The Assassin's Cunning Excerpt





MOONLESS NIGHTS ARE ALWAYS THE best nights for an ambush. They’re also the best for transporting illicit goods you don’t want the authorities knowing anything about. Too bad for the six Black Guardsmen traipsing down the dark lane below that I’m not the authorities. Black cloaks, hoods, gloves, and boots. You’d think they were escorting a funeral procession. But though they moved slowly, it was only because they matched the pace of the mechanized carriage they escorted. A single driver manned the carriage, and while I knew little about the transport’s payload, I knew it was important. That didn’t matter, though. I wasn’t here for Gwendolyn Goddard’s latest infernal invention. I was here for the Guardsmen. If this was a heist, I would have arranged a blockade to slow or stop their progress or a distraction to create confusion. But this was a much simpler operation, requiring a different sort of execution altogether.

Planting my left foot securely at the roof’s edge, I waited until I saw their backs before pulling a single barbed arrow from my quiver. With a practiced motion, I set the arrow on my composite bow, drew the string back, and chose a target. Who died first didn’t matter, so I chose the nearest mercenary. Then I took in a breath, exhaled slowly, and loosed.

“Gah!” the Guardsman cried out as the barbed missile plunged into his back.

I repeated the routine, drawing, nocking, aiming, and loosing again, causing a second Guardsman to cry out in surprise and pain before the other four realized what was happening. Their reaction was swift, practiced, and predictable. Two took cover behind the still-moving wagon while the other two spun around behind their shields and tried to determine my location. Though there wasn’t much to shoot at with their shields in the way, I took aim anyway, loosing a barbed arrow that impacted the intended target with a satisfying thunk. Tossing my bow aside, I leaped from my rooftop perch to land on the top of the carriage. The driver spun around to face me with a club ready, and while I admired his dedication, I still slashed his throat open with one of my long knives. Clutching at the wound, he instinctively tried to stem the tide, but that never worked, so while he died and fell from the carriage, I dropped to the ground to deal with the others.

Even with no driver, the carriage kept rolling along, turning precisely at the next street to stay on course. Rounding that corner was just what I needed to keep the two pairs of Guardsmen separated, so as I engaged the two hiding behind their shields, the other two gifted me precious seconds by running around the carriage. Fighting two opponents instead of four made my job easier, but these two had the advantage of heavier armor, shields, and better reach with their long swords. The grins on their faces told me they knew it too. Or maybe it was because they knew my best weapons—my long knives—weren’t a match for their heavier armor and shields. Imagine their surprise when I didn’t reach for my usual blades but drew a sword from over a shoulder instead. Maybe the sword itself didn’t surprise them, but the blade’s dark course of steel did. Black as night, only the exotic metals of the volcanic Steel Islands yielded an edge so perfectly deadly. The dark metal was hypnotic, drawing the Guardsmen’s gazes. No longer grinning, they shook their fascination off and, snarling, advanced on me. One came in with the point of his blade balanced on his shield and ready to jab. The other was less subtle, lunging to deliver a mighty swing. It was nothing to leap to the side, letting them get in each other’s way as I swung at the first Guardsman’s legs. My blade sliced through greaves and into the flesh beneath, nearly taking the man’s leg off. While he screamed and crumpled to the ground, the other leaped over him and rushed me. I let him swing at me once, twice, and then I clove one end of his shield off when he raised it to block my attack.

Blades forged from rare and expensive Steel Island alloys were like that, and I hoped it wasn’t lost on him that I only brought this sword out for special occasions as I thrust the blade into his chest. He died with a moan, leaving me to finish the other with a similar thrust into his back while he crawled away. Not the most dignified way to die, but I wasn’t in the mood to grant concessions, especially with the other pair of Guardsmen closing on me. They tried a similar double-team tactic, hacking and thrusting with their long swords. But where the other two were slow and clumsy, these two were fast and skilled, forcing me back with a coordinated barrage. Fighting all four would have been a challenge, and it was too bad for them they hadn’t joined the fight sooner. As it stood, these two were good but not good enough. A neatly timed leap to one side as the first Guardsman dove in opened him to a killing stroke that I then reversed to catch the other’s sword. I let his blade slide from mine, and then we traded blows until the clang of steel rang down the darkened block. As much as I enjoyed the opportunity to shake the cobwebs from my sword skill, I didn’t want the carriage to get too far ahead, so I let the Guardsman think he had the better of me. When he overextended, I finished him with a swing at his torso, cutting the links of his mail shirt as easily as the flesh beneath. He let out a gasp and died. After wiping my blade clean on his cloak, I ran after the carriage, which was almost out of sight now, leaving four corpses and, I hoped, a clear message behind that I was done tolerating the Black Guard.

