Gathering Clouds, Chapter 17

  • Chapter 17





                           ‘I know a couple of really good hostels around here,’ Aetius said as the carriage rolled off down the main street. ‘They’re around a hundred septims a night, not too expensive.’


                    The kits looked at each other, bemused. Not too expensive?


                    ‘Well, I should go home before it gets too late. It’s almost ten and Father’s going to kill me. Enjoy your stay in the Palace District!’ The young Imperial waved them goodbye and jogged off into the distance, his thick thighs quivering.


                    ‘Well,’ Ambarro said eventually. ‘Now what?’


                    ‘We find the Adder, of course,’ Diia said. ‘The District is almost two square miles of land. Too large to search block by block. Ambarro-to, you and I will each go to high vantage points along the north and south perimeter. The wind converges there, and it should let us sniff out Moon Sugar or skooma easily. All you have to do is follow the scent.’


                    ‘What about me? I do not possess your sense of smell.’


                    ‘I have a more elaborate plan for you, Harrow-to. Look at that,’ Diia pointed to a poster on a wall. There was a picture of wine, grapes, and a giant ham painted on it, as well as a noble family’s crest. ‘There’s a gala hosted at a nearby mansion, the type of feasting that nobles do to flaunt their wealth. Do you remember what Jorra-jo said? The Adder’s brand of skooma has found its way into even the heart of Cyrodiil. If even officials inside the Emperor’s circle are using it, it’s a fair guess that there’s going to be some of it bandied about during such an occasion.’


                    ‘I see. The two of you will commence a large scale, general search of the area while deploying me to areas of higher probability, thus combining two feasible approaches. Good idea,’ Harrow raised his eyebrows, impressed. ‘Shall we begin?’


                    Diia touched his shoulder lightly. ‘Do keep yourself safe, Harrow-to.’


                    Ambarro nodded, leering. ‘We’d hate to have to stitch your useless body up again. It was hard enough the first few times.’


                    ‘Useless body…’ Harrow muttered darkly, scowling.


                    ‘All right,’ Diia withdrew, beckoning Ambarro with one hand. ‘Scatter!’


                    The gala was being held at the Archambault manor. The wealthy Breton family had invited nearly everyone of import in the Imperial City. It was only a short walk from the carriage stop to the manor, but it gave Harrow plenty of time to consider his infiltration route.


                    He discounted disguises immediately. He would only be able to get an outfit his size from someone around his age, and most parents were likely to notice if their child turned up unconscious and naked. The gala began at eight, so all the guests were indoors already. No blending in with the milling crowd. That left the back door and the windows.


                    The manor had a large front gate with two armoured pikemen guarding each side. Harrow went around the building, making note of the high windows and the smooth walls. I need a running start to even think of clambering up. That will draw too much attention, especially with the courtyard being so well-lit.


                    And of course the back door was locked. He didn’t expect much less, but it was still frustrating. It was even more frustrating when he inserted a thin pick into the keyhole and realised that the Archambaults were using a wafer lock with security plugs. I have no idea how to pick a lock like this.


                    Harrow was thinking of a way to get the key when the lock suddenly turned. He flattened himself against the wall to the left of the hinges, letting the door conceal himself as it opened, then slipped above the doorframe.


                    The door was beginning to close. Harrow tensed his legs and prepared to leap at whomever was on his way out in the unlikely event that he decided to look up. Then his eyes widened.


                    An Orc. He was scratching his tusk as he let the door swung shut. The tooth was broken off at the tip. It was the same skooma dealer that he trailed to the Market District from the Arena.


                    Reprioritising immediately, Harrow waited until the Orc was at a safe distance, then dropped down from his perch and began to follow him again. From the skooma dealer’s conversation with Ennio, he could make an educated guess that the Orc most probably didn’t live in the Palace District. If so, he could only be here for two reasons – selling skooma to noblemen, and to meet the Adder.


