“What do you think?” Estelle held the half-eaten remnants of a peach tart on the end of her fork. She smiled, a strand of her wavy hair dislodging from her ear to dangle in front of her eye. She tucked it back into place with a soft giggle, then popped the last half of the tart into her mouth, savoring the flavor for a few moments.
“It isn’t bad,” Kadorax replied honestly. He snatched another tart, a cherry one, from Estelle’s plate. “I used to eat sweets like these all the time at the office, back on Earth. We’d have donuts almost every single day in the break room.”
Estelle reached across the small table to squeeze his upper arm. “Not here,” she said.
Kadorax flexed under her grip. He toyed with the idea of activating a talent, perhaps something to enhance his reflexes or his Strength, but he knew he didn’t need to. The cords of iron-like muscle beneath his skin were impressive enough as they were. As a level thirty-eight assassin, he’d trained for years to turn his body into the toned machine of war that it was.
“What was your favorite food back home?” he asked.
Estelle thought for a moment as she pushed an errant wisp of pale yellow cream from the side of her lips into her mouth. “I traveled to New York City once when I was a girl. There were so many new foods, things I’d never had before, but the one I remember most—”
“Cheesecake?” Kadorax interrupted, vividly remembering the taste of New York cheesecake filling his mouth.
“Hot dogs,” Estelle corrected with a laugh. “I know it’s stupid, but I loved the street hot dogs from the vendors. The smells, the sounds of the city, they all combined into those hotdogs. I know I was just a little girl, but that’s what I remember the best.”
“Of all the foods in New York, you liked the hot dogs the best?” Finishing the last cherry tart, Kadorax waved his empty ale mug toward the waiter.
“What was your favorite food?” she asked him, her eyes narrowing with a devilish grin.
Kadorax had to think a moment before answering. “Maybe ice cream, but mostly because no one in Agglor has come up with it yet.”
“Oh, come on,” Estelle playfully scoffed. “You sound like a child. Ice cream?”
The waiter stopped by and refilled Kadorax mug from a large pitcher wrapped in a scarlet cloth. They weren’t in one of Agglor’s better restaurants, nothing like one of the fine establishments on the upper tiers of Kingsgate where the nobility were served by hordes of attendants and paid their bills in gold, but it wasn’t a lowly sort of place either. Kadorax nodded to the waiter and took a long drink, enjoying the thick, warm ale as it coursed down his throat.
“Well, if I have to pick something else, perhaps my favorite would be cold beer. Really cold. I don’t mind the warm stuff here, but I’ll buy a thousand kegs for the first man in Agglor to invent refrigeration.” He took another long swig before setting the now half-full mug on the table. Across from his drink, Estelle had a dainty glass—real, clear glass—with a few ounces of sweet white wine left in the bottom.
“Now you sound like a drunken college boy,” she countered.
Kadorax sighed. He had a few pieces of seared fish still left on his plate, though they had gone cold as the conversation had progressed, and he no longer had any temptation to finish his meal. “Well, if I have to pick something more to your liking, Estelle, then a warm, juicy steak it is.”
She smiled, nodding her head. “That’s more like it,” she said. “Though you can get steaks here at almost any inn or tavern, so it doesn’t really count.”
“Not like back home,” Kadorax went on. “Sure, there are a few places in Kingsgate where you can get beef that isn’t cooked beyond recognition, but it still doesn’t compare. And for the record, I think I’d still take a pitcher of ice cold beer over a steak, if I could.”
Estelle finished the last of her wine and leaned back in her chair. “You boys are all the same,” she purred over the rim of her glass.
“How many have you dated?” Kadorax chanced to ask. The beautiful woman’s facial expression hid everything. She was inscrutable, her emotions as masked as any of Kadorax’s Blackened Blades out on a job.
Waving her index finger back and forth in front of her eyes, Estelle looked away toward the corners of the room. “I’ve told you before, my love, that I’m not interested in talking about those things.” She stood from her chair, rubbing a sore spot on her back. “Come, let us talk… more privately… upstairs, shall we?”
Kadorax fetched a small handful of silver from his pocket and set the stack down neatly at the edge of the table. It was more than the meal had been worth by far, but he didn’t particularly care. Estelle brought out his magnanimous side, assuming he actually had one—or maybe that was just what he liked to tell himself. The enchanted dagger at his side served as a constant reminder of his grim business on Agglor.
Estelle led him to the staircase, then reached behind her to take Kadorax’s hand.
“Not yet,” the assassin said, tugging her back. “I can’t go up yet.”
When she frowned, Kadorax shifted his eyes to the man in the lobby of the inn he’d been hired to escort. Estelle didn’t know the nature of Kadorax’s contract, but she understood the less-than-subtle gesture for what it meant. She turned to continue up the stairs, offering him a sly wink and pulling ever so slightly at the edge of her dress to give Kadorax a tantalizing hint of a view as she ascended. “Don’t be too long.”
Trying hard not to blush, Kadorax clenched a fist at his side to take his mind from the dark places Estelle had so effortless lured it. He made his way through the grid of tables to the bar situated across the room and took the stool all the way at the left end so he could casually turn, keeping his eye on his mark as long as he needed to.
The man under Kadorax’s protection was seated at a large circular table toward the center of the room, dining and conversing with two other diplomats whose names Kadorax did not know, nor would he have given them much thought had he ever learned them.
Not wanting to give himself away too blatantly—though it would not matter; all the traveling nobility of Agglor hired protection in some form or another—Kadorax ordered another mug of ale and began to sip at it casually.
The other diplomats’ guards were similarly posted for the evening not too far away across the restaurant. There were three of them, all well trained and older than Kadorax, veterans by the looks of their scars, though not a single one was higher level than the assassin. As the evening droned onward, Kadorax’s armed counterparts behaved in much the same way as he did. They languidly sipped ale, kept their eyes firmly locked on their mark and the door, and no more than one of them at a time ever went out to piss.
