It was morning the next day. Zai had been staring at the ceiling as he lay down on a sofa in his room at the mercenary’s guild headquarters. His investigation of the school had yielded little. All the names on the record who had been in the library during the estimated time of the murder had been accounted for (there were only a few of them, and most of them were regularly in the library around that time.) He had looked for the most secluded window he could find, but when he tried to climb to the roof, he realised immediately that he would need some climbing tools to get there. He didn’t think anyone could smuggle such tools into the room and remain inconspicuous. There was no other nearby structure of about the same height around the tower, so there was no other way someone could get to it. And if someone tried to climb it from the ground, that person would immediately draw attention to himself.
I’m sure that the assassin used that place as his perch. But how the hell did he get up there?
He had already asked himself the same question as he made his way back to the headquarters, and even then he had no idea. Still, he had to keep his mind occupied; otherwise his thoughts would drift to… Too late.
Where the hell is Rei? he asked himself for the twentieth time, casting a glance at the door as he did so.
Rei still hasn’t returned ever since they parted yesterday afternoon. She left to check out something only she could feel. And I know I’m the one with the sharper senses between us. Was it related to the Abaddon or the Seraphim?
Now that his idle mind has been recaptured by worry, he went over the possible reasons for Rei’s continued absence. This was not the first time he had gone through this train of thought.
Did she end up fighting someone? Someone from the Abaddon or the Seraphim, maybe?I don’t think anything human or half-human could seriously trouble her one-on-one. Was she captured? Maybe she’s just having a long chat with someone—well, that would be a completely one-sided conversation.
The worst-case scenario flashed in his thoughts every now and then, but he brushed it aside. Not Rei. She won’t die. He repeated it to himself: it was a statement of conviction, a show of faith, a prayer.
A knock stirred him from his reverie. He hurried over and opened the door.
‘Zai?’ said the man he found at the door. He was a member of the morning watch. ‘We found your partner. She’s resting in our quarters.’ Zai immediately bolted out the room and rushed downstairs. The watchman went after him, continuing his report.
‘She’s heavily wounded, so we had to force her to rest. But she insisted on finding you first. She won’t tell us anything about what happened to her, either.’
‘Stubborn as a mule, that’s her all right,’ said Zai. ‘But heavily wounded? What on earth happened to her?’
They finally got to the watchmen’s quarters. Upon opening the door, he saw the figure of Rei sit upright in the bed.
‘Zai!’ she said, before she crashed back down to the bed, clutching at her stomach.
‘She took a hell of a punch in the gut,’ said the watchman. ‘It almost as if she got hit by a cannon. But she doesn’t want any treating.’
‘Well, let her be,’ said the mercenary. ‘If she didn’t die in the first place, she won’t die now.’ As the watchman left the room, Zai took a nearby chair, walked to the bedside, and sat down.
‘Rei,’ said Zai warmly. ‘Glad you’re back. I almost thought that you got yourself killed, but I realised that’s impossible.’
Zai’s laughed at his own joke, but Rei met it with sullen silence. He had spent enough time with Rei to notice that she didn’t wear that look of stoic exasperation on her face after his bad jokes; instead, he was met with brooding indifference.
‘What happened?’ said Zai with a touch of concern.
‘I met him,’ said Rei quietly, almost as if to herself. She cast her blank gaze at the ceiling. ‘The second. The assassin. He beat me.’ She looked up at Zai as if fully acknowledging his presence for the first time. ‘I wasn’t strong enough.’ Her eyes were like a child’s, helpless, confused, afraid. That was the first time Zai had ever seen her feel fear.
Zai reached out to stroke her hair. Rei didn’t react; she continued to stare at the ceiling, lost in thought.
‘Well,’ said Zai in a cheerful tone. ‘You almost closed this case in a day. I guess that counts for something.’
Rei still didn’t react. It took all of her strength to recover from her wounds and drag herself back to the headquarters. Upon seeing Zai, the will that animated her body up to that point left her, and all that was left in her was the terror she felt when she confronted the assassin. After a while, she recovered from her shock.
‘I need to get stronger,’ she said with a firm voice.
Zai nodded in reply. ‘You need to rest first, though,’ he said as he stood up to leave the room.
