All political careers end in failure.
Some careers are long, some are short. Some politicians fail gracefully, and peacefully--others, less so.
But beloved or hated, powerful or weak, right or wrong, effective or irrelevant--eventually, eventually, all political careers end in failure.
--Minister of Foreign Affairs Vinya Komayd, letter to Prime Minister Anta Doonijesh, 1711
Chapter 1: Fallen trees
The young man is first disdainful, then grudgingly polite as Rahul Khadse approaches and asks him for a cigarette. It’s clear that this is the young man’s break, his chance to relax away from his duties, alone in the alley behind the hotel, and he’s irritated to have his moment violated. It’s also clear that the young man’s duties must be something serious: one just has to glance at his dark, close-cut coat, his black boots, his sun-darkened skin, and his black headcloth to see he must be military, or police, or some enforcement arm of some authority. Perhaps a Saypuri authority, or perhaps Continental--but someone paid to watch and watch carefully, surely.
Yet the young man does not watch Rahul Khadse with much care, only polite contempt. And, indeed, why would he care about Khadse? Why would he care about this old man, with his smudged spectacles, his tattered briefcase, and his headcloth so musty and poorly arranged?
“All right,” says the young man, giving in. “Why not.”
Khadse bows a little. “Thank you, sir. Thank you.” He bows again, lower, as the young man complies with his request, reaching into his coat to fetch his tin of cigarettes.
The young man does not notice Khadse glancing into his coat, glimpsing the butt of the pistol holstered there. The young man doesn’t notice Khadse gently setting down his briefcase, or his right hand reaching back to his waist as he bows, slipping out the knife. Nor does he notice how Khadse steps very slightly forward as he accepts the cigarette.
He doesn’t notice, because he’s young. And the young are always oh so foolish.
The young man’s eyes spring wide as the knife smoothly enters the space between his fifth and sixth ribs on his left side, spearing his lung, tickling the membrane around his heart. Khadse dives forward as he stabs him, placing his left hand on the young man’s open mouth and shoving his head foreward, the back of the young man’s skull cracking against the brick wall of the alley with a dull thud.
The young man tries to struggle, and though he’s strong, this is a dance Rahul Khadse knows all too well. He steps to the right of the young man, hand still on the handle of the knife, his body turned away. Then he slides the knife out of the young man’s chest and steps away, neatly avoiding the spurt of blood as his victim collapses against the alley wall.
Khadse glances down the alley as the young man gags. It’s a rainy day here in Ahanashtan, foggy and dreary as it often is this time of year, and very few are out and about. No one notices this fusty old man in the alley behind the Golden Hotel, peering over his spectacles at the streets beyond.
The young man chokes. Coughs. Khadse sets down his knife, straddles him, grabs him by the face, and slams his head against the wall again and again, and again and again and again.
One must be sure of such things.
When the young man is still, Khadse pulls on a pair of brown gloves and carefully searches his pockets. Khadse tosses away the pistol after unloading it--he has, of course, brought his own--and rummages about until he finds what he needs: a hotel key, to Room 408.
It’s quite bloody. He has to wipe it off in the alley, along with his knife. But it will do just fine.
He pockets the key.
That was easy, thinks Khadse.
Yet now comes the tricky part. Or what his employer said would be the tricky part. Frankly, Khadse has a lot of trouble figuring out which orders from his employer he should worry about and which ones he should ignore. This is because Rahul Khadse’s current employer is, in his own estimation, absolutely, positively, stark fucking raving mad.
But then, he would have to be. Only a mad person would ever send a contractor like Khadse after one of the most controversial political figures of the modern era, a woman so esteemed and so notorious and so influential that everyone seems to be waiting on history to get around to judging her so they can figure out how to feel about her tenure as prime minister.
A person made of the stuff of legends. Both because she seemed to come from legends, and because it is public record that she, personally, has killed a few legends in her day.
Perhaps Khadse was mad to take the job. Or perhaps he wanted to see if he could do it. But either way, he means it to be done.
Rahul Khadse walks down the alley, glances around the Ahanashtani street, and then turns right and climbs the stairs of Ashara Komayd’s hotel.
