Reader, I murdered her.
A quiet murder it was, she and I alone were present and it was clean but messy. For although she was a very religious person, Elaine Ettler, Countess of Haberlund, apparently wasn’t ready at all to leave this place of sorrow and sin to join her God. Instead, the mad bitch started to fight.
Seriously, why do they always have to fight? Ethical issues aside, it’s very easy to be an assassin. Being a successful assassin is another thing altogether and being a successful assassin that isn’t caught over a long time is really hard. It’s quite the challenging job, I can tell you that. I’ve been in the business long enough by now and I’ve developed certain rules which help me a lot to follow my chosen career path in a satisfying way – Rule One: always catch your target alone. Rule Two: make it quick. Rule Three: don’t leave a mess. And very unexpectedly, the most religious and uptight, noble Countess of Haberlund proved to be quite to challenge to both the latter rules, because she put up a hell of a fight. I did catch her alone a least after she had just left the small tea party next door to catch some fresh air on the balcony, but although I got the shawl around her neck quite nicely, finishing the job proved to be very much an obstacle for various reasons.
Those reasons were, sorted after grade of importance:
Firstly, this wasn’t the only tea party the Countess had given this week. In fact, she gave one every day, and she spent most of them eating unhealthy amounts of biscuits while listening to the local gossip. This had resulted in what you might call serious overweight, and that weight meant that the feisty Countess was too heavy to lift her from her feet which made strangling her quite exhausting.
Secondly, by chance or by surprising readiness of mind, the Countess had somehow gotten one of her hands between her throat and the shawl which complicated things even more because it prolonged the murder quite unnecessarily.
And thirdly, she had very long, sharp fingernails on her free right hand. And she used that hand, and that fingernails, to put up a hell of a fight. She reached for the vase on the balcony to alert someone to our nice little chat out here, then she scratched me at my left cheek, and after that pulled at the scarf. Hard. Harder than such an old, fragile, feisty lady should have been able to.
By now, I was seriously tempted to let go of the shawl with one hand to get to my knife and make a mess out of this. But the customer had wanted it to be clean, and poking holes into the Countess’s side would have been very, very dirty. So I was forced to wait. Very impatiently, of course, because there was still that tea party going on next door, all of those friendly old ladies of Triona’s upper circles talking about who had stolen the Countess’s locket, who had murdered the Emperor, and the latest fashion. Madame Joyner seemed to think that it had been the Drakensteyns. I didn’t care about that at all – it hadn’t been me, mind you, and the official version was still that old Gabriel the Fourth had passed away peacefully. What I did care about were the guards of those chatty old ladies. There were three of them in that room, and three guards were precisely three too many. So I kept pulling at the scarf as hard as I could to make the Countess pass away peacefully, too, until she finally stopped fighting, gave a loud fart and lay still. I waited another two long seconds before I crawled out from beneath her, felt for her pulse – nonexistent -, arranged the shawl prettily, and climbed from this balcony to the next and through the window. I slipped into my shoes, righted my clothes, checked if the Countess’s fingernails had left any scratches on my face, and joined the tea party again.
“Ah, there you are, Madame Vallond”, said Madame Joyner. “What do you think about those Drakensteyns?”
“The youngest one is extremely handsome”, I said and sat down next to her. “And still not married! I saw him at the tournament last summer, he was very elegant.”
“That one is far out of your league”, said Madame Duvallier haughtily, as if that needed to be said. Oh dear, how I wished to strangle her. But my talents come at a prize, a very high prize, and up to now, nobody had asked me to remove Madame Duvallier’s tongue or head. A pity.
“I’ve heard that he will marry one of Loyal’s spawn”, Madame Duvallier continued and took another distinguished sip of wine. “I cannot believe that this should happen. Just the thought of it! The Drakensteyns, one of the most prominent and oldest lines of the Empire, joining with those upstarts!”
It was quite a thing for her, the wife of a petty knight who owned not a lot more than an ancient name, to call the Black Duchess of Balyria an upstart, but I didn’t feel the urge to point that out. Instead, I nodded politely and took one of those lovely biscuits which the dear Countess had enjoyed so much. Actually, those were really good. Perhaps I should’ve asked her where she got them before strangling her. Well, I couldn’t change that now, so I settled for making myself small and unimportant in my corner, chatting nicely with Madame Joyner about marriage prospects my brother might finally find for me – if he ever really comes up with a name, that chap will suddenly die from a sudden stroke of very bad luck.
“The Greenfields are an impressive family”, I was just saying when Madame Duvallier started to wonder what kept our host so long.
“Bailey, please check on the Countess”, she said to her guard. “It is quite frosty outside, she will catch a cold if she stays on the balcony for so very long. I should like to hear the story of that locket again.”
“Of course, Madame”, her burly, useless guard said and went to the balcony.
