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Authors: J. M Mcdermott

When We Were Executioners (6 page)

BOOK: When We Were Executioners
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Jona jogged south.

A dry sewer grate was jammed open just for him, with a big stick between the lip and the lid. Jona shoved the stick and kicked the lid open. He dropped down into the dry stink.

He waited until his eyes adjusted to this new darkness. He saw the sealed box of clothes. He tore open the box. At the bottom, there were new clothes and knives with forearm holsters.

Jona dumped his king’s man uniform. He wrapped a large Senta jerkin over himself, with the red X on grey suede across his chest. He pulled a hood over his head. He slipped a grey mask over his mouth to hide most of his face.

Jona ran east fast through the rats and the puddles.

His boots knew these limestone and brick corridors better than he did. Jona ran hard to the pits. This time of year, this particular sewer line ran dry. In the winter, it was knee-deep in water. Light trickled in from the street from between the sewer grate’s bars. The light spilled on the dead animals and the mounds of trash and filth. Closer to the pits, a few bodies were down in the grates. Jona jumped to avoid them. Once past the light, his boots found nothing but solid limestone.

* * *

Jona emerged from the sewers in the middle of a busy street. He was panting from the run. Underneath his heavy Senta leathers, he felt weighed down with the loam of suede sweat.

Jona knew the area. He ignored any eyes that might have been watching him. He pushed into the crowd of sailors drifting in and out of the taverns and bathhouses and brothels. Jona walked down an alley, and ducked behind a sailor’s bath house at the top of a hill. He had a view down this tiny hill to where the carriages waited out the owners that had gone into the pits. The entrance for the richer folk was cut into the side of an adjacent hill.

Jona was thirsty. He slipped into the open back door of the bath house. All that heat coming out of the kitchen, they had to keep the back doors wide open.

The dishwasher looked up at Jona, a Senta with a hidden face. The dishwasher didn’t seem bothered. He looked up, but his hands kept scrubbing. His face was numb—no surprise, no anger, no fear. Jona nodded at the man. Jona made the universal gesture of drinking alcohol. The dishwasher stopped scrubbing long enough to snatch Jona a bottle of piss gin from a crate behind him.

Jona took the gin back into the night. He didn’t pay anyone for the gin. Nobody stopped him. The dishwasher returned to his dirty mugs. The bath house staff bustled none the slower for the loss of one bottle of piss gin.

Jona found a shadow along the edge of the wall. He pulled down his facemask. He drank the gin. It burned all the way down.

Jona watched at the bottom of the hill, where the coachmen congregated around a few half-empty flasks. They talked. They laughed. They kicked at each other’s shins. They waited for animals to die and pugilists to pass out and rich men to return to their carriages.

Jona fingered the two knives up his sleeves. He just had to clasp his arms to come out cutting.

He wondered if these two knives were enough.

Coachmen carried whips and clubs and sometimes small swords. They usually had crossbows hidden up on the roofs of the carriages.

Every now and then a coachman left the group to walk down the rows of carriages, looking for trouble. The coachman took turns walking down the carriages. Jona counted out how long it took for one man to finish his walk and another to take his turn.

* * *

Night crawled forward.

Jona improvised.

He waited until the coachman passed beyond the hill. Jona

jumped fast down the hill to the horses and carriages. He pressed his back against a carriage, keeping the carriages between him and the coachman. Jona heard horses whinnying. They smelled the sewers and the of-demon sweat.

Jona walked softly along the back of the carriages until he reached his mark. He peeked around the corner of a horse at the group of bored coachman. A coachman balanced an empty bottle on his head while drinking a flask. The men cheered for their acrobat. None had walked the line since Jona had descended from the hill.

The engineer’s carriage only had one door.

Jona leaped around the side of the engineer’s carriage with the door. It wasn’t locked. He jumped in fast. He closed the door gently behind him.

Jona held his breath inside, holding perfectly still, listening for an alarm.

He listened. Not even the horses sensed him now.

* * *

Jona knelt down on the floor. He held the knives tip down so he could jam the pommel forward at whoever entered first. He didn’t want to have to think about who might receive his first blows. He wanted to move so fast that no one had a chance to think.

