He looked across the table at Jeremy, his long, elegant fingers steepled together and pressed to his lips. He inspected the potential client from over a thin pair of spectacles, with a casual air of superiority. The president of the assassins’ guild had a hard gaze to meet, but Jeremy managed it – only just.
“So, let me make this entirely clear. You want this gentleman…” The president leaned back into his rather imposing chair, looked down at his notes as though they had just released an unpleasant smell, and took a moment to wrap his thin lips around the word, “…destroyed.”
Jeremy nodded, tying his fingers together nervously. The self-righteous fury that had propelled him into the monolithic building that housed the assassins’ guild had been reduced to a conviction stubbornly standing in the shadow of the immense urge to run away. This was, of course, the purpose of the overbearing architecture of the guild house; right down to the president’s chair, which towered far above his back, like a tombstone in shining black leather. The material of the head assassin’s clothes wasn’t so much black, but simply absent of reflective properties of any kind. In partnership with the high-backed chair and the dim candlelight, it left Jeremy with the impression that the president was little more than bone-pale head and hands, floating eerily in the darkness.
Anthony Mortias had been president of the assassins’ guild for seventeen years, and was well aware of the effect that both the guild house and his own appearance had on potential clients. One simply could not have every Tom, Dick and Harry with a grudge and a few silver coins becoming a client. The assassins guild prided itself on having only the highest class of clientele, and usually only people of significant power and influence were not intimidated into leaving before they had gotten past the front desk. Mortias noticed something different about this man that he had only seen once, maybe twice before. No, just the once, he thought, mentally berating himself for his uncharacteristic error.
It seemed that Jeremy had got it into his head that someone had morally wronged him.
The president was rather impressed with the man’s strength of purpose, if he was honest with himself – and he invariably was. Few people ever had the conviction that what someone had done to them was a crime of any real moral weight. Certainly, many people came before him who had been wronged, from cheating spouses to dirty-dealing businessmen, but only once in the past could he remember anyone else who had the particular quirk of mind that allowed them to believe that revenge was due to them by some kind of moral imperative. Jeremy was not going to be dissuaded by any amount of intimidating architectural features, nor the harsh gaze that Mortias had taken great care to perfect over many years. This would have to be dealt with in a more unusual fashion.
Jeremy started slightly when the assassin rang a small bell he’d been entirely unaware of until it was ringing with a delicate, ceramic chime in the president’s floating hand. Come to think of it, he wasn’t even sure he’d seen the hand move either. His stubborn sense of self-righteousness sat down nervously, worried by the look it was being given by that desire to rapidly remove himself from this man’s presence.
An aged and balding head, with features not unlike an eagle (or possibly a vulture, Jeremy thought when he looked back on the moment), appeared by the side of Mortias’s own indomitable features. The president spoke a few soft words to the hovering visage and it disappeared once again into the shadows. No matter how hard he stared at the space between where the face had appeared and the door to the room, he didn’t see anyone pass through the space.
Jeremy was even more surprised when he turned back to the president and found that another man, dressed in the night-black of the assassins, was sat in the seat beside him, pulling out a small black book and stub of a pencil. If it weren’t for the deeply entrenched righteousness refusing to move from its seat in his mind he would have leapt from his seat and been out of the building with a speed that may even have impressed the assassins. Instead he simply twisted his fingers tighter together and tried to find a position of comfort in the hard wooden chair.
The new assassin thumbed to a new page in his notebook and crossed his legs in a fluid, feline movement. He looked up at the president once he was comfortable and raised his eyebrow; a small gesture but one that clearly meant for them to continue. Where the president’s face seemed permanently set into a bemused frown, this new assassin wore a smile that he now turned towards Jeremy. It contained the same level of comfort and reassurance as a cobra’s smile.
“Jeremy, This is Mr Henton,” said the president, gesturing to their new companion. Mr Henton nodded in what Jeremy assumed was meant to be a friendly manner, but it somehow missed the mark.
“So, Mr Jeremy. You wish for me to make a Drastic Reprisal for you?” Henton’s voice was as serpentine as his smile – it made Jeremy, and his now cowering self-righteousness, look down at his hands and try really rather hard to become one with the chair.
“I… Erm… He…”
Henton continued as though Jeremy had not made an absolute failure of his attempt to speak in his native language.
“As I understand it, you wish to have a particular gentleman,” Henton flicked back a page in his notes, “One Mr Alexander Tubman, inhumed in the most painful and destructive fashion possible.”
The president watched with professional curiosity as, at the mention of Tubman’s name, Jeremy’s sense of self-righteousness overcame its fear and leapt to its feet, red-faced with fury. The effect on Jeremy was quite pronounced; he straightened up, gripped the arms of the chair and set his face into one of angry determination, only tempered by the fevered waving of the part of his mind that remembered what manner of company he was in.
“I want him destroyed,” Jeremy exclaimed. The sound of the words wandered aimlessly around the darkened room before realising that it had no more chance of finding the edges than Jeremy did, and headed back to familiar ground as an exceptionally clear echo. Somewhat unnerved by this, Jeremy repeated it quietly.
“I want him destroyed.”
Mr Henton nodded slightly, and made a note in his book. Jeremy’s self-righteousness wasn’t satisfied with this lack of reaction, and prodded him sharply in the back to make him ensure the assassins understood precisely what he wanted to happen.
