“Brothers, sisters! Here lies a traitor to the crown, death shall be his reward! Ring the bells!”, rang out the voice of the crier, as he stood atop the gallows that overlooked the Grand Plaza; a large crowd surrounded its centre in eager anticipation. They responded with a clamour of their own, bodies pressed tight, shuffling to get a better look at the condemned; traitors to the empire, the gravest of criminal offenders, were made to die in full view of the city’s denizens.
Standing next to him on the platform was a middle-aged man of tall stature with a hangman’s noose tied around his broad neck, his arms were also bound with thick rope; purple bruises and cuts marked his face. A hooded executioner stood on the other side, waiting. Blonde curls of hair fell on the condemned man’s face contrasting with the purple and red of his bruises; his left eye was swollen shut. He slightly swayed on his spot; it almost seemed as if the noose was all that was keeping him on his feet.
“He wished to harm our beloved Tsar! Hell is too good for him! Ring the bells!”, the crowd roared again, their bloodlust rising; the man seemed to shrink on his spot. He hung his face low and began to shake violently. Those nearest to the platform noticed this and jeered at him. He would find no mercy here.
“Death to all traitors! Ring the bells!”, came out the voice one more time and the crowd’s pitch rose like a tidal wave that drowned everything else. The hooded executioner standing on the other side of the condemned man grabbed a lever nearby with a great hand and pulled firmly. A trapdoor opened and the man fell, then suddenly stopped with a loud snap. The crowd cheered as bells began to ring around the plaza. Like a ripple, it slowly spread throughout the whole city until there was nothing but ringing in the air.
Osmod heard the bells ringing throughout the old capital. Loud, harsh clanging of bronze on bronze. A reminder of the Tsar’s justice; swift and merciless. Execution bells, they called them. Set up in tall black towers across the city, they announced the death of a traitor to the crown. Those guilty would hang and the bells would ring. He spat on the ground and kept walking through throngs of people.
Life went on, even amid an execution, as the bustling streets could attest to: merchants announced and sold their wares for those that could afford them, imperial guards marched rigidly as they patrolled the streets, children ran about shouting and laughing as they played, their parents close by calling them out. After about an hour he finally reached a tavern that had a sign in the shape of a black whale with a harpoon on its side, red paint on the protruding tip. He glanced to both sides of the street and stepped inside
Light poured inside the place from the entrance as he came in, the rest of the tavern sat in gloomy darkness, slightly kept at bay by pools of flickering candlelight. The place was crowded, Osmod noticed, a few heads rose at his arrival, but most remained focused in their drinking, talking or even sleeping; a constant murmur of voices filled his ears. Slowly surveying the tavern he was able to discern the faded-red cape dotted with yellow spots of Dissmatri on a far corner. Making his way to the corner, he told a passing bar wench to bring him a mug of firedrink. His throat was killing him and he knew it was best to talk with Dissmatri with a well parched tongue.
“You are late, comrade.”, Dissmatri seemed to be in one of his moods. Osmod heard the exasperated wheezing of the man as he sat down and grabbed the mug the bar wench had just set down. He had a long drink, feeling the warmth fill his body. He knew Dissmatri was one of the best whisper gatherers in the city, with hundreds of informants passing him all manner of secrets picked on the streets which he later traded, for the right price. Osmod knew Dissmatri’s information would be solid and he had the coin to afford it. He smiled to Dissmatri, “Apologies, comrade.”, Osmod set down his mug, “Hopefully you can forgive my tardiness.”, his voice was casual as he fished out two gold coins from underneath the table and set them in top. Dissmatri’s greed came followed by his wide grin that showed cracked yellow teeth, “There’s always time, of course.”
Several hours later Osmod was walking down a dark street as night blanketed the city. The guard patrols were lightning the torch pillars on a nearby street, creating pools of light that gave an odd golden glow to its surroundings. Most of the crowds of people had gone to their homes after the day’s toil, though you could still see a few pockets of people gathering to go to the local tavern or to one of city’s various playhouses since theatre was very popular among both peasant and noble. Osmod had neither the time nor the energy to spend time on such trivial matters. He needed a place to think with a clear head so he could make a very important decision. Dissmatri’s information was as good as ever, but this piece in particular -which cost triple the usual amount- was so dangerous that if the wrong people knew about it both their lives would be forfeit. Slowly, Osmod made his way to the eastern end of the city that collided with the vast blue sea, to where the docks were.
