Fear was a niggling creature, and it followed Symon throughout the depths of the city. With each step he cursed his name and his stupidity. If he had just done the job, if he had just followed through, he wouldn’t be glancing over his shoulder at the darkened alleyways. He wouldn’t be clinging to the clumps of mist scattered throughout the narrow streets. He could’ve killed the woman, pocketed her jewels, and fled without a word.
Instead, he found himself with his eyes wandering. His breath quickened as he passed each figure shrouded in the darkness. Beggars, prostitutes, orphans. The women wandered up and down the streets, enticing one or more drunk patron. The men sat on their haunches, daggers in hand, while the children sat gathered on the curbs, silent and staring. It startled him how they all were awake and sharp, even past the middle of the night. Did they ever grow tired? Or had their rotten lives transformed their souls into being resilient, even in the face of fatigue and strife?
Symon knew that they couldn’t hurt him. He possessed the skills to render even the most adept thug or bandit defenseless. He could slip out of the arms of needy women with ease. The children, though their gazes did strike pity in him, they didn’t move him to full-fledged guilt. He was safe, it was silly to think he wasn’t.
But he couldn’t rid himself of the anxiety. It had rooted itself in his brain and clawed its way to his heart. He couldn’t help but think that they all knew what he had done, or had almost done, on that balcony nearly an hour ago. He had murdered and maimed many. And when he did leave a trace, it was minimal, not enough to impound him or sentence him to death.
Yet, tonight, he had exposed himself entirely.
He quickly continued down the street, occasionally tripping on an uneven cobblestone in his haste. He only paused a few blocks away, where, fortunately, he seemed to be alone. The row of dilapidated houses continued to his left. To his right stretched an alleyway, lit only by faint moonlight. He edged down the alley with his hand pressed against the brick, searching for the door he knew would be there. He knocked thrice and stood back, taking the time to warm his frigid hands as he waited.
The door opened, filling the cramped passage with lantern light and the screeching of hinges. A man stepped forward and regarded Symon with a set jaw. Thick eyebrows drew together above his narrowed eyes.
With a voice that was gruff and entirely unsatisfied, he finally spoke, “There’s only one reason why you should be here.”
Symon tried to shield his disappointment. He knew why he was here. It was too risky for him to be here. But where else could he go? He searched for words, but found himself without any.
A sigh met his silence, and the man shook his head in disbelief as he turned to go back inside.
Symon reached out, catching the man’s arm. “I know I shouldn’t be here, Anson, but—”
“—but instead you’re standing here, leaving a bloody trail right to our doorstep,” Anson finished. He quickly shrugged Symon’s hand away and turned back around. “I’ll tell you where you should be. You should be in Worstead, sitting in front of a crackling fireplace, sipping on hot tea as you pen us all a letter detailing your latest success.”
Symon inched backward and sighed, balling his fists at his side. “But I’m not, am I?”
The man laughed, though all the humor in his tone had fled. He glanced toward the other man, raising his finger as Symon opened his mouth to speak. “Ah, no. You don’t have to tell me why. I know enough. You failed.”
Symon dropped his gaze.
Anson swung the lantern up close to Symon’s face. “You’re expecting Mr. Trayford will just let you stay here.” His voice was flat, but his eyes spoke of his anger.
“I’m not some lost urchin, I don’t need refuge,” Symon replied, batting the lantern away. “But I do need to talk to him.” His eyes darted to the end of the alleyway. Was that a shout he heard? Or was it just the stress in his mind toying with him? He turned back and steadied his gaze. “Now.”
The other man sighed, but obliged, albeit hesitantly. He moved to the side to let Symon pass, but gripped his shoulder before he could make it through the doorway. “Be careful what you say to him,” he spoke, his tone low. “He won’t be in the highest of spirits seeing you here.”
Symon nodded and stepped inside, trying to not let his spirits shatter as he heard the door close before him. Part of him was annoyed at himself; when had he grown so skittish? The other half was almost grateful for the sudden change. Tonight, he had felt anguish, fear, and disgust. But he had felt human.
Symon glanced around. He had been in this place only a few times before. The building used to be a tavern, from what Symon could remember; it looked like it had hardly changed. The first floor was dim, lit only by Anson’s lantern, and was hardly anything spectacular. The floorboards were warped and creaked as they moved. The only area not covered by cobwebs was the bar, where a few bottles of wine and kegs of beer were stored. A staircase was nestled in the back left corner of the room, where it led up to a loft that oozed candlelight.
Symon let himself be lead over to that staircase, and pushed back his irritation as Anson yet again pulled him to the side. Symon had never felt particularly comfortable talking to Mr. Trayford, but tonight’s subject of discussion was sure to leave Symon especially distressed. And stalling only pushed back the inevitable.