The Golden Hotel remains one of the most lauded and celebrated places in Ahanashtan, a relic of an era when the nation of Saypur was free to intervene in Continental affairs as it wished, throwing up buildings and blockades and embargoes on a whim. Walking through the doors is like walking into the past, a place where all the imperial grandeur of the Saypur that Khadse used to know has been impeccably maintained, like a stuffed bird in a wildlife exhibit.
Khadse stops in the lobby, appearing to adjust his glasses. Marble floors and bronze fixtures and palms. He counts the bodies: the doorman, the host of the restaurant, the maid at the far corner, three girls at the counter. No guards. None like the one he just killed in the alley out back, at least. Khadse’s an old hand at this, and he and his team did their homework: he knows the guards’ schedules, their number, their stations. His team has been watching this place for weeks, arranging every step of this delicate ordeal. But now the final deed is Khadse’s alone.
He mounts the stairs, his dark coat dripping with moisture. It’s all going very smoothly so far. He tries not to think about his employer, the man’s mad messages, and his money. Usually Khadse would delight in thinking about the money on a job, but not this time.
Mostly because the money is unimaginable, even to Khadse, who’s very good at imagining lots of money and in fact spends much of his free time doing so. This isn’t the first job he’s done for his employer, but this payday is an order of magnitude larger than the last. Enough money to make a man worry.
But the wardrobe requests . . . that’s odd. Very odd indeed.
For when Khadse went to pick up the most recent installment of his payment, he found the money came with a folded black coat and a pair of black, well-polished shoes. Both came with strict instructions: he was to wear these articles of clothing whenever he performed his contracted duties, with absolutely no exceptions. The instructions suggested that if he did not do so, his very life would be in danger.
At the time, Khadse simply thought--All right. My new employer is mad. I’ve worked for madmen before. It’s not so bad. Yet then he tried them on, and found that both the coat and the shoes fit perfectly well--which was very strange, as Khadse had never met his new employer, let alone told him his shoe size.
He tries not to think about it as he climbs the stairs to the third floor. Tries not to think about how those articles of clothing--so neat, so dark, so perfect--are of course what he’s wearing right now. He tries not to think about how spectacularly strange all of this is, or about how his employer specifically requested Khadse go alone for this job, without his usual team in tow.
Khadse climbs to the third floor. Very close now.
I wouldn’t even be doing this damned job, he thinks, if it weren’t for Komayd. Which was fairly true: when Ashara Komayd came to be prime minister, oh, seventeen years ago or so, her first order of business had been clearing out all the hardliners from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Hardliners like Khadse, who saw a lot of action in those days, plenty of it very nasty.
He can still remember her memo, ringing with that self-important, priggish tone Komayd was always affecting: We must remember not only what we do, but how we do it. As such, the Ministry will be going through a period of reorganization and reorientation as we make adjustments for the future.
Ashara Komayd was cleaning house, cutting everyone recruited by her aunt, Vinya Komayd--and Khadse had always been a favorite of Vinya’s.
And suddenly, there he was. Cut loose in Ahanashtan after a decade of service, and promptly forgotten. He tried to find some pleasure when Komayd herself was booted from Parliament, what, thirteen years ago now? But politicians always have their parachutes. It’s the grunts like Khadse who have the harder landings. Even Komayd’s personal thug, that lumbering, one-eyed oaf of a Dreyling, even he’d gotten a plum retirement, some kind of royal position in the Dreyling Shores--though he’d also heard the fool had found some way to cock it all up.
I’d be doing this for free, Khadse thinks, seething. Twelve years of service, and then so long, Rahul, good-bye to you, good-bye to you and all you worked for, all you fought for, all you bled for, I’m off to spend the Ministry’s coffers on worthless idealism and leave the intelligence world a smoking crater behind me.
He walks down the fourth-floor hall. Another guard, a woman, young and trim and dressed in black, stands at attention at the corner. As Khadse expected.
Khadse shuffles toward the young guard, his face the very picture of doddering befuddlement, holding a smudged piece of paper with a name and a hotel room on it. “Pardon me, ma’am,” says Khadse, bowing low and emanating obsequiousness, “but . . . I seem to be on the wrong floor, perhaps?”
