Cat and Mouse

An assassin never forgets his first kill, or the only person he couldn’t.


Keeping watch from outside the lively villa as the promise of warmth and the smell of roasted meats taunted his senses, Hart was keenly aware of the night chill.

Laféron was a city of nobles, and if there was one sinfully excessive thing nobles liked to do, it was party. Lavishly dressed lords and ladies stepped out from their carriages and, linked arm-in-arm with their companions, headed into the manor. Their decadent jewelry glistened teasingly in the moonlight, but Hart restrained his greed. Pale, blue eyes waited patiently for the mark. The man would be hard to miss.

Esperance Valois. The son of, and now heir to, Lord Aurélien Valois. A strikingly handsome felidae adopted into a society of rich and affluent elves. He always stood out, if not for his looks than for the trouble he caused.

Lord Esperance was as charismatic as he was eccentric and he liked to spend his time at gambling houses, theatres, and brothels, much to the chagrin of his poor father. Politicians hated him because he liked to toy in their affairs, but the Church hated him even more. Hart could guess why.

A vain nobleman with a blemished reputation and, usually, a stomach full of wine.

It should have been an easy job.

***

“Lord Esperance of House Valois,” the doorkeeper announced, and it felt as if time had stopped; dancers froze in each other’s embrace, the musicians’ fingers halted mid-strum, the idle chatter between men and woman with more wealth and power than they deserved went dead.

And then the room flared to life again and Esperance felt eyes on him. Some were captivated by the stranger in the blue, satin doublet–his skin dark, his hair the color of fresh snow, and his eyes gleaming like gold and the summer sky. Most others knew him well and he caught mischief and ardor on their faces. Then there were some who gave him a colder reception, and he sought those ones out to answer their contempt with a smile.

In the Great Hall, he gladly accepted a chalice of wine brought out on a polished brass tray by one of the servants. Then he fell in with a nobleman with whom he’d gambled–and lost–many times.

“How does it feel,” the man said with a cheeky look, “to know that when your name is announced, all the women in the room start to feel hot between the thighs?”

Esperance flashed him a grin from behind the goblet. “Just the women?”

“Certainly not!” a playful voice said from behind. It belonged to a dashing young man with curly black hair. He was smiling as he held his hand out to Esperance. “You’ll honor me with a dance, won’t you, my lord?”

Esperance finished the last of the wine and handed the cup to the man who had women’s thighs on the mind. Taking the hand extended to him, he bowed his head in mock reverence. “The honor is mine.”

He danced and drank into the night, at some point giving up on trying to keep track of all his different partners. Finally, he managed to slip out the back door to cool himself in the night breeze.

He walked through the garden, brushing his fingers through the fountain spray and admiring the irises. Then he stopped to lean against the tall stone fence as he looked out over the canal below. It was pretty at night when the grimy color was obscured by the night and the reflection of the moon.

He almost lost himself in thought when something made his heart jump. Fuzzy ears perked up as they caught the faintest sounds–boots on stone, the flutter of fabric, steel sliding against leather….

He spun out of the way just in time. A blade that would have hungrily sliced his neck open instead connected with stone. He hadn’t even the time to fully register what was happening before his assailant drew back his weapons and went straight for the gut.

Lithe limbs and practiced muscles moved quickly. Even light drunkenness could not take from Esperance the grace of his ancestry, nor the finesse he’d honed through more than a decade of swordplay. He hopped back, creating distance and taking advantage of the lull to appraise his attacker.

Comically dark clothing, overdramatic cloak, appalling lack of charm, pointy friends.

“Ah, an assassin!” he exclaimed, keeping his voice soft. “I knew it was only a matter of time before they sent another.”

***

Hart knew the risk he’d taken by confronting his prey at night. The man’s glowing eyes could see Hart far better than Hart could see him, even with the help of distant lanterns and the moon. But that was part of the fun, wasn’t it?

The nobleman drew a long sword with a spiral-like guard over the quillion. This came as no surprise. Hart had been watching Esperance all night, catching glimpses of him through the windows, and he had seen the blade at the man’s hip. The dagger, however, was unexpected. A man didn’t usually carry a blade in his boot unless there was a good reason.

Shifting into a fencing pose, Esperance gave Hart a shallow bow. And then their dance began.

