Murder weighed heavily on the noble’s mind as he strolled through the beautiful gardens. Of course, as Grandmaster of the all the Assassins Guilds in the Empire of Tsing, murder was always on his mind. Death was his business. He took pleasure in his work, but more and more often that pleasure was tainted by unpleasantness.
Today’s unpleasantness took the form of a garden party at the Imperial Palace. Dozens of overdressed courtiers strolled and chatted, strutting like peacocks dressed in plumage of silk and satin, frilled lace and powdered wigs.
More like a flock of carrion crows attending a corpse, cawing and flapping for a piece of the emperor’s attention. He hid his sneer of contempt behind a placid smile and strolled on. They thought themselves superior, clever, truly noble, but he knew their secrets. He knew all their secrets, and their petty intrigues bored him, their blatant pandering a constant ache he could not ease, a rotten tooth he could not pull.
Yet, as much as it disgusted him, he had to live the lie. He had to wear a mask of propriety to maintain his image and hide the assassin within.
A flash of darker color among the pastel hues drew the noble’s eye. A man wound his way through the crowd, his simple crimson robe cinched with a silver chain around his waist, incongruous against the courtiers’ finery. The golden feather embroidered on the breast of his robe marked the man as a high priest of Demia, Keeper of the Slain, but he stood out from the gaudy courtiers in more than just his dress and calling. His fluid, purposeful steps and serious bearing gave him the look of a hawk amidst the peacocks. Sidelong glances and whispers followed in his wake. This priest of the death goddess disconcerted the courtiers, as if a shadow walked among them. They turned away, feigning disinterest, and gave him a wide berth.
A thrill of intrigue tickled the Grandmaster’s stomach, heightening his senses and cutting through his boredom, for even though the priestly garb was no disguise, he knew what else this visitor was. He gestured, and the man smoothly shifted his trajectory, matching the noble’s casual stride as he turned and made his way deep into the maze of flowering shrubs and groomed hedges, away from the inane banter and courtly laughter. Two bodyguards followed at a discreet distance, but he wasn’t concerned with them overhearing the conversation. As blademaster monks of Kos Godslayer, they were constrained by spells of obedience, and had their tongues cut out to prevent unintentional slips.
When they were out of earshot, the man in crimson bowed and said, “Grandmaster, I bear news from Twailin.”
He sighed. Twailin again. The subject of Twailin was beginning to irritate him. The news was never good.
“So, what news from our recalcitrant brothers and sisters, Hoseph?” He paused before a delicate topiary of jasmine and bent to inhale the heady aroma.
“The situation worsens, Grandmaster. They still have not appointed a guildmaster, the factions squabble amongst themselves like a gaggle of geese over breadcrumbs, and the Thieves Guild is moving in on their territories. Revenues continue to fall.”
“A pity.” The Grandmaster strolled over to a rose bush. Dew glinted on a spider web strung between two of the stems, and he smiled as he compared its complex architecture with his own situation. He was the spider, his network of Inquisitors the strands, feeding him information from assassins guilds in every city of the empire and beyond. When they told of something tasty, he pulled it in and feasted. Hoseph was his primary intermediary, his conduit to that web of information. The Grandmaster knew the players in this game as well as he knew the court fawners, though he did not know all of their secrets. Assassins were more circumspect.
Drawing a short, hooked knife from a fold of his robes, he snicked a blossom free from the bush with one deft stroke. The glistening petals shone dark and vibrant, the hue of fresh-spilled venous blood, and the aroma filled his head with a cloud of sweet remembrance.
Father’s funeral…roses atop his casket…the satisfaction of putting that pretentious prig deep underground.
He thought about the dilemma as he methodically cut the thorns from the stem with quick twists of the blade, not unlike the motion he would use to sever a selected tendon to access the nerve beneath. Though he had been groomed from a tender age for the ultimate position of authority, as Grandmaster he rarely got the opportunity to practice the assassin’s disciplines. He had a real knack and love for inquisition, however, even if his efforts were more recreational than professional.
“It’s been five years since Saliez’s death, and still we’re feeling the repercussions. I’d hoped their attempts to operate without a guildmaster would not disrupt business, but that doesn’t seem to be the case.”
“Initial financial gains without the expenditures of a guildmaster’s tithe were promising. Saliez was rather extravagant.”
Hoseph’s placating tone narrowed his master’s eyes.
“Don’t patronize!” He sliced the last thorn from the rose and brought the blossom to his nose. A deep breath, a slow exhale, and his ire eased. “Saliez may have been extravagant, and even egomaniacal, but at least he was ambitious and led with purpose. This intra-guild squabbling is detrimental. Tell them that they must appoint a new guildmaster from within their own ranks within two months, or I’ll send them one.”
“It would be best if someone familiar with Twailin filled that post, Grandmaster, but if you place someone of our own choosing in that position, it will work to your advantage.” Hoseph’s tone bespoke volumes, but he danced around the point as if it would burn him, and the Grandmaster fumed.
“People give me obsequious double talk all day long, Hoseph. If you wish to retain your position, speak plainly!” He inhaled the rose’s heady aroma and leveled a stare straight into the man’s eyes. “You obviously have someone in mind.”
