Simon kept twitching at every shadow, as though someone might jump out and attack us at any moment. It would have been sad if not for those massive light amplification goggles on his face. They made him look absolutely ridiculous, so it was hard to take him seriously.
At least the traps started to thin out as we headed back downstairs. They weren’t really dangerous, since they were mostly designed to teach the kids how to avoid traps, but Simon took forever to get through even the simplest of them. I had a ball on a string I could use to trigger the traps safely, but he needed the exercise. I made a mental note to get him a toy voucher for some dexterity buffs our next birthday. Or maybe a gym membership.
“How much farther?” he panted, as he limbo-ed under a chest-height tripwire.
“Not too far,” I promised. “They’re probably at the bar just—ah, here we are.”
The three assassins we were looking for were easily spotted, as they were sitting at the only table with a light, albeit a dim one. Still, in the peaceful darkness of the rest of Maladomini, they may as well have set out a flare.
Frank, Laura Grand, and Serena were passers, people who appeared baseline despite belonging to a culture. Although technically the word could be used to refer to people like Delphie, who stuck to internal toys, it was usually used more in this context. These three didn’t have any obvious toys intentionally so that they could blend in better.
It was easier to assassinate people that way.
Most Mals preferred a more traditional sort of assassination. Slip into a building in the dead of night, sneak past the guards, and slit the target’s throat while they were sleeping. These three were of the more subtle variety, who would bump into a target on the street. Then, four hours later, the victim would die without ever realizing they had been poisoned in that brief collision.
The three didn’t always work together like this, but it wasn’t their first time. They chatted together amiably, not a care in the world.
“You’re completely missing the point,” the tall and blonde Serena insisted.
The short, brown-haired Grand waved her hand dismissively. “I understand the point quite well. You’re the one who keeps adding on unrealistic restrictions.”
Frank, the quiet one, just rolled his eyes and didn’t interrupt.
Serena wasn’t quite so mature. “It’s just the opposite—I’m trying to add realistic restrictions, to reasonably simulate the situation.”
“You really think its realistic to assume these people won’t be willing to kill?”
“Yes, actually, I do. Clearly you haven’t done enough research.”
Grand sighed. “Fine. Fine. If we assume no one will kill…” she shook her head morosely in defeat. “Batman would win. Superman would spend too much effort holding back, and Bruce could use to opening to floor him.”
Serena grinned and spread her hands wide. “Was that so hard to admit?”
The shorter girl punched her friend playfully in the shoulder. “Don’t be a dick.”
Frank peered out of their little oasis of light. “Company.”
That was our cue. “Hello again, guys.”
“Hey, Lancaster,” Grand greeted me with some warmth. “Who’s the demon?”
“This is Simon, my brother.”
She whistled softly. “Deep night, you didn’t mention he was a cutie.”
I rolled my eyes. “Sorry if I don’t go around talking about my brother that way.”
Simon met her gaze levelly. “Nu, mulţumesc,” he replied flawlessly. He switched back to English right away, though. “If you really meant that, you would have said it in a language you knew I understood.”
Grand blushed deeply, and hid her embarrassment in her mug of coffee.
I looked at my brother sideways. “Since when do you speak Romanian?”
“Since you joined the Mals. What, you don’t?”
“Well, I’ve been learning a bit here and there, but I haven’t really had time for full lessons.”
“You really should take the time. Aren’t you supposed to be teaching classes in Romanian?”
“No, I’m supposed to be teaching classes on Romanian—”
“Guys,” Serena interrupted. “Please, let’s get to the point. What are you doing here?”
Nine Hells, I shouldn’t have let myself get off topic like that. I fished around in my pocket and pulled out the general’s signet ring. “I have orders from General Abigor. The attack on the retinue is called off.”
The three gave me a puzzled look, then just shrugged. “Fine,” Grand said.
I blinked. “Really? Just like that?” I had half-expected them to draw weapons.
Serena chuckled. “Why not? We can always kill them later. Defying an order would be a bloody lot worse than letting them run around for another day or so.” She gestured to the waiter for a couple more stools. “Sit down. Tell us the whole story.”
