It wasn't long after when they took a turn out of the trees and saw the majestic skyline of the city, which was named Skyline, in the distance.
"We're not that far away," said Fate, noting Inversion's look of surprise. "Your average hat hole doesn't have a lot of range. Anyway, it's not much further."
It wasn't. They arrived in short order at a little clearing with a cluster of minimalistic, but caringly crafted wooden buildings that seemed like they hadn't been occupied for years, except one, where a light was burning dimly in one of the windows.
"Not another move," whispered a voice from behind them.
Fate and Inversion did not move.
"Oh, it's you," said the voice, in a much friendlier tone. There was a sound of blades being sheathed and a man in black stepped around in front of them. "It's been a while."
"Same!" said Fate. To Inversion she said, "This is my old friend Jocelyn the Dagger."
"It's a nickname," said the man.
"Because you're really good with a dagger?"
"Swing and a miss, kid," said Jocelyn. "My last name is Daguerreotype."
"I'm Inversion," said Inversion.
"Why not," said Jocelyn.
"He's an apprentice with me at Jesperson's," said Fate.
"Oh, you're at Jesperson's now."
"But we've run into a fair bit of trouble today, and I think we're going to need some help."
Jocelyn put his hands on his hips and leaned back, letting out a long breath. "Well, things are a little busy today..."
An inconvenient tumbleweed rolled slowly by behind him.
Fate shook her head and looked around at the empty buildings. "What's happened here?"
"Oh nothing you didn't see coming," said Jocelyn. "Things were already drying up last time you were here. The last of the students quit to go into the Octavity program, the master decided to retire, and I... just can't let go of the past I guess." He chuckled.
"Do you get any work?"
"Not here," said Jocelyn. "I go into the city now and then to try to pick up some jobs. This is just a... museum now. A museum where I live."
"This used to be a world class assassin school," explained Fate. "Rizzo's Assassin Dojo. Some of the most famous assassinations of the past 100 years can be traced back to here."
"But then Octavity Private Security launched its assassin training program. No tuition, room and board paid for, and a staff job waiting for you when you graduate," said Jocelyn. "Hell, I'd be tempted to sign up if I was a young assassin today."
"Assassination doesn't offend you, does it?" asked Fate, turning to Inversion anxiously.
"Not as long as I'm not the one doing it," he said.
"That's what my clients always used to say," chuckled Jocelyn. "All right, you caught me. I'm not busy. I still don't know if I'm going to want any part of your mess but you might as well fill me in. Come on inside, it's getting dark."
They sat around the small table, 3 empty bowls of stew and 3 empty mugs of beer between them.
"I'm 15," Inversion had said when Jocelyn poured the beer, at which Jocelyn had solemnly nodded, and immediately drank Inversion's beer.
Now that the eating and drinking was done, the three of them sat in a moment of contemplation.
"It seems to me," said Jocelyn, breaking the silence, "that ironically enough, an assassin is just what you need."
"How do you figure?" asked Fate.
"If you're going to go around causing trouble, nah, back up, if you've already caused a bunch of trouble, and you're probably going to cause more, and you want to keep yourself in one piece without having to kill anybody, it seems to me like you've got to learn how to not be seen. And that's where I might be able to help."
"You can teach me to be an assassin?" asked Inversion.
"I can teach you how to sneak around like an assassin," said Jocelyn, holding up a warning finger. "The part where - well, what in my opinion is the key part of being an assassin - seems like something you don't want any part of, if I read you right."
"But doesn't that kind of training take years?" asked Fate.
"It does," agreed Jocelyn. "But there's a couple of quick tricks that'll get you off to a good start. And if you're interested in this whole idea of staying alive in the long term, I can take you on as a bona fide student - for a price."
"Come on, Jo, you know we're broke," said Fate.
"You're broke now," said Jocelyn, holding up a finger again. "But it seems to me you've got a couple of loose ends to tie up, and there might be a bit of cash waiting at the end of them. Here's what I'm thinking. I can give you a hand cleaning up those marauders, and finishing up your business at Chateau Remoulade, and we count up all the change we've collected after all that's settled and see what we've got to work with."