Seagulls cried under the starry sky while the bustle of sailors working the nightshift could be heard all across the lengths of the imperial docks. The one part of the old capital that never slept. Home, Osmod thought as he walked past ships of different sizes, while hearing the chatter of their crews. After the bells had rang for both his parents he was left an orphan; the Tsar’s justice cared not for the children of traitors, the streets could have them. Seeing the ships’ crews unloading or loading cargo made him think of his youth. He had been a pickpocket for one of the local gangs near the docks. Their trade was generally profitable, but he never really liked his leader’s brutal treatment of his fellow thieves whenever they came up short with their weekly quota of stolen goods. He made his displeasure know and got a few broken ribs and a cut across his cheek for his troubles.
One of the dock’s traders, Mustaroni, found him bruised and bloody in an alleyway behind his store and took him in. A large man with a big bushy beard and moustache whose hair color was red as fire, with a big hearty laugh as well as a fierce temper. He had once been a captain for a ship that sailed across the World, had many adventures and met people and creatures from distant lands. He eventually made enough money to buy a property in the docks and build a store where he traded wares from the ships that came to the city. Mustaroni took a liking to Osmod and offered him a place to sleep and food to eat if he worked for him and stopped stealing. Wincing from the pain of his wounds, the young boy nodded and grinned at the older man and they shook hands. That had been fifteen years ago; Mustaroni had been dead for five years.
The store closed soon after the death of the old, retired captain and Osmod found himself again facing a homeless existence, so he ended up accepting work in one of the trade ships with a working contract of three years. Those were hard times amid storms, pirate attacks, constant shortage of supplies and two mutinies -one that left the captain dead-, until finally they somehow found their way back to the old capital. Osmod had learned how to survive on the streets, how to work on the docks and how to kill on the open sea. He returned home with two sacks of gold for his troubles, and no direction of what he wanted to do with his life.
Of course he had tried to lead an honest life of trading at the docks, but with the corruption of city officials he could hardly make a living wage; one year later and the two sacks of gold were empty. In time he fell back on trading with another currency he was very good at: steel. Offering his services as a sellsword he made a bit of a reputation in the old capital by being hired to collect debts or serve as bodyguard. In most cases just flashing a hint of steel from his sword was enough to get the job done, but every so often he drew it fully and blood had to be spilled; it was a living.
Now he found himself again walking down familiar territory, considering that this was probably the one place where he could feel enough at ease to think things over before taking an important decision. The one currently in his mind was probably the most important one he’d had to make in his life after the one where he accepted to work for Mustaroni. Osmod breathed the salty, cool sea breeze and looked out into the black horizon that was the sea. He could hear waves rolling in the distance even if he could not see them. Closing his eyes he let himself be surrounded by the noise and smells of the dock when he heard a small voice behind him.”Please, noble sir, could you spare a coin to buy food?”, Osmod turned around and saw that a young girl dressed in brownish rags, probably in her early teens, was holding the hand of a small young boy who looked faint with hunger; her free hand was meekly stretched out towards Osmod. “Me and my young brother are starving. If you could give us a crust of bread or some coin to buy food, so the rats don’t feast on our bones tonight. Please!”, she pleaded with a timid voice, shivering a bit due to the cold sea breeze.
Taking a good look he realized that they could barely stand, yet he felt curious about them and was compelled to ask, “Where are your parents? Do they make you beg on the streets?”, it was not meant as a scolding, but a sincere question, though he couldn’t say why he felt compelled to ask them. The young girl lowered her head a bit and shook her head, “They are dead. Father was hanged two years ago when he refused to give money to the soldiers. He said he had earned it honestly and paid his taxes, that he didn’t need to pay more. They took him in and called him a traitor for not supporting them.”, her lips trembled and he heard the little boy sniffle, “Mother fell ill soon after and quickly passed away. After we buried her the soldiers came and seized our home and kicked me and my brother out.”, she finished and kept silent, her head slightly bowed. Osmod saw the glint of a tear roll down her cheek.
