Eimenon was just contemplating whether to place the jar of dried Acacia bark on the second story shelf between the River Red seeds and the potted Seyrelle leafes - because it was in the same plant family - or on the fifth story shelf right next to the ground thorn apple - because the plant also acted as an inhibitor to ulcers of the stomach - when the assassin walked in.
The apprentice apothecary looked up from his work, alerted by the sudden creak of wood and iron hinges, and turned to the door, puzzled at the appearance of a customer so late in the day. An autumn sunset cast rectangles of golden light through the two barred windows set high in the walls, and across the interior of the shop room. As usual this time of day, business in the merchant's row of Gentry Bend had come almost at an end. The bazaar at the southern end of the broad street would be all but empty and most of the merchants that sold out of shop houses would have their entries barred by now. Eimenon was busy surveying, arranging and rearranging the displayed merchandise by the the greenish yellow light of an alchemical lantern and had been inclined to lock the front door for the night within the next ten minutes or so.
"Good evening.", he offered politely, remembering they technically were still open for business. Then he hesitated, recognizing the face of the lean young man in well-worn working clothes who was just pulling the door shut behind him. He wore an undyed flax tunic, a faded black sash wrapped around his waist and baggy breeches tied above the knees with strips of cloth. A stained, greyisch-blue and white 'batan', a traditional skirt-like garment made from layered canvas and leather, hung from his hips, covering most of his thighs. All in all the man looked just like any other artisan or day-worker in the city.
Only Eimenon knew he wasn't. He recalled seeing him before in an instant. That had been not too much time ago over in the lower West district, the Slip-Noose, as the inhabitants called it. Gentry Bend, where the master apothecary had his shop, was separated from the Noose and it's desolation by the old inner city wall; The upright middle class citizens pleasantly shut off from their poorer, less fortunate neighbors. There he and his friends went for cheap drinks and other night time conveniences to spend their meager wages on. Most of the places in the Noose he wouldn't set a foot into even if he were bribed to do so. Close to the inner wall however, there existed a few well-lit streets where tap houses, brothels and smoking cellars were cheap enough for the standards of a third year apprentice while the risk of getting mugged in an alley or catching some nasty disease remained manageable.
Eimenon remembered the evening he had first seen the customer. He had been lounging contentedly on a pile of threadbare cushions in the smoke-filled parlor of his favorite brothel with his favorite girl draped across his lap.
Datura, which wasn't her real name of course, claimed to be Kalei-born but certainly didn't look the part with her green eyes, fur the color of desert sand and hair gleaming gold. She was a chatty one and, as ever, had the freshest gossip at hand. Eimenon always enjoyed listening to her prattling on about everything and nothing after they had climed back out of her bed, while stroking her hair and the curves of her body - both equally fascinating.
That evening Datura had been going on merrily about who had been fucking whom over lately and what consequences came of that.
They had made themselves comfortable in a niche between two painted lattice-and-paper-screens that were set out all around the room creating a minimum degree of privacy for the customers and attendants of the house. They sat on carpets and cushions, drinking, smoking and listening to a performer plucking away on the strings of an Udh.
He winced as she casually explained why Almond was helping in the kitchens today instead of working sheets. She had tried to lift a customer's purse and whatever shadowy gang it was that the brothel belonged to, they had cut a finger off for that. The house keeper had judged that a girl, even one as pretty as Almond, with a stump finger constantly oozing blood might repell the kind of suitors he hoped to attract.
Eimenon wasn't sure if whoever had his thumb on this establishment would relish the notion of Datura spilling so much of their internal affairs but she didn't seem the least bit concerned about that. In fact, she appeared to indulge in teasing horrified reactions out of Eimenon whenever he came for a visit. Maybe half of the stories she told him weren't even true.
"Oh!" Datura exclaimed, as she was done recounting that latest little scandal.
"I almost forgot about the juiciest bite this week." She showed a devious little smirk and jerked her head conspicuously inconspicuously in the direction of a young man who reclined on a pile of cushions of his own in the far corner of the room.
He didn't seem to be much older than Eimenon himself. Curly, dull black hair and reddish brown fur marked him as a true native of the Kaleian province, maybe even city-born. His posture seemed relaxed as he smoked from a small clay pipe, legs crossed and the fingers of one hand tapping unconsciously to the rythm of the music. On second glance however, Eimenon could see him observing the parlor and it's patrons very attentively. At Datura's gesturing his gaze locked with Eimenon's, making the apprentice's hackles rise. He looked away quickly, feeling strangely abashed.