"Fair enough," said Fate. "You good with that, kid?"
Inversion nodded, but then looked at Fate. "What are you going to do after this, then? Are you going to stick around with me and... Jocelyn?"
"You can call me Jo if you want," said Jocelyn. "Or the Dagger. Some call me the Shadow Stalker. The Silent Death."
"Ok," said Inversion. He looked at Fate.
"I dunno, we'll play it by ear," said Fate. "I hadn't really planned on a career change into assassinage but I can't go back to the city as things stand. Let's just take care of this and we'll see if any other options open up."
"All right, sounds like it's a go," said Jo, the shortest and easiest to type version of his name. "So assassin lesson number one," he said, looking Inversion in the eye, and cutting himself short as the boy looked directly back at him. "Wow," he said, shaking himself off like he'd been brushed by a cobweb. "Anyway, lesson number one. Before a big assassination, get a good night's sleep. Sleep deprivation makes you sloppy, and sloppy makes you dead."
He looked around the tiny cabin, which seemed to have been built for one person. "So it's a little cramped in here, but I can set you guys up in the old dojo."
He grabbed a lantern and led them over to the unused building, unlocking the door and sliding it open. It was mildly dusty but surprisingly well-kept, given its lack of use. Inversion could see by the lantern light that the walls were covered with framed newspaper clippings of famous murders with headlines such as "Gastamax Exec Assassinated! Authorities Stumped."
"Simpler times," said Jo with a sigh.
"How do you two know each other, anyway?" asked Inversion.
"Oh, we graduated from the same orphanage," said Fate. "Jo was a couple years ahead. He always looked out for me."
"You should have gone into assassining, like I told you," said Jo.
"Ah, and how's that working out for you?" asked Fate cheerfully.
Jo sighed. "Well, I guess everything's a dead end nowadays if you don't want to work for Octavity. Or one of the other big houses. I'll tell you, though, it was a good run while it lasted."
"Jo here once killed a Regent of Skyline," said Fate proudly.
Jo wagged his finger disapprovingly. "You may not have trained here, but you know better than that. A Rizzo graduate killed a Regent of Skyline."
"Oh, psh," said Fate, waving dismissively. "No one's listening."
Jo shook his head. He turned to Inversion and said, "Lesson number two. The air has ears." He gestured to the darkness around them. "We used to say the walls have ears, until two idiot students decided one day it was fine to talk business because they were outdoors. When Maestro Rizzo delivered their eulogy, he came up with the new phrase." He opened a lightly dusty cabinet and pulled out two bundles of bedding, neatly folded, tossing one to each of his guests.
"Make yourselves at home," he said. "We'll head out at dawn tomorrow, see if we can get the jump on these marauders." And with a nod, he was gone.
Inversion and Fate set up their bedding on the dojo floor and tucked themselves in. It was still relatively warm out and the air was comfortable in the lightly insulated dojo. They lay quietly for a moment in the dark before Fate spoke.
"Well... it's been a day," she said.
"Sure has," said Inversion.
"I wanted to apologize," she said slowly, "for you having such a terrible first day, but, well... I still don't think I've processed everything that happened, and I'm not totally sure if it wasn't your fault."
"Maybe a little," said Inversion, scratching his head, before tucking his arm back under his blanket.
"I'm not trying to blame you," said Fate, quickly.
"I think we might have each made some bad decisions," said Inversion, "but this all started with everyone at the Halberta mansion being killed, and we didn't kill them, the ghost did. The thing that looked like a ghost, anyway. So it was really the ghost's fault."
"That's true," yawned Fate.
"So I don't think you have to apologize. The ghost should."
"Maybe the ghost has an explanation," said Fate sleepily.
"Oh," said Inversion, who hadn't thought about that. He hadn't thought the ghost might be a person, or some kind of being, with motivations. He pondered that thoughtfully for a while. "Do you really think..."
Fate snored loudly.
Inversion flashed back to Jo saying, "Lesson number one: before a big assassination, get a good night's sleep." He couldn't find any fault with it, so he passed out.