Chapter Fourteen: A Taste of Pie
While Andercruik's driver did not see the telltale orange and green ripples in the puddle reflecting the flickering oil lamps of the porte-cochere, Leonidas burst through the carriage door before the flintwater ignited under the wheels, and the blast carried him twenty feet onto the wet flagstones.
Though The Knight of Nine Tails never wearied of flintwater—marveling as a single spark enveloped the coach in a tornado of fire, making flesh torches from the horse and driver, tearing the coach into kindling and cinders, and blackening the pillars of the carriage port--he turned from the aesthetic pleasure of magical fire to the professional interest of fulfilling a stubborn contract, as Leonidas Andercruik had already escaped death three times.
His most recent attempt on Andercruik was at the soiree, when Leonidas's poisoned cup was filched by a juggler. When the entertainer's drunkenness diluted the poison, the alarm was not even raised, and the assassin suffered the unfortunate duty of entertaining the woman who monopolized his attention long into the night, for fear that the gossip would tell unflattering tales of the discourteous Klyrnish Lord Dergaln, and make that identity less useful. Though the flirty Simona Bynde was pretty, propertied, and unprincipled, the way he liked all his lovers, she was much too garrulous, and her teeming femininity was too saccharine to one whose interest was tormented by thoughts of his target. When he was later taken unawares by the steward, lost his hiding place, and had to increase his distance from his prey, he admitted to himself that he might be distracted by his attraction.
After he stepped from behind a nearby pear tree, he sprinted through the rain toward the carriage porch. Though the storm drummed so loudly on the stone roof that it drowned out the whimpers of the faceless driver and horse, when they raced blindly into the yard, the rain could not douse the enchanted flames, and where they toppled to the sodden ground, the green and orange fires continued to blaze. As tragic moments engulf petty hearts and self-pity, watching their slow death by fire sublimated his love unrequited and unknown, and The Knight of Nine Tails drew his sword.
Where Leondias's body lay, there was only the flame-ravaged lion skin mantle. Had he not at that moment looked left, then right, the arrow that grazed his temple would have sprouted in the top of his head. Another arrow buried itself between flagstones. Blood leaked over his ear, neck, and cloak as he sprinted toward Andercruik's orchards. Only a few arrows followed in his wake, as they stopped when he cleared the stone overhang.
No sooner had Elgar sat down than the brutes stood over each of the adjacent chairs with an expectant attitude, though neither seemed to have more than a glimmer of forethought—nor a speck of now-thought. One was lean and sinewy, with a lumpy clay face like an unfinished ashtray, which seemed to crack around the apple he noisily chewed. The other was bestial, nearly ogrish in his clustered muscles, broken teeth, and shaggy hair. Both were unapologetically ugly, perhaps to complement and compliment their unapologetically vain Lord, Leonidas, whose strut into Mama Gorta's was needlessly showy, his suede leggings scraping noisily in the fallen hush. Draped over his shoulders was a green cloak, and at his side was a broadsword in a black leather scabbard gilded with suns and lions. When he sat across from the death broker, his guards remained standing, or rather half-standing, as they leaned ungainly on the backs of the chairs like human gargoyles.
Elgar himself was aged but not elderly, his green suit well-groomed and its polished brass buttons fastened over the perfect posture of his gaunt frame. It was his way to always eat with refinement, even at Mama Gorta's, though his favorite eatery was not a place of particular refinement. Though it was loud, and the clientele were often uncouth, none made a pie like Mama Gorta, its flaky, moist crust crumbling over the tender filling as the chew unclothed herbed, succulent meat in savory gravy, or spiced, lush fruit in syrupy jam. It was his way of dignifying his delight and respecting Mama Gorta's impeccable pie-craft to request silverware, to unbutton only his lower button, and to order her most expensive bottle of wine. As long as she was was able to serve the best dinner pastries in Vanoor, he would bring the high culture that her establishment deserved.
Though Elgar sat at his usual table, today he felt more haggard than usual, as he smelled the savory scents of Mama Gorta's lamb gravy pot pies, as well as the sweet undercurrent of cinnamon and red currant tarts, tastes that were postponed by these louts who were hungrier for negotiation than for these local delicacies.
"I hear you're his agent," said the Lord.
"If you walk Vanoori streets long enough, you may hear whatever you wish. But you'll always smell the filth."
"You mean the tidy pile I overlooked coming here, so tidy and inoffensive that I stepped in it and now spread the ill-omen throughout Mama Gorta's. Though it was as clean and as managed as a dung-pile can be, the shape it takes now mocks my own boot print, and now that I've tracked you down, this dirty halo descends on you as well."
"Your threat is rather overwrought," said Elgar. "Forgive me for not offering wine. Your bouquet would corrupt this heavenly vintage."
"I deserve it," said Leonidas, taking a slug straight from the bottle. "Had I not murder holes and archers in the roof of my carriage porch, my soul might have corrupted heaven."
