Grimdark Story Battle Royale 4: Finals

The Duellist

The pistol grip was sweat-slick in Charlotte de Caffern’s palm. At her back stood some minor noble of a worthless country house, his own pistol rattling as it shook next to his head. A crowd of some thirty people watched from the carefully manicured grass overlooked by a small country mansion.

Amongst them, Charlotte’s employer stood watching smugly with beady black eyes, his weak chin dug into the folds of his neck as his toupee flapped in the stiff autumn breeze. Charlotte sniffed. She’d fallen so far.

‘Ladies and gentlemen,’ said a fat buffoon somebody had earlier introduced her to as the town’s chancellor. ‘Please ensure the way is clear behind the duellists. It is time to resolve the matter brought to me by Lord Arouf against the Lord Foramello.’

Charlotte could hear Arouf’s pistol shake all the harder. She smiled to herself. He’d be more likely to change into Vatar Reborn than shoot straight.

The chancellor continued. ‘Lord Arouf has laid claim against Lord Foramello for forced adultery which has impregnated his wife. Lord Foramello refutes the claim, swearing Mister Arouf’s wife came to him willingly and,’ the big man cast a leer around the crowd, ‘wantonly.’

Ladies whispered behind their fans in the shadows of umbrellas. Gentlemen snickered openly to each other as they sipped sherries or fine whiskeys. Charlotte ignored them, focusing on the man behind her, already picturing the tiny hole she was going to put in his chest. The hundred crowns she’d charged Foramello was a quarter of her usual fee for stepping in front of a ball, but it would get her further away from the Capital and those hunting her.

‘One man’s word against another,’ said the chancellor. ‘The law, the king, and the gods say that such a dispute of honour can only be resolved in one manner.’

He let the moment weigh upon the crowd. ‘A duel, my lords and ladies. Pistol to pistol. Death a possible outcome.’ He paused again, letting the stakes weigh in. ‘Lord Arouf has chosen to represent himself, while Lord Foramello has been forced to use a champion due to a case of the autumn chills.’

Lord Foramello smothered a well-timed cough.

The chancellor pointed at Charlotte. ‘Ms Termose has honourably offered to stand in Lord Foramello’s position. With no further ado, let this matter be settled.’

Ms Termose. Charlotte sighed at their ignorance; it was more sad than frustrating how backwards these country hicks were. Ms Termose was the name of a hapless damsel in a play she’d seen back in the Capital. Out here, they were so far removed from all real civilisation it was surprising they weren’t walking around on their knuckles.

Charlotte leaned back, enough to give Arouf a slight nudge with her shoulders. ‘I apologise in advance, Mr Arouf.’

‘Apologise?’ he spluttered. And then added, ‘Ms Termose?’

‘I’m going to have to kill you today.’ She could hear his pistol shaking again; smell the sweat rolling down his back. ‘My real name is not Termose. I am Charlotte de Caffern. I am the only person that leaves a duelling range once I step on it. I assume you’ve heard of me.’

He began to sob. Sometimes Charlotte struggled to define what was harder in her choice of life, actually ending somebody’s life for money, or using her legend to crush them before she pulled the trigger.

‘You killed Prince Endolon?’ he whispered.

‘So, you have heard of me,’ she answered, trying to subdue her smirk. She felt him draw breath, probably to speak. ‘Try to tell them and I’ll put one through your kidney and leave you to bleed out.’

‘Ten paces each, at my mark,’ interrupted the chancellor. ‘Then, turn. When the bell chimes for the third time, you may fire. Do you both understand?’

‘Y-yes,’ stammered Arouf.

Charlotte gave the chancellor what she hoped was a cold-eyed nod. Always add to your legend, someone had once told her.

‘Begin.’

Charlotte strode out with easy long steps. She could hit the man from twice the allowable distance, but each step lessened the chance of him getting lucky and shooting her. Despite the air of confidence she portrayed, inside she began to feel her fear turn her heart cold and twist her insides. Her armpits were getting damper with sweat by the second, hot and uncomfortable in complete contrast to the rest of her body where the wind was trying to wrench every last bit of warmth from her. One moment of bad luck and this is all over… Dead in some worthless backwater for the enjoyment of…

 She pushed the thought from her mind, took a deep chilly breath smelling of freshly cut grass. This is my profession. Straight arm. Steady hand. Cold eye. Play the man to protect myself. Use the powder and ball to get paid. This is my profession. Straight arm…

Charlotte turned at ten paces. She stood side-on and raised her pistol, knees slightly bent. Her worn duelling jacket felt heavy and clammy upon her, but it made her body seem bigger than it was. The bandages wrapped over her breasts to crush them flat were uncomfortable to the point of painful, but might save her another hole in her body.

Twenty paces away Arouf was pale and shaking with fear. He looked in his wife’s direction, blinking rapidly, sweat pouring down his brow. Charlotte didn’t follow his gaze, waiting patiently for him to look back. Play the man.

‘Take aim!’

Charlotte focussed down the barrel of her pistol. The wavering nozzle of Arouf’s own weapon gave her confidence. This is my profession…

She squinted. Her world became the pistol and a small spot the size of a nipple on Arouf’s chest. Steady hand…

Nothing else mattered. Cold eye…

‘Fire!’

She let out her breath evenly and pulled the trigger. The flash singed the tiny hairs on her hand a moment before the pistol bucked. Smoke clouded her vision and was quickly tugged away by the breeze, it’s scent barely getting a chance to spice her nostrils. She smiled as she realized that, apart from the blood setting her veins on fire and an intense need to use the bathroom, she was fine.

Mister Arouf, however, was not.

He lay on his back, mewling in pain with breathless wheezes. Charlotte held out her pistol and waited for an attendant to take it from her. Most would have dropped their pistols to the ground, but hers were Dormakers shipped from half the world away in Durtsager.

She gave the attendant a glare before allowing him to have the Dormaker. Every angle of the pistol was perfect. Every grain in the wooden grip was magnificently aligned to the cut. Delicate runes older than time were inscribed upon the barrel by weaponsmiths born and bred for the sole purpose of their creation. They were worth more than every person standing within fifty feet of her and all they wore.

