Posted: 20 April 2006
Word Count: 15278
Summary: Alternate reality thriller set in the city of Principatum. A city that is the illigitimet lovechild of Dickensian London and Pratchett's Ankh-morpork. The story centres round Apollo Swift; an exceptionally gifted assassin about to graduate from the Cities Assassin Academy.
This piece and/or subsequent comments may contain strong language.
This piece and/or subsequent comments may contain strong language.
He placed the final full stop on today’s journal entry then delicately laid his quill upon his aged mahogany writing desk. He had been recording the events of his life since he was a young boy; it felt an epoch ago now. He understood why other people did it: a measly proof of existence, or a record for future generations; like their insignificant lives had made any difference! His own life was recorded in a much more impressive, enduring, three-dimensional manner. No, these written records were personal; to be studied by certain sets of eyes only.
His knees cracked as he rose from his seat and they continued to complain as he paced the familiar steps over to the narrow arched window. From high above his City it was easy to see the progress he had made. Most of the City worked in relative contentment. He had made it possible for them to live their trivial lives. Yet another tiresome election campaign was underway but it kept the masses subdued. They think they want to be heard, and I will always listen as long as they don’t have anything to say.
His eyes drifted across the river to the smoky fires of the Parucrory district. Ha, at least they had something to say, even if it was a long time ago. It was curious now; the Parucror rebels were one of the only things that held his interest anymore. But inevitably they would soon cease to exist, well their message anyway.
An uncertain knock at the door interrupted his musings.
The aide sidled into the room, and spoke anxiously: ‘Your Grace, it is time for you to prepare for the Assassin’s ceremony.’
‘Ah yes. I haven’t seen them for so long. I’m very much looking forward to it.’
A is for Apple, B is for Ball, C is for Cat, D is for Death…
Apollo Swift tentatively removed his black velvet hat from the dowel on the back of his door; he held the brim to his chest and looked around his small room for the last time. Fifteen years he had lived in this dusty room and he felt relatively sad that it had probably taken less than fifteen seconds to remove all trace that he had ever lived there. Still he knew that had to be the way; he, more than most people, knew the ease at which a life could be erased.
It would be wrong to say that he had greatly enjoyed his time at The Academy, simply because he had nothing to compare it to. All of his living memory had been spent based in this fine old building. Everyone he had ever cared about lived here; everyone he despised lived here too come to think of it.
There was an old tattered bed on one side of the room, the same mattress he had slept in for every night of the last fifteen years. The Academy was quite willing to provide a new one, but Apollo had never seen the need. A small open window above the mattress let the sounds of the city break in. He had never spent a prolonged time in the streets of Principatum, all he knew was what little he could learn from peering though this two foot square window and, of course, what he could pick up when participating in the various training exercises he had carried out over the years. How many times in fifteen years he had ever closed the window? Not many, he could remember some freezing winters and a hurricane about four years ago but even with the occasionally extreme weather he had always been reluctant to close it. He just felt closer, safer, like he was more connected to the city and that his existence was recognised.
A circular convex mirror hung on the opposite wall; this was standard in all Academy dormitories. Learning to recognise the reflection in the mirror was one of his first lessons in The Academy. The theory behind the lesson was one of self-defence, the most likely way any intruder could gain access to the Academy dorms was via the window so learning the subtle differences between the reflection of a flying bird and a flying bolt could, in theory, save your life, although attacks were rare these days.
A black case of his belongings which lay on the antique pine floor boards and a large oil painting of The Founder completed the room.
Apollo was surprised to find himself nervous at this juncture; he had looked forward to the realisation of this night for several years, but the graduation ceremony wasn’t Apollo’s solitary fixation anymore. With butterflies quivering uncontrollably in his stomach Apollo adjusted his hat in the mirror, picked up his case and thanked The Founder. Students were meant to kiss the image but Apollo had never felt comfortable with it, he appreciated what Caedo, the Founder and his Academy had done for him but he had never asked for it and worshipping a fellow human didn’t make sense to him. Surely all humans were born equal?
Apollo quietly closed the door and silently made his way down the narrow corridor towards the ceremony and, after fifteen years, it was now his ceremony.
The Assassin Academy was about a thousand years old. It was the pre-eminent education facility in the entire city. Many of the most powerful and influential men and women in Principatum had graduated from it. A graduate of the Academy was as revered and respected as much as any of Principatum’s gentry or public figures.
The Academy was privately funded by the Republic but more revenue came from its own secretive operations. The education could not be bought; many of the richest families in the city had pleaded with the Academy to allow they’re offspring to receive the schools fine tutoring and undoubtedly would have offered obscene amounts of money for the honour. The Academy’s answer was always the same: No. Because while it offered the finest available schooling its aims were not financial or prestigious, the Academy’s aims were stealth, efficiency and death.
The school only accepted orphans, and only orphans whose parents were killed in the city’s bloody infighting by the Parucror rebels. Children were taken at any age under six and looked after in the Academy’s nursery wing. Children over six weren’t accepted. On the first January after a child had turned six, they were taken from the nursery wing into the school to begin learning their deadly craft.
That was Apollo’s first memory, he had been removed from the homely nursery and was now sitting in an expansive hall with about a hundred strange new faces, and it seemed all were looking at him. Some were adults, but everybody except his eight mates from nursery was older than him. It was his first assembly and he could remember the Master talking lots of crap about tradition, privilege, duty and honour but he would never forget the Masters final words of the assembly: 'If you are fortunate, in fifteen years time you will leave this School as a trained killer.'
At the time those words had a similar effect on Apollo as being woken up with a bucket of ice and water but now, as he reminisced, Apollo knew that after fifteen years of training and conditioning he was no longer scared by those formidable words, not for himself anyway. He had been submerged in to a dark culture; one where death was never too far away and if it was not your own death then you could not be too sympathetic. He was sure he had it in him and he knew he would soon find out.
Nine students had started in the same year as Apollo he was only one of only three who would tonight be honoured at the graduation ceremony. Fifteen years of assassin education was unsurprisingly extremely dangerous. The mundane subjects such as history, reading, mathematics and languages were relegated to the back of the syllabus behind the more specific subjects. Execution, which was sub divided between Poisons and Weapons, had seen the death of four students and Trap Detection another one. The timetable was completed with Concealment, Martial Arts and bizarrely: Music. Every student was required to learn a musical instrument; Apollo always found it laughable and had constantly reminded his tutors that nobody in history had ever been serenaded to death! His lute now resided, rather embarrassingly, in his case along with his set of throwing knives, poison darts and other implements of death.
On his way to the Main Hall Apollo reached the only remaining occupied dormitory in the male section and knocked on the door. The heavy oak door tumbled open like a leaf in a gale; Apollo smiled and held out his hand. A huge figure lurked in the doorway, silhouetted against the dark room like a wolf in the night.
‘Apollo!’ a gruff voice roared. The man stepped out into the torch light of the corridor, he was dressed identically to Apollo except that underneath his multi-pocketed waistcoat he wore ripped short sleeves and the flickering flames made deep dark shadows along every contour on the man’s substantial arms. Another distinguishable feature, apart from the man’s sheer size, was a horrific scar that dominated the top right quarter of his head.
The man looked down to Apollo’s outstretched hand and took it; pulling Apollo into an engulfing embrace.
‘Wow Zeal, nice to see you too!’ In the brief seconds that Apollo had seen the man’s face he was sure he could see Zeal had been crying emotional tears of pride; however he decided not to mention it, saving his friend some embarrassment.
‘This is it Apollo. Our graduation ceremony… fifteen bloody years leading up to this very night and the moment we finally get our Licence and then, oh enemies of the Republic beware because Apollo and Zeal will be coming to make you pay for your crimes.’ He laughed and put his huge hands on either side of Apollo’s face, ‘But first we shall indulge in The Academy’s fine feast and its even finer drinks!’
Apollo laughed, now feeling slightly more relaxed; he knew that wherever he went, and whatever choice he made, Zeal wouldn’t be far behind.
‘Come on, let’s find Milly and get this graduation over with.’
‘Wait one moment.’ Zeal slipped back into his room to kiss The Founders image, and thought Apollo judging by the delay, to dry his eyes. ‘Let’s go. Let’s go and become Assassins!’
Nine students started in Apollo’s year as already stated and only three were now graduating. The school and its subjects had accounted for five of them. Zeal was responsible for the remaining student’s death.
The city of Principatum was the largest in the explored world; it stood in the middle of vast lowland plains equidistant from the sea and the icy peaks of the impassable mountains. Numerous villages and farms were scattered across the plains all providing supplies and commodities that where bought and sold within the walls of Principatum. It was bigger than the word ‘City’ suggested; it was a machine, even a process; a mammoth load on the world that sucked in, and screwed up all the land surrounding it. All paths lead to Principatum; it was the epicentre of the world.
The Academy building was, like all the ancient buildings, made mostly of ancient sandstone and was set in the bureaucratic heart of Principatum. The city’s parliamentary headquarters: The Silex, which was Principatum’s tallest building, was the Assassin Academy’s closest neighbour although all Republican buildings: Administrative and Military were situated close by. This entire political infrastructure was situated to the North of Principatum. This position, along with the close proximity to the Assassins and the military, offered the Lord and the Judges the best possible protection from the Parucror clans, who had long ago been forced back to the South of the city. From his headquarters high in The Silex it was said that The Lord could keep vigil on all Principatum and the surrounding lands, and what was said by the more sceptical and untrustworthy was: ‘Yes, especially the Assassins!’