"That aroma would putrefy hell. I fear I have lost my appetite. Please excuse me." But when Elgar attempted to rise, Andercruik's guards clapped to his shoulders and pushed him back into his seat.
"I will rent your client's skills."
"Would his schedule open to find a new agent?"
"Supply and demand, Lord Andercruik. Not only is he already stretched, but when he's cut his present contract, you will have forgotten your demand. Work's a funny thing—sometimes there's no ditches to dig, and then you're buried."
Until that moment, Lord Andercruik's dour face had not smiled. Now he grinned and his eyes flashed. "Though dead I know no more, alive I never stiff a bill. What if I double his fee to end his current contract and fulfill mine?"
"Do not think me stingy, but doubling will only pay your fee and the refund of his current contract."
"Though you have my attention, there is the matter of his priceless professional reputation. If we accept, he might not get another job for an entire year, and it's feast and famine already in this business."
"If I paid ten times his fee, he could retire unless he has wives in every city of the realm."
"Though honor-bound to fulfill our contracts, we would be harebrained not to accept your generous offer. While I can't presume to know his mind, you'll have our answer tomorrow."
"So as not to lose sleep waiting on his reply, you'll be the rider on my contract. Malok, Volsk, escort my insurance to the manor."
When the brawny guard seized Elgar's right arm, pulled him to his feet, and half-dragged him from Mama Gorta's, they skidded through the dung smear to the horses. After Elgar was hefted into the saddle, Malok rode double behind him, and Leonidas and Volsk rode flanking their hostage.
"He's not fond of the hard sell," said the death broker.
"On the contrary, I've sweetened a pot of easy money with his chief admirer."
"While that might be true if I brought your terms to my lord, right now he would see you and your cronies as three ducks in a barrel. Easy as pie—speaking of which, this devil's bargain could have waited on my potpie, or at least a tart."
"My chef might whip up a pastry to melt your mouth," Lord Andercruik offered. "Your employer's a lord? Do I know him?"
From an alleyway adjoining the road, a sleek grey horse matched their pace. "Though you're clever, Lord Andercruik," growled the rider in a scratchy voice, "you've forced my cardinal rule. I don't talk to clients."
Before Leonidas could reply, Elgar interjected, "Though he's a varlet, he offers ten times your rate."
"Why not?" said the Knight of Nine Tails. "He can't take it with him, and I'm not prejudiced against the money of dead men. I'll be happy to settle his scores and disappoint his heirs."
"Provided you end this contract."
"Since I have never reneged," said the assassin. "I will end it now, the honorable way."
"Neither have you collected a fee that large," said Elgar.
"Nor have you earned such a magnificent commission."
"Not that you would do anything on my account."
"I'm a killer, but not heartless. As my livelihood is assured, I've no heirs, and my last days and tomb are prepaid to the Brynnelmark, my only nagging concern is your retirement." The assassin then said, with pronounced distaste, "You have my attention, Leonidas. Need I ask whom to kill?"
"Though you surmise the targets correctly, my aim is not assassination, but horror. Clean killing is too good for those that would do me in. Their final moments should teach them terror."
"I charge more for groups and special requests that tax my imagination. Take your ten, and multiply it ten more."
Eight million coin, thought Elgar. He would never have to work again.
"I could hire an army for that much!" protested Lord Andercruik.
"Deploying them now would precipitate your war before you've guaranteed the storm. I research my clients. Parting with this will scarcely bury you."
Though Lord Andercruik was purple with apoplexy, he managed a nod.
The Knight of Nine Tails said, "leave your fee with Elgar at Mama Gorta's tomorrow. I will expect both my man and the proprietress to be properly tipped, and it would not be untoward to make amends for your rude behavior by buying a round of tarts for her patrons. Don't follow." Though Elgar was a lifelong horseman, his age barred the equestrian feats of his youth, such as crossing from one saddle to another, and he dismounted gracefully from Malok's horse before climbing behind The Knight of Nine Tails. Moments later, they were lost in the horse and foot traffic of Vanoor.
"Eight million coin! Old man, you've outdone yourself."
"I knew you were the smartest of my brother's children," said Elgar. "Don't take this the wrong way, but I'm looking forward to washing my hands of this dark business. I'll buy a townhouse, hire a cook and a maid, and live the life of a wealthy bachelor. Though I'll change my own clothes and answer my own door, I think. As I'm lazy by both nature and habit, a valet and butler will do too much for me and make me fat."
"That's what we learned from Andercruik," said his deadly nephew, "keep a trusted staff, maintain your manor like a suit of armor, and keep yourself lean and wary. Leonidas was a tough nut to crack, though once I've enjoyed a year or two of recreation, I may solve the problem of his murder strictly for recreation, to keep my hand in, and to keep the fires of my reputation lit with a horrific murder for my many admirers. I'll make it so over the top and terrifying that it should appeal even to Andercruik's barbaric tastes. You know, uncle, I had expected to find your replacement soon. I was thinking of your niece, the Lady Honor."