Steel clashed against steel again and again as Esperance pushed back every advance. The nobleman’s pointwork led Hart to believe that he might not be as drunk as he appeared to have been when he was surrounded by admirers and shrewd politicians.

But finally, Hart broke through. Esperance blocked a strike but was not prepared for the strength Hart suddenly threw into the blow, and so his dagger went flying. He was lucky it wasn’t his hand lying there in the grass.

Hart saw the man’s eyebrows shoot up in surprise. Not wasting the opportunity, he moved to plunge his blade into Esperance’s ribcage–but missed as Esperance ducked under the swing. Hart spun around and his blade caught something as his opponent flew past him to leap onto the first-story balcony. From there he climbed, with noticeable discomfort, onto the roof.

Hart glanced down at his dagger. The spread of blood glistening on the blade gave him the first sense of satisfaction he’d felt all night. Looking toward the rooftop, he knew what he needed to do.

This, he’d always told himself, was cheating, and cheating took all the fun out of the chase. But this particular game had gone on far too long, and Hart was ready to be done with the job.

Stepping back away from the lantern light, he sank into the shadows until his body vanished. As nothing more than an inky blot, he slithered along the stone fence and up the side of the villa.

On the roof he watched his prey through a distorted view. His field of vision was narrow and blurry and the world had a dark, gray tint, but he could still make out shapes and could even hear the Esperance’s soft panting and see a faint trail of blood.

Here there was no light to give him away. Esperance should not have been able to see his movements, and yet it looked like that was exactly what was happening. The felidae’s glowing eyes followed Hart’s shadow as he closed in. But it wasn’t enough. Hart materialized from wisps of darkness and pressed his blade into Esperance’s neck before the man could even suck in a breath. A light trickle of blood seeped from where the dagger broke the skin.

“Got you.”

Esperance gave Hart a crooked grin. “Indeed?”

The next thing Hart saw was a ball of white light that exploded into a vibrant splash of purple and pink energy crackling with blue lightning. The force threw him back. Pain surged through his entire body in harsh pulses as he nearly tumbled off the edge of the roof. Lying there, he tried to blink away the spots in his vision, praying to whatever god was listening that he wasn’t going to lose another eye.

“Why use a sword if you know magic?” he asked with a clenched jaw when he heard Esperance approach. It was more from pain than anger, though he was quickly beginning to feel plenty of the later.

“Because it’s fun?” The teasing lilt in Esperance’s voice made Hart wish he’d just slit his throat when he had the chance. Now he was at a disadvantage, weapons gone and opponent standing over him, blade to Hart’s chest.

“That was an impressive trick you did with the shadows,” Esperance said. “Where did you learn that?” Hart answered with silence. “Ah, serious and handsome. In a different situation, I might like you.”

“Can’t say the same.”

Esperance laughed at that and Hart hated that it sounded so nice.

“Honestly, I have no interest in dying tonight, and I take it you don’t either. So, why don’t we come to a gentlemen’s agreement? Whatever you were promised to assassinate me, I will pay you twice as much to, well, not. You walk away with your wonderful organs all in one piece and we both go on our merry ways, never to bother each other again. How does that sound?”

“Five hundred in gold,” Hart said. “That’s what I was offered.”

Only five hun–? I’m wounded!” The ire sounded entirely genuine. “Nevertheless… Tomorrow, go to the Golden Cockerel. Tell the barkeep you have a package from Lord Esperance. Your money will be inside. Do we have a deal?”

“Sure.”

And then there was that purple-red blast again and Hart was falling–falling into the cold, murky waters of the Viernoît Canal. Kicking off the stony bottom, he broke the surface and caught sight of Esperance hanging from an open window.

“Come inside and I’ll help you warm up!”

And then the felidae slipped back into the villa and was gone.

***

The next morning, Hart walked out of the Golden Cockerel with a purse full of coins worth one thousand and two hundred in gold. The extra two hundred, a little note had said, was “for your troubles.”

Later when he’d made it back to the guild, he complained.

“Nobody told me that he was a wizard.”

The guild master shrugged. “Nobody knew.”


Featured photo by Rama, via Wikipedia (CC BY-SA 2.0 FR). Modifications made by me.

Heck yeah, there are French coded people in my fantasy world. Vive la France.

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