“Mmm?” Grigg looked up from the book he was reading into the face of his principal, Dr. Bellard. She raised an eyebrow at the novel on top of his planbook, and he slowly slid it into his lap and out of sight. It was for their book club after all-- he’d finally gotten to pick and had gone right to the classics. They had vetoed Starship Troopers but he’d won with Dune. Bernadette looked a bit guilty, which meant she hadn’t read their chapters for this week. But instead of her normal mild chastisement about rules, she handed him a stack of forms printed on lilac paper.
“Permission forms for the next Guild presentation.” She handed them over with a small frown. Grigg read the top one, and frowned even harder. Damn, but he had hoped this Guild might give them a miss. Every third grade class was visited by representatives of all the City Guilds over the course of the year. The Guild Masters called it “education” but everyone knew it was for recruitment purposes. Get ‘em in young.
“Do we have to?” He was aggrieved, but he knew as well as she did that there was no way to refuse. She didn’t bother to answer him.
“Mr. Harris, you make sure that every guardian signs for their child. Go to their homes if you have to.” She paused, her voice lowering further. “And absolutely no absences.”
Grigg nodded glumly. He closed his book on the fate of Duke Atreides. “Yes, ma’am.”
Even if the adults weren’t thrilled about this Guild presentation, the children were. Grigg had made certain that every one of them was there, and every one of them seemed to have extra energy. He was struggling to quiet them down-- he definitely didn’t want to annoy the Guild representative, when a loud crack made every one of them drop to the floor, their heads covered. The room fell dead silent. It took everything Grigg had not to dive behind his desk, but he managed to turn towards the door without flinching. The representative was tucking his gun back into his leg holster, his expression perfectly blank, as if he hadn’t just fired a bullet into the plaster of the window frame.
He was tall and broad across the shoulders, wearing black leather armor that was shiny with wear over his joints, and badly scarred in others, especially over his chest. His left eye was hidden by a black patch, a small silver crown embedded in the center. Thick scruff covered his chin, and a walrus moustache draped over his upper lip. He eyed the classroom critically, lingering over the wide picture windows, and then walked gracefully towards Grigg at the front of the classroom.
“Very good, children. You may sit in your assigned places now.” Everyone scrambled from the floor and into their seats, quiet as mice.
Grigg let out a breath, and made himself reach out a hand. “I’m Grigg Harris. Welcome to…” The Guild representative looked at his hand, and then walked past him. “Franklyn Elementary,” he finished, flushing. The representative flicked his eye at Grigg and gave him a quick onceover, not entirely professional but with a touch of kindness. Grigg felt his ears heat even more.
“Why didn’t I shake your teacher’s hand?”
Their little hands shot in the air.
“Because you’re rude!”
“You don’t think he’s cute!”
“Because you never get close to strangers!”
Grigg steeled himself for an hour of this, and made his way to the back to where Bernadette was attempting to school her expression to neutrality. She looked halfway between disapproval and amusement and it made her look constipated. He stood by her stiffly.
In the front, the Guild representative raised his black-gloved hands. “Hands are to hold weapons. Never allow a stranger to get control over your gun hand.” He paused to let that sink in. “My name is Master Assassin Duncan Vizla, and I am here to tell you all about the Assassins Guild.”
What followed was the most exciting hour most of the children had ever experienced.
Murder lessons came first.
“Sometimes a gun is much too loud. What are the quickest ways to silently murder your target?”
The children were enthusiastic, hands waving even as they shouted out answers.
Duncan looked pleased. His facial expression changed very slightly, but Grigg could feel it all the way in the back of the room, that warmth. “Let’s talk about stabbing first. Yes, but it’s important to stab the correct organ. Do you know your bodily organs?”
Ellie raised her hand. “Brains!” Duncan nodded.
“The brain is a very important organ, but not a good target for a knife. It’s protected by your skull, which is too hard to stab through unless you are very strong, or can punch through the eye socket. Rather, you must aim for the heart, by angling your knife to slide between the fourth and fifth ribs. Let’s count our ribs.”