"While I approve, I doubt that you can alter her fixed affection for her calling."
When The Knight of Nine Tails dropped Elgar at Mama Gorta's, Elgar insisted to treat his nephew, and the assassin uncharacteristically accepted. The older man watched as the younger dissected the lamb potpie carefully, first neatly cutting the top crust, then forcing down the side walls, so that the gravy swamped the plate, and would have disclosed poison or blades if there were any in the savory dish, and not the mutton, peas, carrots, potatoes, and celery that flowed. Elgar's potpie was half gone before his nephew had taken his first bite, a tiny sauced triangle stuck to flakes of lamb.
"This is toothsome, uncle, though I prefer more salt."
The next day, another of Andercruik's men, a grizzled fellow of middle height and late middle age, dropped off the payment at Mama Gorta's, then left generous tips and footed the bill for one tart per patron, so that the cheery proprietress had to bake a new batch, which filled the restaurant with the smell of browning, buttery crust, peaches, and nutmeg. Though Andercruik had paid in olguls, the largest denomination of gold coin, the payment was still so substantial that Elgar had to lift the packed saddlebags two-handed, and strained to carry it to his horse.
That night, when Marcura the greengrocer was found drunk and drowned in a barrel of cider, Jeptero the baker dimmed the lights and sent his apprentices home early. When neighboring merchants looked for water and sand to douse the bakery's flames, they raided the building site for the future Pennyroyal Theater—the mercantile district's answer to the enormous profits of the Royal Theater—and found Orden the carpenter hanged from the rafters he hammered in earlier that day. The next morning, after the ashes died to a smolder, the baker was found half-stuffed in his oven, a sure sign that The Knight of Nine Tails had lost the joie de vivre with which he once consigned bodies to the flames, no matter how large a problem those bodies were. Though he still worried about art's sake, it was no longer to please the art. Perida's murder was similarly slapdash and on the nose, as her deadly dose of poison was delivered in a wine bottle similar in shape to the many empty bottles the widowed curio dealer had accumulated. Though the green spill on the floor was most unlike wine in color and odor, the maudlin habits of the blind widow overcame the bitter taste of the draught, and gave both her and the assassin the easy, if distasteful, exit that they craved.
Though he soon murdered half of the baker's cabal, when his luck changed for the worse, he blamed the poor professionalism of half-baking the baker and the bad faith of breaking a contract. In truth, the merchants who hired him were already sleeping with knives and had bags and wallets packed for a long journey, and he could only have expected to kill all eight if he sent them an invitation to their own murder, presuming that Lord Andercruik had not already spoiled that tactic. So when Haran the coffee importer spotted the bad beans that smelled oddly of almonds, he tied shut the bag, then collected Arami, Secely, and Micheren onto his trading ship, where the sails were hoisted and unfurled, and they were halfway to Haran and Arami's native Klyrn before the assassin discovered their departure.
When The Knight of Nine Tails barged into Elgar's new townhouse, most of his uncle's possessions were still in stacked wooden boxes, the only exceptions being the foolscap, pens, and ink on his escritoire. "Where are your clothes?"
In a reading room already thick with the smoke and scent of tobacco, Elgar reclined on a resplendent green divan. He was still in his bedrobe, smoking his pipe, and reading a tatty old book by the window light, "Afternoon, nephew."
"Clothes. And your horse."
"You won't find her in the boxes. There's a small stable out back. I have a mind to build a proper carriage house."
"Pack. Quickly." The assassin hacked in the thick smoke. "Quicker than that, or we'll die of your unnatural habit."
"Why? I just stocked my desk, and I haven't read this book in ages!"
"Why do you think? We got greedy for the end of this business, relaxed the rules of our system, and now they're on to me, uncle. It may have reached the king." As he talked, the assassin rifled through one box, then another.
"Why do you care?" said Elgar. "They don't know your face. Let them run."
"Old man, they know your face. And Andercruik knows us both. What will his answer be to his fully-paid but half-accomplished purchase? I should never have taken a contract on any who knew even this much of our business." Finding a box of pants, he set them at the feet of the divan. "Pack."
"I'm retired," said Elgar. "I'm not going anywhere."
"Your retirement will be a dirt nap."
"I'll tell the king I'm not involved."
"What will you tell Andercruik?"
"I don't know!" cried Elgar. "Five minutes ago I was done with this gory business."
"We should have known better."
A few minutes later, Elgar's bags bulged with scrunched-up clothes crammed on top of his gold. After Elgar closed the windows, then locked the doors with a sigh—the king would use any pretext to claim it—he crossed to the stable, mounted his horse, and trotted around front, where his nephew had laden his own horse with the meager stores in Elgar's larder.
On the journey back to Kellisori, first they stopped in Duremar.