Under Cover of Night
It was late. Cunning was always up late, because late was when he conducted the majority of his business. It was easier for most people, he had long since discovered, to do bad things under the cover of night. Easier to admit to shameful needs, in the dark. Easier to indulge those needs, and pretend in the light of the morning that they’d never happened.
For his own part, Cunning was perfectly willing to do all his work by the unmerciful, searing light of the desert sun. It wasn’t that he was a worse man than his customers. Many of the fantasies he had helped them to realize would have made Cunning feel sick, had he been forced to watch as others carried out the acts, which he merely facilitated. But nor did he deceive himself that his relative squeamishness made him a measurably better man. After all, he was the one who provided the rich and depraved with the opportunity to indulge their desires, and he never lost even a moment’s sleep in the process.
No. He simply didn’t feel the need to creep through the shadows, because he had learned long ago that there was nothing to be gained from trying to hide who you were. Not from yourself, and certainly not from others. Secrets made a man vulnerable.
He grinned to himself, a happy expression of pure expectation that transformed his ugly, rough-hewn features into something that could almost be called pleasant. Soon, his contacts would be back with the truth behind a certain slave-stealing child-lover, and then Stranger, that reeking piece of human excrement with an overblown reputation, would learn that lesson for himself. As he thought all this, Cunning had been walking up the stairs, and down the hall to the master bedroom. The anticipation of what he could do, once Stranger’s deep dark secrets were all his to do with as he pleased, was intoxicating to him, in the way he supposed the exotic, expensive little living dolls in the brothel downstairs were intoxicating to his clientele. He was giddy with it, and still grinning, when he opened the door to his room, and stepped inside.
He hadn’t bothered to turn on the light, and advancing age had started to blur his night vision. That was why, he would think later, he didn’t immediately see the hulking shadow of the man who had seated himself, loose-limbed and perfectly at his ease, in the comfortable, stuffed chair nearest the window. What finally caught Cunning’s eye was not the shadow, or any hint of movement, but the silvery glint of metal as the moon peeked out from behind the clouds, and glinted off the edge of Stranger’s sword.
Cunning didn’t get the chance to finish that sentence. Stranger had moved like the demon the stories made him out to be, and when he swung his sword, it was in a deceptively lazy arch that made the metal sing through the air, before it came to a sudden stop, the sharp edge only barely whispering across the stubbly skin of Cunning’s throat. He didn’t feel any pressure at all, just a faint gust of wind, and then, a slight, creeping itch as a sliver of blood ran down his throat toward his collar.
“That shut you up.” Stranger observed in a perfectly calm, even voice. His pronunciation, in the trade tongue that was the native language of the human invaders, had a touch of aristocracy to it. That shouldn’t have surprised Cunning, but somehow, even though he knew the man was warrior-bred, it still did.
“That’s good”, Stranger continued, “because I plan to do most of the talking. You’re not very well liked here in town. In fact, several people have recently suggested I kill you, and that’s just over the course of one day. I said I wouldn’t do that, and as long as we can come to an understanding, I think I’ll stand by that decision. I will also do what you so obviously want me to do, and leave this filthy little hellhole behind – permanently. Don’t you think that is awfully generous of me?”
He paused, and Cunning tried not to breathe, lest the movement of his throat as he did so should drive the edge of the sword deeper into his skin.. He had pissed himself. He hadn’t known before tonight that fear could really do that to a man, but it had, and the odor prickled his nostrils in a way that teased and tickled his tear ducts. Stranger’s face grew a touch impatient, and he sighed, as though exasperated by Cunning’s lack of manners.
“Well? Don’t you?”
“Ye- yes, sir.”
Stranger smiled. The expression was twisted, pulled out of shape by his hideous scar, and made the expression less suited to the conveyance of mirth, than to the nightmarish hunger of the half-forgotten monster of a story that had terrified Cunning as a boy; a monster with razorblade-teeth, that fed on the flesh of children.
“Good. Now, I’ve been told not to prickle your pride, because people around here seem to think that makes you vicious. But I think I know you better than that. I have met men like you before. Power-hungry men. Greedy men. Men who can’t bear to be seen as weak, because it undermines their power over others. But there’s no one here to see us. You won’t hold this visit against me, will you?”
“No”, Cunning whispered. The emotion that made his voice quiver was not rage. Nor was it fear. It was relief, because somewhere at the back of his mind, the calculator that served as his brain had run the numbers, and concluded that he was probably not going to die.