“Yes, Grandmaster. But the masters of the other factions may not agree with my choice.”
“You need only concern yourself with my opinion, Hoseph. I don’t give a bent copper for what these masters think! They may be skilled and powerful in their own little worlds, but the Assassins Guild is vast, and I’m the one who makes the decisions that benefit us all. Now, who do you think would best fit our needs in that post?”
Hoseph’s face remained inscrutable, but his stance tensed under his master’s rebuke. He cleared his throat before continuing. “Master Hunter Mya is ambitions and skilled, though young. Her revenues are higher than any of the other factions. She has potential.”
Muscles writhed beneath the skin of the Grandmaster’s jaw. “She was also involved in Saliez’s death, wasn’t she?”
“She did tell her fellow masters that she was there when Saliez died, but she wore a master’s ring, so she couldn’t have killed him.” Hoseph swallowed and shrugged. “If you remember, the Royal Guard invaded Saliez’s estate, so we had no way to find out how Saliez was killed. Mya managed to escape with his weapon.”
“Yes. Saliez’s weapon.” The human weapon had managed to kill targets directly under the protection of the Twailin Royal Guard, an unprecedented feat. “She wields it still, does she not?”
“Yes, Grandmaster. She had been assigned by Saliez to its care, and after his death, she was the only one able to control it. She uses it as her personal bodyguard.” Hoseph’s mouth twisted into a smile. “It’s kept her alive in spite of some serious attempts on her life from her fellow masters.”
“The squabbling has gone that far?”
“Yes, Grandmaster. And she’s returned the favor. You remember the report of the Master Inquisitor’s death two years ago. That was rumored to be Mya’s doing.”
“Hmm…indeed.” He dropped the rose to the groomed turf and crushed the delicate blossom under his boot. “She’s dangerous. That weapon is the only creature in the Assassins Guild capable of harming me, and you think I should promote her to guildmaster?”
Hoseph tilted his head and pursed his mouth before answering. “Saliez promoted her to Master Hunter over many older and more experienced guild members. That suggests great trust. While it’s true that the weapon has signed no blood contract, and is therefore not constrained from killing a wearer of a master’s, guildmaster’s or even the Grandmaster’s ring, I think the key to controlling it is to control Mya. Elevate her to guildmaster and you put her securely in your debt, which might persuade her to wield her weapon at your command.”
The Grandmaster’s eyes narrowed. Yes, the thought had merit. Saliez’s…Mya’s weapon was an asset to be used properly, not wasted as a bodyguard. His trained mind skipped ahead to consider all the possibilities, plans, and plots that could benefit from the use of such a weapon, as well as the risks and opportunities for betrayal. The scales of risk versus potential gain tipped in his favor.
“Very well, make the offer, but make it directly to Mya.”
“Also, we must protect our investment. Instruct her to have a new ring forged, but insist that she doesn’t tell the other masters about it until she actually wears the ring. If they learn of my offer before she has that protection, they’ll go after her.”
“Of course, Grandmaster.”
“But we can’t be sure the other masters don’t have spies in her camp. If she dies, the weapon will be without a master. He’ll run. I want Mya protected from the other masters until she wears the guildmaster’s ring.”
“She is protected, Grandmaster. The weapon—”
“Protect him, also.”
“Protect the weapon? By all accounts, it’s virtually invulnerable.”
“He is human, and mortal, and as such, he must have weaknesses. The masters of the Twailin guild might be able to find those weaknesses and exploit them.”
“I…suppose that’s possible.”
“And be subtle. Use resources outside the guild, someone familiar with Twailin. See to it.” He waved dismissively.
“I will, Grandmaster.” Hoseph bowed, took two steps back, and turned to go.
The Grandmaster smiled. He had spun a new strand for his web. His mind whirled with potential uses for the weapon once he had Mya under his thumb.
Sereth stood at his master’s elbow, hands clasped casually behind his back, fingers resting on the hilts of the daggers in his sleeves. Watch nothing, see everything, he thought, letting his vision slip into the attentive blankness that would best observe, even while appearing bored and inattentive.
He had plenty to keep his attention occupied.
The room itself was unremarkable, a wood-paneled office in the back of a brothel. The room’s occupants, however, were among the most dangerous people in all of Twailin, master assassins and their bodyguards, the best of the best, or worst of the worst, depending on one’s point of view.
Four of the five masters of the Twailin Assassins Guild were present for the meeting. Master Alchemist Neera sat stiffly, her rich robes drawn around her like armor. The eldest of the four, she seemed so frail that her ancient bones might shatter in a stiff breeze, her wrinkled skin dissolve to dust and blow away. Sereth knew better than to gauge her by her appearance. The alchemist wielded more magic than any other member of the Twailin guild. Her concoctions could heal, harm, kill or, rumor suggested, revive from the very brink of death. Her bodyguard, a slim fellow Sereth knew only by reputation, preferred envenomed darts, and rarely missed his target.