Later that day, Zai presented the results of the previous day’s investigation (both his and Rei’s) to Kinu in his office.
‘So she met the assassin?’ said Kinu upon the conclusion of his report. ‘Seriously, on the very day you start your investigation?’
‘Yeah,’ shrugged Zai. ‘I don’t know if that’s lucky or not. But at least we now have a description, as well as information on his abilities. The bad news is—’
‘—we don’t have anyone on a par with his abilities. Has Rei already left?’
‘Yes, just this afternoon,’ said Zai, ‘although she told me that she’s taking a little detour before meeting Mei Lin.’
* * *
It was already morning the following day when Rei reached her destination. She stood before the door of the house she called her home for nine years, but she didn’t enter. The forest was already in the middle of reclaiming it for its own—vines grew heavily on the walls, obscuring some of the windows, and a sapling’s branch was poking out of a broken window.
Rei moved on. Her destination was the two mounds of soil that stood near the vegetable garden—her parents’ graves.
The plants she had tended years ago have now long withered. In their place grew wild shrubs with red berries.
And in the midst of all those stood two graves, marked simply with an unadorned headstone.
‘I’m back, Mother, Father,’ she said quietly. ‘I survived. I’m stronger now. Had I been as strong back then, I could have protected you. You wouldn’t have died. I wouldn’t have been afraid.’
She had bought her life with cowardice once. Never again, she swore to herself. She would save the weak to pay for her past weakness, making sure that no one would die in her stead again.
And now she needed more strength. Although she knew that Mei Lin and AA meant well, she found it hard to overcome her antipathy towards the two races. But I need their strength. I have to make sure that I won’t ever be weak again. That I’ll never be afraid of anything anymore. I owe that much to you. With a bow to her parents’ grave, she went on deeper into the forest.
* * *
Even before Rei and Zai returned from Caesarea, Kinu had already sent out people to investigate the habits of the slain Abaddon emissary. One of them had been investigating the inns and taverns of the town. Under Kinu’s orders, Zai met him in his room to listen to his report.
‘Aside from the Abaddon’s favourite tavern near their embassy, the dead official also had another place that he’s visited more than once. It’s an inn deep in the merchant’s quarter. According to the keeper, one of the Abaddon visited his place twice this month, and four times monthly before that. When I asked him for a description, it matched our guy. It’s a human inn, by the way; no one else from either of the two races has visited it before, so his presence really stood out. It’s just that it’s so far out of their way that no one would think to look for one of the Abaddon or Seraphim in it.’
Zai thanked the informant. As soon as the man had left, he draped his coat on a chair and lay down on the sofa. The sun wouldn’t be setting for a couple more hours, and taverns wouldn’t reach peak visiting hours before that time, so he took time to rest and go over all the information he had so far.
He went out of the way to hide his activities, so he must have had a strong reason for that. Hide it from whom, though? His fellow Abaddon? Why?
Wait, maybe it’s espionage. So maybe the Seraphim were right—his own kind might have killed him. But then why like this? I understand that trying a high-ranking official like him publicly for treason could damage the Abaddon’s reputation, but they could just dismiss him quietly and punish him back in their own land. Would they really use this event to trigger a war? What war?
Of course, they already knew who struck the actual blow that killed the emissary, if the man Rei fought were to be believed. And so far everything he’d seen in that library tower fitted that information. You’d need superhuman strength to get to the top of that tower without anyone noticing, and you’d need Seraphim magic to kill someone from a distance without leaving a trace. But they still didn’t know why he did that. Who sent him, and for what purpose? After all, he could have been an unregistered mercenary contracted by the Abaddon, either the higher ups or a rogue faction within their government.
It figures; we really need him caught. Rei, I hope you get back from training soon. You’re our only hope.
The room was soon tinged with the red light of the setting sun flowing in through the window. Zai stood up, grabbed the coat he left on the chair, and walked out of the room. On the way out of the headquarters, he took a bulging pouch from his locker. He didn’t take his crossbow with him; the only weapon he took on information-gathering mission was a normal dagger, hidden in his right boot, and something secret hidden beneath the left sleeve of his overcoat.
