The Night Runners: First Year

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Chapter 4

The start of Endlemon, the eleventh month of the year, was always cool. Despite their southern locations, the provinces holding and surrounding the Capital began to lose the wet, warm heat of summer and took on the damp coolness of autumn. Rain clouds often began to move quickly overhead, bearing with them the northern fowl which flew south every year before the onslaught of winter. Closer to the coast, and more open to the capricious nature of the ocean and its accompanying weather, the province of Karrowyn was a tough land comprised of rocky cliffs falling away into the ocean, hills covered in scrub and short grass, and dull highlands occasionally dotted with the tough sheep and goats native to the area.

Bearing Colin and Emalynn from the Capital north and eastward along the coast, the train bore them past the outer, homey, familiar sights of Quartz Hills Province toward the less familiar Karrowyn. Life was difficult in the province of Karrowyn, hewn as it was out of rock and clinging to the edges of the cliffs, hedged by the cold vast ocean. Here, fishermen’s huts huddled and small manors of lesser nobles spread into the heathered hills and grey horizon which always seemed to promise rain.

A dull place, Emalynn thought as the train pulled up. Not really the destination you want to see after a long day of travel... And it was long. Glancing at her partner with a small flicker of disapproval, Emalynn gathered her bags and followed her master-in-training off the train, off the platform, and out to the small provincial capital, Cape Cove. Emalynn sighed. We’re here now at least – and before I know it, we’ll be on our way home.

“You don’t seem as enthusiastic as before,” Colin smiled down at Emalynn. “Well, it was a long day.”

Made even longer by your incessant chatter, Emalynn stared back unmoved at her master, and your constant flirting with the other ladies in the cabin. You seem to be taking this whole mission really easy.

“It was,” Emalynn said diplomatically. “You mentioned this morning that we had a contact in Cape Cove. Are we going to be asking for information this late in the evening?”

Colin nodded in answer to the unspoken question, “Oh, that? No. Our contact is more like our handler for this mission. They will be providing us a place to stay and provide us further intel before continuing onto Tawyrs. I’ve got the address, and we’ll be there and in bed in no time.”

In every capital of Doran’s provinces, assassin’s lived, some in permanent undercover positions, many enlisted as the Reserves. Cape Cove, like most capitals, had several safe houses in which assassins could stay for a small fee. Apparently, Master Colin had already made contact with one such assassin way station. Following her master down a large avenue lined with stores and small tented markets, filled with fish and fishing gear and ship supplies; tall thin boarding houses and inns and pubs, now filled with the raucous sounds of eating, drinking and talking; and other slightly fancier buildings which Emalynn identified as the city hall and the local lord halls and the courthouses. Continuing down the road, the apprentice could see why Cape Cove had been named as such – the main road led straight down to a large harbour which edged a massive cove sheltered by two dark arms of land which could barely be seen thanks to the rapidly dimming light.

A port town, Emalynn wrinkled her nose. It explains the smell of fish. Yuck.

Colin suddenly turned left and Emalynn, following hard on his heels, lost sight of the black water and bobbing forest of white and grey masts. Down one street and then another lane and then a smaller alley, the two followed the lane as it twisted and turned until they arrived at a tall wooden boarding house which looked like all the other ones which lined the street. Several floors high, it looked like a simple, well-kept boarding house with black roofing above and grey siding below. On the front’s windows, green shutters hung with a glimpse of simply patterned curtains and warm light beyond. The front of the house consisted of solid oak steps leading up to a broad porch and a black wood door which, decorated by a festively ribboned wreath, spoke to a certain air of respectability. Once the door was opened, Colin gave the short, required password and the two travelers were allowed in. Looking about, Emalynn noted the long passageway which led to the back and what appeared to be a large dining room.

“We received news at noon,” the older woman said as she led the two upstairs. With her round face and solid frame clothed in a paisley patterned dress and black apron, Mrs. Busby looked more like a forty-year old housewife than an undercover assassin. “Da and I prepared a couple rooms for you – two, since we’re low on visitors at the moment, and quite comfortable rooms, if I may say so. My! You have a young ’un for an apprentice, Master Shermore!”

