Match was of two minds facing this obstacle.
He set his jaw and narrowed his eyes, pretending to be annoyed, biting his tongue and finding words. He needed a few minutes…
Whatever you do, do not hesitate.
… to find his course.
The burly woman standing before him was the Black Baron’s personal assistant. She was his bodyguard, his servant, and an extra pair of hands whenever he needed a subject held down on the study table. Today’s subject must be already dead; she was outside the room, in this dark little stony antechamber, as a polite reminder that the Baron was not to be disturbed. Not by visitors, not by intruders, and especially not by his sellswords. What was he paying them for if not to deal with interruptions to his studies?
In a way, it was a blessing she wasn’t in the room with the Baron. That meant there would be a chance to get by her, deal with the Baron in his study chambers—he was a frail old man, and the business should be fast and quiet—and then leave, all without having to fight her in these alarmingly close quarters. But Match was struggling to come up with an excuse to get past her.
“It’s as urgent as urgent gets. The Alliance has organized its swords, and they’re on their way. The Baron must know.”
The woman scoffed. “Baron, huh? You whelps learning some respect, finally?”
You know what this means.
Match’s mind started racing. “Baron” was a mistake. This blonde, hairy-chested warrior he had fought, bested, and whose face he had stolen must have had few compunctions about sneering at his employer in the woman’s presence. He could keep up the farce… but could he recover? Could he make her less suspicious that something was wrong? Even if he did, could he convince her to let him into the damn room? Probably?
She was uncrossing her arms. That was bad. She probably thought that blondie was acting all nice to get close and double-cross the Baron, and she was getting ready to bounce him, hard.
So, yes, Match knew that that meant.
He uncorked his aggression. With a sudden motion of his wrist, his secret arts sapped her strength. He grimaced, and a dread presence sneered at her from another realm, through Match’s eyes, cornering her mind in the dark, deep recesses of animal fear.
The blade appeared in his hand, and it came down hard. She still had her instincts, and she reflexively swatted at the blade to try to deflect it. She was rewarded with a deep, wicked wound on her arm. She flailed with her other hand, smacking Match hard across the side, but it was too late. As she recoiled from the pain in her mangled arm, Match slew her.
The hard part was done, at least. Had he done it right? He had failed in his original ploy, but when he changed tactics, he had done so ferociously, and he had taken full advantage of the surprise. That had been the Master’s latest lesson for him. He could think more about that later, but for now he had to act quickly. He tore open the door, took two swift steps through the little room to the old man in the black robes, and hefted his blade overhead…
… and felt ice in his heart. There was a hilt in the Baron’s hand, and a three foot length of cold steel plunged into Match’s chest.
Match woke up, panting. After feeling his lung collapse, his extremities go numb, and his life drain out on the floor of the stone room, every breath hurt like a hundred knives in his chest for a minute or so. But eventually, feeling returned to normal. Match was whole again.
He slid off his cot onto the wooden floor, taking a moment to allow the strength to return to his legs as the building’s old joists complained beneath them. He walked over to the window and pulled open the dusty, faded red curtains. The morning light flooded in to the little domicile. Match leaned onto the sill, taking in the warm summer air and watching as Neverwinter came back to life in the streets below.
What did you learn, young one?
“I underestimated the target.”
That gave Match pause. He thought. For seconds. For minutes. He had learned long, long ago not to give the Master any sort of half-thought or half-hearted reply.
“I do not know.”
You must learn. You cannot wield force in every situation.
Match thought and thought. He knew this was a bait of some sort, but he couldn’t suss out how. His best option was to reply with his honest thoughts.
“I did attempt to pass the assistant without slaying her. I failed, but I do attempt to improve my deceptions and disguises, Master.”
Fool boy. The lies you told were as brute and as low as they come. Do you understand now?
Match understood immediately. But he waited. He liked to reinforce the impression that he thought carefully about the Master’s castigations. He took the extra seconds to pick carefully over his words.
“Yes. The assistant was instructed to let no person bother the Baron during his studies. I found a face she would not kill on sight, but that did not change those instructions. Attempting to pretend I had urgent business was a lie that was brute and without finesse.”
The nameless shadows were silent. That did not bode well for Match.
“I should have…”
QUIET, BOY. DO NOT WASTE OUR TIME REPEATING YOURSELF.
Match shut his mouth. He suspected that no matter how long these shadow dreams lasted, it would be an insignificant expenditure of effort and attention on the part of the Master, but he knew better than to give voice to those thoughts.
Do you know why you train, boy?
“I am alike to a squire. I learn and serve that I might become alike to a knight.”
You have given that answer before. Have you a better one?
You are alike to a squire, and you will be alike to a knight, it is not wrong. But you must know how you will be dissimilar. Why do knights fight?
“For their honor and for their liege.”
These are so many falsehoods. Some fight for social constructs such as honor and loyalty. Some fight for gold and glory. Nevertheless, all fight for the same single reason. It is a sibling to the reason you will fight. Do you understand?
Silence. The question was rhetorical. You do not know the answer. I will explain shortly, and you will still not know the answer. It is to be hoped that you will learn more truly with time.
All knights fight because the men and women in their way must die so they may achieve their knightly aims, be they honor, loyalty, gold, or glory. Your purpose will be more pure. You will fight because men and women must die to achieve your knightly aims, and your knightly aims are for those men and women to die. Your means and ends will be one, and your mission will be whole.
Match was silent.
Death comes to all, young one. But some, death will find, and others: death will seek. You will do the seeking. You will be alike to death, and you will be alike to a knight.
Match remained silent.
Do not fret, young one. You are afraid of what you must do. You should not be, and you will not be. The shadows of the veil are not evil. Death comes not capriciously. We desire the world to be as it should be, and when you understand, you will, too.
Match woke up. He slid off his cot onto the creaky wooden floor. He walked over to the window and pulled open the dusty curtains, allowing the morning light to flood in. Was it warmer today? He was not sure.