“Like I said...You better think long and hard about what you’re going to say to him,” Anson said. “Because I’ll be damned if it costs me my life.”
Symon nodded. He hesitated as he loosened himself out of Anson’s grip and turned toward the stairs. It seemed as if the anger in Anson’s eyes had been replaced by agitation, even fear. Symon couldn’t blame him for feeling apprehensive—Mr. Trayford’s attitude was erratic at best. And now, unfortunately, Symon was going to test it.
The stairs creaked as Symon moved up them. The vague shadows cast on the wall beside him started to take form as he edged toward the loft. Obsidian, wavering blobs transformed into the silhouette of a hunched figure. Symon traced that silhouette to the center of the room and took in the older man that sat there, sporting gray hair and a jaw set in deep concentration. His hand gripped a quill that moved earnestly across a piece of parchment, filling the the loft with the sound of scratching.
Symon cleared his throat. “I apologize sincerely if I am interrupting your work, Mr. Trayford, but there’s something I need to discuss with you.”
The scratching paused.
“It’s been on my mind for a while now, but it doesn’t make it any easier to say.”
“You’re already here. Go ahead with it.”
The man’s tone was tart and his words were terse, as usual, but there was always something else that unnerved Symon about the man. It seemed as if a monster was living under his weathered skin, only flashing its fangs when the man grew distressed. Most of the time, Mr. Trayford was able to keep the beast under control, but there were always slip ups. Symon had glimpsed the demon before, as he was accompanying the man to his summer home in Woodbridge. The carriage driver had taken a wrong turn, and as the sun nudged against the horizon, Mr. Trayford’s unrest had only grown. Eventually, he had called for the carriage to stop. Symon had masked his confusion as he watched the man dismount from the carriage and move around to the front. Curses and the smell of blood had soon filled the evening air. As the horses lurched into motion, Symon had glanced out the window just in time to see a still figure slam against the ground, leaking a puddle of scarlet against the forest floor. Mr. Trayford had driven the rest of the way to the manor.
Symon was convinced he’d see the monster again very soon.
“I failed tonight,” he said. He kept his eyes trained on the candle that sputtered on the desk.
The man grunted. “Obviously. Did anyone else see you?”
“Yes.” His mind flashed to the housekeeper, to her widening eyes. He heard her frantic calls for a constable. It was a wonder he hadn’t been found yet. He tried to keep his gaze on anything that wasn’t Mr. Trayford. His eyes wandered to the tabletop, but instead of seeing his own reflection, he witnessed Miss’s Highland’s. Even now, he could feel her trembling in his grasp, yet speaking with an odd sense of calmness. She had been well aware of the blade at her throat, but it was if her tongue hardly saw it a threat.
Symon looked away fiercely and cleared his throat. “And though that’s of concern,” he continued. “I must confess in you something.” He swallowed, knowing very well his next words could be the last he ever spoke. “I can not keep killing.”
The silence that stretched on was enough to prolong his misery. He wished to speak out, to explain his reasoning. Yes, he wasn’t a stranger to killing, yes he hadn’t had a single problem with it until a few weeks ago. Yes, that befuddled him. But he couldn’t run away from the screams that pursued him in his sleep, echoing in his ears, robbing him of any rest. But could he say all of this to such a man? Certainly he wouldn’t understand.
“I understand,” Mr. Trayford said.
“W-what?” Symon looked to him in astonishment.
“It happens to all of us at some point.” The man put down his pen and shifted the papers on his desk. “Just give it some time, a few days, at most. The guilt should go away by then.”
Symon blinked. Had he heard him right? Certainly the man was speaking in tongues. The Mr. Trayford he knew would’ve berated him at best, or thrown him down the stairs at worst. “Sir—”
“You’re a human, first. An assassin, second,” Mr. Trayford said as he stood. “It’s only natural for your emotions to get in the way. They might not have bothered you the first few months, but they’re known to pop up every now and again. Pesky little buggers. The key is to ignore them.”
“Ignore them?” Was that even possible? Symon turned his head to follow the man as he moved around the room, depositing the papers in a wooden drawer.
“In whatever fashion you find works. Women…”
“I don’t think that’s best,” Symon interjected.
“Gambling, perhaps,” Mr. Trayford continued. “Though, I find drinking to suffice.”
Symon’s mind flashed back to the wine bottles downstairs. More than half of them were partially drained. Could it be that Mr. Trayford, the cruelest man Symon knew, was capable of feeling guilt? Did Symon want to be like him, finding comfort in the bottom of a jug of ale?
“Eh?” Mr. Trayford paused and looked in his direction. “Perhaps none of those three appeal to you? Don’t worry, son. You’ll find your fancy soon enough. It’ll be worth it.”
“No, Mr. Trayford,” Symon managed to say. “I don’t think I want to ‘find my fancy’.”
