Snow roiled through the open window, hurled inside by the blustering wind, carpeting the floor of the bedchambers white. Kurt crossed the room and peered outside. He could see none of the ships out there in the sea, neither allies nor enemies, through the curtain of the elements. But he could hear the bark of their guns, like some pack of territorial beasts, angry and unmuzzled, and he guessed that the battle had begun in earnest. He shook his head and slammed the shutters closed.
His mind was a dissonant blend of emotions, of satisfaction and disappointment. The former, because that black bastard had almost certainly delivered his bare neck right under the executioner’s sword this time. The latter, because it was not by Kurt’s own blade that the Blackwolf would meet his end. Kurt had been nursing that murderous desire for a long time, a malignant infant whose demanding squeal never ceased, and its cries had only trebled in volume after the humiliation of their duel. It truly pained him that he would have to forsake the pleasure of standing astride that wolf while he breathed his last, watching as the colour drained out of those sallow eyes.
The Terror of the Latara, he thought bitterly, and spat on the floor. That ought to have been my title . The Blackwolf had been content to mount raids on lone ships, on unescorted freight, on isolated colonies -- to snatch gold from weak paws. He was just a flea on the hide of some titanic beast who was insufficiently bothered by the trickle of blood the vermin drew to merit squashing.
Kurt had always harboured grander plans -- an entire fleet of marauding ships, ten or twenty in number, ranging far and wide over this ocean and others, fearful of no country. They would sack without compunction, and leave nothing in their wake save destitution and burning debris. And what a figure he would cut, standing at the helm of his bandit navy’s flagship, dressed from head to foot in handsome black leather, a cocked cavalier with ostrich plumes adorning his crown, decorated with ivory pins and buttons fashioned from the bones of his vanquished foes. Now that was a true terror.
But nonesuch had come to pass. He was not strong enough to best him one-on-one, and the rest of the Blackwolf’s crew were too cowardly to turn against him. Thus he had squandered eight years sailing under Silas’ command, and what did he have to show for it? A stake in a pile of treasure that was sealed up in their secretive fortress’s hold and an ear permanently mangled in a brush with Sansoran privateers. That was a poor deal. Which is why Silas could blame no one but himself for Kurt’s desertion. He wasn’t about to hang around and get himself killed over Silas’ demented sense of propriety.
Hence he found himself here, in Silas’ personal solar, a room that saw little use given the amount of time its resident spent at sea. These chambers were poorly kept; the mites that crawled in the carpet were ancestors of those that had crawled there a hundred years ago, and it was the same for the spiders dangling from the coving and the woodworms boring in the furniture. And neither was it a vault drowning in an excess of gold for Silas’ personal indulgence. Only a pawful of choice treasures, artefacts and ornaments important enough to boast their own titles, ended up here, and it was just such celebrious riches that Kurt had come to claim; he’d be needing capital if he was going to marshal a squadron of vessels. And if luck was on his side, he could slip out of this miserable fortress with the loot and be well on his way to the city by the time Hopps had slain the Blackwolf and unfurled blue banners from Krak-Kavan’s flagstaffs.
He went to the far side of the room and opened an unlocked coffer wrought from precious redwood and finished with elegant silver trimming. Inside was a trove of miscellaneous valuables, any of which he could barter for the price of a decent vessel. The Kublar Ruby, a gem the size of a clamshell, last accounted for in the hold of a Porcinian merchant galleon which vanished somewhere amidst the Sunset Isles. The Idol of Abashiior, a two-foot-tall gold-plated evocation of a primitive Ja’karian war-god, which disappeared from the care of the East Latara Company while enroute to the Zooport Museum of Ancient History. The pearl pawmirror of Empress Olga. The Elfin Beads. Other stones and statues of value that numbers could scarcely account.
Also here was Nick’s surrendered sword, which Kurt picked up and examined. It was not as precious as the other items, but it would fetch a fair price thanks to the quality of the steel and the gold smithwork on its hilt.
Or perhaps I’ll carry it around, thought Kurts with a grin. Give it a pompous name and use it to cut the eyes out of my loyal followers. He laid it by the chest and opened a rucksack he’d brought, which he began to divest of the personal, sentimental, and ultimately worthless contents that jumbled around inside: shells and teeth and other miscellany of value to him alone, all of which he cast aside without a second thought.
Only when his paw came up with a rough dagger with a twine-wrapped handle did he pause momentarily, turning the jagged, rust-speckled blade over in his paws. It was the sole inheritance left to him by his father, some wastrel wolf he had never met who was surely long dead by now. It was the knife Kurt used to whittle, the one skill he could claim mastery of besides his capability for feral slaughter. He’d had it since before he was born.
But even this unique token was measured as valueless compared to the finances he’d need to raise a fleet, and he sunk it into the coffer’s lid with a solid thwunk. Then, his sack now emptied, he began to fill it with Silas’ priceless treasures, humming a lupine folktune in a fashion that would belie happiness were he a mammal with the capacity for such an emotion.
He was so engrossed in this robbery that he did not notice a dark shape enter the room on soundless feet. For a moment the apparition watched Kurt stealing the already-stolen plunder, its intentions unclear, so sequestered in the shadow of the doorway that one might have taken it for a figment of the imagination.
