3. Of Aleius and Assassinations

Just two years prior, Aleius had been the Emperor Regent of all of Acaelia. This was not a bad position to be in. On this day he found himself wrapped in silken sheets being fed jellied toast by a rather attractive lass called Nissy. Her long curly brown hair fell in splendid ringlets framing her more than ample breasts stunningly. She stared at Aleius with rapt attention as he ate his toast lost in thought. Nissy was the second most beautiful woman Aleius had every laid eyes and was certainly the most beautiful women he’d ever slept with. Aleius was doing well for himself.

The reason that Aleius had been able to sleep with her was on account of his position as Emperor Regent. Aleius was the second most powerful man in all of Acaelia – should the Emperor die, he would don the heavy pewter crown and assume his brother’s place on the throne. In the wild, left to his own devices, Aleius would have been passed over without a second thought; quite possibly without a first one. 

While Gaius and Aleius were twins, they could not have been more dissimilar in appearance. Gaius was short and stocky with broad shoulders giving way to a defined, muscular body. Meanwhile, Aleius was extremely tall, almost freakishly so, but rail thin and every part of body seemed to be cut from jagged stone. While Gaius had a bold smooth face with broad features and silken sandy blond hair, Aleius was all angles and his curly woolen hair had gone prematurely grey when he was just twenty-two. He wore a long pointed beard that ended in a neat finger-sized curl. They shared one feature which would identify them as their brothers: they both had their father’s piercing blue eyes which seemed to cut through the chaff straight into your core.

Yet despite all these things, Aleius lay in bed eating with the oh-so-lovely Nissy, munching on toast while he absentmindedly cupped her breast. A playful little squeeze elicited a playful little yelp, and Aleius leaned over and gave her a peck on her forehead. He wrapped himself in his silk sheets, leaving Nissy pleasantly naked on the bed, and wandered over to stare out the window of his room. He stared out at the guards who hustled back and forth over the long twisting parapets, bathed in the opalescent glow of the moon and the fiery hue of their torches. Aleius twisted his beard round and round while he stared out over the castle.

“What’s the matter darling?” Nissy asked.

“Hrm? Oh. Nothing dear. Just thinking.”

“Yeah, I gathered that much. You always do that thing with your beard when you’re off in your head. What’s troubling you now?”

“Nothing, Nissy. Why don’t you go to sleep? You’ve got a long day tomorrow. The soldiers will be home and your girls are going to be in hot demand.”

“That’s for me to worry about. Why don’t you come over here and I’ll give you something a shade better than toast and jelly.”

He smiled at that. “I’m sorry dear, but I’ve business to attend to. I’m afraid I really can’t. I need to go out now, I’ll be gone awhile. Sleep here if you like. I’ll come visit you at the Pretty Pearl tomorrow.” He walked to his ornately wrought wooden armoire and picked out a black silk doublet with matching pants. Putting on his pants, he turned to Nissy. “If you see anybody on your way out, tell them I’ve gone to the library.”

He walked back to her, kissed her gently on the forehead once more, and turned to leave. Almost absentmindedly he scooped up his dagger from the small table near his door and fastened it to his belt as he grabbed his heavy black cloak from the peg on the wall. He fastened it about his neck and pulled the hood up. And with that, Aleius was gone.

***

Back in his rose-oil scented tent, Aleius’s eyes were busy scrutinizing the maps when he heard a husky voice from outside.

“Permission to enter, your grace.”

“Granted. Come in Garrett.”

A strapping older man entered, his dark tanned skin shimmered with sweat in the candlelight. He was bald and wore a close cropped goatee. And at the moment, he looked quite excited.

“We got one of them who done in Gaius sir! Your grace, I mean. We got ‘em on a post, waitin’. We ain’t got much from him yet, but we know you will.”

“Garrett?”

“Yes si– Your grace?”

“How do you know he was one of the assassins who killed my brother?”

“Well your grace, he matched the description one of them dockhands gave. Oh, and he was holdin’ this.” He handed a small pin over to Aleius, who turned it over slowly in his hands. A small brass disk no larger than a coin, it had inside it a bearded lynx’s face with glittering topaz eyes.

“A lynx? So the order is real then...”

