The Penitent Damned
Author:Django Wexler
    Duke Mallus Kengire Orlanko, Royal Minister of Information—sometimes called the Last Duke, though not in his hearing—did not look particularly dangerous. He was short, balding, and tended toward the portly, a roly-poly little man with an unfortunate taste for rich purples that gave him the look of a ripe plum.

    Nevertheless, it was widely agreed that the Duke was the most dangerous man in Vordan, if not beyond. This was not simply because he was the inheritor of the most powerful fiefdom in the kingdom (though he was), or even because as Minister of Information his secret police, the all-seeing, all-knowing Concordat, had an informer in every shadow (though they did). What gave Orlanko his aura of terror was the certain knowledge that he had merely to crook a finger, and grim-faced men in long black coats would go to the home of the object of his displeasure in the middle of the night and haul the unfortunate away; and more importantly that no one would ever say a word about it, whether the prisoner was a beggar or a peer of the realm. Even the other Ministers of the Cabinet walked with care around the Last Duke.

    The most unusual thing about his appearance was his spectacles, made for him specially by the Doctor-Professors of the University. They had wide, thick lenses, and from most angles they obliterated the upper half of the Duke's face into a vaguely flesh-colored blur. Every so often, though, they'd slip by chance into a perfect alignment, and the startled subject of that level glare would find the Duke's eyes bearing down on him, magnified to five times their normal size.

    Currently, this unsettling stare was being directed at a thin sheaf of paper, which lacked the capacity for terror or unhappiness with its lot. In this, the Duke reflected, it had something in common with his visitor.

    "The third item," Andreas said, helpfully.

    The Duke tapped his finger on the paragraph in question, read it again, and sighed. He leaned back in his chair — custom made by the most cunning artisan in Hamvelt, it reclined gently under his weight with an almost subliminal whirring of gears and springs — and looked up across the vast expanse of his polished ironwood desk at his assassin.

    It wasn't that Orlanko didn't like Andreas, or that he had ever given unsatisfactory service. Rather, the Duke didn't care for what Andreas represented. Not the fact he was a killer — there were plenty of killers in the service of the Concordat, though fewer than the man on the street might have assumed. But Andreas was unique. He didn't fit into the carefully-coordinated hierarchy of the Ministry of Information, standing off to one side of Orlanko's organizational charts like an awkward party guest. He, and a handful of others like him, were the Duke's concession to the messiness of the world, the fact that not every problem could be slotted into an appropriately labeled box and taken care of in the normal course of business. For all Andreas' efficiency, Orlanko hated to be reminded that he was still necessary.

    Physically, there wasn't much to distinguish Andreas from any other Concordat agent. He was of medium height and medium build, with fair skin, sandy brown hair, and a face that was easy to forget. He wore the black leather greatcoat that served the secret police in place of a uniform, hands in his pockets, the fringe hanging behind him like a cape. The important differences were inside the man's skull. Andreas, Orlanko had found, thought in a different way. Not a normal way, to be sure, but there were times when the twisted path was the most effective, in the same way that a corkscrew can be the most effective tool for a job.

    In this case, though, Orlanko wondered if the assassin's unusual perspective had led him astray. He frowned.

    "Someone has obviously gotten desperate," the Duke said. "Desperate enough to hire a thief to try to steal from us, and I may say without false modesty that this is very desperate indeed. But what makes you think he has a chance of success? Surely ordinary procedures will be sufficient."

    Orlanko loved 'ordinary procedures'. He'd written most of them himself, over the years, converting the Concordat into an organization that ticked over like a gigantic clock with human bearings.

    "The problem is the thief," Andreas said. "I've included some eyewitness reports from his last job, in Hamvelt."

    The Duke leaned forward, flipped the page, and read. His index finger tapped the paper again.

    "Ah. You're certain this is the man we're dealing with?"

    "Reasonably certain. We know he's in the city, and for him to risk venturing within our reach the job must be a sweet one. This is the only thing that qualifies."

    "I see." Orlanko leaned back again. "How do you want to proceed?"

    "If we can believe the reports, the thief's … capabilities are unknown. I assume you want the identity of his backer?"

