The Red Blade
Part Nine – The Great Endeavour
Deep shadows closed in around Carse. Clad head to toe in the darkest black, from the soft soled boots on his feet to the scarf wrapped about his head, he fused in with the night, all but unseen. Not alone did his outfit aid him in this. The storms of the day had abated, though not yet had the clouds departed, and they shrouded the stars and the moon so a deep stygian gloom clung to the city, seeping into all its corners and nooks. Torch light and lamp light, seeping out from behind shuttered windows, provided the scant illumination that Carse used to navigate his way through streets all but deserted. On the infrequent occasion that he perceived another, either seen or heard, he sunk into the shadows and wrapped himself in them. Holding as still as a statue, with nary a breath passing his lips, he disappeared from view, remaining so until they had passed on their way. Well used were the skills Prador had taught him that night, for he put them to good effect as unseen he closed upon his quarry.
When at first Athradies had told him of his plan, and the intended target, there had been doubts. Yet all those fears had drained away when he took up the sword, for it was if the blade itself had taken them from him. Now all that remained was a surety of purpose. There were enemies of the city within Ardanium, and they had to be confronted and, if necessary, destroyed. The certainty of it filled him, and so he stalked, with no qualms, no doubts, no fears, only a sense of calm purpose and resolve.
His silent steps brought him at last to the manor he sought, upon the fifth hill of Ardanium, a place, by some, called the Hill of Golden Scales, for it was there that the merchants of the city lived. Among them there dwelled some not of Ardanium, foreign merchants, and it was one of those that Carse hunted, a man steeped in wickedness, for he and the thugs in his employee, preyed upon other merchants, extorting them by means of his control of the docks, and gouging them for all he could take. Those that objected to him suffered accidents, with goods destroyed, properties burned down and with members of their families accosted, robbed and assaulted. Some had even disappeared without word or trace. Hatumses of Metsheput was no friend of Ardanium, being a leech upon society, growing engorged upon the blood of others, and thus Carse meant to lance him.
Harumses’ villa stood out stark when compared to other merchants of the city, for it had not been constructed in the traditional manner of the Akuvians, with marble facades and columns, but in red sandstone and in a style unlike other villas around. Tall and imposing, comprised of airy colonnaded walkways and open courtyards that were scattered with stone shards, Carse had heard tell that it had been built in the manner of the palaces of Hatumses’ homeland, Metsehput, far to the south, beyond the Swordlands whereupon the city-states were.
From the street, he slipped up the wall, and there he halted. His ears were alert, questing out for any noises beyond the wall that would alert him to guards, whether man or beast. Barely a sound came to him bar that of trees swaying in the breeze, their leaves whispering in soft susurrations to each other as the brushed together. As confident as he could be that no surprises awaited him on the other side, he made ready to enter the villa. He retrieved a small handful of dust from the pouch he carried, and this he scattered in the air above his head. Even as he did, he let forth a low, soft whistle, a tune that carried hints of cold winds in distant, lofty heights, ones that could pierce the very bones as they came howling down the frigid slopes. The dust fell towards him, yet as it did, it seemed to coalesce the shadows of the night about it, forming webs of gloomy darkness. These settled upon Carse like a cloak that drank in light and sound, leaving only a deeper darkness behind. Wrapped within it, he felt a touch of the chill that formed it, soaking through his clothes and biting at his flesh. He put aside thoughts of it and concentrated on the task at hand.
Silently he leapt, his hands latching onto the top of the wall that ran around Hatumses’ estate. Pulling himself up, he perched atop the wall, and there he crouched, looking into the ground beyond. Trees and bushes and rows of flowers, all precisely manicured and maintained, adhering to some mathematical or architectural pattern that Carse could not fathom out, surrounded the inner grounds, and the villa. From the top of the wall he leapt, into the branches of a tree close by. He clung there, silent and dark, hidden from view, taking stock of the situation.