                    Given that he is just leaving from the Archambault estate and he most likely wasn’t invited to join the festivities, the latter option is currently more probable.


                    To his surprise, the Orc led him deeper and deeper into the Palace District. Another half-mile and we’re going to reach Green Emperor Way, and then the Imperial Palace itself. The Adder isn’t in court, is he?


                    As it turned out, he wasn’t. The Orc turned off the main road after five more minutes, snarling at a couple who were turning their noses up at him. ‘Brutish savages, all of them,’ the woman sniffed.


                    Harrow frowned at the casual racism from a deserted balcony, then leapt, landed with a roll on group level, and continued to tail the skooma dealer. It was lucky that he decided to follow him from a distance. The Orc seemed nervous, and was shooting glances behind him every few seconds. They must have caught wind of Ennio and the mercenaries’ deaths.


                    He would have preferred to keep to the rooftops, but the buildings in the Palace District were distributed in a manner that was impossible for him to jump from one to the other. The extra security didn’t help; there were a few archers patrolling some of the wealthier houses. He varied his pace instead, shambling around aimlessly when the Orc decided to turn around. I need corners or some other cover. Sooner or later he’s going to notice how I’m constantly around.


                    That too proved unnecessary. The Orc paused in front of a lavish mansion, with garlands hung from the brightly polished gates and decorated vines twirling around a silver fountain in the middle of the garden.


                    The Orc didn’t linger in the front door, however. He circled around to the rear of the mansion and down a flight of stairs. The basement entrance. Harrow cursed silently. The back end was uncomfortably narrow. He would be spotted for sure if he went inside.


                    With no other choice, he stopped around the corner and began to wait.


                    The Orc rapped on the door three times, then once, then four times. Harrow embedded that particular order in his memory. After a brief moment, there was the sound of a slit opening and a muffled voice rasped, ‘Clover.’










                    The Orc didn’t complain about the word puzzle this time. ‘Come on, let me in,’ he said. He sounded anxious.


                    The door opened. Harrow saw a yellow glow light up the back end of the manor, throwing the Orc’s shadow over the corner. He shifted backwards just in case.


                    ‘Be quick about it, the Snakehead’s waiting downstairs. You remember where the hatch is.’


                    The door shut again, closing out their voices. A hatch. The Adder is further down? A second-level basement. Ideal for illicit meetings and storing contraband...


                    He walked down the stairs himself, eyes darting to and fro cautiously. There was steel plating on the door. Impossible to break through. The doorway looked innocent enough by itself, but Harrow noticed a small bloodstain on the ground. He followed the splatter pattern to a couple of inconspicuous holes in the wall. Most likely murder-holes for arrows or bolts. Swallowing, he knocked thrice, once, then four times.


                    ‘Clover,’ the voice rasped again.


                    Lowering his own voice to a gravelly baritone, Harrow answered, ‘Rockjoint.’






                    ‘Serpent,’ the voice finished. There was a series of clanks as several bolts were loosened and the door was pulled back. A well-dressed butler emerged, holding the door open. A thin longsword and a lantern hung at his side. ‘What business do you have with the-agkh!


                    Harrow dropped into a low stance, drew his katana, slashed upwards, swiped it clean on the scabbard and sheathed it in one fluid iai, just as he’d practiced hundreds of times. The manservant fell backwards as he completed the draw-cut, a scarlet line drawn across his larynx. I’m inside. He took one step into the Adder’s mansion and closed the door as blood began to pool around the corpse.


                    Right. Hatch. Even the Adder’s basement was enormous. A couple of right turns down some corridors led into a well-furbished workspace with a staircase leading up. Shelves lined both sides of the walls, stacked with empty alchemy bottles and flasks of reagents.


                    Curious, Harrow stopped and examined one of the flasks, tapping it lightly with a finger. Then he froze. Voices.


