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With the blade and fire iron still in contact, Heratio grabbed onto his opponent’s inferior weapon and pulled. He moved his sword, taking advantage of its unencumbered mobility, sending a piercing strike at the other man’s belly. The naked man contorted in defence, narrowly escaping a fatal wound, but receiving a gash on the side of his torso. He sent out his bare-foot to counter with a kick. It hit against the leather armour, under Heratio's poncho, absorbing the majority of the force.

Heratio stabbed into the leg with his sabre, a deep cut. The naked man screamed in pain. Heratio pulled his sword out, as quickly as he put it in, and let his grasp of the fire iron release. Heratio backed away, watching the naked man react to his injuries. He couldn’t walk right and leaned against a wooden closet. He was old, his wrinkled manhood hung low. His skin didn’t seem to fit him right, sagging from his body. Covered in healed over scars and scars that weren’t given the chance to heal, but instead were put to a flame to close the wound.

“What’s your name?” said Heratio, standing far enough away from the naked man he knew he was safe from reprisal.

“Ah, what does that matter! May Horus rape you in the ass! You slug,” said the naked man.

“Woman. I’ll let you live if you just tell me his name.” Heratio looked at the naked lady. She was pretty. Smooth caramel brown skin, dark silky hair, an ample bosom. Most likely she was a slave girl, purchased for her beauty, to serve a carnal function. Perhaps even to be used as an award for a completed task.

“Tell him nothing!” shouted the naked man. He was putting pressure on his wound. Heratio could tell from his slumped over position, the way he shouted, that even his enemy knew, it was over.

“His name is Umberto.”

“You stupid valkrin!” Umberto shouted.

“What do you know about Umberto?” asked Heratio.

“I was to treat him well, yesterday, tonight and the next night. As a reward.”

Heratio stepped forward and Umberto prepared a defence, but a fragile one at best. Heratio moved to one side, forcing Umberto to respond by placing too much weight on his injured leg. He moved from that side to the other and went in for the killing strike. Umberto, still wincing in pain, couldn’t react fast enough. The blade pierced right into his heart, nailing him against the wall. Heratio lingered his gaze on the funny faces he made and the twitching of Umberto’s body as it succumbed to the throes of death, savouring the sight. He pulled out his sword and let the body slump onto the ground lifelessly, then turned to the girl on the bed.

“I can’t be having you out, ready to stab me from behind.” Heratio went to the wooden closet and opened it, throwing the clothing inside onto the ground. “Get in.”

With a pale face and shaking limbs the girl went into the closet obediently. Heratio closed it shut, bent down, grabbed the fire iron from the ground, and used it to seal the wooden closet doors shut. With the girl locked away, he returned to the hallway to search for other potential survivors.

There he beheld the aftermath of the fight between his men and the guards. Enrique and two of Giovannus’ guards lay bloodied on the ground. Gillivan stood above them, his cloak splattered with streaks of blood. They had lost a comrade, but two more guards were eliminated. There couldn’t be too many more left if any. They searched through the rooms, checking anywhere someone could hide. As they found them, the cowering servants, in some closet, or barred inside some room that they had to force their way into, they unceremoniously slit their throats. They would fight back, Heratio received their fists as they struggled like trapped animals, flailing wildly. He knew his arms and chest would become marked with bruises later. When the building was cleared, the three intruders, Heratio, Gillivan and Bantam, met in the receiving room.

“Let in the two outside,” said Heratio to Gillivan. “We will pile anything of value here, then divide it up. If you come across anything that looks like important documents, bring them to me. I’ll have a look at it.”

To the mercenaries–those not in the direct employ of Augustus–this was the most important part of the job. They would carry out the task enthusiastically, having already made note of anything they saw earlier they thought would sell for good coin. Heratio knew where he should search first, Giovannus’ personal chambers, the room he killed the boy in. The room where he opened the window and let in his accomplices. He returned there to search, he lit the lanterns hanging on the walls and scoured the room, opening any and all containers.

He found a box filled with jewelry and put it under his poncho, then continued his search. It was a good find, but not what he was looking for. Ledgers, records of the day, and writings describing plans or transcribing meetings, things to be subtly used against Giovannus were what he was really after. He found some papers, the personal copies of some signed contracts that he folded and piled up with a ledger accounting household expenses. They might be worthless, but Augustus would be the best judge of that.

He searched through the closets but only found clothing. Dresses for his wife, fine robes to serve the various functions for Giovannus and some smaller outfits that would fit neither. All, although costly, weren’t the type of thing they would want to carry away from this incursion. Their market was the nobility and no one among them would want to be seen wearing clothing absconded from a senator’s home. Instead, they preferred raw materials, gold and silver laced wares, books or complex trinkets that had no identifying markings.

