Twenty-Four

The voices were muffled, but urgent. If his sleep hadn’t been fitful, Isaac might not have heard them at all. But he woke–he wasn’t sure what time, only that it must have been the middle of the night–to a conversation which was clearly heated, the tones stabbed with accusation and anger.

But that was all he could hear–tones. He sat up in bed and rubbed his eyes. One of the voices was clearly Garridan’s. He recognized its gravel. They must have been in the next room over. He stood and placed his ear against the splintering wood walls. The vibrations took shape, and the tones crystalized into words.

“…expect results.”

“Things took a turn.”

“That’s what you have to say?”

No reply.

“Completely unacceptable. Given what you were paid.”

“I don’t give a shit whether you accept it or not.”

“Then I expect a refund.”

“Not gonna happen.”

“Impudent little vermin.”

“Namecalling sure as shit isn’t going to get you your money back. Or whoever’s money it was. You knew the terms of the agreement. And I assume you explained them to your superior. No one was ignorant here.”

There was a long silence.

“How did you get the wound?”

“Unrelated.”

“I’ll decide that. I need assurance that you aren’t complicating things.”

Complicating things? Is that a joke?”

“Why should it be? I pay you, you kill Holden. It’s a simple transaction.”

Isaac lurched away from the wall and nearly lost his balance. He couldn’t have heard that–and yet he was sure he did. His heart began to beat so hard his chest ached, and he was overcome with chills as he sweated and the cool night air grazed his skin. He forced himself to continue listening, though his gut, sinking lower and lower, was desperately trying to get him to sever himself from all of this.

“…know a damn thing about what this entails. You just circle around, far away–safe–waiting for it to be done, like the fucking vultures you are. That’s fine. I get it. But you will let me do my damn job.”

“Clearly you can’t.”

“I’ll take another stab at it  when he heads back north.”

“The politics will be different now that he’s met Ysabelle. You’ll receive half the agreed upon amount after it’s done.”

Garridan made no attempt to argue. Isaac heard a door open and shut and held his breath–he didn’t know why–as he listened to a pair of boots scuffle down the hall and stairs.

Against his better judgment–against all reason–he left his room and threw Garridan’s door open.

The assassin sat in the corner, leaning back in a chair, the gentle amber-orange of a dim lantern softening his edges, making him look almost sympathetic as he checked his reddening bandage. He looked up at the bard completely without surprise.

“Think it needs changed.” He nodded toward a roll of gauze sitting on a dresser.

Isaac picked it up and walked over, handing it to him. But Garridan instead stood–very close to him–and put his hands behind his head. His eyes moved down to his wound, prompting Isaac.

Isaac hesitated, but slowly began to unwind the bandages from around Garridan’s abdomen. “How’s it look?”

“…Not good.”

“Always the same diagnosis with you.”

“It’s not been long.” Isaac’s fingers were hovering near the torn flesh.

“Go ahead,” Garridan said.

He touched it with great delicacy and heard Garridan take a pained breath. The wound was ridged and uneven. It felt tougher than he imagined, like a piece of stitched, boiled leather. Though it reminded him of armor, touching it, Isaac felt a stinging vulnerability. He pulled suddenly away.

Even in the soft light, he could see Garridan’s skin begin to change. It began to raise in spots, faint shadows rippling across his torso like a mosaic. 

Scales? Were these scales? Isaac’s heart was beating fast again. Was Garridan shifting? Adrenaline curled over him like a wave, but rushed away as fast as it came when he realized no, they weren’t scales.

Just goosebumps.

“It should probably be treated with antiseptic again,” Garridan said. He pointed to a bottle on the nightstand.

Isaac finished changing the bandages and Garridan fell back into his chair silently.

“Did you want something?” Garridan finally asked.

“I…heard you. Through the walls.”

“Did you?”

“I can’t just leave now.”

Garridan said nothing, just rubbed his eyes as though he had a headache.

“What do you expect me to do?”

“Are you asking me how to solve your problems? When I’m your problem?” He laughed. “I’m done holding your hand.”

Isaac could feel himself flush, the capillaries in his cheeks blooming like roses. He didn’t know if it was anger or embarrassment or something else. He just knew this was useless. Talking to Garridan was useless. He moved toward the door.

“Isaac.”

He turned back sharply, his face blank.

“Do you want to hear the story of the first man I ever killed?”

“Not really.”

“I think you do.”

He pointed toward the bed for Isaac to sit. “A few years ago, I was a knight in the Academy.”

“What?” 

“Probably just a bit before you showed up at court. Who knows. Maybe we crossed paths in Ebontarn.”

“So that’s how you know Gerard.”

The assassin nodded. 

“Why aren’t you there now?”

“Kicked out.”

“I assumed. But why?”

“You probably still hear about it. Councillor Arnoldus?”

Isaac’s eyes widened. “You’re the one who killed Arnoldus?”

Garridan shrugged. “So they say.”

“What do you mean?”

“It was an honest mistake.”

Isaac looked incredulous. “A sword may honestly find a man’s heart, but rarely is it a mistake.” 

Garridan’s mouth turned up at the corner as though he savored the accusation. “He was killed because one of his letters was intercepted. He was sending information to Deepvale.”

“He was a double agent. He was sending exactly what His Majesty wanted. And giving His Majesty valuable information about Deepvale.”

“How could we know that? The letter was plain as day. He was a conspirator. A spy. A traitor. The punishment is death.”

“We?”

“I wasn’t the one who found the letter.”

“Then–no.”

Garridan nodded and his smile became more sadistic.

“So Gerard discovered the letter? And then you took it upon yourself to mete out the punishment. What possessed you? Why not alert His Majesty? Let justice run its course?”

“I honestly don’t know.”

Isaac nodded, some part of him understanding. “Sometimes we don’t know our own motives.”

Garridan’s scabrous laugh filled the room and he held his side. “I don’t know because they weren’t my motives. Don’t you get it? I’m not the one who did it. That would be your idol.” He was snarling now. “Gerard’s the one who killed Arnoldus.”

Isaac leapt to his feet at the provocation. “That’s a lie. Gerard has always served the King well. He would never act so capriciously. So carelessly.”

All of the obscene pleasure Garridan seemed to take in telling his story disintegrated at once with Isaac’s agitation. He slung his arm over the back of his chair and continued casually, quietly. “We were best friends. That’s why I did it.”

“Did what?”

“Took the blame. Arnoldus laid the truth out with his final breath. Gerard knew what he’d done. The mistake he’d made. He panicked. If you’d seen how scared he was…to see someone like that. Someone you care about. To see them so frightened…so I took the blame.” He leaned over and blew the quivering flame of the lamp out, dousing the room in sticky black. “Arnoldus was the first man whose blood was on my hands. Haven’t looked back since.”

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