"That guy gives me the creeps.", he mumbled.
"Oh he's nice enough." Datura lilted dismissively and ran a light finger down Eimenon's bare chest.
"Comes here once or twice a week. At least he used to. Until..." she dropped her voice conspiratorially and moved closer to his ear, pressing her warm, scarcely covered body against his. An excited tingling rose up again from the vicinity of his groin.
"He killed his master.", she whispered, sounding not at all upset about that.
"What?" Eimenon's eyes snapped back to the stranger across the room who was just refilling his pipe from a small leather pouch.
"Oh yes." Datura continued excitedly. "Was a big deal, that. Really gruesome. Blood everywhere they say. I think they wanted to keep it a secret but word got down anyway. It's been over a year since he's been here and he only showed back up this week."
She leaned forward to take a sip out of Eimenon's wine cup sitting on the low table before them, clearly enjoying herself.
Eimenon was confused.
"Who was his master? If he killed him, why wasn't he hanged? And who's 'they' ?"
"Rats.", she answered, setting the cup back down. "The Gibbet Rats. That's the gang that runs the shady side of the Noose."
She paused and chuckled.
"Guess that means all of the Noose, really. His master was one of their slitters, or so I've heard. And they didn't execute him because..." She thought a moment, then gave it up.
"Well I don't know, actually. My sources are good but I don't get all the detail."
The warm tingle in Eimenon's lower areas from moments before was quenched by an involuntary shiver. A slitter, he thought.
As the apprentice of an respectable apothecary out of a decent neighborhood he knew next to nothing about what was going on in Kalei's underworld, even with Datura frequently feeding him some insight in little bits and pieces. However, even he had some idea about what the term 'slitter' meant in the slang of the less righteous people, as it was pretty obvious.
Hired murderers of the worst sort. The kind of people one wouldn't wish upon their fiercest enemy.
He grabbed his cup and drained the last of the wine. Wiping his mouth with the back of his hand, he again peered over at the far corner of the dimly lit room and the man sitting there.
"So he's taken his place now? The master's?", he asked after he had composed himself. Eimenon was a rather gentle fellow with little tolerance for the morbid and this talk of criminal gangs and hired murderers conjured up all kinds of unpleasant images but he didn't want to seem weak in front of Datura.
"Maybe. But from what I've heard he's still doing the same alley work as the rest of the Rats. So I guess he's just got a new master."
Eimenon had enough of the topic and the empty wine cup in front of them posed a convenient excuse to flee it; even though his purse had become significantly lighter already. He disentangled himself from the girl and pushed to his feet awkwardly.
"I'm going to get another drink."
Remembering that night at the brothel, Eimenon's mouth went dry at the sight of the familiar face.
"What... I mean, h-how may I help you?", he stammered, still clutching the jar in his hands, feeling his skin prickle.
Even though Datura had said that the slitter was only an apprentice, not unlike himself, Eimenon felt like facing a young sand scorpion. Thinking it's sting couldn't kill you instantly just because it had not grown to it's full size yet would be plain stupid.
The scorpion standing relaxedly at the entrance of the apothecary's shop glanced around, then regarded him with a kindly smile.
"I need to speak to your master.", he said.
"Ah.. Oh!", Eimenon exclaimed after a second, when the meaning of the words registered.
"Of course. Wait here please." He set the jar of Acacia bark down next to the ground thorn apple and hurried past the counter to where a heavy cloth curtain separated the shop from the back rooms of the apothecary.
Eimenon was most certainly glad not to be the object of the assassin's interest, friendly demeanor or no, but he couldn't help but feel an unexpected pang of disappointment. He imagined how exciting it must be to be talking to a truly dangerous person like that, to this personification of death. Like the peculiar exhilaration of standing on a high ledge; safe, yet so close to disaster.
Before letting the curtain fall close, he snuck a sheepish glance back at the man.
Death personified had stuck a pinky finger up one ear and was taking care of an itch very intently.
He found his master in their living quarters upstairs, sitting cross-legged at his writing desk under the illumination of another alchemical lantern as well as several oil lamps. He was going over the lists of inventory, occasionally scratching out entries and adding new ones. At the sound of the wooden steps creaking beneath Eimenon's weight he looked up.
"Are you done readying the shop?", he asked, pausing in his scribing.
"Yes, ah, no. Almost, I mean." Eimenon ducked under a low hanging ceiling beam and stood, nervously fiddling with the hems of his tunic.