The Academy was a very old fashioned establishment with traditional rules and for that reason the two residential wings were situated at opposite ends of the building, separated by the immense Main Hall and the courtyard behind it. As the ceremony was underway and they weren’t expected in the Main Hall for another twenty minutes Apollo and Zeal went via the courtyard to the female dorms. The pearly crescent moon combined with the tall weathered statues in the yard cast long shadows which the two figures crept through instinctively.
‘You surprised she made it Apollo?’ Zeal paused as they slid through the oak doors into the female wing which was now unusually unguarded as all the Academy’s staff and students were expected in the Main Hall. ‘I was always certain we would, but I was never sure about Milly.’
Apollo hid a wry smile; Zeal always had a knack of knowing what was on his mind. ‘Well, yeah she is a bit… pretty for this environment but she’s as sharp as a sword and we‘ve both been on the painful end of her right hook a few times’
‘Ha, you would never have thought such a tiny girl could cause such a big bruise.’
‘Definitely. No, I never really had any real doubts that she’d make it this far.’
‘What you referring to?’
Apollo hesitated, but if he couldn’t confide in Zeal, then who could he tell: ‘you know what’s coming next Zeal, it’s the most crucial step of all. I’m… I’m not sure I even want her to,’ he finished weakly.
‘Well, it’s her decision and if she can survive fifteen years of this school she should really have no problems,’ and that was Zeal being honest as always. He really didn’t see the last step, the final test as anything more than another exercise; in fact he probably thought it was easier; only the result mattered this time. You didn’t lose grades if you were spotted or picked the wrong tool. No thought Apollo, you’d just be shot at, and that wasn’t the worst part of it.
‘I think this is the only part of the Academy I’ve never been before,’ said Zeal as they ascended the steep stone stairs up to the fifteenth floor.
‘Really? When and how did you get in the Doctors Residence then?’
‘Get in? I didn’t sneak around in the night you know, I just asked. Said I was interested in learning more about the history of the Academy, some of the most exquisite tapestries are kept secure within the Doctors halls.’
‘Well I was told to bugger off if I ever went near them! That must be Milly’s room there with the door open cos she’s the only one living on this floor now.’
The first of their fellow student’s deaths happened about nine years ago. Rumours had been spreading round The Academy for days: a significant contract had been commissioned and it possibly might require the use of Veloxirus! Influential assassinations were scarce in recent times, and Veloxirus had been redundant for thirty years at least.
Therefore students entered their poisons class quite apprehensively. The lesson began like any other. Doctor Raacts had his back turned to the class writing on the blackboard, the hall was filled with the general idle chatter and the banging of cupboards that always preceded poison classes as the students unpacked their kits. Raacts was one of the Academy’s more intimidating tutors his long white hair and pale skin combined with his death black robes were the personification of bleakness; young students staring at him for the first time were given the impression they would never know merriment or colour ever again.
It was Bartholomew, a likeable but timid lad who noticed the words Raacts had wrote first, he dropped his pestle in alarm; a shocked silence crammed the low-ceilinged room. Within a second all the students were staring at the board; so, the rumours were true.
‘Judging by the silence from your usually overworked vocal cords, I can foresee that my opening question of: Have any of you ever even heard of Veloxirus? Is now quite obsolete. Therefore…’ his beady red eyes scanned for a victim and stopped on Barty’s fallen pestle. ‘Bartholomew, tell me what you know of Veloxirus’
‘Er… it’s a poison… the worst one, can kill you just by touching it.’ Barty knew more just from what he had heard from the school’s rumour mill but was always afraid to repeat to a Doctor anything which he was unsure about in fear of ridicule and humiliation if he was wrong, and above all, ridicule and humiliation of students were the Doctors’ two favourite pastimes.
‘That’s all,’ replied Raacts. It wasn’t a question.
‘Sir it’s made from the Killi fish imported from outside of the city, the gallbladder apparently. And it’s very rare. Made only inside this Academy,’ said Milly, as usual she had relayed all she knew without fear of a verbal whiplash from Raacts.
‘Correct Mileno. Indeed it is only made in the confines of this building, only in this laboratory hall in fact. It is used only in executions with certain limitations. Executions where it is particularly difficult to have direct contact with the victim or their food stores. A property that makes it unique, but also unfavourable to those of us who, like to add that personal touch to our work.’ He expected a laugh but didn’t get one. Raacts continued undeterred, ‘However this is not the reason Veloxirus is so infamous. No, it is its effects, what the poison does to the human body that makes it notorious. The way the victim dies is said to be so unpleasant that it will make even the most hardened assassin squirm… almost feel guilty. Almost.’
The students gazed around at one another’s faces; it wasn’t hard to understand that ‘certain limitations’ was a thinly veiled code for a high ranking Parucror leader with lots of hefty bodyguards.
Raacts went on, now with a trace of a smile upon his face. ‘The poison, like all others will be made by the apprentices (more panicky looks between the students). However due to the complexities only apprentices over the age of twelve are permitted to attempt it.’ He paused for added dramatic effect. There was silence in the room as the students held their breath. ‘And it is this class that has been given that very duty!’
‘But surely older apprentices would be more successful?’ said Apollo.
‘An accurate observation Apollo, conversely the survival rate of an apprentice gutting a Killi fish is not a favourable one and apprentices with five years training are more disposable than ones with fourteen years. We lose less of an investment you might say.’
The construction of the poison was a blur to Apollo, he was aware of the fading sunlight struggling to illuminate the laboratory as he sealed his finished sample in its Killi fish scale container. He sighed in relief and visible sagged, bloody hell I’m still alive! While massaging his neck, that was now very stiff after looking down for what must have been a least a couple of hours, he looked around the room.
Zeal wasn’t in his preparation area but Apollo wasn’t surprised; Zeal had probably completed his poison ages ago. Milly seemed to be at the same stage as Apollo. She was packing away and gave Apollo a nervous smile as they caught each others gaze.
A loud crash alerted Apollo to Barty, who was in a mess, there was a great deal of shattered glass around him and his desk was awash with liquid and fish guts. Apollo watched as a bead of sweat formed on Barty’s forehead as he removed another Killi fish gallbladder. The bead cascaded down his face and came to rest on the tip of his nose. The sweat teetered on his nose like blood from a deep wound, threatening to fall as Barty ground up the fish’s gallbladder. Finally, as Barty shook his head in disbelief that he had ruined his poison again, gravity prevailed and the drip of sweat plummeted and landed in the liquids on the desk.
Doctor Raacts demonstrated sensational hearing or an unknown sixth sense; he had previously been at the front of the laboratory reading a tome, but as soon as the bead of sweat splashed down he immediately knew, like a shark smelling blood.
There was a whisper of smoke rising from Bart’s desk. The active ingredients in Veloxirus were so potent that even mixing them with human sweat had caused a reaction. A reaction that Barty was now two feet away from and still completely unaware of.
‘Barty look out!’ Apollo cried. Barty turned to look at Apollo and that was the last thing he ever saw. The mixture on his desk started to bubble, spitting bits of liquid on to the side of Bart’s head instantly melting his hair and burning his scalp. The horrific scene was interrupted by Raacts pushing Apollo and Milly into the corridor.
‘Return to your dorms…’ Raacts said, closing the door to silence Bart’s screams of pain. ‘There is nothing we can do for him now and the mutilation of a friend is something you will fail to understand. He was careless, something no graduate can afford to be,’ and with that Raacts returned to the Laboratory.
Milly’s legs gave way and she began to sob quietly. Apollo himself was too emotional to say anything to her but he knew that she needed comforting and picked her up and held her while she cried hysterically on to his shoulder.
Raacts returned through the door, speckled in Barty’s blood.
‘Behave! You are in the business of execution. Control yourself.’
‘I’ve just seen my friend die!’ shrieked Milly.
‘And if you are lucky you will see many more. Now return to your room that is an order!’
‘He wasn’t meant to die like that… he was meant to…’
‘Nobody should die like that,’ said Apollo. ‘Let’s get you some air.’
‘I know I’ll never do that to anyone, I hate this place… neither will you, will you?’
Apollo remained silent.
‘Come on Mil lets get outside.’ It was the first time he had not given Milly a straight answer and it felt awful like his stomach had turned to lead but he couldn’t, he couldn’t because at the time he didn’t know the answer.
Over the following years as more students fell foul of The Academy the remaining students grew tougher and more detached, and their attitudes toward death slowly changed; each death acting like a vaccine to future grief, but Apollo secretly hoped Milly would remember that day and that she still held the same view.
‘Milly are you decent?’ asked Zeal just before he and Apollo reached the door way.
‘Decent?’ I’m Beautiful! ‘Come in then.’ She bounced on the spot with genuine excitement to see them and as Zeal slipped into her room she leapt over to greet him.
‘You ready for the ceremony?’ asked Zeal
‘Oh always Mr. Business you Zeal,’ said Milly playfully hitting him on the arm.