                    He followed the faint murmur of conversation to one corner of the basement and scowled. There didn’t seem to be a way down from where he was standing. He was about to turn and search elsewhere when the light caught a bottle. It was a semi-transparent green, but he could still see the two bolts on the bottom securing it to the thick wood of the shelf it was sitting on.


                    The bottle gave to the left. A click sounded behind him and a handle popped out from the floor. Quite a well-hidden trapdoor. I felt nothing when I stepped over it.


                    The hatch swung open without a sound. Greased hinges. There was a ladder leading into the lower level. Harrow peered over the edge to check if there was anyone at the bottom, then slid down. This level of the basement was dank and cold, and there was a subtle hint of decay in the air. The conversation was fully audible now. Harrow hid behind a couple of wooden crates and listened.


                    ‘…and that there is the last of the bodies,’ a very familiar voice was saying. ‘Keep your men in better control. I can’t cover for you much longer.’


                    ‘Are you saying you’ve outlived your usefulness, Praefect?’ The Adder’s voice was oily and slow. He didn’t sound much like the leader of a nation-wide smuggling ring. ‘How unfortunate. Tell me, how is the wife doing? I understand that she recently became pregnant. My most hearty of congratulations.’


                    There was a tremble in the Praefect’s voice as he answered. ‘Virgilia is doing well, with no thanks to you. I understand, Snakehead. My Legionnaires will keep out of your way.’


                    With a start, Harrow recognised the Praefect as Decius, the Imperial who’d taken a particular liking to Diia and led them into the city. So the commander in charge of investigating the Adder is actually in the man’s pocket himself.


                    ‘Good, good,’ the Adder simpered. ‘I do hope she remains in good health. Pregnancies can be so very… turbulent. You can show yourself to the gate, Praefect.’


                    Decius did not reply. He marched rigidly past the two crates and headed for the ladder. The trapdoor slammed shut. For a few seconds, Harrow fretted about him finding the manservant’s body, but then his heavy footfalls faded upwards and he relaxed. The Praefect was headed for the ground floor and presumably the front door. I still have to hurry, though. Someone’s bound to come across the corpse anyway.


                    The Adder was chuckling lightly. ‘Poor man. We’ll have to take care of him sooner or later. He knows too much, and as much as fear can do for a business, he’ll never be truly mine. I’ll give it another month. Even if the investigation isn’t dropped by then, good Praefect Decius needs to go. It’s a pity the Dark Brotherhood no longer operates in Cyrodiil, but I’m sure a couple of hired cutthroats can do the job just as easily.’


                    ‘Very wise, Snakehead,’ the Orc agreed. ‘I’m more concerned about these bodies right now, though. First Ennio got himself stabbed, and now Rourke’s entire band gets offed? Someone’s after your head, boss. I think you should leave town, lay low for a while.’


                    ‘Someone’s always after my head,’ the Adder sniffed, walking over to the ladder himself. ‘Risks of the trade. But you have a point. I’ll take my boy and make a short trip to Bravil tomorrow. Hold down the fort while I’m gone.’


                    ‘No problem, boss. I’ll send someone down later to deal with the stiffs.’


                    ‘Of course. You keep this up and I might have to promote you again. You’d do a better job as underboss than the bunglers right now – none of which bothered to show up! Come, join me for a nightcap before you go.’


                    Harrow waited until both men had gone up the trapdoor, then rose from behind the crates. Over a dozen bodies were stretched out on long tables. Ennio was among their number – Ambarro would probably still have insisted on calling him Coattails – and so was the mercenary leader, whom he gathered was Rourke. The Redguard had a rictus grin on his face, courtesy of his Moon Sugar overdose. A painful twinge ran across the patch of missing flesh on his right chest, and he felt a surge of vicious satisfaction.


                    If the Adder is leaving the city tomorrow, then I only have tonight to complete the assassination. Harrow almost broke into a run, then he reminded himself to be patient. The task at hand might be urgent, but haste alone wouldn’t help.