A crunch of feet, regular in their step, marked a new arrival upon the scene. From his perch, Carse sought out the interloper. Making his way around the grounds, a guard walked. By his gait and demeanour, Carse could see the man showed only a partial interest in the task at hand; for he held his spear loosely, the weapon half trailing behind him. He continued on his way, his circuit bringing him beneath the tree in which Carse hid. Breath held tight, Carse curled his fingers around the hilt of the red bladed sword.
A sudden urge came upon Carse, to leap down from the tree upon the guard and smite him where he stood, to water the gardens with his blood, an urge so sharp that he almost lost his grip on the branch and fell. His fingers gripped tighter as he struggled against the urge. The guard, oblivious to the sudden death that lurked above, walked on, sparing not a glance for the tree, though he shivered for a moment as if the cold of Carse’s shadowy cloak had laid its fingers upon him.
Waiting until after the guard had moved away and disappeared into distant parts of the gardens on his rounds, his footsteps fading to silence, Carse dropped lightly from the tree. Skulking low to the ground, he flowed through the outer gardens of the estate like a haunting shade, and on into the inner gardens, where ponds were refreshed by flowing waters and fish swam. Beyond the inner gardens sat the villa itself, the colonnades marking the outer portions of it. Supporting a tall roof, they stood without walls so as to allow the flow and passage of breezes, a much desired trait in the hot lands of the south, yet or less benefit in Ardanium where winters could at times bite hard.
Carse made his way forward, between the courtyards, barely noticing the extensive carvings upon them in a scrip more pictures than words. His steps led him across the courtyards, treading with care lest he disturb the pebbles spread across them. Deep within the villa he went until he reached the inner parts, ones enclosed with thick walls. A bronze plated portal stood as an entrance, heavy bronze studs set into it. It was framed with smouldering touches that cast pools of radiance about. Carse hesitated in his approach, much afeared that to do so would render him visible to any that may happen by. Trust in the power of his enchantments proved the stronger though, and shrouded in his cloak of shadows and cold smoke, he slipped up to the door.
A heavy lock had been attached to the door. Gently Carse tested the handle, finding that the lock had in fact been fastened closed for the night. Carse knelt down before it, removing a case from his pocket, one that held his lockpicks. The lock itself could be opened with his mastery of the Mysteries, though this deep in the villa, he did not want to risk it, for the chance of being overheard proved too much of a concern for him to attempt it. Instead he resorted to the old fashion means, by skill and deftness of hand. A quick probe with a lockpick, a twist of the wrists and a faint click marked the lock succumbing to the attempt, just as fast as, and quieter, than with the Mysteries.
Silently rising to his feet, Carse tested the handle once more. It turned easily and the door swung open on hinges that had been oiled, betraying no sound of his entry. Carse slid in through the opening, pulling the door closed behind him.
The entrance hall beyond the portal remained for the most part dark, only a few torches providing relief from the gloom that would have enshrouded the room. Carse took care to remain beyond the reach of the radiance, keeping to the darkest parts of the room. Statues dotted the room, of gold and silver, bronze and marble, and carved wooden pedestals upon which were supported vases, all done in alien styles not of keeping with that of an Akuvian city. Wealth beyond any that Carse had seen before lay on display before him, an opulence that bordered on the obscene. Costly rugs and silk tapestries from far off lands set off the red marble of the walls and the floor, and golden braziers lined the room, for the time unlit. A set of broad stairs led up to a balcony that ran around the room, the rails of which were gilt edged. For one born to the streets, who had owned almost nothing but the clothes he wore, even after Athradies had found him and taken him in, it awoke in him a desire that ran fleeting through him. Athradies never displayed such wealth, and nor did Carse know if he was even wealthy. Hatumses, in contrast, was obviously thus, and nor shy about it displaying it. Carse found it hard to tear his eyes from the display of it before him.
Yet a cold, logical corner of his mind rose to the fore and with it a reminder of his purpose, what he had come to do. It could not be allowed to be jeopardised, that silent voice reminded him. Once that had been completed, there was nothing to say that he too could not have a share of the wealth of the Swordlands, to enjoy the finery that was on display before him.
