Chapter One: Cold Killer
Rhis pulled her bowstring taut, training the arrow on her target. There were quieter ways of doing a job, but her client wanted to send a message; an arrow through the eye ought to do. The poison on the tip would ensure she didn’t need to hit him twice. Her mark stood on his balcony a few buildings away, leaning against the railing with a goblet held carelessly in one hand. The last light of day receded as the sun dipped below the hills, and a warm breeze ruffled his hair.
His youth surprised her, although it shouldn’t have. Only a young man could maintain such idealism in the face of the grinding bureaucracy of the Empire. His fiery speeches drew thousands of spectators, as he flung his promises of hope for the poor like crusts of bread to the masses. Rhis had little interest in politics, but even she had heard of him. It hadn’t been a surprise when she’d broken the seal on her instructions and found his name scrawled across the paper. Men like him always made enemies.
Lowering her bow, Rhis hesitated. It was too perfect. She’d watched him for three days, marking his movements, learning his routine. He was a man of habit—rising with the sun, seeing visitors in his solar, and making the rounds with the public in the afternoons. When he left his sprawling estate, he did so with an armed escort, but every evening he meandered out onto his balcony with a glass of wine in his hand, completely alone. Rhis couldn’t have asked for an easier mark. Either he was naive, or she was being set up.
Her heart rate ticked up a notch and her back prickled. Shrinking back against the wall of the rooftop garden, she flicked her eyes around, her breath hot against the veil covering her face. Although she was certain no one had followed her, the city was rife with hiding places among the limestone and stucco. She might very well have an arrow trained on her, ready to pierce her through the chest as soon as her job was finished. Rhis had enemies of her own. Occupational hazard.
The man took a long swallow of his drink and turned to walk back inside. With a quick glance around, Rhis stepped forward, raised her bow, and pulled back on the string. She no longer had a clear view of his face, but an arrow through his ear would do just as well. She drew in a breath and held it, aiming just in front of the dark space in the center of his ear. As she was about to loose, he stepped back instead of forward, and another man burst through the door onto the balcony.
Rhis blew out her breath in exasperation and lowered her bow. She should have taken the shot before he moved from the railing; she had no real reason to believe this was a setup. Now her target was no longer alone. Strictly speaking, a witness wasn’t outside the terms of the contract … but witnesses were messy. They increased the chance of being identified, and Rhis had spent too long developing her reputation to let a slip tarnish it now. Pressing her lips together, she melted back into the shadows and waited.
The visitor paced around the balcony, waving his arms as he spoke, while her mark stood near the door. Rhis hesitated, tapping a finger in irritation. The contract was short, giving her only four days. If the target was still alive at sunrise, she’d lose out on the purse and, more importantly, her string of completions would be broken. Not once had she failed to finish a job. This upstart politician would not be the first.
Cursing herself for hesitating, she watched him open the balcony door and usher the visitor inside.
Rhis unstrung her short bow and secured it to her back, then slipped over the edge of the wall in the growing darkness. Her first tactic might not have worked, but she always had contingencies. Clinging to the rough bricks, she climbed down with practiced ease and dropped to the ground in the narrow alley.
Rhis pushed back her cowl and lowered the black veil from her face. From her pack, she pulled out a deep crimson cloak and draped it over her shoulders. Her dark blouse had a hood, and loose sleeves to conceal small knives; her leather vest was fitted with pockets and straps. The cloak concealed the daggers at her wide belt, and those strapped to her thigh, as well as the satchel and weapons on her back. Straightening her shoulders and brushing a tendril of blond hair from her face, she stepped out into the street.
The roads were quiet this long after sunset in the exclusive areas of Altia. Most of the upper class were tucked safely inside their luxurious homes, protected by high limestone walls. Despite the stillness, Rhis kept to the shadows, ducking out of sight when a couple walked by. Once the way was clear, she continued toward her mark’s estate, watching for any hint of movement.
High walls surrounding the estate blocked her view of the interior buildings, but she knew precisely where to go. She had tracked her target’s guards, and noticed a weak spot in the defenses. Tall shrubs bordered the wall on the street side, and a grove of citrus trees stood just inside the grounds, perfect for providing cover so Rhis could clear the wall unseen.
She slipped between the shrubs and repacked her cloak, then drew her hood and reattached her veil. Using the spikes on her gloves and small spurs on the toes of her boots, she deftly scaled the wall and dropped to the ground behind the citrus trees on the other side.