Grigg couldn’t help himself. He made a quieting gesture across his throat, hoping to convey that counting ribs was a terrible, terrible idea in a classroom of third graders who had great memories for violence and fewer morals than most cats. Duncan smiled at him instead, indulgent. “Your teacher seems to know something about assassinry, children. He recommends that you instead cut through the jugular vein in the neck. This is messy, so make sure you stand back and close your mouth.” His smile brightened. “Looks to me like you had all better behave in Mr. Harris’s class.”
Grigg sighed and sank his face into his hands. He could resign now, but who would feed his cat?
At the front, Duncan paused, watching him. “Mr. Harris is also recommending suffocation, which is much less bloody.” He stood quietly, considering. “However, it does take a lot of upper body strength, so take that into consideration.” Grigg just nodded, defeated, his face still in his hands. Perhaps if he suffocated now, he wouldn’t have to come back and teach on Monday. Bernadette patted him on the shoulder in sympathy as the master assassin moved on to poisons.
When he managed to look up again, Duncan was brandishing both a long narrow blade and a normal wood-handled knife. “Children, these are a stiletto and a hunting knife. As you can see, they have different blade shapes, and just like your crayons and pencils, they are for different jobs. Which is better for an assassination?”
Ellie raised her hand again. Grigg was starting to worry. “Stiletto!”
Duncan nodded. “That’s right! Stilettos are honed on both edges, and they can stab very deep with little effort, so long as you keep them sharpened. Very good.”
Grigg saw Ellie look very hard at Donovan, who shrank away from her. He would need to watch her very carefully from now on.
The presentation, after covering exotic knives and a short talk with pictures about decomposition, moved to Guild politics. Duncan’s voice turned very serious. “Only Guild assassins are allowed to take contracts.”
Ellie raised her hand again. “How do I become a Guild assassin, Mr. Vizla?”
Duncan looked her over, his dark eye a little sad. “It’s an arduous process, little one. Most students don’t live past their first year. But if you persevere, and in the process never relax for a single moment, and learn to trust no one, perhaps you will survive.”
She seemed a bit thoughtful at that, and a little less bloodthirsty, for which Grigg was thankful. He studied the Master Assassin while he took questions. The man was alert without being twitchy, his gaze sweeping naturally from one corner to another, never resting. Grigg wondered what that would be like, and felt a squeeze in his chest for this man who never relaxed, and didn’t trust anyone.
After the final question, the kindergarten interns and Bernadette took the children out to play, with an extra caution from Mr. Vizla that anyone caught attempting an assassination without being in the Guild would be summarily executed. Much subdued, the children went quietly outside and struck up the most innocent looking games in their repertoires, which Grigg knew would last exactly as long as they knew they were being observed.
Grigg watched them for a moment out the window, playing in the sunshine, and hoped none of them would enroll in the Assassin’s Guild school next year. Not even Ellie.
“How did I do?” Grigg spun, clutching his heart, to look straight into Mr. Vizla’s impressive moustache. He was standing very close, and smelled of leather and gunpowder. His dark eye was on Grigg’s.
“I… It was very interesting,” Grigg said, faintly and without much enthusiasm.
“You don’t like me, do you, Mr. Harris.” Surprised, Griff watched as Duncan’s eye shuttered, the assassin turning to go, and Grigg, with a boldness he felt all at once, reached out to clasp his elbow. In a movement too quick to follow, Duncan had ahold of his bicep, but gently.
Grigg swallowed. “It’s not that I don’t like you? You’re very…very...” Gorgeous? Intimidating? Just how was he planning on finishing that sentence, exactly? ”I’m just... I know the Assassin’s Guild does important work. But…” He couldn’t think of a follow-up that would not insult the man’s chosen line of work. He floundered for a moment, and then tried again. “We’ve not been introduced, I’m afraid.” He held his chin up, hoping it didn’t tremble.
Duncan smiled at him, looking bemused, and then carefully let go of Grigg’s arm. “I’m Duncan Vizla.”
“Grigg Harris.” He held out his hand to shake, and to his surprise, Duncan took it this time, and squeezed his hand very gently, as if trying to set him at ease. Warmth soaked through him at the thought of this deadly, violent man being soft with him. They stood together for a long moment, Duncan’s eyes fixed on him, and Grigg absorbed the strong features of that handsome, unusual face, imagining that this would be the last time he would set eyes on him. The master assassin had a face made for poetry, with his wide, high cheekbones and crooked nose.
