Marissa lay on the well appointed bed, nude and bored. Of all the girls in the brothel, the Knight-Commander always insisted on her and Christina. They probably reminded the sick fuck of his mother or something. He seemed like the type to get off on something like that. Christina was elsewhere in the man’s chambers, probably getting drunk on the man’s fancy liquor. Al’Shazan knew that she was going to need some alcohol induced numbness to deal with the planned festivities of the night ahead. The man’s appetites during his ‘punishments’ were distressing to say the least. It was hard for a girl to even fake it when her partner kept screaming at her to ‘use her sinful wiles’ on him and to ‘fuck the sin right out of him.’ Her current theory was that he was literally so dumb that he thought he was ejaculating sin.
Christina refused to speculate or really talk much about the sessions despite Marissa’s best efforts to get the other woman to open up or place bets on the Knight-Commander’s behavior and appetites. Apparently the Knight-Commander had ordered her brother tortured and eventually executed for heresy. She could barely even move after the sessions, instead just laying there as Marissa dressed her and helped her back to the brothel. If the Knight-Commander hadn’t borderline strong-armed the madame into providing ‘punishments’ for him and specifically picked out his ‘punishers’ there was no way the woman would even be here.
The job was weirder than most, but honestly Marissa was somewhat disappointed in it. When she was told by the Madame that she was going to be ‘punishing’ someone rich and powerful, she had gotten a bit excited. You could only tell so many fat old rich men that they were your best fuck ever before they finished twenty seconds in and collapsed on top of you. Some of the other girls had gotten ‘punishment details’ and tried to fill her in on what to expect. She had already picked out a very fetching black leather corset, riding crop, and an assortment of penetrative aids before she was informed that it would be a much more mundane assignment. Still, the job broke up the boredom of her usual assignments a bit. It wasn’t every day that you had to pretend to be enjoying yourself while one of the most powerful and unbalanced men in the Empire screamed ‘take my sin all over your face.’
Marissa sighed as she heard the front door to the chambers open followed by the jangling of the Knight-Commander removing his armor. He was taking his time again, probably loitering to admire his own reflection. For someone who wouldn’t shut up about the sin of pride, he sure liked looking at himself and posing. Eventually, he tired of staring at himself and the bedchamber door opened, revealing the man himself in all of his glory.
He was well muscled, Marissa would give him that, but it hardly impressed her. Anyone with a couple coins to rub together could go to a flesh sculptor and have them tack on some abs if they didn’t mind the side effects. Really, it was only a question of mana, protein and time. Half of the girls at the brothel had themselves altered to the point where they could barely walk without assistance in order to appeal to some of their more discerning clients. Samuels had taken it almost to the same extreme.
Flesh sculpting had a fairly pronounced effect on the male anatomy, specifically the more dangly and male portions of it. Much to the male population’s chagrin, no one had been able to crack the secret of male sexual enhancement. Quite the opposite actually. Every flesh shaping spell sapped away at a man’s most essential size and vigor. Even a most cursory glance at Samuels revealed the results of multiple flesh shapings and quite possibly an unhealthy amount of exposure to overly cold night air.
“Well my sweets,” he began, rubbing his nipples as Marissa fought the urge to cringe, “are you ready to help me purge all the nasty sin out of my body tonight.”
Before she could reply or dry heave, the Knight-Commander’s throat exploded, revealing the tip of a crossbow bolt. The man staggered forward a step or two, hands grasping at the empty air before he collapsed forward at the foot of the bed. As the blood pooled around the base of the bed, a pale reedy young man ran into the room, dropping the crossbow and drawing a heavily jeweled dagger. He screamed incoherently while ramming the blade repeatedly into the Knight-Commander’s back. Finally, his rage somewhat spent he stood and adjusted his blood spattered robes before spitting on the body.
