Nightingales

 

One did not send a Wizard to kill a Wizard.

One did not send a warrior, however skilled.

One did not send a man at all. One sent a woman.

Or rather one contacted the Nightingales, the infamous sisterhood of assassins, and they sent a woman on one’s behalf; a woman skilled in the nefarious arts of seduction, poison and throat-slitting. There were few surer ways to kill a Wizard, and thus the nobles in the capital city of Quing Tzu, Xi’Ping, used the Nightingales as whips to keep their pawns, the powerful Wizards of the city’s Chi Academy, in line. Nothing was so dangerous as a rogue Wizard, after all.

So it was that the Beak, the leader of the Nightingales, was unsurprised one day when a hit was put out on a famous errant Magician by the name of Lin Fon Dong. Rumour – which travelled faster in Xi’Ping than a bird could fly – had it that Fon Dong was due to graduate from the Academy soon and that he would be one of the most talented Wizards to do so in a generation, capable of feats of wizardry others could only dream of. Rumour also had it that the major Houses were fighting over him like wild dogs, sending delegate after delegate to win his favour, and that Fon Dong had made the mistake of snubbing them all.

The Beak cackled as she read the parchment ordering the young Wizard’s death. She was not meant to know who had given the order, as was often the way; the parchment along with suitable payment had been delivered by a meaningless middleman. It could have been any one of the heads of the major Houses or perhaps even the Shenzhan of Shaanchang himself, whom it was said had also sought out the Wizard’s favour in vain. The Beak did not like to be kept in the dark, however, and so she had sent one of her Nightingales to tail the middleman after their meeting; she knew precisely who had given the order for Fon Dong’s death.

And she had agreed to it.

In one of their hideouts in the capital city – a brothel brimming over with pink bunting – she summoned one of her most skilled Talons to her chamber; a huge room at the top of the broad, storeyed building, where she spent most of her days.

When the Nightingale arrived, the Beak directed her to sit on a pile of pink cushions on the rug-laden floor and the younger woman did so gracefully, her midnight blue dress fluttering. The Beak pawed self-consciously at her own colourful, fray-edged poncho and grey trousers for a moment before clearing her throat with a sound like spitting up a lung and lighting her ivory pipe. Bluish-white baui smoke soon scented the air.

Puffing, the Beak pushed her grey locks out of her warty face and croaked, “I have a task for you, Pin Chao. A Wizard with a price on his head. One Lin Fon Dong.”

The Nightingale nodded, one side of her mouth quirking up where a small beauty mark marred her otherwise perfect features, somehow adding to her prettiness rather than detracting from it. “Consider him dead.”

*

The Raven’s Ball was a grand and famous event held in Chi Academy each year shortly before graduation, an event where soon-to-be fully-fledged Wizards could mingle with the capital’s nobility and familiarise themselves with the political landscape into which they were diving whether they liked it or not. Only the teachers, those about to graduate and those who had made worthy monetary contributions to the Academy were invited.

So, Pin Chao watched as those invited filed into the ball and then waited until the

festivities were in full swing and the moon swam high in the starry sky. From her perch on the slate-tiled roof of the adjacent building, the Nightingale had a clear view of the front entrance to Raven Hall, a grand, circular domed building made of creamy stone that stood at the forefront of the Academy; one of the only buildings where non-magical visitors were permitted. She could see the celebrations through the tall, paned windows, see all the figures dancing inside by firelight like a living tapestry re-weaving itself again and again. She could hear the music too; the chiming of flutes and pipes, the beat of drums, the trumpeting of brass instruments and the accompanying mass singing. Stilted and formal, it was yet beautiful in a way in its failed attempt at harmony.

She shifted to a position where she could see the back door, and finally she saw what she had been waiting for; two imperial guards approaching the back door, far enough away that they had not yet been spotted by the pair already posted by the door itself. It was the changing of the guard; the two coming nearer were replacements for those already in position. Hanging from the eave and then dropping some twenty feet to the ground, she landed with a grunt on bent knees and then hared off toward the approaching guards, sticking to the shrubbery and small fir groves in the gardens surrounding all the buildings in the Academy to avoid notice.

Hiding in a clump of bamboo, she watched the two guards draw closer, her heart pattering her chest as fast as the wings of her namesake. Her mouth was dry, her palms clammy. Though she had killed many men and women over the years now, the task had never become easy for her; easier perhaps, but not easy.