Then, gruffly, Duncan spoke in a quiet voice. “My birthday. It’s tomorrow.” He immediately looked out of the window, pretending to watch the children play.
Grigg raised his eyebrows, uncertain what his reaction should be. “Oh?”
Duncan nodded, and then again, as if he were in the process of making an important decision. “I’m making... cake?”
“Cake?” They were still holding hands, and Grigg couldn’t bring himself to withdraw. Duncan seemed to be holding on to him like a lifeline.
“And coffee?” Duncan was now speaking to Grigg’s shoulder, which was progress. Was this man trying to ask him to go to his birthday celebration? How could a man who had made his life out of ending others struggle so much with asking another person out? The thought emboldened Grigg, who ducked to try and make eye contact.
“Are you … having a party?”
Duncan frowned. “Yes. No. Just cake.” Their gaze finally met-- Duncan’s good eye flickered from Grigg’s face to the window, his patrol never ceasing even as his attention narrowed. “At seven o’clock? If, that is… if you were free. Or interested? ...In cake?”
Suddenly the day was looking much brighter. Grigg didn’t know why this beautiful man would be interested in a grade school teacher with ink stains on his fingers and unruly hair, but he wasn’t going to question his luck. “I don’t know where you live? But yes. I would love to come.”
Duncan smiled at him, with teeth this time, their hands still clasped together.
It turned out that Duncan and Grigg lived just across the lake from each other, although not within each other’s line of sight. If Grigg stood out on his little pier, he could just make out the single sycamore that edged Duncan’s property, with a quarter mile of water in between. It was easy to aim for, although he took his GPS with him into his kayak, along with a last minute birthday present, just in case the other guests had brought something.
When he had told Bernadette about their awkward but hopeful exchange, she had insisted he call her later and tell her everything, not only because she wanted all the details, but also because she was concerned for his safety.
He halfway thought that himself, but on he rowed, gliding across the quiet lake still cold from the winter snowmelt.
Duncan’s pier was set up for fishing, but the rod had no line even though it was springtime. A brand new flat bottom boat was wrapped in its shipping tarp on the shore. There was a neat pile of firewood on the side of the house, piled high with weathered split logs where Grigg’s was almost gone. The house itself was very tidy, a story and a half log cabin with a neatly trimmed yard but no garden. A single red balloon was tied to the mailbox.
Duncan himself was out on the porch smoking a cigarette, dressed in a long sleeve turtleneck with the sleeves pushed up to his elbows, and black, well-fitted pants. He looked much more approachable out of uniform, long lean legs and well-muscled arms-- the kind of muscle that came from hard living rather than the gym. Grigg’s mouth watered, and he swallowed. Duncan watched Grigg walk up the side yard from the pier, and then belatedly waved. “You made it,” he offered, as if he hadn’t expected Grigg to actually come. Grigg nodded, smiling, and hoping he didn’t look like he was salivating.
“Wouldn’t miss it.” He climbed up on to the porch and settled beside Duncan, looking out across the lake. His home was not visible, too far around the bend, but he could see the spire of the city hall easily. He set down the hastily wrapped package on the porch rail and nudged it closer to Duncan. “Happy birthday.”
Duncan gazed at him, and then down at the wrapped gift, and then back up to Grigg. “I… I didn’t. Mean to imply that…” He looked at the gift again as if he had never received anything like it in his life, as if it were some strange animal the likes of which he had never seen. “Thank you,” he finished, his voice soft.
Grigg gestured at it. “It’s not much. I hope you like to read?”
Duncan touched the brown paper wrapping, and then glanced up. “May I open it?”
Heart unexpectedly tweezing in his chest, Grigg nodded enthusiastically. Duncan tucked long fingers under the paper and opened it carefully, as if it might explode. He read the title of the book, and then squinted at the smaller print. “Dune?”