“It was always Williard this or Williard that,” he hissed at the cooling body, “but you never bothered to even ask my Al’Shazan damned last name. It’s Stallswarth. My name is Williard Stallswarth. You killed my entire family and you had the gall to make me issue their death sentence. Then I find out that you’ve been torturing my father for weeks in your Chamber of Truth. I wouldn’t have even known that he was still alive if you hadn’t sent me there to be flogged for no reason. A crossbow bolt in the night is too good for you, but at least I can go to my grave knowing that I was the end of Matthias Samuels, the tyrant.”
Marissa sat very still, as was only natural when naked before a screaming and crying murderer holding a knife. She wasn’t even sure if this Williard had even realized that she was there yet. He seemed awfully focused on his wrathful monologue. It was a fairly good one, definitely in the top ten for speeches Marissa had heard delivered over the corpse of a rival or nemesis. Getting murdered during an encounter with a prostitute was actually fairly common among the schemers of Diyall. The brothel even had a fairly lengthy incident report form that she would be expected to fill out.
Finally, the young man looked up and noticed Marissa sitting on the bed, completely naked. With a screech unbecoming the murderer of Matthias Samuels, tyrant, he jolted backwards and slipped in the pool of blood, landing on his back and dropping his knife as he frantically tried to catch himself. Marissa cocked her head, usually assassins had much better balance and hand eye coordination than this Williard fellow. In fact, most of the assassins she had met were well muscled, or at least looked like they were in shape. Frankly, he looked like he would be blown away by a stiff breeze.
“Who are you?” Williard asked, his eyes widening. “There wasn’t supposed to be anyone here, Matthias was scheduled to return to his chambers for punishment immediately after he returned from the Chamber of Truth. There was no mention of any guests.”
“Oh never mind me,” she replied. “Christina and I are his punishment for the sin of pride. Apparently some High Priest named Roggale gave a speech about how ‘there is no punishment more dire than lying with a woman whose heart is untrue.’ Sounds like someone moping after a bad breakup to me, but the Knight-Commander decided that it literally meant the most severe punishment a man could suffer was casual sex. So he went to the Rosepetal Pavilion and hired Christina and I to ‘punish’ him by sleeping with him. I can’t say that it made sense to me, but the money was good and I prefer not having my fingers removed for the sins of lust and deceit, so here I am.”
“Wait,” Williard was hyperventilating, arms wrapped around his knees. “So all of those times he said that he punished himself ‘twice as hard’ as the torture the inquisition inflicted on those it put to the question, he was just getting laid?”
“Yeah,” Marissa nodded, leaning back slightly on the bed. “I think the ‘twice as hard’ thing came from the fact that he usually had Christina here with me. Two people, twice as hard, the Knight-Commander was a very literal man. Of course, he never was terribly good at the entire thing. I always got the impression that it was more punishing in a boring sort of way to us than to him. I suppose I should let Christina know that you’ve killed him, she’s busy raiding his liquor cabinet at the moment but I’m sure she’ll be pleased.”
“TINA!” She shouted, ignoring Williard rocking back and forth and mumbling to himself. “Some kid murdered the Knight-Commander, I think we’re going to get the night off so don’t get too blasted.”
Seconds later Christina ran into the bedchamber from the study, completely naked and holding a half full glass of brandy that sloshed onto the floor as she bounded into the room. With a quick glance at the body, she shrieked with joy and ran over to Williard whom she picked up and kissed on the lips before dropping him back to the ground and his existential despair.
“Finally,” Christina finished the brandy before throwing the empty glass at the Knight-Commander’s corpse where it shattered. “I’ve been waiting years for someone to finally kill that asshole. You’d think that with the number of enemies he’s made that someone would finally have the balls to do him in. It’s a shame the kid doesn’t have his or I’d give him a freebie on top of the bastard’s cooling corpse. The kid’s an absolute hero of the Empire.”
“While my father was bolted to a metal table,” Williard began, still shaking on the floor, “his very bones cracked open. While I was getting whipped for leaving a smudge on his armor. While my brothers and sisters were being put to the sword by Crusaders raiding our house in the middle of the night, he was having nightly threesomes? How does that even approach fair or reasonable?”
