Chapter One

“EXCUSE ME,” a thin voice said from behind Rage. “Am I correct that I should buy you a drink before talking about business? That is, of course, if you are indeed Master Rage?”

The assassin turned his head slowly. The tavern was empty except for him, a few boys trying their first beer, and the man in front of him. The barkeeper had vanished the moment Rage entered through the slightly creaky door, as if he knew his newest customer could only mean trouble. Which was true, but it was no reason to ignore someone who would at least pay for what he consumed. Rage had decided to wait another minute before going to search for the man—he could tolerate fear, but he couldn’t tolerate not being served.

One look at the man who’d addressed him as “master” told him that he was a valet or butler, at most. Definitely a servant of some sort, and from his sallow skin, it was obvious he worked indoors. He was well dressed, around fifty years old, with a shock of white hair that made him look like a sad dandelion. Slightly smaller than average, not thin and not fat, but with an exceptionally large nose and surprisingly yellow eyes.

Rage took in the man’s shaking hands and sweaty forehead and knew he wanted someone killed. It was about time. His last job had been months ago, and his pockets were nearly empty.

“Who wants to know?” Rage asked.

The man gulped and placed a hand on the greasy bar. Spilled beer, peanut crumbs, a bit of blood—it clearly hadn’t been cleaned in weeks, if not months.

“Master Rage, my name is Jeeve. I have been trying to get in contact with you ever since I heard word you were in town. It is rare to find an assassin in this part of the world, so far away from the city.” Maybe there was a slight hint of an accusation in his words; maybe he was just nervous at the proposal he was about to make. “So if I may buy you a drink, please? I am to make you an offer—a generous one. If you are Master Rage, of course. Otherwise, I apologize for my presumptuousness.”

A sly grin appeared on his face; it was obvious he knew very well who Rage was. Wiping the sweat off his brow, he finally decided to sit on one of the bar stools.

“Cider.”

Rage had spotted the bartender, who rushed to get him his drink. A slosh of the bittersweet liquid landed on the counter, adding to the already visible stains. The boys had moved to one of the tables, hiding their faces and the one glass of beer they shared from anyone who might know them by sitting as close together as possible. Rage dismissed them as unimportant but kept half an eye on them. One never knew, and he hadn’t survived in his job this long by being careless.

He took a sip of his drink, then placed a large hand on Jeeve’s shoulder. “Let’s find us a more private seat,” he said and pulled the surprised man from his stool. “The corner table should do. And be quick with your offer. I don’t have all day.”

Rage didn’t like the man, but then he might be his ticket to a decent meal tonight.

Jeeve’s nostrils flared as he sat down. Outside, opposite the window, a butcher tended to his business. The stink of blood, and more, wafted inside.

“Master—”

“Just Rage.”

“Right. Erm. Now….”

“Spit it out. Who is it your master wants dead?” Best to be blunt, or the man would end up babbling for hours before coming to the point.

It was always surprising to Rage how hesitant people became when it came down to bare facts. Jeeve’s master had probably made up his mind weeks, even months ago. There was a relative, a former friend, a spouse, an enemy he wanted dead. But as soon as it came down to saying it aloud—“I want you to kill….”—there was nothing but stammering, and it was just as valid for the servant proposing the offer.

Jeeve paled, then vigorously shook his head. “I—that is, my master—we don’t want anyone dead! We would—he would—like you to arrange an accident involving Miss Lucinda of Babylon Manor. An accident that wouldn’t kill her. Is that…. Do you think that is possible?”

Rage leaned against the flimsy back of his chair. Jeeve’s breath was coming in fast, nervous gulps. He kneaded his knees as if trying to break them, and his eyes darted about the dimly lit room like crazy flies. He looked as if he didn’t want to be there, like he was scared, and Rage guessed he would be dead by evening, killed by his master for fulfilling the given errand. No master liked witnesses to their crimes, even if they didn’t involve death.

“Tell me about the girl.” A bit of background, some information about the accident and the damage it should do, was necessary if he was to do his job properly. Usually, Rage dealt only in death, but he didn’t mind an easier job on occasion.

Jeeve sighed deeply. “She is the young mistress of the house. My master’s daughter, and he needs her__”

“How old is she?”

The bartender took a few steps in their direction but happily turned away when Rage waved him off. Only then did Jeeve lean forward a bit and whisper, “She is sixteen. Her birthday was on Midsummer.”

“Hmm. Three months ago. Not a child anymore. She should be married already. Old enough in any case to be killed.”

“She hasn’t been a child since she scared the life out of the stable boy by chasing the dogs after him, and back then she was three,” Jeeve snarled, not caring to keep the disgust out of his words. “She is a pleasant-looking girl, but she is evil. Nasty manners, horrible behavior, and totally uncontrollable. The master suffers because of her. She insults him, his friends, simply everyone. She refuses to obey his orders, especially when it comes to marriage, she—”

Rage smiled. “And that is why he wants to teach her a lesson?” It was a cold smile; he would take the job, but still, a father paying an assassin to harm his daughter was not to his liking.