‘Hey Milly,’ said Apollo as he entered the room.
‘Mr. Swift,’ said Milly tipping an imaginary hat and pushing her hip into his leg; her big blue-grey eyes and gentle smile seeking a reaction.
‘It’s time Mil,’ laughed Apollo. That was the thing about Milly; she was capable of putting him through the emotional mangle, and frequently did, but all would be momentarily forgotten within seconds of seeing her. She was both the fatal illness and the miracle cure.
‘Well just applying the finishing touches,’ said Milly as she held up a small eye liner pencil and fluttered her lashes ‘take a seat on the bed.’
‘Milly, you’re going to an Assassin Graduation ceremony you don’t need any of that slap!’ objected Zeal; without any real hope of it being upheld.
‘Nope. I’m going to my Graduation ceremony and I’m gonna look good for it! It’s bad enough I have to wear this uniform, although black is very slimming.’ She turned to the mirror and added ‘So sit down and amuse yourself for a couple of minutes… design a new blowpipe or something!’ Apollo laughed, even Zeal struggled to conceal a smile. It amazed Apollo to think that Milly had had the same childhood as himself; she was unlike anyone he had ever met. How could something as cruel, sinister and orthodox as this school of death produce someone as effervescent and free as Milly? The tutors had grown frustrated in her bohemian approach to the deadly arts but there was no denying her natural talents anything she put her mind too she could achieve. She was an equal to her classmates in the entire curriculum including Execution which was surprising considering her reaction to Barty’s death. Since witnessing Barty’s death she had appeared to gain new endeavour and concentration in the subject and Execution lessons had become the only time of the day her bubbly character would fall flat. She would sit in silence absorbing and undertaking everything her tutors said or asked without question. Apollo had never really got chance to ask Milly about her brief changes in character, more exciting things always seemed to happen around her, and now after all these years he was running out of time.
Surely she wouldn’t do it but now wasn’t a good time to ask either.
‘You surprised you made it Milly?’ Apollo had felt guilty discussing Milly behind her back. Milly continued applying her lipstick for a moment.
‘Erm… Well. I’m as good as you two boys at anything. Zeal’s bit better at Execution and you at Concealment… but I always knew I was meant to get out of this place.’ The slight hesitation before her reply told Apollo that he had asked a sensitive question and he decided to leave it at that for now.
‘Ok then, we all ready to go?’ Milly flicked her auburn hair from her shoulder and added: ‘Yeap? Ok then, let’s do it.’
A Dark Past
Christian was the last of the apprentices, in Apollo’s year, to die; he had died two and a half years previous.
As a student he was very competent, in any other year he would have been considered outstanding, but he did truly excel in music. He regularly entertained the staff and students with his delicate and mellifluous flute playing.
Apollo was lying on his bed staring at the ceiling when the dulcet notes of Chris’s flute fluttered in though the open door. He realised Chris had made such an improvement over the last few weeks since going to Dr Tiffany’s private lessons and wondered how Milly’s musical skills were developing under Tiffany’s tutelage.
Apollo’s thoughts were interrupted by Zeal appearing in the door way, his large feet could carry the hulking frame so softly.
'I hear the Pan piper has started again,' complained Zeal.
'The Pan piper played a pipe Zeal! That’s where the name comes from.'
'It’s all the same. You want to look at my dissertation on the conversion of Principatum from
Monarchy to Republic?'
'Na I’ve finished,' Apollo knew his wouldn’t be as concise as Zeal’s; Zeal knew the city’s history better than most Doctors, but he was satisfied with his own effort. 'But Chris could probably do with a glance.'
Apollo jumped from the bed and walked next door into Christian’s room. 'Hello Chris, you’re getting pretty good.'
Chris stopped playing and placed his flute carefully on the ground. 'Hello Apollo, Zeal, you want me to keep it quiet?'
'No it’s very soothing… we just wondered if you have finished your History essay?'
'What, the one for Aidler? Na, probably do it tonight.'
'Well you can look at ours if you want,' said Zeal from the door way.
'No! I can do it myself. I’m fed up with you guys acting like I’m stupid. You two and Milly are always strutting round laughing at everybody who you don’t think is as brilliant as you!'
'Fine, suit yourself,' and Zeal left, presumably to go back to his room.
'Whoa man, relax! What’s flown up your arse today?' said Apollo holding up his hands in mock surrender.
'I’m sorry,' said Chris, but he did not look it; his face was a rich crimson. 'I don’t need help from anyone especially you; I’ll do fine on my own.'
'Ok relax,' Apollo’s eyes were drawn back to the flute. 'Maybe you can help me, I wanna improve my lute playing, and you’ve got really good on the flute--'
'Oh you wanna practice?' the mention of music appeared to calm Chris slightly.
'Yeah, I’ll go and get my lute. Maybe I can join you and Milly? Playing at the banquet?' Apollo immediately regretted saying that. He had no desire to humiliate himself in front of the school; he only wanted Chris to feel better. So, he was shocked to see Chris flying from the bed ramming his hands into Apollo’s chest.
'Get out! Don’t you think you spend enough time with her already? But no, gotta get in on our private music lessons now. Can’t you handle that she enjoys them?'
'What? Chrissy I didn’t--' but Apollo’s protests were met by seven feet of oak door slammed into his face.
Well what was all that about? It was common knowledge that Christian had a crush on Milly, maybe to everyone except Milly, you could never really tell with her, but nobody knew it had got this bad.
Apollo didn’t realize the strength of Christian’s feeling until their first unsupervised Gutter Run. While the students didn’t have a License to Kill as yet the Academy considered that this shouldn’t be limiting the apprentice’s education. The Gutter Runs were designed to simulate a professional contract mission in every aspect other than the killing. Apprentices were given a name and a date in secret then expected to negotiate their way through the city to arrive at their location and, having disarmed or eluded any security, take a possession instead of a life. The possession was immaterial and could be anything; it was regarded only as verification that the student had completed the task.
There were obvious risks to the Gutter Runs; if the would-be Assassins were spotted they would be treated like actual Assassins and shot at; or if the Parucrory noticed them, kid-knapping and torture were realistic prospects, so as a precaution the students were sent out in pairs.
The Doctor’s decided that the best chance of all four apprentices returning with at least their own lives was to split up Apollo and Zeal. Apollo was paired with Christian and they were given a small roll of sealed parchment. Breaking the seal and unrolling the parchment Apollo couldn’t help but feel excited, this was the exercise he had most been looking forward to. Being let loose in the city, and putting in to practice the majority of the skills that he had perfected within the Academy.
The letters were written in Raacts elegant cursive script and the note was short and concise:
The sixteenth was a week away, time provided for research and reconnaissance.
Charles turned out to be the only son of Feida Mcvey the city’s only female Commander. The mother was apparently well respected and possessed her own estate in North-East Principatum, but Apollo’s research had been able to find little more about the son. Reconnaissance turned out to be more effective.
Charles was registered to a small flat just South of the market region, it was on the Republic side of the river but the area was notoriously unsafe. The Parucrory would raid this area at least once a month.
The market region of Principatum was best described as lively, but could just as easily be described as dirty and unsavoury. It was estimated that there were over five thousand stalls and anything the averaged Principatum civilian would ever need could be purchased there, also everything the more dubious of Principatum’s residents would ever need could also be purchased there too. The grimy squares and streets had currents of their own that could pick up and drag the unsuspecting bystander to any number of bloodcurdling situations.
The two apprentices avoided these situations by positioning themselves over the road from the target building. They were dressed in raggedy street clothes to assimilate with the area’s assortment of traders, shoppers, drunks, beggars and pickpockets. Apollo was aware of how vivacious and alive this element of the City was, certainly compared to the frosty Academy; incessant background sounds and pungent smells adding to the bustling atmosphere.
After an afternoon of surveillance Apollo and Chris decided the address was most probably unoccupied, a fact that was confirmed, when they acquired a sack of coal from a passing cart and made a short visit to the flat as fraud coalmen.
The door lay, more across than within the doorway, they knocked but it remained unanswered so they entered. The address was not only unoccupied but had been raided several times already; the single bed overturned and wardrobe pushed over with drawers littered all over the floor. Little was left but portraits did confirm that a rotund, rosy-cheeked, childish looking, young man who had a close relationship with commander Mcvey, had at one stage resided here.
It was with some resentment that Apollo left the area; were the Parucrory really that much of a menace that they still continued to ruin peoples lives? Apparently much progress had been made in the years since his parent’s murder, but yet, here it was obvious that more still needed to be done to protect the city.
It was agreed that Charles was most likely staying back at his mother’s home where security would be much higher.
It was early evening by the time the two apprentices arrived at the Mcvey estate, it was much like they expected. Man sized brick walls circled the grounds. The only entrance point was to the West: a huge iron gate manned by always two, occasionally three staff. While the walls wouldn’t offer much resistance to the two assassins they still needed to be aware what was waiting for them on the other side. Indeed it was unlikely that Feida would consider herself a target of the Academy but it would be naïve and ultimately fatal to believe she hadn’t installed some precautions.