Shadow wrapped, he set forth again, flowing alongside the walls of the grand chamber, keeping to the gloom and weaving amongst the riches stationed there. His course led him to the staircase at the back that rose to the balcony above. With steps that betrayed not a hint of sound, he made his way up the marble flights of the stairs. Once at the top, he again hugged up against the wall and looked either way, down richly carpeted walls lines with yet more statutes, interspersed at intervals with doors made of costly and exotic woods. The door at the top of the marble stairs stood out most impressive of all, being of red sandalwood and black ebony, chased with gilt edging.
The door piqued his curiosity, as it suggested an important room lay on the other side. He knelt before the door and once more applied his lockpicks, working carefully at the lock until it retreated before his subtle probing. The door swung silently open at the lightest of touches, revealing a large bedroom chamber, one with thick and exotically woven carpets across the floor, silk curtains that were drawn across windows and a huge four poster bed, heaving with bedding and pillows and cushion and silk drapes.
With great caution, Carse picked his way towards the bed, the heavy carpets soaking up all sound, and peered on through the drapes. Two bodies were sprawled out upon the bed, one a man with bronzed skin and a shaven scalp, pudgy to the point of obesity, with rings of gold crammed onto his fingers, dressed only in a simple linen kilt. Beside him lay a woman in a flimsy silken robe that clung to the contours of her body, barely concealing a hint of her splendid form. It was of crimson that stood out against the ivory of her skin, and her long black tresses that spilled over her shoulders. She did not come from Metsheput like the man, being a local woman by her looks.
Carse drew the Red Blade, the sword whispering from its sheath with the barest hint of a sound, merely the rasp of steel on silk. Even so, the sleeping man stirred in his sleep, the sound disturbing is subconscious dreams, though not enough to wake him.
Raising the sword, Carse used it to part aside the silk drapes that hung down around the bed, before slipping in between them to stand beside the bed. His ghostly tread did not disturb the somnolent pair and so he stood over them, the blade poised to deliver the vengeance so richly deserved.
And yet, at the last, when the time to strike had arrived, he found that he could not do the deed. Despite all his training, his fervour for the mission, never before had he taken a life, and his hand hesitated. The thought of slaying did not so much concern him as the methods, for taking the life of a sleeping man did not sit easy with him.
Almost as if he sensed the presence of danger looming over him, the sleeping Metsheputi, Hatumses, stirred into wakefulness, his eyes flickering open, widening to see a dark figure with a sword. Before his mouth could open to speak or call out an alarm, the Red Blade plunged down, dragging Carse’s reluctant hand along with it, to bury deep in the corpulent throat. Blood gushed forth in dark torrent, spilling over the bed and seeping into the fabric, as well as his sleeping companion.
Carse stood in a daze as he watched the light fade from the dying man’s eyes, while blood bubbled to his lips as he attempted to breathe. A curious detachment settled on Carse’s mind. A part of him, submerged deep within, yammered at what had happened, yet exaltation coursed through him, hot, metallic and hungry for more, drowning out the reluctant side.
As the blood drained across the bed, soaking into it, the sleeping woman stirred at its touch and was roused from her slumber. Her drowsy expressions were confused as her waking thoughts tried to make sense of what exactly was going on. Her head turned and then her eyes widened as she saw the bloodied corpse alongside her, the black clad figure of Carse standing over it, sword in hand. Her mouth made to scream but Carse raised a finger to his lips, indicating that she remain quiet. In terrified silence she simply nodded, cowering back.
“Thus end all those who harm Ardanium,” Carse whispered. “Thus comes the Red Blade to cleanse the city of its sins.”
He made to turn and depart the room when a thought stole upon him. The dead man, Hatumses, no longer had need of the gold that festooned him, the rings that were stuffed onto his fingers. Using the silk drapes to wipe his blade clean, Carse then sheathed it before starting to divest Hatumses of his rings, slipping each into his pockets. The last, set with a large blood red ruby, further coated red with the blood of Hatumses, he tossed to the girl. Despite her fears, she caught it with ease.
“For your troubles,” he said. “Remember this night, when we Akuvians began to reclaim our great and noble city.”
Then he was gone, slipping into the darkness once more.
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