“Ah,” Colin scratched his head and glanced down at Emalynn who refused to meet his gaze. “It’s that time of the year,” he finally sighed. “I decided to take part in the Master-in-Training Program.”

“Ahhh,” said the housewife fondly. “I remember those days! My, we were so young then! But,” she added hurriedly, “not so young as that. Ah! Here we are – this will be your room, dear.”

Emalynn returned their hostess’s gaze with her Grade A Blank Professional Stare[1]. A minute awkward silence ensued. The three moved into one of the rooms which was apparently to be Emalynn’s for her short stay.

“So Mistress Busby took part in the program?” Colin continued on breezily.

“Not I,” Mistress Busby shook out a towel hanging of a curious leaf-shaped hook and paused as a door somewhere banged shut loudly and two voices rose outside. “I was not asked to join the program. Da took part, however... And there he is now – causing such a ruckus as usual.”

Mistress Busby, it seemed, thrived on a life of perpetual motion. She turned on another lamp, which shed a warm glow in the room; opened the window and shouted a greeting to the newcomers below; secured the window screen so as to allow the fresh sea breeze in but no bugs, and turned to her two guests with a smile.

“Well, that is Da alright,” she nodded. “He’ll be wanting his dinner, although, I think it’s a bit late for that. Let’s see what I can rustle up for you two as well. Then a bath and a good rest for the young lady whilst Master Colin and Da have a little talk on what’s up ahead.”

Why do people always talk to me like I’m a baby and they’re some nursemaid? Emalynn thought crossly. I know I’m short for my age, but I’m on a mission. Why am I being left out of the planning session? Unless... Emalynn’s blue eyes sharpened. Unless it’s more of a drinking and reminiscing kind of meeting, since they appear to be acquaintances – Surely Master Colin wouldn’t drink on a mission. Well, a less tired, more rational part of Emalynn’s brain told her, at this point in time, we’re not really on assignment... But he is on assignment, being part of the program. On the other hand, can I expect my mentor to abstain from alcohol the entire length of time required by the Program? That seems... well, impossible. And unfair, another part of her conceded.

Pressing her lips together tightly, Emalynn settled for another glare, followed the other two adults down to the cozy, if cluttered, kitchen which was warmly lit with a roaring fire on a great grey stone hearth. Mistress Busby, if possible, became even more animated and energetic, firing off questions and chatting with the two men (while giving Emalynn a running commentary); rooting around in her pantry and shelves for odds and ends; tending to three pots filled with various ‘tidbits’ as she called them and setting out dishes and cutlery for the table. At no point were Colin and Emalynn allowed to help despite their repeated protests.

Da, on the other hand, received a volley of orders from his vivacious wife. A tall, gruff, monosyllabic man in his mid-forties with forearms the size of Emalynn’s own head (it seemed to the girl), Da patiently responded to the ever increasing demands of his wife: put more wood on the fire, hunt out ‘some of that smoked ham back in the second pantry’, get ‘that map of yours out for Master Colin’, and double-check whether ‘Tooth and Claw’ had been tied up appropriately for the night. With the occasional grunt, Da disappeared and reappeared with the necessaries.

After a while, the quiet undercover assassin took a seat by the fire with a mug in one hand and his folded map in another. Emalynn listened carefully to Master Busby’s quiet words. Life had been rather quiet in Karrowyn for some time but that never meant much in the world of the assassins. Although the boarding house had not hosted assassins for a month, the Busbys had been kept busy with their own forays for intelligence – and preparing for Master Colin’s coming. Master Busby seemed to think that he would be getting a mission sooner than later. Before Emalynn could ask whether the assassin had to often go on assignment, Mistress Busby swooped down and bustled the apprentice out, prattling on about ‘letting the men look at maps and plan things, bless their hearts’, which Emalynn disliked greatly.

Once in the bath, however, and later snuggling under thick quilts (with the window shut), Emalynn, as she drowsed off to sleep felt glad she didn’t have to deal with Mistress Busby’s mothering and her master’s chitchat, jokes and seemingly flippant attitude, and continual flirtation.