The Tsar’s justice, he thought bitterly, creating orphans by the score. He looked at both siblings for a moment, then fished inside his money purse and pulled out two coins, placing them gently on the girl’s open palm. Her eyes widened and she genuinely smiled at Osmod, even her younger sibling smiled. Both thanked him and walked away into the night. He was left again alone with his thoughts, but now his mind seemed to have a clear thought. Remembering how he was orphaned, he felt a wave of anger crash inside of him. In that moment, his mind was made up.
The dark silhouette of the Tsar’s grand palace loomed like a behemoth of ancient times under the starry sky. Osmod carefully made his way towards the eastern walls while he avoided the guard patrols that went around the building. He found the hidden passage that Dissmatri had spoken of. Besides a dead willow tree he had found an odd crack on the wall big enough for his hand to fit in. Inside he felt five holes big enough for his index finger to push in. There was a sequence in which he had to poke each hole, or he would risk having his hand cut off by a security mechanism. This is where Dissmatri’s intel would prove its worth. Osmod breathed heavily and slowly pressed his index finger in the sequence that the whisper gatherer had given him. A soft click was heard as Osmod slowly pulled out his hand. Grinning he saw an entrance open where there had been solid wall mere moments ago. Unsheathing his sword he stepped inside and then the wall closed behind him leaving it as it was before.
He knew the wall would close behind him, but was relieved to see that a lever stood next to the wall. My exit of course, he thought as he turned around and saw a corridor carved into the stone, lit up with torches held up on sconces. That meant that the passageway was still used, or that those who knew about it kept it lit up should the need arise to use it again. He slowly walked deeper inside, gripping his sword tight, ready to kill at the merest chance he had.
After walking in the narrow corridor for several minutes he found himself in front of a wall, next to it there was a level. He swallowed and pulled at the lever and saw the wall part, giving way to more darkness. Osmod stepped in and stayed still for a moment until his eyes adjusted to the darkness. He noticed that he was in a very large bedroom. The decoration of the room was luxurious, with great tapestries that were emblazoned with heraldic shields that hanged on the wall. A grand desk of polished dark wood sat at one end with a throne-like chair of the same polished dark wood with a red velvet cushion and back support. It was then that Osmod noticed the great bed and wrapped in silk sheets, the body of what he was almost certain was a man due to the soft snoring. The sleep of the untroubled, he thought and his anger flashed inside of him while he slowly approached the bed, blade ready. Reaching the side of the bed, he could see that the person was covered under the silk sheets so he could not see a face. If only you would smother with them, he amused himself with the thought while he raised his blade high and whispered softly, “Justice”. The blade fell down hard.
A loud clang of steel and Osmod’s blade went flying from his hand. Shocked he looked at the figure of a young man that had been covered in the Tsar’s silk sheets; he wore black all over, including his cape. He had a very small buckler that he held with a hand and had used to parry Osmod’s blade. A blur of movement followed by sharp pain to his face and Osmod found himself sprawled on his back not knowing how he got there. He could taste copper inside his mouth. A dull pain throbbed on his lower lip and he spat out a tooth while trying to stand up. The man in black had gotten out of bed and stood a few feet in front of him. “Assassin, your folly ends here.”, the man he spoke in a soft, calm voice, there was no trace of emotion on his face. Osmod noticed his blade was almost next to where he had fallen. In one motion he rolled to the side, despite still feeling a bit disoriented, and picked up his blade while dashing to his feet and faced his enemy, “A trap.”, a statement, not a question. The man in black nodded, “You should not put your life in the hands of people with loose lips.”
Osmod’s thoughts went grim as he thought of the whisper gatherer. Dissmatri, you bastard. As if he could read his thoughts, the man in black spoke again, “Your friend was not careful with his web of informants.”, pacing slowly, he approached Osmod’s right flank. “What he knows, we know too.”, Osmod gripped his sword tight and backed away two steps from the man, “A man was hanged today, a traitor. He worked in the palace and knew about the passage. Very, very few do. It took him so little to betray his Majesty, yet we found out and he paid the price. All we had to do was wait and see who would be foolish enough to attempt against the Tsar’s life.”. Osmod began to slowly pace too, keeping an eye on the man’s sword hand, “Why do you tell me this?”, he asked before he could stop himself. The man in black kept pacing, tracing a circle, “We already captured or killed all of the whisper gatherer’s web of informants. He himself is in the dungeons. The Tsar decided that a more fitting punishment should be delivered for this man, so we cut out his tongue and put out his eyes.”, the man had not spoken with malice or mockery, he was simply narrating events. Osmod began to feel very cold at the pit of his stomach.