Then the figure stepped into the light, a drawn blade in its grasp, and its corporiality and intentions became unmistakable at once.
Kurt had the Kublar Ruby in his paw, contemplating the sensibility of smashing it into smaller pieces to make it easier to fence, when the smaller assassin landed on his back and thrust the tip of his sword down through Kurt’s right shoulder, drawing a hot spurt of blood. At once Kurt leaped up and began to thrash about wildly, roaring in shocked agony, his paws grasping madly for the assailant he could not see. He tilted his neck back and beheld Nick’s fateful face leering at him, an expression that encapsulated nothing less than a fervent desire to see the wolf dead. The blade slid an inch deeper, and the spurt became a fountain.
Still screaming, Kurt began to spin like some wild tribal dancer, whirling about in a desperate attempt to throw the fox off. Nick held on tightly, determined to keep the advantage in this brawl, but he found that his blade had caught against Kurt’s collarbone and refused to travel any deeper. Cursing, Nick sawed the blade up and down in an attempt to free it.
This gave Kurt an opportunity, and he threw himself backwards into a chest of drawers, crushing Nick with his bulk and driving the air out of his lungs. Still the fox hung on, and Kurt drove him into the cabinet again and again, until it finally burst at the joints and collapsed in a pile of wreckage. Even this could not dislodge Nick’s hold on the sword and Kurt’s scruff, though he was wounded and bruised, teeth gritted against the pain. And what luck that he did hang on, for in his vigourous flailing Kurt loosened blade from bone, and, with a cry of pure wrath, Nick threw his whole weight onto the sword and buried it deep in his foe, right down to the quillons.
At once, Kurt knew something was terribly, irreparably wrong. A wave of breath-halting ice rolled right through him, from his core to his every extremity. He reached above his head to seize the sword hilt but found his arms had become great iron weights that sagged by his side, refusing to obey his instructions. Likewise, his legs were possessed of notions contrary to his wishes, and he slumped gracelessly to his knees as they buckled under him. All the while the cold intensified, his temperature plummeting by the second, until he feared he’d soon be frozen solid, a sculpture cast in ice.
He did not notice Nick climbing down from his back, nor did he acknowledge the fox when he stood in front of him, for his vision was a blurred haze, the shapes and colours of his world running together like watered ink. He was a wretched picture, but Nick felt no pity for this beast who had mocked his father in his final moments. He felt only calm, and perhaps a shift in the world from wrong to right, an adjustment of the asomatous cosmic scales where the balance of inequity and rectitude in the world is kept.
He spotted the dagger Kurt had sunk into the chest’s lid and prised it free, then pulled the wolf’s head back to lay bare his throat. Perhaps, in that fleeting moment before his death, Kurt did recognise his executioner, for his single eye rolled in its socket until it found him and fixed him there. Nick certainly hoped the wolf knew him, for a passage had suddenly come to his mind, words he had heard quoted in his youth a hundred times, which were for him inexorably associated with the meting out of punishment, and he wanted Kurt to hear them. He leaned close to the wolf’s ear.
“And yay,” he hissed, “thine iniquity is a mark upon thee that the righteous shall know, and hide not, for justice findeth thee out and wipe thy slate pure.”
Then he put the knife to Kurt’s neck and slit his throat.
When the deed was done, and when Kurt’s heart gave its final shudder and was still, Nick knelt down on one knee to observe his handiwork. He marvelled at how, in that sightless eye, there seemed to be some glimmer, some residue, of the base hatred that had driven the wolf in life, as if his departing soul still had one foot in his body. Nick hoped it was so, for nothing pleased him more than to think that Kurt’s spirit was staring down at his own defeat, howling in helpless outrage until the ferrymammal came and ushered him into the ranks of the Dead Ship’s crew.
“I told you you’d die first,” Nick whispered, tossing the bloody dagger away. “You really ought to have listened.”
He stood up, groaning as a tide of ache washed over him. Kurt had certainly imposed some severe dues in exchange for Nick’s revenge; he felt like he’d been keelhauled. But it was a tariff he rendered gladly.
Looking about the room, he saw Renascitur resting by the open chest and, hanging from a peg in the corner, his lucky coat and tricorn. He sloughed out of his borrowed coat and pulled on his old garments, smiling at the familiar texture of his coat’s fabric, of his hat’s snug fit around his crown; he felt less like the mad, vengeance-obsessed nemesis he had become of late, and something more like the rakish lieutenant, the fox with a winning smile and quivers full of wit, that he seemed to have abandoned long ago. That was good, for when he found his rabbit, he wanted it to feel, as much as was physically possible, that not a day had passed since their last meeting.
But he didn’t push the nemesis too far out of reach, for he reckoned on needing it again when the time came.
Kurt, he had promised, would be first; now, it was time to seek out the one who was last.
Then again, Judith had been adamant on bringing Silas home alive and in chains. Nick would really have to pour on the charm to get her to change her mind about that one.
“Alright Carrots,” he said, hanging his blade from his belt and making for the door. “Hold on -- I’m coming.”