The diplomat was agonizingly slow in concluding his business. Hours passed, and Kadorax’s ale remained roughly half full until deep into the night. Finally, gracelessly, the diplomat moved his considerable bulk from his chair. The wood beneath his mass creaked in protest, and then the diplomat was standing and shaking hands, exchanging the final pleasantries of the night with his equally distinguished and rotund guests.
Kadorax waited only a few moments before tossing a copper piece to the bartender and following his mark up the stairs to a long hallway containing a dozen doors all leading to secure rooms. The diplomat was in the seventh room, and he had left the door slightly ajar.
Silently, Kadorax stepped inside and offered a gracious bow. The diplomat was already busy at work unfastening the buttons of his waistcoat, and the garment appeared thankful for the relief. In truth, Kadorax wasn’t sure how the thread had been strong enough to survive the night’s meal without bursting apart. “You are well, my lord?” the assassin asked.
“Bah, my damned feet hurt, my head’s awash with wine, and there’s a fucking piece of gristle stuck between two of my teeth,” the older man announced as he continued to wrestle with his finery, casting the expensive articles to the ground without a hint of care for their value. The entire ensemble, intricately embroidered with gold thread at the sleeves and collar, with still more gold patterned into the back of both the shirt and coat as well, probably cost just as much gold as the entire inn where the man was staying.
Kadorax bit one of the knuckles of his right hand to keep from laughing as the diplomat. “Well, I’m not sure I can help with any of that,” he said, turning back for the hallway. “I’ll be sleeping outside your door, my lord. Any noise before dawn, and I’ll be at your side without hesitation.”
The diplomat returned a meek smile as he collapsed down on the room’s large mattress. “I’ll trudge lightly if I happen to wake before sunrise,” he muttered.
Kadorax was almost out of the room when he remembered to check the window. The single square of glass to the right of the bed wasn’t large enough for a man to sneak through, but it would offer a view of the bed, albeit at a rather extreme angle, for a deft crossbowman to take a shot should the glass be broken. Kadorax inspected it carefully, activating Detect Trap: Rank 5 just to be sure.
Having found nothing out of the ordinary, Kadorax pulled open the door. “Sleep well, my lord. Just call out, and I’ll come rushing.”
“Yes, yes,” the portly man said as he waved him off. His eyes were already closed, and Kadorax suspected the wine was getting to his head a little more than the diplomat had let on.
Once more in the hallway, Kadorax paced to the end of the rooms, stopping at each door to listen for any unusual activity. He liked the way the floorboards creaked under the blue carpet at his feet. Loud floors meant tougher jobs for his ilk, though he didn’t expect any trouble in the first place. The job was a routine one: escort an aging, miserable, overweight diplomat from one city to the next while ensuring no one with a blade came within a dozen feet of him. Kadorax had, as a matter more of principal than anything else, stopped accepting such contracts back when he was only level twenty. Unless a fair amount of combat was expected, the experience yield would simply be too low to excite his interest.
But Estelle had insisted. She had tired of living her life in the bleak halls of Darkarrow, and the escort quest was the only contract with a bit of travel on the board when she had made her plea to Kadorax for a bit of a journey.
When he was confident there were no overt threats lingering behind the other doors of the inn, Kadorax let himself relax a little as he sat down outside the diplomat’s door, his back against cool wood. He scrolled through his list of abilities until he found the several talents he had taken relating to guarding and vigilance, then activated Peerless Resolve: Rank 3. The ability would last twelve hours, allowing him to stay alert—albeit not entirely awake until he earned more ranks—ready to spring into action at the briefest indication of trouble.
Estelle was behind the fourth door to Kadorax’s right, and he positioned himself, dagger in hand behind his back, with his head facing in her direction. He wasn’t worried for her safety since she had no enemies, but he longed to be in her bed. The wooden wall and thin carpet would wreak havoc on his back. He knew he’d awake sore and still tired, not to mention more than a little lonely. Having Estelle so close and yet so far out of reach tugged painfully on his heartstrings. Though he sometimes hated to admit it, Kadorax had fallen in love with her.
With thoughts of Estelle, her body framed in an enticing silk gown—a deep teal, sleeveless dress Kadorax had spent a month’s worth of contracts to purchase—fluttering through his head, the assassin closed his eyes.
Hours after midnight, in the deep, black of pre-dawn, Estelle eased open her door. The hinges had been recently oiled, and they only made small, insignificant sounds as they moved. Walking on her toes, she crept quietly down the hall toward Kadorax’s sleeping form. The man was hunched over, his chin resting against his chest, his dark hair hanging down in unkempt strands on his forehead.
She was lightly clothed, wearing a light nightgown woven from simple cotton that barely fell down far enough to cover even an inch of her upper thighs. Stealing a glance down the other direction of the hallway to ensure no embarrassing encounters with other patrons, she padded along the edge of the carpet where it met the wall. A devious, lusty smile crossed her face when she reached Kadorax without him waking. Mercifully, the floorboards at the edge of the hallway hadn’t made a single noise under her diminutive weight, and her own breathing had been easily lost under the loud snoring coming from the room directly across from Kadorax.
Estelle held her breath as she reached a hand out to Kadorax’s shoulder. She pulled back her touch less than an inch from his shirt. Her loose gown had drifted forward as she’d leaned down, and part of her plan involved Kadorax’s gaze being filled with the most pleasant view she could offer when he awoke. She straightened her back and pulled the gown down, fitting it tight to her breasts. She leaned in once more, confident that her appearance offered no doubt as to her carnal desire, and gently shook the man awake.”
Kadorax’s dagger was buried to the hilt in her chest.