I don’t need to be there, she told herself blearily as she drifted off to sleep. There is always the morning.

The assassin world,′ Emalynn’s father had seriously instructed his daughter one morning, ′runs on coffee.[2] Coffee. That was Emalynn’s first thought upon rising. Right after dressing and completing her morning ablutions, Emalynn repacked her small backpack carefully and descended to the kitchen in search of breakfast and coffee. Especially coffee.

“Coffee,” she mumbled in response to Colin’s chipper morning greeting.

With an understanding nod, Colin pushed over a mug, pulled a thick glass urn off of a small warming stone, and poured Emalynn a large cup of coffee. After adding a spoonful of sugar, Emalynn gulped down her first mouthful of the heavenly, earthly flavor and sighed.

“Already drinking coffee!” Mistress Busby was suddenly in the room, scooping fried eggs onto Emalynn’s plate, lifting the toasting rack off the hearth, and rescuing bacon from a smoking frying pan. “Emalynn, is it? Well, Emalynn, they say assassins live on the stuff-”

“Ema comes from an assassin’s family,” Coin winked at Emalynn, “and she is highly connected-”

“Well, that explains much,” Mistress Busby tutted. “Still... I know she is with you Master Colin, but to let her roam so far from home-”

“She’s not roaming,” Da grunted, sitting down and pouring himself a cup of coffee, “Emalynn is an assassin in training, not like other girls.”

Emalynn, feeling very grateful for Da’s intervention, smiled and nodded.

“Speaking of which,” Colin turned to Emalynn, assuming a serious look, “We’ve got some more detailed information thanks to Master Busby here. As you know, we are attempting to double-check the rumours heard back at the Capital. Also, we are to locate and speak with the origin of the report.”

“Ah,” Emalynn nodded, “so the person who requested the assassination of-” Emalynn paused as she attempted to recollect the information she had memorized a day and a half ago.

“Lord Sadon of Tawyrs is the potential target,” Colin stressed ‘potential’. “As I told the team, the assassinations of aristocracy are dealt with even more care than usual.”

“One does not go out to execute a Lord or Lady on a whim,” Master Busby grunted. “Even if the target is one such as Lord Sadon.”

“So, the requester was anonymous,” Emalynn mused. “Father says that anonymous requests are still numerous despite the legalization of the Guild.”

“Well, who wants to be feared as a disruptive force in society?” Mistress Busby shook her head as she put on another brew of coffee. “You may not have struck the target with the killing blow if you hire assassins, but you might as well have.”

“Hm,” Master Busby pulled out his pipe and began to poke at it thoughtfully.

“At any rate,” Colin said, helping himself to more toast and eggs, “actual detailed reconnaissance is sorely needed as well as a serious investigation into Sadon’s affairs.”

“Chrystyna and Geoffrey,” Emalynn said, recalling her teammate’s mission to the Capital’s Archives.

“Ha, yes,” Colin chuckled.

“Chrystyna and Geoffrey?” Mistress Busby asked curiously.

“That situation is too difficult to explain,” Colin snorted again and then sighed. “We have a lot to get done today. So does Geoffrey, I imagine.” He laughed again.

“I’ve done packing,” Emalynn said quickly.

“Well, someone is ready,” Colin smiled in amusement.

“Hm.” Master Busby grunted.

After breakfast, a serious conversation took place which felt more like a briefing to Emalynn, on how the two assassins would actually carry out their mission. It had already been decided, apparently, that Colin and Emalynn were to travel undercover as peddlers, going on a round trip between Cape Cove and Tawyrs.

“As cousins,” Emalynn noted with mild disbelief, repeating Colin’s words.

“Yes, well...” Colin flashed Emalynn a grin and, adopting a heavy Northern farmer’s accent, added, “You are fair to the eye, my lassie, but a wee bit too young for – Ow!”

“Master Colin!” Mistress Busby scolded the young man. “Behave!”

“I am! I am!” Colin protested unrepentant.

“He is,” Emalynn poured herself more coffee. “Compared to yesterday-”

“Ema!” Colin gave Emalynn an ‘I can’t believe you betrayed me’ look. “Ow!”

