Entering the room I am taken immediately aback by the striking lighting. Cast through the horizontal blinds providing the room with gentle illumination, the light is broken up by thin lines of shadow which create levels of depth within. Filtered through the artistic screens that cover the windows, the light paints the room in the beautiful warm colours of autumn.
Awaiting me in the centre of this tableau a lithe, well dressed stranger has been seated patiently. Standing as the door closed behind me he gestures him to the seat across from him and in a polite diplomatic tone offers, “Tea?”
His geniality fills me with suspicion. In my experience aggressive posturing was the norm and the soothing aloofness of the stranger held an alien danger to it. Quickly I assess my exits and visually frisk the stranger for weapons. He carries a simple blade openly on his hip, the sight of it relaxes me somewhat with its normality.
He remains standing, patiently offering the seat silently through my hesitation. Without any preferable alternatives revealing themselves to me I accept his hospitality. The man retaking his seat only when I am seated begins to pour two cups of steaming water from the pot. The action is smooth, with an almost ritualistic precision. I suspect he is just as comfortable with his knife.
He places one of the cups in front of me, gesturing to the milk and sugar. I ignore the offers and wait to see him drink first. He seems to notice my suspicion and brings his cup to his lips, sipping genteelly. When I was certain he had drunk, I heap the cup with sugar and milk. I keep him locked in my vision as I drink. Apparently he had been waiting for me to lower my cup before continuing to speak.
“It is a pleasure to meet you, Master Shadow.” His speech has a rehearsed quality to it, his fingers are neatly interlocked and I sense well concealed tension in him that I cannot quite read, “My name is Mason Smith and I represent an individual who would rather remain unnamed. I apologise for the circumstances of this meeting and hope that you can appreciate the desire we have for secrecy.”
I choose to sip from my cup again, rather than respond. The decorative thugs guarding the door and the single scout I barely managed to spot conveyed the gravity of this meeting quite clearly, even without the messengers statement. Whoever his anonymous benefactor is, they are both wealth and an amateur at moving in my level of society. That doesn’t make them any less dangerous, if anything I will have to be more cautious that I am used to.
Mason recognises my silence for what it is and continues to explain, “My employer has empowered me considerable resources to facilitate our negotiations. We have a task that falls within your field of expertise which requires completing in a profession and discreet manner. The task is highly illegal, exceptionally difficult and likely dangerous.”
The lure he has lain for me is sweet. I’m not a fan of the performance he is putting on for me, but they have clearly researched exactly how to catch my interest. I’m far from the best shadow in the city, otherwise a nob so clumsy as this one would have had no chance at contacting me. What makes me stand out from my peers is my reputation. Most shadows either spark out like flash in a pan, driven by desperation or stupidity they take any job, becoming rapidly famous then dead. Otherwise they vanish into the private echelons of the word of mouth operatives, heavily vetting any contacts and jobs.
To casual observers of the shadow I am a flash in the pan. Word has it that I will accept any job with a high enough profile. The rumours suppose I’m a death-chaser, deprave noble-born thrill-seeker or an anarchist. I took too many jobs too close together, the news has begun to create a character for me. There is a betting pool for when I’ll finally burn out. Unlike most flash shadows, however, I’m not in my position due to ignorance or insanity.
“Sirrah,” I say, testing the strangers composure. He doesn’t respond to the diminutive address with any readable response, so I continue, “I measure whatever Lordling you serve a rank amateur in shadowplay. You play a lovely japing fool, with your practised speech and prop knife, but a fawn should chew on greener saplings first”
It’s his term to respond to my mockery with silence. Slowly, for my benefit, he reaches into his jacket and places a pouch on the table, pushing it towards me. I snatch it up and open it, heavy with coin I sigh in disappointment and cast it back before him.
“Sirrah, I thought you may have sung a tune worth hearing but clearly you spin from a different thread than I.”
I stood dramatically, casting back the chair in contemptuous disdain. He mirrored me with a hand raised calling for me to wait. I half turned my face from him, observing him down my nose anticipating his counteroffer.
“Wait, I am at liberty to further negotiate your fee,” the practised emotion in his voice infuriated me, whatever his master was, this man was far better than they deserved.
“Your purse’s glimmer holds no lustre to me, should I accept your ribbon then when the flag is flown I shall name my price and your Lordling will pay. Sing me a song of glory Sirrah and perhaps I shall wear your favour, should you sing sweetly enough.”
He hands me a binding of pages. Leafing through among a number of profiles I am greeted by a sketch of a familiar face I haven’t seen for a number of years. I continue through the document without reacting to the portrait. The job is beneath my profile, were it not for her face I would have left then and there. Instead I closed the pages and faced the messenger again.
“Before the Queen’s return.”
“Tell your Lordling to keep their ear to the wind and I will play their song for the whole world to hear”