While surveillance at Charles’s flat was uncomplicated; it was located in a busy area close to the market, investigating the estate would be far more difficult. The streets around it were only used by the clerks and staff, who operated in the numerous Republican buildings, and they only ever used the streets to commute to and from work, anyone seen loitering would be viewed with considerable suspicion and maybe shots would be fired before questions were asked.
Christian’s initial idea was to commandeer one of the supply carts that were always granted access to the estate via the watched iron gate. To Apollo it seemed a reasonable idea; access would be easy and before anyone became suspicious they would have acquired the information they needed and disappeared.
Ultimately however, he decided to reject it, much to Chris’s dismay. Apollo thought it was too messy, if the hijacked drivers reported their attack, and it was almost guaranteed they would, then future security would increase and the actual mission become far more difficult.
'No, Chrissy we’ll return to the Academy we’ll need our instruments and maybe Mil.'
'What! Can’t you do anything without her?' Christian looked like he wanted to fight. 'Look here’s a truck now we can have this one.'
'No.' Apollo knew his own idea was the correct one and he needed to calm Christian down if he wasn’t thinking clearly then even the theft of a meat truck could go awry. 'We’re going back to the Academy, come on!' For a second Apollo thought he saw Christian reach inside his cloak but he too must have seen Apollo replicate this and decided to subside.
'Ok,' said Christian then he added in a whisper 'But stop pushing me around Apollo.'
Claus Jonas was a middle aged administrative clerk, he wasn’t proud of it and you could say he hated his job. Claus was responsible for the organisation of the voting ballots for the next election, which was still two years away; two and a half million little bits of parchment how more boring could that be? He sat on his little grey chair at his little grey desk in his office, on the bottom floor of The Silex, for ten hours a day, six days a week. Since his promotion, ha promotion; two more dollars a week for two more hours, he reported directly to Judge Otterink. By Caedo, he hated Otterink the man was as dry as a cracker, under an umbrella, in the desert. Otterink constantly checked up on Claus, and not in the nice ‘oh I’ve just popped by’ way; in the ‘Mr. Jonas your reports are three seconds overdue, way. The man actually believed that the elections were the most important thing in the world! Five elections Claus had voted in; nothing ever bloody changes.
The young Claus had wanted to be an actor, he was so thankful to his mother, who sacrificed tremendously to be able to afford to allow him to go to school rather than sending him out to scrounge a few extra dollars like most of the kids from his neighbourhood. It seemed ages since he was on the stage as a lad, but the plays had become less prestigious and far less frequent and when his mother died Claus was forced to go and find a more suitable, a more reliable job. He consoled himself that at least he had found a steady source of income and that there were people, families, within Principatum that were far worse off than himself, he had even managed to find himself a lady friend.
Claus was taking his usual route, past the Mcvey house, home; it was a walk he’d grown to hate. The streets were so dreary, the people walking on them so defeated. It was because of this that he was extremely surprised and pleased to hear music bouncing from the cobbles.
Who’d be playing round here? Claus wondered, and it was good music too, unusual but good. Street entertainment was on the decline as a whole, the Public squares were still home to several buskers and illustrators, but Claus hadn’t heard anyone round these streets for years, the Mcveys wouldn’t allow it for a start. As he turned the corner his questions were answered.
They were definitely country folk, thought Claus; two guys and a girl. The guys were playing the instruments. The man playing the lute was probably a farm boy, maybe got fed up and had migrated to the city to try his luck. Only young, twenty possible, fairly good looking with dark features, he was enjoying the music; his shoulder length brown hair swaying wildly as he produced some outlandish arpeggios.
The other man, who was producing the superb spiralling melody on the flute, looked less happy but the man had real talent. The sound he emitted just found a way to dance straight through your ears and connect directly to your limbs, bypassing the brain.
And if the music made you want to dance then the girl made you want to rip your clothes off and join the conga. It wasn’t just that she was beautiful, and she really was; long auburn hair flashed in synchronised waves following the rhythmic movements of her perfect body, but although most of her face was hid behind a lace veil, Claus could see in her large honest eyes that this girl was enjoying herself so much; and it was this pleasure that, for Claus, made it irresistible to join in.
Claus wasn’t aware of any other specific individuals joining the dance, but before he knew it the usually bleak street had morphed into a spectacle of colour and excitement; mundane clerks and bland civil servants had transformed into gyrating fools, but they were fools who didn’t care! Claus Jonas had decided that tomorrow morning he wouldn’t be walking into his silly little office anymore; the election could continue without him, he was going to entertain, and Principatum better be ready for him!
Apollo was confused. The plan had been simple, masquerade as out of town musicians; make lots of noise outside the estate gate and surely someone would complain, resulting in them being detained within the estate until the authorities arrive to reprimand them and escort them back to one of the city’s Public squares. He had figured it would take the authorities at least an hour to arrive; plenty of time to analyse the estate security. What he hadn’t expected was an impromptu carnival of boogying bureaucrats, that first guy was now trying to limbo between Milly’s legs!
Apollo stepped alongside Milly as the limbo-man danced his way to another partner. 'What’s going on?' he whispered. 'What’s wrong with these people, and you stop provoking them!'
‘What do you mean provoking? I’m just dancing, and there’s nothing wrong with these people; they’re just having a bit of much needed fun. The public are mistreated, they’re expression is subdued and it’s leaking out in ways like this. People these days spend far too much time in little rooms,’ she replied with out missing a beat then cheekily added: ‘Look at you for example.’
Apollo decided not to take the bait and returned to his position in the background alongside a peeved looking Christian. Just as he was about to give up on his plan and admit defeat he saw a supply cart lumbering up the narrow road.
The driver looked as surprised as Apollo at what was happening in front of him, but surprise quickly distorted into anger as he realised the mass of bodies would stop him reaching the Mcvey gate. The driver climbed down from his truck and began pushing his way though to the gate.
Apollo seeing a chance, quickly dropped his lute and wrapped his Assassins cloak around him. It was risky but most people would be looking at Milly or dancing to Chris’s flute, he walked confidently up to the cart; lost in the long shadows the setting sun provided, and checking to see the driver, who was swearing furiously at the gate security, pulled back the cart’s canvas and slipped in between some barrels.
Apollo waited, huddled in darkness, breathing silently for about a minute before the groans and boos from outside told him the party was over and that the security had dispersed the crowd. The clapping duotone of hoof on cobble and the drone of the wheels were the only things he could now hear; before the clanging of the gate signalled he was in.
It was the sixteenth; Apollo and Christian had completely prepared their kits and were climbing the stairs to the roof of the Academy ready to infiltrate the Mcvey estate.
‘Remember it’s all straightforward apart from the dash from the shrubbery to the North side of the house, don’t go until I say,’ said Apollo.
‘I know Apollo, you just look after yourself.’
Apollo did feel he was being slightly patronising towards Christian, it just that he wanted to do well and he didn’t want Chris to muck it up for him. This was his first chance to show smug tutors that he was the best. He was a bit disappointed that the target location was so close, Apollo loved the feel of the wind swirling through his cloak and the adrenaline rush provided by making the split second decisions.
Apollo and Chris arrived on the roof of the Academy the moon shown bright from the cloudless sky adding an extra degree of difficulty but Apollo preferred the challenge. Taking a brief second to check they were all alone Apollo took out his grappling hook which was wrapped round his chest.
It was his own invention, the Academy issue hooks were traditional and effective but clunky, and Apollo’s modification was to change the single heavy hook into a thin disk with several smaller hooks on. This meant the hook would glide to the target and on impact the noise was much reduced. However such properties were not needed here, it was a simple throw twenty five feet on to the roof of the temple. Apollo made it with ease; the multi-hook gripping to the bell tower. The two apprentices slid down the silk line, landed softly on the arched roof and submerged back into the shadows while Apollo rewrapped the hook around his chest. He could feel the thrill already.
The next step was the most difficult of the short journey; the temple was adjacent to a street of large terraced town houses that lead right up to the Mcvey estate. The grappling hook could make the distance but climbing about fifty feet exposed along the rope, across a busy street was too risky. It was Apollo’s plan to use the hook to swing across the street and land level with the first floor of the houses and then scale the wall back on to the city’s skyline. Apollo retrieved his climbing claws from his pack and added them to his gloves and boots.
The feeling while swinging through the air was pure excitement, the stuffy night air suddenly streaming past his face, the strain in his muscles as the rope straightened; the anxiety as he accelerated toward the wall and the perfect timing of the cushioned impact upon the façade. The small teethed metal claws and the crumbling brickwork made the climb back to the rooftops unproblematic and within ten minutes Apollo and Christian were looking down on the Mcvey estate.
‘Right remember what I said; there’s not much security, just the spikes along the interior of the perimeter wall and the patrolling bodyguards. It’s from the wall to a silver birch tree, slip outta the tree into the shrubbery and we’ll take it from there, you ready?’
Christian answered: ‘Sure, it’s a picnic.’
The apprentices climbed the wall and evaded the railings with ease; they were more of a deterrent than anything, but the concealed spikes along the inner face of the wall and two feet into the grounds were far more malicious. Any causal thief dropping over the wall would soon be holier than a preacher. Apollo and Christian bypassed the spikes by climbing to the silver birch along their rope, Apollo’s gliding hook silently wrapping itself around one of the stronger branches. They landed gently in the soil of the shrubbery and moved to position themselves closest to the wall of the house.