“...I don’t believe I understand what you’re saying.”
“I think you do, sir.”
It took immense power for Symon to lock his gaze with Mr. Trayford. The anger he found there was searing and terrifying all at once. The monster was rousing itself.
“You’re one of my finest.”
“I believe I’m losing my touch,” Symon countered. It wasn’t entirely false. The past few days had plagued him with anguish, the same anguish that had caused his slip up just hours before.
“I can’t afford to lose you.” Mr. Trayford slammed the drawer close, causing the candle on top to teeter, tossing their shadows around the room.
“You have Anson. He’s loyal.”
“Loyalty is his only attribute,” the man spat. “He’s terrible with a blade. You’ve always had to pick up his slack. I only keep him here so he can man the entrance and throw off the police.” He paused, and his gaze only darkened. “You didn’t bring them here, did you?”
Mr. Trayford was near him within moments. “I know you well enough to tell when you’re lying. They’re coming here.”
Symon looked away. “That’s not certain. This town isn’t the smallest.”
“I sent you to dispose of the most well sought-out woman in the city. Of course they’ll be after you. After us.” He rubbed at his face, and when he pulled away Symon could notice the beads of sweat that marched across his wrinkled forehead. “She should’ve been untouchable, but I knew you’d be able to win her over. And yet you couldn’t even complete the job.”
Symon set his jaw, biting back a retort. His remaining fear pushed it back. “I’m sorry, sir.”
Mr. Trayford snapped his gaze up to meet Symon’s. His mouth contorted in a frown that seemed forever etched into his skin. “I should kill you.”
Symon blinked, then turned frantically toward the stairs. He froze as a gnarled hand gripped his shoulder.
“I could kill you,” Mr. Trayford continued. His voice was calm, but his hand trembled on his shoulder. Not with fear, but rage. Mr. Trayford was keeping a leash on his beast, but there was no guarantee it wouldn’t break free.
Symon stared into the darkness of the first floor. He knew Anson was still down there, probably guzzling down the last remains of a bottle of wine, or keeping close watch on the front door. If Symon called for help, would he answer? The very question made him a tad bit mortified. He should be able to defend himself. He should be able to kill. But he couldn’t dampen the pain it caused any longer. Weeks ago, Symon would have laughed at the idea of battling Mr. Trayford. Of course, the man would have given him a good fight, but Symon wouldn’t have been questioning his own safety.
Now, he wasn’t so certain.
“But I won’t,” Mr. Trayford said. “You mean far more to this system than you’re able to admit.” He let go of Symon and stepped back.
Symon could feel the man’s gaze on his hands. Waiting for them to twitch, grab a weapon, bury it into the man’s gut. And though that idea partially pleased Symon, his mind wouldn’t let him go through with it now.
“I must go,” Symon found himself saying. The very walls of the tavern teemed with memories that he desperately wanted to purge himself of. He moved to the stairs, but paused to throw his gaze over his shoulder. “I will write to you once I am safe.” He started to move, but paused again. His hand tensed on the banister. “Do not write to me of any more offers.”
“You cannot stop—”
Symon moved down the stairs. Anson’s lantern flickered in the far corner of the tavern, near the supply of booze and bottles. He opened the side door and stepped out into the alleyway. He moved to the street, where he walked, head down against the cold. And like that he stayed, until the sounds of shouting began to fill his ears.
Symon stalled and glanced up, confident the noise wasn’t rooted in his mind. He turned around and his heart slammed against the cobbles. Lanternlight dotted the street about half-way down, and in their light he could see the cluster of men that stood there.
He was running before his mind completely digested the scene, the curses flung at him, the sound of boots striking the ground. He felt the heat of their lanterns warming his back, then their ragged breath at his neck. The world was a mess of noise and flames, and he tumbled with it as he met the ground.
Symon staggered to his knees. Something struck his stomach and the night sky twirled out of reach. He sagged backward as something bit into his wrists. He twisted away, and a fist connected with his jaw. He swayed, but remained upright. Something wet dripped past his lips, adding to the russet stains on the ground beneath him. He tried to swing his arms forward, but the rope clenched them together fiercely. He slowly lifted his head to find five other faces staring back. They were saying something, their mouths moving in harsh ways.
“...like there’s no fight left in him,” Symon was able to hear as the buzzing in his ears quieted.
“A bit disappointing, to be honest with you. Almost makes me feel a bit guilty to be doing this,” said another voice.
“Guilty?” Another voice said with a chuckle. “I feel no guilt. He was after Miss Highland. This is simply retribution!”
A fist connected with Symon’s chest, sending a shock of pain throughout his body. He collapsed to the ground, misplacing his breath and his dignity.