Lifting her second Dormaker, she strode over to Arouf. The poor soul was reaching out to his wife with one arm, the other dead by his side, green grass turning red beneath him.

‘P- pl- please,’ he wheezed through red teeth before rattling in a bubbly breath.

Charlotte knew that noise. Knew it one hundred times over; had nightmares about it happening to her. The ball had probably skewered both of Arouf’s lungs. He was already drowning in his own blood.

‘I have a family,’ he whispered, breath getting shorter, eyes more desperate. ‘Spare me.’ The last two words barely made a sound.

Charlotte levelled her second dormaker at his forehead. ‘I can end it, mister Arouf,’ she said. ‘In a moment it can be over. No more pain.’

He looked up at her, blinking rapidly, then strained his neck to look up at his wife. Charlotte couldn’t be sure, but she swore he looked at the woman’s rounding belly.

Charlotte continued, ‘It’ll take you a few minutes to bleed out, maybe more, or you’ll drown in your own lungs. It’s not a nice way to go.’

Arouf looked back up at her, tears streaming from reddened eyes. Nodded.

Huffing his disgusting sherry breath on what should have been a final respectful moment between champion and defeated, the chancellor arrived. He dabbed at his forehead furiously with a handkerchief. ‘Wait, Ms. Termose!’ he spluttered. ‘I have not verified permiss—‘

Charlotte ignored him. Arouf’s mouth was wide, like a fish out of water with no way back in, his face death-white and twisted in agony, eyes begging her. Charlotte gave him a curt nod that she hoped looked respectful and put her second ball through his forehead.

There were gasps from the crowd. A lady fainted. The pale man that was supposed to help her followed. The pregnant wife ran screaming over to her dead husband. The chancellor snapped his dropped jaw shut quickly enough to mask it with a knowing nod like he’d given the order.

Charlotte walked over to her employer, displaying a calm that went no deeper than her skin. Lord Formaello looked incredibly pleased.

‘A job well done,’ he said. ‘Though, if I am not mistaken, you are a good enough shot to have left him simply wounded.’

‘I am the only person that leaves a duelling range,’ said Charlotte. ‘I told you that when you hired me.’

‘But of course,’ said Foramello. ‘Please, follow me into my mansion. I shall arrange payment for your contract.’

*          *          *

Inside Foramello’s study, an eclectic collection of books and tomes weighed heavily on sagging shelves around a fireplace and a mahogany desk. A wretched-looking librarian spider crawled over the shelves carrying book returns.

Lord Foramello took a seat behind the desk and beckoned that she take the tilting seat before it. Charlotte settled into the chair, uncomfortable with the lumps beneath the leather.

Lord Foramello scribbled into a ledger, ignoring her as he worked. Charlotte allowed him this show of supremacy, trying not to wrinkle her nose at the smell of must and mould in the air.

Finally, he reached into a draw and slowly started counting out gold crowns into stacks of ten each. He stopped at five stacks, then returned to scribbling in his ledger. Charlotte waited, feigning untold patience. The spider librarian’s tarsal claws scratched and clicked against the books and shelves.

Lord Foramello looked up at her over the rim of his reading glasses. ‘Ms Termose, you may take your money and leave. Your service is done, the contract fulfilled.’

Charlotte grinned. ‘That wasn’t the amount in the contract.’

‘You are correct.’

‘Then why are you halving the fee I charged for stepping in front of a ball for you?’

Lord Formaello grinned back, no less falsely. ‘I know who you are, Charlotte de Caffern. I know why you are out here, so far from the Capital. I know what you did.’

Charlotte narrowed her eyes, her hand resting on the handle of a dagger on her hip.

‘I know that you killed Prince Endolon last winter in an unsanctioned duel. I know that Endolon’s eleven brothers are scouring the nation to find you. I know that there is a thousand crown reward for news of you. But,’ he held up a finger, ‘I also appreciate that I just had the finest duellist in the lands champion for me at a fraction of her normal fee. One-eighth, if I’m not mistaken.’

‘Lord Foramello, fifty crowns—‘

He motioned her silent. ‘Fifty crowns is my price.’

‘Your price?’

‘For giving you a five-day lead before I notify the constabulary, who will in turn notify the crown. Ten crowns a day. Sound fair?’

Charlotte did her best to think. ‘Does anybody else know?’

Foramello grinned and leaned back into his chair, chin receding into his neck. ‘Thinking of putting that dagger in me?’

Charlotte felt two pin pricks on the nape of her neck. She didn’t need to turn around to know that the librarian spider had its tarsal claws ready to pierce into her spine.

Charlotte put her hand back in her lap. ‘The thought never crossed my mind, Lord Foramello.’

‘I have notified two others of your crimes, and sworn them to secrecy. Unless, of course, I should meet an untimely demise at some point within the next five days.’

At a nod from Foramello, the librarian spider dropped from the back of the chair and skittered away. Charlotte stood and retrieved the coins. She stopped as she scooped the last crowns into her pouch. ‘Five days. Why would you do this for me?’

Sighing, Foramello filled a crystal glass from a decanter. ‘Out here in the country we’ve become accustomed to the Capital taking our young men for wars not of our choosing, drawing away our young women with promises of courtship but landing them in prostitution, and leaving us old lords with the scraps to make our money.’

Charlotte frowned. Formaello’s words smacked of treason.

‘Or,’ he said with an obscenely toothy grin, ‘you could just say I’m old fashioned and appreciate a job well done.’

‘Is there a tavern with rooms nearby? Preferably a clean one,’ asked Charlotte.     

‘Not leaving yet? No. I imagine you are tired. And I did promise you five days,’ said Foramello. ‘East down King’s Boulevard are both the Cavalryman and the North Bastion. Both are relatively clean, though pricey.’

A servant opened the door for her to leave.

‘Sad, that you must leave,’ said Foramello. ‘I do so enjoy the company of strong attractive women, like yourself. I hope you find safety somewhere.’

Charlotte ignored the comment. The crown would find a way to kill her eventually. Until then, she’d keep duelling and running.

*          *          *

Charlotte placed a crown on the bar at the Cavalryman.

‘Board, food, and drink until that runs out,’ she said to the barkeep. ‘Have my bags taken upstairs. Get me a single malt whiskey with a dash of water.’

