While We Bleed, Opening Scene: “No Witnesses”

While We Bleed, Opening Scene: “No Witnesses”

An early draft of the first scene in my work in progress, While We Bleed.


Ardana Sul stood bathed in the late afternoon sunlight that poured through the tall, glass-paned windows overlooking the city of Tramontio and the river far below. The manor tower bore the scars of a hundred sieges on its outer wall, but inside the semicircular room was richly paneled and furnished. It wasn’t quite to his style, but then most of his employers had more money than taste. If only she’d show up, he thought with a grunt. Keeping him waiting just to show she could. Typical. The package he’d carried across mountains, oceans and deserts now burned in his hand, and he yearned finally to rid himself of it in exchange for cold platinum.

When Sul’s patience finally began to wear thin enough that he considered making inquiries of the statue-silent attendants, the door behind him creaked open. The servants in the room, who would run a stiletto through his gut or fetch tea with equal dispassion, snapped to attention when Sul’s employer stepped through, preceded by a guard.

“Baroness Foncesca,” Sul said with a sardonic half-bow, “I was starting to think I’d gotten the day wrong.”

“No you weren’t,” the middle-aged woman said with acid sharpness. “Nor taught not to speak to your betters until spoken to, I take it?”

“I was. But my professional success has generally relied on discarding most of what I was taught.”

“Clever.” The woman who effectively ruled Tramontio in her husband’s dotage waved a jeweled hand toward Sul. “Check him.”

The guard took two long steps toward him and began running hands over his travel-worn clothes. Sul fought the instinct to pull away and lunge for the man’s sword, dagger, flintlock pistol or any of the countless hidden weapons he certainly carried. They’d already searched him once at the manor gate, and he knew this was just to put him in his place once more. Whatever. “Humph,” he said, “usually I have to pay extra for this kind of treatment.”

“I only allow weapons I control in my house,” the baroness replied, “I’m sure you understand.”

The guard nodded at the baroness. “He’s clean, M’Lady.”

Sul smirked. “I’ve been called many things in my time, but never that.”

“Very well. You are dismissed.” She turned to the attendants behind her. “Clear the room.”

They all snapped a smart salute and retired into an adjacent room. The heavy oaken door rumbled shut. Sul waited until the echo of their heavy boots died away completely before daring to exhale fully. “Charming help you keep,” Sul said.

Baroness Foncesca stepped toward him, a hint of anticipation in her eyes. The promise of danger their business carried, it seemed, excited her. “Do you have it?” Her mouth hung open just a bit.

Sul held up the package. Paper folded around leather stitched over lead over who knew what else, like a set of nesting dolls, down and down until… “Right here. The last phial of plague dust known to exist. A good-bye kiss from the blasted Oldens, may they rot in the nineteen hells.”

The baroness reached out, hesitant, halfway toward the package, then drew back. “You…you’re sure it’s legitimate?”

“The alchemist I took it from was, enough to throw his life away over it.”

Foncesca sneered. “Did he beg?”

“No. But his daughter did. You really want to know the bloody details of the job?”

“No.” She turned to a chest set on a table. Sul had briefly considered trying to pick its locks while waiting before deciding it wasn’t worth the risk. A few clicks and the iron lid opened. The baroness took out a small box, its weight evident as she carried it to him. “As promised. One hundred platinum crowns. Enough to buy a minor title of your own, and lands.”

“Both of which I’d probably lose along with my head the next time one of you nobles decided to declare a blood feud.”

“Only if you picked the wrong side,” Foncesca rejoined.

“I’ll keep the platinum, if it’s all the same to you.” He held out the package. The baroness hesitated once again before taking it and handing over the box at the same time. Their hands touched for the briefest instant, and it was done.

As Sul cradled the box the baroness put her prize in the chest, shut and locked it once again. She paused. “Are…aren’t you at all curious what I plan on doing with it?”