A hand gripped at Symon’s shirt collar and quickly yanked him from the ground. He tried to focus on the man’s face, but the blood and sweat clouding his eyes was too dense. All he could make out were the halos of torch and lantern light and the blobs of strangers hoarded around him. He focused on staying upright. His breath came out in puffs, and his chest burned with each inhalation. He swallowed and tasted blood.
The man loosened his grip slightly on Symon’s shirt collar, and in that moment Symon eased his neck to the side. The blurriness in his eyes faded. He could see the men before him; the number had grown within minutes. They hung around him in an eclipse on the street, leaving only the area behind him unguarded. His eyes probed the darkness to his side, trying desperately to look for any route of escape. If he could somehow loosen himself of this man’s clutch, he could dash backward into the dark and navigate his way through the network of alleyways to shake off the other men.
Symon glanced back just in time to see the crowd parting. A man strode forward, lugging a figure behind him. He tossed that figure to the ground next to Symon. The figure tried to move, yet a simple kick to the ribs was enough to stop him. Another man stepped forward and brought their light over, illuminating the petrified expression on the man’s face. Anson’s face.
“I swear to you with my life, I had nothing to do with it,” the man pleaded. His eyes were round and leaked tears. His nose was ruddy and dripped snot. His shoulders quavered. Weeks ago, Symon might had laughed at such a sorry scene. Besides facing down Mr. Trayford, Anson hardly ever seemed petrified of anything. But, then again, his life had been rather different than Symon’s. Though the Anson might have been the witness of a few murders, he had never been the one to sink a blade into another man’s chest.
“Then how come we found you wandering the streets at this hour, looking over your shoulder?” said the man that had dragged him forward. “Someone that acts like that has something to hide.”
“I was coming home from the tavern,” Anson said, voice thick with desperation. “It was dark, and this area isn’t always the friendliest of places. Look at me! Do I look like a man that would seek to murder Miss Highland, or even be invited to one of her parties?”
The man moved his lantern close. The group mumbled as they inspected the man’s appearance. A bland undershirt, smeared with dirt and blood. Scuffed boots. Greasy, tangled hair.
“Even if I could, sir, I would never kill anyone. Especially not Miss Highland.”
“What is your name?”
Symon locked his gaze with Anson, hoping he could see the plea within.
Anson glanced toward the cobblestones. “Symon. Symon Rudhale.”
“And who is this Symon Rudhale?”
Anson breathed out raggedly. “The one sent to kill her.”
The other man smiled, then nodded once. “I believe that is the very name Miss Highland gave to us.” He pointed to the crowd, then to Anson. “Someone free him from his ropes and send him on his way.”
Someone stepped forward from the group and loosened Anson’s binds, then rushed back to hear whatever it was the man was announcing.
Symon looked around, realizing he was alone. “Anson!” he whispered. “Anson, look at me.”
The man met his gaze.
“Why were you not at the tavern?” Symon pressed.
Anson turned away sharply. “It doesn’t matter.”
“You knew they were coming.” He set his jaw. “You sensed it, and you wanted to leave before they stopped there.”
“I-I didn’t know if they were coming to the tavern. But there was a chance, however small,” Anson hissed back. “And that chance was enough reason to flee.”
“But we can still flee now.”
Anson scoffed and shook his head. “I wish you luck.”
“Just listen, Anson.” Symon could hear the desperation in his voice. He wished desperately to be rid of it. “You can distract—”
“That’s impossible,” Anson said. “There’s at least ten completely enraged men, and only two of us.” His gaze drifted to the now disbanded group; Symon followed it, then narrowed his eyes.
“I don’t know what I was hoping for,” Symon spat. “The only thing you’re loyal to is abandoning those when they most need help. Will you ever change?”
“I’m a man that likes to look out for my own skin. But even that I can fix,” Anson said as he turned away. “You’re a murderer. That’s something that cannot be erased.”
Symon ignored his comment. “We can both make it out of here. Just tell them the truth.”
The crowd descended within moments. Hands seized his arms and tightened the ropes, though Symon hardly felt it.
“Tell them I had changed my mind!” He yelled, trying to overcome the shouting and cursing that filled the air. “Tell them that I let her live. I let her live!”
Symon was yanked to his feet and pushed forward. He felt every punch to his chest as he stood before the masses, saw every glare and heard every obscenity. And when he could no longer stand and collapsed against the ground, he felt every kick until his flesh grew numb.
Someone lifted him up—a nameless face contorted in rage. Symon threw his gaze over his shoulder in desperation. He could only see the blackness of the night above, and slivers of space between the men around him. He noticed a figure between one of those slivers, just a few feet away from the group.
“Anson! You can’t let them do this!” His voice was raw and he doubted the pathetic sound even carried over the cacophony around him. Yet he continued to yell, his resolve dissolving, as he was taken down the street and away from his condemner.