“Strangest thing, your grace, is that he asked for you. By name. Said you’d be able to get it all sorted. Dunno why he thought that.” Garrett chuckled a bit to himself, then said “Maybe he don’t know you’re Gaius’s brother.”

“Hrm, yes, maybe that’s it. Well take me to him. Oh. And Garrett?”

“Yes, your grace?”

“What was his name? The assassin.”

“Balen.”

“I see,” Aleius said, fingers running through his beard, twirling it into an ever tighter knot.

***

As it happened, on a night two years prior Aleius had been on his way to meet a man named Balen at his pub called The Mudder’s Mug.  His breath formed a fine mist as Aleius hustled through the Lower Third District; he tromped through the snow lit only by the waxing moon. Clad in his black doublet and matching cloak, he hurried down the sparsely lit alley beside the Mug, carrying on with as much secrecy as a gangly giant can muster. Aleius rapped thrice on the heavy wooden door and rubbed his hands together while he waited for Balen to open up. A few seconds later the door opened a crack and an outlandishly wide eye peeked out of the gap.

“Ah, it’ll be you then, won’t it? Come in, come in. Hurry up then,” the owner of the eye said.

“Yes, it’s me. Who else would it be at this time of night?” Aleius asked whilst crouching through door. He was greeted by Balen, the owner of the establishment. A short thickset man in his early fifties, Balen wore his wispy salt-and-pepper hair loose with a thick ashen beard rounding out his ragamuffin look. He wore now a stained grey overcoat pulled over a well-worn leather vest with some pants there were so threadbare it was ponderous how they remained together at all. “You expecting company that I’m not Balen?”

“Oh come now, never can be too careful when you’re plannin’ what we is. Let’s get us down to the basement then,” Balen said while fastening the heavy iron bolt on the door behind Aleius. They stood now in the back room of the Mudder’s Mug, a ramshackle affair that served pisswater to the downtrodden folks who lived in the Lower Third District. A looming wooden fire hazard, the Mug was largely made of rotting and rotten wood with hay strewn about the floor and stacks of barrels twenty feet high lining every wall. The air was heavy with that scent that can only be created by the unique combination of stale beer, piss, and rat shit, and Aleius found himself wishing himself back in his comfortable room with his scented candles and toast.

Balen hurried him to a small patch of hay behind some barrels of low-grade ale and pushed the hay aside revealing a small wooden trapdoor. The door gave a small creak as he tilted it open, and Balen waited awkwardly whilst Aleius contorted his ungainly body through the hatch and down the rusted iron ladder.

Once the men were settled in the basement proper, Balen lit the torches in the sconces along the mossy stone walls, revealing a basement that was somehow worse, even more ramshackle, than the dive bar above would have hinted at. The ceiling could not have been more than five feet high so Aleius was hunched almost in half and had to totter around in an uncomfortable shuffle to move about. They sat at the squat wooden table in the center of the room and Balen produced a few dusty rolls of parchment from his overcoat. He unfurled them on the table, placing a mug here and an ink pot there to keep them flat.

“Here’s the info we’s got from our man. Gaius is set to return three evenings hence, and get this! The bloody idiot left Veronica in the newlands! And his Pewter Guard wit’ her! The fool’s coming by hisself with only a skeleton crew!” Balen laughed wheezily as he pointed to some shipping logs showing that Gaius would be returning with some 20 less people than he left with. “He’ll be easy pickins if I do say so meself.”

“He left Veronica overseas?” A scowl appeared on his face that disappeared before you could be sure it was ever there at all.  He ringed his beard round his fingers and looked at the documents through furrowed brow.

“A-a-and his Pewter Guard too!” Balen repeated, pointing again to the shipping logs.

“This news is...is unexpected. All to the good though, I suppose. Our job should be considerably easier without the guard there, and I treasured not the idea of putting some of them to the sword. They’re good men, they’ll be useful to me later on,” he said. Aleius rocked back in his decaying wooden chair, staring at the ceiling as if studying its leaky crevices would help him process what he had just heard. “So our plans are otherwise unchanged then?”

“Yessir, I filched this here invoice off some fool magistrate, come down here for one of Alvina’s girls. Says here they be set to dock at the Eastern Port. My man aboard will be sendin’ us a pigeon when they’s close. The info we got says they should be landing sometime around dawn.”

