I believe I have spoken of patience already. When partnered with avarice, it propels us all to be our best. Ravens will sacrifice a snack to get two later. Wolves can run all night until their prey is too exhausted to fight back. Panthers will move, slowly, slowly, until they are close enough to strike.
Please indulge my soliloquy; there is violence ahead, I promise.
Patience is a mark of any successful predator. My grandmother had a cousin, Myron, hired for the honorable task of killing a man for money. The mark knew he was being hunted, and went into hiding. But Myron knew that there was one place his target would have to go eventually. A lover, a child, a banker, it doesn’t matter. Only patience mattered. And so Myron waited, quietly, invisibly, for two years. That is a long time to remain invisible, a long time to eschew the comforts that surround you because those comforts come with risk of recognition.
My family brought him food when it was practical, but those opportunities were rare. Over that time Myron had to kill three people who saw him, but after two years living primarily on raw roots pulled from the sandy soil he was in the right place when his prey emerged, and Myron killed the man without a fuss. It is entirely possible that had the mark waited longer, Myron would have died of malnutrition. But the man could not wait, and Myron earned his fee at the cost of most of his teeth. We celebrate his success with a vigor usually reserved for failure.
Patience is laying a trap, patience is casting a net. Patience is putting a Soul Thief in a little village, his duty only to wait, in case the quarry of his masters stops along the way from a disaster in the north to a new disaster in the south. The patience of this man’s masters bid him to idle in that town, no doubt with the mandate to slow us down should we happen to pass that way, and at all costs send word back to their citadel. Fomenting violence between the locals and our deadly party would be a bonus; a few dead loyal subjects would just deepen the quicksand we had to wade through.
An accidental metaphor, the quicksand, but an apt one. If you do not fight it, you can simply float. You are much more buoyant in quicksand than you are in water. If you are calm, if you are patient, you can overcome the danger. Patience, once again, separates the dead from the living. At that moment we were all in quicksand — the Soul Thief, our little band, and the villagers alike.
The enthusiastic fire behind me crackled and spat, roaring over the green wood it was fed, heating the back of my head as I looked at my hands and watched the Soul Thief.
The Puppeteer was not a very good agent. That someone like him was in the field made me think that, perhaps, the Soul Thieve’s ambitions were stretching them thin. They had cast their net wide, using at least one who was better suited to hurt us in other ways. But here he was. As the room settled down he worked hard to not look at us, which just set him apart from everyone else because we were the most interesting thing in the room by far. He was also in a hurry to leave, for all his efforts to appear nonchalant. I watched him push his earthenware plate away and stand.
“You won’t be enjoyin’ the company around the hearth this evening?” Alice asked him. She hid her hands under her apron but still their nervous motion betrayed her emotions. “The rest will be disappointed.”
The Soul Thief shook his head. “Regretfully, I slept poorly last night.” He raised his hand to forestall any apology for the failure of the inn or of Alice. “It happens to all of us.” He gave Alice a smile. “We do not control when a Muse comes to speak to us, but when she does, we are at her mercy. It is the price we pay for her attention. I believe I will get a breath of air and then retire.”
Alice did not approve of his plan. “It’s rainin’ out there! Rainin’ ice!” She took a half-step toward him and said, “gentle folk like you don’t need to feel the bite of the rain.”
The man smiled and put a hand on her shoulder. “I will bundle up, I promise. But I’ve always rather liked the rain.”
“I’ll bring some warm wine up to you later, then,” Alice said, her cheeks coloring.
“That would be lovely.”
Worm leaned into me. “There’s something magic happening out on the street. Not sure what, but I think if he gets out that door, he’s gone.”
I sighed. “I have grown weary of these people vanishing rather than allowing me to kill them.” But our prey was fighting the quicksand. The Soul Thief did not bundle up as he had promised; he walked toward the door, moving between crowded tables like a man trying very hard not to run.
“Elena,” I said, “can you ask the people here to stop that man before he gets outside?”
“Why don’t you ask ’em?”
“It wouldn’t be the same.”
She rolled her eyes, then raised her voice. “Stop that little fuck!” she shouted.
The little fuck looked at us with round eyes and started moving faster. No one else moved, except to look over at Elena to see what the new commotion was about.
“Stop that little fuck!” Bags shouted, with all the authority of a man used to giving orders.
Many things happened. The good folk of the town moved on Bags’ orders to stop the little fuck. The little fuck acted to stop them from stopping him. Perhaps most important, Elena looked up at Bags and understood the power of command, the power of the voice that is obeyed. In the moment, the first two things mattered; in the long term, only the third one did.
That dark and chilly evening, villagers rose from their seats to detain a man known only to be a little fuck, because a big man had commanded them to do so. The little fuck swept his hand and blood gushed from one of the men nearest him, but that only proved to the rest that he must be apprehended. They surged around him, bless their foolish, noble hearts, and two more fell before I worked my way between the locals and my lovely dark blade opened the little fuck’s throat, adding his blood to expanding pool on the floor.
The little fuck slumped to the oiled wood floor with a faint splash and after a moment more of confusion a new calm set in.
“Fucker was a Soul Thief,” Elena said into the quiet. “Martin’s killed a few of them.”
No one doubted her word; they had seen what the little fuck could do.
“Help the wounded,” Worm said. I was as surprised as everyone else to see that the Soul Thief had not killed any of his assailants; he had chosen to inflict wounds that were more spectacular than lethal. As people moved to stop the bleeding of their neighbors Worm said to me, “Timmu fancied himself an artist, though honestly…” he shrugged with his eyebrows. “He just wasn’t very good. We used to laugh about it.”
I put my bloodied hand on Worm’s shoulder. I was about to say something pithy when Worm added, “I’m a little hurt he didn’t recognize me. That’s petty, isn’t it?”
“Did you recognize him?”
Worm stared at the floor between my feet. “Not right away. I wasn’t looking.”
I gave his shoulder a squeeze. “Then yeah, that’s petty.” There was something Worm wasn’t saying, but there was no need to dig it out. If the buried thought was a seed it would grow; if it was a corpse it would rot. “Maybe it’s petty,” I said, “But if he was a self-centered bastard it worked out well for us.”
Katherine was at my side. “We should go. Now.” She would get no argument from me.
Elena was somewhere behind me. “Remember tonight!” She called out to the room. “Remember your true enemy!” She was a terrible Wanderer.
“That was no fookin’ Soul Thief!” a local shouted, but his voice was met and overwhelmed by a dozen others.
The voices started to blur, waves washing against each other, rising and falling without meaning. My exertions were demanding a price from my overstrained body; I was sagging even as I worked to remain standing, my knees weak and my feet slipping in the blood on the floor. I took a breath and stopped trying to move. Quicksand. I turned and my eyes found Bags, looking back at me. “Get us the fuck out of here,” I said.
He smiled. Not the big toothless grin, but a smaller, more intimate smile. “Yes, sir,” he said.