Apollo whispered: ‘Right Charles’s room is the second window up; the guards pass this spot once every four and a half minutes--’
‘What exactly four and--’
‘Shh, yes I timed it, that’s plenty of time to get up to the window, cut it and enter the room. The path’s gravel; it’ll make some noise so we’ll need to go one at a time.’
The Assassin’s didn’t need to wait too long; in the distance a lantern illuminated the east wall of the house and it was coming closer with each crunch of the guard’s steps. Apollo hunkered lower to the ground; wedged between rosebush and privet hedge, as the guard drew within six paces.
The guard was right next to them now. Apollo held his breath but was amazed the guard couldn’t hear the pounding of his heart, and then he was passed them, making his way along the back of the house.
As the guard turned the corner and vanished Apollo rose from the shrubbery and ran to the corner that the guard had just disappeared behind; his soft velvet boots making a fraction of the noise of the guard’s. Peering round the corner Apollo could see the guard hadn’t heard and was continuing his sentry round the house. Apollo gestured for Chris to join him.
Apollo watched unbelieving, as Chris moved across the gravel; the fool had forgotten to take his climbing claws off and the strong metal was crushing the gravel creating a tremendous clamour in the still night air. Apollo’s dismay turned into horror as Christian’s claws gripped against the ground causing him to fall flat on his face. Apollo could here the sound of the guards hurried movements, and could see the pool of light growing stronger as the guard rushed back towards them.
Apollo had to act fast; they couldn’t be caught. Hiding himself in the shadow of a pillar, Apollo slide his blow pipe from its holster on his thigh, he wouldn’t have time to add any extensions but it wouldn’t matter; the guard would be so close. None lethal darts were kept corked, around his forearm underneath his left glove; he took some Ghilk, an extremely fast acting sedative with no long term effects, and efficiently loaded the red feathered dart into the pipe. He crouched to get a better aim and, as the guard was raising his crossbow to shoot at Chris, blew. The dart sailed through the air hitting the guard in the neck just behind his jaw, he fell over instantly. Apollo ran over to Chris to help him up.
'You idiot, take them off, and go and give him some of this animusabeo' he slipped Chris a small phial of clear liquid 'about two drops, we don’t want him to remember why he fell asleep.' Chris followed Apollo’s orders without complaint as Apollo swung the grappling hook up to Charles’s balcony.
Glass was a luxury most of Principatum could not afford, but this address certainly could. The Assassins had a plethora of instruments for opening windows but Apollo was relieved to seen Charles had left his wide open. Just as well thought Apollo, the way Christian’s been performing tonight he’d probably choose to gain entry with a brick. Apollo crept though the small slit opening and was, thankfully, silently followed by Chris.
Apollo stood on a raised bay looking out into a vast room. Charles lay snoring in a four poster on the opposite end of the room. Each noisy breath sounded like a deafening siren in the otherwise silent room.
Apollo couldn’t help imagining it as a real contract. Just a slight depression of his crossbow trigger would end this man’s life. But that decision would have to wait for another day, he was here to do a job; he looked around the room for a worthwhile trophy.
Like most aristocratic estates in Principatum, the Mcvey estate liked to collect relics of the city’s history. This room was filled with documents and artefacts. The room was dominated by a large oil painting. It depicted a huge figure of Caedo, who looked to be cleaving the Silex out of bare rock.
Numerous desks were littered with detailed military plans of famous campaigns against the Parucror, one ancient map even showing the city in equal share. Another document listed the names of previous Parucrory leaders and their suspected Assassins.
But Christian had already seen what he wanted. Sparkling seductively inside a large glass cabinet near the window was a silver flute; it looked, as far as Apollo could tell, to be an old one. Apollo watched as Christian cut a large hole with his diamond cutter and slide out the flute. Apollo signalled to go and they stepped out on to the balcony.
'Nice flute, you gonna keep it,' whispered Apollo.
Christian turned to face him then, totally unexpectedly, pushed Apollo in the chest sending him crashing though the glass back into Charles’s room.
Apollo picked himself up but Christian was gone and on the other side of the room Charles was waking. Apollo produced four knives from his belt. As accurately as clockwork the knives found their targets. The heavy canopy that had previously been suspended from his four poster bed descended on to Charles giving Apollo time to flee the room. Apollo ran to the balcony, he could already hear the shouts of the guards below as he leaped into the starry night sky, thirty feet above the inevitable and hard ground. He swung his hook in mid air aiming for the tree; then just as he was about to hit the gravel, the hook bit, swinging Apollo through the air. The momentum of the swing took Apollo sailing over the boundary wall and he landed on the street cobbles with a thud, he would have to leave his hook dangling from the tree, but it was a small price to pay.
Apollo returned to the Academy, cut and bruised, to find Christian consoling Milly in the dimly lit lobby.
'What the hell was that?' Apollo shouted, his voice booming around the lofty rafters.
'Apollo?' Milly looked up, 'Apollo, I thought you were captured I thought they were gonna kill you!' she ran over and kissed Apollo uncontrollably while he dried her eyes. 'I was so worried; Christian said you fell--'
'Oh, is that what happened Christian, because to me it looked like--'
A steel voice cut through the bubbling atmosphere, 'Ah Gentlemen I see you have returned, and do you have a possession?' Raacts had materialised from nowhere.
Christian offered him the flute, 'Sir I was wondering if I could keep it?'
'You took a flute? Certainly, it is not of any use to the Academy, now it is late, return to your dorms.'
The next day was Saturday, the sunshine smiled down on Principatum and Apollo decided to give Chris the benefit of the doubt, maybe Chris was just having a bad night and in the end, nobody was seriously hurt, but Apollo realised he would to need to say something to Milly. Apollo and Milly went to the Academy gardens to eat their lunch; they lay with their backs against a wide oak as they looked back up towards the school.
'Zeal’s been getting very studious recently isn't he, always in the library, he needs more sun and fresh air,' said Milly picking sweet corn from her sandwich.
'The man’s a career Assassin if I ever saw one… he’ll probably be running this place in ten years.'
'You reckon? Yeah I can see that… Lord Zeal, hope he sorts this place out.' Her features turned uncharacteristically serious as she asked 'what are you gonna do after you graduate? You gonna go career?'
It was a question Apollo had been asking himself frequently recently and one that he had failed to answer completely.
'Erm not sure yet; career Assassin? I suppose I’ll need to be; it is the only thing I’m good at.' Apollo realised he was almost talking to himself.
'Rubbish, I’ve seen you scale them overhangs! You’d be a great… weather vane man?' she burst out laughing.
'What? Fifteen years in the world’s greatest school to put roosters on roofs! What about you?'
'Not sure either, would love a job in the courts making sure everybody is heard, maybe find out about my parents--'
The city’s multitude of tower clock bells signalled noon. 'Oops gotta go to flute practice, see you in a bit--'
'Yeah about that. Last night was pretty crazy, and most of it was Christian’s fault, recently every time I mention your name, he flips. You’re not leading him on or anything are you? I know you’re not on purpose but--'
'Relax, I can handle it.'
'But can he? I’m sure his flute isn’t the only thing he wants playing!'
'Apollo! Let me look after it, besides Christian said he wouldn’t be attending today,' and she trudged back up to the school leaving Apollo and his sandwiches to enjoy the sun.
Apollo finished his lunch and decided to try and persuade Zeal to venture out from the library. Milly was right, Zeal was spending far too much time leafing though grimoires and documents. It really was a beautiful day; the high Academy walls quietened most of the common City noises, leaving the Assassins to enjoy the sunshine, the blossom and the birdsong--
The tranquillity was interrupted by the thunderous boom of the Assassin’s Horn. Apollo had not heard the Horn in over five years. It signalled only two events; the last time Apollo had heard it had been the final large scale Parucror attack on the Republic, but the rebels were incapable of such an assault now. Surely it can’t be the other reason.
Apollo pushed his way though the younger apprentices, some who looked scared but most looked puzzled, and ran straight to the Main Hall.
Most of the Doctors were already there, the gazes directed towards the stage, where the Master was standing with, and Apollo had to look twice, Christian.
'Doctors and students, you are all aware that the Horn has been sounded. I will take this opportunity to put your minds at ease; the Republic is not under threat.' After the Masters words Apollo noticed the shock on several Doctors’ faces.
The Master continued: 'However, you all know that the sounding of the horn is not a flippant decision; Christian here, has deemed it necessary too. Somebody from this School has stolen from him.'
Apollo noticed Christian staring straight at him.
'It is every Assassin‘s right, both Doctor and Apprentice to call for a Death Challenge, whom ever is found to be in possession of this item will face Christian tonight at midnight.
Doctor’s I ask you to proceed to search your relevant floor. That is all.’
'Fine afternoon Mr. Swift,' Raacts spoke closely besides his ear, Apollo cold feel the spittle. 'I wonder what has been taken. A very rare flute one imagines and I did not think such items were of interest to you. I am responsible for your floor; we will wait for Christian and Zeal before we commence the search.
Apollo decided not to protest; Raacts would only make it worse, and anyway, Apollo could remember locking his door.
