The River Ham begins its journey in the far off Toncherian Mountains, in the form of a hundred streams and rivulets and underground waterfalls. These seemingly insignificant tributaries cross and break and reform as the water flows in the direction gravity intended. Eventually these tiny channels feed into a gorge cut by a millennia of determined water droplets. They are now a river, The River, the lifeblood of a dozen hamlets and villages that dot the gently sloping countryside following the meandering progress of The Ham.
From its lofty beginnings in the mountains, the water flows past majestic forests, through deep ravines, coalesces in misty ponds, and widens and narrows with the changing terrain. It slides down through the mountains, along the way tribes drink from it, rejoicing in the simple pleasure of water. From the mountains the river travels out across the forested hills, feeding the crops and the herds, a fountain of life for all who come to it. Finally, the River Ham reaches the big city where it is polluted, diluted, filled with trash and strangled of its natural resources.
But that’s progress for you.
The great city, Hambridge (pronounced Hame-bridge by locals with no sense of humor), stretches out across the low hills like a contented lion, waiting for others to bring it food and life. It had begun as a tiny community living off the traffic that arrived, drawn by the prospect of the only bridge for miles. But as more and more people settled there, they began to go to the river, building docks and fisheries. Soon boats and barges came from up and down the river, adding to the prosperity of the growing town.
Merchants set up shop on the docks and in the city. Alchemists were drawn to the ready source of supplies like flies to honey. Bankers sidled up to offer an alternative to the sock under the mattress. Guilds arose from the need for regulation, after all, not everyone could be a proper merchant. The town of Hambridge became a city, and then a bigger city, and finally an urban sprawl as more and more people arrived, eager to share in the wealth, or at least steal someone else’s. The first families became nobility over the generations, by virtue of having gotten there first and claimed more land than anyone else. The family that owned the bridge became the ruling family, growing fat and complacent off the trade.
And now, in the tangle of buildings and shops and docks and slums something was happening. Some people, people who didn’t mind poor spelling, read the graffiti on the walls. The tangle of hopes and dreams and fears and prejudices had given birth to something different, something alien to the nature of the city. Blind ambition was nothing new, but this… this had vision. It raised its head and tested the air. It was time to begin.
Mr. Blotter eased his bulk onto the new chair, happy in the knowledge that his honest, hard-working tradesmen were, even now, making him an enormous profit. His ponderous weight oozed through the chair, exploring its vast, red leather reaches. From a pocket on his smoking jacket he withdrew a cigar, as fat and expensive as himself. He ran it under his nose and sighed with anticipated pleasure. With a practiced motion he clipped the end of it and then lit it. He blew a noxious smoke ring toward the ceiling mosaic which he had had imported specially from Irkali. Years ago, before he had been quite so successful and so large, he would have rested his feet on the desk in front of him.
There was a knock at the door. Mr. Blotter frowned, swiveling the chair to face the oak door. “Yes?” He asked coldly, for he did not like to be interrupted while enjoying his cigars.
The door opened, revealing a small man wearing the clothes of a shop clerk- an apprentice to the company. “It’s me, sir.”
“The owner of Dock 18, Mr. Fennel, he’s refusing to sell. He said, um, ‘Not to come back till you increased your offer by a factor of ten.’ Sorry sir.” Mr. Blotter rolled his eyes.
“I think it would be best if Mr. Fennel were to learn what kind of people he is dealing with, here at the Ham River Traders. It would be such a shame if his little property were broken into, don’t you thin.?”
“And as you go, Eric, would you mind taking a cup of warm milk to Julie? You know it helps her sleep.”
“Yes, sir.” The boy left. Mr. Blotter swiveled his chair the other way and puffed on the cigar.
“Simply magnificent.” He sighed to himself, enjoying the feeling. The tiniest of drafts disturbed the back of his neck. Mr. Blotter turned around, he had sworn the door was closed- ah, but Eric always neglected to shut the door after him. He turned back, exhaled, and then took another pull on the cigar.
“Good evening, Mr. Blotter.” A figure melted out of the shadows in the corner and crossed the room to lean easily against the desk. The cigar dropped from Mr. Blotter’s fingers. “No need to get up.”
“Y-you!” Mr. Blotter gasped, and then choked on the smoke. He doubled over, hacking, his arms flailing drunkenly. A black handkerchief found its way into his grasp, and Mr. Blotter coughed into it. “Thank you.” He gasped at last.
“No trouble.” Said the man. Through streaming eyes, Mr. Blotter peered up at the face of the intruder. He had long black hair, a pale, handsome face with noble features, and cold, intelligent eyes. Mr. Blotter’s hand not currently holding a handkerchief crept along the desk, towards the tiny lever that would signal his guards.
“What is this about? I have a right to know your client.” Mr. Blotter wheezed, playing for time. A knife buried itself an inch deep in the wood of the desk, a hair’s breadth from his finger. Without taking those cold eyes off him, the assassin plucked his blade from the surface, and ran a cloth over it.
“No need for that, Mr. Blotter.” He said, conversationally. “But I’m afraid I can’t answer your question, I am not being employed.”
“Wh-what?” Gasped the fat man, his heart racing. “But you’re an assassin!”
