03/09/2015 § 1 Comment
In all the years of his not-so-glorious life, no one has ever called Shane Moss a clever lad. No one has ever had a cause, and it is extremely unlikely anyone ever will. He is, simply put, the opposite of whatever passes for cleverness in the world. Even his own mother (seven years departed now, bless her soul) used to tell him, regularly and with varying degrees of self-pity and viciousness, that it was her greatest misfortune to have given birth to an idiot son whose mind was more suited for an ass than a man, and that it would have been so much better for everyone had he died in her womb.
It bespeaks a great resilience of character that Moss, having lived with the burden of such judgement most of his life, has made peace with the sad truth about his intelligence. There are things in life, he has come to understand, that simply and utterly lie beyond a man’s control. Such as the time and place of one’s birth, when Night falls, when Dawn comes. Life itself, when you think about it, isn’t a choice one makes. He did not choose to be born to an ageing prostitute in Hangman’s Quarter, did he? Never asked for the lazy eye or, for that matter, the feebleness of mind that makes letters and numbers so bizarre in his eyes.
Moss has also come to understand, especially since his mother’s passing, that however much he is lacking in cleverness, he has other qualities to make up for it. He has strong hands, quick feet, and, to quote a taskmaster he used to work for, the endurance of an ox. He gets these from his father, he likes to think, though his mother never could give him a firm answer about the man. Only that he might have been—maybe, possibly—a man of the Watch.
Which, as it happened, was enough of a reason for him to enlist in the Watch, as a trainee, soon as he turned sixteen five years ago.
At first, it seemed that Moss had found his calling in life. He excelled at physical training, received praise after praise for the way he handled a cudgel or tackled down a runner. For the first time in his life others treated him with something approaching respect, and he felt a sense of belonging, a warmth in his soul, which he had not known was possible before. Being a Watchman, he spoke to a fellow trainee on one occasion, with an articulation that was rare for him, was everything he had ever wanted in life. It was what he was born to be.
But then, one morrow after the yard exercises, Moss was called on to read out some instructions for dealing with curfew-breakers. He couldn’t, of course. Not fast enough anyway, and not without stammering. The sergeant in charge for the day, one Marlowe Briggs, berated him for this failure in front of all the other trainees. They laughed at him. Shit-for-brains, Briggs called him, before dismissing him out of the yard and, as it turned out, out of the training altogether.
Moss never got to put on the Watcher’s mask.
Being who he was, having no other option but patience, Moss endured that humiliation. Took the whole incident on the chin, went quietly back to his life as a porter in the warehouse district. Things didn’t always work out the way you wanted them to in life, which was all right by him. He’d always known that, right from the beginning, it was the story of his life. But still, even as he carried on being who he always had been (a nobody), something had changed within him. He had taken an initiative, and had felt—tasted—what it was like to be… more. And now he knew—call it an instinct, an intuition—that if you waited, if you were patient, sometimes there were things you could do for yourself to get ahead in life.
So Moss waited. Patiently, for two and a half years, watching from afar as the man who had ruined his one prospect in life with nothing more than a simple gesture of dismissal (a flick of the wrist) went on about his life. He waited, not knowing but somehow believing that a moment would come for him to seize… and make things right.
Such a moment did come, eventually, in an alleyway behind Briggs’s favourite tavern, one eve after curfew.
Sergeant Briggs, as it happens, no longer counts himself among the living.
It is safe to say that Moss has not changed in any significant way since that moment behind the tavern, though the circumstances of his life certainly has, and for the better.
For one thing, he no longer works like a mule in the warehouse district. Work finds him now, comes to his very doorstep with money up front. It is only a few times each month, mostly in the eves, but it still pays him well enough for a room to call his own and food and drinks for the table, as well as occasional bets on the races and, if he wins them, visits to the finer singing houses in the city.
Above all, no one dares call him shit-for-brains anymore. Not to his face anyway, which is the most important thing. He has a name in the city now, which is known and perhaps even respected in certain parts of Havertham as a dependable bloodletter.
Shane Moss is no Watchman, that is true, and the sight of them still causes him a twinge of… yearning, but he can say with pride and dignity that he has made something of himself despite, well, himself.
All because he had been patient and ready, for a life-changing moment he believed, in the deepest part of his soul, would come.
And now, on this the twenty-fifth day of Dusk, Moss is waiting, with the same patience and inner conviction that has served him so well, for another such moment to arrive.
But there is also a certain nervousness, a sense of unease, that hangs over him like a bad dream one can’t quite remember the details of. It isn’t about the job—no, killing comes easily enough to him, it has never bothered him before. Sergeant Briggs had taught him at least that much with his dying gurgle, hadn’t he? Opened a doorway for him, really, which was only right after what he had done to him.
