The two men's voices carried down the tunnels with reverberations that made
them indistinguishable but, even so, gave the impression of a business meeting.
Which it was. In a way.
An assassin was receiving orders from his client, who was, the assassin thought, making it unnecessarily difficult for himself, as such clients did.
It was always the same; they wanted to conceal their identities, and turned up so masked or muffled you could hardly hear their instructions. They didn't want to be seen with you, which led to assignations on blasted heaths or places like this stinking cellar. They were nervous about handing over the down payment in case you stabbed them and then ran off with it.
If they only realized it, a respectable assassin like himself had to be trustworthy; his career depended on it. It had taken time, but Sicarius (the Latin pseudonym he'd chosen for himself ) was becoming known for excellence. Whether it was translated from the Latin as "assassin" or "dagger," it stood for the neat removal of one's political opponent, wife, creditor, without suspicion being provable against oneself.
Satisfied clients recommended him to others who were afflicted, though they pretended to make a joke of it: "You could use the fellow they call Sicarius," they'd say. "He's supposed to solve troubles like yours."
And when pressed for information: "I don't know, of course, but rumor has it he's to be contacted at the Bear in Southwark." Or Fillola's in Rome. Or La Boule in Paris. Or at whatever inn in whichever area one was plying for trade that season.
This month, Oxford. In a cellar connected by a long tunnel to the undercroft of an inn. He'd been led to it by a masked and hooded servantoh, really, so unnecessaryand pointed toward a rich red-velvet curtain strung across one corner, hiding the client behind it and contrasting vividly with the mold on the walls and the slime underfoot. Damn it, one's boots would be ruined.
"The . . . assignment will not be difficult for you?" the curtain asked. The voice behind it had given very specific instructions.
"The circumstances are unusual, my lord," the assassin said. He always called them "my lord." It pleased them. "I don't usually like to leave evidence, but if that is what you require . . ."
"I do, but I meant spiritually," the curtain said. "Does your conscience not worry you? Don't you fear for your soul's damnation?"
So they'd reached that point, had they, the moment when clients distanced their morality from his, he being the low-born dirty bastard who wielded the knife and they merely the rich bastards who ordered it.
He could have said, "It's a living and a good one, damned or not, and better than starving to death." He could have said, "I don't have a conscience, I have standards, which I keep to." He could even have said, "What about your soul's damnation?"
But they paid for their rag of superiority, so he desisted. Instead, he said cheerily, "High or low, my lord. Popes, peasants, kings, varlets, ladies, children, I dispose of them alland for the same price: seventy-five marks down and a hundred when the job's done." Keeping to the same tariff was part of his success.
"Children?" The curtain was shocked.
Oh, dear, dear. Of course children. Children inherited. Children were obstacles to the stepfather, aunt, brother, cousin who would come into the estate once the little moppet was out of the way. And more difficult to dispose of than you'd think . . .
He merely said, "Perhaps you would go over the instructions again, my lord."
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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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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