The assassin prided himself on being invisible, though not in the literal sense. He moved through the Firetruce crowds easily, a nondescript man who drew little attention and left few memories in his wake. He bought a spicy kebab from a vendor and enjoyed a Kailoh street play where the mummers used scented holograms for a backdrop. He loved Kailoh and its highly stylized performances. This play featured an assassin character who was killed in the end, but that part did not spoil his pleasure. The most skilled assassins were never caught, after all. If they did their job perfectly, no one would even know they existed. His organization did not exist, so far as the wilderzone was concerned. Or the Empire, for that matter.
Warriors from a hundred tribes mingled in the dusty streets, drinking and sampling the wares of the great bazaar that had sprung up outside the marbled arenas, gardens, and council chambers. There were few laws here. Although the Diamond Sword did provide peacekeepers, they were unarmored and most were really spies and counterintelligence agents, anyway. The armor-equipped niwa'aban Sworder security kept mainly to the Firetruce grounds, so many bazaar merchants pooled their funds to hire mercenaries for protection. Blood Eagle and Starwolf kept their distance for the most part, but already several bloody brawls had erupted between them, resulting in a handful of deaths. None of this concerned the assassin. The drama between Ursula DiVaragas and the Sirdar Fury was playing out hundreds of light years away. Here the various factions were only threats if he allowed them to notice him. He smiled at a peacekeeper and ducked into an alley to look at some firesilks.
He had almost a half hour until his meeting, so there was time to kill. He was very good at killing both time and people. Time was easier, of course. He continued to move, drifting by taverns and in and out of various booths and small shops, some of which were simply tents staked out next to cargo shuttles. The speed with which the bazaar had come into being amazed him. Most of the buildings were prefab metaplas huts or thermally-shielded tents, but there were hundreds of them spreading to the west and south of the Firetruce complex, forming a shifting labyrinth of commerce. Anything could be found here, it was said, from dreamleaf to exotic beasts to the darker pleasures. All the things of life and death.
Death was his trade. Unlike the majority of people here, his services were not for sale, though in the unlikely event the conversation arose, he would have admitted he could be found here. With so many tribal leaders and dignitaries present in combination with the intrigue that shaped so much of the history of the Firetruces, it would have been unthinkable for an assassin of his caliber not to be at hand for his superiors to use if they chose.
The timing of the summons struck him as a strong indication that he would be used soon. The Firetruce had not yet started, and he knew the Phoenix Prime's arrival had been delayed. His associates whispered that Renn Gistos yl-Harabec would likely be targeted for termination, but no one had yet received orders to bring that death about. The assassin felt a tremor of excitement. Such a prominent sanction would be a great honor for him, and would place his name high on the shadow shrines that his people secretly venerated. There was no thought of failure. He never failed.
It was nearly time. He had taken a lengthy and circuitous route toward his meeting place, checking constantly to make certain no one followed. Confident he was still invisible, he slipped at last into a seedy-looking shop that sold used electronics and surplus machinery. A cheap-looking metaplas tarp covered the entrance. Pushing it aside, he stepped into a low-ceilinged room filled to shoulder height with a legion of winking, buzzing devices that filled the air with a discordant clamor. The result was a persistent white noise that would deflect most efforts to overhear a conversation, whether with technological spy gear or simple lurking. A rank chemical tang assaulted his nose, doubtless intended to defeat any sniffers brought into the place.
He followed a trace of tape on the floor until he found a stool tucked in a small cul-de-sac amid the junk. There he seated himself and waited. No one came, but that was not unusual under these circumstances. Whoever summoned him would also check to see if he was followed. His surroundings appeared unremarkable save in their sloppiness. Loose circuits and optical wiring spilled out of cracked housings. A hunk of metal resembling a turbograv stabilizer leaned against the wall before him like the dorsal fin of a giant fish. A weathered hypercast casing to his right bore the snarling face of a tiger embossed in the faux bronze surface.
Waiting was part of the game. Doubtless he was the subject of covert scans at the moment. He would wait as long as it took for his patron to decide to trust him. Focusing on the seven sacred mantras, he breathed deeply and evenly, letting his awareness simultaneously expand and contract so that time flowed gently around him.
Finally a voice emanated from a hidden speaker, the sound baffled and modulated so the assassin could not identify neither gender nor distinguishing accent. "Put on the earlink you find behind the tiger."
The assassin did so, recognizing the device from previous assignments. It was a small, microcircuit-impregnated bead one placed in the ear. Once activated, it permitted both encrypted reception and subvocal transmission for the wearer.
"You are the Ghost assigned to this planet." A statement, not a question.
"You are sworn to obey they whose names must not be spoken."
"How many kills?"
The assassin sighed inwardly. Either he was good enough or he was not. The fact that he was here should speak of his competence. Still, he was sworn to obey. "Sixteen immaculate kills, chieftain-level or higher. Forty one lessers. Targets included officers from each of the Four, two Unitech directors, the CEO of Novalines, and six Imperial deep-cover spies."
"None were traced?"
He smiled at that. "I do not exist. Neither, therefore, do my deeds."
There was a pause, then: "You are arrogant."
"I am the Ghost of the Seventh Firetruce."
"You wish to know the identity of the target? Look behind the stabilizer."
He shrugged. "I have guessed already. The Phoenix Prime."
Laughter in his ear. Unexpected and harsh. "Arrogant, as I have said. And fallible. Perhaps there has been a mistake."
"Do not mock me." He went and knelt by the metal fin, reached behind it and withdrew a small plastic object that fit neatly in the hollow of his hand. Then he returned to his seat.
The voice resumed, still tinged with amusement. "You are half right. Other arrangements have been set in motion to terminate the Phoenix Prime. You will be present when the sanction occurs, and you are to ensure he dies, but only if you can do so without risking discovery. The old man is a secondary target for you. Open the recorder to see your primary assignment."
The assassin flipped the plastic device open. Inside was a holopic of a pretty young woman with honey colored hair and a bright smile. She wore a dress uniform he did not recognize, but the emblem was a purple lightning bolt. He shivered, struck by the symbol and its significance to his own purpose.
"A pretty little flower. Who is she?"
"She is Shana Terayl, Speaker of the Seventh Firetruce. She must die on the First of Tears."