He didn’t have much time. The elf picked up the discarded shotgun barrel, popping out one of the shells, and set to work setting up a little surprise on the telegraph. He dropped the keys where the lawman would have to stretch to get them and headed to the station atop the office. The sheriff was beginning to stir as Baelon waked out onto the roof. When a muffled explosion sounded from inside the office the elf smiled to himself and closed the door without a sound. A few moments later the sheriff blustered onto the roof. He lifted a bulky flare gun up to the sky and let the shot go free. Baelon watched out of sight atop the tram.
Imperial protocol was a wonderful thing. A distress signal from a local authority would result in squad of six soldiers sent out for investigation then they would wait for a report for making any more moves. Other than ignoring the general needs of the people, and suppressing any effort for the Elves to become a nation again: the only thing Imperials could be counted on was their deep ingrained need for regulations.
The tram was a two car system, when one started moving the other did as well. Logic being that there would always be a car accessible to the lawmen or the soldiers. In this case, with Baelon tucked against the mechanism atop the car, it meant that the elf was getting a free ride to the fort without having to use the road down below. On horseback the trip would have taken him well over an hour and he would have been exposed the entire time. Taking the tram would cut the time in half while giving him direct access to the fort without detection. All he had to do was sit back, wait, and resist the urge to wave at the passing soldiers.
His Elvish heritage granted him the ability to see in darkness nearly as well as in light. The torches along the forts walls marked it in the distance. He was able to see more details before the flickering torchlight illuminated the side of the tram. The stone walls were built to repel an assault by cannons. In daylight he would have been spotted and shot before the tram docked, but in the small hours of the night it was able to come to rest without interruption. Once it had come to a complete stop, he paused to let a guard march by. Leaving a trail of bodies would attract too much attention. He dropped silently onto the walkway, made sure he hadn’t been seen, and then dropped down onto the fort grounds.
Pausing for a moment, he allowed himself time to take in the surrounding boxy buildings and open corral. He caught sight of two soldiers to the far left, nearly concealed behind a building digging what only could be graves; knowing the Empire that was the best place to start looking. Sticking to the shadows, moving in short bursts, and staying low he made his way over to the soldiers. As he neared he could see a small cart holding at least two bodies wrapped in canvas.
“I don’t see why we have to dig the graves,” one of the soldiers grumbled.
“They’re dead, moron,” the other snapped. “They can’t dig ’em.”
“Those Information people give me the jeebies,” the first one spoke in a soft whisper.
“Do the job, they don’t look at you.”
“What about the one back there?” The soldier nodded with his head to a building farther back.
“Deal with these first then we’ll get that one.”
Baelon could guess these poor souls were part of the caravan. His trail was running cold. Unless of course, this person from Information got anything out of the merchants, and there was only one way to find out. He gave the diggers a wide berth, arcing toward the dark building. The blocky angles and drab color matched the rest of the décor, but there was a general sense of foreboding wafting from it in only a brig could manage. The door was unlocked. A single flickering light at the end of the hallway was the only hint of occupancy.
Doors to cells lined the hallway. There was nothing moving in the hallway but the scent of fear and toil was palpable. Locking the door behind him, Baelon crept forward as silent as the moon at night. As his hand reached out for the latch the door began to open inward. With each inch the hallway became brighter threatening to blind him temporary while his eyes adjusted. Moving as fast as he could he pulled his hand back and let a wild kick fly. It caught the edge of the door with just enough force to catch the soldier coming through off guard.
Light flooded into the hallway, dazzling him but he had enough sense to push himself against the wall and shut one eye tight. After a moment he dove into the room, tucking into a roll and coming up face to face with a befuddled man with a bloodied white shirt. Judging from the rolled up sleeves and the fact that the collar was still buttoned, he guessed this was the man doing the torturing.
A precise flat-palmed jab to the sternum knocked the breath from the bloodied man. The follow up, a sharp stab at his throat halted any cries for assistance, but the kick to the groin was out of sheer frustration. Baelon picked the man up by the collar of his shirt and tossed him into a nearby chair.
“The coins,” he hissed drawing his knife and setting the gleaming edge against the throat of the seated man. “Where are they?”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” the man wheezed. “I’m just a scribe they-”
“A scribe with blood under his fingernails,” the skin beneath the knife puckered as the point drew a single drop of blood. “Where are they? What did you learn?”
“It’s in my report,” his face went hard. “The coins with it.”
“Where is your report?”
“A courier picked it up an hour ago.” A satisfied smile began to cross his face.
“I make an effort not to kill,” Baelon looked him in the eyes. “It causes too much of a stir and I prefer to move around unnoticed. Where is the report going?”
“Elf,” the man spat. “It’s going to Kingsbay, straight into Imperial Intelligence. No elf will ever set foot in that city.”
Baelon stood, letting the investigator catch his breath.
“What’s your name elf?”
Elves were an endangered species. For the past two hundred years bloodlines had been meticulously recorded. The Empire had access to these records. Simply by giving his name he could doom not only himself but his entire family and their treasured offspring.
“Baelon,” he stared hard at the human.
It took a moment but realization blossomed in the investigators eyes, “outcast? Oh, that’s rich.”
The human started a rough bark of a laugh. He continued until his face was read and his breath came out in gasps. As the man in the chair breathed out the elf whipped the blade through the air and into the investigators chest.
He looked down at the quivering hilt protruding from his sternum, “you said you don’t kill.”
Baelon motioned to the body in the corner. “I’ll make an exception.”
As the dead body ceased twitching, he removed the knife, wiping it clean as he gritted his teeth. Kingsbay was on the other side of the mountains. By land it would take a month or more if he avoided patrols. Imperials liked to monitor travel by sea, air, or rail. His disguise wouldn’t fool close inspection, but for the right price anyone could ignore a set of pointed ears. There were other options, certain ships preferred to move without too much attention and they were available to hire but he was almost out of coin. Imperial pockets ran deep.
He caught sight of a jacket hanging by the door. A quick check of the pockets turned up a wallet thick with Imperial currency and a badge for an Intelligence officer. The previous owner wouldn’t need them anymore. He slipped the loot into his pocket then donned the jacket. He tossed his hat at the man, landing almost perfectly onto the knife, and put the dead mans’ hat on instead. They were both too big for him. He tied the jacket tight and set the hat down almost to his eyes to hide his ears.
There was a crinkle of paper as he stepped forward. Baelon looked down to realize he was still not wearing boots and that there was something in the pocket he had missed. He pulled out an envelope on unmarked pressed paper. It was an order to escort seven goblin prisoners back to Kingsbay to be tried for smuggling. They were confined at this very fort.
A group of smugglers who didn’t like the Imperials could work out nicely.
“Kingsbay it is,” he straightened his hat.