Chapter 8

“Chirr… Chirr…”

The incessant loud sounds of crickets seeking mates.

Some of these insects, or maybe even millipedes and flies, had found their way into the garments of Ren, as he hid in the bush. He could feel them wriggling on his skin. Still, he remained motionless. It would take a lot more than this to stir him.

He was waiting, with patience and stealth, for the sentinels to change shifts.

Then, sometime before midnight, his perseverance was finally rewarded. The officer left his position and walked towards the gate, letting the new guard take over.

That was the cue for action. Without making any audible noises, Ren detached himself from the spot that he had kept warm for so long, and stole into the palace.

*

The Assassino moved in the shadows.

Something was amiss.

Walking quietly, he got behind a lone Roman soldier, and before the trooper knew what had transpired, a heavy blow was delivered to his head, knocking him out cold.

The military uniform. That was what Ren needed to blend in.

Minutes later, having dragged the trooper to a deserted spot, he changed his attire, his blonde hair now hidden underneath a hat, revealing only a pair of blue eyes.
It should be straight-forward from here.

But Ren had only walked a few steps, when a voice stopped him in his tracks.

“Halt!” the voice commanded. “Full…”

Ren knew he was being prompted for the password. He had been told the first-half, and was expected to say the other part. If it was incorrect, the alarm would be raised, and he could be facing an entire platoon of soldiers, even before he had the chance to confront the real enemy – the Eastern emperor, Valentinian.

The silence was unbearable. Ren had already begun gliding his hand towards his sword.

And then the voice broke into a laughter. “Hey, you must be an envoy of General Marcos! Relax, man, you look like you are ready to fight me!”

Ren nodded, relieved.

“Do all the front-line soldiers behave like you?” asked the guard, amused. “For the past one month, we have been seeing military men like you, seemingly in a daze, and here to report to our emperor. Goodness, you guys are like zombies!”

Ren decided it was better to walk on.

“Oh, and if you are looking for direction,” continued the impertinent guard. “You have to turn right, walk straight, and then make another right turn.”

Incredible, Ren thought. He couldn’t believe how simple things had turned out to be.

*

“Envoy of General Marcos,” said Ren, as he knocked on the door of the Emperor’s chamber.

“Enter,” came the reply from within.

There were only two persons in the room. The one seated behind a table was Valentinian. A burly bodyguard stood next to him.

“Speak, envoy,” said the guard authoritatively.

Valentinian continued with his reading. He had not bothered looking up.

Now was the chance.

Ren slide his hand into his side pocket. Inside housed five daggers. He secretly drew one out.

“I was informed by the General that…” started Ren.

But he did not complete the sentence. It was meant to be a decoy. And with sudden speed, he jerked his hand forward, firing his dagger towards Valentinian. It was a precise shot aimed towards the head. And the Assassino had never missed.

But fate had other plans.

At the split second when the dagger was released, Valentinian’s guard had waved his hand at Ren, prodding him to speak, and coincidentally acting as a shield for the emperor. The trajectory of the dagger was perfect, but it hit the unintended target of the guard’s wrist.

“Christ!” screamed the guard in pain and shock.

Valentinian looked up in alarm. He was about to shout for more soldiers.

“Kreio’s treasures!” uttered Ren quickly. “If you want it, stay quiet!”

That shut the emperor up.

A second chance, Ren noted, and he knew he must not waste it. In the blink of an eye, he threw out another dagger.

But the element of surprise was gone, and Valentinian had already expected it. His hand was already on his injured bodyguard, and at the instant when Ren’s hand glided into his pocket, the emperor immediately pushed the guard down towards him to block the shot.

Ren’s second dagger, thrown with ferocity, went right into the guard’s head, and the soldier was dead on the spot, his blood already oozing onto the emperor’s table.

Valentinian was not to be fooled a second time. He shouted out loud, and drew out his sword simultaneously.

Ren rushed forward. Time was not on his side. Quickly, he unsheathed his own sword. But his adversary was not to be underestimated. He had witnessed this very man fight Kreio in what was his master’s last ever fight. Although the Ren of today was more skilled than his aging teacher, he must be careful against this wily opponent.

The swords touched, and within three seconds, five moves were exchanged. Ren, on the attack, and Valentinian, focused on defense.

Another ten moves later, it was clear that Ren would emerge as the victor. He had cut the emperor thrice, though none of the wounds was mortal. Then, finally, he swirled his sword, locking Valentinian’s weapon in the process, and with a forceful wrench, threw the emperor’s blade into the air, and towards another corner of the room.