“I don’t know kid,” Marissa replied with a shrug. “I was born to a poor seamstress and a mason. My dad died repairing a church and we didn’t have enough to make ends meet so I signed a contract with the Rosepetal Pavilion at the age of sixteen. Far as I can tell, nothing is really fair or not fair. It just is what it is, and you try to make it from one day to the next without some sort of calamity befalling you. Knight-Commander Samuels? He was a lot of people’s calamity. I’m pretty sure he honestly believed every idiotic thing he said, but that didn’t stop him from destroying a lot of innocent lives. Of course, I’m not sure how that’s much different than the Edra flood, a famine or an earthquake. They don’t just kill bad people, in fact, it seems like the bad people usually find a way to profit from those tragedies. Just the way of the world.”
“Fine,” he said, voice dead as he pulled himself to his feet. “I get it, wanting to help my family and the Empire were a naive little dream. I killed Matthias, but someone else almost as bad and twice as predatory will take his place.”
“To be fair,” Marissa answered, checking the lacquer on her nails as she spoke, “I’m pretty sure your Father is one of those bad people. The Stallswarths came by the Rosepetal Pavilion more than once and I’m pretty sure I can recognize most of the big names by now. I’d bet wood to gold that your Gregor’s son. He was an absolute piece of shit. He constantly bragged about shorting funds for his workers health and welfare to enrich himself and starving the workers in his copper mines to the point that they died on the job to avoid paying pensions.”
“I’m going to be executed, aren’t I?” Williard asked her, his voice strangely steady. When she nodded in reply, he picked up the bloody dagger from the ground. “Fine, if that’s how this is going to end, at least I can kill the whore that slandered my Father as well. You look just like Betty Tyban you know. I asked her to the ball so many times but she always turned me down. Now I’ve taken my vows and lost my manhood, but at least I can get one last revenge on her.”
This time, Marissa looked up and took in the emptiness in his eyes. Williard had completely snapped and he had a knife. She frantically backed up in the bed while Christina screamed and ran back into the study. Internally Marissa scolded herself. She would really have to work on antagonizing armed murderers at the scene of a crime. It just didn’t seem like an advisable tactic.
“Woah kid,” she said, a note of pleading in her voice, “calm down. I was just trying to have a conversation with you here. I don’t know anything about this Betty girl. I’ve never met her, I’m not friends with her, and if she’s married, there’s a good chance I’ve slept with her husband. You did a good thing tonight killing the Knight-Commander, there’s no need to make this weird by killing me.”
“My name isn’t ‘Kid,’ whore,” he spat, eyes wild as something inside him snapped, “my name is Williard Stallswarth. I had such a crush on Betty, but every time I tried to talk to her I would end up tongue tied, stammer something incomprehensible, and her friends and her would make fun of me. They kept hounding me until I would try to run away from them any time I saw them, but that only made it worse. They started calling me ‘Wilting Willie,’ and the name got spread around until everyone was calling me it. I don’t care that you aren’t Betty. I don’t care that you don’t know her. I just need to end this now and put her face behind me.” Williard raised the bloody dagger and turned towards Marissa.
Before the young man could take more than a step, a crossbow bolt sprouted from his lower back. Williard collapsed to the ground screaming as a beautiful woman walked into the room wearing black and holding his discarded crossbow. Surveying the scene, she nodded to herself, a satisfied look on her face.
“My name’s Anne Bosteel,” she cheerily stated, ratcheting the crossbow crank to load another bolt, “and that was some superb acting there. I’d work your timing with the entire ‘harassing an armed suicidal murderer’ schtick but other than that I’d give you an eight out of ten.”
Marissa slid to the edge of the bed and stood up, ignoring the groaning Williard as she walked over to the other woman. Anne finished loading the crossbow and pointed it at Williard once again, a manic grin on her face.
“Nice to meet you Anne,” Marissa replied, wiping the blood off of her hand before extending it to the older woman. “Thanks for the assist there. Usually when a man’s spirit breaks in front of me it’s accompanied by more blubbering and mumbling ‘this never happens I swear’ rather than homicidal rage. A bit of a new and unwelcome experience.”