"Then why are you not downstairs doing your work?"
"There is a customer. He wants to speak to you."
"A customer? At this hour?" The master's face turned sour with annoyance, but he rose from his cushioned seat nonetheless. "What did he say he wants?"
"He didn't say." And I didn't ask.
The master huffed displeasedly, then started for the steps.
Eimenon trailed after him as they made their way down the old steps that rested on thick beams sunk into the outer wall. The short stairway led down to the working space - the biggest room of the shop. Long wooden tables stood along the walls and in the center of it. Every table was dedicated to a certain tasks. On some the leaves, berries or bark of plants were laid out, one was meant only for packaging substances while others held the myriad utensils of their trade which they used to process raw ingredients and to manufacture tinctures, powders, teas and a hundred different kinds of medicine. Between those tables basins of water and a variety of plant pots big and small, on shelves and on the floor found their places. All of it might have looked chaotic but Eimenon knew, that everything in here was arranged after the apothecary's own system of organization.
"Master.", he said, as they reached the floor of the workshop. The apothecary stopped short and turned to his apprentice, looking irritated.
"What is it? Gods, stop fidgeting around like that, boy.
"That customer.. I know him. I mean, I've seen him before." Eimenon hesitated.
"He might be dangerous."
A curious look crossed his masters face and he stared for a moment, unblinking.
Then he turned without a reply and threaded his way around the various working tables and plant pots that filled the room, his gait a bit more brusque than before.
The young assassin still stood in the same spot as when Eimenon had left him, hands clasped behind his back, still holding himself in a manner that suggested he were merely trying to acquire a remedy for a fitful sleep. He fixed his gaze on the old apothecary as they came out from behind the curtain.
"Ah. It's you.", the master said as he took in the sight of him, sounding neither surprised nor particularly delighted.
"Apologies for disturbing you so late in the evening." The young man gave a polite bow, looking all the humble apprentice sent to go about his superior's business.
"My master's got a message for you and has ordered me to deliver it immediately. I promise it won't keep you long."
"Yes...sure.", the apothecary replied slowly and stroking his beard as if unsure what to make of this.
"Let's speak upstairs." he turned to Eimenon who was waiting beside and slightly behind him.
"Finish your work here, then wait for me. We'll be back shortly.", he ordered.
With that, they vanished behind the curtain, the master leading the way and the young man following at a distance.
Eimenon was left standing alone in the small room bathed in greenish light and dark shadows, as he listened to the muffled sound of their footsteps fading away.
Now that he thought about it, there was no actual reason to be nervous. The young man had been nothing but amiable so far. Cold-blooded murderers didn't behave like that, especially if they came to do harm, now did they? It was more likely Datura had been telling him tales because she enjoyed taunting him.
But still...he couldn't shake off the feeling of something being profoundly wrong.
He looked around and surveyed the room. Something had changed about it but he couldn't quite place his finger on it. It was most likely his imagination running wild.
Deciding to just do what his master had told him he took up a wooden slate and piece of chalk, then resumed the time consuming task of peering into every one of the containers in the shop room and noting their level of fill, shifting the position of a jar or two in the process.
After that was finished, Eimenon returned behind the counter and began tidying up around it, busying his hands with sorting and packing away the lead counter weights used for measuring the exact amounts of herbs and powders.
Even after working for quite a while, he found that the uneasy feeling that had gripped him hadn't diminished.
He halted in his work, looking around the room once more. He strained his ears too, trying to catch some sound or shred of conversation from upstairs but heard nothing, of course. The living quarter was located directly above the workshop, only separated by a wooden flooring. On the far side of the shop room's ceiling however lay only the flat, low-walled roof top where they dried herbs and their washed clothing. The walls of the house were good brick covered in thick layers of straw and clay, shutting off sound from adjacent rooms pretty effectively.
He grumbled in frustration but dared not enter the workshop to go and eavesdrop. He was about to return his attention to his utensils as something at the front door caught his sight.
The iron bolt was down.
Had he done that already? But when? He squinted across the room, trying to remember.
He did recall thinking of locking the door but ...
"You know, I'm sorry.", a voice behind Eimenon said, so close and unexpectedly that he actually jumped at the sound.
He whirled around, almost tripping over his own toes in the process, to see the assassin standing not two feet away from him. He had come out of the back room alone, without making any noise.
"Ah-about what?", Eimenon managed to say, feeling as if his heart had suddenly relocated itself into his throat. He began inching away sideways along the counter, trying to get some distance between him and the slitter. All the vivid images of stories people told about evil cutthroats lurking in the dark welled up before his inner eye.