Master Enforcer Youtrin filled his seat like a side of beef fills a butcher’s case. Huge hands, knuckles scarred by a thousand beatings, lay clasped on the table’s varnished surface. He might not be the sharpest dagger in the arsenal, but in a fight, he could receive and deal more hurt than any other two men in the room. A bodyguard seemed redundant, but he had one nonetheless, a huge brute with arms like tree trunks. His jutting lower jaw and olive-drab skin bespoke of ogre blood, but his eyes were sharp and cunning.
The newest member of the council, Master Inquisitor Patrice, lounged in her seat, clad in a comfortable array of silks and satins. She owned this particular brothel and a half dozen more like it, but Sereth knew that her greatest talents were not in the bedroom. She could flay the secrets from a person’s mind like flesh from bone, and knew more about pain than Sereth ever wanted to learn. In his nightmares, he lay upon her table, his secrets laid bare as his skin peeled away.
Sereth repressed a shiver and focused on the Inquisitor’s bodyguard. She was dressed like a trollop, but Sereth knew her vicious reputation, and did not allow the swell of pale flesh revealed by her loose bodice to distract him.
Sereth’s own master, Horice, was head of the Blades faction, and probably the best swordsman in the city. That skill had served him well, clearing the path to the position he now held. Even so, he was not without adversaries, and not all attacks could be met with a blade, especially in this company.
Adversaries… The notion almost brought an ironic smile to Sereth’s lips.
These three masters were supposed to be Horice’s allies—had been allies not too long ago—but relations between the factions had become more than strained. Knowing an adversary’s strengths and weaknesses kept you alive in this business. And while Sereth didn’t know everything about these people, he knew enough. He supposed that they knew a great deal about him as well, but was certain they did not know everything.
If they did, he would be dead, or worse, strapped to Patrice’s table.
A faint cry of passion drifted down from the rooms above, evidence of the quality services being offered. Everyone pretended not to hear, but like salt in a pot of water nearing a boil, the disruption served as a catalyst to action.
“I’m not waiting any longer!” Horice punctuated his remark with a fist to the tabletop. “That insolent upstart has kept us waiting long enough. I move we convene the meeting without her.”
“Seconded.” Neera’s voice rasped from her withered throat, a consequence of age or a lifetime of inhaling the fumes of her noxious trade. Her fingernails, yellowed from the powders and acids of countless concoctions, tapped the table in an impatient staccato. “Mya must have been delayed with other business.”
“She’s ignoring us!” Horice hammered the table again for emphasis. “She’s the one who suggested this council instead of appointing a new guildmaster, and she doesn’t even attend the meetings! It’s insulting!”
“The insolence of youth.” Patrice flicked one manicured hand in a dismissive gesture. Though the youngest master present, she was near twice the age of the absent Master Hunter Mya.
“She may be young, but she is skilled. Her defenses are formidable and her revenge swift.” Neera’s wizened lips curved into a cruel smile directed at the Master Inquisitor. “As your predecessor learned.”
Patrice’s eyes shot daggers, but she didn’t reply. Everyone in the room knew how the former Master Inquisitor had fallen; Mya’s retaliation for an attempt on her life. The attempt wasn’t the problem, but Patrice’s predecessor had made the fatal mistake of leaving a trail that the Master Hunter could trace back to her.
“We’ll see how skilled she is.” Youtrin’s scarred face stretched into a smug smile as he leaned back in his creaking chair.
“Shut up!” Horice fired a dirty look at the Master Enforcer.
Idiot, Sereth thought, then revised his assessment. Twice idiot! Once for agreeing to help Youtrin kill Mya, and again for opening your mouth about it among the other masters. Of course he knew what they were planning. It would have been difficult not to know, since he spent nearly every waking hour in Horice’s shadow. And though they might not agree on much else, Horice and Youtrin shared a dislike of the young Master Hunter. Mya’s dismissal of their condescending council had fostered that dislike, and it wasn’t improved by her unconventional practices.
“Not another one!” Patrice’s glossy lips tilted in a disapproving frown. “Don’t you two ever get tired of trying to kill everyone who insults your fragile egos?”
“What I’m tired of is listening to you tell me what I should and shouldn’t do!” Horice’s hand shifted to the hilt of the rapier at his hip, and Sereth stiffened. Though the hilt was below the table, the movement of Horice’s shoulder brought Patrice’s bodyguard’s attention to bear. Sereth gauged the angles between them. Though fetching, the deep V of her décolletage made an apt target.
Neera raised a wrinkled hand. “Enough of this bickering! I call this meeting to order. I suggested that we meet to discuss this very issue.”
“Good!” Youtrin sat up in his chair, his brutish features intent. “It’s about time we did something about that insolent whelp!”
“You misunderstand me, Master Youtrin.” Eyes like pools of acid fixed the Master Enforcer with a pitiless gaze. “I speak of our continued inability to cooperate. This intra-guild squabbling makes us weak, and the Thieves Guild is pressing at every chink in our armor.”
“That’s the truth! A couple of my boys were roughed up on their rounds just yesterday.” Youtrin cracked his knuckles, a sound like popping corn. “Our protection racket lost two more clients! Damned thieves undercut our rates, and they don’t bluff about enforcing their new territory.”
“It’s not their territory; it’s territory they stole from you!” Horice corrected. “They’re pushing everywhere. It’s got to stop!”
