It was always a pleasure to kill, and never more so than when death was to be dealt as elegantly as what Longinus had in mind for that night. He smiled in anticipation as he skirted the warehouses that fronted Tinsbury Dock.
The dockworkers, as expected, paid him no attention. Dressed head to toe in black, his brow hidden under the wide brim of a hat, his chin and mouth covered with a black silk handkerchief, he blended perfectly with the shadows.
Blissful are the dim-witted. If only they knew how close they are to Damsport’s deadliest assassin.
All the same, he wished they had at least enough sense to shiver with quiet dread as he passed.
Is it really too much to ask that the common dockworker experience a faint malaise in my presence? Obviously.
Tinsbury Dock was full of activity, despite the late hour. Shouts and curses echoed across the still water, steam hissed, and metal grated against metal as great steel arms swung overhead, unloading cargo from waiting ships. Vapour lamps, hanging from poles along the quay, bathed the enclosed dock in an otherworldly orange glow, creating shadows in the hollows of the dockworkers’ faces, so that they looked like animated skulls. Beyond, the night bristled with the naked masts of a hundred ships, stretching to the moon like skeletal fingers.
As Longinus reached the end of the dock, he cast a wistful glance over his shoulder. It would provide such a delightfully macabre backdrop to his art — a shame tonight’s job was to take place in the neighbouring marina. Smaller boats docked in Smallport Marina, and it would be quiet at this time. That would, of course, make the job easier, but as Damsport’s most elegant assassin, Longinus didn’t care about ease: the art of assassination was all about theatrics. Killing someone on a dark and empty dock was as banal as rain in summer. Luckily, he had just finished creating a poison that had such panache, it should offset the mundanity of the night’s work.
The noise from Tinsbury Dock faded away as he entered the marina, the silence now only broken by the creaking of ships as they swayed on their moorings. Longinus lowered his handkerchief. The air was cooler and fresher here, with only a hint of brackish water and salt. It was bearable, even to his delicate nose.
Longinus’ target for the night — a sailor — was sat at the other end of the marina. No one else was there. Longinus smiled wolfishly.
The stone walkway along the marina was narrow but lined with shaggy banyan trees, their aerial roots dangling towards the ground. Longinus walked behind them, hidden in their shadows, keeping a careful eye on the target.
The sailor threw his head back, his mouth clamped on a bottle’s neck, attempting to coax out its last remaining drops. Longinus recognised the bottle as Smithy’s Gold, a cheap, nasty rum. Sailors were so predictably devoid of class. And taste.
He crept closer.
The Viper approached. He moved with feline grace, at one with the shadows as the moon glittered on the water, shimmering… No.
As the water glittered… As the moon’s reflection glimmered on the water, like so many diamonds.
He smiled to himself. That was a good line, very good.
He was now level with the sailor and he stopped behind a banyan tree, peering around its trunk. The sailor had made himself at home, with a second stool in front of him on which he had set out a bowl, a spoon and a flatbread. He put down the bottle and tore off a piece of bread.
Longinus retreated behind the tree trunk and pulled out his writing box from the holster that kept it strapped to his back. He had plenty of time, the mark had no idea that Damsport’s deadliest assassin was closing in on him, and that last line was just too good not to write down.
He would give the Muse precedence over Death.
From the box, he produced a delicate mother-of-pearl dip pen, with a matching vial of black ink. He pulled out a sheet of paper and replaced the box’s lid, the lacquered wood gleaming in the moonlight. He leaned the paper against the box’s flat surface and wrote out his latest composition, smiling and nodding at his inimitable way with words.
Inspiration is flowing tonight. I called, and the Muse answered.
He wrote that down, too.
A noise sounding suspiciously like a boot against cobblestones startled him. He hurriedly put the paper and pen down and peered around the trunk. The sailor had also heard the noise, and was looking about him but thankfully away from Longinus.
A ship’s hull groaned as the wood contracted in the cooler temperature. Nothing stirred.
The sailor relaxed and sat back down, but Longinus continued scanning the darkened dock. Was someone else out there? Still nothing moved.
Longinus glanced at the sailor to find that he was spooning a dark mixture from the bowl and into his mouth. He ate messily, and a little had dripped on his chin and tunic. Whatever it was, it gleamed as black as blood in moonlight. At the thought, Longinus paled and staggered back, leaning against the trunk.
It isn’t blood, it isn’t blood.
He took a deep, ragged breath and closed his eyes.