The squeak and whir of gears and other mechanical parts greeted me as I drew up alongside the carriage. The noise created a steady rhythm as it rolled down the avenue and turned once more, even though no one guided it. I might have considered jumping inside and riding it to its final destination, but this was no passenger transport. Lightly armored, with doors locked tight and no windows, Gwendolyn was taking no chances with whatever it carried. I didn’t blame her.

Ever since I’d passed on the information that she was working with the Warders, Elizabeth and Atticus had made her life a living hell, waylaying transports, stealing from warehouses, and even raising a legal stink via Atticus’s lawyers over the trading and transportation of illegal and dangerous alchemicals and such. I had no love for Gwendolyn, her faction of the society, or the Warders, and if I could help Liz’s cause against them, then I was happy to help. But I wasn’t here for any of that tonight. Tonight was about something more personal.

Some months had passed since my first altercation with the Black Guard, and while there’s been plenty of drama, fighting, and words exchanged since then, the simple fact was that they remained sore over the single killing of someone they were charged with protecting. They’ve been trying to even the score ever since, mainly by killing me but also by driving me from every one of the fine taverns and wineshops I frequented before I’d run afoul of their obsessive ways. These days, I’m lucky if I get a moment’s peace in a dive of an establishment while I drink watered-down mead from a wooden cup. I’ve lived on both sides of the road, so I can say unequivocally that I prefer the sunnier, wealthier side. A reckoning between myself and the Guard was inevitable. So, I gave them the courtesy of an ultimatum with a generous deadline of two days. Get out of Alchester, or else. In hindsight, perhaps two days were not enough time, given the logistics of moving an entire company of mercenaries. However, the deadline had passed a week ago. Despite that, they’d shown no signs of packing, let alone leaving. Enough was enough, I figured, so here I was, making my threat real. It was past time to put an end to this Black Guard annoyance once and for all.

Information about the timing, location, and the carriage’s route had cost me, but my trade paid well, so coin was never a problem. The source, however, had been questionable, so I was glad to see the logistics were accurate, especially as the carriage left the sleepy streets of Grainger Town behind to pass through the winding lanes of West End and finally to the Manchester Borough, where it rolled up to the service entrance of an exceptionally large manor. My source had identified the place as belonging to one Thaddicus Seppert, a rich lordling with strong mercantile relations and a rumored communication channel to the king himself. Rich, powerful, and someone who boasted of having the king’s ear? No wonder Gwendolyn was so interested in delivering something of value to him.

With the carriage approaching the house, I kept my distance, melting into the shadows as guards opened a gate to admit the transport. The lack of a driver and accompanying Guardsmen was likely to cause a stir, but with the safe arrival of the carriage’s contents, there was no reason for anyone to suspect further mischief. Oh, how they were wrong. Making my way around the manor, I snuck onto the grounds of a house two doors down where all was dark. As part of my preparation for tonight’s escapade, I’d learned its residents were currently out of town. Servants had been dismissed or traveled with them, leaving the place quiet, empty, and the perfect place for me to stash my weapons and change clothes. Hopping over the manor’s decorative wall, I found the bundle I’d stashed on the property right where I’d left it earlier that day. At the back door, I fiddled with the lock for longer than I liked, but I finally got it open. Inside, I quickly changed, leaving all but the smallest of knives on my person, just in case. Then, retracing my steps, I returned to Lord Thaddicus’s house, where I entered the manor with all the splendor of a person befitting my disguise.

“You!” a man yelled at me from the other side of the kitchen. He rounded a table where porters busily sliced shallots, chopped garlic, and peeled potatoes. Across from them, sauciers worked magical wonders, mixing sauces and preparing the evening’s hors d'oeuvres, while beyond them, tongues of flames rose from a stove as chefs seared delicate meats and fish. The tantalizing aromas of the place were delightful. The expression on the approaching man’s face was not.

Too late to disappear, I placed one hand behind my back, puffed out my chest, and, as the man stopped right in front of me, asked, “How may I be of service, sir?”

“How may you be of service?” the man asked back, incredulous. “How about by doing your godsdamn job? Your usual maître d' may allow such behavior, but I’ll have none of it! Not tonight. I run a tight ship! The tightest! Everything must be perfect for his lordship’s party, and it will be! Now, get your arse back out there and do your job, or I’ll make sure you no longer have one after tonight!”

I stood straighter and feigned a salute. “Yes, sir! A tight ship, it is! The tightest!” Then I hurried from the kitchen before he blustered at me anymore.

