“I see by the expression on your face that you know if not who I am, then who I represent.”
Jordan nodded, not trusting himself to speak at the present moment. His thoughts raced, and there was no way that he could articulate them, not without meshing them together into an unrecognisable blur. He chose the safe course instead, the course that Melvin elected to ignore just a few moments earlier.
The train continued to hurtle through the night towards Ma’arnar. Only its rattling motion disturbed the quiet. Clattering creaks and grinds that might, in a different situation, have been soothing enough to rock oneself to sleep. Now they were loud and disturbing, the grinding of a mechanical giant’s teeth, or even the sound of impending doom.
He is one of the Three, Jordan reminded himself—not that he really needed reminding. It was more a reality check than anything else. One of the Three… on the train to Ma’arnar… in my carriage.
It wasn’t exactly the momentary insanity that swamps one when they’re in the presence of a celebrity that Jordan felt right now, for indeed, the word celebrity was not one you’d use to describe the illustrious company Jordan now found himself in. No, what the Three represented went far beyond celebrity and the call of fame. Indeed, it was only in very small and very tight circles that the mentioning of the Three drew any power at all. And because any mentioning of the Three was done in no more than an awed whisper told these small and tight cliques that a visit by any one of the Three members was an auspicious occasion…
…and now one of them sat no more than six feet away from Maurice Jordan!
His racing thoughts were swiftly congealing into something that resembled rationality. The process was much like a swamp toad snatching random gnats out of the air with its tongue, only Jordan then had to arrange the random thoughts into a coherent progression.
The Three. The highest order of the Black Hoods. This man sitting across the carriage from him was an assassin par-excellence. A myriad would have fallen, be it from his blade, from poison, or from some other contrivance, each death adding to this man’s reputation, to his aura, elevating him in the eyes of his peers to a master. He’d have survived countless attempts at his own life, from friend and foe alike, for what better way of usurping someone’s prestige than by bumping them off the same way that they’d bumped off countless others to climb that ladder? Only this man wasn’t just a successful killer… not by any stretch of the imagination. Even sulky old sixteen-going-on-twenty-two Melvin was a successful killer. Hell, taking someone else’s life wasn’t hard, especially after you’ve got the first one under your belt. No, it wasn’t the act of killing alone that separated you from ordinary assassins. It was the art more than it was the message, for in every death the message was the same and the ensuing panic was the same.
The differences between master and the student were subtle but telling. It was the subtleties that told those who found the bodies that a master had struck. There were signs to be on the outlook for, little nuances in the murder scene, each one a deft stroke like an artist’s paintbrush on a canvas. The unskilled couldn’t read these little nuances. To those untrained eyes, it was yet another scene of death. But to the masters and those whose aspirations ran toward mastery (and Jordan most definitely classed himself in the latter) reading the scene was like turning the pages of a well-crafted novel. Personality, that’s essentially what it came down to. Leaving a little of yourself at the scene, your trademark if you will, so that you could write another page of your legacy.
Once you reach a certain point where word of your deeds causes even the hardest of assassins to let loose an involuntary shiver, a unanimous vote elevates you to being one of the Three. The position was for the remainder of one’s life, which in the trade of dealing in death didn’t usually encompass too many consecutive years. In fact one of the ways to secure yourself a position as one of the Three was by ridding the world of any one of the three members currently in place. This was no mean task, but neither was it an impossible one, not if all endless rounds of voting were any indication. Just this year, two of the Three had met unfortunate ends; if this wasn’t an indication of how perilous the position was, then Jordan didn’t know.
But enough of the glossing over of the prestige; anyone with their ambition set to climbing the ranks knew of the Three and the machinations behind their illustriousness. What was of most concern to Jordan now was the fact that one of the Three was currently sharing this carriage with him and somehow Jordan doubted it was one of the newly appointed members. The gurgling and churning in his guts told him that this wasn’t likely to be a congenial visit, either. With the Three, it was never congenial. It was business… and if not business…
Jordan heard his throat click as he swallowed. It was a death rattle, overly loud, like a breaking bone. Beads of sweat dotted his brow just below his hairline. Further sweat, this of the clammy, clinging kind, appeared in his palms and glued his shirt to his back. This reaction was instantaneous. The thoughts that burst into his head led one to the other in barely recognisable seconds. In the train, probably no more than ten seconds had passed. In Jordan’s mind, he’d almost relived his own life in slow, graphic detail.
The stranger had continued to turn the envelope in his hands as Jordan succumbed to his fancy. Impending doom had a way of etching itself upon one’s face and it was probably very obvious to the man sitting before him. In his position, he’d have seen it often enough regardless of how well the next possible victim could control their features. You could smell fear, too. Thick and cloying. He tried again to swallow, found he couldn’t. It hurt too much.
The stranger spoke, destroying the silence that had brewed in the carriage: “still thy heart,” he said. There was the tiniest hint of humour in his voice. “I am not here to end your life.”
Jordan stared. More seconds passed. He dropped his eyes, noticed that he’d been wringing his hands. It took an enormous strength of will to stop them gyrating in his lap. Above him, Melvin snored; the drama and tension happening below him was nothing.While his fears were momentarily allayed, Jordan nonetheless jumped when the stranger drew a knife from the folds of his cloak. He popped the seal on the envelope and the knife disappeared as quickly as it had appeared. Gingerly, his fingers withdrew the documents from the envelope fanned them out like overly large playing cards. “Your mission,” he said. He’d been looking down at the papers when he said the last. When he looked up, his dark eyes sparkled with some species of mischievous knowledge. In fact he looked much younger as if years had been stripped from the lines of his face. It was as if the workings of Black Hood machinations served as some kind of elixir of youth. “Your mission has been compromised.”