Read the previous part here for context.
Toby felt something odd about his body as he chased after his killer, something numb. He screamed, or rather he heard himself scream “come back,” as he chased the hooded figure back up Saint Bonnet.
He sprinted, or at least tried to, finding his body disturbingly uncoordinated. Something was impairing him far more than even the oversized shoes. The same thing currently held tight in his right hand.
He hadn’t remembered pulling the dart out, but he glanced at it briefly as he ran after the assassin.
No matter if it pricks me now, after I’m dead.
“Come back,” he screamed again, or tried to. “Cmmm baakk,” was what came out. He swallowed with a tongue suddenly too big for his mouth, a small part of his brain registering the drool already starting not half a minute into his chase.
Right on time. Early even.
But when he looked down at the drool pile, still running, he noticed he had run out of his oversized shoes.
When did that happen?
He continued on, the soles of his feet accumulating the sticky grit of Saint Bonnet lane, his soles with an unusual dead sensation, his legs with that distant feeling they get when they fall asleep, but still working fine. Or mostly fine. For some minutes he continued after the assassin, slower and slower as he wheezed through first a jog, then a sort of wounded shuffle, his head alternating between hanging down to the ground and looking up just enough to keep him from crashing into something. One street turned into another, before he was forced to stop, hunched over in yet another dirty back alley in Belsport.
Only then did he admit that he had lost his killer some time ago. Really he had seen nothing past that initial flash, and those first few footsteps.
And he’s gone.
A few more breaths after that revelation and he stood up, noticing it was taking longer to catch his wind.
No surprise there.
Nothing but pale mooonlight illuminated the square, that he had stopped in, little more than a hovel where he regularly dealt tar.
Flowering Cherry Avenue. I came here going down…
He stood there, slowly turning, his body turned so numb that he couldn’t feel his legs, although they at least still worked. It was only after one full revolution that he realized he had retraced his route back to Mrs. Trista’s house on Royal Way.
Pretty sure she didn’t do it.
It was a thought absurd enough made him chuckle through a pant, and then grimace. “It doesn’t matter anyway,” he said aloud, or tried to in speech so slurred as to be incomprehensible to any but him, looking one way and then another, but now without purpose.
Toby had no illusions, having been on the other side of an assassination too many times. But even with that he hesitated before looking down at the dart. It was poorly illuminated in the moonlight, but he saw enough. A watery, dark substance coated the last half inch of the three inch dart.
Bright purple in the daytime.
On the other end of the dart, the fine workmanship, mostly invisible but noticeable to the touch, left no doubt. “This is it, Toby’s dead,” he announced to the square in that same incomprehensible slurred speech, slowly rotating in the middle of a dirty alleyway, flanked on both sides by ugly buildings, but high enough to obstruct any distant view. “I said,” still panting, “TOBY’S DEAD,” he announced to the uncaring and silent alley, his actual speech making him appear indistinguishable from the funny kids whose mothers made them wear helmets. “MMMmMM DDiiDDDDD,” he screamed to one collection of shapes in a corner he assumed were beggars. Then he angrily announced his passing to different side of the square, then another, and then the last.
It is appalling to die to this much apathy.
The quiet area might have made for a peaceful place to die. A place to simply lay down and stop breathing, something Toby knew was fast approaching whether he liked it or not. But not on this alley in particular. Not if those shapes in the corner were what he thought they were. And even if they weren’t, he knew this place and who would frequent it come daytime.
Lay down here Toby, and they’ll literally eat our corpse.
It was time to go. Down, back where he came from to the docks, or up, to Mrs. Trista’s house. What he would do when he got to either destination was unknown to him, but he couldn’t stay here in this alleyway.
Only after Toby had started moving did he realize he never actually thought about the decision. He had started down the alley as if he had carefully weighed all available options and planned out a climactic end to his life, but he hadn’t. He’d just started walking on instinct, hunched over, his drool leading the way. It was only after a minute of this half jogging half crawling that he realized he was headed back to Mrs. Trista’s.
The docks you idiot. The docks were the right choice. Could show up to the warehouse and stab ’em with something. Get revenge.
