It is cold. That is my first thought as I stand against the Bielgorod, the walls of the White Town, watching the Neglina River rush past. Of course, October in Moscow is never what one might call tropical, but it has been many months since I was last up in the hours before dawn.
I draw my cloak closer around me and hunker down into the gloomy shadows, waiting for one Vasiliy Ivanov to appear. He will, at no later than two minutes past six, and I pull out my pocket watch – the bronze one with the green roving eye set in the lid, a token from Alexsey, my sponsor, and a not-so-subtle reminder that he is ever watching – and determine that I have but three minutes left to wait at most.
My breath puffs out, a misty white miasma in front of me, and my mind wanders back to the Chernye Miazmy, the black miasma that presently infect the town. They are spreading, quicker than before, and for all that they are careful to maintain face in public, I know that the administration is concerned. Three deaths in three days would leave any governor anxious, and although the century is old, it is not so old that Moscow has forgotten the Plague – fifteen years ago and more than half my own lifespan, and yet as real as the warmth of my breath on my hand when I remember the faces of my parents as they died.
Thankfully, Gospodin Ivanov appears around the corner before I can fall further into reminisces. Fifteen years ought to be time enough to put away the memory of my parents’ faces; alack, some days it is not. But Ivanov draws closer and I reach up to detach the little gears-and-rods contraption that cuffs my right ear; I don’t plan to let him out of my sight, so I should not need the sound-enhancement the earcuff provides, and I do not want it broken. Alexsey would not approve of that.
I slip the earcuff into a pocket, exchanging it for another cuff that this time fits over the tip of my finger. I glance down, twisting it so the nib, similar to a quill but fashioned from metal, sits over my nail. If I had a pot of ink at hand, I might write thusly; but this nib is not designed to hold ink. Instead, a tiny well is concealed in the band of the cuff. I apply light pressure to it, testing its hold.
Ivanov draws close and for a moment I hold my breath. If he spots me lurking in the shadows, I will have to forfeit today and come back again tomorrow – and that is assuming that he does not look close enough to learn my face. But my mission is blessed – I cast a grateful glance skywards – and Ivanov passes me, entering the city centre through the gate. I fall into step behind him, my footsteps kept light so the rushing of the tributary can muffle them.
My pulse pounds as we tread through the murky pre-dawn in the White Town. Above, the stars are diminishing and light touches the eastern sky. I chew the inside of my lip and run my thumb nervously over the cuff on my finger; logic tells me I should act now, while I can still be certain of both darkness and the element of surprise. But I have to be sure.
Alexsey would be proud. The very notion of wanting to make sure that I am doing the right thing means that some small part of me questions my orders, and that means questioning the Order that disseminates them, which in turn means questioning the One who orders. Alexsey is an atheist; he approves of questioning. I am a Shard; I am supposed to follow my orders.
My orders – God-given, monastery-ordained – have never been wrong yet, but a man’s life is not a thing to trifle with, and so before I send Gospodin Vasiliy Ivanov, who has a wife and a mother and a dog and friends, from this life, I must make certain; I must see that he is a bad man.
That is why, as he pauses in the doorway of an old building whose paint is flaking and brickwork is crumbling, I do not seize the opportunity to lunge at him. That is why, as he glances around, failing to see me, and enters the building, calling out a greeting to others inside, I do not give up and go home. Others pose a problem, but not so large a problem as murdering an innocent man.
I hesitate by the doorway, uncertain. Should I enter, and risk making myself seen, or should I stay back, and risk losing my quarry? A scream echoes in the building, cut short but nonetheless answering my question. I adjust my hood over my head and ease open the door. The scraping and thumps of a scuffle come from the right, so I take a deep breath and run.
It’s been too long since I did this last. Not the running; that I do regularly. No, it is the adrenalin that my body is not accustomed to, the way nerves thrill through my stomach and my blood rushes past my ears. I know that afterwards it will leave me with a high that is very nearly addictive, but for now, the stress is greater than the excitement. At the end of this corridor, I will kill a man.
Another cry rings out as I reach the door. I fling it open and it crashes against the wall, making the occupants of the room flinch mid-stride.
There, that one is Vasiliy, with his great-coat flapping around him like bat wings, silver pistol a giant claw in his hand. He swings towards me, pistol raised, and I lunge towards him under the barrel of the gun. As I dive, movement blurs to my right and I tackle Vasiliy, swinging him around to block me from whoever else is in the room. I land heavily on my hip and just have time to register the fact that I’ll have a spectacular bruise there tomorrow before Vasiliy is drawn down on top of me.
I look up over his shoulder at a young woman whose bruise over her left cheek could be the twin of my forthcoming one. The strap of her sarafan is torn and her blouse ripped loose. She grins wildly at me, but before anyone else can act I wrap my arm around Vasiliy’s neck. He struggles, but I draw the nib on my finger across the skin of his neck, pressing firmly. The well inside the cuff compresses, squirting poison like ink down inside the nib, which pierces his skin and delivers death into his veins.
He kicks against me and I push him away, kicking in my skirts to untangle my feet and right myself. I am not worried about him any longer; this building has long been rumoured to be a centre for slave traffic and if I had any doubts, the fact that the woman can do no more than gnash her teeth at me from where her chains bind her in the centre of the room is confirmation enough.
It seems Gospodin Ivanov was indeed a bad man. And now – I glance at him dismissively – he is a dead man.
“Who are you?” the woman – probably not more than a girl, now I look again – asks of me.
I smile. “I am a Shard.”
Her eyes widen and she shrinks back a little, gaze darting nervously to the body on the floor that once was called Vasiliy. “Oh.”
I shrug and move towards her, flapping out my skirts as I tuck the now-empty poison nib away. “He was a bad man.”
“Yes.” She bites her lip, twisting her fingers subconsciously in her sarafan. “Yes, he was.”
I shrug again and gesture to the chains around her ankles. “The key?”
She glances up at me, then back to Vasiliy. “Around his neck.”
I sigh deeply. Killing when my God commands it is something I do because it is necessary. Touching the dead, however, I much prefer to avoid.
Nonetheless, there are others in this building and if I am to get the woman out unharmed – or at least, without further harm – I must move. I kneel beside Gospodin Ivanov and peel back his clothing, layer by layer, until I find the key on a chain around his neck. The clasp is stuck fast, but the chain just fits over his head, if I don’t mind squashing his nose.
There is something absurdly perverse about mangling the face of a corpse to remove their necklace.
Footsteps slap in the hallway. I throw the key at the woman – “Here, hurry,” – and press myself against the wall by the door.
As expected, the woman hunches over immediately to loose her chains – right in the centre of the room, in plain sight from the hall.
“Hey!” a man shouts. He is near: ten, fifteen steps at most. I stiffen. “Hey, stop, girl!”
Five, four, three… I raise my arm, committing to my stance.
One. He bursts into the room and lunges at the woman who is scrabbling frantically at the last lock.
I lunge at him, catching him in the back of the neck with a blow that knocks him soundly out. He slumps, landing awkwardly across the woman’s leg.
She shakes him off and hugs herself, still shaking. “Dead?” she whispers.
I shake my head. “I had orders only for one,” I say, stooping to unlatch the final clasp of her chains. I take her hand and encourage her to step away. “Come,” I say. “You are safe.”