“Yes, I am.” The knife flashed. Mr. Blotter’s wheezy breathing stopped. The assassin cleaned his blade with the handkerchief, then replaced it in a pocket. He then strode out of the room, closing the door fastidiously behind him.
The cigar was still smoldering a hole in the rug. Someone else stepped out of the shadows. The Spy said, “Astonishing. He was right after all.” And then she too was gone.
The Dalton College for Men in Black was the greatest school for assassination anywhere. And contrary to its founders wishes, now produced both men and women in the business of inhuming their targets for money. Mr. Dalton, the founder of the great and prestigious institute, had not believed the profession suitable for ladies, but had passed away quietly in the night, apparently suffocated by ‘natural’ causes. His successor made the necessary change to the enrollment requirements; on balance, she didn’t have a problem with female assassins. After all, it didn’t matter if the knife in your back was being held by a delicate but firm hand, or a large, brutal and calloused one, you were still in trouble. And of course the men could get calluses if they worked really hard. But the name of the college had stuck.
And if there was one thing you could say about The Dalton College for Men in Black, it was that only the best graduated. Only the best, and no one else. In fact, only one person from each year graduated, and this was because the others were dead. Or at least, as close as humanly possible to death as one could be and still get off the surgeon’s table on one’s own two feet. The dying occurred because of the graduation test unique to the college, the one in which the lucky class of every year had a competition in which to see who was the best assassin. And assassins being what they are, this meant that only the best survived graduation.
You couldn’t hold it against him, Sickly thought as his hands moved mechanically in a good imitation of clapping, not when you were still alive after you had died. The college kept someone on hand to sew your limbs back on, remove the arrow, heal the slashes and restart your heart, but that didn’t exactly stop you from feeling pain when you woke up again. They were told, before the test began, not to deal lethal blows to any of their classmates, as this would result on a serious slap on the wrist. But of course, accidents, and often intentional assassinations, did happen. It was a rare graduating class that was not at least partially posthumous. But Sickly had been lucky, at least enough to have survived his own death.
And Sable Levania certainly looked the part to be an assassin, with elegant medium length black curls framing a pale and noble face that worked perfectly with the black, tightly fitting assassin’s tunic and pants, black velvet cape, black doe-skin boots, black kid gloves, and, ultimately, the black.
But you couldn’t hold his victory against him, because- because if you did and you tried to get back at him you would find that under that perfect face were reflexes quicker than a cheetah on Speed and a mind more dangerous than an armed time bomb with the numbers covered. And then you wouldn’t be able to get back at anyone ever again. Because while true that the College kept surgeons around for minor to severe injuries, and one could pay for treatment at one of Hambridge’s many prestigious hospitals, it was also true that Sable would strike quickly and efficiently to kill. After the graduation test, there would be no free restarts.
Sickly Dodger really didn’t mind, though. He had tried to win, of course, but he hadn’t ever really wanted to be an assassin. His father had been one, had been a graduate, had made a large fortune working for nobles with an eye on a throne several half-brothers away. But being in a job like his had its dangers, and Henry Dodger had died when Sickly was thirteen. Sickly had never known his mother, though he wasn’t sure why, and so at the tender but sullen age of the first year in teenage-hood, a sickly, pale boy had been forced out into a cruel and unloving world.
Well, not entirely. His father’s will had provided quite a comfortable sum for him to live on, provided he went to The Dalton College for Men in Black when he turned eighteen. Not wanting to lose his inheritance, Sickly had signed up, been accepted, and started in the fall of his eighteenth year.
And while knowing 31 ways to kill someone with a pair of chopsticks may not seem like it has too many real world applications, Sickly had learned other things. Etiquette figured largely in the curriculum, and though it might seem odd to an outsider that aspiring assassins learned which fork to use for the soup and pickled onions course, one had to remember that the college had been founded a long time ago, by the rich and effete. He could now cook very well, almost as a byproduct of having taken several lab classes on poisoning. Sickly was also pleased with his knowledge of taste in both dress and mannerism which he had picked up from Mr. Lombardo, and with his lessons on finance, art, literary composition and history. Assassins were supposed to be well rounded, but only figuratively when it came to their knives.
“Thank you, thank you, ladies and gentlemen,” Mr. Hank Winderstint said ingratiatingly, smiling a dazzling smile. His voice sounded like modulated humming while his lips moved. Winderstint’s black hair was slicked back over his skull, revealing his high cheekbones and rather sallow cheeks. But the center of his face was that gleaming smile which displayed a single crooked front tooth.
Traditionally, the same headmaster who had welcomed the graduating class of the year was supposed to give the graduation speech at the end of the year. Equally as traditionally however, The Dalton College for Men in Black had at least two new headmasters a semester, it being a fact that Assassins’ Colleges went through headmasters faster than bacon through a duck. Mr. Winderstint had been the College’s president for two months now, but Sickly was willing to bet money, if not a lot, that he wouldn’t be for much longer.
“I give to you… the graduating class of ’79!” More applause. For Sable, of course, as no one else had graduated. Sickly wished it was over, his hands were already numb and his arms were beginning to ache. Mr. Winderstint’s oily smile was sickening. No one should be able to show all their teeth at once. The lights blinded him. He needed to get outside, have a drink. Get a bite to eat.