My palms, slick with sweat, slipped on the leather hilt of my knife. I went to wipe them on the black cotton of my tunic, and as I passed the knife to my left hand, it slid free and clattered to the cobblestones. The striking of metal was a shout in the silent streets of Armoede.
Bending over to pick up my weapon, I noticed that my hands were shaking badly. I scooped the blade from the street and tucked it into my belt, not trusting myself to hold it firmly.
The moon, which had been clouded over earlier, had emerged, cast a ghostly light over the run down houses and poorly cobbled streets. By its brightness I picked my way through winding alleys. Alden had agreed to meet me when the moon reached its peak, and it had already begun its descent. I needed to hurry, but could only force my legs to move slowly.
My heart beat like a war drum, and I shivered in the warm night.
When I finally reached Alden, he was turning back and forth in the alley we had chosen to meet in, flicking his eyes from side to side in nervous glances.
“Great Ano!” he cried when he saw me. “I was starting to worry.” He grimaced at the sweat straining my clothes. “Why are you so sweaty?” he asked.
“I had to run,” I said. If the drum in my chest had been beating a steady march, it now called for a charge. It beat so loudly I feared Alden would hear it.
“Shit,” he said, “I know I told you to hurry, but you could have just walked quickly.”
“What did you want to talk about?” I asked.
Alden’s face clouded over. “The Treasury is putting pressure on me,” he said. “I don’t know how long I can last before I give them what they want.”
“You know you can’t do that,” I said. “If you get caught moving assassins for them, it’ll be your head on a stake above Aumont.”
“And if I don’t do it my head will end up in the sewer. One of their bruisers was in my house last night. My house! He slammed me against the wall and threatened to strangle me then and there. I’m not safe anywhere.”
“They won’t actually hurt you,” I said. “If anything happens to you, they have to spend time and effort to scare the shit out of the next harbormaster. Their bruisers are only there to scare you.” I prayed that Alden would see sense, so I could avoid carrying out my plan.
“Well, they’ve done a damn good job. I’m scared out of my mind. I see assassins around every corner. I can’t resist much longer.”
“You have to!”
“I can’t!” Alden collapsed into tears. “What am I going to do?” he asked.
Tears on my face mirrored those streaking down Alden’s. “It sounds like you’ve already decided.”
For a few moments, only his terrified crying broke the silent night. Then, he steeled himself. “I guess I have,” he said. “I know it isn’t right, but I have to do what they say.”
My heart stopped its frenzied beating and simply fell from my chest. “I was afraid you would say that.”
“You have to understand. Lord Jaspin might catch me, but the Treasury will kill me.”
“I understand.” I pulled Alden into a hug.
“And you’ll forgive me.”
Fighting against the shaking of my hands, I pulled the knife from my belt and slammed it three times into his back. “No,” I said. “That I cannot do.”