Zeal must have ran from the library; he arrived in the Main Hall sweating and slightly out of breath 'what’s happening, an attack?'
'No Zeal,' said Raacts 'it seems young men can’t keep their hands to themselves these days.' Christian arrived from the stage and walked straight passed them. 'Ah, and here is the hypocrite. Let us all take a little walk to the thirteenth floor shall we; we have a stolen flute to find.'
The thirteenth floor, like all the others, housed ten Assassins, but only Zeal, Apollo and Christian had survived into the thirteenth year. As they walked out into the corridor Apollo could see one door hung open. The seven unoccupied rooms were always locked shut; the open door wasn’t Zeal’s which was the end dorm, it must be Christian’s. As he got closer Apollo realised whose door was open. 'Look I’ve been set up, be fair, I locked my door this morning and now its open!
'Silence. Christian’s room shall be searched first' and with a sick smile Raacts added to Apollo: 'In the interest of fairness.'
Raacts entered the room with Christian, leaving Apollo to stew in the corridor. Slimy little sod! There’s no way he can beat me at the Death Challenge, he must know that. The guy’s not thinking right, he’s gone insane. But I don’t wanna kill him… maybe teach him a lesson. A thought struck Apollo like a hammer; maybe he knows I won’t kill him, that I don’t want to kill him, and then he only needs to be lucky once.
The search proved unsurprisingly futile.
'Apollo, your room now.'
Apollo was astonished to see the flute wasn’t just lying accusingly on his bed. Apollo wondered, probably as Raacts was too, where it was hid. The room was sparse and after cheeking underneath the bed, Raacts was struggling.
'Now, where have you hid it you thieving scum?' Raacts small red eyes paused on the portrait of Caedo. 'That’s right I remember some of these dorms when I was an adolescent,' he removed the portrait revealing a small hole in the wall. 'Just big enough for a flute one might say.'
Apollo must have looked as nervous as he felt because Raacts noticed it and taunted: 'Why are you so scared, you are quite accomplished, so I’ve been told. You’ll murder that kid'
'Exactly' replied Apollo, but Raacts wasn’t listening he was pulling a long cylinder from the hole; it was wrapped in a black velvet bag.
'I do so enjoy a good Death Challenge you know, we should have more; most of the students are a waste of resources anyway.' He rolled back the velvet, Apollo couldn’t look.
'Parchment!' Raacts couldn’t believe it, neither could Apollo. 'Fragments of old censuses! What you doing with these you bizarre boy.'
‘They’re not mine.’
Raacts threw them at Apollo 'Search over, right Zeal,’ he shouted. ‘We’ll need to search yours too, let’s get this over with.'
Apollo hardly had time to catch his breath before the unimaginable happened. Raacts returned from Zeal’s room carrying the silver flute.
'No! It was meant to be in Apollo’s room… I mean, he must have taken it!'
'You can not withdraw your Death Challenge,’ said Raacts, with a sinister stare. ‘It happens at midnight. Zeal, Christian, both follow me.'
Apollo was left alone in the corridor his head spinning.
Midnight descended swiftly. Rain, propelled by a fearsome wind smashed on to the windows of the Main Hall. Mother Nature was trying her best to supply a spectacular setting; the high pressure that had provided the warm sunshine during the day was now unleashing a violent storm on Principatum.
Apollo, and what seemed like every other Academy resident looked out on to the courtyard from the Main Hall. Two tall oil lanterns were the only additions to the yard but their dim red flickering light combined with the dozens of stonework gargoyles transformed the yard into a ghoulish, eerie hell.
Milly couldn’t watch. She hid her head on Apollo’s chest as she asked: ‘Why can’t they just stop it all? It’s all so silly? One of my friends is gonna die!’
Apollo didn’t answer he just stared through the window fixed on the writhing flames of the closest oil lamp. Apollo was sure Christian had planted the flute in his own room and he was also nearly certain that Zeal had unearthed the plot and swapped it into his room at the last minute. Apollo had been so close to an impossible choice, well, a choice that Apollo thought of as impossible: kill your friend or be killed by them. Apollo had prepared himself for the moment, the life changing moment, of his first assassination, but he had always considered the victim would be a stranger, actually they wouldn’t even be thought of as a victim; merely a target.
But now fifty yards away two lone dark figures entered the courtyard knowing only one would leave. The considerable frame of Zeal became recognisable as he walked over to the lantern closest to Apollo and the Main Hall. Zeal appeared completely calm, not even flinching at the lashing rain. On the opposite side of the courtyard underneath the far lantern Christian was huddled up protecting himself against the weather.
Apollo looked at the Hall’s ancient Grandfather clock. Twenty seconds. Every one of the twenty pendulum sways lasted a lifetime, and then the Horn blasted and the spectators collectively held their breath.
Apollo was not certain what to expect but he was surprised to see both Zeal and Christian remain stationary, then Zeal’s voice roared across the yard: ‘I am going to give you a fair chance, Piper; you know you cannot win, but I don’t want anyone to say I did not give you a chance.’
There was an outbreak of perplexed murmurs amongst the watchers.
‘One chance, Piper! One shot, and if you miss I will kill you.’
Apollo couldn’t believe it, he knew Zeal was good, really good, but this was stupid arrogance.
He heard Milly whimper down by his shoulder.
Apollo wanted to soothe her but the macabre fascination was too strong.
He watched as Christians arm extended straight out in front of him, pistol crossbow cocked. There was a distant spray of rainwater as the crossbow’s string thrust the bolt forward. The bolt cut through the air and rain, speeding directly towards Zeal.
Apollo felt his heartbeat suspend.
The bolt missed Zeal’s head by a fraction, but smashed into the lantern behind him. The hot oil cascaded down from the reservoir; the agony on Zeal’s burning face was the final incident Apollo saw before the smouldering oil spluttered onto the ground, leaving the nearside of the yard in darkness.
The thunder shook the Main Hall once more.
Across the yard, sparsely visible in the dark, was Christian, rooted to the spot, with his crossbow arm still outstretched.
Apollo knew Christian was thinking the same identical thoughts as himself; had he won? Had the burning oil finished Zeal off? Apollo was still unsure why Zeal had, presumably, taken the flute; but had Zeal paid the ultimate price?
Another flashing crunch of lightening revealed the answers.
Illuminated, briefly but definitely, on the wet cobbles was the image of the crashed lantern and the spilt oil but there was definitely no fallen body.
Zeal was alive and on the prowl.
Seeing this, Christian immediately fled from the light of his lantern to the safety of the murky walls and then into the darkness of the rooftops.
And then both men were lost to the shadows; the courtyard still and silent, but expectant.
Several minutes passed without sight or sound of the two Assassins. The storm drew closer as the relentless rain continued. Apollo knew how dangerous the rain made rooftop manoeuvres; this was idiotic, both Christian and Zeal could have plummeted to their death already.
There was a thunderous crack as a violent bolt of lightening shattered into the nearby Silex. The powerful light seared over the whole courtyard and the surrounding buildings and roofs--
And there, out of the corner of Apollo’s eye he saw them. It was an image that burnt through the eye into the brain.
Silhouetted against the brilliant white of the lightening were two soaking figures, both stood facing the same direction and only a step apart. A glint of steel twinkled like a distant lighthouse, as the taller man unsheathed a blade. The front figure fell to his knees as his head separated from his body.
The lightening gave up its assault on the Silex, once again leaving the courtyard and the watchers in the dark.
Apollo knew what he had seen but he had to be certain. He yelled out to the room in general: “did any of you see that? Is this madness over now?”
The room remain silent, the audience transfixed.
At that moment, a dark form stepped out into the far light of the distant lantern. It was unmistakably Zeal, yet now partially bald and horribly scarred. Zeal turned to the windows of the Main Hall and dropped a spherical lump to the ground.
The Doctors erupted in applause as Zeal walked back towards the Main Hall.
Left all alone in the courtyard, his blood mixing with the rainwater was the head of the late Christian. Another victim of the Academy.
The graduation ceremony was one of the cities premier social events, the Main Hall was always lavishly decorated; the drab sun-battered black drapes were replaced with silver and midnight blue counterparts and the regular long benches replaced by five large circular dining tables. Professional musicians were usually hired or more precisely asked politely, to provide background entertainment. Obviously the graduating Assassins were in attendance as well as the schools’ Doctors and staff, and the remaining seats were populated with military leaders and other Republican officials. This lead to a peculiar atmosphere; everybody knew they were supposed to be enjoying themselves but couldn’t help feeling awkward, after all, if you upset anyone here it was a possibility they would then pay someone else in attendance to ensure you wouldn’t be capable of repeating the insult.
Apollo had been ushered to an ante room along side the stage in the Main Hall. Somewhere in the bottom of his stomach he could feel the excitable butterflies bracing themselves for take-off once more. Absentmindedly he removed a 6 oz throwing knife from his belt and began nervously fingering it.
Come on! You’ve seen at least a dozen ceremonies in the past, and all you’ve got to do is stroll on to the stage and shake a few hands, smile politely and receive your Knife- Don’t drop it, don’t drop it, that would be very embarrassing! Then get off stage and hold casual small talk with some sycophantic dignitaries, but Milly will be with you by then. The girl’s a small talking genius; she could have small talk with a deaf and dumb man. So, in summary just don’t drop the bloody Knife.
