Keep the client talking. Find out who he was, in case he tried to avoid the final payment. Killing those who reneged on the agreement meant tracking them down, inflicting a death that was both painfully inventive and, he hoped, a warning to future clients.
The voice behind the curtain repeated what it had already said. To be done on such and such a day, in such and such a place, by these means the death to occur in such and such a manner, this to be left, that to be taken away.
They always want precision, the assassin thought wearily. Do it this way, do it that. As if killing is a science rather than an art.
Nevertheless, in this instance, the client had planned the murder with extraordinary detail and had intimate knowledge of his victim's comings and goings; it would be as well to comply....
So Sicarius listened carefully, not to the instructionshe'd memorized them the first timebut to the timbre of the client's voice, noting phrases he could recognize again, waiting for a cough, a stutter that might later identify the speaker in a crowd.
While he listened, he looked around him. There was nothing to be learned from the servant who stood in the shadows, carefully shrouded in an unexceptional cloak and with his shaking handoh, bless himon the hilt of a sword stuck into a belt, as if he wouldn't be dead twenty times over before he could draw it. A pitiful safeguard, but probably the only creature the client trusted.
The location of the cellar, now . . . it told the assassin something, if only that the client had shown cunning in choosing it. There were three exits, one of them the long tunnel, down which he'd been guided from the inn. The other two might lead anywhere, to the castle, perhaps, orhe sniffedto the river. The only certainty was that it was somewhere in the bowels of Oxford. And bowels, as the assassin had reason to know, having laid bare quite a few, were extensive and tortuous.
Built during the Stephen and Matilda war, of course. The assassin reflected uneasily on the tunneling that had, literally, undermined England during the thirteen years of that unfortunate and bloody fracas. The strategic jewel that was Oxford, guarding the country's main routes south to north and east to west, where they crossed the Thames, had suffered badly. Besieged and re-besieged, people had dug like moles both to get in and to get out. One of these days, he thoughtand God give it wasn't todaythe bloody place would collapse into the wormholes they'd made of its foundations.
Oxford, he thought. A town held mainly for King Stephen and, therefore, the wrong side. Twenty years on, and its losers still heaved with resentment against Matilda's son, Henry Plantagenet, the ultimate winner and king.
The assassin had gained a deal of information while in the areait always paid to know who was upside with whom, and whyand he thought it possible that the client was one of those still embittered by the war and that the assignment was, therefore, political.
In which case it could be dangerous. Greed, lust, revenge: Their motives were all one to him, but political clients were usually of such high degree that they had a tendency to hide their involvement by hiring yet another murderer to kill the first, i.e., him. It was always wearisome and only led to more bloodletting, though never his.
Aha. The unseen client had shifted, and for a second, no more, the tip of a boot had shown beneath the curtain hem. A boot of fine doeskin, like one's own, and new, possibly recently made in Oxfordagain, like one's own.
A round of the local boot makers was called for.
"We are agreed, then?" the curtain asked.
"We are agreed, my lord."
"Seventy-five marks, you say?"
Reproduced with permission of Putnam Publishing. Copyright © 2008 by Ariana Franklin All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced, scanned, or distributed in any printed or electronic form without permission.
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