And it was only then that he’d realized that he wasn’t bothering with the assassin.
You could’ve at least drooled on ’em a bit Toby. The thought made the dead man chuckle again. As if you coulda found em.
He continued on in that fashion, down the trash strewn hellscape of Flowering Cherry Ave. Sometime later he realized he had fallen to his hands and knees permanently when he wondered why the knuckles on his right hand hurt so much. His right fist still clenched around the dart, clutched as if it could do him some importance now. The skin had been ripped off and was bleeding.
Losing feelings in the, what is it called?
At least I can die on those horrible plants. And it’ll be harder for them to remove my body. And at least they’ll know who killed me when they see the dart. No mystery then.
He knew it wouldn’t matter anyway. He could die on the steps of the magistrate’s office with a handwritten note – not something he could verify of course – explaining that he was killed by an assassin hired by his supposed new employers. Nobody cared what happened to him, and his killers were too powerful for the city authorities to deal with anyway.
Not quite true. They’ll be lining up to shake the hand of whoever got me, and more like the authorities are owned by these people anyway.
It was a grim thought. Made grimmer as he realized with unfocused eyes that he had been drooling into the same puddle for some time now, never realizing he’d stopped.
Well at this rate I’ll NEVER get there.
He snickered to himself at his own macabre joke. But as if the Gods had granted him one last miracle on his last night there was light. Specifically, not thirty feet in front of his eyes, Mrs. Trista’s house softly lit from the inside. Or rather, a room at the top of her house, his room.
“Thkd kd,” he drooled, having meant to say “that little cunt.” With that he found his last new purpose in life as he crawled on all fours to go die on Mrs. Trista’s plants instead of the middle of the alleyway.
Tar. I can’t believe it’s fucking tar.
The poison coursing through his veins came from the same plant as the poison he had sold to a great of his fellow countrymen over the years, in between breaking their fingers for payment. Same stuff, just more, something. He’d had an employer use a word for it.
Concentrated I think. That’s it. Maybe refined.
That last thought of his triggering another. A memory of himself from another life of his.
Long time ago when I was still Garyk. Back up North in Albreta.
He’d found himself some new employers, the same new employers that, fifteen years later would tell him to come down to the docks on the last night of his life. He’d been working for them in the town of Comots, and a few other places in Atrelba, doing the usual. Some extortion here, some hired muscle there. But he’d wanted to move up in the World, start making real money. Required getting in with the right people, deeper in. Needed to prove himself. And he knew these guys had real money, even if a small part of his brain told him that they brought with them the plague.
Just made em the right people even more.
But he’d been surprised when they told him to tie up a Tar addict to a chair. Didn’t ask for any by name which was weird. He’d broken a few fingers in his time, but never randomly. He’d killed a few, although not for the Tals, but never like this. And if you’re gonna make an example of someone, why kidnap them and bring them to the basement of your brothel?
But orders were orders, and money was money. Toby didn’t do discrete, but he’d done his best and snatched one of the tarheads. Typical sight. Skin pulled tight over his bones, eyes barely seeing, teeth mostly gone, so yellow they were brown.
Typical smell too.
Nothing remarkable about him, except that Toby figured out that he knew the guy once he was illuminated by the torches in the brothel’s overly warm basement. He was a man Toby had grown up with, and one way or another, not long for this world. But he wondered, not without some trepidation, what way in particular it was going to be.
But Toby doesn’t ask unnecessary questions, especially not of these people.
He’d stood there beside him in the chair, his face impassive as stone. The addict, mostly out of it, kept begging him for either help or Tar in between staring off into space and rolling his head around. Sometimes he stuck his tongue out for no particular reason.
It was hard sometimes for him to justify profiting off of the work these people did. But he was just the middleman.
Not even the middleman! The bottomman. I was tryin to be the middleman.
Toby didn’t know what the term middleman meant then or even now, but he wasn’t hired to think. He was neither the brains nor money behind the operation. The only thing he needed to know was what to sell, who to rob, where to stand, and what girls upstairs could tolerate his looks the best, or pretend the best. And he was smart enough to know that if he didn’t do what these people wanted, someone else would.
