Updated: Jun 12, 2022
Nakisisa loathed the smell of boiled cabbage. There was no place in Freeport where he could escape the odor. The residents cooked it in the market, in their homes, and in the taverns. Nakisisa even fancied that the women used the foul scent as a perfume, a thought that made his scowl deepen. Six days he had been waiting on his contact. Six days he would have rather spent in a brothel, had the brothel not also stunk of boiled cabbage. Instead, he bided his time in a waterlogged dockside tavern called the Drunken Dolphin that also reeked of the vegetable.
The door opened, letting in a gust of chill wind and rain. Nakisisa heard the hot winds of the savannah and the lush hanging gardens of Queen Nnenne’s palace call to him with the lustful whisper of a lover. He missed drinking tej with his brother until they could not see straight. He chased the thoughts away with a deep pull of the local bitter ale. Homesickness was routed by his belly churning in protest of his choice of libation. Nakisisa chided himself for his moment of weakness. Tears of longing would not slit High General Bannon’s throat.
The queen knew that the high general’s death would not prevent the war as the council suggested, but the selection of a new high general would delay the Houses of Gouvene long enough that the victory of Qefat would be assured. “A single life in exchange for thousands,” the empress had written, and Nakisisa knew that Her Highness was not speaking of Bannon’s life but his own. This mission, his most important murder, was meant to be his last.
Another draft rousted Nakisisa from his memories. This blast carried another scent to his nostrils: tobacco, a Qefati variety. The smell belonged to a tall man, his clothing a haphazard mish-mash of Gouvenian wool, Imperial silks, and brightly colored Qefati cotton. His pale fingers were adorned with large sapphires and rubies, some as large as a cow’s eye. He reminded Nakisisa of a bird looking for a mate.
“A round for everyone and a roast duck for myself!” The newcomer tossed a purse onto the bar. “Keep the ale flowing until the money is gone!” The crowd cheered and raised their tankards in salute, except Nakisisa.
“I would have preferred a more discreet meeting, Hanif,” Nakisisa grumbled as the merchant eased himself into the seat across from him.
“A happy drunkard is less likely to take notice a wealthy merchant having dinner with a lone, brooding Qefati.” Hanif chuckled and lit his pipe. “Smoke?”
Nakisisa shook his head.
“I heard that a Gouvenian caravan was attacked near the border.”
Nakisisa hid his smile in the mouth of his tankard. “Shame to hear.”
“They say the Devil of Serpent’s Fang Pass was responsible,” Hanif whispered.
“Devils do hound the feet of the unrighteous.”
Hanif slapped his hand on the table and laughed, pleased that the cloaked figure remembered the code phrase after all these years. Nakisisa was relieved that none of the patrons had taken notice. “It is good to see you, old friend.” Hanif clasped Nakisisa’s wrist. “A pity it is not under better circumstances…or better weather.”
Nakisisa leaned forward, “What of the high general?”
“There is a small fortified villa just to the north of the city used as a residence for visiting officials taking advantage of House Hames’s neutrality and hospitality. My first mate reports that Bannon’s ship docked before dawn. A dozen or so men in his retinue. Experienced swordsmen supported by spear levies, from what I understand.” Hanif took a drink and Nakisisa began to rise. “There is more.” Hanif coughed and began to dab at a patch of ale that had dribbled onto his tunic.
Nakisisa sat down. “I’m listening.”
Both men paused their discussion to allow the serving boy to place the roast duck and a pair of fresh tankards on the table. The smell made Nakisisa’s mouth water, and he realized that it had been at least three days since he had last eaten. He reached out and ripped a leg off the fowl. The serving boy’s eyes went wide as he noticed Nakisisa’s umber-colored hand.
“What’s the matter? Never seen a Qefati before, kid?” Nakisisa growled in the sailor’s tongue. The boy ran back to the bar.
“Well,” Hanif chuckled, “if you ever retire, you could have a fabulous career as a nursemaid.”
Nakisisa almost choked at the mental image of himself tending to squealing children. The thought made him feel that his current line of work was much safer. “I’m waiting.”
“Yes.” Hanif wiped his mouth. “I cannot vouch for the accuracy, but I am told that the high general is carrying the seal of House Duchard. If the queen could obtain that…”
“This war would be over before the first arrow is fired.”
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