He returned to the receiving room to see the progress of his men. They were already fast at work, making the heap of utensils, plates, books with ornate covers, statuettes, and whatever coin they had lifted from the dead bodies.

“There’s a lady in the room over there that I locked inside the closet,” Heratio said to the men.

“I’ll be first then,” said Figaro as he went over to the room and shut the door with a loud thump.

Gillivan quietly stared at Heratio, causing his heart to sink. He knew the disappointment his friend must be feeling. Gillivan returned to his self-appointed task, finding each body and saying the words of the dead over them. He did as before, cutting open their chests and placing a twig or sprig of something inside the open cavity.

Heratio walked the halls as his comrades scurried, grabbing greedily. Heratio felt above that fray, instead, he examined the result of their attack. The walls were covered in blood. A man lay dead on the ground, his teeth smashed out, the blotch of red on the floor said so. Must have been silver teeth.

The smell of blood lingered. A fetid smell he could taste in the air. It could make weaker men wretch like he did when he was small and weak. He thought of saying words over the deceased, but the sentiment passed. He never believed he gained forgiveness from those empty gestures, instead, when his ghost is weighed, he would sing the praises of a greater good. He had seen battlefields, what true carnage looked like. Tonight, but a drop in the ocean in comparison.

He was a child then. His family had been on the road, spending their nights deep in the woods. They would huddle around the fire, surrounded by giant trees. One of the mornings, his father woke him and brought him out amongst the fallen red and orange leaves.

"You're gonna be a fighter," Heratio's father said. He placed a wooden sword in Heratio's hand. "First thing you gotta learn, never let go of your sword. The grip of a swordsman should be as strong as the steel he wields."

With a rope tied to that wooden play sword, his father would yank hard, softly at first, but gradually harder and harder until it would fly out of Heratio's hand. They would practice each morning for days. Until, with a powerful sudden yank, it wasn't the sword that flew but Heratio, slamming into the foliage. Heratio smiled in the muddy earth, despite the scrapes. Glad to be a fighter.

"Maybe you ain't got the stomach for it after all," his father said. After he spilled his lunch out on his father's boots.

They had come to the edge of a field graced by battle a few days prior. A toxic smell of infected flesh wafted through the trees. They changed course, choosing to travel along the outskirts. But the leftovers of the battle had crawled its way into the woods to greet them. It was an injured soldier, a picture of bare skin clinging to the bone on his gaunt face. His eyes seemed to sink deep into his skull and his eyes looked through Heratio, instead, looking through to the veil of death. Vultures stalked him in the background, cawing and spreading their giant wings from a tree branch. They waited for their prey to stop moving, but not for true death. Their preferred feast was the living infirm.

Just the sight of that man and his festering wounds, that scent with a taste, sent his stomach convulsing. His father had no patience for it. One hit to Heratio's face sent him to the ground. "Get up Heratio. Then watch." His father took out his sword and waited for his audience, his son. Heratio watched the sword slowly slip into the man, right through his heart. "This is death. Look closely, he's almost just as he was, but a little different."

Together they checked the body, but the scavengers had already gotten to him. The victors sent slaves to search over the battle, collecting the weapons. They paid no mind to the survivors, they just parted them of their wares and moved on.

Heratio continued to wander, looking through each room with a careful eye. In the accountant’s office, he found a heap of papers bound loosely. A Castellian seal adorned the first page. He put it with the other papers, and again, returned to the receiving room. The men filled leather sacs with their bounty. Eyeballing each item and making a quick decision whether it was worth trying to sell. They still had to travel light making their way off the Castellian property without getting noticed.

Figaro returned, still buckling his belt and sent the next one in after. Heratio considered how wise it was not to just cut her throat the moment her usefulness ceased. This distraction wasted time and currently, it was of the essence.

"After you are done, slit her throat. We must leave soon," Heratio said to Bantam as moved to the room. "Pile the books and everything else that burns here. Then put Enrique's corpse on top," he said to everyone else.

When Bantam returned, it was ready. They all put their packs on their backs, took a lit lantern from off the wall, and tossed it onto the pyre. It caught fire. The flames spread as the oils splashed, consuming the most combustible first then spreading to the rest. The flames reached the ceiling turning it tar black.

They left the building as the flames became visible from a distance, spilling out of the windows. The building had a shell of stone, it would survive the fire but the insides would be an ugly mess of ash and charcoal. He just ran with no sense of stealth at the start since they were most concerned with getting a distance between them and that scene. Then, far enough away, they stalked in the bushes towards their parked carriage. Shouts rang out, and the sound of feet running in the opposite direction made for easy cover. Eyes were kept from losing focus and wandering about. The carriage was just as they left it, the horses still tied under the tree, and despite their cover, the horse's hair was still drenched.