He’d seen addicts before, enough to get used to them. But he hadn’t seen was what he was seeing now, down in the bowels of the Tals outwardly pristine and glamourous brothel in Comots, The Cum Right Inn. A group of Tals, teenagers mostly, watched Moitsha, his boss, standing next to a bench supporting a few jars of unknown substances.
One of them was the purple Tar. The others I never learned.
Moitsha’s bench was darkly illuminated by just a few chandeliers on the walls, in contrast to the filthy splendour just above their heads. Toby couldn’t deny that he was unsettled, but he wasn’t about to say so, or even move without prompting. Instead he stood there patiently waiting as Moitsha slowly struggled through putting on thick black gloves of a kind he’d never seen before.
“Garyk what was this man’s name again?” that same Tal had asked him.
“Jon I think,” Toby had responded.
Yeah, Jon. Poor guy.
“A last name Garyk, we’re civilized people here, and we’re not close friends,” he said gesturing towards the addict, whose head had mostly stopped lolling everywhere and was focused on Moitsha. “I can’t call him Mr. Jon can I?” Moitsha’s speech was accompanied by some sniggering from the rest.
Wasn’t funny to me but I laughed anyway.
“Uh, I don’t think he has one.” Toby had been worried that his answer might not satisfy this short little Tal, but he was even more afraid of lying to him.
“Well Garyk, what shall we call him?” Toby had enough sense to simply shrug and keep his lips silent. Better silence than spoken stupidity, this very man in front of him had told him that before, and he didn’t need to be told again. “Garyk, where is this man from?”
“Comots is just a village. Was he born in this country?”
It had never occurred to Toby to wonder if someone was from another place. Asking if someone was from the country they were in was like asking if they were human, an unnecessary waste of words.
Not to these guys.
“I guess he was.”
Everyone is. Everyone but them and some merchants. But the merchants leave.
The Tal had paused a brief moment, just long enough to be subtly patronizing before replying. “A wise guess,” he said, with a flick of his eyes to his crowd of Tals and then back to Garyk. The flash of amusement on his face was so disguised Toby wouldn’t have caught were it not for the other Tals openly laughing. Toby kept his face impassive.
“I can’t call him Mr. Jon. He’ll be The Altreban.”
But I’m an Altreban too.
“It seems to fit,” Moitsha, now fully gloved, had said while looking back to the bench. He plucked a waiting needle between his thumb and index finger, dipped less than a fingernail’s width in the purplish substance he’d set up in a small jar, before pulling it out. “A stab to the heart,” Moitsha said to the room, in that typical nasally whine so common to these people, “crude and barbaric,” accentuated with a wag of the finger. “The tiniest prick to the finger…” he waited for a brief moment with his finger raised. Then, with surprising speed he spun and stabbed the poor man in his finger.
Jon seemed more confused than scared, looking with gaunt eyes between his finger and the needle, then to Garyk, then back to his finger. Ten seconds of this, then thirty. Toby would have never dared opening his mouth, but he was beginning to sense a growing impatience amongst the other Tals in the small room. But just as one of them was about to speak, Moitsha piped up with excitement.
“See! The drool,” he said, touching the drooling addict with his gloves like he was examining a spot on the carpet. “Now Hoitschel what are the next symptoms going to be?”
“Slurring of speech,” one of the other young Tals shouted out.
“That’s very nice but I don’t recall saying Araron now did I?” Moitsha responded, to which all the Tals had a polite chuckle.
It’s not like they’re tying up a guy and killing him or anything.
Toby was no virgin to murder, but he’d never seen the sheer casualness with which Moitsha and the Tals treated the doomed man.
“Now what will happen to The Atrelban next?” Moitsha asked his pupils.
“GHmHm TULLLllssss” Toby cursed as he crawled up to Mrs. Trista’s house. Almost there.
Toby remembered standing in that room with Moitsha after all the other Tals had left. Jon’s fresh corpse still tied to the chair.
“Here’s what you sell,” Moitsha said, showing him crushed sap like stuff. He’d seen it before on the streets. “I want this gone by next week.”