“You are,” says the guard. “This floor is off-limits, sir.”
“The fifth floor is off-limits?” says Khadse, surprised.
The guard almost rolls her eyes. “There is no fifth floor, sir.”
“Oh, no?” He stares around himself. “But what floor is . . .”
“This is the fourth floor, sir.”
“Oh. But this is the Golden Hotel, yes?”
“Yes. It is.”
“But I . . . Oh, dear.” Khadse drops the piece of paper, which flutters to the guard’s feet.
The guard, sighing, reaches down to pick it up.
She doesn’t see Khadse step lightly behind her. Doesn’t see him whip his knife out. Doesn’t have time to react as the steel bites into her jugular and severs it wide open.
The spray of blood is phenomenal. Khadse dances away from it, careful to avoid any spatter on his clothing--he reflects, very briefly, that avoiding bloodstains is one of his oddest but most valuable talents. The guard falls to her knees, gagging, and he dances forward and delivers a devastating side-kick to the back of her head.
The guard collapses to the ground, pouring blood. Again, Khadse puts down his valise and dons the brown gloves. He wipes and sheathes the knife, then searches her. He finds a hotel key--this one 402--grabs the guard by the ankles, and hauls her around the corner, out of view.
Quickly now. Quick, quick.
He presses his ear to the door of 402--they’re all suites up here--and, hearing nothing, opens it. He hauls her in and dumps her body behind the couch. Then he wipes off his brown gloves, pulls them off, and exits, delicately picking up his valise on the way.
He almost wants to whistle merrily as he steps over the bloodstains. Khadse always was good with a knife. He had to learn to be, after an operation in Jukoshtan when some Continental took objection to the way he was walking and tried his damnedest to slit Khadse’s throat. Khadse walked away from the experience with a lurid scar across his neck and a predilection for working close and dirty. Do to the Continentals, he used to say to his colleagues, as they would do to you.
He walks to Room 408--which is, as he expected, right beside the King Suite, where Ashara Komayd has set up her offices for the past month. Doing what, Khadse isn’t sure. The general word is that she’s managing some charity or other, something about locating orphans and finding homes for them.
But from what Khadse’s employer said, it’s a lot more than just that.
But then, thinks Khadse as he silently unlocks Room 408, the mad bastard also said this hotel was covered in defenses. He opens the door. But I don’t call two soft young eggs like those a very rigorous defense.
Again, Khadse tries not to think about the coat and shoes he’s currently wearing. Tries not to think about how his employer suggested that such articles of clothing would serve as tools against Komayd’s defenses--which, of course, would suggest that Komayd’s offices are covered in the sort of defenses Khadse cannot see.
That, he finds, is a very disturbing idea.
Horseshit, is what it is, he thinks, shutting the door behind him. Mere horseshit.
The hotel suite is empty, but its arrangement is deeply familiar to Khadse, from the weapons on the distant desk to the security reports on the bedside table. Here is where the guards prepare for their assignments, there is the telescope they use to watch the street from the balcony, and here is where they doze in between their shifts.
Khadse stalks over to the wall and presses his ear against it, listening hard. He’s almost positive Komayd’s over there, along with two of her guards. An unusual amount of security for a former prime minister, but then Komayd’s received more death threats than almost anyone alive.
He can hear the two guards. He hears them clear their throats, cough very slightly. But Komayd he doesn’t hear at all. Which is troubling.
She should be in there. She really should. He did his homework.
Thinking rapidly, Khadse silently pads over to the balcony. The doors have glass windows, veiled with thin white curtains. He sidles up to the windows and glances out sideways, at the balcony next door.
His eyes widen.
There she is.
There sits the woman herself. The woman descended from the Kaj, conqueror of the gods and the Continent, the woman who killed two Divinities herself nearly twenty years ago.
How small she is. How frail. Her hair is snow-white--prematurely so, surely--and she sits hunched in a small iron chair, watching the street below, a cup of tea steaming in her small hands. Khadse’s so struck by her smallness, her blandness, that he almost forgets his job.