“Think nothing of it Miss,” Anne cocked her head while shaking Marissa’s hand, crossbow still trained on Williard. “Actually come to think of it, I never did catch your name.”
“Oh, it’s Marissa St. John,” she responded. “The Knight-Commander hired Christina and I from the Rosepetal Pavilion to ‘punish’ him. Apparently sleeping with two women would cure him of his arrogance. It didn’t really work, he was always the same stuck up asshole. I think that crossbow did a much better job of curing him actually.”
“Yes they tend to do that,” Anne briefly stroked the well maintained weapon. “I’ve found most government intrigue to be dull and barely of any interest except to the players themselves. Weeks and months of plotting and planting fake evidence under the cover of darkness only to get the under secretary of agriculture censured to teach her boss a lesson for snubbing someone at a party is hardly my idea of fun. Crossbows tend to expedite things in new and exciting ways.”
“As much as I enjoy your casual attitude towards murder,” Marissa opined thoughtfully, “I can’t help but notice that I am naked and a witness to the murder of one of the three most powerful men in the Empire and you are clearly an armed spy of some sort. This isn’t going to be a problem is it?”
“Oh no problem,” Anne smiled, nodding.
“To be clear,” Marissa continued, “do you mean ‘not a problem’ in the sense that ‘killing me to clear up loose ends’ wouldn’t be a problem for you or in the sense that ‘you don’t plan on killing me so I can relax?’”
“I wasn’t really planning on killing you,” Anne replied smiling. “Our friend Williard here is going to need to take the fall for the murder and he gave a rather delightful speech revealing his full name and motive to you. It would be a shame to waste such a wonderful witness as you. Fabricating evidence is such a chore, and it is terribly inefficient when you have wonderful evidence right in front of you anyway.”
“That seems fair,” Marissa nodded, pondering Anne’s words. “Christina and I are still going to get paid for tonight right? The contract with the Knight-Commander did say that the Madame was owed eight silver per night that we were taken from the brothel. I understand that I am wrapped up in some sort of power play between heads of state, but a contract is a contract. There’s no need to be uncivilized.”
Williard groaned and attempted to roll over, only for Anne to absentmindedly shoot the groaning man with the crossbow in the thigh. Marissa glanced at him and then shrugged. She was grateful to him for killing the Knight-Commander, but the kid had been a bit of a self important shit. He’d probably done something to warrant the second crossbow bolt. Especially if he was Gregor’s son.
“But of course my dear girl,” Anne said with a smile as she counted out silver that had appeared in her hand with no noticeable source. “As an aside, are you looking to change professions? I’ve been looking to groom new proteges and you have the look of someone I can mold into a budding opera singer. You certainly have the looks and the attitude for it.”
“Opera?” Marissa questioned, cocking her head in confusion, “but I’ve never sang more than a drinking song in a tavern in my life. I don’t have the training or skill, I’d hardly know where to start.”
“Yes the opera,” Anne answered. “The nobles wouldn’t know how to carry a tune if it came with handles. They don’t even know what proper music sounds like. No, the men will just look down your shirt and the women will accuse you of sleeping with their husbands regardless of how talented you are. Really, as with most popular artists, talent or lack thereof is immaterial. You can trust me, I’m something of an agent.”
“Really,” Anne shrugged, wiping the crossbow down with a handkerchief before handing the weapon to Marissa, “it’s more of a cover. We’d be training you to do this sort of thing. Collect information. Kill people. Lie about state secrets. Normal things. You’d only be at the Opera to use the fame and connections that come with it to gain access to the rich and powerful. Easy money.”
“Why am I holding the crossbow though?” Mariss asked Anne, glancing blankly down at the weapon cradled in her arms.
“Well of course you’d have the crossbow,” Anne replied with a wink. “Williard here dropped it after he killed Matthias and you shot him with it twice when he tried to turn on you. Seeing as how I was never here, that seems to be a perfectly reasonable explanation for how you survived the entire ordeal.”