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ABELARD ATE A LOT. THAT was why, after I’d slashed my knife across his belly, I half-expected the roast, broccoli, and soft rolls we’d dined on an hour before to come tumbling out onto the floor. Abelard did clench his gut and fall to his knees, as I expected he would, but it almost seemed I hadn’t cut him at all, for not even a single, glistening trickle of gastric juice seeped from between his fat fingers. I had to admit that something about the cut hadn’t felt right. Ordinarily, my blade sliced through flesh like a hot knife through butter. Yet I’d felt resistance and, I thought, heard an unexpected clinking noise when the edge had come into contact with his lardship. Those oddities aside, Abelard certainly looked like someone who’d just been eviscerated: a pallor subsumed his features, his eyes were opened wide, and his jaw all but touched the floor. No sound yet escaped from between his lips, but that was only because his mind hadn’t quite caught up. I didn’t fault his reaction; it’s not every day a man falls prey to an assassin, especially after having just wined and dined such a person at his own table. But Abelard took it a bit far when he fell to his back, curled into the fetal position, and started to moan. There was, after all, such a thing as dying with dignity.
“Why have you betrayed me, my friend?” Abelard asked between moans.
Abelard and I were not friends. I’d arrived at his home under the guise of a foreign merchant, come to Alchester with an airship full of cinnamon, cardamom, and cloves—all wine spices—from the distant Steel Islands that I needed to sell quickly. As a vintner, Abelard couldn’t help but try to lock in my special, below market prices. But, prior to making our acquaintance during this evening’s dinner party, we’d never met.
“I didn’t betray you, Abelard. It’s nothing personal, either.” In my line of work, it seldom was. “Now, let’s say you make this easy on both of us by getting up.” Abelard appeared to have his insides well in hand, so I didn’t think my request entirely out of the question. It would make my job so much easier.
“You’ve killed me, my dear, dear friend. I bleed, and soon I shall die.”
I sighed. I’d been warned about Abelard’s theatrics.
I started to clean my knife—I’d need both hands to lift him into a standing position—when I noticed there wasn’t anything to wipe off. I held the blade closer to the room’s dim candlelight. Son of a—the damn thing had a nick! My best killing knife, too. I slipped the weapon into its sheath at my belt, then grabbed hold of the front of Abelard’s coat. Grunting, I heaved him to his feet.
Abelard shook, but he remained upright, albeit with eyes closed and face turned from me. Couldn’t blame him for any of that. It’s not a pleasant thought, knowing you’re about to die.
“What have I done to provoke your ire, my friend?” he asked from between clenched lips.
“Shut up. I’m not your friend.” I knocked his hands away from his gut and felt at his ‘wound.’ Both coat and shirt were cut, but there was something hard—not soft flesh—beneath it. I ripped the opening wider and raised an eyebrow at the leather money belt—stuffed full of coins—fastened quite snugly above his sagging waistline.
“You wear a money belt inside your own home?” I asked.
Abelard had been in all day, so there was no reason for him to wear such a thing. Unless he’d been prescient enough of my client’s intentions to prepare himself for a hasty departure. Not hasty enough, it turned out.
“One can never be too careful.” He took his own turn examining himself. When he realized what had happened, he let out a chuckle that died on his lips as soon as his gaze returned to me.
With shaking hands, he undid the coin-stuffed belt and held it out to me. “Take it, my friend. It’s yours. Only…let me live! I beg it of you.”
I knocked the money belt away. “I’ve already been paid.”
This was supposed to have gone down quick. Kill the mark, then take my leave with no one the wiser. Abelard’s household staff was out until morning, so I had plenty of time, but better to get this over and done with sooner rather than later. That meant no more conversation. I slid my knife from its sheath for the second time. Abelard shrank from it. No more games or missteps now, as I reached out lightning quick to take hold of him. He opened his mouth to scream, but emitted only a low, pitiful sound that almost made me feel sorry for him.
I should have just finished him. Instead, I felt compelled to say, “Sorry, Abelard, but you’ve made your last bad deal. You must have really pissed off my client for him to want you dead this way.”
Evisceration was a slow, painful way to die. It was, however, to Abelard’s fortune that I’d taken this job. I’d make the first cut like my employer wanted, let it bleed for a while, then follow it up with a quick stab under his arm and into his heart. No one would examine him that closely to notice the mercy stroke. I wasn’t a complete monster.
“W-Wait!” Abelard said. “I can offer you more than coin, if only you will spare my life! I have other wealth, my friend! An estate outside the city—it’s yours! My place in the Silver Gentlemen’s Club, though it will pain me to surrender it. Women! I know the best—”
“You have nothing I want. Now, let me finish this. I have an appointment at Lady Bellum’s later this evening, and I’d rather not keep my Crusus Sabeler waiting. It’s a rare ‘74 vintage. One of the best.”
Abelard wasn’t giving up. “If not those things, then perhaps…” He looked about the study, perhaps hoping for some sort of inspiration. It didn’t matter. He had nothing I wanted. Then something must have hit him, for his face lit up. “Lady Bellum, did you say? Her ladyship runs a fine wineshop, yes? I believe they carry a full line of honeyed and—”
“What’s your point?”
“Wine, my friend! I saw you how fancied the syrah at dinner! A fine blend, made from grapes picked from my very own vineyard. Critics have lauded its spicy combination of blackberries and pepper. Without a doubt, one of our finest! A true delight! Seasonally rare, too.”
“So you’ll give me a bottle for sparing your life?” I asked, not amused.
“No! Not one bottle, but a full year’s supply!”
He had my interest. There weren’t very many things that would keep me from fulfilling a job, but the syrah had been exquisite: soft on the tongue, satisfying going down, with the faintest hint of spicy pepper left behind. It’d be tricky satisfying my client. He wanted blood. He might just send someone else to finish the job. Plus, I’d take a hit on my reputation; leniency was not a desirable attribute in my line of work. I’d been doing this a long time, though. My reputation might suffer, but it would recover. I’d help it along by turning my next job into a statement, making sure it was extra messy.
“Make it a five year supply and you’ve got a deal,” I said, countering.
Abelard blanched. “Five years, my friend? Five years is such a long time, and one never knows what might happen—”
“No, one doesn’t.” I pressed the flat of my blade hard against his belly.
Abelard turned a shade whiter, but he nodded in agreement. “Five years it is, my friend. Only leave an address and I will arrange—”
I stepped away. “Have a bottle a week sent to Lady Bellum’s.” I could see him already doing the math in his head. A bottle a week for that many years… “Tell your coachman to put it under the name I used on your guest list. Miss a delivery, and I’ll be back.”
Abelard nodded, his jowls quivering.
I put my knife away, then I turned around and left. I always was a sucker for a fine wine.