Had he thought talking to the guy would be exciting? This was just terrifying.
The counter wasn't very long and Eimenon's back touched the wall soon. A small yelp escaped his throat when he felt the treacherous bricks cutting off his escape.
The young man watched his retreat, then moved after him soundlessly, his face an impassive mask that decidedly undermined his declaration of regret.
Eimenon stood as if turned to stone, unable to move a muscle, his left hand clutching at the edge of the counter.
"About your master dragging you into this.", the assassin said softly when he had stepped so close, their feet almost touched.
Eimenon felt a sharp sting on his lower chest and a tug at his tunic. Looking down he saw a hilt and part of the slender bronze blade of something thrust at an angle into his body right below his ribs. The pain registered a second later.
Gasping but not getting in any air, he raised his right hand to his chest, slowly, staring at the gloved hand that grasped the knife sticking out of his body. Eimenon coughed, gurgling up frothy liquid. His fingers stopped just before touching the metal that was a single line of cold agony through his heart and lung. His vision was dimming already, mashing the greens and blacks of the room together behind a blur of tears. His grip on the counter weakened while his knees buckled and then, finally, gave out under him.
The darkness swallowed Eimenon even before he felt the impact on the floor.
Kazha took a step backwards, pulling his ray's tail dagger out of the apprentice's body and letting him topple to the ground. He wiped the long, thin blade clean on the unfortunate boy's tunic, careful not to step into the puddle of dark blood already leaking onto the floor, before tucking it back into it's accustomed place beneath his waist sash.
Datura will be sad when he doesn't come back. he thought.
"Damn me.", he muttered a moment later, into the stillness of the apothecary. Already he chided himself for speaking to the apprentice. It had been pointless - an unnecessary risk. A bit cruel even, to let him see his death coming.
Kazha could and should have just slit his throat from behind and be done with it quick and clean. This was just the kind of irrational behavior his master was trying so hard to beat out of him.
Still, while Kazha didn't feel particularly bad about killing the boy - it had been the only sensible thing to do - he also didn't much like being the one to deliver the consequences of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. It just had seemed like he should apologize once in a while, even though it would do no one any good.
He shook off the thought with a sigh. Heck, it wasn't like he would mention that particular detail when he reported to the master.
He scratched his head, then eyed the host of jars, pots, crates and sacks stacked neatly and after some incomprehensible system on high shelves along the walls. Behind the counter various utensils for weighing, counting and packaging herbs and medicinals were laid out, some lying around haphazardly, some in orderly rows. He grabbed a scoop, some cloth sacks and hand full of the cheap leafy paper commonly used to wrap goods in.
Wandering slowly along the shelves he began examining the various containers, trying to identify their contents.
Might as well get something substantial out of this mess.
After what the master apothecary had told, or better: refused to tell him during their brief conversation - which was the reason why both he and his apprentice were currently giving the floor a good soak with their blood - Kazha and his master would need to find a new source for quality alchemical ingredients anyway.
To be precise, it had been unfavourably explicit records and letters the pedantic old apothecary had kept well sorted and conveniently at hand that had brought this onto them. There existed certain substances Kazha and his master needed on a regular basis but couldn't just buy at any shop as they were closely regulated and only to be handed out to alchemists with a permit. Of course, they could've just gotten it through the expansive network of smugglers that supplied Kalei's underworld. But the quality of the stuff that could be had through these means was usually more than doubtful. So they had been forced to strike a bargain with a - mostly - honest apothecary. Too bad these mostly honest people seldom understood the ways and rules of the most certainly dishonest people.
Kazha took his time pacing through the apothecary and selecting herbs, powders and substances, all the while humming to himself tunelessly. There was no need to hurry, as he had already locked all the entrances to the apothecary and shuttered all the windows; the ones in the shop room he had done while the apprentice had been fetching the master.
Also, by now it was well past closing hour. No one would come looking after them for at least eight hours.
It didn't even matter that the bodies would be discovered within the next day or two. With all the records and letters gone, the district officer would have no clue about who did it and why. And those who could make an educated guess... sometimes it didn't hurt to back up a point with a suitable example.
When he had stuffed all the little packages he could safely carry into his pockets, Kazha went around the three rooms quickly and extinguished all the lanterns and oil lamps, snatching up one or two more valuables in the go. Old thieves' habits died hard. After that he slipped out the back door, jammed the lock from outside and walked off into a pleasantly cool night.