This was first a pondering, then a wrote a few scenes, and those three scenes turned into eleven thousands words. So then I thought I had better come up with a plot for it, so I did, and it's now around the 35 thousand word mark, so I thought I had better start sharing!
I assume that you have some familiarity with the events of the Elenium, so I don't do any recapping. It's been a while since I properly read those books so please forgive me if I've forgotten or mucked up anything - I'm happy to have it pointed out!
Also, for this to work, you have to pretend that Berit was never introduced in those books, he makes his first entrance here. Consider anything he did as done by one of the others instead. For all that I enjoyed reading the books I kinda feel that he didn't have much actual character so I gave him one!
The Assassin studied the message he held: politely written on fine parchment but requesting an urgent meeting and leaving no room to doubt that his attendance was expected. And quickly. It wasn't unusual for someone rich and powerful to request his services. Rich went without saying – he was expensive after all but there were few people this powerful and he had hoped to avoid notice by all of them.
He didn't like being told what to do: the cost he had paid last time had been too high, so he thought of declining. However, he traded on his reputation as much as his skills and declining too quickly could send the wrong sort of signals. He would have to make enquiries as to how this man came by his name, but for now the meeting would go ahead.
He gave a small sigh and penned a short note with his instructions. It wouldn't go directly to the requestor – he would never expose his bolt holes like that – but it would get there quickly enough.
"Is this really necessary?" The broken nosed man asked his blond companion.
"Surely we don't need to go to such lengths?" The two men were darting between shadows, keeping to the side of the street. They weren't used to sneaking so it was probably just as well that anyone who was watching for them would be trying to keep out of the driving spring rain that had covered the city of Cimmura since sundown.
"Unless you want the whole city to know the Prince Consort is meeting suspicious characters in the rough part of town then yes, we need to be a bit discreet." was Kalten's terse reply.
"And why are we in the rough end of town?" Sparhawk was not lighthearted by nature and the last few weeks had not aided his temperament, nor did his sodden clothing.
"Because this is the only place the intermediary would meet." The blond man stopped, reaching for the other's arm to get his attention. "Look, I barely know anything about this man, and the only think I know for sure about his employer is that he is very very skilled. There are rumours that he was part of the Black Brotherhood of Assassins, if you hold that such a thing even existed. Anyway, he is skilled enough to name his price and choose his jobs, so he can be picky about how he finds those jobs. And apparently that includes meeting with a third party rather than himself." He shook his head "I don't really understand either, but if you want him, this is the way it's got to be."
"You're right, Kalten, of course. You're always right." Sparhawk shrugged. "But we don't really have time for this. Is that the tavern? I'd quite like to get inside before I drown." He pointed to a building just a few doors down, it's battered wooden sign showing a flagon of wine and a wheel of cheese.
"It is" the blond man agreed.
"Then lets' go meet this 'intermediary'. How will we recognise him?"
"I was told he will be wearing a cravat."
"You're not serious?" Sparhawk was incredulous. "A cravat? In this place?"
"Perfectly serious. Try and be nice about it won't you?"
"I'll do my best" Sparhawk muttered as they ducked through the door, throwing back his hood.
The inside of the tavern was not as grim as the well-weathered sign suggested, it being basic but at least clean looking and warm. The smell of fresh beer was stronger than that of stale, and no one was fighting so it wasn't a disreputable as he had feared. Glancing around Sparhawk noticed that indeed there was one man who stood out among the traders and workers. One who had, amongst the scuffed boots and stained cloaks of the men at the other tables, a bright and clean green cravat.
The man was young – young from his perspective anyway, surely only 25– and somehow handsome yet plain at the same time. His dark hair and dark eyes were common in this part of the world and his clothing was good quality though mildly worn. In short there was nothing about him that would catch the eye. Apart from the damn cravat.
Stopping at the table Sparhawk asked "Are you the intermediary?" Wiping the last of the rain from his face.
"I am" the man – the boy replied, gesturing to the seats opposite with his spoon, mopping the last of his soup with a piece of bread. "And you are the potential client." He gave an easy smile.
The Sparhawk and Kalten sat as they had been invited, and two drinks were bought over without them even having to ask. The man gave a nod of thanks to the server.