Valentinian was an experienced warrior. He knew the enemy’s sword would slice into him next, and he moved forward swiftly, out of the sword’s arc, with the intention of manhandling Ren to the ground.

Ren saw it coming, and without hesitation, kicked the emperor to the ground.

And that was when the door opened. Footsteps were heard.

Ren could not care for more. The antagonist was down on the ground, and victory was there for the taking. He rushed forward for the kill.

But strangely, a form had appeared in front of the fallen emperor on the ground, arms spread out to protect the king, even as Ren thrust his sword forward. For a while, the Assassino was bewildered. And then he realized it was a young woman who was now lying in front of Valentinian, acting as a human shield, and sacrificing herself.

Ren’s sword stopped in mid-air, just a few inches away from the lady’s face.

“Please do not harm my father,” cried the woman bravely.

At that instant, everything seemed to come to a standstill. Ren’s mind was in turmoil. It was not so much the issue that he had never killed a female, never mind one as beautiful as the one in front of him. But it was the fact that he was reminded of the scenario many years back, when he himself had stood in front of Kreio’s enemy, begging that his master be spared.

The indecision cost him dear.

Two more men had charged in.

The first soldier raised his spear as he came running in, and without hesitation, stabbed it towards Ren’s back.

Distracted, the Assassino was completely caught off-guard. With his sword still pointing at the princess, his back was exposed and vulnerable. Quickly, he turned to fend off the attack, but it was too late. The tip of the spear was already within a foot away.

But bizarrely, the second of the two soldiers, donning a different color uniform and apparently of a much higher rank, intentionally bumped into his counterpart, causing him to lose balance and trip to the ground.

This second soldier was none other than General Marcos. He had made an unannounced trip to see the emperor, and not even the palace guards were aware of his arrival.

Nevertheless, the damage was already done, though the impact mitigated. The first soldier had managed to partially thrust his spear into Ren’s shoulder, and the momentum propelled Ren forward, causing him to drop to the floor a meter away from Valentinian. Due to the impact, the Assassino’s hat was flung away from his face, revealing his distinctive blonde hair and handsome face.

The first soldier was undeterred. He turned towards Marcos and said, “General, you stay out of this. The matter occurs in the palace of the Eastern Empire, and out of your sphere of influence.”

The general was young, perhaps only twenty-five years old, and not of an age that Ren had previously thought him to be. But still, when Marcos spoke, it was with a great deal of authority. He said, “The man had shown mercy to the princess, and attacking someone from behind is not the act of a hero.”

The soldier did not heed the orders. Spurred by a possible huge reward, he sped towards the assassin.
By then, Ren had stood up. Blood was already pouring out from the open wound. However, he took comfort in that the injury was only sustained on the left side of his shoulder blade, and for a while at least, he would still be able to control his sword with his right hand.

The soldier stood no chance. As he approached, Ren avoided the spear with a rapid side-step to the right, and then raised his sword to the guard’s throat, severing his thorax.

The fight was brief. However, it brought the injured Valentinian precious time to get away. The princess was already helping him to the door.

Ren surged forward.  The enemy was so close to being slayed. He couldn’t let this chance slip.

But Marcos burst forward as well, blocking the doorway with his sword.

“Let me pass,” said Ren.

“I can let you go, but you must promise never to come back, or hurt the emperor and the princess,” replied Marcos.

“Then draw your sword and fight,” said Ren.

Within seconds, Ren was on the attack with a flurry of swift attacks. Desperation hastened his moves, while the need for vengeance made him fearless. It was a deadly combination.

Right from the offset, Marcos found himself on the back-foot. Before this fight, he had never been beaten. Rome had its fair share of good fighters, but until today, he never knew an exponent who fought the way Ren did.

Over a matter of a minute, tens of moves had been exchanged. Marcos was a splendid defensive fighter, but he was slowly cracking under Ren’s unorthodox offensive style.

Unknown to Marcos, Ren was himself surprised. And more than a wee bit worried. Since the maturity of his sword play, he had never encountered a person who could parry so many of his attacks. Still, he knew he would eventually discover the general’s loopholes given time. But time was what he did not have. His wound was bleeding profusely. Furthermore, it would not be long before more palace guards come running into the chamber.

Another ten moves later, Ren was tiring. His pace had started to slow, letting a clear victory escape out of his grasp. For someone whose techniques relied solely on speed and accuracy, it appeared a fatality.

But Marcos began his counterattack.

Too soon.

He should have bidded for his time.