                    The Adder said that he’s off to take his nightcap, which likely means that he’s going to sleep after. I can probably wait for him in his chambers, assuming that he’s not drinking there.


                    With that in mind, he spun up the ladder and headed up the stairs to the ground floor. The mansion was three stories high. Harrow wagered a guess that the master bedroom was on the highest floor. It was lucky that the staircases were designed so that whomever was walking along the side could peek up or down. He managed to avoid two bodyguard patrols in that manner.


                    Because of those patrols, however, getting to the top floor took longer than he’d have liked. Let’s hope the Adder is a slow drinker.


                    Two strokes of luck at once. His gamble that the bedroom was at the top paid off; it was right the end of the staircase. And the Adder was, as it would seem, a slow drinker – the bedroom was empty.


                    Harrow stalked in and closed the massive oak doors behind him, scanning the room for hiding spots. The bed was a good choice, but it would leave him pinned to the ground. In the washroom, perhaps? The enclosed space didn’t offer much cover, though. The balcony would be good for a quick escape, but the doors leading to it were glass. No hiding there either.


                    He finally decided on the wardrobe, and not a moment too soon. Footsteps, coming up the stairs. Fine leather shoes, with padding. Not the bodyguards or the hired help. The young shinobi unsheathed his katana and gripped it with both hands, holding his breath.


                    Aemilius trod slowly up the stairs and entered his bedroom, yawning. The nightcap was a fulfilling ’75, and it left him feeling slightly drowsy. He thought back to young Ghobar, finishing his own drink in the lounge. A loyal dog, the Adder smiled. The best kind.


                    Ghobar had been with him for almost ten years. I pulled him from the gutters of a city that spits and kicks at Orcs and gave him a chance to work for actual coin. Now he and his family lives in the Elven Gardens, sleeping under fine silks and having meat every three meals of the day. He will never forsake me after that.


                    He quickly corrected himself. That kind of thinking was arrogant and foolish. Always expect treachery. After all, he’d knifed his predecessor in his sleep himself.


                    Speaking of knifing, I wonder who was behind Ennio and the others? If it was a hit from a rival, they’d have left a sign. Ennio was small fry, taking him down should’ve been nothing more than a message…


                    Glowering, he closed the door and kicked off his slippers. The fire-warmed rug tickled his toes. He sighed and focused on happier thoughts, allowing some of the tension to drain out of his shoulders.


                    So where should we visit in Bravil? Maybe a sailing holiday across the Niben? Junior would like that. He’s probably still up, fawning over that new sword of his. I should go ask him after I get changed… decisions, decisions! The blue nightgown or the white one?


                    He opened the wardrobe and recoiled, startled. In his state of shock, Aemilius noticed the individual details first.


                    Raven hair tied into a knot. Pale skin. Tapered ears. A grey tunic. A blur of motion. A sweeping crescent moon. Two glimmering silver eyes.


                    Before his mind had time to translate all that into a coherent image, the world went crimson. The crescent moon solidified into a thin blade and buried itself in his heart. It was cold at first, and then it burned.


                    As the Adder of Cyrodiil died, his last vision was that of a black-haired boy barely older than ten.


                    The Adder opened the wardrobe and Harrow promptly stabbed him.


                    The skooma lord’s eyes widened in surprise and his mouth worked for a while, then he slid off the katana and collapsed into a heap with a heavy thump, still staring and gaping at empty space.


                    Harrow stepped out of the wardrobe and took his target’s pulse in several different places, confirming his kill. By all rights, he should have been proud of his first successful mission, but now that he could see it up close, something about the dead man’s face was beginning to disquiet him.


                    He grabbed the Adder by his chin and tilted his head up. A severe under-bite. Heavy jowls. Low brow. Those features… I’ve seen them before. But where?


                    It was then that the second familiar voice of the evening sent a frigid shiver down his spine, rooting him to the spot.


