have been awkward without you.”
I nodded, feeling numb and lost. What had I just been a part of? Did I even want to know?
He dropped me off on Ukiyo, leaving me to stumble back to the Comedy on my own while he vanished from sight over the water. I kept the bag hidden on the way; that much common sense, at least, remained to me.
But not much more. Once I got back, I stumbled in the back entrance and went straight to my room, where I laid on my bed and did not sleep. The next morning I was exhausted and terrified, and apparently it showed; Rose brought me food in bed, and Lyssa offered to cover my daytime shift.
None of us ever said a word about what favor I had done for Miles.