You think you understand what death is, I know you do. All the living think they understand. I was like that once. I never nurtured any hope of a Heaven, I was too jaded for that, too mired in my own violent nature. I could conceive a Hell, but what I really thought was that I would simply cease. Like a bit of music that draws to a close. A candle snuffed, and finally, leaving not even the cold ghost of smoke. This was all long ago, and my views, while repulsive to the masses, were not strange among the ranks of hired soldiers and assassins who were my peers. The Gideon Crowe who walked the earth was without faith or wonder, without pity or fear, and to him death was only an inevitable oblivion.
I learned differently. Death, as far as I am able to articulate it, is like a grand staircase – one that reaches infinitely downward into unimaginable night. I stand on the sixth step from the top of that staircase, further down its span than many I’ve known, and yet only brushing the periphery of its great mystery. I can still smell the world from where I stand. I can still feel. Those who’ve traveled deeper, well, they aren’t like me anymore. They’re a cosmos away from the likes of you, with your beating heart and fragile beliefs.
I was drunk the first time I died, the slipping of my mortal bonds a wretched toll of vengeance. It’s still the most spectacular experience I’ve had on the staircase, to return to my analogy, for it was my introduction to the subtle degrees of existence. It was late, in the dark of the November moon, so that the night was black as a kingmaker’s heart, and all the light there was fluttered and spat from a greasy torch dying by the kitchen door of the tavern where I’d been drinking. I had reeled out into the alley to piss against the bricks, legless enough to need to brace myself against the rough wall with one hand, yet still sober enough to note the light scuff of a shoe on the frozen ground. I fumbled with my laces, cursing the tilt and swoop of the earth under my feet, and turned to confront the intruder.
“Please, messire, have you any need?” The girl, small and slender, could have been no more than twelve years. She didn’t look at me, her gaze studying the ground or darting over the shadow-deviled walls. She wasn’t dressed for the cold, and she shivered uncontrollably. Her hair hung about her, the only cloak she possessed. I could see glints of gold in it in the torchlight. I lurched toward her.
“You want to know of my needs, eh? Come here, let me see you.” I’d seen my share of poxy whores and had learned caution. I reached out and dragged her forward under the hissing torch. “Well, well, a pretty one, then. You can’t have been at this business for long.” I leered at her.
“I can please you,” she whispered, though she was rigid in my grasp. I watched the pulse jump at her throat, entranced. I plucked at her thin dress, and the night gave a great whirl and began to clear.
“You’re cold,” I said, pulling her to me. I pushed her against the wall and tugged at the hem of her skirt. “Let me warm you.”
She struggled, forcing my hand down. “Please, messire, not here. I keep a room. It isn’t far.”
So, she had a master. No slip of a doxy such as she could afford lodgings of her own. I supposed her father had set her to her trade and would be lurking about to make sure of his payment. It was a common thing in those port towns where the sailors provided a steady clientele, but I was no sailor and hadn’t a care for honest commerce.
“I’m not going to any room. I’m going back in that tavern, and drink myself to sleep. Lift your skirt, girl, and I’ll give you the gold tooth I won at cards today.” I pressed close enough for her to feel my need, thinking myself generous. In truth, I hadn’t taken the tooth in cards, but had pried it from the head of a wealthy merchant who thought to slight me on payment for the removal of his rival. An assassin must be vigilant about his reputation as a man of business.
The girl shuddered against me, and not from the cold. She stopped pushing at my hand and turned her face away. A tear rolled over the sharp ledge of her cheek, as shocking to me as though she had slapped me.
“Why do you weep?” I asked, sullen now with thwarted passion. “I won’t hurt you, and I’ll pay you well.”
She sighed and moved closer, burrowing under the warmth of my wool coat. She lifted her hand – what an object of porcelain delicacy! – and a heavy ring gleamed on one of her fingers. “I wasn’t ready, messire, but now I shall have to do this all on my own.”
She turned her hand in the smoky light, and a little needle of silver sprang erect on the band of the ring. My body recognized it and started back, even as my fuddled brain still puzzled out her words, but I was too slow. Quick as a cat, she struck me in the neck with the sharp projection, a sting like a scorpion’s, heavy and hot. My boots tangled. I fell, dragging her with me, feeling the death she’d introduced in my veins, wanting to crush her while I could. It was already too late. My limbs would not obey me, and my heart was seized in a cruel fist.
I was dying, the toxin racing through my body and stiffening it in a painful parody of rigor mortis. The girl crawled over me and knelt beside me, tucking her golden hair behind her ears. I could see her, the only clear image left as a blackness opened beneath me. She patted my pockets.
“Where is the tooth, messire? Hmm? Where have you put my papa’s tooth?” She found it in a pouch of coins tied inside my shirt.
Her icy hands on my flesh roused me, and a battle began within my locked body. I saw the waiting darkness as a pit, an oubliette from which I would never rise or know consciousness again. I flailed back from it with an animal disgust, the most primitive, visceral denial of annihilation. I would not go. I clung to existence in a frenzy of rage and desperation. Everything that was good to me in life, be it ever so rough and bloody, was like a sudden elixir on my tongue. Even as the breath left my lungs for the last time, I tasted that brutal potion, and it sustained me.
I haven’t thought of that first death for a long time. I remember that it was terrifying, but the feel of it has worn away and it seems sweet to me now. My body died in that piss-stinking alley, but I awoke on a stranger shore, cast up on a beach rough as a cat’s tongue in a land of queenly night. I awoke at the foot of the City, where the dead and the dreaming share an improbable exile.