Names hold power in this rotten city of ice and stone. That’s why most of us trash who call these cold, cobbled streets home never had a proper name but the one we gave each other. Whoreboy, Small Teats, Big Ears, Sweetling, Blunt Edge, Pigmouth, Mush Mouth. The unwanted of the old capital, the beggars’ court. As far as memory let me, I have always lived on the streets. Flashes of a woman holding my hand a long time ago ocassionally haunt my waking mind; she was dressed in rags, with ashen hair, begging, smiling a crooked smile. Her young, oval-shaped face had too many wrinkles. She gave me sweet bread from time to time. One day she was gone and that was that. Nowadays, I made a living anywhich way that could find me a warm spot to sleep the night and put some food in my gut. Nimble is my street name. I run fast. Keeps me many steps ahead from the imperial guards and the Tsar’s justice.
One day I found myself walking across the black marble floor from the Plaza of a Thousand Martyrs. It felt like walking over a great gaping abyss; I always got anxious whenever I walked over it. Crowds of people strolled by placidly among the great white and pink marble fountains, dedicated to dead heroes and dead Tsars. Their smiles were making me want to take a piss in one of the fountains. A growl in my stomach reminded me of my urgent need; after three days of not finding the smallest scrap to eat, I was starting to feel famished. As my rotten luck would have it, the plaza was full of guard patrols, making it difficult to even try to get near a mark, less nab their coin purse. I could always take my chances and make a run for it. If I was lucky, they’d probably kill me on the spot.
I considered what to do when a loud neighing sound from behind startled me. I quickly turned around to see four great, black stallions that were about to run me over. I managed to jump out of harm’s way at the last moment, landing on my side heavily, cringing slightly in pain. As I catched my breath, I got up and turned around in time to catch the coat of arms on the back of a lavishly decorated carriage: the imperial sigil. Plates of silver were molded around its wooden frame incrusted with pearls and emeralds; even the door handle was made from ivory. I suddenly saw nothing else but the wealth that had almost run me over.
A muffled voice came from inside and the driver pulled back hard on the reins. The horses on the front reared back, raising their front hooves up high, neighing loudly in protest while the other two behind halted almost immediately. A pudgy hand, covered in dark spots, latched on to the side door window. It was weighted down by big, thick rings with gems. I could barely make out from inside a fat man’s lecherous face. A grin formed among his jowls when he noticed me. In that moment a gust of wind decided to sweep across the plaza. I hugged myself and started to rub my sides. The night would be bitter, as always, if I didn’t find shelter.
I noticed then that the driver, a tall man in red leather jerkings, a long shaggy red coat and fur cap walked towards me, a limp on his right leg. A coiled whip was gripped on his right hand. As he got closer I was able to make out a scar that traced a horizontal line under his chin; his face was deeply pockmarked. I took a step back, beginning to turn in the opposite way, ready to escape. Did I offend this lord by not having the common decency to die under his carriage, trash that I am?
“Boy, my Lord wishes to…heh…apologize for the fright he gave. Or should I say, I gave. Stupid beasts, can’t control them sometimes.”, the driver broke into a broad smile, revealing rows of rotten brown teeth, while glancing back at the horses. He had placed a hand over his hip, brushing his coat aside slightly. The handle of a short sword peeked underneath. “My Lord would really be grateful if you would join him for tea. He’s a generous one, no? And it’s always good to show gratitude to your betters, right?”, his rotten teeth were still visible. I looked at him, then at the carriage. I smiled in what I hoped was an unctuous manner. “Bless our great Tsar for my luck! My Lord is very kind and generous, how can I refuse?”.
I walked over there slowly, making sure the fat lord got a nice view of me going over to him. The side door of the carriage opened and I climbed inside. The interior was a deep blue and felt soft, like a room made of swan feathers. But the lord was an ugly sight. Folds of oily fat on his face, bulging, watery blue eyes, red shiny pimples on his cheeks, and short red hair. He wore a rich green velvet tunic and a dark red fur cloak, both seemed to be almost tearing at the seams from his large girth. A mockery of a noble. I bit my tongue. One doesn’t live long in this city if you laugh at those above you.
