Notecard_NorioNorio sat in his nest of woven branches by the Sunlo cliffs, waiting for Grigor to arrive. The business that brought him to the equator required more than simple anonymity – no one could know he was there. The trees in the Upright Meadowlands were small compared to others around the world, so he had taken extra care to choose one where he could see the entire cliff face while remaining hidden from local residents. The longer he stayed, though, the greater the chance he would be discovered, and Grigor was already several days late. Norio would not be able to wait much longer. Once Arion’s two small moons crossed paths in the sky, he would have to head north. That gave him only one more day to stay hidden in the grove.

Feeling hungry, he reached for a pear on a nearby branch. He was surprised to see frost had formed around the stem. He lowered his hood and held the back of his gloved hand against his cheek. The thin leather was cold. He chastised himself for neglecting his physical needs. As fit as he was, Norio often had to remind himself he was no longer a young man. He’d been handicapped for years by the lack of feeling in his arms, and now the cold temperature would only rob him of the little dexterity he still possessed. He reached into his small pack and pulled out a pair of black fursnake gloves. Once he fitted them over his other gloves, he flexed his fingers to increase circulation.

Rapid footsteps approached the tree. Norio peered through the gaps in the branches and saw Alex Vonn, his student from the University of Celestial City. Alex was visiting Sunlo during the semester break, a fortunate coincidence for Norio. He would be able to see if Alex behaved more openly with those closest to him. Alex passed within a dozen meters of his perch, then stopped and waited. Cale Biedrik, Alex’s foster brother, caught up with him. Together they walked to the cliff to get some cobblegrapes from the vines that dangled there. They didn’t see Norio, nor should they have; stealth was his specialty. He watched Alex bypass the ladder to free-climb the vertical sandstone. Cale used the ladder, but still had trouble keeping up. They looked like two normal young men, and that pleased Norio.

Norio saw a figure appear at the top of the hundred-meter cliff. With the help of a small spyglass, he identified Grigor. He had made it through the mountains alive. Months earlier, Norio had expressed misgivings about Grigor making the delivery. He was a naive idealist with little training and no field experience. Now it seemed he would succeed after all.

As he watched, Norio detected movement to Grigor’s left. A large man stepped out of the shadows, approaching Grigor quietly. Norio knew the man was an assassin. He recognized the type, even from his vantage point far below. He had dealt with men like him many times before. Grigor was dangerously unaware of him, though, and Norio had no time to scale the cliff. When the man plunged something into Grigor’s neck, Norio knew it was too late. Grigor screamed in fear and stumbled towards the edge of the cliff. The assassin hadn’t anticipated that. He tried to keep Grigor from falling, but wasn’t able to hold on.

Norio watched Grigor go over the edge. Before he had fallen half the distance, Norio was out of his camouflaged nest, sprinting through the shadows to intercept him. He reached the spongebushes moments after Grigor landed in them.

Grigor was alive, barely. The spongebushes cushioned his fall as they were designed to, but he was gasping for air. His face mottled purple, Norio knew there was nothing he could do. The assassin had injected him with a toxin, possibly from a jellidic ampulla fern. Grigor gaped wide-eyed at Norio, fearful and unable to speak. With a tear falling from the corner of his eye, he patted his chest shakily, then succumbed to the poison.

The assassin looked down the cliff. He wouldn’t be able to see Norio in the shadows, but Alex and Cale were in the open. Norio dreaded what the assassin would do if he considered them a threat. He grabbed the hilt of his walking stick, determined to reveal the hidden blade within and protect them if the need arose.

Somebody near the grove sounded the alarm. The townsfolk, now alerted, came running. Alex and Cale would be safe from harm with a crowd of witnesses on the way, but Norio would be discovered if he remained. He quickly pulled Grigor’s body off the spongebush where it lay and dropped him to the ground. With only seconds to work, he found the small tube around his dead friend’s neck and yanked it off. He made sure his path was clear, then dashed back to the nest before anyone saw him.

Alex found Grigor’s body on the ground, but did not touch him. The assassin was the next to arrive and eyed him suspiciously. When he deemed Alex a non-threat, he played the role of concerned citizen and sent Alex back up the cliff to help Cale. Once Alex started up the ladder, the assassin hefted Grigor over his shoulder and ran around a tool shed before anyone else arrived.