"As much as it is a pleasure to meet you, friend, why can't we meet who we need to in person?" Sparhawk didn't want to antagonise this messenger, but his time was short and he had little patience for games such as this.
"My employer is very cautious by nature. His skills mean he has a certain amount of notoriety and he finds it preferable to be as anonymous as possible." That had the tone of an oft-repeated answer to an oft-asked question, and the boy's pleasant demeanour did not change.
"Your employer thinks a lot of himself" the Kalten disparaged, taking a mouthful of his wine, though Sparhawk thought he wasn't as unimpressed as he sounded.
The Intermediary's looked turned sharp "So do you, or you wouldn't be here. If you don't wish to continue then you are free to leave, or do you come with a proposition? I would hate to have been dragged out on a night like this for no reason."
There was something about the young man across the table that made the Sparhawk consider his words carefully. It always paid to be respectful to others, even to a servant. Even to someone else's servant. Especially this man's servant. And besides, the boy had done nothing to earn his ire.
"We are aware of your employers specialty, but what we are proposing is a bit different." He ventured, trying to gauge how much to share.
"Different will probably be more expensive" the Intermediary said casually, brushing crumbs from that ridiculous cravat.
"I'm not worried about the price, as much as your employers loyalty." Sparhawk countered.
"Loyalty?" the Intermediary raised a questioning eyebrow. "Usually people ask about success rate or discretion. No one has ever asked him to be loyal" he almost spat the word "before."
"Well I'm not the usual person."
"No, it seems not." The Intermediary paused, before asking. "How did you come to have enough information to arrange this meeting: his name usually only runs in …... shall we say... certain circles …... of which you do not seem to fit."
Kalten answered, drawing the Intermediaries gaze so Sparhawk could study him a little more carefully. They had been friends before they had ever become knights, and working together was second nature. "It was me. I've heard rumours mostly, friend of a friend of a friend. I'm not sure I'm happy to give you a name though."
The Intermediary snorted "Think he's going to go looking for someone to blame? It doesn't work like that, but he does like to know how far his fame has spread."
Sparhawk watched the stranger's movements: how one hand was never far from his body, maybe to be able to grab a weapon if he felt threatened. He saw that though giving due attention to the conversation his eyes would occasionally flicker to one side or the other, maintaining an awareness of the whole room. Wise, when your job was to meet dangerous men and discuss dangerous things.
"Far and wide, isn't that enough?" Kalten was continuing.
"I suppose it will have to be." The man took a long gulp of wine. "So, let's be blunt. Who do you want killed? Do you want it discrete or messy? Soon or... at leisure? And why."
Sparhawk was taken aback: there was blunt and there was this. "Is this your idea of discretion? Do you interrogate everyone like this?" Maybe he was being a bit dramatic, but he needed just a bit more time to think. He had agreed rather hastily to Katlan's idea, and it was only now that he realised what he was risking.
The Intermediary was leaning back in his seat, gesturing with one hand.
"Of course, how else would he know whether to accept your offer? He can make it look like an accident, use poison, use blades, make an example, even make the target disappear. There has never been anyone as good at this than him. He can get past any guards, into any locked room. Tell me what you want and he will tell you if he is prepared to do it." Discussing death as casually as another would discuss the weather or the crops, but the Sparhawk could feel the truth radiating from the young man. If he was really as good as the rumours said...
The two friends glanced at each other. Once they told the Intermediary the cat would be out of the bag, there would be no going back, and if the wrong people got wind of this Sparhawk could lose everything.
"What difference does it make why?" Sparhawk asked, genuinely curious.
"He doesn't say, but always wants to know." The man shrugged with one shoulder – he obviously didn't care what questions he was paid to ask. "Personally, I think it helps him work out how much to charge."
Sparhawk stalled again, taking a sip of his drink before speaking.
"How did you come to this line of work?" It was a change of topic, but the first thing that came into his head.
"The usual sort of story: street kid, bit of this, bit of that, found someone that trusts me to ask the right questions." The Intermediary had an easy way of talking, calculated Sparhawk was sure to put the others at ease. In any other circumstances he was probably a fine conversationalist. "Are you going to answer mine?"