    "Of course."

    "In that case I would like to borrow some of your … 'special assets'."

    The Duke's expression darkened. "Matters at court are coming to a head. I may not be able to spare them for long."

    "We won't have long to wait. The thief won't risk being in the city any longer than he has to. It'll be tonight, or tomorrow at the latest."

    Orlanko hesitated a moment, then nodded. "As you wish. But I expect good results."

    "Of course, Your Grace." Andreas bowed, coat flapping. "I will begin immediately."

    Alex grabbed the lip of crumbling brick and hauled herself up until she could swing one leg over and lever herself up to lie flat on the narrow surface. The bricks made up a battlement-like rise perhaps a foot wide. Beyond them was the building's roof, a sloped, irregular surface of wooden shingles, but she dared not trust that with her weight. Most of the the tenements of the Newtown district still had their original hundred-year-old roofs, patched inexpertly and sporadically as they rotted and started to leak, and the ancient shingles were likely to shatter under her weight.

    Instead, she rose to her feet, as smoothly as a dancer. She looked around for a moment, taking her bearings from the lights of the city, and then started to pace easily down the narrow strip of brick.

    On her right hand was the roof, and on her left was a sheer drop — five stories to the street below, without even the hope of catching a convenient clothesline to slow her fall. The winding streets of Oldtown and the narrow alleys of the Docks were always thick with ropes, which could be quite useful for a second-story man — or woman, in Alex's case. Here, though, the long-dead Farus V had decreed that the boulevards be wide and straight, in accordance with the latest Rationalist principles, and though the area had gone a bit down-market since the old boy's day, the buildings were still too far apart to string washing-lines.

    Alex's heart was beating fast, but it wasn't from the precariousness of her foothold or the prospect of a hundred-foot fall. Young as she was—another month would see her twentieth birthday—this sort of work had become so second-nature to her that a few inches of moldy brick might as well have been a broad highway. This, the rooftops of a great city at night, was her world, into which she'd been born and in which she'd spent her entire life. Anyone who had asked her about the possibility of a fall would have gotten only a quizzical stare in response.

    Her nervousness had quite another source. This wasn't Desland, with its brightly painted shingles and sleepy constabulary, or even Hamvelt, with its terraced archways and sharp-eyed sell-mercenary guards. This was Vordan City, home to the Last Duke's Concordat, who watched from every shadow. Ever since she'd started working with the Old Man, some three years now, he'd been telling her dark stories about the city of his birth, to which he'd sworn up and down he'd never return.

    Everyone knew what a thief's oath was worth, of course, and it was no surprise that enough money had made a liar out of the Old Man. They'd been at a loose end after a successful job in Hamvelt had produced more heat than they'd bargained for and sent them fleeing south and west towards the mountainous country near the border. Even still, when word had come through the Old Man's labyrinthine network of contacts that a proposition was on offer in Vordan with an almost ludicrous sum of money attached to it, he'd come close to turning up his nose at it. Alex had worked hard to convince him that they should take the deal; the fact that the job was obviously impossible only sweetened the pot.

    Besides, she thought, if it's impossible, they'll let their guard down.

    Alex liked impossible things. It was impossible to jump from one tenement block to the next, for example. You'd need a grappling hook and a lot of line, and even if it found purchase on the rotten shingles crossing would be a dangerously long and noisy endeavor.

    She herself was impossible, after all. In this day and age, who believed in magic?

    At the corner of the tenement roof, she paused, perched like a gargoyle. Twenty-five feet across the way, another hulk of a brick building loomed. A few lights flickered weakly in window frames on the upper stories, but lower down the shutters were tightly closed. It certainly wasn't impossible to climb one of these buildings from the outside—indeed, with their flaking mortar and crumbling bricks, it wasn't even a challenge. It was reasonable to assume, therefore, that the targets had taken some precautions against a stealthy approach from below. But from above?

    Alex spread her arms like an orchestra conductor, raised her hands, and smiled. Liquid darkness rushed out of her cuffs, flowed over her hands like ink, and spread outward.

Most Read
Top Books