                    ‘Papa?’ A youthful call from the hallway, tinged with worry. ‘Papa, I think I heard you fall. Are you all right?’


                    If it had been anyone else’s voice, Harrow would have acted. If it had just been anyone else, he would have already vaulted over the balcony and been on his way out of the mansion. If it had just been someone else.


                    Your father must be a man of some stature…


                    He’s a businessman who works around the Palace District…


                    Finally managed to convince your father?


                    A thousand septims in cheque…


                    As the truth blasted into Harrow’s skull with blinding force, Aetius pushed the door open, rubbing his eyes blearily and a concerned frown on his face. Kaze-kiri dangled from his hip. For one heartbeat’s moment he was confused. ‘Valessar?’


                    Then he saw the body sprawled in front of his new friend, who gripped a katana still red with blood. ‘PAPA!’


                    The pudgy Imperial boy rushed forward, Harrow’s presence forgotten entirely. ‘Papa? Papa, what’s wrong? You’re bleeding… you’re bleeding, papa! Get up, get up! SOMEONE HELP! PAPA’S HURT!’


                    A trample of footsteps from the ground floor. Armoured boots. Harrow had enough sense to run to the doors and bolt them shut.


                    ‘Papa? No, papa, please…’


                    As if noticing him for the first time, Aetius stared at Harrow with red-rimmed eyes. His voice was a broken whisper. ‘Valessar, why? Why?’


                    ‘Aetius,’ Harrow said hoarsely. ‘He was your father?’


                    ‘Why did you hurt papa?’ Aetius screamed, tearing the wakizashi from his side and hurtling at him. Harrow blocked his first swing instinctively, then dodged to the side as the second came down from above.


                    ‘Aetius, stop-’


                    A third and fourth swing followed, both horizontal and directed at his abdomen. He leapt backwards to avoid them. Aetius was using the wakizashi like a mace.


                    ‘Don’t make me-’


                    Aetius tightened his grip and his knuckles whitened on the hilt of his sword. He clasped his hands over his head and howled, bringing Wind-Cutter downwards to cleave Harrow in two.


                    He set his own sword in a thirty-degree angle against the chop. Against a trained opponent, it would have been a good block – balanced, but not absolutely rigid, so as to better absorb and redistribute the force of the blow into thin air.


                    The fat teenager in front of him, however, was anything but trained. Aetius put his entire weight behind the strike and pressed it downwards. His momentum brought him forwards and he stumbled over to the side, flailing wildly. His large belly caught on Harrow’s blade.


                    There was a wet snick, the sound of metal sliding across soft flesh. Aetius gasped, Kaze-kiri fell from his nerveless fingers, and all of a sudden he was clutching his own entrails in his hands.


                    The thirteen-year-old Imperial moaned and toppled over, his intestines spilling from his opened gut. The smell of gore and faeces filled the bedroom. There was a loud bang on the doors. The bodyguards were breaking them down.


                    ‘Papa, papa,’ Aetius crawled forward, somehow still conscious despite the blood loss. ‘Papa…’


                    He managed to reach the Adder’s corpse, already growing cold. He stretched out an arm and shook his face and shoulder, looking for all the world like a sick child trying to rouse his sleeping father. ‘Papa,’ he whimpered. ‘Papa, it hurts. Wake up, papa. My tummy, it hurts… Papa, please, wake up…’


                    Harrow fought back the bile rising in his throat as he raised his katana one last time. ‘I’m sorry,’ he choked. It was all he could manage. Another bang. One of the hinges popped loose and another began to splinter.


                    Aetius rolled over, his mouth flapping like a fish out of water. His eyes were rolling back in his head. ‘Who’s… that… papa?’


                    Harrow thrust the blade clean into his skull. The boy thrashed once and was still.


                    A wretched murderer, he wanted to answer. But there was no time. One of the doors was beginning to sag in the frame. He sprinted over to the balcony and spun off the railing just as the bodyguards burst into the bedroom, letting out stricken cries of ‘Snakehead!’ and ‘Young Master!’