Since the inn in question was in the merchant’s quarter, it was only a short walk away for Zai. It was already full when he arrived; the crackling fire in the fireplace and the press of bodies suffused the room with a stuffy atmosphere. In some corner a few people were gambling using dice—the cries of elation of the victors and the groans of despair of the losers were the main source of noise in the room. In some tables groups were talking loudly to each other, while people sitting by the bar kept mostly to themselves.
Zai sat nearest the barkeeper and handed the bulging pouch he had taken from his locker.
‘A few pints of your ale,’ he said. ‘And a few stories as well.’
The barkeeper hefted the pouch, nodded at Zai, and said, ‘Any particular story that interests you, sir?’
‘A friend told me that one of the Abaddon had shown up here a few times. Can you tell me more about that?’
The barkeeper turned around and reached for a mug. After putting it under a tap and filling it with ale, he turned around and handed it to Zai. The mercenary nodded, raised his mug in salute, and then took a gulp.
‘An Abaddon had been here a few times indeed. He’d been here twice this month—his last visit was just around a week ago—and six times in all. Just yesterday I found out that he was the Abaddon assassinated a few days ago. I was very sad to hear that.’
‘What did he do while he was here?’
‘He just bought a bottle of wine then headed over to a table, alone—normally we tell people like that to leave the tables to groups, and sit by the bar instead, but I didn’t have the courage to tell him off. He drank his wine for about half an hour, thanked me and paid handsomely, then left.’
‘That’s it?’ asked Zai. Half his pint had already been consumed.
‘That’s all I saw him doing,’ said the barkeeper. He went over to another customer, serving him a mug of ale, and then returned to Zai. ‘Well, there was something strange that happened as he left. He always ended up bumping into someone.’
‘Oho?’ said Zai, downing the rest of his mug in one go. He handed it over to the barkeeper, who refilled it and handed it back to him. ‘Is it the same one every time?’
‘No, it wasn’t.’ A large group of musicians entered the inn and called for his attention. He looked at Zai, who waved him on. The barkeeper trotted out and found a table for the group. He then hurried back to the bar.
‘Now that I think of it, I don’t know any of the people who ended up bumping into him. They’re not regulars.’
Curiouser and curiouser, thought Zai.
He finished off the last of his pint. He was about to head out when a sudden hush fell over the tavern. One of the Abaddon had just walked in.
‘That one’s new, sir,’ said the barkeeper before heading out to wait on the newcomer. The Abaddon guest requested for their oldest bottle of Aleppo wine, and the keeper headed off for the cellar.
Zai watched the Abaddon interloper from the corner of his eye. He seemed unusually fidgety—he kept smoothing down his pants every few seconds. After a while, a man broke off from the group of gamblers and passed close to the Abaddon’s table. He seemed to walk naturally past him, but his right arm slowed down a bit as soon as he was level with the Abaddon. Zai’s ear caught the rustle of paper as that happened.
That was a hand-off. That guy’s in the game. He walked behind the hurrying man, who walked out of the inn, and tried to blend in with the crowd as he followed him. The crowd quickly thinned, and soon disappeared entirely, as the man took to the more deserted streets of the city. Sometimes he slowed down, and at other times he walked faster. At certain points he even walked in circles, or stopped entirely, all in an effort to find anyone who might be tailing him, Zai was sure. He’s a well-trained spy, this one. It took all of his skill and effort to avoid being detected.
Finally he arrived at his destination, walking into an inn much cleaner than the one he had just left. Zai took off his coat, folded it carefully, and then stowed it inside his rucksack. He might remember my coat, he thought as followed the man.
He looked around as he walked in, spotting his mark quickly; he was in a table with a cloaked and hooded figure. Not another one, thought Zai as he headed for the bar. He ordered a pint of their ale and handed over a few coins.
Three pints is my limit when working. I hope they get done before I finish this one.
Just as the thought crossed his mind, the man shook hands with the cloaked figure, who headed directly for the exit. Zai drained the rest of his mug, counting to three in his head as he did so. As soon as he got to three, he pretended to amble towards the exit.
The hooded figure knew far less counter-surveillance techniques, and Zai managed to tail him easily. But as they approached the walled city, Zai found the hidden eyes looking after the figure.
Where are we heading? In this part of town there’s the treasury, the artisan’s academy, and… Oh, shit.
The hooded figure had just walked into the Seraphim embassy.