‘No need to prove yourself anymore Apollo.’ Apollo looked questioningly at Zeal’s pale face. Zeal answered by staring meanfully at the opposite wall where Apollo’s 6 oz throwing knife now vibrated between the eyes of the cities current ruler with a stereotypical but satisfying twang. ‘Sorry Zeal… just carried away, didn’t realise bit… nervous I suppose.’
‘No need to apologise either, although maybe Lord Zilkus would somewhat disagree. Nervous Apollo? Not like you, this’ll be the proudest moment of your life.’ Zeal removed the knife from the painting and inspected the damage. ‘Mmm. Poor quality anyway. The next time you throw this knife you’ll be doing it for Caedo and the glory of the Republic,’ he lobbed the knife back to Apollo, who snatched it mid-revolution and returned it to his belt in one fluid practised movement.
‘Speaking of the glory of the Republic lets have a peek of who’s turned up for our little party,’ said Milly as she walked over to the curtain. The long blue curtain barely twitched as she manoeuvred a view. ‘It’s quite hard to see the posh table from here. I recognise a couple of Army officers. Ooh, look at the lady with Colonel Hydal she’s too pretty for him; he must have paid her--’
‘Move Milly.’ Zeal easily nudged Milly aside and peered through the small gap. ‘I heard the Lord was coming tonight but I can’t see him anywhere but his security is… Hah there’s Raymond von Fume at the skivy civi’s table wonder who the oath bribed for that seat. Well well, I think Doctor Raacts may be a little worst for wear!’
‘Never! Old Raacts hasn’t even smiled in fifteen years. He thinks wine is just something his students do!’ Apollo was intrigued despite his nerves.
‘He’s probably celebrating getting rid of me,’ said Milly as she pushed her head underneath Zeal’s. ‘You sure about Lord Zilkus, Zeal? Cos I heard Jacob Zavers was coming and they don’t normally let both candidates appear together?’
‘Why you bothered about Zavers? It is common knowledge that the Lord is going to triumph yet again, he’s a great leader; it’s in his blood, you do know he is a descendent of Caedo don’t you? They both have the same eyes,’ said Zeal, firm in his belief that leadership was located somewhere in the genotype.
‘Well Principatum’s not a monarchy anymore and anyway some of Caedo’s descendents have been really lousy rulers,’ said Milly but Zeal wasn’t about to argue.
‘How come you two both know so much about the guest list?’ asked Apollo
‘I asked the Master whilst in the in the Doctors halls,’ said Zeal.
‘Fair enough, but Milly, please don’t tell me you’ve been getting all cosy with the Doctors!’
‘Oh yeah, I love the older man; so strong and sophisticated,’ her voice coated in sarcasm.
‘Ha, someone should go and tell that to Raacts!’ mumbled Apollo.
‘No I’m not cosy with the Doctors if you must know… I just you know… get around’
Apollo gave her a puzzled look and went back to staring at his feet; trying to forcible make them remember how to walk without falling over.
It seemed to Apollo that they were kept in waiting for an overly long period of time, how long did it take to introduce people and make some speech that no-one would ever remember. The longer he waited the more disconnected he became and his mind detached itself from his awkward apprehensive body in search of its own entertainment. The same questions continued to flow through his mind: Where am I gonna live? What am I gonna do? Career Assassin I suppose, I mean you are pretty damn good or if that fails then anything as long as there is no stage or an audience. What about my parents? Who were they? What about Milly? You can’t let her continue after tonight; there’s only two ways it can go!
The loud fanfare from the trumpets of the captive musicians dragged Apollo’s drifting mind back to the tense body and the present.
‘Finally,’ said Apollo jumping off the table he had been sitting on. The trumpets stopped and were greeted with enthusiastic applause. From the other side of the curtains sweeping footsteps could be heard echoing from the hollow stage. A voice cleared.
‘Ladies and Gentlemen, Doctors and Officers please be upstanding for the Leader of our city, the 87th Lord of Principatum, Lord Zilkus.’ Inside the small anteroom Zeal gave a satisfied smile as the applause reached higher decibels.
‘Wow, we’ve got top brass then,’ said Milly. Apollo was nearly sick, yeah and I’m about to tarnish the top brass he thought.
The Master continued from the other side of the curtain: ‘this year has been a very special year for the Academy, it is no overestimation to say that we are about to honour some of the finest students in our one thousand year history! I’m sure most of you are aware that when an apprentice completes their fifteen years of schooling here they are awarded with the Academy Knife. The Knife is of course, a license to kill on behalf of his Lordship, but also in its own way the second best academic qualification this world has to offer.’ He paused to savoir the confused expressions amongst the majority of his audience. ‘Less of you will be aware that when an apprentice graduates with incredible and extraordinary ability they receive a special qualification, the greatest anyone can achieve. Before today only three Golden Knives have ever been presented. Today that number will double. The fact that all three of today’s graduates will receive this distinction is the most remarkable coincidence. Truly the most talented crop of my or anyone else’s time--’
‘Yeah what about the other six who started off!’ protested Milly from behind the curtain.
‘Shh, I can’t hear Mil,’ said Zeal.
‘So Ladies and gentleman I shall make you wait no longer. I hope you never have the misfortune to see these people again after tonight (sniggers from the assassin’s table but forced, fake, uneasy laughter from the other tables) but for now can I have your applause for our first graduate, Apollo Swift!’
Apollo’s mind went soft and dull, in the future he would never remember the next few minutes but luckily his body could work without his brain, his sweaty hand pulled the curtain back and his feet pushed him forward on to the stage and into full view of several hundred people.
It was another blast from the trumpets that shuck Apollo back into lucidity. He was stood next to Milly who was smiling warmly at Zeal as he walked of the stage with the Master and the Lord. As his nervous system rebooted Apollo became aware of his Golden Knife which he was clutching so firmly it was making his hand white.
‘What a truly noble man!’ said Zeal as he returned to Milly and Apollo.
‘Who the Lord? Please Zeal, you only said a dozen words to each other, you could hardly tell if he‘s noble or knobbly,’ said Milly.
‘Well it was a dozen more than this guy here,’ said Zeal, nodding towards Apollo.
‘That’s not fair now, I’m sure bluuuuuuaaargh is an old language word meaning: I am very grateful to be receiving this distinction, but if you will excuse me for one moment because I’m about to vomit. Really Apollo I can’t believe you’re like this,’ said Milly.
Apollo looked in horror at the Lord who, was indeed now putting on fresh robes as an aide walked away with a pile of really dirty laundry.
‘Bollocks,’ said Apollo softly.
‘Big hairy bollocks if you ask me,’ said Milly
‘Milly please, we are in the presence of his lordship and some of the most influential people in the City! But Apollo it really was quite amusing I mean not for Lord Zilkus but…’ Zeal trailed off but continued: ‘So we finally find a weakness in Apollo then. Can travel across the City in broad daylight whilst avoiding detection and can split a radish from thirty paces, but can’t control his bodily functions on stage… in front of the ruler of the City!’
‘Shut up!’ But it was over now and starting to relax, Apollo joined in their laughter. ‘Right ok, ok can we get some food and a stiff drink down us?’
The three graduates had taken their seats at the head table for the feast. Apollo sat between Milly and Zeal, hoping to avoid any awkward vomit related questioning. To the right of Zeal sat the Academy Master and to his right a newly dressed Lord Zilkus. The Academy’s waiting staff, dressed in white to contrast and differentiate them from the Assassins and their black, poured mead into everybody’s silver goblet. Apollo naturally noticed the Republican security bodyguards positioned at the various entry points of the Main Hall, he got the feeling it was the kind of security that was meant to be seen. Overt security was more or less useless protection from a trained Assassin but the Lord would be safe here nonetheless as the law states that no contracts for his death are ever commissioned.
Apollo raised his goblet to his lips and took a sip, it was melomel, and the addition of various fruit juices to the heavy honey gave it a rich sickly taste that didn’t go down too well. Apollo decided not to draw attention to himself by asking for a beer and decided the water in the crystal carafe was adequate for now.
'What’s with you now?' said Milly who while taking a sip caught his agitated face. 'You still nervous you’re very quiet?'
Apollo wished he could tell her the real reason he was anxious but now wasn’t the right time either.
'No not anymore… its just I think everybody is sniggering at me.' It was a reasonable accusation; during his time at the Academy Apollo had excelled and he knew it. The haughty tutors were always keen to find a weakness in their students to keep them in their place, but up until now Apollo had never given them one.
'Look up Apollo, exclaimed Milly. 'Nobody cares, they’re all enjoying themselves. Now drink your mead and so will you.'
‘Erm no thanks it isn’t sitting very well. I’ll just have the water.’
Milly looked exasperated. ‘You will not,’ and turning to the nearest waitress added ‘Excuse me miss, can the young man here have a beer… Uperbast please.’ She turned to Apollo with a mischievous smile.
‘Uperbast! Cheers Mil.’
After a couple of Uperbast, which had a kick like a crazed donkey and tasted only marginally better, Apollo felt much more relaxed, and slightly drunk, even managing a conversation with the Master about the starter (Roasted Confit of Quail served with Poached Pears).