The barkeep bobbed his balding head and busied himself polishing a glass. Charlotte took in her surroundings. There was an odd assortment of furniture with an even odder assortment of people. A thickset blacksmith and his pregnant wife were having dinner. Three roguish looking youths were having some sort of debate and ignoring the world around them—until one with fluorescent blue eyes gave her a lookover and a wink. Some servants and a smattering of others made up the rest. Apart from most of the servants and the blacksmith’s wife, she was the lone female.

The clink of bottle against glass followed by the spilling of liquid turned her around. Charlotte picked up the glass, smelled the rich aroma, and downed it in one gulp. It was rough and smoky, far removed from the rich caramel flavours she was accustomed to. She sucked her teeth a moment as her chest warmed.

‘Another,’ she said, ‘to celebrate another day of life.’

The barkeep nodded and did as he was bid.

Charlotte looked around, trying to find the telltale signs of men for hire. ‘Barkeep, are there any men in this tavern available? Preferably one without the pox.’

The barkeep frowned. ‘Available?’

Damn these backwards yokels. ‘A man who can be enjoyed, then paid to leave my bed later.’

The barkeep went a deep shade of red quicker than a white shirt with a freshly holed chest behind it. ‘We don’t have anyone like that here.’

‘You’re telling me there are no whores in this town?’

‘Whores, yes. But they aren’t men. Not here. No way.’

Charlotte squeezed the bridge of her nose. Gods, maybe I should just let Endolon’s brothers catch me

‘May I buy the lady a drink?’

She looked up. Next to her a young man stood smiling. He was handsome, after a fashion, plain, in a familiar way, and wore a clean pressed suit and coat with his collar tied high with a rich red bow. To her surprise his attire was all but up to date with her own. You’ll do.

She nodded and placed her tumbler back on the counter. ‘Another.’

As the barkeep poured, the youth continued staring at her.

‘My name is Garcel. I saw you duel today. You are a fine shot. A fine choice of champion for Lord Formello, if I may say so,’ he said.

She nodded, cringing a little inside. The last thing she needed was for someone else to work out who she was.

 ‘A fine shot indeed,’ he said when she didn’t respond. ‘Why did you learn to duel?’

‘A matter of necessity,’ she responded curtly.

‘Necessity? It sounds as if there might be a story behind that. Perhaps a tale of deception and betrayal, honour and courage?’ He was getting excited.

She took a sip of her drink and stared at the table.

‘No? No matter. Perhaps a few more drinks will loosen those lips. In the meantime, can you tell me where you’re from?’

‘Not here,’ she responded, growing more annoyed, taking another sip.

‘Recilliat? Dogun? Perhaps as far as Erregan or Mayou?’ he took a breath and put a hand on her shoulder. ‘Perhaps from the distant Capital? Is that where you’re from?’

‘No.’ Charlotte looked up at him. It was clear he’d be incapable of shutting up. ‘I’m going to be very blunt with you, Garcel.’

He nodded.

‘I’m not going to talk to you anymore tonight.’

His smile dropped from his face. He reached up and loosened his collar, revealing the front end of a straight scar that traced front to back.

‘But come with me upstairs to room twenty-one after this drink and we can continue not talking up there in private.’

Garcel’s jaw nearly made it to his sternum.

*          *          *

Charlotte sat at a window in the bar area of the Cavalryman, looking out over the street with stinging eyes as the sun made its first appearance. She raised her tumbler up to her lips and took a sip. Her single malt always tasted better when she’d had her way.

Amongst the farmers bringing in their produce for market, the homeless wandering aimlessly, and the officers ushering them along, she watched Garcel limp off. He looked back at her. She tipped her glass to him. He rearranged his crotch, winced, and kept going.

‘Did you rest well?’ asked the barkeep.

She looked back over her shoulder with a wan smile. ‘Very well.’

The barkeep squinted, annoyed. He’d probably heard how well rested she was well into the wee hours of the morning. ‘Will you be staying another night?’

Charlotte resumed staring out the window. ‘I haven’t decided yet.’

She let the conversation die a welcome death and kept staring out into the street. To stay another night was dangerous. Another night beyond that near suicidal. To only leave on the day Lord Foramello was planning on notifying the constabulary of her presence was like putting one of her Dormakers under her chin and pulling the trigger.

She sighed. Life back in the Capital had been simple. She took a life. She drank. She hired men. She kicked them out. She slept. She found another contract. Life was simple while she worked her way up the duelling scene. In the Capital, people knew what they were in for in duels — unless you were royalty. But out in these country towns, people were incapable of leaving the blood on the range.

They wanted vengeance. They always wanted vengeance, even if they were wrong to want it. Then, when you killed the would-be avenger at twenty paces, there opened a whole new web of would be avengers. People were a special kind of stupid this far out from the Capital.

Mister Arouf would have brothers, sons, friends, sisters, debtors — all would be wanting nothing less than seeing her crumpled on the ground staring dead-eyed at the sky above. She sighed and moved away from the window, grabbing a chair and getting her back into a corner.

 A few people began to meander in, keen for breakfast or a morning ale. She watched them, noting the ones who looked at her for more than a lingering moment or purposely averted their eyes. By now word would be around town. They’d all know what she’d done and where she was staying. Word, and anger, got around small towns fast.

 A woman approached her, looking around herself like somebody might stab her any moment. She had a black eye and a freshly broken nose. There were still flakes of blood caught on her top lip.

She sat at Charlotte’s table, eyes downcast, hands fidgeting before her.

‘Can I help you?’ asked Charlotte.

The woman looked up to her with clear, blue eyes. ‘I… I.’

‘For the Gods’ sake,’ hissed Charlotte, getting annoyed. ‘Just spit it out.’

The woman nodded, clamping down on a trembling lip. Charlotte watched her over the rim of her glass as she took a sip.

‘I need help.’

Charlotte nodded

‘From you.’

‘My help costs money.’ Charlotte looked at the dress the woman wore. Filthy. ‘More money than you seem to have.’

The woman’s lips went thin and white. ‘He’s going to kill me.’

‘Sounds to me like you’re trying to make your problem my problem,’ said Charlotte.