“We, ah… we have a book club, and this is the one we are reading. It’s one of my favorite books, and you don’t have to join the club of course. You might not be interested in that. But I would… that would be great.” Grigg felt himself rolling on, and put a hand over his mouth with chagrin. “I’m sorry. You make me a little nervous. But not in a bad way?” He stopped talking. Gods, he was an idiot.
But Duncan was gazing at him with affection, soft and pleased. “I look forward to it,” he said solemnly as he clutched the book in his large hands. “No one has ever given me a book as a gift.”
“What do you usually get for your birthday?”
“Guns. Bullets. Armor. Poison delivery systems.”
“Ah. Well.” Grigg couldn’t think of anything to say to that.
They lapsed into an awkward silence for a moment, still standing side by side, Duncan stroking the book cover with a fingertip. Then, rousing himself, Duncan gestured back into the house. “There might be a problem with the cake.”
Grigg was not much in the kitchen, but he had to stifle a laugh as he took a look at the wreckage on the counter. There was a cake of sorts, but it had been baked in what looked like a round tin takeout container from the diner on Edwards Street-- Grigg recognised it because he had eaten quite a few meals from there. Beyond that, the cake was much too flat and sunken in the center. He poked gently at it, while Duncan stood beside him in silence. “Did you not have enough eggs?” he asked gently.
“Eggs?” Duncan frowned.
“Eggs!” Grigg couldn’t help his grin. “Didn’t the box say to put eggs in?”
Duncan frowned. “It said it was cake in a box,” he said, sounding betrayed rather than angry. Grigg pressed his lips together, trying very hard not to laugh, and reached up into the cabinet above the sink for a plate. Duncan darted in front of him. “Not that one,” he began, just as Grigg’s fingers grazed over a cold metal barrel.
“Oh. Sorry.” He twitched his fingers back. “ I guess it’s dangerous to poke around in here?”
Duncan looked worried as he took Grigg’s hand gently. “What… did you need?”
“A plate? For the cake? It might not be a lost cause,” he offered dubiously.
Duncan looked thoughtfully at his cabinets. He was still holding Grigg’s hand. Grigg took the opportunity to look around at the empty house. It was much like the outside, with no obvious signs of habitation. The walls were bare of pictures and photographs, and the shelves had no items of any sort on display. Even the armchair, a luxurious dark leather, had no blanket draped over it. Grigg had the sudden strong impulse to take Duncan home with him. He was certain no one else was coming, and that Duncan had planned to spend his birthday alone. The invitation to come must have occurred suddenly, and Grigg imagined that didn’t happen very often with this man. He wasn’t about to let the opportunity pass.
But still, he began gently. “Is… anyone else going to make it?”
“Oh! No.” Duncan looked embarrassed, his lips compressing slightly. “No, just you.”
Duncan was watching him nervously, his eye flicking from the ruined cake to Grigg’s face. Grigg turned to face him fully, and took a chance, perhaps a huge chance. But, a life well lived... He leaned in and kissed Duncan’s whiskery cheek. “I’m so glad you invited me.”
Up close, Duncan still smelled like leather and gunpowder, but also clean soap and a touch of what could have been bay rum. He smelled wonderful to Grigg. He was perfectly still as Grigg kissed him, and then after a moment exhaled a soft sigh. “I’m glad too.”
Grigg leaned back a bit, to take in Duncan’s warm expression. “You hungry? Because I’ve got the fixings for spaghetti at my house. I can make you a birthday meal.”
“I’m starving,” Duncan admitted, a flash of teeth showing in his smile this time. Grigg smiled back, feeling a bit giddy as he tugged Duncan’s hand, pulling him out of the house and back towards the dock, Duncan locking the house up behind him. As he tucked his key in his pocket and his gun into his shoulder holster, Grigg reached for his hand again, and squeezed it.
“Maybe I can make you breakfast as well,” he said airily, happiness a swell in his belly that he hadn’t felt in a long time.
“Breakfast for dinner?” asked Duncan, sounding confused.
“Breakfast… for breakfast.” Grigg waggled his eyebrows salaciously.
“Why would you… oh. Oh!” Duncan’s hand tightened on his, his dark eye bright with pleasure as they walked back down to the dock together.