“That’s good. Now, before I go, I’m going to tell you a story. Because you see, there’s a misunderstanding about me, which I feel the need to clarify. I haven’t killed you, so public opinion seems to hold I don’t want to kill you. That I would feel bad about taking this sword”, Stranger turned the blade so that its flat edge was against Cunnings throat, and pressed the cold metal against his skin, “and opening you up from groin to neck, so I could watch your entrails fall out of your body. I’ve been advised that if I leave here, you will think it’s because I am weak, when in fact, it’s proof of the opposite. You can have no conception of how badly I want to kill you, or how little it would bother my conscience. But I won’t do that, because you’re a known quantity. You’re a reasonable man, and can be made to act in your own best interest, if only I show you how. ”
Stranger took a step back, and the sword fell away from Cunning’s throat. The wave of relief that inspired almost made his knees fold beneath him, and for one terrible, humiliated moment, he thought he was going to vomit. Stranger had stepped back, reclaiming his seat by the window, and gestured for Cunning to take a seat in the chair opposite him. The gesture was gracious, and Cunning felt, now that the sword was no longer at his throat, more bewildered than terrified. As though everything that had happened since he opened the door to his bedroom had been nothing but a strange and horrific dream.
He sat down.
“That’s better”, Stranger said. “Like I said, I’m going to tell you a story. You should be pleased. You’ve been trying to find out who I am, ever since that unpleasant little scene at The Rotten Core. So let me enlighten you.”
Stranger leaned back in his chair, making himself comfortable, and seemed to be trying to think where to start. And then, with a voice that was surprisingly well-suited to the telling of stories, he began:
“My father’s name was Alexander III, and he was the true-bred son of a line of true-bred warriors, the head of an important clan. He was the Ruler of Hahn, and I have heard people say that he was a great man. I have never heard anyone claim that he was a good one, which, considering the number of sycophants my father surrounded himself with, should in itself be food for some thought. He was certainly not a good father but then, according to him, I never tried very hard to learn how to be a good son. Indeed, the night I was born, he assured me on more than a few occasions, was the worst night of his life.
His wife, my mother, the Queen of my father’s City and the love of his life, did not survive giving birth. I, consequently, never got to know her. I like to think that, had she lived, she would have loved me. Perhaps, had she lived, my father would have endeavored to love me, also. But as it was, my mother died, and I was given life. I was my father’s firstborn, and more than likely, considering my species’ stunted fertility, to be his only child, even had he taken another wife after my mother’s death, which he never did. I was his son, his heir, whose shoulders would one day carry the weight of responsibility that came with the power of the Crown, and from the first time he laid eyes on me, he declared me a disappointment, sickly, mewling and weak.
I can’t tell you what manner of madness inspired him to choose a name like mine, for a child he considered afflicted with the cardinal sin above any other, to the thinking of the warrior-born. That sin being, of course, my weakness. Perhaps he hoped that my name would in some way balance that sin, or perhaps it was only respect for tradition. I was the son of a man who had been named for the warrior king Alexander, and tradition demanded no lesser exemplar of power and strength as the namesake of his true-bred son. Whatever his reasoning, he decided on the name Achilles.
My nurse, Cherished, who was a faithful servant to my father, right up until the day he killed her, tried to talk him out of his choice. She tried to tell him about the significance of names, which of course only confirmed my father’s opinion of her as a superstitious barbarian, an uppity little Sixer servant who fancied herself a scholar. She tried to tell him she knew story of Achilles, and that he had been a great warrior, but that his story was one driven by a powerful and frightening rage, which he wielded in the name of vengeance. It was not, she said, a name suitable for a boy she could see was meant to be wise, compassionate, and kind.
But my father, as ever, did as he saw fit. A few years later, life in my father’s palace had gotten its claws into me, shredding what kindness I had been born with and hardening the wisdom Cherished always insisted she saw in me into a cold, hard edge, best suited to ferreting out the weaknesses of my enemies and allowing me to use those weaknesses to destroy them completely. By then, I believe that even the woman who was as a mother to me would have had to admit that perhaps, I had been well-named. She was a Namer, and the last time I ever saw her, right before my father’s blade severed her head from her shoulders, she turned her face up toward mine, and her lips formed the shape of a word.
I was a child at the time, and the situation, with Cherished kneeling in the blood-spattered sand of the arena, and me seated in the royal box far above her, watching her final moments, was not one that lent itself to careful, unemotional observation. I may be forgiven then, for taking three more years to finally realize the word her lips had shaped, and to understand that with her last breath, Cherished had given me a Sixer’s name, a name eerily foreshadowed by the one that my father had given. But my destiny, according to Cherished, was not to be the furious vengeance of my namesake, the hero Achilles. Instead, she saw in me its slightly less vicious, slightly more judicious younger cousin.
The name she gave me was Retribution. Had my father understood the power of names, he might have thought twice before choosing mine. Had he understood me, perhaps he would have known that the worst things I could be were not wise or compassionate or kind, no matter how much those words smacked to him of weakness. And when he murdered my surrogate mother and enslaved my surrogate sisters, he should have been more mindful of the consequences of trying to use them to control me, after he had spent so many years and expended so much energy to make certain I was constantly reminded that the only judicious way to treat someone who has proven themselves your enemy, was to destroy them.”
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