The woman looked at her, every part of her pleading. ‘Please, I’ll give you everything I have. Anything!’ she finished in a desperate hiss.

Charlotte sniffed and was about to respond when the door to the tavern slammed open.

‘Is that bitch of mine in here?’ demanded a tall man dressed in a soldier’s jacket. ‘Eva! Where are –‘

The man smiled a wolf’s smile as he looked at the woman shaking next to Charlotte. The sharp tang of urine matched the snivelling sounds of Eva’s fear. The man marched over and, without a word, grabbed Eva by the hair. The woman squealed as he yanked her from her chair and began dragging her back towards the door.

She reached out to Charlotte, her mouth twisted into a desperate “Please”. Charlotte’s hand slowly shifted to her dagger. Eva’s abuser looked back at that exact moment. He stopped.

‘Make another move towards that knife, bitch, and I’ll hand you a spanking then call in my men to put a bastard in your belly and remind you of your place in this town.’

Charlotte kept her hand where it was.

‘Don’t you –‘ snarled the man.

Charlotte grinned and stood, drawing the knife with a flourish. The man dropped Eva and put a boot on her throat to hold her down. He spat. A green glob of phlegm flew in a long arc and landed on Charlotte’s jacket.

‘You ain’t worth that spit, you scrawny bitch.‘

Pulling a leather glove from her pocket, Charlotte marched towards him. The glove had graced the cheek of Lord Allieu, Count Gerard IV, brave Rogan the Dead-eye, and most famously Prince Endolon. It was a piece of very expensive leather with a long and glorious duelling history. It deserved better than this, but it would have to do.

She put everything she had into the swing.

The sound of leather against cheek resounded throughout the Cavalryman. The man stumbled back. Eva crawled over frantically and wrapped herself around Charlotte’s leg.

‘Thankyou,’ she sobbed.

Stupid. All you had to do was let it go.

‘Get off me,’ snarled Charlotte.

*          *          *

Charlotte lay on Garcel’s chest, a thousand miles away in the candlelight.

A few short months ago she would have kicked Eva off herself and into the man’s fists without a second’s thought about it. But then, a few short months back she was making four hundred crowns a duel. Massive crowds came to watch her. The Capital’s best duellers feared seeing her down the range.

She had been somebody who needed, and was responsible for, nobody but herself. How had she ended up here? How?

‘You are far away,’ said Garcel.

Charlotte moaned. She’d almost forgotten he was there. How long had she lay here, breathing in his scent? Immediately she grew uncomfortable and rolled away, began looking for her pants.

‘Leaving?’ he said, hurt in his voice.

‘I have a duel to fight tomorrow,’ she said. ‘I must have time to prepare.’

‘I would prefer that you stay. I like having you here. Besides, why would you care about some young woman being beaten by her husband?’

She frowned. ‘I never told you why I was duelling.’

He smiled. ‘This is a small town. Word gets around quickly.’

Charlotte stood, dragging the sheet with her, leaving him bare until she was dressed. He lay there, goosebumps over his skin, hard muscle covering his body. She tried not look at him below the chest. It was difficult. She’d got drunk enough to let him take control, and she’d been surprised at his efforts. No small — perhaps the wrong word — part because of what was below that chest.

Garcel laughed as he caught her not looking. ‘Tempt you back to bed?’

His voice was anything but tempting.

‘No, I’m leaving. You won’t see me again after the duel.’ She pulled on her belt. It felt light without the Dormakers tucked into it.

‘No.’ He sighed, then smiled. ‘I imagine I won’t.’

It took all of Charlotte’s control not to run back to her apartments.

*          *          *

Her Dormaker’s were gone. Balls, powder, case and all.

Charlotte sat heavily. She’d searched everywhere, screeched at the owner until she was hoarse, then searched everywhere again. Outside, the sun was rising. She had half an hour at most to show at the range in the centre of town.

She hadn’t fired anything but a Dormaker in years. All but three of her kills were with those pistols. To try to learn the nuances of a new, cheaper pistol on the range was impossible.

Someone wanted her to die in the duel with the soldier. They must have watched her leave with Garcel, waiting for her room to be empty. What if the soldier pointed them down the range at her?

Panic struck. At twenty feet she was a surgeon with a Dormaker. At twenty feet a damned half-wit who’d never held a pistol in their lives was a good bet at hitting a person-sized target with a Dormaker. The ancient runes made sure of it.

Charlotte’s knees gave out. Her face dropped into the straw-filled mattress. She screamed into it until tears rolled down her face. She screamed until her throat went dry and her voice cut out. She screamed at the cold chills, the pounding heart, the sheer terror of what was to come, the full bladder and the near-uncontrollable urge to run.

She stopped. This is my profession. She sniffled. Straight arm. Steady hand. Cold eye. Play the man to protect myself. Use the powder and ball to get paid. If I can’t do that I’m good for nothing. The thought put a bit of stiffness back in her spine.

‘I can do this,’ she said, wiping her eyes. ‘I can get paid and leave.’

Except you’re not getting paid for this one.

 She pulled off her shirt and started bandaging her chest as flat as she could. As always, it was uncomfortable. As always, she reminded herself that it was less uncomfortable than getting a ball in the side of her breast. She pulled on a clean shirt, her last one, tucked it in and buckled her belt. All of it was a part of her routine. She pulled on her thick coat, the one she always wore.

 She felt incomplete without the Dormaker case. It was like missing a limb. Walking out, she settled her nerves and made for the centre of town.

This is my profession. Straight arm. Steady hand. Cold eye. Play the man to protect myself. Use the powder and ball to win.

*          *          *

A massive crowd stood around the range. As one they turned to stare at Charlotte. Whispers followed in a wave of indecipherable sound from behind fans or hands. Stares covered her from head to toe. At the centre, clouds looming above, surrounding trees leaning in like he was the centre of everything, stood the soldier.

Garcel stood next to him. He held a case not dissimilar to her own in one hand. The other was holding a Dormaker. The lines and runes were unmistakable. It wasn’t one of hers, but it was one nonetheless. Just off to the side, the soldier’s wife stood. She stared at her feet.