“So you two are diverting resources to attack a master in our own guild instead of focusing on the real enemy! That makes sense!” Patrice’s sneer of contempt earned her a glare from the Master Blade.
“Slapping down that contemptuous little bitch isn’t a matter of business, it’s a matter of principle. She disrespects us, all of us.”
“I disagree, Horice. It is a matter of business.” Neera’s calm tone juxtaposed his acerbic one, though Sereth could see her jaw muscles tense through her thin skin. “Resources allocated to one effort are necessarily diverted from others. We fight each other, so we have fewer resources to combat our true enemies. We must cooperate, or we will fall. We’ve lost a tenth of our territory south of the river in the last year, and revenues reflect that loss. Our lost income has surpassed the gains we enjoyed from not having to support a guildmaster.”
“How can we cooperate when one of our own masters won’t even come to council meetings?” Youtrin protested. “She refuses to lend her Hunters where they’re needed, and won’t even discuss issues that impact our operations. She’s the one who suggested we could do without a guildmaster!”
“Yes, she did, and if you remember, it worked. Unfortunately, differences of opinion and refusals to compromise led to disagreements and this current lack of cooperation.” Neera’s tone had hardened, and her eyes flicked to all the others in turn, accusative and piercing. “The visit from the Grandmaster’s representative to collect last quarter’s revenues was not pleasant. She grilled me for a full hour about this situation, and I assume you all experienced the same. If this continues, we’ll face sanction by the Grandmaster.”
“Sanction?” Patrice’s eyes widened. That word meant only one thing within the guild. “Kill us for squabbling? He wouldn’t dare!”
“The Grandmaster has the authority to take any action he deems fit,” Neera reminded her. “Our goal should be to make sure he does not see the necessity to replace us. We must cooperate!”
“And how do you propose we do that when we can’t even make the youngest and most inexperienced of this council attend a meeting?” Horice shifted in his seat, and every bodyguard in the room tensed.
“This meeting is not about Master Hunter Mya!” Neera’s lips constricted into a shriveled moue. “Her revenues are the highest among the guild factions. Instead of denouncing her youth and inexperience, perhaps you should consider emulating her success!”
“Success? She runs her Hunters like a band of peasants for hire! She takes contracts that do nothing to further the influence of the guild! She’s even performed services for the thrice-damned Royal Guard!” Horice was in full rant mode now, and even the sternest glare from Neera could not quell his ire. “Sure, she makes more money than the rest of us! We’re specialists, and Hunters are generalists, which means she suffers least from the lack of cooperation. She refuses to cooperate, thwarts us at every turn, and it makes her look good! She doesn’t follow the tenants of the council she suggested we form! She votes against every initiative this council puts forth, all for her own gain! She’s reckless and greedy!”
“And what does she do with her gains?” Youtrin put in, feeding off of Horice’s temper. “She isn’t even maintaining the image of her position as a master! She lives in that hovel of a pub!”
“Enough!” Neera’s tone stifled their rants like a snuffed candle. “None of us are following the rules we all agreed to five years ago, Horice. I see only two options to help this situation, cooperate or appoint a new guildmaster.”
“Fine! I move that we vote to pick a new leader of the Twailin Assassins Guild right now.”
“Another vote?” Patrice slumped in her seat, obviously disgusted.
“Seconded!” Youtrin said.
Neera’s eyes narrowed and her jaw muscles bunched and writhed until Sereth thought her teeth might shatter. There had been numerous such votes, and none had passed. The Master Alchemist always sided with Mya on this issue, and Patrice generally voted with Neera. Horice and Youtrin voted together as if joined at the hip. With Mya absent, the likely result was a stalemate.
“Very well. A quorum is present. All in favor of appointing a new guildmaster.”
Horice and Youtrin raised their hands; no surprise there. The corner of Neera’s mouth twitched in the hint of a smile.
“All opposed?” Neera raised her hand and looked to Patrice, but the Master Inquisitor did not raise her hand. “Patrice?”
The Inquisitor looked at her, then away. “I abstain.”
Sereth cocked an eyebrow in surprise. This was a switch. Patrice wasn’t exactly thwarting the Master Alchemist, but she wasn’t supporting her either. Likewise, she wasn’t supporting Horice and Youtrin. What the hells is she up to?
“The vote is two to one, Neera! The motion carries! We select a new guildmaster!”
“I nominate Master Alchemist Neera.” Patrice glanced back to the older woman and smiled, then faltered when the Alchemist’s lips remained pressed in a thin, hard line of displeasure.
Sereth squinted in confusion. What just happened here? But before he could fathom a plausible reason for the Patrice’s actions or Neera’s response, the Master Alchemist huffed and continued.
“Before we entertain nominations, we need a new guildmaster’s ring.”
Sereth shuddered. He remembered the previous guildmaster’s ring all too well. Prior to becoming Horice’s bodyguard, he had served as the Grandfather’s assistant. The other journeymen had envied him for his position at the luxurious estate, currying the favor of the guildmaster. What they hadn’t known was that every dawn he had wondered if he would survive until dusk. The Grandfather had taken lives at a whim, and tolerated no misstep or annoyance. Obsidian woven with gold and enchanted with powerful magics, the guildmaster’s ring ensured the wearer’s safety from all others in the Twailin Assassins Guild, just as the masters’ rings protected their wearers from those within their factions. The rings were magically bound to the blood contracts that all assassins signed when they were accepted into the guild.