If Moss has time to think about what’s rattling his nerves—and he does, and plenty at that—it is the waiting. Not the act of waiting in and of itself, of course—he is a patient man, after all—but where it is taking place, and when. No sane man or woman could feel at ease in his breeches, outside the city walls so late in Dusk, alone in a dusty wayshrine filled with nothing but too much quiet and stillness. It simply isn’t… natural.
And it certainly does not help, Moss broods, that he has had nothing to watch but the sun dragging itself to death, westward along the horizon, sinking all the while.
Three days’ waiting in such conditions… It takes a toll on a man.
And to think, all this for a quarry that may or may not come his way! Moss knows for a fact that two others were hired for the same job, posted at two different approaches to the city. He has the western approach, the Long Road along the river Forlorn.
That tells him something (just because he can’t read or write doesn’t mean he is completely witless!) about the job. He’s had time to think about who might be behind the intermediary that hired him, and who the quarry might be.
The first obvious thing is that whoever hired him and the two others is extremely wealthy. Two thousand thalirs for each man just for taking the job, with three thousand more for whoever gets the kill! Add to that the fee for the intermediary, which is usually one-fifth of whatever’s offered to the bloodletters, and the total sum comes to… to over ten thousand talirs, just to end one man’s life!
That is an unimaginable sum, wealth beyond any ordinary man’s wildest dreams. Two thousand alone is enough to let Moss drown himself in girls and wine for a year at the finest singing houses the city has to offer, and five thousand, well, with that kind of money… he could even get himself a proper wife who can read and write and bear him children.
No, there aren’t many in the city who can think of spending—let alone afford—that kind of money just to kill one man.
And that can only mean one thing: the ‘patron’ has to be of the Old Blood.
Moss can hazard a guess as to which one of the ancient and venerable houses wants to kill a man to the tune of ten thousand… and… eight hundred thalirs, but what good would that knowledge do him? None, absolutely none. In his professional experience, it is always better not to know who’s really behind a job. So long as you get paid for it, of course.
That leaves him with the quarry to think about. He has been given a physical description—no name—of a man in his thirties, tall, well-built, with dark hair and eyes. High cheekbones, eyes deep-set, with a forehead marred by the exile’s brand. Rather nondescript for a man whose life—or, more precisely, death—is worth so much silver.
Having had something of a taste of exile himself over the past three days, ill-sleeping in utter quiet, Moss can almost pity the poor bastard. If he is even alive enough to be making his way back to the city, that is. Just imagine, a man living in the No Man’s Land for however long a time, most certainly alone and constantly on the brink of starvation. His only hope is for Dusk to come and end his exile. And then, when it finally comes? He makes the gruelling journey across the desolate land, finds himself within the sight of the glorious city, only to meet death at the hands of a hired killer. Preferably, yes, at Moss’s own hands. There is a world of difference between two thousand and five thousand thalirs.
That there is a reason, Moss thinks, why you didn’t cross the Old Bloods. Why you stayed out of their affairs entirely.
He is curious as to what the man could have done that pissed off an old blood so—ten thousand and eight hundred talirs pissed—but he has no real way of knowing. A wrong thing said at the wrong place perhaps, a wrong man struck in fisticuffs that usually follows all the important races at the hippodrome. It doesn’t exactly take much to offend them, the Old Bloods.
Anyway time is running out, for both him and his quarry. Moss rode out of the city four days ago on the back of a mule, going against the last wave of refugees pouring into the city. It was just as the Lamentations began, which made it a good time to be away on the job, or so he thought, since he has no patience for all that praying and mourning and rending of clothes for the dying sun. But now, well, it’s getting a little too late in Dusk for comfort. He’ll give himself (and his quarry) one more day, Moss decides. No point risking Nightfall outside the city walls, even for three thousand talirs.
Having made the decision, Moss decides to step out for fresh air, maybe check on the mule.
He has to stoop low to get out of the shrine without hitting his head on the doorway. He straightens his back, stretches out the limbs. The sky is deep red and purple above him. The river flows to his right, across a strip of frozen wheatfield.
The mule is on the ground, asleep with legs tucked in. He has half a mind to wake it, but decides to leave it alone.
Then, as he turns to go back inside, he sees something that makes him swear.
A beast unlike any other, a gangling, shaggy, savage thing, ambling on its hindlegs along the road.
Moss begins to cross himself, only to realize midway that the beast is a man, a lone figure dressed in a ridiculous overcoat, walking, with a staff in hand, toward the great city of Havertham.