Garcel and the soldier split apart as she approached. Each wore a wicked grin. Behind them on the ground she could see the bent barrels of her own pistols. The flints were gone, the locks twisted, flashpans folded, triggers ripped out, the runes melted away. Tears spilled down her cheeks before she had a chance to stop them.

Thousands of crowns. Hundreds of memories. Duel kills the like few other pistols had seen before: Lord Allieu, Count Gerard IV, brave Rogan the Dead-eye, Prince Endolon, and so many more noteworthys. All this and more lay destroyed beyond repair in the grass.

A non-descript man opened a case before her. She didn’t need to take her eyes from Garcel to know it was a pistol case. She didn’t need to look at them to know they were inferior. She pulled back the cock and gave the pistol’s mechanism a test. The sound of the flint striking the frizzen and then the flashpan told her all she needed to know. From twenty paces away she may as well throw these pistols at the soldier.

Tucking one under her arm, she loaded the other by touch as she watched the soldier approach her. Garcel was at his side.

The same fat, useless chancellor from her duel with Mister Arouf marched forwards, sipping sherry and clearing his throat. ‘Ladies and gentlemen!’ He coughed throatily and tried to turn it into another throat clear. ‘Ladies and gentlemen. Please ensure the way is clear behind the duellists. It is time to resolve the matter between Ms de Caffern and Sergeant Martin. Sergeant Martin has chosen to take the offer of a champion by none other than …’

The fat bastard let the moment hang.

‘His royal highness, Prince Elodin.’

The crowds’ whispers and gasps of surprise were a roar in Charlotte’s ear. Garcel – Elodin — was Endolon’s younger brother. She swore under her breath. He’d been a pimple faced, gawking teenager the last time she’d seen him.

Elodin grinned all the wider, motioning with his Dormaker. ‘My sword wasn’t the only thing I’ll put in you today.’ A wave of laughter flowed through the onlookers.

The pistol in Chalotte’s grip all of a sudden felt heavier than a cannonball. Sweat began to run down the side of her face. Her throat constricted.

This is my profession. Straight arm. Steady hand—

It wasn’t working. Her hands were starting to shake as she was ushered into her position.

Cold eye. Play the man to protect myself, use the powder and ball to get paid—

She felt her shoulder rest against his back. Try as she might the shudder would not leave her. Her bladder strained against her stomach all of a sudden and the smell of her rancid breath filled her nose.

This is my profession…

Her lip began to quake and she sniffled as her eyes fogged over with tears.

‘You were too easy to fool, you little whore,’ snarled Elodin. ‘I’ve scoured this part of the realm looking for you for months, the ball pulled from my brother’s second pistol begging for your blood. How fortunate word from the constabulary should reach me only a few miles distant. When I found you here it was so easy to get the townspeople on side. A few silvers here, a few coppers there and you were set up for me.’

He chuckled. ‘And to make it all the sweeter I had you fawning between the sheets like a shadow of the legend of Charlotte de Caffern you’ve become.’

‘Ten paces each, at my mark,’ said the chancellor.

‘I’m going to end you, here,’ hissed Elodin.

The fat man continued. ‘Then, turn. When the bell chimes for the third time, you may fire. Do you both understand?’

Charlotte couldn’t move.

‘Yes,’ said Elodin. ‘I am certainly ready.’

‘Madam?’

A nod was all Charlotte could manage.

‘Begin.’

Charlotte’s legs didn’t want to move at first, and then they moved so mechanically it nearly threw her off balance. In what seemed the blink of an eye she was standing at the top of the range, twenty paces away from the barrel of Garcel’s Dormaker, struggling to stop her pistol from shaking.

The bell tolled once.

Charlotte let out a whimper. She was going to die.

The bell tolled a second time.

Charlotte’s legs began to wobble at the knees. Her stomach rebelled and bile filled her mouth.

The bell tolled a third time. She pulled the trigger hurriedly. There was a flash, but no bang. Through the quickly clearing smoke Garcel smiled, squinted, and fired.

White pain. Falling. Then darkness.

*          *          *

‘I want to wait for her to wake,’ said a voice. ‘I want her to die with my face the last thing she sees. I want her to see my brother in my eyes as I pull the trigger.’

Charlotte groaned and dragged one eyelid open. Her head throbbed like a horse had kicked it. Sticky wetness flowed down her face. She was lying on the ground. One of her eyes had closed over. She tried to bat away a hand searching her jacket pockets.

The fat chancellor stood up, her coin purse in his hands. ‘Need to pay for your burial, dear.’

He counted out her coins. Enough to bury her so many times over it was laughable.

Elodin pushed him out of the way and levelled the Dormaker at her. ‘Charlotte de Caffern. I find you guilty of high treason and murder. On behalf of the king, I, his son, sentence you to—‘

Charlotte’s second pistol flashed and roared beneath the folds of her coat. Elodin stumbled backwards, a smoking hole in the chest of his white shirt, shock plastered over his face. He looked at her and tried to raise his second Dormaker. It had already fallen from his fingers.

He dropped to his knees, gave her one last baleful stare, and fell on his face. The crowd was silent. Charlotte tried to push herself up. Didn’t even make it up onto her elbow before sliding back down, spit running down her chin, world spinning, brain expanding like it was trying to burst from her skull.

She retched again, and forced herself to sit up and reach out, pick up Elodin’s Dormaker. She checked the mechanism and the flashpan and then pointed it at the crowd.

With a gasp they backed away. Charlotte forced herself to her feet, stumbled, ran a little lopsidedly, and crashed back down to the ground next to the prince. She grabbed his second Dormaker and shoved it in her coat.

The fat chancellor approached. ‘Men, take her!’ he demanded. ‘The prince sentenced her to die!’

Charlotte shoved herself up onto her knees and lifted the loaded pistol at the middle of the five blurry chancellors standing before her. ‘You’ll die first!’ she snarled, fighting the nauseating pull of the ground every moment. ‘I swear it! I am Charlotte De Caffern! I won’t miss!’

The men around the chancellor stopped.

She pushed herself to her feet, tottered left, righted herself again and came to rest against a lantern post. The spinning world around her slowed to something manageable and she backed away from the crowd, who now seemed more intent on the prince’s body than her.