“We’ll all share equally in the ring’s cost.”
“Agreed, but…” Youtrin’s thick brow furrowed, as if thinking too deeply pained him. “I move that we don’t inform Mya of this until after the new guildmaster is in place. She didn’t help us make this decision; I see no reason to inform her until it’s done.”
“Seconded!” Horice flashed a wide grin and gave Youtrin a nod of approval. “At the least, it will prevent her from squawking about it until after the fact.”
“All in favor?”
Surprisingly, in this if nothing else, all four masters agreed.
They fear Mya, Sereth thought, then amended his supposition, or her weapon.
“Very well. I’ll contract a mage to forge the ring and contact you when it’s finished.” Neera raked the room with a sardonic glare. “Do try not to kill one another until it’s done. Any more business for the council?”
There was none.
“Very well. This meeting is adjourned.”
The masters stood, and their bodyguards moved to usher them out. Patrice and Neera disappeared through the door that led to the common room of the brothel, cheerful chatter and laughter reaching Sereth’s ear’s until the door shut behind them. Youtrin and Horice both turned toward the exit through the back hall to the alley where their carriages waited. Sereth took his time plucking his master’s cloak from the rack beside the door and draping it over the man’s shoulders. As he’d hoped, the Enforcers preceded them out the door. Despite the apparent camaraderie between Horice and Youtrin, he didn’t trust the thugs as far as he could throw them. By the time the Blades reached the outer door, Youtrin’s carriage had already pulled away into the rain-soaked darkness.
“Bloody rain!” Horice drew up the hood of his weather cloak as he squinted out the door. “My bones ache with this blasted weather!”
Springtime in Twailin was a wet affair. Moist air rolled across the lowlands from the western ocean before slamming into the towering bluffs to the east, the high, steep walls of the ancient crater that contained the Bitter Sea. The result was rain. For three months, only shreds of pale sun eked through the constant covering of clouds, and the heavens opened up daily. It was not a cold rain—the lowlands were far enough south that the weather rarely, if ever, warranted a heavy cloak—but the constant dank weather chilled the soul. When summer finally arrived, the blistering heat was a welcome change.
As the carriage pulled to a stop in the alley, Horice started to step out into the rain, but Sereth put a restraining hand on his arm.
“Garrote weather, Master. Best let me check.”
“Right. Thank you, Sereth. Don’t know what I was thinking.”
Sereth looked up and down the alley, then stepped out into the rain and turned to check above the doorway. He was well-acquainted with the advantages of garrote weather, having used them himself. The constant hiss of rain on cobbles and the roar of deluges from downspouts prevented a mark from hearing an assassin’s approach, and a heavy rain aided concealment. On the other hand, a downpour could ruin the trajectory of an arrow or bolt, darts or shuriken. Consequently, springtime was the season for close work, and garrote, dagger, and cudgel were the weapons of choice.
Tonight nothing lurked in the shadows above the door. Sereth crouched to peer under the carriage. Nothing. Lastly, he opened the carriage door and checked inside.
“Very good.” Horice hurried across the gap and boarded, shaking the rain from his cloak as Sereth ducked inside and took a seat. “Bloody rain!”
Settling back into the plush cushions, Horice doffed the hood of his cloak and propped his sheathed rapier against his knee. It seemed an extravagant weapon for an assassin, with an ornate silver basket-hilt and jewel-encrusted pommel, and was useless in the confined quarters of the carriage, but the blade never left Horice’s side. Rumor was it was enchanted, but Sereth didn’t know what its magic did, and Horice never volunteered the information. So be it; he’d take his sturdy short sword and slender daggers any day.
Sereth thumped the roof, and the carriage lurched into motion. He leaned back, rested one hand on a dagger hilt and the other on the latch to the carriage’s door, tired, but attentive.
Horice shifted in his seat again, drawing his attention. The master often complained about the weather causing his bones to ache. Apparently, even the best swordsman in Twailin was not immune to the effects of age. Sereth didn’t like Horice much, and didn’t care for his assignment as the man’s bodyguard, but the position had advantages, not having to fight in the inter-faction squabbles, fend off Thieves Guild advances into their territory, or serve a maniac like the Grandfather chief among them.
But there are disadvantages as well, he reminded himself. His position had attracted the attention of others, and Sereth was paying for it every day of his life. Even worse, he wasn’t the only one paying for it.
The creak of an iron gate and the hail of guards snapped him out of his gloom; they had arrived at Horice’s estate. The carriage lurched to a stop before the gaping double doors. A valet waited with a towel draped over one arm, a silver tray topped with a crystal tumbler and decanter in his other hand.
“Won’t need you ’til morning, Sereth.” Horice waited for Sereth to open the door and jump out before following and hurrying up the steps. As he toweled dry, he called back, “Good work today. Go home and get dry.”