“Master Colin,” Mistress Busby smacked the handsome master-in-training on the back of head. “Usin’ your good looks for evil!”

Vengeance, Emalynn smirked to herself over her mug of coffee.

“Hm, it’s usually a short journey by cart,” Master Busby said, ignoring his wife and Colin. “However, it’ll be lengthened by your stops along the way.”

“To keep our cover,” Emalynn nodded. “That makes sense to me. When do we start?”

“As soon as I’ve done my packing and recovered from my head trauma,” Colin said, rubbing the back of his head and ruffling his dark hair even further. “Give me forty-five minutes.”

“I’ll bring my stuff down,” Emalynn stood up. “Would I be able to have a look at the map as well while I wait?”

“Certainly,” Master Busby gave Emalynn a small, approving smile around his long tan pipe. “Colin has a copy, but you can look at mine for a quick review. I’ll go rig the mare up to the cart Darlton prepared for you two.”

“Good old Darlton,” Colin said fondly, obviously walking down memory lane. “Alright. I’m up and off.”

With that, Colin disappeared upstairs with Mistress Busby at his heels, asking for more gossip from the Capital, asking after his parents and sister (apparently he had a sister working on her fourth child) and asking whether he had found a nice girl to settle down with. Emalynn noticed that Colin said neither ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to the last question, merely laughed.

Grabbing her pack, Emalynn fled Mistress Busby’s sphere and discovered Master Busby gone but a map neatly folded where he had sat. Carefully opening it, Emalynn located Cape Cove, the capital of the Karrowyn province, and found the highway Colin had mentioned earlier during the briefing. The Busbys, being their handlers, had already planned a route for the two visiting assassins as well as reserved a room at a cheap, inconspicuous inn within Tawyrs. After memorizing the map as best she could, Emalynn folded the thick parchment carefully along its well-worn creases, set it back where she had found it, picked up her pack, and stepped out the back door of the kitchen.

Master Busby was just finishing up the final adjustments to the reins when Emalynn approached. After he was done, the older assassin gave Emalynn a quick lesson on how to safely strap peddler wares to the wagon.

“Cutlery, silverware, spices, cloth and the like,” Master Busby had said. “No breakables.”

“Too expensive?” asked Emalynn.

“Hmmm...” A paused. Then a sharp frown. “Bad roads.” Then the barest hint of a smile. “And Master Colin’s driving.”

That sounds ominous, Emalynn sighed inwardly. Of course, I get a crazed driver.

“Ah, Master Colin,” Master Busby turned then. “We were just speaking of you.”

“Good things, I hope,” Colin replied easily.

“Namely your driving skills.”

“Oh,” Colin laughed. “You still haven’t gotten over that, eh? It wasn’t that bad!”

“That’s what he says,” Master Busby said, but his eyes seemed to twinkle with some amusement. “Ready?”

“As ever,” Colin stashed his large navy bag beside Emalynn’s under the tan waterproofed canvas tarp. “You ready, Emalynn?”

Hoisting himself up into the driver’s seat of the cart, Colin hesitated as he reached for the reins and turned. Emalynn needs help, he reprimanded himself. How could you forget... His thoughts trailed off as he realized said apprentice was already seating herself calmly beside him.

“What am I saying?” Colin grunted. “You were born ready.”[3]

[1]Within their first year of schooling, good assassin apprentices are able to create their own versions of the Grade A Blank Professional Stare (Complete with Polite, Welcoming Smile).

[2]Coffee, a substance produced on the Far East Continent, has become a popular choice for morning beverages. A black drink with the ability to provide energy as well as a sensation of wakefulness, it is especially favored among the working classes and guilds. As coffee gained a larger market, new variations were created for those who wished sweeter flavors or stronger blends.

[3]As the cart rumbled out of the lot’s small back gate and into an empty, dirty-looking alleyway, Emalynn turned around. She glimpsed Master Busby’s stalwart figure calmly watching them leave while above him, half-hanging out of one of the guest room windows, Mistress Busby was shouting something about towels and sausages.

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