Charlotte stumbled through a steel gate and out into an adjoining street. Single storey wooden buildings lined the empty road, a postman leaning against a pole watering his horse and lighting a pipe stared at her. She tucked the second Dormaker into her belt. The morning sun was still rising in the south. She put her back to it and trudged in the opposite direction. She cut down alleyways as she heard rousing shouts behind her. Without the prince’s – her – Dormaker in their faces they’d gotten their courage back and were coming for her.

She peeked around a corner and out onto the main road out of town. The familiar sight of the Cavalryman in the distance past the church, general store and tailor loomed over the smaller buildings around it. As she made for it, a carriage crossed the road ahead of her a block distant. A figure got out, one she recognised immediately.

‘Foramello!’ she bellowed.

The lord started and stopped, his hand hovering above a pistol tucked into his sash. He searched the empty street a moment before seeing her with a grin. He lowered his hand away from the pistol.

‘Charlotte?’ he said, doing a poor job of feigning surprise. ‘Is that you? Are you hurt?’

‘Have you collected?’

‘What?’

‘Have you collected the thousand crown reward?’

Foramello unconsciously looked back at his carriage. Charlotte narrowed her eyes as the wind picked up a ball of dry weeds waiting to be burned and blew it between them. She pulled her jacket around her back with her free arm, revealing her weapon.

‘I had two more days!’ she screamed.

Formamello’s eyes went wide. He reached for his pistol, twisting to be side on like it’d do him any good.

Charlotte was faster.

She picked out the nipple-sized spot under his armpit and fired.

As the smoke disappeared with the breeze, Charlotte strode over to Foramello’s carriage, stepping over his wheezing body, taking some small satisfaction at the red bubbles on his lips. She grinned as she flipped open the latch on the chest inside Foramello’s – her – carriage.

The thousand crowns glinting back at her would go a long way. Provided she evaded Endolon and Elodin’s damned brothers, she might even make it few thousand miles before having to stare down the range at someone again. She could already taste her next single malt.

Hopefully the next town was at least less backward enough that she could hire a man.


Rag the Grenadier

Rag knew how to hide in a body.

Hiding next to a body was one thing—in most any applicable state of decay it would stink—and hiding beneath a body was another—fluids found their way down once freed—but hiding in a body was wholly different. To most, an act unfathomable, but Rag could fathom it, so it was no longer grotesque: it was a challenge, and challenges could be mastered.

Rag was a master. He considered the art of it from his hiding spot, still as the twelve decomposing bodies choking the alley with their bloat. Carefully-chosen and murdered just so, their noxious exposé was calculated to precision; three days of rot in the broiling alleys of Crux cooking the juices as surely as the bodies expelled them. Anyone who might object to such wanton pestilence in the streets had long since avoided Crux their entire lives.

Rag remembered his mother burning herself on the oven and waving the injured hand in the air as if to shed the sparks of heat. Such callused skin ignored such rudimentary pain. Do anything long enough and it becomes commonplace to the senses. Rag was wholly attuned to the distinct and pungent odor of a cadaver—his smell receptors waving it away with the disinterested huff of a tired labourer. Being next to a rotting body principally required this one skill: handle the smell—and, he supposed, the child’s-level discomfort with dead things—and the body became far less distressing, far less disgusting. Depending on the wounds, mind you. But still, any man who sticks his penis into the living without batting an eye can’t go on complaining about those.

Lying next to a body also left one in the open. The human brain was far likelier to identify a threat from what was, visibly, a whole human whose eyes were shut than from a pile of guts, and Rag knew it was little use to carve up one’s own anatomy—he’d tried. His arms and legs were needed whole.

An itch chafed the bridge of his nose, but Rag ignored it with practiced restraint. The time was coming soon and stillness was paramount.

Hiding under a body, or pile of bodies as the situation called for it, was an altogether greater challenge, one mastered as a teenager. If the corpses were fresh they would leak on you; thick, wet slop all manner of garish colour, or thin rivulets of watery blood or urine that, given half a chance, soaked your garments. They would attract bugs and rodents. Bloating corpses, such as the ones currently keeping him company, had their own putrid biles, usually soupier and uncontrollable. These were heavier to maneuver in and out from and attracted scavengers. Both obstacles could be overcome with simple determination.

Insects were an inevitability of the trade, and rodents knew their dead flesh from their live meat, but scavengers were the biggest threat. The scavengers grew angry when a live human spoiled their feast, and then they made noise. Noise drew attention. Attention drew failure. As a result, a three-day job, such as this one, was the greater set-up, the greater risk, the greater challenge.

The greater reward. Oh, what I will do with two-hundred and fifty gen. He wiggled the finger on his cramped hand, rubbing along the top of his clip pouch.

He was only half under a pile at the moment. Six of the bodies were splayed about the mouth of the alley, murdered and draped on top of each other to create a genuinely upsetting clog, prompting a sensible person to head deeper into the alley as opposed to wedging themselves through such gross confines. These were also carefully placed to best disgust the uninitiated, one with heart-slick guts and a full set of ribs forced open, another with half a face lopped off. People react best to threats to the face and heart. The face in their vanity, and the heart because it has been forever safe within its cage of bones. Both are good to dissuade, or better, induce vomit.

Three more cadavers were piled near the other end, beyond the door he watched. These were lumped aside to allow for narrow passage, their faces and guts ‘mercifully’ hidden from human eye, and they rounded out the scene as if yet another street brawl turned ugly. The others were part of his hiding spot.

First, the woman. A tougher looking sort, she sat upright next to him, her head caved in and her shoulders slumped in accordance. She created a vertical screen and drew the eye with her warrior’s garb. Then it was Rag, and the corpse he occupied.

Hiding in a body took time, focus, skill, and dedication, plus about two nights of uninterrupted work best done at the site of the death. Once his chosen six clogged the alley mouth from the rest of the skin district, and the door was bolted from without, he was free to work away at his corpse in relative peace. The vermin always gave him a wide berth.