“Thank you, Master.” Sereth strode across the courtyard and through the gates, nodding to the guards as he passed. He had much to do, and this weather was good for more than killing. With the aid of the rain, he could easily pass through the city without being noticed, and he had a long way to go—and another master to serve—before he could go to his own cold, empty home.
Garrote weather.” Mya stepped out into the rain without even raising the hood of her cloak.
Lad followed without pause. He didn’t wear a cloak. His old master’s lesson rang in his mind: Garments that impede movement hinder your abilities. Remember! Discomfort was transient; a dagger in the heart was permanent.
Together, they walked through the rain. Mya didn’t like carriages, preferring to walk regardless of the weather. He agreed with her; carriages were noisy, confining and slow, hindering both perception and mobility. May as well climb into a coffin, have it nailed shut, and be loaded onto a hearse. He scanned the street, the shadows, the surrounding rooftops and the storm grates. The rainy season always made him tense. His eyes penetrated the gloom easily, but the rain interfered with his hearing. Detecting a heartbeat or a knife leaving a sheath was impossible even for him in a downpour like this, and the rain masked the subtle scents of sweat, bad breath and flatulence that might betray a hidden assassin.
“Yes, Mya. Please, stay close. The rain—”
“Interferes with your perceptions. Yes, you’ve said that.” She gave him a sidelong smile. “About a thousand times.”
“Really?” He gave her a blank look. “You counted?”
“No, I didn’t count, Lad.” Mya rolled her eyes. “Sometimes I think that all the magic has damaged your brain a little.”
Lad quelled a smile. Despite Mya’s quick mind, she still hadn’t caught on to his affectation. His understanding of subtle verbal interplay had vastly matured since his arrival in Twailin, but he found that people tended to underestimate him when they thought him naïve. If your enemy is strong, feign weakness. If your enemy is weak, show your strength. Remember! He would use every advantage he could to protect himself and his family, even in dealing with Mya.
“I hadn’t considered that possibility.” He glanced at her quizzically. “If my brain is damaged, could it be fixed?”
Motion low in the shadows…a rat. They passed the spot and the large rodent skittered away, a smaller rat screeching in its mouth. That was life in Twailin all wrapped up in one simple picture: the biggest rat wins. Despite that, Lad had not lost his love for the city; the teeming mass of humanity—each person struggling to be a just a bit too big for the next rat to eat—stimulated him as much now as it had the first day he walked through the city gate.
“Maybe. Magic can do amazing things, but without knowing what’s wrong, it might be dangerous.” She turned a corner and he scanned the narrow street carefully, every corner, every shadow, every niche. “Fixing a broken bone is one thing, but I don’t know about letting a mage or priest into my head. I mean, what if they fix something that isn’t broken?”
This, too, he understood, but the opportunity was just too juicy to pass up.
“How can you fix something that isn’t broken?”
Mya sighed and rolled her eyes again. “You can’t, Lad. What I meant was, if they go into your mind looking for something to fix, they might end up doing more damage than good. They could change what makes you who you are.”
“Oh! Yes, that wouldn’t be good.” He had no intention of letting anyone into his head. He’d had more than enough magic controlling his thoughts, emotions and actions for a lifetime. “I think I’ll stay like I am.”
“That’s fine with me.”
They walked in companionable silence while traversing two narrow alleys and a broad avenue. It was late, so there were few people on the street, but Lad never relaxed his vigilance. The rain eased from downpour to shower, allowing him to pick up more sounds and scents again. Metal clanking inside a second-floor apartment; just someone cooking. The scent of blood; only a butcher shop upwind. The creak of a window followed by a splash; someone emptying a chamber pot from a tenement window. Mya finally broke the silence as they crossed from the South Dock district into Eastmarket.
“What did you think of the meeting with Jayse? Do you think he’s sincere, or is there something else behind his request?”
Though Mya was very good at gauging people, and her tactical thinking was nothing short of brilliant, she often asked his opinion of their clients and colleagues, relying on his keen perceptions. People had tells, habits that betrayed their unease or nervousness, and Lad rarely missed fidgety fingers, pursed lips, or even the subtle tensing of muscles. Even Mya had tells, though she guarded her true emotions more closely than most. He would never admit to such an intimate knowledge of her body language, but he had learned much by watching her over the years.
“He didn’t show signs of being evasive.” He thought about it for a few steps, distracted by a sudden movement. Just a flapping awning. “I think he was sincere, but then, he runs a gambling house. He may be gambling that your help will be worth more than he’ll have to pay you.”
“That’s kind of what I thought. He just seemed…I don’t know…too nice. Almost like he was buttering me up.”
“He seemed eager to tell you what he thought you wanted to hear. It could mean many things: he’s trying to take advantage of you, he’s afraid of you, he wants to have sex with you, or—”
“Sex?” She stopped cold, her eyes slashing at him through the rain. “You think he wanted sex from me?”
“His actions could be construed in that way.” He looked at her curiously. Had she truly not considered that possibility? He had seen men’s eyes follow her as she strode past, lingering on slim curves and snug trousers. He shrugged. “Why would that surprise you, Mya? You’re an attractive, powerful young woman. Surely you’ve looked at men and thought—”
“Yes, Lad, I’ve looked at men and thought about having sex with them, but that’s not the issue.” Blood flushed to her face. The muscles of her jaw tensed and relaxed rhythmically, her teeth chirping against one another like tiny crickets. These were some of Mya’s tells. His comment had struck a nerve.