Jeeve raised his head and sat up a bit straighter. “She is after the gardener’s son! My master chose the perfect spouse for her, but she refused to even be in the same room with him, and now he’s backed out of the arrangement. Instead, she messes with that boy. His name is Keiran, and she dares to call him her friend! Talks to him like no lady should talk to a servant. Spends afternoons with him and maybe, she’s already…. But no, she wouldn’t be that stupid. Of course, this is unacceptable. But, you know… if her spirit was broken, it would be possible for my master to persuade her to do the right thing.”

One last sip of the cider. A familiar feeling spread through the assassin: relief at having a new job and thus enough money to survive another few weeks. Excitement about the details, the planning, working out the perfect timing. But also something akin to the disgust that had registered on the servant’s face, though for different reasons: disgust at the people who thought murder, pain, and blood were good ways to solve their problems.

“What sort of accident does your master have in mind? That she should not die, I get. What else? Broken limbs? Concussion? Just a few scratches? My charge is fifty-five Talents.”

All of a sudden, the servant’s nervousness dissipated. Patting his pockets, he pulled out a small pouch and placed it carefully on the table. “I’ve got the money here,” Jeeve whispered. “If you agree to take the job, it is yours. My master wants a specific kind of accident to occur, one that would prevent Lucinda from marrying at all. If she were damaged enough, she would have to stay at home, in her room, her face hidden behind a veil. If she didn’t have a voice anymore, no one would have to obey her ever again. She wouldn’t be allowed to leave the manor…. You get the picture!” Excited, he took Rage’s glass, apparently forgetting for the moment that it wasn’t his. With three long gulps, he emptied it, then beamed at the assassin as if they’d been talking about a pleasant trip to the brothel and not about destroying a young girl’s life.

“On the Lady’s day, Lucinda will go to church,” he continued. “Not that she cares about our good Lady—she only wants to show off her new dress and hat. Anyway, on the way back, I want you to steal the chariot, take her somewhere quiet, rape her, beat her pretty face to a pulp, and then send her back. Not too much work for fifty-five Talents, eh?”

Rage wished he could break the man’s neck right there. He could see in the servant’s face that he would love to watch the rape of the girl, which made the cider in his stomach turn to ice. His job wasn’t nice, but in his opinion, necessary. He was good at it. Apart from that, it kept him alive and fed, and it kept the past at bay. But seeing someone else nearly jerking off at the mere thought of him raping and destroying a young girl made him sick.

He nodded thoughtfully. “If done properly, not only her spirit will be broken. She’ll be barren afterwards,” he said, watching the man’s reaction.

The servant grinned. “Precisely. No way anyone would ever so much as look at her again, not even the stable boy!”

With a smooth gesture, Rage took the pouch and threw it back into the servant’s lap. “I’ll kill the gardener’s son for half the price, but I don’t rape. Find someone else.” And with that, he left the bar, leaving the speechless man behind.

THE SUN was low over the horizon; another half an hour, and it would be dark. Just the right time to head back for the barn where he was staying. It was a few miles’ walk, but stretching his legs would take his mind off the man he’d left behind and maybe even erase the sour taste on his tongue.

It was time to leave this town. Coming to Windbrook had been a waste of time. Only one small job—breaking into one of the high, narrow townhouses and relieving the widow living there of her jewels—and nothing new in sight apart from the offer he’d just declined. This place was too small. More a village than a town, most streets not even paved. People obviously didn’t need a professional assassin and, apart from that, seemed to like wading in mud each time it rained.

Above him, a window opened. A bucket filled with rotten lettuce emptied into the street, and he had to jump back so it wouldn’t hit him. The bigger towns had cleaners who walked the streets with their carts and made sure the richer folks could get out of their carriages without treading in a pile of shit, but Windbrook was too small and too poor to afford that kind of service.

A mother carrying her child on her hip shot him a suspicious glance; an old man stepped aside when he went past. People knew he was a stranger, and they saw he could be dangerous. He preferred it that way. The people, unless they needed a job done, would leave him alone, and no one would dare to follow him into the night, fearing to meet a sudden and unpleasant death.

Rage left the dirty streets and narrow houses behind, each step taking him farther into the fields surrounding the village. A fresh breeze blew the smell of old beer, cold smoke, and unwashed bodies out of his nose, and he allowed himself to relax a bit, just enough to forget the servant with his offensive offer.

Raping a rich girl, most likely blessed with an abundance of magic.

Impossible.

Rage forced the thought of rape out of his mind. The sound of his feet hitting the soft ground brought him peace; the sound of his breath in his ears erased every thought from his mind.

It was warm, and sweat made his shirt cling to his haggard frame. He was close to the river. The sun was gone; gray clouds gathered and swam in front of the twin moons, one partially and one nearly full. It would rain soon.