Two shuriken shot out from her hands at once – little sharp-edged, steel stars – each slicing neatly through the throat of one of the two guards on the path. Both collapsed in a clatter, gurgling to one another in shock while blood sprayed from their severed windpipes. Rather than bother trying to move the heavy, armoured bodies, she simply vanished back into the undergrowth and returned to watching the pair of guards by the back door.

After a while – longer than she had expected – they eventually made the move she had been hoping for; they abandoned their posts to see where their relief was, knowing they should have been replaced by now. As soon as they were out of sight in the darkness, Pin Chao slipped out of the bushes, through the back door and into Raven Hall.

Brushing off a few twigs and leaves, she was at once at home amid the nobility, clad as she was in a sleek, silken midnight blue dress slit up one leg for better mobility and a pair of soft black slippers. Her hair had come slightly loose from its fashionable knot atop her head, but the loose tendrils of raven hair only added to her allure, as all the captivated eyes in the hall could attest. A crystal set in a silver necklace glimmered in the hollow of her throat.

She minced past attendants bearing trays of wine, snagging an engraved silver goblet as she went, and then she was in the firelight, in the midst of the aristocracy, laughing at some joke she overheard as though she had been there all along. By design, she resembled a lot of the famous dead women whose portraits hung between blue streamers on the walls alongside portraits of their equally famous, equally dead husbands. Some of the men and women in the hall appeared to be performing calligraphy in one corner; Wizards were a strange lot, she thought.

Her eyes darted furtively about even as she pretended to sip her red wine. Never once did she stop seeking her target. She passed over what felt like every face in the hall and was beginning to despair of ever finding her mark when a knot of people dispersed and she saw Lin Fon Dong sat with a beautiful woman on a creamy couch at the far end of the room. She recognised him at once from his description; a short, paunchy, golden-skinned man with a prematurely balding head and a bushy black beard, who favoured eccentric blue robes

hemmed in pink and embroidered with pink sea creatures. The woman on the couch beside him, a beauty in a pale green dress with complementary jade jewellery on her wrists and neck, was tittering phonily. Pin Chao smiled nastily at the sight; she would stomach no competition.

Striding boldly over to the pair of them, the Nightingale spoke over the bejewelled woman. “Sheng Fon Dong, would you care to dance?”

One look at her was all Lin Fon Dong needed before he readily acquiesced; Nightingales were not only deadly, but also transcendently exquisite thanks to their masterful face paint. Skin pale as chalk, eyes shadowed, lips ruby red, cheeks rouged, long locks black as ink, Pin Chao was stunning.

She took the soon-to-be Wizard’s hand and led him to the middle of the hall, where a few of the students were already performing a choreographed dance on the pinewood floor to the beat of the old-fashioned music. The musicians in the corner were a sombre lot, she noted, clad in black and droning old dirge after old dirge. Fon Dong was clumsy, but she led him in the dance and laughed liltingly whenever he missed a step or stepped on her toes, which he did frequently. She gradually drew him closer, smirking inwardly as his belly squished against hers and his hand slid down her back, first to the small of her back and then to her bottom.

She pressed her breasts against him then and whispered in his ear, “I’m yours.”

Feeling him harden against her, she brushed her lips against his and then kissed him more firmly, lingeringly. The poison on her lips, pit viper venom, was transferred to his lips.

The song ended, and abruptly she pulled away, pretending to have something in her eye and muttering apologies. He held her and crooned and led her back to the creamy couch, where he pulled her down beside him. She watched him as if admiring his handsome face, when in reality she was waiting for him to lick his lips. He needed to imbibe the poison for it to take effect. To her immense irritation, Fon Dong did not lick his lips; instead he smacked them, held up a finger and then wiped them with a napkin he pulled from a pocket inside his thick azure robes.

Pin Chao sighed in vexation; she needed a new tactic. She was tempted to find the closest sharp object and slit his throat with it then and there, but her love of her craft demanded a mite more subtlety and nuance. Besides, the Nightingales were supposed to work in the shadows; few had ever been caught, and those few were posthumously reviled by the organisation. She decided to wait; if she stayed by Fon Dong’s side, an opportunity would surely present itself.

Smitten by inspiration, she whispered sweet nothings in his ear until he was besotted and then stroked his leg and asked, “Do you want to go somewhere quieter where we can be alone?”

Fon Dong’s head bobbed up and down like he was lost at sea.

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