“No, it’s not. If that’s what Jayse wants from me, he’s in for a big surprise!” She turned and continued on her way, her stride purposeful as she mounted High Bridge. Below, the rain-swollen river ran fast and dark, the roar of rushing water overwhelming the sounds of her steps. Lad matched Mya’s pace, curious about what had set her off. He waited until they had descended from the arched bridge so he wouldn’t have to shout his question.
“Because he’s a businessman, and I’m a master in the guild!” Her voice sounded hard now. She crossed Broad Street, slowing as she entered the narrow alley that was the quickest path through the long block of shops lining the waterfront. Water still gurgled across the cobbles and through the gutters, but at least the rain had eased to a sprinkle. “I don’t piss in my own bath, Lad. Relationships with business associates are a bad—”
The hiss of an indrawn breath from the shadows…
Lad moved before the sound of a puff of air through the dart gun reached his ears.
Hand on her shoulder, pull her out of the line of attack…
Mya yelped, but yielded as he thrust her out of the way.
…step around, acquire the target…
The dart that sped toward them was too small to cause much damage, and so, must be poisoned.
…palm sweep and pivot.
Lad’s open palm slapped the dart aside without touching the barbed head, and he leapt toward its source. A blade sang from a sheath, another assassin in his path, sword arcing out of the night toward his throat.
Recognition of one’s opponent, his weapons, his expertise, is vital for survival. Remember!
Katana. The information came to him instinctively, without any deliberation on his part. Expert wielder, probably trained by a western blademaster. Lateral stroke meant to decapitate. Timing and execution perfect.
Lad knew the fine, layered steel of a katana would not break as easily as a common tempered blade. He twisted in mid-air, arching his spine and flinging back his head. The edge of the blade passed a half inch from his nose, so close that he could see the glimmering reflection of his own eyes in its wavy luster. He clapped the flat of the blade between his palms and used the power behind the attacker’s strike, as well as his own momentum, to pirouette around the sword.
As his heel met with the wielder’s temple, Lad pulled back minutely, exerting enough force to knock the man senseless, but not enough to snap his neck.
I will not kill for you…
Lad had held to that tenant for five years. Not once had he killed in Mya’s service, and tonight he would not break that vow.
Dropping to his feet, he released the blade in a flipping motion. As the braided sharkskin hilt slapped into his palm, he assessed his remaining opponents.
The attacker with the blowgun stepped back even as the other two advanced. The nearest held two daggers low and ready to strike, but she had not anticipated Lad’s theft of the first assailant’s sword, which gave him a considerable advantage in reach. He parried her two thrusts, then swung the weapon in an arc. The flat of the blade met with her skull, and she fell like a poleaxed steer. Her partner dodged out of reach.
As the momentum of Lad’s stroke turned him, he spied movement above and beyond Mya, two more assailants dropping from the rooftops. They would reach her before he could finish with these, but she was already turning to face them, her daggers out. Lad knew she was not without skill; he just hoped she survived until he could lend his aid.
The puff of air from the dart caster’s second shot sounded like a hammer blow in his mind. Intuition and training brought the blade up into the path of the dart, and the envenomed tip shattered against the flat of the katana. He leapt, knocked the blowgun aside, and placed a careful kick into her chest. The blow broke ribs, and her head cracked against the brick wall. She fell in a wheezing heap, but she, too, would live.
The last assailant stood with two hooked axes at the ready, but hesitated. Lad brought the katana around and settled into a proper stance, ready for the man’s attack.
It didn’t come.
The axe wielder’s gaze flicked past Lad, and then he simply backed away, turned and ran.
Lad whirled, ready to deal with the other two assailants, hoping that Mya had managed to stay alive. Unfortunately, he was too late.
Mya stood over two corpses, a bloody blade in each hand. One assassin’s throat was slit from ear to ear, while the other bore a wound to her left eye which undoubtedly penetrated all the way to the back of her skull. Unlike Lad, Mya had no compunctions about killing.
“Did their blades touch you?” He dropped the katana and approached her, looking for signs of weakness or pain in her stance. “They were poisoned.”
“No.” She looked at the daggers in her hands as if surprised they were there. Her eyes shone white, wide in the dim light. He could see her pulse pounding in her throat. “No, they didn’t even scratch me! HA!”
“You’re sure?” He looked her over, but her clothes weren’t torn or cut.
“Sure.” She took a deep breath and grinned at him. “They made such a racket coming off of the roof, I was ready, and surprised them.” She bent to clean her daggers on one of the fallen assassins’ cloaks, then stood and indicated the three unconscious foes. “We should take one to question.”
“Please. No, Mya.” He gripped her shoulder. “We should go.”
“Let me have a look at them, then.” She rolled the swordsman over and snorted in disgust. “I know this one. Wu Jah; I think that’s his name. Journeyman Blade. I should cut his head off and send it to Horice in a box!”
“Two deaths are enough for one night, and now you know who sent them. Come. Let’s be off.”