Rag chose the gentleman he chose because he was the biggest of the bodies, and thus easier to hollow out. First he had to remove some ribs and tissue and bore a hole from back to front that could fit his torso with a little work. These could then be scattered across the alley. Extracting the femur came next, but this bone was better disposed of. Then he dug into a limb of choice, the leg working best, to leave it as hollow as possible without losing its exterior consistency. Once it was capable of being a sleeve for his arm, he got to work on the rest of the body, ensuring it outdid the others. The sight should turn heads in immediate disgust, but leave a picture vivid enough no right-minded person would imagine what it concealed.

Placement was key. The woman next to him gave a narrow slab of wall against which to cram his legs. The butchered leg of the gentleman provided a cavity for him to hide a good arm, one whose shoulder was decorated in a bloody mess but was otherwise hale enough to hoist him up. Being face down allowed him to cram his other arm beneath, wedging it within his coat so as to not be visible to the layman. One of the fellows from the clog provided the blood pooled beneath his face.

Rag opened an eye a slit. It was best to let his ears pick up the approach of his mark, or the squeal of the door hinges, but he could not help admiring the bloody pool that sucked on his half-exposed face. The smooth puddle of brownish red still reflected the dusty Cruxan air above, but it was much dimmer with each passing day. Now he could barely make out the sun. Beyond the pool, the alley remained, iron-barred door tight to the wall and the rest of the corpses as they were when last he risked a peak.

A rat was wrinkling its nose in the middle of the stone passage between buildings, and as Rag watched, brethren skittered out from the folds of the woman next to him, chittering over something edible. All was set. The corpse encompassing him was warm as mother’s hug. The alchemical solution stoppered in its custom-built jar waited at the end of a fuse for a flick of the finger.

He closed his eye. Not long now.

*   *   *

“A room. And a lady.”

“Don’t have any ladies available, sir, I… oh.”

“Of course you don’t, Dena. Of course you don’t.”

The proprietress of the admittedly reputable and pristinely clean establishment still looked herself a whore, no matter how tarted up, but her savvy, haggling side did not show up today, as Recurrent knew it would not. Instead her eyes glazed over with the fondest of fondnesses and she leaned in a fraction to bring cleavage to the game. She has dealt with this princeling before.

“M’lord,” she murmured, sweeping out from behind the counter. “To what do I owe the pleasure?” And she curled pleasure around her tongue like a cat curled around an owner’s foot.

“For little old me?” the princeling postured, carefully handing his coat off to one of the six men waiting on him and stretching his fingers, aching as they were under such an assortment of rings. “You owe no pleasure. It is mine to give. And I’m always prepared to do so… have you not heard of my famous pleasure?”

Recurrent imagined the boy pleasured himself more often than not, but as always kept words to himself. Instead he surveyed the room, as his role was supposedly that of a body guard and anyone with sharp eyes would tell he knew nothing of his employ if he could not even act the part. The front parlour of whatever this place was called was utterly empty—a stark contrast compared to most such establishments. But a princeling would never give his pleasure to just any old hole in the wall, and in the skin sector, most any old hole would be sure to take it.

‘Dena’ cooed her way through a series of the princeling’s jostling sexual advances, both knowing the age gap was enough to nip such an act at the bud, but only one knowing whose bud would be nipped. A loose arm around the boy’s shoulder brought the octet deeper into the building through a winding corridor. A moment later it opened into a wider room with more doors than walls. A variety of n’er-do-wells paraded around here, drunk, lascivious, both—or in one sad sack’s case, neither. The rent paraded with them, fawning their way into contention with Ms. Dena for being the most supplicating.

Recurrent could not abide the sight and turned away, leaning against the wall and tucking his hat down over his face while the other six guards or yes-men or whoever roamed about enjoyed the fruits of the princeling’s good graces. In short order the lad was ushered away by an ambitious girl closer to his age while only two of the six members of his entourage refrained from spending his clips in order to do their jobs. Recurrent did not care. He rested, as close to sleep as he ever seemed to get.

For a long time nothing happened. Girls and boys and patrons came and went and Recurrent waited with the best company of the bunch: his own thoughts. This detail will be over soon. It has to be. Remember: the best are the best because they endure the worst.

Swishing robes and rushing footsteps from the corridor snapped Recurrent to attention, but he remained still beneath his wide-brimmed hat, waiting and listening. Whoever came was wheezing hard, as if having run all six sectors full circle. A slight peak at the man as he passed showed an older gentleman of Crux—which was to say a gnarled and feckless brute—out of shape and showing it. Across three sectors, then. Just poorly.

“Where is the whelp of Cold Buulrian?” he barked at no one in particular. Recurrent flinched at the name. There were too many reputations in this city.

“The boy? Where’s the boy?”

Lifting a finger, he pointed out a door. Not my problem the kid is busy groping or crying.

The pampered thug rushed off and barged into the room, yelling all the while, but his presence was enough to get the others moving about banging on doors and shouting into rooms. All of the entourage were assembled before the princeling showed himself, though Recurrent yet waited by the entry. It took a moment to pull away vertical because his expansive coat momentarily stuck to the wall.

Finally, the boy appeared—to his credit, wearing pants. Gone was the jovial fun of puberty mischief, shaken by fear as the season Nagna shakes leaves from the trees. I know that look. Daddy’s coming.

Sure enough, the boy’s rotund handler confirmed his suspicions.

“You lot! Get him out of here! The oligarch is coming herenow—and your charge cannot be here. Out the back! Go! Go!”

As the princeling threw his shirt on and Dena lamented the fortclip owed her, Recurrent swept into the lead, keeping his steps light and his eyes sharp. Partway down the corridor he branched off, guessed, and then found a non-descript side door no doubt used for just such a purpose. A quick glance back showed the others bumbling in his wake like he the coin and they a gaggle of beggars.

Out into the light of day, Recurrent hesitated a moment as the alley was littered with dead bodies. His eyes sharpened to each, unmoving, before ushering the princeling and his handler through into just another alleyway in Crux.

*   *   *

The moment his mark reached the trio of far-end bodies, Rag yanked on the cord in his buried hand. He imagined the beautiful hiss of the fuse crackling in his ear way down at the other end and then he opened his eyes when the alley exploded.