“My sweet boy! Thank you for accepting my invitation, it’s just my way of apologizing for my oafish driver! Ah, I see that you are unhurt…good, good.”, his eyes had a hungry gleam to them, I simply smirked. “You see, I get lonely in my manor…”, his fingers were fat worms that crawled over my leg, my flesh under my breeches was crawling, but I simply smiled, “I take drives around our Tsar’s fair city, may He be blessed, to abate my solitude. I am always eager for some friendly company.”, his voice was like crushing glass poured into my ears. “May He be blessed!”, I repeated with the usual mock enthusiasm. He wanted to play games, so be it. I spread myself a bit on the opposite seat, making myself comfortable. “I am honoured to be my Lord’s guest and to keep him company!” His eyelashes fluttered and he cooed like an imbecile lost in love. “Wonderful, wonderful! A toast to celebrate our budding friendship then!”, he pulled out a green crystal bottle and two clear glasses from a wooden mahogany box he had next to him on his seat. There was a carving of an open hand with an eye on the palm on top of the lid. The carriage had begun to move already. I could see the plaza beginning to pass us by, its people mere blurs as the horses sped on as we headed back into the city’s winding streets. He poured a generous portion from the green bottle on both glasses and offered me one of them. It was full of a yellow, sweet smelling liquor. I drank, and immediately felt everything blurry and the world turn slow, soon my vision swam, his face stretched and grew, until it swallowed me and I knew no more.
When I came to he was already over me, clumsily trying to undo my breeches with one hand while holding a dagger with the other, I was already shirtless, my skinny, hairless torso exposed. Our eyes met and he softly pressed the blade’s point over my stomach. I remained still, he licked his lips while leering then bent down. It wasn’t going to be a simple rich prick’s night of fun with me enjoying a hot meal and, maybe even a few coins; he wanted much, much more. He began to kiss me from my navel, slowly, taking small bites, until he reached my lips, then he slipped in his slimy tongue. I bit down hard, he jerked back violently and screamed, blood gushing from his mouth and spraying over me and across the carriage’s seating and floor; the knife dropped in surprise. Immediately, I picked it up and drove it, tip first, down his stomach, feeling it sink easily into his flesh. I gave the knife a twist to make sure it stayed there.
The carriage stopped brusquely all of a sudden, throwing us off balance an on to the floor. I fell on top of the dying bastard. I relished his agony briefly and spat at his face. Angry shouts came from outside. The driver coming to kill me without a doubt. I saw the man’s pockmarked face twisted in a mask of rage. In a moment of panic I kicked the door as hard as I could, knocking him over to the dirty cobbled street, his sword, already drawn out, clattering on the ground. Without a moment to lose I jumped out of the carriage and made a run for it, shirtless and holding on to my loose breeches with one hand. I felt intense cold on my feet; the fat pig had also taken off my shoes. Bloody feet be damned, it would be the noose if they caught me. “Murderer!”, a woman screamed behind me. “He’s running away!”, a man joined her. Soon their shouts were joined by the screams of imperial guards in pursuit.