“Of these traitors, only you are left. I shall make this quick and painless as I can, comrade.”, the man in black finally stopped and gazed at him, his expression unchanged. Osmod nodded slowly, “If I die, I die. But it will be fighting”, he spoke. The man nodded and bowed softly in salute. Osmod felt compelled to respect the gesture and bowed slightly too.
As if both men were thinking the same thing they suddenly lunged at each other with their blades in the front. Slashing, parrying and thrusting. Neither combatant giving an inch nor asking for one. Osmod was almost caught unaware by the skill of this unknown swordsman; he was having trouble countering his blows to find an opening. After several unsuccessful slashes, Osmod managed to parry a side swipe that left the man open from the flank. He quickly thrust his sword to the exposed flank, sure that he would pierce flesh. The man moved out of harm’s way at such speed that Osmod blinked, unbelieving as he stumbled forward. His thrust had been too strong. He felt a sharp blow on the back of his head and all went black.
When he opened his eyes he felt pain on the back of his head. Standing up slowly he saw that he was in a cell. Bars on one side while the rest was stone walls of a dull gray; one of them had a small barred window that gave a look to out to the night sky. Turning around he stared at the window, gazing at the stars and wondering if they would torture him first or simply hang him, neither prospect held his interest for long. “You are awake.”, a soft voice startled him and he turned around to face the man in black standing in front of him from outside of the cell.
“Yes, but I shall be dead soon. One more body on account of the Tsar’s justice, it seems.”, Osmod spoke with some contempt. “Aye, you are to hang in the morrow for all to see, at least if you choose to.”, Osmod raised an eyebrow, “If I choose to?”. The man in black pulled out a thin, long dagger from his belt, it flashed under the torchlight of the dungeon. “I have not fought a person in ages that could almost match me in skill, and you were willing to die with sword in hand instead of beg for your life. I respect that, so I offer a mercy.”, he spoke more softly now, looking at the dagger, then at Osmod. “Mercy.”, Osmod tasted the word, it felt odd and out of place, he turned his head to the window in his cell and stared at it for a moment, then slowly turned his head to face the man in black again, “Thank you, but I will not die like a thief in the night, unseen and unheard.”
The man in black looked at Osmod for a long moment, then very slowly he slid his dagger back into his sheath and nodded very slowly. “As you wish. Good bye, Osmod.”, he turned around and started to leave, his footsteps echoing in the silent dungeon, “Wait!”, Osmod cried out. The man stopped and turned his head slightly towards his cell; he did not speak. “You know my name, I ask for the same courtesy. Tell me yours, so that I may know you when we meet again in Hell someday.” For the first time, the man in black smiled, a hunter’s grin that has been prodded with a wonderful bounty, “I am Vinzo.”
At the crack of dawn in the following morning, the imperial criers went across the old capital declaring that a traitor had tried to assassinate the Tsar and that he was to be executed in the Grand Plaza. Amazed that another execution was happening after the last one had been so recent put the crowd in a state of excited agitation as the throngs of people made their way to the gallows. Osmod could see the gathering sea of faces cheering, shouting, mocking him as the imperial crier declared his heinous attempted crime and how it could only be paid with his life. His arms bound with rope, he could not scratch the itch he felt around his neck where the noose was tight. The crowd began to shout out for his blood, a frenzied pitch was forming and he was at the center of this storm. He would not curse his fate, since he chose it willingly; his only regret that his blade did not find the Tsar’s heart. His thoughts wandered to the docks, towards the endless sea and the hardships of his life, how he had never surrendered. He said he would die fighting, and no one would choose his death but himself.
Smiling one last time, he cried out for all to hear, “Ring the bells!”