Outside the kitchen, I found a serving tray to complete my disguise, then I navigated through the press of guests, heading straight for the bar, where I let the bartender know I needed a single glass of sherry. With the glass balanced on my tray, I meandered through the crowd, making eye contact with no one and backing away in deference whenever my path became blocked by an oncoming gentleman or woman. No one paid me any heed except to place empty glasses or plates on my tray. I quickly and dutifully did away with those, then returned to my roaming, the single glass of sherry still balanced with care. The lord’s house was impressive, with dark lacquered wainscotting, filigreed moldings adorning every wall, elaborate drapery, and plush carpeting throughout the multi-roomed floor. Most of the party took place in the central chamber, but guests had spilled into adjoining rooms or even outside, where I glimpsed a fountain lit by colored lights of red and blue, the royal colors of our fiefdom. I wondered if Lord Thaddicus meant this display as a subtle reminder to the guests of his connection to King Classus or if he simply meant it as a demonstration of his patriotism.

A couple stopped me to order drinks. A glass of rosé for the lady and a whiskey smash with Vrannan bourbon for the pompous gentleman. Oh, and an extra mint leaf, if you please, and don’t skimp on the bourbon this time. Of course, sir. An extra leaf and no skimping. The man dismissed me without even a thank you, but the lady flashed me a quick smile and a nod of appreciation, which I returned with a simple nod of my own. While I considered fetching the lady’s drink—a rosé on a cool night such as this one was an excellent choice, especially paired with the seasoned flatbread hors d'oeuvres I’d spied earlier, and I appreciated her courtesy besides—I was not in nearly as generous a mood concerning the gentleman’s request. You, milady, I thought, should find better company.

Speaking of finding someone, I took another circuit around the current space, exited into a hallway to another, and finally spied my quarry in the host’s library. She wasn’t alone, so I hung back, out of sight, occupying myself with a stack of napkins on my tray while I surveyed the situation. Luckily, the gentleman with her was on his way out already. I gave him a slight bow as he exited, catching a flash of olive green eyes cast my way before he left. Promptly entering the library, I presented the glass of sherry to the lady with a flourish.

“Sherry, milady. Courtesy of an old friend.”

She was perusing the library’s books with her back to me. Looking over a shoulder, she said, “I didn’t order anything. Old friend? What old friend?” She spun around and froze.

“Hello, Gwendolyn. Long time.”

Smoldering blue eyes turned frantic. Hands resting easy at her sides bunched into fists. Her entire body went tense.

“I hear you wanted to talk,” I said. I placed the wineglass and tray down, then closed the door to the room. It didn’t lock, but a closed door still gave us the privacy and time we needed to have our little chat. I crossed my arms and, besides for a smirk at her discomfort, gave no indication of my disposition. Was I really here to talk, or had I come to kill her? I relished watching her sweat, but knew we only had so much time alone before someone came looking for her. “So, Gwendolyn, what did you want to talk about?”

My question didn’t change her posture one bit. Her eyes had that frenetic fight-or-flight look, glancing at the closed door but also sizing me up, wondering at the sincerity of my inquiry. She, at last, realized I wasn’t going to kill her, at least not right away, so some of the tension melted from her, and she settled on her heels. She picked up the glass I’d brought and asked, “Coastal?”

The gesture was not lost on her. Atticus had served a fine coastal sherry at the party where Gwendolyn and I had first met.

“Unfortunately, no.” The previous sherry’s vintage had been excellent, and I’d enjoyed my fair share while attending the party. “It’s a few steps down, I’m afraid, but serviceable.”

Tilting the glass to her exquisite lips, she downed the drink in one pull. Then she suggestively ran a finger around the rim of the empty glass while turning those fiery blue eyes of hers on me. “I’m surprised you’re still alive.”

“I didn’t come to chitchat, Gwen.”

“It’s even more surprising no one has arrested you yet. I gave the constables more than enough evidence about what happened the night you killed my brother and the other members of the society. Someone in the Ministry of Justice must really like you.”

“I don’t know anything about that,” I said, and I meant it. No one on Lawbreaker’s Hill owed me a thing, which was exactly the way I liked it. As to the murder of Walter Goddard and the other society members, Gwendolyn knew the person who had committed that crime all too well.

When I said nothing else, Gwendolyn humphed and said, “All business tonight? Very well. I’m running late for a demonstration, anyway.”

She meant whatever the transport had carried here. These gala events were always a means to recruit new members to the Progressive Society, secure new funding, or demonstrate some new device or technology to ooh and awe people. I kept my ambush of the Guardsmen to myself. She’d find out soon enough, but not until after I was long gone. While the society employed the Black Guard, she had nothing to do with their vendetta against me.