“I want him to lose everything! I want him to undergo the most pain and suffering any human can ever experience! I want his life to be biblically foul! I want-”
The president coughed sharply, and Jeremy stopped as though the cough had cut his vocal chords. He looked from assassin to assassin, his urge to run clearly doing more than waving now. He sat back in the chair, having first realised that he had leaned forwards in his angry tirade. Jeremy was too busy hoping that he had not offended the men in black to notice that the presidents cough didn’t echo, but instead snuck off stealthily into the shadows.
Mr Henton looked up from his notepad and turned his smile upon Jeremy, and his self-righteousness took a seat again with some speed.
“Mr Jeremy,” Henton began, “I understand entirely what you wish to occur. I can assure you that such things are, in fact, my speciality. Such undertakings have been my area of expertise for many years, and I can confidently state that no greater dismantling of an individual’s life can be achieved by any other individual alive today.”
Jeremy entangled his hands together once again, and managed to manipulate his vocal chords to create a single, quiet word. The word itself, though quiet, was injected with a heavy note of satisfaction. Jeremy had no doubt that Henton could do what he had said.
Mr Henton glanced at the president, who simply leaned deeper into the padding of his morbidly grandiose chair with an air of relaxed apathy. Henton had his permission to proceed.
“You must understand, Mr Jeremy, that this is no small undertaking you are requesting of me. It is quite possible that the target could outlive you, and so you would never actually experience the entirety of his suffering.”
Jeremy frowned and shuffled in his seat, as though about to protest. Henton didn’t give him the opportunity.
“You see, an undertaking of this nature requires a slow and steady trickle of suffering, so that at no point does the target reach beyond what I refer to as the Suffering Saturation Point. Pain is, after all, relative, and one can in fact experience it to such an extent that no additional pain will increase it. It is my opinion that it is better to use all resources available individually in order to maximise the amount of suffering experienced over time.”
Henton ran his tongue over his lips, somehow doing so without displacing his smile in the slightest. It did nothing to lessen the serpentine impression he left on Jeremy.
“We guarantee that the targets suffering will be most complete, Mr Jeremy. Once we have received payment you will have no need to concern yourself with the matter ever again.”
Jeremy glanced sidelong at the president and then back to Henton. The assassins could see that something had lodged in his brain that he was uncomfortable with. They also both knew exactly what it was, too.
“I have to pay in advance?” Jeremy asked.
The president leaned forward, placing his elbows on the desk and looking intently at Jeremy.
“This is not part of our usual services. In fact, it is not a service we will ever admit to providing – it is not strictly within our remit. And as you heard, this may take longer than you may live. We cannot take the risk that you default your payment because you are inhumed before Mr Henton has finished his task.”
Jeremy didn’t look quite convinced.
“We also offer a money-back guarantee,” the president continued. “If, at any point in the next five years, you are not satisfied with the service, you may recieve a complete refund.”
At this, Jeremy recalled that he was there out of self-righteous zealotry, and that money was not a concern in the exacting of real justice.
“Yes, that all sounds fine,” Jeremy said, evidently paying a touch more heed to his desire to get out quickly by this time.
“You trust that we will carry out the service?” Mr Henton asked, a note of curiosity creeping into his tone.
“Yes, Mr Henton,” said Jeremy, carefully. “I trust the assassins’ guild to be true to its word.”
Henton and Mortias exchanged a glance, the meaning of which completely evaded Jeremy. He could have wondered if there was some kind of code between assassins that solely used the eyes, if his higher brain functions weren’t preoccupied with the argument between self-preservation and righteous vengeance.
“Eighteen thousand gold pieces,” said the president.
Jeremy pulled out a large purse and dropped it onto the president’s desk with a heavy clunk. The president ignored it, and simply slid a piece of paper across the desk towards Jeremy, whose righteousness had now swaggered off to brag to its friends to leave him in the sole company of his self-preservation instinct. Right now, it was shouting at him rather emphatically.
The president handed Jeremy a pen and the anxious man signed the paper without so much as glancing at what else was on it. Then he stood up, glanced sideways at Mr Henton, mumbled something undoubtedly extremely polite, and left the room with the haste of a man departing a dragon’s lair.
With the sort of grace that one observes when a cat is toying with a mouse, Mortias placed a finger on the contract & slid it towards him. He scratched his own name onto the paper with his own pen, and placed it onto a small pile of similar papers on his desk. He raised his eyes to peer over his narrow spectacles at Mr Henton. His expression was entirely opaque as he watched the other assassin lick his thumb, turn a few pages of his notebook, and make a final notation before closing the book.
“Yes, Mr President?” asked Henton, raising a thin, blonde eyebrow.
“How many of these accounts do we have now, Mr Henton?”
He opened his notebook and glanced at the page.
The president of the assassins guild leant forward and peered at Henton intently.
“Have we had any complaints at all, Mr Henton?”
“None at all, Mr President.”
The president stood up sharply and stepped to the side of his grand chair. He turned and began walking towards the door hidden behind it, Henton appearing silently at his side.
When Henton opened the door with a peculiar tap on a particular spot on the door frame, Mortias paused for a moment before stepping through.
“And you have never lifted a finger in response to any of these accounts?”
An expression briefly flashed across Henton’s avian features. It seemed to reside in a space somewhere between shock and amusement.
“Mr President, I could not possibly presume to improve upon the cruelty of nature.”