Gillivan and Heratio put their packs in the carriage. The other three would take a different path, sneaking over the gate using a rope. The hope was that the guards would be distracted. They would rally to the manse fearing the attack wasn't an isolated incident. It was a risk. There was no bribe that would cause guards to turn the other way after an incident like this. But they were accepting of that risk. Risk was a part of the mercenary life. The pay though would be great, along with the pay for the job, the contents of their sack were theirs to keep, with the understanding that it wasn't to be sold haphazardly. The two groups separated without fanfare, and with Heratio and Gillivan on the perch of the carriage, they set the horses trotting back to the road.

Heratio drove them to the Pantelli estate, not a great distance. The roads were clear. Gillivan scouted the area around their home to make sure no one watched, before they carried their packs into the building, bringing it to an empty room in the attic and hid it in an unused closet. The rain washed the blood from their ponchos, but still, they removed and bundled up their outer rainwear and placed it with the sacks. He knocked on the door to the room where the servants slept. Telling them they were home and giving the new slave the duty of waking him at dawn's first light.

Before long a messenger arrived, knocking on the front door.

"There's been a fire," the boy said. "The family at the manse will stay there until the morning. Extra guards will be on duty until then. If your masters are among them, then meet your masters there, before breakfast. Until then, take note of anyone suspicious." The boy didn't wait for a response before running off. His were the words of Giovannus, and he needed to sprint from estate to estate to deliver the same message.

Heratio could not fathom the response Augustus expected. He went to bed imagining an interrogation at the manse, putting on some show to catch Augustus in a lie and draw suspicion towards him, but his thoughts slowly faded away.

In a dream, he watched a ship at sea from the shore, as flames consumed it. It toppled over, sending the unfurled sails into the water. The other ship sailed away around a cliff face. His mother watched it too. With urgency, she tugged at Heratio. They needed to leave, but his father stood firm and watched. Then he was in the woods, above him, light shone down through the red and orange leaves, and then a wind shook some leaves free from their branches. It carried the smoke with it. The hot ash filled his lungs and caused a coughing fit.

Bindel woke him from his deep slumber to a still-dark room, a darkness that called him to return to his dream. He struggled against the urge to motion her away and close his eyes again. Not enough sleep. He woke Gillivan and they stumbled together through the early morning. Dressed in a different set of clothes and armour, they left for the manse.

The clouds broke apart in the sky, revealing purple heavens. The dim light shone on the dew-covered surfaces and the large and numerous puddles that lined the sides of the path. He smelt the ash from his dreams as they passed Giovannus' estate. From behind a hillock, he saw the trail of smoke rising, but couldn't see the state of it. He wanted to take a look but thought better of it. There was nothing to be gained, and he only risked raising suspicion.

They continued on, passing patrols of guards. They tip their hats at each other, as they went their separate ways. The guards recognized him, as most in the Castellian employment would. Still, he was surprised they didn't even bother to stop his carriage and search it. They, of course, would know it was pointless since so much time had passed any evidence must have surely been removed by now. But, that shouldn't have stopped a guard from carrying out the task anyway.

He drove the carriage up to the entranceway and disembarked. Two guards stationed by the front door watched his every move. A part of his mind imagined the possibility that they could attack him. Inside Augustus could be locked up, and Giovannus could have ordered him captured alive to confess his crimes. He clenched his fist subtly and stilled his heart by controlling his breaths.

"Good morning," said Heratio while waving his arm. They lifted their arms in response, but their other hands remained on the hilts of their swords.

Heratio put himself between them. They turned to face him. His hand stayed off his own hilt, despite his every instinct pushing his hand toward it. He knocked three times, then waited. It felt unnatural, how much time seemed to pass. He pondered over passing the time with small talk, but he didn't speak, just gulped down his words and spit.

The door opened with Gomez in the doorway. "I'll go get Master Augustus and Lady Marielle," said Gomez then he shut the door, and another long wait ensued.

Heratio tapped his foot and crossed his arms to ensure he didn't place them anywhere threatening by mistake. These guards were surely on edge. The door opened again and Heratio's two masters walked through.

"Thank you for escorting me to the doorway, but my man can see to my protection from here," said Augustus. Gomez, who stood within the arch, bowed with his hand over his chest. "Heratio, let's go home. I long to sleep in my own bed."

Heratio bowed then led the way to the carriage, only a dozen arms away. "Master Augustus, how was your evening?"

"It went fine. I had a bit too much to drink. Thankfully, Marielle saw to it we could spend the night in the manse." Augustus looked to his wife giving a smile. "It was fortunate though. They woke us in the middle of the night to tell us what happened. I was still too inebriated to go see it for myself."

Heratio took Marielle's hand to help her up into the carriage. "I could tell it was Giovannus' estate from the smoke trail on the way here. How did he take it?"

Augustus gave a knowing look before responding. "I'm sure he's devastated, I assume. He left the house before I was awoken."

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TaxReligion

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