After ordering a few drinks (and turning down the light to a level that was more comfortable for me), it all came out. How the Queen-Mother of Killing Sparrow had told me about the attack, and how I had spent the last month frantically searching for any scrap of information to confirm it. They knew that part already; I had confronted them about it earlier once I had enough evidence, and they hadn’t tried to hide it for even a moment. They were surprised at Abigor’s reaction, though.
“He’s always had some problems with the ‘sarians,” Serena said slowly. “Bileth implied the whole thing was his idea.”
My mind slowly spun its gears. “I hope this wasn’t all a red herring. What if he’s sending out another team right now?”
Grand shrugged. “Then the retinue dies. Does it really matter?”
I wouldn’t have been able to believe my ears—except they had said similar things last time. They were all members of the Kongeegen party, the social Darwinists. Actually a lot of Mals were, they were just more open about it. “It will start a war with Necessarius. A war we cannot win.”
Serena waved her hand dismissively. “By the night, stop your preaching. The generals know what they’re doing. If they want the retinue dead, its all for the best.”
“Stop and think for a minute,” I insisted. “It wouldn’t just start a war, it would weaken the war against the Composer. What possible reason could there be behind that?”
“Weed out the weak,” Frank answered instantly. “Natural selection.”
Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Simon quietly put his head in his hands. I knew his views on this subject. Mine were a little bit more open, mostly because in a culture of assassins, you have to get used to hearing stuff like this. Not to mention Pam could get a bit loud about her beliefs when monsters showed up.
“Ignoring the pros and cons of social Darwinism, don’t you think its in everyone’s best interest to unite against something that’s trying to destroy all of us?”
“You’re missing the point,” Grand insisted, jabbing her finger in my direction for emphasis. “This ‘Composer’ is still hypothetical. We have no way of knowing that there is anyone behind these zombies at all. If there isn’t, then its just like any other weather pattern. Let everyone fend for themselves.”
I narrowed my eyes, not bothering to point out that the Paladins had discovered her identity. I had barely believed it; these three would never trust anything Necessarius said. “You have any kids?”
“Five,” she replied instantly. I couldn’t tell if she knew where this was going. “Two boys and three girls.”
“I have two,” I said, nodding in camaraderie. “A boy and a girl. Simon, you have two boys, right?” He nodded, and I turned back to the assassin. “I take it you put them in an orphanage, like we did?”
Her eyes were very narrow slits now. She had figured it out, but she had to let everything play out anyway. “Yeah.”
“What if the orphanage was attacked by screamers?”
“I’d stop it.”
I ignored the fact that she was bending the rules of social Darwinism a little bit. “You’ve never fought screamers before. Besides, you could be on the opposite side of the city. You gonna sit outside the window for the rest of their lives?”
“Don’t talk to me about them, Lancaster. I can—”
“What if the retinue could save them?”
“Deep night,” she cursed. “The Paladins are still gonna be around. And don’t you dare try and use slippery slope fallacy on me. The generals love the Paladins.”
I nodded in agreement on both counts. “True, true. But the Big Boss assigned them the retinue for a reason. What if they’re not fast enough without trusted companions watching their backs?”
This, more than anything else, was what I knew I had to hinge my argument on. Sometimes it was hard to feel strongly about children you had given up—I know sometimes I found myself forgetting the names I had given to my babies before handing them off.
But these three were soldiers, through and through. They knew you need someone you trusted watching your back, always. That was just how it worked.
Not that it mattered. Frank just shook his head. “The generals want them dead, they die. Move on.”
Yes, being a soldier meant having someone watch your back, so they could sympathize with the Paladins and the retinue. But the other half was following orders—and they were very, very good at that part.
Arguing with them was a waste of time, anyway. We might be a small subculture, but the generals would be able to find someone else willing to take the mission while we were dealing with them. That was probably why Abigor had sent us down here in the first place.
“C’mon,” I said, grabbing Simon’s arm. “We have to go.”
He raised an eyebrow as I pulled him out of earshot. “Look, I know you want to help the retinue, but I don’t think we have any chance of convincing your warlords to change their minds.”
“I agree,” I admitted. “But what do you think will happen if the fey find out that the retinue is in danger, even after I was warned?”
He didn’t answer, but he didn’t have to.
Sooner or later, everything in Domina ended in blood.
Behind the Scenes (scene 123)
I would just like to remind everyone that the views expressed by the characters do not necessarily mirror the views of the writer.