“Good. The rest of Lynxes are ready then? Malus and Edward confirmed as much after court. I haven’t heard from Prim or Thalik.”

“Aye, they’re ready.”

“Good. As you know we won’t be able to be seen together for some time after the deed is done.”

“And me spot? In the court, I mean. And the fancy room with the handmaids? Them kind who do whatever ya say?”

Aleius let out a frustrated sigh, then said, “Yes, yes. You know I wish your heart were all the way in this Balen. But nobody’s better than you at culling information, I suppose, so I guess I’m stuck with you. But yes, once I’m Emperor I’ll make sure you get your reward Balen.” He stood to leave, banging his head on the stone ceiling. He let a string of curses under his breath and hobbled over to the ladder with his hand furiously rubbing his skull.

“Aleius!” Balen whispered excitedly. Aleius turned around and stared at him, waiting for him to speak. “The Lynx hunts the foul under cloak of night,” he said putting his hand over the polished bronze pin.

“Oh for fuck’s sake,” Aleius muttered and ascended the ladder.

***

Aleius’s red silk cape whoosed in the wind as Garrett led him through the sprawling military encampment. A few hundred tents were set up in the dry dirt of Acaelian lowlands, surrounded by a hand-dug moat lined with sharpened wooden stakes. Aleius’s tent was a massive thing made of a deep scarlet cloth that sat squat at the end of the camp. Garret and Aleius marched past the rows of common soldiers’ white cloth tents dwelled to the pit where the prisoners were kept. The prison, if it could be called that, was little more than an encirclement of pointed wooden posts monitored by a couple of guards. There hadn’t been a prisoner in weeks, so the guards had largely taken to playing cards between naps.

It was anything but unattended now, with throngs of soldiers crowded around the prison pit, taking a break from their otherwise boring days to catch a glimpse of a mythical member of the Order of the Lynx. As Garrett and Aleius approached, Aleius saw Balen hanging from bound wrists off of a tall pole, with his feet dangling a few inches from the ground. He was clad in a tattered black cloak whose hood was pulled back and, if Balen had looked a bit crazed before, he now crossed the border into complete madman. His unkempt hair flailed about as he kicked about madly, trying in vain to free himself from his rope bonds.

 

The men hurled insults at their would-be assassin barkeep with increasing ire, but they grew silent as Aleius entered the pit. Balen also calmed himself and hung quietly from the pole, staring at Aleius with wide eyes. His mouth worked wordlessly, his face deep in concentration as he chose what to say. Aleius stood ten paces from the dangling assassin, silent as a gargoyle and with a strangely placid expression carved upon his face. His fingers worked through his beard slowly, contorting it this way and that but elsewise he was as still as a statue.

 

“Aleius, ol’ friend! Quite a bind we’ve found ourselves in now, huh?” Balen laughed nervously as Aleius stared on; calm as a lake on a windless day. “Please, let me down. We can talk this over.” His eyes pleaded with Aleius. No response. “I always been a friend to ya.Always. Lemme down!” Balen was getting excited now, wide eyed alarm plain upon his face. Aleius twisted his beard into a tight coil, then let it spring back. “The Order ain’t none too happy with you. After all we done for you. After we done in G---“

Aleius dashed forward in a bounding gate and planted his long dagger deep in Balen’s throat, almost to the hilt. Balen continued to babble on as if oblivious to the dagger pressing against his spine and the blood bubbling out his mouth. The only sound he could make was this horrific gasping sound, like his voice was scraping the cold steel of Death’s sickle and expiring as it left his lips. Wide eyed he struggled on, pumping his legs and wrenching his body violently, making the awful gasping noise incessantly. He wheezed and sputtered with increasing intensity as his pleading eyes made contact with Aleius’s.

Aleius yanked the blade free. Balen’s body fell limp, swinging slowly on the pole as blood poured down chest to pool at the base of the pole. The soldiers stared on in silence, trying to work out what they’d just seen. A perverse silence settled over the camp. A strange, overpowering silence that seemed to occlude even the ambient chirpings of the birds and the crackling of the fires. A suffocating, utter silence.

Aleius cleared his throat.

“Garrett, bring the body to my tent. Oh. And no visitors.”

Author: Kyle "Billus" Kusch

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