The roar was deafening and perfect as billows of orange flame rapidly enveloped the living, pluming outward and upward and sheering lacquered paint from the walls. Bodies, both old and new, hurtled through the air in shreds, their limbs bursting loose or burning raw as they flopped into walls or sizzled to a crisp. A welcome inferno seared Rag’s face, his own rash of puckered flesh running hot to remember a sensation so familiar. Though his eyes suffered in blistering pain, he only squinted a bit so as to best see the beauty of his handiwork.

As the roar reached its climax and the pluming flames billowed their heat up into a thick funnel of smoke, Rag listened to the pitter patter of body bits as they speckled his end of the alley. Instinctually, he hoisted himself up. It never served to wait once the damage was delivered.

Halfway to his feet he glanced down the alley to find one man of eight hoisting himself up to find footing at the center of the blast radius. His coat smoked, but did not burn.

*   *   *

“Rag!” Recurrent called through the haze. Or he tried. His mouth was yet covered by the hook-around collar of his coat, and even through that it was thick to catch a breath. He could see the murderer at the other end of the alley, rolling his way out from another husk.

“Rag!” Recurrent tried again anyway, waving at the smoke as he stepped forward. The one they called The Grenadier stared at him, eyes wide as an owl, shock written on his face. He was covered in filth from head to foot, his right arm stained a deep crimson. Reaching fresher air, Recurrent ripped the collar away to face his adversary.

“You— You d-didn’t burn!” the wretch exclaimed, befuddled and pathetic, lip always twitching.

“No,” he replied. “I did not.” Sloughing off the coat with a flex of his shoulders, Recurrent heard it crack and shed char as it hit the stones. The coating administered by the lady at the apothecary had fused with the bonded leather, creating a thick crust he was eager to be rid of. Some of this coating remained around his neck and wrists, a sticky, viscous glop carefully chosen for its potency as a flame retardant. Coat cast away, he also tossed aside his ruined hat before drawing Vindictive in a decisive motion. The three-groove scimitar’s metallic ring echoed up the alley walls.

“Which olig—? Which oligarch d-do you work for?”

The deplorable spat his words, backing away though the alley mouth was clogged with bodies. Recurrent advanced at a confident pace. The man appeared unarmed, but a gruesome reputation preceded him.

“No oligarch, murderer. The oligarchs are scum. A good man needs no reason to kill one such as you.”

And he bolted, one moment stammering and backpedaling at a stagger, the next darting for the bodies piled at the end of the alley. Smirking, and prepared for such desperation, Recurrent sprinted five long strides before Rag reached the clumped bodies—but before the sixth his smirk dried up as the killer slipped through an unperceived gap.

“Damn it!”

He reached the corpses with bile rising in his throat. One’s ribcage was pried open to an unnatural uniform, each bone a near image of its neighbor, and all bespattered in congealed blood. The gap the Grenadier fled through was narrow but doable. All of his senses screamed at him to reconsider, but instinct insisted him through. And a hunter always listens to instinct.

Wedging himself into the gap, he sidestepped through a tight confines of limbs and bloat. Then he got a face full of flies furious at Rag’s interruption but taking it out on him. With a choking cough, a moment later he popped out into the street, furious he let his mark escape such a carefully-conceived plan.

He started running before his eyes found him.

Rag was halfway to an adjacent alley, his gaunt legs and dragging rags kicking up dust as he shoved Cruxans from his path. Recurrent set off low, scimitar held wide and obvious to help deter him a hole through the crowd, but drawn steel was as common as bartering in Crux and he ended up forced to shove and jostle no less than his mark. Blessed with long legs and a predator’s determination, his pressed his advantage, gaining on the scoundrel before the Grenadier banged his way around a corner and disappeared into another alley.

Reaching its lip, Recurrent could not afford to slow, so he swung a cut at head level as he leapt around the corner. It met air, but what he saw calmed the beating drive of his heart. His boots sent a waft of dust up as they found purchase on the cobbles, and he straightened, a narrow smile cresting his lips at the sight of three of four sides looming a dead end.

Still spineless, the killer backed toward the far wall—a messy pile of barrels and wrought iron. Recurrent strode forward. He thought of saying something snide, something to provide closure for his days spent preparing for the Grenadier’s heinous methods and his time spent clomping around with an obvious target like the Buulrian princeling, but an overwhelming urge to finish the job and get the hell out of Crux—with its shit and its whoring and its haphazard knifings in the street—took control. An overwhelming urge to rid the world of such a foul specimen of humanity. Words could never provide the justice delivered by steel.

Five steps. Four.

A palsied hand reached into a ragged coat.

Three.

It came out throwing. A glass vial, glinting in the light of midday.

 With an easy grace, Recurrent sliced the projectile neatly in half.

Two.

*   *   *

The vial shattered into a thousand pieces, the mixture within splashing across the assassin’s face and shoulders. A typical adversary would simply feel uncomfortable and wet, but one recently immersed in an explosion laced with torteraphzin—well, they instantly ignited wherever the latent chemical coating met the volatile liquid.

The scimitar fell to the cobbles with a clatter as the assassin’s wrists and neck foamed a bubbling fire. It burned sheer through the bones of his wrists, which dropped limp hands, and boiled into his neck with a ferocity that ate away at the throat and clavicle until burrowing down into the belly of the corpse as it fell to its knees. A moment later the rapid hissing of boiling skin dissipated and the body hit the alley with a hollow thud.

Rag the Grenadier eyed the dead with disfavor, his sniveling no longer necessary. It was a risk that this ‘Recurrent’ would have the Lady Masah’s retardant gel about his person and not just his coat, but Rag well-knew the Lady’s habit for ensuring her patrons’ safety. Gaps between skin and clothing would burn if not protected. Rag knew himself. He was her chief patron. Close enough to know the comings and goings about her business.

After that, the only thing left was to the track the man’s false detail protecting the oligarch’s rash of a son—and ensure they fled the back exit, of course. But nothing scared a lecherous lad like the ire of their betters. The lie was a sure bet to smoke his would-be killer out, and gladly paid for. Two-hundred and fifty gen goes a long way out here. Perhaps longer than anywhere else.

He allowed himself a chuckle, recognizing how very husk-like the corpse was before him. Barely have to carve this one out at all. And such curdled insides!

He considered dragging the body with him.

But no. Not now. Now it was time to go.

It never served to wait once the damage was delivered.

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