Jona cooled his breathing. The piss gin reached his ears. Hints of camphor clouded his head behind the alcohol buzz—maybe a touch of belladonna or pinks had hidden in there, too.

Jona had never been so close to a carriage floor before. He looked down at the planks of wood, and noticed where the knots cracked the smooth joints. Little points of dim, reflected moonlight slipped into the black shadows from the puddles in the muddy field. Drinks spilled in the rolling carriages. Cracks in the floorboards meant spilled drinks fell out on their own. Piss, too, if it came to that.

Jona stood up, turned around, and put his knives away. He urinated into the back of the carriage. He turned back around to face the door, and he knelt down again, knives in his hand and ready to jump. He tried to keep his hands off the ground on account of the piss. The smell lingered. Jona listened to the liquid dripping down into the mud below the carriage.

He tried to breathe quietly.

Time passed. Somewhere else, the city breathed bodies in and out of taverns and brothels and homes and ships and theatres and apartments. Money changed hands. Lovers met for the first time, made love, fought, and fell away. A city reached vast tendrils into the world along the roads and rivers and sea currents. A thousand upon a thousand minds dreamed of better lives in dark bedrooms and smoke-filled backrooms. A thousand upon a thousand voices spoke of their dreams with others, and these dreams were more important as hope than as reality, because in the morning there was only work and nobody spoke their dreams out loud when they were earning their little corner of the city in coins.

Jona stood alone in the dark, in his own stink. He thought about Rachel. He was about to make hope real for his own night bosses, and all he thought about was making his dreams real with Rachel—dreams that would never be real.

Then, he heard men muffled by the wooden walls. Too much laughter from too many voices emerged from some distant crowd. Men came closer, talking too loud, like drunks. A woman laughed.

The carriage door opened. Jona jumped.

A flash of wind and cloth.

A woman screamed.

The butt of Jona’s knives together against the man’s temples knocked the coachman into a heap. Jona flipped the knives in his palms. He jumped around the coachman’s crumbling body. The Chief had his hands on a veiled woman. The Chief pushed her behind him. The Chief turned his back to shield her with his own body, as if she was the one who needed protection.

Jona jumped. The left knife caught the Chief in the side of his neck. The knife tore through meat. The tip thumped spine.

The Chief ’s hands flew up to his neck. Blood sprayed like sick fireworks.

The second blade tore into the Chief ’s right kidney.

The old man fell forward, arms flailing, into the veiled woman. Blood sprayed over her silks and satins from the neck wound. She held the man up by his arms.

Jona hugged the body away from the woman. He jammed his knife in and out of the Chief ’s stomach three times from behind. He wrapped the other knife around the Chief ’s throat to slice the jugular clean. The head only hung on from spine and small ligaments. Blood poured from the neck. The body was all limp, now. Jona, holding up this bag of spraying blood in his arms, held still. He, the veiled assassin, looked into the veiled woman’s sad eyes.

She nodded. She turned away.

Jona heard the cranking sounds of a crossbow from the high seat of the engineer’s carriage. Jona hefted the Chief ’s limp body around to take the bolt in the chest. The tip of the bolt nipped at the leather jerkin, but didn’t pierce the red X.

Men were running at Jona.

Jona pushed the body aside. He ran between the coaches, and back up the hill. He jumped into the back door of the bath house.

Behind him, men called out in alarm.

Jona jumped through the kitchen, through the cauldrons boiling clothes clean and warming water on large, smoking racks of coal. He ran around the attendants with their huge buckets of soapy, hot water.

He heard bustling behind him, and shouts. He hefted a giant soapy cauldron over onto the tile behind him. He ran through the curtains to the sailors scrubbing away in their neat rows of cast-iron tubs sitting on hot stones. The men watched from their tubs, impotent and naked.

A man shouted something and waved his arms at Jona. He stood in the doorway. Jona lowered his shoulder and tackled through the poor man. They both tumbled out the front door, into the street. Jona leaped to his feet and ran into the mud and the ruins.