“It’s nothing to me,” he said with practiced disinterest. “You know my reputation. I can get you anything, anyone, anywhere for the right price. Once the job’s done, I get paid and move on. Though this is more than enough to retire. This might just be my last job!” He tucked the box more firmly under his arm. “And with that…” He turned toward the door to the tower stairwell.

“One moment,” Foncesca insisted. “I’ll not have it said I lack hospitality.” She motioned to a side table upon which was set a decanter of rose wine and two crystal goblets. She poured a small measure into each and proffered one. “You’ve traveled long and far for this job. Let’s at least drink a salute to a successful deal.”

Now it was Sul’s turn to hesitate. He glanced toward the other door behind which the two guards had disappeared. Finding no excuse to refuse he reached out to accept, but slowly.

Foncesca must have read the suspicion on his face. She laughed. “Oh, really Mister Sul, you are too suspicious!”

“No such thing in my business, baroness.”

She laughed again, then offered Sul the other glass instead. “There, satisfied?”

Sul took it, thinking perhaps he was just being paranoid after all. They clinked glasses together and Sul sipped just the smallest bit. He detected no obvious poison, but that was no proof. “A fine vintage,” he said with a nod.

“Indeed? Would you be the type to know?”

“No, not really.”

“No. If you were you wouldn’t be the man for this job. Well, let me indulge my predilection for intrigue and tell you something anyway. The plague dust is a little gift for my dear cousin Camero.”

“The Duke of Oltrini,” Sul said reflexively, glancing out the window and toward the city far downriver.

“Very good, Mister Sul.”

“It doesn’t usually pay to know fine wines, but nobles and their vendettas are another matter.”

“Indeed. He’s a wily one, but Oltrini is rightfully mine, and the seeress I’ve engaged has predicted it very well could be if I act before the year’s out.”

Sul snorted. “Seeresses. Charlatans, I say.”

“You may be right. In any event, if I attack outright while the Duke’s away on his latest of his interminable pilgrimages to Artamera, the Ardicchie League will be honor-bound to rally against me. But an outbreak of plague, well, that’d force him home quickly enough.”

Sul nodded. “And by the time he arrived the city’d be in such shambles you could take it in a fair fight. Or at least the appearance of one. I admire your ingenuity. Just as long as your own troops don’t bring the plague back here themselves.”

Foncesca shrugged. “Acceptable losses. They’re pledged to fight for me, and die if needs be. I’ll plan a quarantine ahead of time.”

“Of course a city full of corpses isn’t much of a prize.”

“That’s the wonderful thing about peasants, isn’t it? There are always plenty more.”

Sul laughed out loud. “You’re right about that, baroness. But as I said, it’s no concern of mine. Though I’d appreciate if you’d wait until I’m far from here before releasing that awful stuff.”

“See, there’s the problem,” Foncesca said with just a touch of regret. “My seeress warned me about you as well. You understand, this is a terrible atrocity I’m committing. I could never be forgiven for it. So I’m sure you’ll understand that, well, I simply can’t afford to leave any witnesses. Guards!”

In a flash Sul understood the treachery. He made a mad dash toward the door but found it locked. At the same time two guards burst through the other one, flintlocks raised. All planned in advance, of course. Ten years ago Sul would never have been so sloppy.

“Kill him!” Foncesca screamed, thrusting a painted fingernail at Sul as though she needed to specify. For half a heartbeat Sul stared down two pistol barrels, and in the next they flashed.

The only thing that saved him was the box of platinum coins he threw up before him. The stacks of metal went flying, and the lead balls that would’ve torn into his heart were deflected just enough to let him turn and fling himself toward the window. Glass shattered, sunlight glinted, and in the next moment he was flying through the air. No, not flying, falling.

Ardana Sul hit the rocks piled against the tower, cracking his head on one sharp piece and kept falling, down and down toward the river leaving red smears behind him. Up above, the baroness still shouted orders. More rocks pummeled him, and his last sensation was a cold, wet chill as the river welcomed him into its drowning embrace. Then oblivion.


heron kings logo The Heron Kings by Eric Lewis dark grimdark fantasy novel