Norio watched Alex carry Cale down the ladder, then observed the scene between him and his foster family. Cale displayed the normal response for a youth who had seen death for the first time; he cried. Alex, however, remained stoic. It concerned Norio, but there was nothing he could do about it.

People came and went for the next hour, asking one another where the body went. The doctor did not know, nor did anyone else. Someone suggested it was a dummy, thrown off the cliff by the two young men who supposedly witnessed the accident. Another said the younger one was far too traumatized for it to be a prank. They found no answers, so they returned home to wonder about it. Once they were all gone, it took another ten minutes before the assassin emerged from the shadows behind the tool shed. He looked furious. He made a quick search of the ground where he had found Grigor’s body, then hurried back up the ladder to the top of the cliff.

Norio refused to let the man get away with murder. He waited until he disappeared beyond the cliff’s edge before dropping out of his nest again. He hurriedly rearranged the branches to their proper places, adjusted the walking stick on his hip, then headed up the ladder.

The top of the cliff was deserted. There were plenty of footprints leading to a gravel trail behind a water tower, but Norio was not fooled. It was the nearly undetectable tracks that interested him. He followed them over the rocky crags that marked Arion’s equator, the terminator line between Arion’s daylight side and the dark southern hemisphere. With a last look at Kithara, Norio climbed down into the icy twilight.

Half an hour later, Norio could find no trace of the assassin. He stopped short when he saw three letters carved into a frozen crevice wall. Xiv had been there minutes earlier by the look of it. A T’Neth never gave away his presence without reason, so he apparently wanted Norio to know he was there. Would that be a problem? Norio never knew what to expect from a T’Neth. He scanned the mountainside, checking every spot a man could hide. No one was there; no one that wished to be seen at least. There was a pointer, however. Perhaps Xiv had left him a clue. Norio was wary to follow it, but with the assassin’s trail lost to him, he decided to risk it. He climbed up the face of the rock where the pointer indicated and looked behind it. There, the assassin lay dead, packed neatly into a fissure in the rock.

Norio got his first clear look at the man’s face. He could not help but stare. The assassin was a fellow Jovian, and one he recognized at that. His name was Dashi. Norio had overseen his training as a garden keeper in the service of The Guile over a decade earlier. Rage grew within him as he thought about the implications of his own countrymen crossing into the Plainsman Territory again. More would come, and soon. Norio seized Dashi’s cloak and pulled up on it. The heat in his body already leeched away by the frozen rock, he came out of the fissure stiffened. Norio searched him thoroughly and found nothing. Even his walking stick was gone, perhaps taken as a trophy by Xiv. He shoved the body back into the crevice.

Norio looked up suddenly, wondering if he would be the T’Neth’s next victim. T’Neth could be like that; one never knew if they were helping or luring one into a trap. He flexed his fingers, hoping they weren’t too dulled by the cold, and prepared to draw his sword. No, he thought. If Dashi, a younger and stronger garden keeper could not defeat Xiv, he had little chance of doing better. He pulled his hand back. As a show of good faith, he picked up a rock and smashed the letters carved in the ice. With his legs getting cold, he knew he would have to retreat soon or join Dashi in a frozen death. He took one more look around, then made his way back to the sunlit side of the planet.

Norio arrived back at Celestial City a month later, grateful to be in the hot climate again. He smiled when he saw Alex running around the top of the city wall. The guards at the battlements shouted their customary threats at him as he ran by, and Alex ignored them as he always did. Everything seemed back to normal. It wasn’t, of course. Norio considered how closely his mission had come to failing. Questions had been left unanswered, most notably that Grigor’s body somehow got moved from the spongebushes to the shadows behind a tool shed. It would prompt an investigation to be sure, but none that Norio would concern himself with – there was no trace of his presence in the Upright Meadowlands.

He walked to his home by the wall, gladdened by the familiar aroma of his plants when he entered the front door. He put his clothes in the hamper, deciding to wait until the next day to clean them. For the time being, he had something else on his mind. He walked to his study and opened the tube he had gotten from Grigor. It crinkled when he unrolled it, as it was very old. He took out a fresh piece of parchment and a quill, then began transcribing the contents onto a new document.

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