                    He stopped running when he was a good half-mile away. Then he bent over and threw up into a bush. He would’ve sat there with his head in his hands for the rest of the night if he could, but he eventually got to his feet after a few minutes.


                    Harrow wiped his mouth with a corner of his sleeve, then set out to find Ambarro and Diia.


                    A small shadow detached from the topmost chimney of the Adder’s mansion and flitted over to another rooftop sixty feet away. A passer-by looked up at that exact moment and squinted. It resembled a person. After a moment, though, he shook his head. It was doubtlessly some strange bird. After all, no person could leap across sixty whole feet.


                    ‘How did it go?’


                    ‘The assassination was a success. These kits have talent. Their execution and teamwork could use some work, true, but their information gathering skills and intuition are top-notch.’


                    ‘You seem disturbed, though, Captain, if I do say so myself.’


                    ‘Observant of you, Nacadi. The kit who completed the mission, Harrow. He caused the death of a civilian child and needs an evaluator on him when he returns. Potential issues with guilt. Make a note of that, will you?’


                    ‘Of course. Marking it down now.’


                    ‘If I may, Captain-’


                    ‘I know. Why didn’t we intervene? For the same reason we stood by when the kit was being tortured. This is their mission, Tenri. Our only task is to observe their performance. We act only when their lives are being threatened directly, and even then we keep our involvement to a minimum. Everything they have experienced these past two weeks will mould them into hardened shinobi. Don’t you remember your first mission?’


                    ‘It’s been more than sixty years, Captain… but indeed I do. I understand.’


                    ‘Good. Nacadi, are you done?’


                    ‘Yes, Captain.’


                    ‘Hm. The kit has started moving again. His Nord blood doesn’t slow him one bit. All right, after him. Let’s go.’











6 Comments   |   The Wolf Of Atmora and 5 others like this.
  • Caladran
    Caladran   ·  November 7, 2018

    What a twist, Harrow! I certainly didn't see that coming. Poor kid, though!  And hopefully Harrow gets a counseling or talk with someone about what happened.
  • The Long-Chapper
    The Long-Chapper   ·  January 30, 2017
    An ironic chapter there. Hope Harrow deals with the consequences of his actions. 
  • Sotek
    Sotek   ·  November 30, 2016
    Clover. Rockjoint.  Truffle.  Edelweiss.  Serpent.
    Was hoping there was a bit more to the word puzzle; but then I do like riddles and such. 
    • The Sunflower Manual
      The Sunflower Manual
      Clover. Rockjoint.  Truffle.  Edelweiss.  Serpent.
      Was hoping there was a bit more to the word puzzle; but then I do like riddles and such. 
        ·  November 30, 2016
      It's not really a puzzle, just a series of code-words the Adder's men exchange as a security measure.
      • Sotek
        The Sunflower Manual
        The Sunflower Manual
        The Sunflower Manual
        It's not really a puzzle, just a series of code-words the Adder's men exchange as a security measure.
          ·  November 30, 2016
        I can't help it. It's the way my mind works.
        'C' love 'R' - 'R' ockjoin 'T'-'T' ruffl'E'-'E' delweis 'S'-'S' erpen 'T'
        I can't help but wonder what would have went through his mind if the response was a different word.
        'C' love 'R' - '...  more
        • The Sunflower Manual
          The Sunflower Manual
          I can't help it. It's the way my mind works.
          'C' love 'R' - 'R' ockjoin 'T'-'T' ruffl'E'-'E' delweis 'S'-'S' erpen 'T'
          I can't help but wonder what would have went through his mind if the response was a different word.
          'C' love 'R' - 'R' etaliatio 'N'- ...  more
            ·  November 30, 2016
          Ahahah. I used to play shiritori a lot with my brother so I know how you feel. If I let my mind run unchecked it would probably have run up to the dozens, though. Restraint!