The Viper was ready to pounce. The thought immediately made him feel better. Once the Viper had a man in his sights, death was inevitable. A paramount —
The sailor let out a loud belch and Longinus’ delicate nose picked up garlic. His nostrils flared in disgust. He picked up his writing box again.
The Viper’s aquiline nose, he wrote. Wait, does aquiline mean hooked?
Realising his mistake (for Longinus’ nose was nothing if not a model of straightness), he crossed the sentence out. He continued to write, having thought of more delicious adjectives for his nose.
A flare of light startled him, and he looked over at the mark. The stool that had earlier carried the food was now empty and had been demoted from table to footstool as the sailor leaned back against a gangplank, looking up at the stars. He had stuffed a long-stemmed pipe and he puffed on the mouthpiece, letting out flat plumes of smoke from the side of his mouth.
Longinus put his writing box away, rubbing his hands. The target’s night vision would be destroyed. Now was the perfect time to strike.
He pulled on thin leather gloves, overlaid with a fine but watertight mesh made from mineral fibres. One could never be too careful when dealing with poison, especially this newest one, and besides, they looked devilishly stylish in the moonlight.
He then produced an oblong box inlaid with the same mesh, inside which was a Talegian steel stylus and a tiny glass vial. He screwed the vial into the base of the stylus and slipped out from behind the banyan tree, his stylus at the ready. He only needed to write a period on the man’s skin to paralyse him. A little more, such as a comma, would bring about death — thus providing punctuation with the fearsome respect it so deserved.
The stylus is mightier than the sword.
Longinus drew out the moment, savouring the anticipation as he reached the sailor. He watched as the unsuspecting mark blew smoke rings at the star-punctured night.
And then he struck.
With his free hand he grabbed the sailor’s collar, yanking him to the ground, knocking his head in the process. His right hand brought the stylus to the man’s temple, resting its pointy tip on the skin.
“Don’t move,” he hissed.
The sailor froze, feeling the cold touch of sharp steel so close to his eye. A fatal hesitation. People always assumed that blades were the most fearsome weapon. Fools! As if any assassin worth his kills would allow a job to be marred by something so crude as a blade piercing skin.
The sailor’s hesitation allowed just enough time for the poison to travel along the stylus’ nib, and it dropped onto the skin, creating a perfect circle, a period, at the corner of his eye. Paralysis immediately began its inevitable course. The sailor made a garbled noise and jerked his head convulsively. His legs twitched, as though a puppeteer was pulling the strings attached to them. He tried to move his arms but they were no longer his to command and his face twisted with panic.
Longinus released the man and cocked his head, admiring his work and debating whether to turn the period into a semicolon. He went with a period, but couldn’t resist adding a touch of his natural flamboyance. With a flourish, he signed ‘The Viper’ on the sailor’s forehead. That done, he stepped back to examine his work.
A vague gurgling marked the sailor’s last breath.
Longinus returned the stylus and vial to the box and pulled out a card, which he carefully pinned onto the body’s shirt. It looked like an ordinary playing card, but where an ace of spades would have been, a black viper was coiled, ready to strike. Tiny knives were drawn at each corner, with gleaming silver blades. Longinus took great pride in his cards, designing them himself. He had tried to use cards with vials of poisons at the corners, but he had been mistaken for an exotic perfumer. This was, of course, unacceptable, and he had been forced to put knives instead, to drive the meaning home.
Crude, inelegant weapons. They lack all the refinement of poison.
It was tiresome to have to lower his standards to those of the little people, but it was necessary. It would be terrible for his artistry to go unnoticed, or worse, misunderstood. He blew at the card to make sure the wind couldn’t dislodge it. It wouldn’t do for some (lesser) assassin to try and take credit for his work, either. Like any artist, Longinus signed each and every one of his masterpieces, and this was one he was particularly proud of.
A small sound, like a light cough, broke the silence. Longinus froze. He scanned the marina.
The water lapped gently against the floating docks. His mind playing tricks on him, perhaps? And yet the sailor had heard something too, earlier. Maybe a fan of his work (of which there were many), observing from a distance? In any case, if it had been the guards or someone connected to the body, they would have acted by now.
At last, when still nothing had stirred, Longinus prepared to leave. He glanced at the body and his stomach contracted at the sight. He had stayed too long. The eyes had turned a pale, milky blue, and the veins on the man’s face stood out, dark and inflamed, fanning out from the writing on the forehead.
Longinus staggered back, knocking over the stool. He fancied he could smell it, all that blood encased in a thin sack of skin. So easily spilled.
He clamped a hand over his mouth against the nausea rising in his throat and ran away on shaky legs, his black cloak flapping behind him.
To be continued….