Zeal seemed to be in his element, devouring mouthfuls of prime Drake steak while discussing many of the Academy’s more famous graduates with anyone who would give him an audience, he found it hard to suppress his delight that he could finally converse with the Academy’s Doctors on an equal standing.
Milly didn’t care for her company much and by the time she had finished with her main course of Pan Seared Halibut had managed to subtly offend nearly everyone around the table.
Apollo seamed to remember that desserts while always served were never greeted enthusiastically by the Doctors, who always preferred to spend their remaining time at the table smoking. And true to form, as the exotic fruits and trifles were issued from the kitchens, various pipes, cigars and an assortment of cigarettes were revealed; having previously been hid away in the dark recesses of their owners clothing. Apollo wasn’t in the mood to eat anymore food but Milly found room for her favourite passion fruit cheesecake. Both Milly and Apollo, however watched in bemusement as Doctor Bestleaux offered Zeal one of his fine dark cigars.
On some of the rare occasions when Apprentices were permitted time to explore Principatum to ‘get a feel for the city’ and become more familiar with the sights, sounds and civilians of Principatum they spent most of their time in one of the Principatum’s multitude of pubs, taverns and bars and in the majority smoking was considered a requirement rather than a preference. Zeal was always the first to complain, loudly and frequently violently, about the dense cloud of smoke that was in his words ‘abusing his body’.
Apollo commended Zeal on his present performance though. He held the humidor like a seasoned expert taking long drawn out drags with barely any discomfort. Barely any, Apollo had known Zeal for too long not to see the utter repulsion well concealed behind his now slightly watery eyes, but Apollo could also see the determination there as well and Apollo would not be surprised in the least if smoking now became a permanent habit of Zeal’s; nothing more than a small shortcut as he strides along his path to power.
‘Erm excuse me,’ said Milly loudly. ‘But some of us are still eating, so could you do that smoking elsewhere please.’
Doctor Bestleaux’s look of outrage was mirrored around most of the table. Spitting with rage and alcohol he said: ‘Now listen here women. We’ve been enjoying cigars after Dinner since before you were born and I’d be damned if I’m going to cease to do so for a little brat--’
‘I am still eating.’ The interrupting voice was one Apollo couldn’t recall hearing before. It wasn’t as harsh as a hiss but he did seemed to hear esses where there shouldn’t be. It was a voice that commanded attention. Apollo turned to Lord Zilkus, he had seen the face on many occasions before, it adorned banners and currency throughout Principatum and there was at least a score of portraits within the Academy alone but while the likeness, a pale perfectly round head with mismatched grey and blue eyes, was accurate, the images missed something. The man before Apollo now seemed older than physical characteristics could suggest, withered was perhaps the wrong word, but Apollo could tell that here was a mind far more durable than the body that encased it.
Lord Zilkus repeated: 'I am still eating and I do not appreciate mouthfuls of smoke condiment to my food.' The Doctors made muttered apologies as they rose from their seats. Zeal too got up to leave and follow the Doctors until he received a sharp gaze from Milly. Zeal answered with a begging, almost longing look as he gestured to the departing Doctors.
‘No you can stay here with us please,’ said Milly and Zeal sheepishly sat down with Apollo, Milly, Lord Zilkus, and the Master who had also remained at the table.
‘I was unaware that you were a smoker Zeal,’ said Lord Zilkus as he delicately dissected a clementine.
Zeal cleared his throat before saying: ‘Fairly new habit my Lord, but I am intrigued, what are you aware about me?’
‘Please, Zilkus will suffice. I am far more aware than you think.’ He paused while removing a segment and when he continued his tone had changed to a lighter one. ‘After all, you can not hope to win three consecutive elections if you are ill prepared.’
Milly was listening in on the conservation and asked: ‘Lord Zilkus is it true that Mr. Zavers will also be in attendance tonight? I haven’t seen him yet.’
‘Hello Mileno, indeed you are correct. He will arrive as soon as I have departed. Forgive me for asking, but do you prefer his manifesto to my own?’
Politics didn’t really concern Apollo much even though he appreciated that it would provide him with much of his future business, but he was aware that Milly had recently taken an interest.
‘Not really, they both seem fairly similar to me. No Republican official seems to listen to the man on the street anymore. You all look after yourselves.’
Apollo could feel the atmosphere becoming tenser something which Zeal tried to address by laughing: ‘Milly you aren’t seriously--’ but was interrupted by Lord Zilkus.
‘No Zeal, Mileno makes an informative observation, although fairly naïve and idealistic. Tell me Mileno, is it politics in which you hope to make a career?’ the Lord looked genuinely interested.
‘Most probably, but later on in life.’
‘Excellent, Principatum could only benefit from a girl like you.’
Apollo wasn’t sure if the Lord had meant to sound patronising but he knew Milly would see it that way and was surprised she remained silent.
The Lord turned back to Zeal and asked him about his future plans. To which Zeal replied enthusiastically: 'An Assassin is all I have ever wanted to be. I see it as the most effective way to serve the memory of Caedo and his City, other than your own job of course my Lord'
‘Interesting, I hardly see it as a job anymore though more a vocation. You take an active interest in the history and future of Principatum?’
'We have been living our way of life for more than a millennia and I will be proud to help in the continuation of our culture and the protection of our values. I for one can not wait my first assignment. Defeating the Parucrory is all I’ve ever wanted to do, since they took my parents from me.'
‘Of course, the Academy and the city were founded in a time most unlike our own but I’m sure you’ll make Caedo proud Zeal, both of you,’ and then, as if noticing Apollo for the first time he added: ‘Sorry I meant all of you will. Golden Knife recipients, well done indeed, but now I must retire. Jacob Zavers will be here shortly and for safety reasons I am required to be outside the premises when he does so. It was very satisfying to see you.’ And with that he departed the Main Hall with the Master in tow.
'Well I really felt apart of that conversation!' Apollo said it without really thinking first; in truth he preferred the anominity.
'Well you did vomit on him Apollo, you can hardly blame him for being a bit sharp,' said Zeal.
'I would have preferred sharp to total ignorance! Anyway can we go now, we’ve gotta get rooms in the Doctors residence for the night.'
'Soon, we’ll have to speak to Zavers first, he should be here soon.'
'Oh great maybe Milly can give him a critique of his manifesto! Why have you become so politically interested all of a sudden anyway?' asked Apollo.
'Apollo do you have any idea of life outside of these walls? He didn’t and she knew. 'No. So don’t make jokes about what you don’t understand.'
'Sorry Mil, I didn’t mean it like that. How are you so aware about Principatum life though?'
She looked uncomfortable and Apollo could tell she was relieved when Zeal changed the subject: 'That’s Zavers isn’t it? By the Master, near the door.'
Apollo had excellent eye sight and easily spotted the figure Zeal was looking at. Jacob Zavers looked like the typical elderly Republican Judge. A man who had lived a long rich life and it was starting to show; while he looked a naturally slim build his Judges jacket was struggling to conceal his bloated gut. He wore an eye patch over his left eye which was distinctive under his thatch of thinning grey hair. Apollo could see the Master leading Zavers over to their table; he also noticed the security around Zavers was less obvious than Lord Zilkus’ but still considerable.
Oh well, if I just barf on him as well he’ll probably just leave me alone too.
'Good evening gentlemen,' said Zavers, he shook Apollo and Zeal’s hands, ‘and the beautiful lady,’ he lowered his face and moved Milly’s long dark red hair to kiss her on the cheek. 'Sorry to keep you all waiting; these archaic safety rules are so absurd when applied to the modern society. I mean the Parucrory have been pushed back beyond the river and they hardly have the means to storm this place! And there’s none of that magic nonsense left. Fairly tales don’t wag in this city anymore! Right you must be Zeal, I’ve noticed the scar,' as if offering an explanation. 'Your obviously Mileno and that would make you Apollo, I’ll keep my distance sorry but it’s a clean jacket.'
Apollo wasn’t sure if was a joke or not. And how did he know; did news travel that fast?
'It is nice to meet you Judge Jacob,' opened Zeal and the next halve hour relatively comfortable for Apollo he let the conversation breeze over his head and only Milly actively tried to involve him. It was only when Zavers voice turned into a whisper that Apollo became interested.
'So you all ready for the final task then?' asked Zavers. The three graduates were stunned; it was Milly who spoke first: 'Jacob how do you know, only Assassins know about the final task?'
The old man slipped his hand into the inside of his jacket and revealed the unmistaken blade of an Academy Knife.
'Of course it is not a Golden one like yours but I’m proud just the same. Are you all ready to do it, the final task?' He looked each graduate in the eye. 'Are you all ready to end another human being’s life?'
Apollo felt his heart miss several beats and his head felt like it had imploded, for the best part of six months he had been trying to ask Milly that same question, trying to work the moment and timing to perfection. The dilemma had given him sleepless nights and had been a contributing factor to the whole vomiting episode and some bloody stranger waltzes in from the courts and asks it within an hour of meeting her!
Apollo had no time to be angry with Zavers however, because out of the corner of his eye he could see Milly lowering her goblet from her lips it seemed an eternity before she said simply: 'Yes.'
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