TW: abuse, murder, violence
Many have asked if I hold no regard for human life. My answer remains the same: Nothing could be further from the truth. Life is quite valuable. I’d be out of a job if it wasn’t. Every man has his price, as they say, though I suspect most mean it differently than I. Life, death, and the gold in between are my specialties.
Today, things are complicated.
My client meets me in the Warrens, the ramshackle neighborhood thrown together out of driftwood and spare cloth and no small amount of mud. There’s a dugout that acts as something like a tavern where it’s noisy enough to do business. As I tread down the stairs into the low-ceilinged room, my eyes are immediately drawn to the woman in the far corner. She’s dressed too well for the Warrens in a green tunic pulled over a white cotton shirt. Her leggings and boots are cut in a style for riding. She sits stiffly, fingers drumming the table beside an untouched flagon.
Her guard is seated next to her, equally as obvious. No one but an outsider would wear chainmail in the Warrens.
The woman marks me almost as quickly. Like her, I make no effort to hide. Not in the Warrens, where I’ve helped raise houses. Not in this tavern, where I pay the barkeep a weekly stipend.
I make my way through the crowd, clapping a hand on a shoulder or two that I recognize. A few mugs of watery ale are raised in my direction.
When I take a seat in front of the woman and her guard, she stares me in the eyes. Not, I suspect, out of confidence, but out of curiosity. It’s not every day you see a hawk’s eyes in a human face.
Seemingly recovering her manners, she holds out a hand. “Name’s Alyss. You’re the one, I take it?”
I don’t offer my name or my hand. “Who do you want dead?”
She slowly lowers her arm to the table, glancing around the room.
“They don’t care,” I assure her. “Death is a close neighbor of anyone in the Warrens.”
Alyss’ eyes return to mine. “Mila Katriana,” she says softly.
“Mila Katriana.” I tap a finger to my chin. “The six-year-old daughter of the Jewelers’ Guild Master of Coin?”
“That’s the one.”
I sigh and run a hand over my face. I hate having to do this. “A man’s worth can be determined in gold, but a child’s life is priceless.”
She laughs, then frowns when I don’t join in. “Come now, you’re not serious. What’s the difference of a few years?”
“A grown man has made his choices. He is a known quantity. A child is still changing, forming their identity and values. Even the cruelest of urchins can learn compassion if you give them the chance. Less so with men.”
Her brow pinches in irritation. “Look, I know it’s going to be expensive. Money isn’t an object here. Name your price.”
“My price?” I say, deliberately misinterpreting her words. “If I were hired to kill someone such as myself, I would charge no less than a hundred crowns, no more than three.” I sit forward in my seat. “And what of your price, Alyss? What is the worth of a child murderer?”
She stands, her seat scraping on the rough stone floor. “This is ridiculous,” she snaps. “If you won’t do it, I’ll find someone who will. Hugo, come.”
“It’s alright if you don’t know the answer,” I say. “I’ve much more practice with this sort of thing. I would place you at one hundred and thirty crowns.”
“Get out of my way.” She tries to push past, but my seat is solidly blocking her path. She turns the other way, towards her guard. “Move, you louse!”
“How about it, Hugo?” I ask mildly. “Do you concur with my estimate?”
Hugo’s eyes flick from me to Alyss. He doesn’t move.
“Smart man.” I stand.
Alyss’ eyes go wide. “Wait—”
The rest of her words are lost in my embrace. Her body gives a violent jerk as my knife slides home at the base of her skull. There’s very little blood, a courtesy to the barkeep. I lower the woman’s body to the ground as if trying not to wake her.
Hugo looks a little pale as I count out thirteen tencrowns from my purse and hand them to him. “I appreciate the assistance,” I say.
He takes them, gives a tight-lipped nod, and hurries past me towards the door. The rest of the tavern takes notice. Their eyes slide to where Alyss rests on the floor.
“I call th’ boots,” says a regular.
“Boots nothin’, check her purse!”
I leave them to argue, making my way to the bar where I slide the barkeep another stack of coins.
“Sorry ‘bout the bad business,” he says with sympathy.
I sigh, feeling the lightness of my pockets. “Truly, these are grave times for us all.”
I make my way outside into the small, cluttered square that passes for a market in this neighborhood. With my potential employer dead, there’s really nothing for me to do until I pick up word of another. So I take my time in the market, stopping for a quick word with several of the peddlers. As I move from table to table, I catch a flash of something brown at the edges of my perception. I notice it again when I stop walking. It seems I’ve picked up a footpad.
She isn’t subtle—she hides behind crates and skirts whenever I glance her way, ensuring that she sticks out like a fluttering bird. If she’s a pickpocket, she’s a very bad one.
I leave the market by way of a side alley. Perhaps she is nervous of being in a crowd.
This must be the case, because as soon as I move out of sight of the market she makes herself known, stepping into plain view.