Each step I took was pain, but I just kept running as fast as I could. My feet were bloody and I wanted to scream my lungs out, but I did not stop or slowed down. I cleared a stone wall, fear must have given me wings. And landed inside a small stone cemetary, I must have fallen into one of the Blind God churches that are found around the older parts of the city, had I really run thet far? A grey building with stained windows of red and black. Somehow I managed to get up just in time to see the first guard’s head pop up from the fence, struggling to climb over it. “You! Fucking filth, when I catch you I’ll cut out your intestines and feed them to you!”. I got up again, but this time my scream was not held back, tears flowed freely, the pain was too much, but so was my fear. I started running again just as the guard had finally cleared the stone fence, landing hard on his ass. I went inside a narrow alleyway, hoping to lose myself in the labyrinth that was the old sections of the city. I turned corner after corner, hearing less and less of the guards shouts, but by then even I didn’t know where I was. One building looked the same as the other. Then I saw a great iron fence and once again, in my infinite stupidity, I climbed over it. I landed hard inside a small courtyard. By that point I was exhausted, my feet were raw and bloody, burning with pain, and I could barely move. There was a dead patch of thornbush that could give me cover. Without a second thought, I used my remaining strength and dived in, feeling the thorns rake at my naked, shivering skin. The effort and the pain made me fall into darkness.
When I opened my eyes I found myself resting in a warm bed. I was inside a large room with colors of red, black and yellow -my heart began to beat like a caged sparrow wanting to flee- the imperial colors. Then it hit me, someone was standing next to the bed. He stood tall, silent, a curious smile on his face. I had not heard nor felt his presence in the room. An older man, dressed in black and brown leather. His skin was tanned from what surely must have been countless Summers, his hair showed islands of grey in a sea of black, a great mustache coiled across his face. The lines on his face were almost gouges, but it was his eyes, two emeralds that shone with a twinkle. I was too tired to move or do anything but look at him with eyes wide open.
“I am Vinzo.”
He spoke softly, yet my mangled body trembled slightly at the sound of his voice. “You are a guest in my home, young master. Once you recover, we will talk.”
Not a week passed by before I was up and about. Vinzo -that was the only name he called himself, no family clan name, no other titles, just that- was reading a book in a small study in his house. An elegant, but dusty place. “A gift from the Tsar.”, he closed and put the book aside, smiling that calm smile of a man that knew something most didn’t, “But I have never needed such, feh, comforts. Still, we are bound to our duty”. Why had I not left this man’s home? Sure, he kept me fed, gave me a warm bed and had nursed my injuries, but he was another imperial lackey. Maybe just another noble looking for young boyflesh. This time I was ready and not willing to pay for my stay. I had snatched a knife from the cutlery a while ago that I kept under my new long shirt’s sleeves at all times.
“Even gratitude is a duty oft times. Don’t you think, young master?”.
His eyes had a dull green color to them and I stared at him. There was a great hollow that I had not seen before, and it frightened me.
“Thank you, my Lord. For your hospitality and gifts.”, my lips went dry and I fought against the urge to lick them, trying to hold his stare, but I slowly diverted my gaze to the side. The smile spread a bit further under his great mustache. “One is a gift, the other I only lent, but I’m sure you’ll return it before it breaks or is lost.”. I nodded and without waiting for his leave I turned around and started to walk out of the study. I had not even taken three steps when he spoke again, his voice now next to my ear, a faint whisper. I never heard him reach my side. “I am no Lord. Remember that well.”
That night, when the bells rang across the old capital’s Blind God churches, marking midnight, I snuck out of my room. I had prepared a bundle with some food from the pantry. The main entrance was a great pair of white doors that loomed like stoic guardians, waiting to give or deny entry to those who came to it. I knew I would have to flee as soon as I opened them due to the wind blowing outside. I unlocked one of the doors and turned the handle, feeling the chill of the night air as howling filled the hall. I would have to run now, my feet still hurt a bit, but I could certainly get far if I starte–
“And here I thought the young master had more wits in him.”
Wind howled and blew into the main entrance, filling the room with its icy chill, a thousand cold needles prickling my skin even under the fur coat Vinzo had gifted me.
“The wind is particularly biting tonite. The Reaper, we used to call it in my youth. It killed silently, unseen. One night it is said that around a hundred frozen corpses were found on the streets a day after a particularly fierce wind storm.”