“But the youngest Greenfield seems quite stupid”, I said to Madame Joyner. “He is quite the sight, but – ”
“Bailey!”, thundered Madame Duvallier. “Mind your language!”
“She’s dead!”, he shouted and came running back into the room, sword in hand. “Protect the ladies!”
“What is going on, Sir?”, asked Madame Joyner who had nearly fainted at the shock of seeing Bailey’s sword.
“The Countess has been massacred!”, the guard said. “Someone fetch the Watch!”
Massacred? I haven’t massacred anyone! Okay, it took a lot of time, but there was nothing messy about it – in fact I was surprised that Bailey even realized that this was a murder this fast. I left the Countess’s shawl around her neck, after all. Well, apparently the guard wasn’t as stupid as I’d thought. First impressions can be wrong, just take a look at me.
“Massacred?”, asked Madame Duvallier, sounding more intrigued than horrified. “What are you talking about? Impossible! We have been here all the time!”
She stood up and went over to the balcony, ignoring Bailey who kept muttering that a lady shouldn’t see such things, and opened the door again. Then she gave a shrill cry and turned around.
“Bailey, we leave at one”, she cried. “Whatever creature did this, it may still be around!”
“Of course, Madame!”, Bailey said and ushered his mistress out of the room, followed by many others of the Countess’s dear friends. Madame Joyner sat paralyzed in her chair and everyone else was either screaming for the Watch or leaving, so I took the opportunity to leave, too. Massacre, my arse, I thought while crossing the Countess’s clean, fancy entrance hall, pulling over my cloak. I didn’t leave a scratch on her. Everybody’s acting as if they had to collect the pieces of her in different parts of the city for the funeral. The customer had precisely ordered something unimpressive. Disturbing and mysterious, because there was a party next door, but nothing messy. I hadn’t done anything –
Just like everyone else, I froze when I came out of the front door. The balcony was over the entrance, three stories above the ground where nobody could have seen me working, and the balcony had an iron parapet… and from that parapet Elaine Ettler, Countess of Haberlund, hang. Around her throat wasn’t her shawl, instead there was a long, white rope. Not a rope, I realized after a moment. It’s her fucking hair. Someone hanged her corpse with her own fucking hair. When she was already dead. Someone fucked up my job. Well, at least my reaction of complete surprise must have proved to everyone that I had no idea whatsoever of what had happened on that balcony. Like everyone else, I spent a good deal of time staring at the Countess’s swinging corpse, and then I left.
While I went back towards the tavern, I did my best to ignore all of the supporters of the Electors who kept insulting each other in the streets. Most of these arguments ended in violent fights, and the Watch was out in full strength to ensure that at least nobody was killed. Just because of the stupid election, I thought. Thank God we don’t get to vote, then it’d be even worse. Let the peasants punch each other over their new Emperor, it won’t change anything. The Dukes have the votes and no one else, not haughty Madame Duvallier’s husband or any of these screaming idiots in the streets.
I did my best to ignore all of it and to still focus on my surroundings, after all I was a young, not unattractive woman alone in the streets after nightfall, and though I was moving through the better parts of Triona, some of these men might have felt that I was in need company. But while I didn’t care about that a lot because let’s face it, none of these half-wits would survive two seconds after touching me, I was still both very much pissed off and extremely nervous. Because whoever decided that it was a good idea to hang the Countess’s corpse must have seen me murder her. He must’ve been on that balcony right after me, and he must’ve heard damn Madame Duvallier say my name. Fuck you, Duvallier.
Also, there was a big chance that Mr. Unknown Assassin was following me right then, waiting for me to be alone, knives ready. And the thing was, I damn well knew who Mr. Unknown Assassin was, because there was only one detail about the Countess that was different from the last time I saw her other than her hanging from her balcony: the swinging corpse was wearing black boots. And there was only one fucking madman in the entire Empire who always took the time to leave that obvious trademark on the feet of his victims. The damn Booted Cat. The most expensive, most brutal, most famous professional there was, a man that always got the job done, a man that was known to hate competition. I wouldn’t have been the first fellow colleague of his that finds himself swimming in the river with black boots on her feet and a wide gap in her throat, floating by the docks. So I did the only thing possible to shake him off: I went in a completely different direction, crossed the river not on one of the bridges, but alone on a ferry for an outrageous price, and then I slipped out of my shoes and ran for it, as fast as I could in this damned dress.
“Where’re you off to, pretty?”, a drunkard cried after me, but I ignored him, left the main road and made straight for the tavern where I had started my evening. I put on my shoes again, threw over my hood and crossed the bar room. Just like all other taverns this night, it was filled with drunken men who spent their evening discussing the election, either praising or slandering the Prince and Drakensteyn. Luckily, they were so busy shouting at each other that I made it to the stairs unnoticed. I climbed them as fast as I could in those damn shoes, pulled out the key, unlocked the door and locked it again behind me.
Inside, Madame Vallond still lay bound and gagged on the bed.