The first things I notice, besides her dark hair and stubborn chin, are her clothes. A simple brown dress with shoes that buckle—hardly a noble’s raiment, yet painfully out of place in the Warrens.
“You should return to your family, little bird,” I say. “The Warrens aren’t safe for anyone, least of all those unaccustomed to them.”
“Are you that killer?” she demands. Her cheeks and nose are red from the cold, blustery autumn day. She isn’t wearing a jacket.
I incline my head. “I’ve been called worse, certainly.”
“I got a job for you.” She thrusts a handful of coins at me.
A spark of irritation stirs in my chest; I don’t approve of anyone who sends a child to meet with an assassin. “Who is the job from?”
Her brow furrows. “It’s from me,” she says. “I’m hirin’ you.”
“And who do you want dead so badly that you’d risk the Warrens to find me?”
For the first time, her eyes drop from mine. “My uncle.”
A thorny suspicion settles around my mind. “Has your uncle hurt you?”
She hunches her shoulders ever so slightly. “You make a point of askin’ questions to all your customers?”
“Always. Information is vital in my line of work.”
I meet her glare coolly. A moment passes. Her lip starts to tremble. It might be the confirmation I’m looking for, or it could be the cold.
With a short sigh, I take off my jacket and kneel down. The girl regards me warily as I hold it out.
“Go on. Take it. There’s no use in you freezing.”
Slowly, she accepts the jacket. As soon as she feels how warm it is, she pulls it around herself like a blanket. It’s ridiculously large on her.
I smile. “What’s your name?”
Her eyes narrow. “If I tell you, you’ll use it against me.”
“I’m an assassin, not a faerie.”
She considers this and nods. “Lilla.”
“Well, Lilla, I’ll tell you this now: I don’t accept contracts from children. You’re too young to have the black mark of a murder on your soul.”
Tears form in her big brown eyes. “You got to,” she says. “He—When Papa leaves for work, he... And he’ll be so angry I left without telling him and—” She’s beginning to choke up. “Please,” she whispers. “I just don’t wanna be scared no more.” Once again, she holds out the coins.
I gently push her hand away. Before I can say anything, she sobs and hits me with her other fist.
But she’s already gone, running off through the market. I follow at a loping walk, taking one large step for each of her two. I let her get ahead, but never out of sight. Once, a man steps out of an alley and moves as if to take her arm, but when he sees me, sees my eyes, he pales and steps back into the shadows.
I catch up with the girl in Aldertown, just north of the Warrens. She’s standing in the street, looking through the windows of a squat grey house. Her small hands pull my coat more tightly around her shoulders.
I follow her gaze and nod at a balding man through the window. “Is that him?”
She gives me a watery glare, then glances back at the man in the house. Her shoulders drop. “Yeah.”
“Is there somewhere else you can stay for the night?”
“I can go to Trissie’s house,” the girl says dubiously. “But I can’t live there forever.”
“No harm in staying one night.”
She squints at me. Hesitantly, her lips turn up at the corners. She’s no fool, this one. Softly, she asks, “Can I hold on to the coat?”
I smile. “You may hold on to the coat.”
She takes my hand. “Come with me to Trissie’s house,” she says. “I don’t wanna walk alone.”
I glance up at the darkening sky and nod. “You’re a sensible one, little bird.”
As we walk, she studies me out of the corner of her eye. She’s silent for many streets, then as we pass the Boulevard she says, “You’re not a bad sort, are you?”
“I’ve committed a great many sins in my life,” I say. “But no, I don’t believe I am.”
She considers this. “But you kill people.”
“That I do.”
“Can you kill people and not be bad?”
“That depends. If a smith forges a sword and sells it to a traveler, and the traveler kills a man, is the smith a bad person?”
Chewing her lip, the girl shakes her head.
“I think of myself as a smith,” I say. “I forge death and sell it. People don’t seek me out because they want me to commit murder, they seek me out because they want to commit murder.”
“But you’re still the one killin’.”
“If not me, they’d find someone else. They would keep seeking out blades until they found one that did the job. And there are far blunter, more destructive implements than I.”
Her mouth twists. “What about when no one hires you? What if you kill someone just because you want to?”
“Then I would be a murderer.”
“Oh, most assuredly.”
I tip my head back and look at the clouds changing from gold to blue overhead. I think of a way to explain it. “Sometimes,” I say at last, “you are given two options in life. To commit evil, or to allow evil to be committed.”
“How do you know which to pick?”
“That,” I say, “is something each person has to decide for themselves.”
“You’re more of a commit-evil sort, then,” she says hopefully.
She swings our joined hands, and my arm brushes the hilt of the knife in my belt.
“I suppose I am,” I say.