“If I send a message, maybe this bullshit will stop!”
“Or Horice will want revenge for the insult and try again.” He turned her away from the prostrate forms. “Come on.”
“Fine.” She sheathed her daggers and followed him down the alley at an easy trot.
Four blocks later they slowed to a walk. Lad was on high alert, but his attentiveness was so intuitive, he managed to replay the attack in his mind as they travelled. Never before had they been attacked by more than two or three assassins. Mya had been lucky tonight; a scratch from a poisoned weapon was as lethal as a dagger to the heart. She was more proficient than he had thought if she could kill two attackers with no harm to herself. Even though they had initiated the attack, he regretted the deaths. They had only been following orders. He knew what it was like to have to follow orders, and he knew that someone would mourn them.
Family, friends, lovers…
The dead were beyond fear and pain; it was the living who would suffer.
“This attack could have been prevented, Mya.”
“You’re right.” She cast him another vicious grin. “I should have killed Horice months ago.”
“That’s not what I meant!” He bit back his temper and forcibly calmed the tone of his voice. A deep breath returned his heart to a slow, easy cadence. “You ignore the council. They retaliate. If you paid them more heed…”
“They are old and irrelevant. They don’t understand me, and I refuse to kowtow to their whims.” She gave him an impatient glare; they’d had this discussion before. “I’ve tried to make the guild a less-brutal organization at your request, and I’ve succeeded with my own faction. By opposing the other masters, I’m trying to force them to change their ways. If I cooperate, the guild stays as bloody and brutal as always. You can’t have it both ways, Lad.”
“I know, but the violence is only worsening.”
“There’s no way to make lambs out of lions. Things change slowly or not at all, and change threatens the way they’re used to doing business, which threatens their power.”
“They wield enough power, Mya. If you cooperated on some things, they might—”
“You mean submit!” She gave him a short, humorless laugh. “No, Lad, if I give them a taste, they’ll take the whole larder.”
“Very well. You know these people better than I do.” That was true enough. Lad understood human nature, and had even managed to grasp the intricacies of bantering speech patterns, irony, and humor, but the machinations of the Assassins Guild were beyond him. He knew one thing, however, and voiced it as plainly as he could. “They’ll continue to try to kill you if you continue to alienate and ignore them.”
“Ha! Let them try. That’s what you’re here for, my friend.”
She gripped his shoulder, and he forced himself not to slap her hand away. He knew it wasn’t an attack, but Mya’s touch made him tense, which was odd, considering what they’d been through. She’d once cut a crossbow bolt out of his spleen, refusing his pleas to let him die. He’d never thanked her for that. Maybe he should have.
“We have the perfect relationship, Lad. You protect me…and I protect you.”
Lad tensed again. You protect me…and I protect you. From Mya, it sounded more like a threat than a promise. He protected her from harm. In exchange, she kept guild Enforcers away from the Tap and Kettle, and kept his head out of a noose. Lad had blood on his hands, and as unwilling as his actions might have been, the Royal Guard would still hang him if they ever discovered he had killed more than a dozen nobles five years ago.
Their agreement was simple, but as with any agreement with Mya, it worked to her advantage. To Lad, it was a trap he couldn’t escape without breaking his word twice over—his promise to Mya to protect her, as well as his promise to himself not to kill—for he knew she would never let him go until one of them lay dead in some back alley. He was too valuable to her, and she would never give up an advantage.
Finally, they approached the Golden Cockerel. Warm light glowed from the two large windows in the front of the bar’s ground floor. Two men lounged on the porch, and one of them opened the door as Mya and Lad approached.
“Evening, Miss. Hell of a night for a stroll.”
The two men were Hunters, and they were on duty. They didn’t look like assassins, of course, but that didn’t change what they were.
“Evening, Vic.” Mya nodded in passing.
Warmth and light, laughter and the clatter of dice, the clink and clatter of cups and glasses, all met his senses at once. Lad’s tension eased as he followed Mya into the pub’s boisterous common room. Many of those present—barmaids and prostitutes, gamblers and drinkers—were Mya’s Hunters. Here, if nowhere else in the city of Twailin, she was safe enough without his protection.
“Join me for some mulled wine, Lad?” Mya handed her cloak to the elderly woman at the door and accepted a towel for her dripping hair.
He nodded to the cloak-check woman, who gave him a motherly smile and a wink. As she hung up Mya’s cloak, he noted the row of straight scars that crossed the underside of her forearm. She, too, was one of Mya’s people, and each scar, he knew, denoted a kill.
Fathers, brothers, daughters, friends…
“No, thank you. I should go.”
“Well, be careful. I don’t want you to catch your death in this weather.”
“Catch my…” He automatically gave her a naïve look. “You mean catch a chill and become sick, right?”
“Very good, Lad.” She smiled and clapped him on the shoulder. He forced himself to not flinch. “But there’s more than one way to catch your death in garrote weather.”
“Oh, right. Yes. I’ll be careful.”
“Do that. And thank you, Lad.” She squeezed his shoulder, and her sincere tone told him what she meant. He’d saved her life again tonight.
“You’re welcome, Mya.” He nodded, then turned and walked out into the rain and toward his other life.