“Understood,” Toby had replied, unsure if he should add “sir,” at the end. They were back in the same basement, all the Tals gone but Moitsha, all the Atrelbans gone but him, and Jon.
With that he turned to go, only to have Moitsha open his beak. “Moving up in the world Garyk” he said, that same twinkle in his eye like he knew something everyone else didn’t. It hadn’t been a question in phrasing, but Moitsha expected an answer. “I guess you could say that,” Toby responded.
“I would say that! There’s a lot of thugs in this world. Muscle guys, you know.” Toby nodded. “But you Toby, you’re a businessman now, an entrepreneur, and don’t forget that,” he’d said it with a wink, knowing full well that Toby didn’t know what entrepreneur meant.
Toby did know he was being made fun of somehow, and he didn’t find it much funny. But he’d smiled, and felt compelled to pretend along with the little beady eyed Tal that they were both excited for him. “When do I move up so far I get the good stuff,” Toby had said with a forced laugh, pointing to the purple poison they’d used on Jon, the addict.
“Concentrated consetta tar? Oh that’s just for small time players Garyk,” said with that same annoying twinkle. “Only good for killing one measly man. What you have is far deadlier.”
Garyk had looked down at the sack he’d been given and the brownish paste inside. He wanted nothing more than to turn and walk away, but Moitsha’s hook nosed face and small dark eyes staring him down compelled him to guess at what he’d meant.
“Capable of killing ten people?” he’d responded, half confused half joking.
“No no much more than that Mr. Garyk. Much more than just a ten people,” he said, a grin hanging on his face. With that Moitsha walked closer to him, before pointing to the dead man still roped to the chair, bones showing through his skin, teeth having rotted out of his head, eyes so sunken over hollowed cheeks. A man who’d looked more a reanimated corpse than a person even before the poison. Moitsha put his right hand on Toby’s shoulder, and with his left waved as if off into the distance, “A whole nation,” and he paused there a second, before looking sideways at him, right in the eyes.
Toby looked down at his sack and then up again, before asking a question that he would mull in his mind for years. “Which one did you have in mind?”
Moitsha looked at him for a second, an imperceptible look on his face. “First, dispose of this thing in the river,” Moitsha said finally, turning his attention to Jon and taking his hand of his shoulder. “And be discrete about it. We already own this town, but we still don’t want too many people watching us. We don’t want to have to deal with any anti-Jakartaism.”
“Sure thing boss,” Toby nodded, too confused to risk saying anything, and glad that he could finally escape. He figured if it was important to know what anti-Jakartaism meant Moitsha would have told him.
“You can find sacks and saws for the body in another room one level down in this basement, just past that door. There’s already straw in there, so try not to get too much of its blood everywhere. Oh and feel free to use more than one sack if it’s dripping too much.”
Why the – oh.
“Mr. Garyk I assume, despite your hesitation, that you were not just going to carry an entire corpse through the streets, nighttime or otherwise.”
That was the plan.
“Good, I knew you were a smart fellow, now get him untied. Thank you Garyk,” Moitsha finished, with a smile that didn’t reach his eyes. Toby turned away, and knelt down, starting to untie the ropes. Thankfully Moitsha began to walk out of the room. Less thankfully he stopped after just a step and turned back.
“Oh and Mr. Garyk.” Toby’s turn was enough of a response. “Yours.”
Toby tried to pretend he knew what Moitsha was talking about by nodding, but he’d never been a great actor.
“You asked which nation, Mr. Garyk,” Moitsha said before walking the two steps to Toby. The short Tal even bent over slightly and cupped his cheek in his hand. Then emphasized his words by staring Toby in the eye, that same toothless smile that didn’t meet his eyes pasted on Moitsha’s face as he straightened up again.
“One of the common anti-Jakartic canards we Tals have to face is that we’re deceitful. I don’t want there to be any secrets between us Mr. Garyk, wouldn’t you agree?”
“Uh, right. Of course.” Toby turned back to Jon. Once a normal young man now… this. A fate arguably worse than death.
They murdered him, and got him to pay them to do it.