Laughter. He was laughing, a low rumble, but it sounded somehow diminished. Tired. “Man kills, but Nature always reminds us who the real killer is. My Tsar, I am still an amateur compared to Her, my teacher.”. I turned around, closing the door behind me. I must have been out of my mind, and yet, I had a question that had intrigued me since I woke up in this place.
“Who are you?”
“I am Vinzo.”
I stood my ground in silence, not moving from the door’s entrance. Holding his gaze this time without looking away. The wind howled outside, if anything it seemed to grow louder, a reaper wind perhaps, killing those who were unfortunate to be caught unprotected. His smile grew even wider, revealing rows of filed teeth to fine sharp points, but I did not move a muscle.
“I am the Tsar’s Shadow.”
“Where the Tsar’s shadow falls, death follows.”, my words left my mouth softly, barely louder than a whisper. Everyone in the city knew the old saying. Very few dared say it out loud. The wind outside was wailing now.
“I am a man who has served his duty for many years, and will continue to serve as long as he can. But I will die with no family, no heir. I would like to make a proposal, young master.”
His eyes narrowed as they acquired a playful glow to them, dancing emeralds. I frowned and nodded slowly, what else could I do? “I’m listening.”
“Learn to live a life in the shadows. Continue my legacy and all of this…”, Vinzo made a gesture with his hand, tracing a circle around us, “…is yours. You will never go for want another day of your life.”.
I suddenly saw the corpse of the fat noble and felt ice run down my back, making me tremble slightly. I was shaking my head already. “No, I won’t be an assassin like you! I’m not a murderer, I’m not, I’m not!”, I was shouting. He only stared at me, the glow still in his eyes, but he had stopped smiling. With a curt nod he took a step forward and then….he was in front of me. I never saw the punch, just felt a surge of pain on my stomach and a desperate need to breathe, but I couldn’t. I was on the floor, lying on my back, trying to catch my breath, Vinzo was standing next to me, then I was rolling after he kicked me on the face. A thread of blood danced before me. Mine? I fell face first on the floor, I hear something metallic clatter nearby.
“You still have my gift? Good.”
I slowly staggered back up, reaching out with one hand to the cutlery knife that I had stolen from the kitchen. My grip on it was tight, blood was dripping from its side. I turn to face Vinzo. I will die on my feet. He smiled as his fingers brush the side of his left thigh where a small gash was made on his leather pantaloons. When he pulled them back, they were lightly stained with blood. He smiled, showing his filed teeth.
“A dog can bite the hand that feeds him if mistreated. A dog is loyal only as his master is. I choose to serve. You will always have that choice too.”
No. I had killed because I was forced to. I had my feet, I was Nimble, I could always just ru-
“A dog can run away and be a coward, like it has always done.”
The muscles in my face twitched, I could feel rage shaping my face. His face was suddenly an inch in front of mine.
“Or it can learn how to never be afraid again.”.
The training was long and arduous. Bones broke and mended, cuts were made and healed. And I grew stronger. Years passed and I became a man, while Vinzo became older. The sea of black that was his hair became islands amid a sea of grey. The gouges on his face became canyons. The glow in his eyes still remained, but the rest of his body was slowly crumbling to the weigth of Time. One day, he approached me; I heard the faintest creaking of bone and turned around. He was two steps behind me, when previously he would have been whispering to my ear, unheard and unnoticed. Vinzo was getting ahead in years, yet he still grinned, revealing rows of decaying, but still sharp, teeth.
“Ah, I see I can’t sneak up to you like before. Seems I’ve gotten worse…or you’ve gotten better.”
“Or both.”, I grinned. My teeth were only starting to get filed, the upper row first, soon the lower row would follow. He had his hands clasped behind his back and nudged with his head for me to follow him. We walked all the way outside to the courtyard. It was the middle of Spring and the place was vibrant in a myriad of colors. So alive and warm it made the grey and dead garden of years past almost seem like a dream. I almost laughed, but when I looked at him he was not smiling, just had a far away look on his face. It was then that I noticed he had pulled out a dagger encased in an ivory sheath, the handle was made from a femur bone, I did not ask what kind. He was looking at it with a certain fondness.