And that was when Ren saw the opportunity. With the opponent’s defenses opened up, he mustered all his remaining strength, pounced with a forward thrust of his sword, before twisting it at an angle to evade Marcos’ block, such that it landed exactly next to the general’s neck.

The fight was over.

The Assassino could have killed the general then, but instead, he moved his sword away.

Stumbling towards the door, Ren now realized the full effect of his shoulder injury. It was a lot worse than he thought. And his exertion in dealing with the general had exacerbated it. There was no way he could pursue Valentinian now. Revenge would have to wait.

Marcos did not stop the assassin either, even though he was aware that there was no way the perpetrator could last another round of sparring. But Marcos was himself stunned into inactivity. His invincibility had just been ripped apart, and the disbelief had yet to settle in.

Ren stepped out of the chamber. The night air was cool and undisturbed. It was as if nothing had happened.

And that was when he sensed a sudden quick breeze, and looking to his left, he saw two swords piercing towards him. It was an ambush. The tables had just been turned, and he was now the target.

Another quick shuffle of his feet and body, and he managed to escape the danger altogether.

But he did not notice two shields pushed towards him from the right, which hit his back, tumbling him to the ground. Two centurions immediately rushed in, pinning Ren to the ground with their shields.

Another guard stepped forward as well. He raised his spear for the final thrust.

Ren was now truly staring death in the face. Trapped under the shields, he wouldn’t have enough time to wrangle his hands free to block the spear. Sadness overwhelmed him, as he resigned to his fate. He didn’t think he would die in this manner. Not when he had not even slayed either of his two antagonists.

And then, in a sudden and unexpected twist, he saw a brown form flash across his eyes, and the guard dropping to the ground.

It was the brown mongrel, the one which had been following him for days.

It sunk its teeth into the guard’s hand, and with its momentum, caused both to stumble to the ground.

How it managed to sneak into the palace undetected was beyond Ren’s imagination. But it had certainly saved his life.

But in doing so, the canine had put itself in grave danger.

Another guard raced forward, with his spear raised. In less than two seconds, he would stab it into the poor dog’s body, which was still tangled with the other guard it had just bitten.

Instincts forced Ren to move. He had to save the dog. With a quick turn of his wrist, he cut the calves of the two centurions holding him down with their shields, causing them to fall and lose their grip on the shields.

Then, while still lying on the floor, Ren threw out a dagger with his left hand. He was effectively ambidextrous, his ability to hit the bull-eye perfected with both hands.

The guard who was about to kill the mongrel never had the chance. The dagger went into his arm, nearly severing it.

And then with his fourth dagger, Ren sent it piercing into the heart of the other guard holding the dog, thus allowing the mongrel to break free.

There was still one final guard. He was running towards Ren, hoping to kill the assassin before he could get to his feet.

But Ren was too fast. He swirled his feet into the air, and within a second, he got back to his feet. As the final guard rushed in, he pushed his sword into the enemy’s stomach, puncturing his kidneys and killing him.

Then, with a sharp whistle, he signaled for the dog. “Follow me,” he said, as he dashed towards the exit. Surely, there would be more guards rushing in soon.

Strangely, however, only three more were to bother him. The first, he sent dropping to the ground with a sharp slash to the thigh, and the other two were dispatched with cuts to the face and neck.

He still had one last final dagger. His fifth one. He would reserve it in the event of an emergency.

But that anticipated final fight never materialized.

He figured then that the rest of the chasing pack must have been more interested in protecting the king, fearful that the initial assassinationwas a mere decoy.

What he didn’t know was that instructions had in fact been passed down from the princess and Marcos that the palace guards were to provide cover for the king, and not to capture the assassin.

In the end, there was only the silhouette of the blonde man and his enigmatic, brave dog, running out of the palace gates, with lots of shouts and shrieks by eunuchs and servants, but nobody in their pursuit.

*

By the time he reached his black mare, the back of his shirt was completely drenched.

With his own blood.

The injury was bad. He was already starting to feel nauseous. He must have lost a significant amount of blood.
Unsteadily, he loosened the ropes binding the mare to a tree. The horse seemed to sense the urgency, and constantly stamped its hooves on the ground with agitated restlessness. And then, just when Ren had unsteadily untied the ropes, he heard the heavy panting of an animal. It was the mongrel. And instantly, despite his exhaustion and pain, he was instantly swept with a sense of relief. He was glad that the dog was still alive. Now, he must get both into safety.

Seconds later, the horse was off, running towards the forest, in the cover of near complete darkness, with the brown mongrel and its master on its back.

*

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