Sparhawk was out of time and also out of options so he revealed "We're not looking for anyone to be ….. killed. We want someone protected."
The Intermediary sat forward, frowning but eyes alight and interested. "That is different. Protected from what?"
"We think someone is going to try and kill... someone close to me. I'm not going to be able to protect them, and I need to know they will be safe." That was enough for now.
The Intermediary studied them both, eyes surely taking in every detail. His expression didn't change, betraying no thoughts, concentrating on their faces far more than was really comfortable.
"Hmmm " He sat back, fingers drumming out a rhythm on the tabletop as he considered.
"Look, just take the suggestion to your employer, and if he agrees in principle we can discuss the details but I will need an answer quickly." Sparhawk prompted, all too aware of what he had to do afterwards.
"Oh, I think I know the details. You, Prince Consort are going to be to be away on .. ahem.. diplomatic business shortly. Bringing in one of the minor lords – someone trust worthy but not too ambitious to be made formal heir to the throne until such time as the Queen bears children. And you think while you are escorting your chosen here for the ceremony that Duke Gluvir the so-called Duke of Gluttony will attempt to kill the Queen. If the Queen dies before she has a legal heir then Gluvir will likely be declared nearest relative by dint of his mother's bloodline and will take the throne."
Sparhawk couldn't help but show his amazement as this boy, this spokesperson for a hired killer proved his understanding of this complex political situation.
"Oh come on, my Lord" The Intermediary laughed, brief but genuine and open. "Your face is well known across the city, and the Duke's ambitions aren't exactly subtle." He drummed his fingers on the table some more while talking. "You think only the nobility care about politics? If the Cimmura burns – and it likely will if the Duke tries to use any sort of force - it will be us who burn first, not those in a palace."
Sparhawk nodded, impressed at the boy's insight. "So, do you think your employer will do it? You are communicating with him after all, aren't you, all that finger drumming." Sparhawk was pleased to have caught on to that. From the look Kalten gave he wasn't the only one to have noticed. The Intermediary wasn't as smart as he thought.
Another raised eyebrow, and another smile, this time with a glint of something triumphant in his eyes. "Ah yes, well. It's good to remember not to underestimate someone you don't know. Why him?"
"I believe that he is the best. Who else would know how to protect her from whomever else the Duke might hire?"
The Intermediary closed his eyes briefly, opening them to gaze into a corner of the room, but eyes not focused. "Yes, I have heard he hires the most disreputable of men."
"Do you have enough information to take to your employer? We can then discuss payment. And I will need surety that mine will be the only coin he will be taking." Sparhawk pressed, keen to know if he had to come up with a back up plan, worried that the Duke might have got here first.
The Intermediary pulled his focus back to the table. A signal must have been passed for he said "He will do it. When you are back you can find me again and pay what you think the life of your wife is worth." He must have seen their doubtful looks.
"Oh, I have full authority to speak on his behalf and I'm sure you will be suitably grateful for his service. He will be in place tomorrow night. And please don't worry about 'loyalty' and 'surety'. He only takes one coin for a contract. You don't get to command the sort of premium he does without a certain amount of trustworthiness." He grinned to show he was aware of the irony of that after their discussions this evening.
"Does he need any information, guard rotas, layout of the palace, anything like that." Sparhawk queried, an odd mix of relief and bemusement at the speed and which an agreement had been made.
The Intermediary snorted. "I doubt it and I won't insult him by asking."
"Then we will see you in a couple of weeks….. what is your name?"
"My name?" The man looked both shocked and confused to be asked such a simple question but covered it quickly. "No body asks that. I'm not important enough. I'm just known as the Intermediary."
"Everyone has a name, and we've even shared a drink." Sparhawk coaxed. This boy was clearly intelligent and street-smart enough to survive working for who he did – he might be useful as an ally himself.
Once again Sparhawk felt himself studied closely, and evaluated.
"My name is Berit." The boy spoke softly, a smile in his eyes.
"Then we will see you in a couple of weeks, friend Berit."
Thank you for reading and all comments and feedback are welcome!