As Toby looked down from the fake smiling foreign Tal, and at the destroyed man he was being paid to dispose of, he felt something stirring in him. The rarest of feelings, for him, something akin to patriotism, and maybe compassion for others. And something even more rare, as he thought of the many more he would create with the same “product,” guilt.
“The term is ‘you’re welcome,'” Moitsha said, in that same whiny voice.
“Uh, right,” he said, snapped out of staring at Jon’s corpse and back to Moitsha’s fake smiling face, as it opened to speak once more.
Welcome for what?
“Thank you for being honest with me Moitsha,” the Tal said, pinching Toby’s cheek. There were a lot of subtle jabs the Tals threw at him, and the other Atrelban thugs they got to do what their unathletic little bodies couldn’t, or just didn’t want to be seen doing. But it was plain as day to him that he was being mocked now by the nasty little gremlin.
A vision flashed then of Toby standing up, grabbing Moitsha by the throat, slamming him to the ground and beating his face to a pulp. The guards upstairs would kill him if they found out, and it’s doubtful he could do it silently. But then again, there was always noise in a brothel, even at night, as well as noise insulation. Maybe he could do it, then sneak out quickly before they knew what happened.
And there was a little voice inside Toby’s head told him to. Told him that this was important. A voice that grew louder as he looked up and down Jon’s skeletal figure.
But that voice was weak and neglected. Another, much stronger voice told Toby that he’d had enough of the street urchin life. That these people would torture him slowly to death if he touched Moitsha. That ultimately, if it wasn’t him it’d be someone else.
And that voice was the one who controlled his mouth, and forced him to look up to the vermin standing above him, head cocked to the side, eyes staring intently back at him awaiting an answer, eyebrows raised just so.
“Thank you for being honest with me Moitsha,” he said, still kneeling as he untied the ropes. And the moment hung there for a few seconds before Moitsha responded with a smile.
I’ve always been a coward.
He was here, on Trista’s door, but memory had made the trip seem suddenly unimportant. It seemed petty now to rip out the brown stick flowers. What was it, nightschade? Even without his body, long numb, ever weakening, he decided to prop his back up against Mrs. Trista’s door.
Lotta work just to die in a different place.
Toby was feeling warm, numb, over most of his body. He couldn’t feel his chest rising and falling, and could barely look down to confirm that it was.
Maybe it’s for the best. There are worse ways to go. And besides, life sucks anyway. It’s not like anything good ever happened to me.
Garyk had never seen himself as a man with a long life. Death had always been just around the corner. Maybe an employer who thought he knew too much. Maybe a junkie who got the drop on him. Maybe one of his lowlife competitors. Or maybe just illness. It’s not like he had the money for a doctor. It had been a pretty rotten life of his, doomed to end young. But even knowing that a tear came to his right eye.
I coulda been a soldier or somethin.
“Plllsss.” The word was strange on his tongue, even ignoring his current state. It was a word he hadn’t said in years. But say it he did, and again more forcefully. “PLSSSS,” he shouted to no one but the sleeping homeless. “Hlllppppp,” he shouted to no one, closing his eyes.
I don’t wanna die.
“Mthr,” he found himself saying, eyes still closed. “Mother, please.”
I guess we all do that. Even if ours is a vicious whore.
Not coincidentally he noted the lack of burn pains on his face, although his arm was too useless now to touch it.
Dying has its perks.
You’re not dead Toby.
Toby’s eyes opened in front of him, but he saw nothing but darkness.
What the hell?
But you will be soon.
There was a creature standing before him. The darkness in front of him its body, and high, high above him its face, that of a woman. On her head sat a helmet adorned with on both sides with gilded golden leaves. Beneath her chin, the darkness, with only her long silver hair beneath. Hair which flowed down her back past where her waist would be, still above his head, and was tossed about gracefully by a wind that even he, in his numb state, knew wasn’t there.
And with unmoving lips it commanded him.
No, this isn’t the end of the prologue. In fact, we are “again,” only halfway there, if even that. Once again I have found that creative writing is by far the most time consuming thing done on this site, and I will be trying everything else to break up these things into even smaller chapters in the future.