“A gift from the Tsar, his first. After I took the position of Shadow. Everyone he has personally ordered me to kill, this dagger has done the deed.”, he passed it to me, it was so light, and looked so well-taken care of. This dagger was loved. “Remember, certain rituals must always be observed, or everything we do lacks meaning, and then the World falls into chaos.”
“It’s magnificent, Vinzo. I hope it serves you well for many more years.”, I stretched my hands to return the dagger but he took a step back shaking his head. “No. Its time with me is over. It’s yours now”. I raised an eyebrow and grinned, cocking my head to the side, confused. “What are you talking about, old man? The dagger is yours. I’m not the imperial assassin!”. He was not smiling back, but simply looked at me with his emerald eyes. The glow in them was one I had not seen before, it made me think of dusk. Something almost melancholic about them.
“Yes, I still can probably be of some use for a few more years, but the fact is, I am finished. My body is old and frail. And I decided long ago that I wanted to either die in combat, or by my own hand. Now, I found a third way: someone to take my place, someone to help me die on my feet. The Tsar knows of my decision already. He approves. A final gift from him to me.”. I understood at once and instinctively took a step back, shaking my head. “No…I can’t, Vinzo.”, my voice shook, “I won’t!”, I looked away, though I could feel his gaze on me, an assassin with affection for a street rat turned assassin’s apprentice.
“Would the young dog let the old dog beg and whimper?”
I closed my eyes and let out a sigh. No, he would not. Our eyes met again. He was smiling, a faint, pleasant smile under a grey moustache, like an old friend who had to return home after a long, pleasant visit. I slowly unsheathed the dagger and held it tight with both hands. They did not shake and he gave the slightest of nods. I rushed him and felt as the blade pierced through cloth and flesh, until it reached his beating heart. A spray of blood gushed and hit me square on the chest and face. His face was still smiling and his lips were faintly moving. I leaned in real close to listen.
His body slid to the ground and crumpled on itself. An old broken, dead thing. I stared down at his body, I don’t know for how long. The day was sunny and I heard birds chirping in the distance. The blood was sticky on my face, a fitting baptism for my rebirth.
Run, run, don’t stop. Marthollos was sweating despite the cold. The clanging of bells was deafening, was it midnight already? Fucking Blind God cultists, he could never understand why the old man let them keep their filthy old churches. The old man…he knew of his crime. No, there is no crime, life is pleasure, and all I did was enjoy life. A dog barks nearby and Marthollos presses his body to a nearby wall. Wrapped in a grey cloak to avoid recognition, he knows he can buy himself safe passage out of the city if he can reach any of its outer gates. He was the Master of Coin after all…was, but the fools didn’t know yet. The Tsar knew. He saw, he saw. Marthollos’s spat on the ground and cursed the bones of the old rotting fool for running into his office as he was enjoying a night cap with one of his guests from the street. Some young man, couldn’t really recall the name, soon he was finished with him and was just cleaning up, but then the old bastard…. No, he had to keep running. He would soon be safe.
“What in the Twenty Hells?!”, he suddenly stopped, almost dropping his sack of gold. A man dressed in black and brown leather, wrapped in a black cloack was standing in front of him, his face showed no visible emotion. Both were the only people on the empty street. Some crazy fucker. “Woah, sorry friend, you startled me. I’ll be on my way!”
“Not tonight, Marthollos. Or any other, for that matter. The Tsar saw your sin.”
Marthollos smiled, narrowing his eyes, he slowly reached for his sword under his cloak. How fast the old bastard operated, but it didn’t matter, he was still among the best swordsmen in court. “Seems you’re going to be a thorn in my side until I pull you out, friend. Didn’t get your name, though you seem to know mine.”.
The man smiled faintly.
“I am Vinzo.”