After bidding the girl goodbye on the doorstep of a modest wattle and daub cottage, it takes more than an hour to return to my own apartments. There, I change into the squire’s uniform I ended up with during my last job. I take care to paint my face in a subtle way that helps conceal my true features. I ensure all of my hair is tucked out of sight beneath the hood of a cloak. It's an unnecessary precaution, but then, unnecessary precautions have made the difference between life and death in the past. Satisfied with my appearance, I take the tunnel in the cellar to the charcoal burner’s basement at the end of the block. From there I emerge into a quiet alleyway, pleased to find no one around even this early in the evening. Another hour’s walk brings me once more to the squat grey house.
I straighten my uniform and step up to the door. I give it three sharp knocks. Not a minute passes before it opens and a man with dark hair peers out at me. The candlelight from within spills out onto the front step and splashes across the emblem stitched on my chest. The man’s eyes flick down to it and he straightens.
“Evening. What can I do for you?”
My face takes on a serious expression. “Lord’s business. I’ll need to borrow your brother.”
His eyebrows become snagged with worry. He turns back into the house. “Gerald! A lord’s squire is here for you.”
Slouching into the narrow window of my view is the balding man Lilla indicated. His eyes squint as he looks me over. “What’s this about?”
“Lord’s business,” I repeat. “We’ve reason to believe you recently bore witness to a dangerous criminal in the act of escaping justice. You’ll need to come up to the guard post with me to answer a few questions.”
Gerald’s demeanor shifts in an instant. “Dangerous? Just how dangerous? And why haven’t you come round sooner, if that’s the case? Blast it, I could have been murdered in my own home while you and your guards sat around with your thumbs up your arses!”
“On behalf of Lord Pentien, I extend his regret that you could not be informed sooner.”
Gerald mutters something unintelligible, then ducks out of sight and reappears with a cloak. “Well, go on, then! The sooner you get me to that guard post, the safer I’ll be. Who knows what kind of criminal scum are lurking around.”
I give a tight smile. “You don’t know the half of it.”
I lead him through the night, down the twisting streets of Aldertown. He stays close by my side and eyes the shadows warily.
“Say, how come you don’t carry a sword?” he asks.
“Hmm? Oh, I’m more inclined towards knives.”
“Huh. You should get a sword. It’d look more intimidating than one of those pigstickers.”
I give him a sidelong glance. “Spoken like a man ignorant of a blade’s purpose.”
“Hells, I know what a weapon is for.”
“A blade can be many things. If a knife is used to chop vegetables, it has served a purpose. If a sword is used to cut a path through foliage, it has served a purpose. To sit in a sheath and rust serves no purpose at all.”
“Is that what you use that knife for? Vegetables?” He chortles to himself.
“Rarely. It’s taken many lives. Though tonight, it will protect an innocent.”
Gerald’s stride falters for a moment. “You sound as though you’re expecting a fight,” he says. His eyes dart up and down the street, which at present is empty save for a cat scurrying across.
“Oh, I doubt there will be a fight.”
The houses around us are dark and shuttered. Nothing moves but the wind.
“We’re being followed,” I say in a low voice.
He starts to look behind us, but I grab his shoulder and steer him into a nearby alley. Halfway along, I pull up short.
“What?” he hisses. The whites of his eyes shine in the gloom. “Why are we stopping?”
My grip on his shoulder tightens. “Easy, friend,” I murmur. “You’re just going to answer some questions about a criminal, remember?”
“Here’s the first question. Is it true what they say about you and your niece?”
His expression morphs through several emotions before settling on fury. “Who told you?”
I smile, thin as a blade. “A little bird.”
The next day, I get word from a contact that someone wants to discuss a job up in Hightown. My route happens to take me past a certain squat grey house, where a flash of brown catches my eye through the window. I slow my stride. Soon enough, a small girl in an oversized coat catches up with me.
“I thought you’d least stop by and say you did it,” Lilla says. “I had to find out from Papa this morning that Uncle Gerald got found in an alley. Dead as a doornail.”
“They say whoever did it is still at large,” I put in.
She lifts her eyebrows. “Uh-huh. Papa was real mad at me for staying with Trissie last night. Says I coulda been gotten too.”
“Well, who could have anticipated such a tragedy? I’m sure he’s glad you’re safe.”
She grins. “We’re going to the market later for sweet rolls 'cause he doesn’t want me to be scared.”
“A silver lining, then.”
Continuing to keep pace, Lilla pokes a finger at me. “When I’m grown, I’m gonna do what you do.
I raise my eyebrows. “Kill people, you mean?”
“Naw. Help people.” She tilts her head in consideration. “Maybe both,” she concedes.
“A good blade can do either.”
At the corner of the block she comes to a stop, so I do as well.
“Papa says I can’t go past the Boulevard for a while,” Lilla says. “So before you go…” She shrugs off the coat and holds it out to me.
I wave a hand. “Keep it,” I say. “I expect you’ll grow into it, little bird.”