Unexpectedly, Rage tripped over a root hidden under a pile of last year’s leaves and would have crashed to the ground had he not managed to snatch a low-hanging branch. His heart hammered. He’d been walking fast and would have fallen hard. A broken ankle would put him out of commission for weeks.

After a few moments, he caught his breath, the wind cooling his face. Stretching, he made sure he was unharmed. A quick check proved his knives to be where they should, and the few coins he’d dropped were quickly picked up from where they’d fallen. All was well, and he figured it was probably the perfect time to go back to the hay barn where he slept and kept his few belongings hidden.

Just as he bent to pick up the last coin, he heard the sound of a crossbow being discharged, and he dove headfirst into the bushes.

His left hand landed in holly, and twigs scratched across his cheeks, making blood well to the surface. The bolt had missed him and sank into the tree’s bark about two spans above his head. Absently, he licked away some blood before getting his knife out, the one he could throw as well as use in close proximity. It had served him well since he’d stolen it from his sister’s lover, many, many years ago and well before he’d killed both of them.

There. Someone to his left, trying to move quietly. He wasn’t doing it well, though. A twig broke under his feet and leaves rustled under his shoes. Clearly an amateur yet clearly still dangerous.

Rage silently moved away from the tree. His hand stung from where the holly had pierced his skin, his fingers slippery from the blood that ran into his palm. He wiped it clean on his trousers. The red stain wouldn’t be seen on the black leather.

Another twig broke. His attacker was to his right and getting closer.

Time to end this. Before Rage had walked into town, he’d made sure no other assassin was in the vicinity. A bit of competition wasn’t the worst thing, but the few individuals who were accomplished in this trade not only stayed out of each other’s way, they also did not kill each other. So this guy could only be someone who knew how to handle a crossbow for hunting purposes. He’d certainly be unable to deal with an assassin who knew ten different ways to break a neck.

Quickly, Rage leapt up and circled the place where the twigs had been broken. In the dim evening light, he caught a glimpse of blond hair, a dark tunic, and a reddened, sweaty face. The attacker was young, his hands shook, and he was looking in the wrong direction. Easy for Rage to come up behind him—easy to kick the crossbow out of his hands. Rage threw the man around and pushed him against a tree, knife at his throat, before he could comprehend that he had been caught.

When the thin, sharp blade cut into the soft skin of his neck, the man squeaked like a guinea pig, “Don’t kill me!” But as the knife bit deeper into his throat, he said no more.

“Who are you?” Rage’s hand was buried in the man’s thick hair, keeping him under control.

“No one, I’m no one. It was a mistake. I thought you were a… a bunny?” Hope rang in the man’s voice like a church bell, pleading and heartbreaking.

Rage didn’t have a heart, though. Not in his business. With a smooth movement, he cut off the tip of his captive’s nose.

The screams scared the birds out of the surrounding trees, and a squirrel dropped a nut and hurried irritatedly up the same tree the attacker’s bolt had impaled moments before.

“Now who are you, boy? I want your name, and I want to know why you tried to kill me.” Calmly, Rage cleaned his knife by wiping it across the shaking man’s shirt.

“Pietar, my name’s Pietar,” he grunted, “and I was told to have you dead by moonrise. It wasn’t my idea! This man, he said he wants you dead, and that’s it, really, and please don’t kill me!”

“Pietar,” Rage said and put his knife back into its sheath. “Does the man who hired you have a name?” Both his hands rested on the young man’s shoulders. It was nearly a friendly gesture, if only his thumbs hadn’t put pressure on Pietar’s Adam’s apple.

Pietar nodded eagerly. “It’s the lord of Babylon Manor.” He was babbling now. “Lucius of Babylon. Blond, not massively tall. Met him outside the tavern in town. You know, the shabby one near the butcher? He paid me and sent me here. He said I should wait for you. Please have mercy on me. I needed the money!”

Rage sighed. Apparently, declining to rape Lucinda of Babylon had put him in a difficult position. Apparently the girl’s father didn’t like to get no for an answer.

“You should have stayed at home today,” Rage said and broke Pietar’s neck.

The corpse fell into the leaves face down, one arm buried under the body, the other one outstretched as if waving for help, even in death.

“Fuck.” Rage spat, then searched the man’s pockets for money. He only had a few coins, and the assassin took them as well as the crossbow. It was a decent weapon, not expensive, but he wouldn’t leave it there to rot.

It was fully dark now. No use staying outside any longer. He was hungry and cold. He was longing for food and his bed.

Tomorrow, he would take a look at Babylon Manor and the girl living there, terrorizing the servants as well as annoying her father enough to want her broken and him dead. Interesting family, Rage thought, then put all thoughts of them out of his mind until he was in his makeshift bed, his stomach filled with bread and cheese, covered by a blanket, and drifting into dreamland.