Jona bobbed and weaved through the crowd of indifferent sailors until he hit a dive with a rabbit on a pike and rotten instead of a sign. No bouncer worked the door. Jona ran inside.

Eaters—sailors, gangers, and warehousers—munched on the raw pink petals and leaves of the demon weed. Rough gangers working here passed around piss whiskey cut with hookah water and got more blasted than their customers.

Jona sprinted through the room, to the stairway. He wanted anyone following him in anger to have to get through this room alive.

By the time Jona was through the room, weapons were out and red drunk gangers had their boots on the ground, ready for a stomp with the Senta that had run through their private spot of the city.

The men chasing Jona ran into an angry mob.

More people died this night.

* * *

The real demon weed smokers huddled around the hookahs in the basements and back rooms. Jona only had one bouncer to pass—an old rowdy with no ears and no nose. Jona reached out with one hand as if to hand the fellow a fist of coins. Jona’s other hand darted under the man’s rib. Jona jammed his blade into the lung. The bouncer gasped for air. Jona shoved the bouncer into a wall.

The sick haze of smoke and demon weed stink made running down the hall feel like running through a long, silk veil.

Behind him, Jona heard the fighting. Jona didn’t even stop to look. He ran forward. He saw a door to the edge of the canal down a long hall drenched in pinker piss and flies. Jona jumped down the hall. He kicked open the door—the wood was all rotten and the metal was rusted through. A small landing jutted out over the water.

There was a rowboat.

This empty rowboat, moored with ratty rope was unguarded, oars and all. Whoever had brought this boat here had fallen into the hookahs and forgotten their boat.

Jona cut the moor rope and kicked off into the water.

From the four corners of the district the riot bells rang like temple minarets—all king’s men to post, and every decent citizen off the street. The ruin with the dead rabbit hanging from the door all full of pinkers and gangers had been surprised by the men chasing Jona. When surprised, they fought. When they fought, they fought everything that wasn’t one of them.

Even more men died tonight in this little riot, some of them king’s men.

But Jona wouldn’t die. Jona paddled with the currents to a fork in the canal. Then, he dove into the water in all those heavy Senta leathers. He dog-paddled like dancing in quicksand. He struggled into the Old Brewery’s port.

(The knives had fallen out of his gloves in the swim. The blood on the daggers swirled like small ribbons to tease the sharks in the shallows.)

Jona swam into the open dock. He pulled himself up into the shadow of the old crane. The Night King had emptied this room of transients tonight. Jona had a change of clothes, and a new rowboat resting against the wall.

He stripped off his wet Senta leathers. He dropped them into the water. The leathers floated away like a dead body, all bloody and heavy, with long sleeves.

(Probably sometime in the night, a curious guardsman might fish these out of the canal and get mad that they’re just rags, throw them back in, and then another guardsman does the same, and then a sailor or two, until a ragpicker finds them floating and turns the leathers into the paper I use to write these memories down.)

Jona stood, glistening and naked in the reflected moonlight off the water. He rummaged through his new clothes carefully. He had trouble identifying the different pieces.

The warehouse was closed tight, with no windows at all. Light ruined beer, made it skunky. The only opening in the brewery was this gaping hole along the canal and a few doors that had been sealed shut tonight, and one door with fellows outside waiting uncomfortably for a rampaging carriage that would never come. The moonlight and lamplight reflected off the water. The crane had a shadow among these shadows. Sometimes a lone river ship slid past outside. Night watchmen sang out in the dark to let other ships know the speed, the direction, and the size. Men with long poles trudged, halfasleep, up and down the deck, pushing the ship along.

Jona didn’t dress right away. First, he slipped back into the water naked, and he scrubbed at his hands and face. He didn’t know if he still had blood on him.


The sea breeze licked at the jewels of river water all over his body.

He needed to dry off, and put some clothes on, and row back to his post at the island before the morning shift change.

He didn’t have a towel, so he just pushed all the water down with his hands until he felt merely damp.

He found one leach on his leg. It was dead already from his demon blood. The leech hadn’t let go when it died. He pulled the squishy black creature out of his skin, and tossed it into the water.

BOOK: When We Were Executioners
4.18Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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