"Fine Wine" is a short piece I wrote in about an hour, with several edits following that initial brain dump. It started with a single sentence that just popped into my head: "Abelard ate a lot. That was why, after I'd slashed my knife across his belly…"
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Abelard ate a lot. That was why, after I'd slashed my knife across his belly, I half-expected his bulbous stomach, chock full of the tender roast, broccoli, soft rolls, and the most delicate shiraz I'd ever sampled—all served just an hour before by his fat merchantship's very own staff—to come tumbling out like a too swollen jellyfish. But something about the cut didn't feel right, and though Abelard clenched his hands to his gut and fell to his knees as I expected he would, there wasn't even a single, glistening trickle of gastric juice seeping out from between his fat fingers.
Seized by a moment of disbelief, Abelard gasped as realization of what had happened hit him. It's not every day a man falls prey to an assassin, especially after having just wined and dined said assassin at his own table. It's not a usual part of my fee, the wining and dining, but I don't pass it up when it can be arranged.
His lardship moaned, and fell to his back, still clutching his gut. Strange that there was no blood…
I sighed. Killing a man when he was down was too much work. Not very sporting, either. "Get up," I said.
"Why have you betrayed me, my friend?" Abelard asked between moans as he curled himself into the fetal position.
I'd passed myself off as a fellow merchant, come to the city to move some goods. "I did not betray you," I said, "for I was never loyal to you in the first place. Now, get up." It was a hard thing to ask of a man who'd just been eviscerated, but Abelard appeared to be holding his insides in well enough, so not completely out of boundaries, I thought.
"You've killed me, my dear, dear friend. I bleed, and soon I shall die."
I sighed again. I'd been warned about Abelard's theatrics.
I started to clean my knife—I'd need both hands to lift his bulbous body back into a standing position—when I noticed there wasn't anything to wipe off. I narrowed my gaze, holding it to the dim candlelight. Son of a—the damn thing had a nick in it! My best killing knife. Oiled, polished, and so sharp it cut flesh like hot butter. It was new, too, which annoyed me even more. I jammed the knife into its home at my belt, then grabbed hold of the front of Abelard's suit coat with both hands. Grunting, I heaved him to his feet.
Abelard stayed standing, barely, his eyes closed and his face turned from me. He was visibly shaking. Couldn't blame him for that.
"What have I done to provoke your ire, my friend?" he asked between clenched lips.
"Shut up. I'm not your friend." I knocked his hands away and felt at his 'wound'. His coat and shirt were cut, but there was something hard—not soft flesh—beneath it. I ripped the opening wider and raised an eyebrow at the leather money belt—stuffed full of coins—fastened quite snugly just above his bulbous waistline.
"You wear a money belt in your own home?" I asked.
Abelard had been in all day, so there'd be no reason for him to be wearing such a thing. Unless he'd been prescient enough to prepare himself for a hasty, moment's notice departure. Too late for that now, though.
"One can never be too careful." He took his own turn examining himself. When he realized what had happened, he laughed a quick, sharp laugh that died on his lips the moment he looked into my eyes. There wasn't anything humorous there.
With shaky hands, he undid the coin-stuffed belt and held it out to me. "Take it, my friend." He gestured with a flabby arm. "It's yours. Only… let me live. I beg it of you."
I knocked the money belt from his grasp. "I've already been paid."
This was supposed to have gone down quick. The only thing keeping Abelard from screaming for help was the fact that his staff was gone for the night. Too bad they'd have such a big mess to clean up in the morning. I slid my knife from its sheath for the second time.
Abelard visibly shrank from sight of it. I reached out lightning quick, grabbing hold of him.
He did scream then, but it was such a low, pitiful sound I almost felt sorry for him.
"Sorry, Abelard, but you've made your last bad deal. You must have really pissed some people off for them to want you dead this way." Evisceration was a slow, painful, horrible way to die. It was to Abelard's fortune that I was here. I'd make the first cut like my employer wanted, let it bleed for a while, then follow it up with a quick stab under his arm and into his heart. No one would examine him that closely to notice the mercy stroke. I wasn't a complete monster.
"W-Wait!" Abelard said. "I can offer you more than just coins if only you will spare my life! I have other wealth, my friend! An estate outside the city—it's yours! My place in the Silver Gentlemen's Club—though it will pain me to surrender it—for you… Women! I know the best—"
"You have nothing I want. Now, let me finish this. I have an appointment at Lady Bellum's later this evening, and I'd rather not keep my Crusus Sabeler, '74, waiting."
Abelard wasn't giving up. "If not those things, then perhaps…" He looked about the study, perhaps hoping for some sort of inspiration. It didn't matter. He had nothing I wanted. Then something must have hit him, for his face lit up. "Lady Bellum, did you say? Her ladyship runs a fine wineshop, yes? I believe they carry a full line of honeyed and—"
"What's your point?"
"Wine, my friend! I saw you how fancied the syrah at dinner! A fine blend, made from grapes picked from my own vineyard. 'Tis a spicy combination of blackberries and pepper… one of our finest! Seasonally rare, too, my friend. We only produce so many bottles."
"So you'll give me a bottle for sparing your life?" I asked, not amused.
"No! I mean, not a bottle, but a full year's supply!"
He had my interest. There weren't very many things I'd trade a life for, but the syrah had been exquisite: soft on the tongue, satisfying going down, with only the faintest hint of spicy pepper left behind. It'd be tricky satisfying my employers. They wanted blood. They might just send someone else out to finish the job. Plus I'd take a hit on my reputation; I wasn't known for leniency. I'd have to make my next job… messy.
"Make it a five year supply and you've got a deal," I said, countering.
Abelard visibly blanched. "Five years, my friend? Five years is such a long time, and life can be so dangerous. One never knows—"
"No, one doesn't." I pressed the flat of my blade hard against his belly.
Abelard turned a shade whiter, but he was already nodding in agreement. "Five years it is, my friend. Only leave an address and I will arrange—"
I stepped away. "Have a bottle a week sent to Lady Bellum's." I could see him already doing the math in his head. A bottle a week for that many years… "Tell your coachman to put it under my name. Miss a delivery, and I'll be back."
Abelard nodded, his jowls quivering.
I put my knife away, then I turned around and left. I always was a sucker for a fine wine.
The Assassin's Blade features the first seven Assassin Without a Name stories. Give it a read and please remember to leave a review.