“I want to hire you,” she said matter-of-factly.

I wish I could say she hadn’t caught me off-guard, but she did. I should have refused outright, but curiosity got the best of me. “Hire me for what?”

“To do what you do best. I want you to kill someone for me.”

“That so?” With my arms still crossed, I leaned against the closed door. “And why would I ever take a job from you?”

“Don’t you mean another job?”

I ignored that. “Who’s the mark?”

“Someone who’s caused me a lot of trouble.”

That’s the usual reason.

“A rival of mine in the society,” she said. “His name is Atticus Drake. Do you know him?”

“He hosted the society party where we met. But, other than that, never heard of him.” Gwendolyn must know about my relationship with Atticus, but why admit to anything when I didn’t have to? “What’s so special about him that you want him dead?”

“Why is that any business of yours?” Gwendolyn asked, taking a seat in a plush reading chair. “Will you take the job or not?”

“I’m willing to consider it. But first, let’s talk payment.”

Gwendolyn crossed her legs and sat back. “Money is not a problem. Name your price, and you’ll have the funds before the night is out. Because of the circumstances surrounding our prior relationship, I’m willing to pay the entire fee upfront if that helps sway your decision.”

“I was thinking of something a bit more meaningful than coin.”

Gwendolyn grinned. “You want me to recant the story I told the king’s inspectors detailing how you murdered my brother.”

“Actually, no. You said it yourself. The Ministry of Justice doesn’t seem interested in pursuing that.” I knew as much as Gwendolyn about the reason. Although I initially suspected Inspector Wright had something to do with it, I’d changed my mind. The inspector was too much of a straight arrow to look the other way, especially where murder was concerned. Still, he’d wanted my help with something, the details of which remained a mystery because I’d done my best to avoid him since we’d last parted ways. Not on purpose, since I owed him for assisting me with another matter, but life gets in the way sometimes, doesn’t it? I knew I’d have to pay him a visit eventually, but right now, other matters took precedence. “I have something else in mind.”

She sat up straighter, curious. “Such as?”

“The Black Guard works for you. I want them off my back. No more searching the city for me, no more harassing me at every turn, no more trying to kill me. If you can do that, then I’ll take the job, but only after I’ve seen for myself that they’ll listen to you.”

Leaning back again, Gwendolyn crossed her hands in her lap. That fantastic smile never left her lips. “Consider it done.”

“Just like that?” I asked.

“Just like that. Give me some time to speak to Captain Belford. Once I do, I’ll have him spread the word amongst his men immediately. When can I expect to hear of Mr. Drake’s untimely demise?”

“After I’m satisfied the Black Guard is no longer interested in me.”

“Shall we say in a week, then?” she asked.

“A week it is.”

I thought we were done, but Gwendolyn clinked a fingernail against her glass and said, “There’s one more thing.”

I raised a brow and waited.

“You have something of mine. I want it back.”

No negotiation this time. This was a demand, plain and simple.

“You mean Aravar Tillwood’s scroll?” No point in denying I knew about it since I was the one who’d killed Aravar and taken it from him. “I don’t have it.”

“I know you don’t,” Gwendolyn said. “But you know who does. Whether your thief friend still has it or if she loaned it to Atticus, I don’t know or care. It belongs to me. If you need more incentive, consider its return part of our deal. If the scroll is not in my possession by the end of the week, I turn the Black Guard loose on you again, and our deal is off.”

I didn’t have an answer about the scroll. When I said I didn’t have it, I meant it. But Gwen was right. I knew who had it and how to get it. For now, agreeing to her terms was enough. I’d deal with the details later. “Fine.”

A knock at the door presaged the arrival of a steward, who stuck his head into the room to address Mrs. Goddard. “Ma’am, you’re wanted outside. Something about a problem with a delivery.”

I’d retrieved my tray before the steward had the door half opened. I lifted Gwendolyn’s empty glass and placed it on the tray. “Another sherry, Mrs. Goddard?”

She was more concerned with her delivery now, so she waved me away as she stood and went to follow the steward. Before leaving the room, she turned back to me and said, “One week.” Then she was gone.

I followed in her wake, ditching the tray as I slipped out the back door and returned to the nearby manor to change clothes and retrieve my weapons. As much as I wanted to witness Gwendolyn’s befuddled reaction to her transport arriving intact but without a single guard as escort, I had other business, ironically enough, with the man Gwendolyn wanted dead.

Next Steps

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