The manicured garden stretched out to the white stone building, but stands of trees and thick shrubs provided cover. She took note of the cloudless sky, the position of the moon, and the flickering torches casting light from the balcony above. Shadows abounded, and she darted from one hiding place to another until she reached the house, her movements nothing but the whispers of a breeze.
At the sound of footsteps, she ducked behind a hedgerow, the building at her back. Counting her heartbeats and maintaining her even breathing, she paused, waiting for the guard to pass. The clink of metal and crunch of boots on the gravel walkway faded as he walked by. He hadn’t even glanced in her direction.
Turning to the wall, she gripped the rough stone with the spikes on her hands and feet and scurried up the building. When she reached the edge of the balcony, jutting out to her right, she peeked around the wall to ensure it was still deserted. Seeing no movement save for the dancing light cast by guttering torches, she hoisted herself over the railing and jumped down into a crouch. With a few quick steps, she made her way across the empty balcony and checked the door. Finding it unlocked, she eased it open and listened. The foyer was quiet, so she slipped inside.
Oil lamps bathed the interior with light, and a hoard of pots spilled greenery in all directions. Rhis ducked behind a large copper urn and cast a quick glance around as she removed her gloves. The large room was open with pillars running in a wide oval, but other than the potted plants it was nearly empty. Two small tables flanked a set of upholstered lounges on the far side, and discolored spaces on the walls indicated artwork that might recently have been taken down. For such an expansive estate, in one of the wealthiest parts of the city, the interior was surprisingly austere.
Voices drifted from a hallway and Rhis crept toward the sound, careful not to let her boots tap against the marble floor tiles. Her mark still had a visitor. A man’s voice rose, thick with fury, the other man’s answer calm and measured. Rhis ducked behind a large planter, giving the room another look before carrying on further.
Loud footsteps pounded down the corridor, and Rhis pressed herself back into the shadows. The visitor stormed by, his face red, his forehead glistening with perspiration. When he reached the center of the room he stopped and turned.
“You’re a fool!” he said, his voice booming. “You’re a fool and you’re going to bring us all down with you.”
A servant scurried out and spoke quiet words to the man, gesturing in the opposite direction. Rhis couldn’t make out what he said, but he led the visitor toward another corridor, the servant’s quiet step a soft counterpoint to the visitor’s angry stride.
Rhis stole into the hallway and crept further into the building, staying close to the wall. The short corridor was dim, the only light coming from the open door at the end and the lamps in the room behind. A tinkling of glass and swish of paper sounded from the solar as Rhis stopped near the door, casting another glance behind her.
A whisper of sound caught Rhis’s ear and she slipped into an alcove with an empty pillar in the center. Crouching low and holding her breath, she watched a servant pad down the hall on slippered feet and stand in the doorway of the solar. Rhis pulled out a small flat pouch with a green stripe across the front, opening it to reveal a line of tiny needles. The tips were dipped in a concoction of Rhis’s own making: a thick paste that, in a small dose, would render a person unconscious. She carefully removed one needle, pressing it between her finger and thumb, then closed the pouch and put it away while the servant spoke with her mark from the doorway.
The servant left, and as he passed Rhis she flicked her wrist, sending the needle into his calf. Without pausing in his stride, he glanced down, as if something merely prickled. Rhis rose from her hiding spot and dashed to him, wrapping her hand over his mouth as his legs crumpled. Slowly, she lowered him to the ground, keeping her hand clamped to his mouth to ensure he didn’t make a sound. His eyes rolled back and his head lolled to the side. She picked up his feet and quickly dragged him behind a stand of large ceramic pots. He would wake in a few hours, groggy and sick, but his life wasn’t in the contract; Rhis just needed to be sure she wouldn’t be interrupted.
She crept back down the hallway and took a quick look inside the solar. Her mark stood with his back to the door, swirling a glass of amber liquid in one hand. Reaching into an interior pocket, Rhis pulled out a thin, silvery chain with polished wooden handles at the ends. Keeping silent, she rushed up behind the man and flung the chain around his neck. She pulled, digging it into his flesh. With a croak, he choked and tore at the chain with his fingers.
Dragging him backward, Rhis anchored herself with one heel against the wall and held tight as he fought to rip the chain from his neck. His heels pounded against the floor and she looked up at the doorway, certain someone would respond to the noise. Twisting the chain to keep it tight, she grabbed it with one hand and reached into her hair. She pulled out a metal stick and jammed the razor-sharp point up beneath his chin.
His body jerked and his arms fell away, his head flopping forward. Rhis lowered him with care so he wouldn’t make more noise, then retrieved the stick and chain. Blood pulsed from the wound, making an odd shaped pool around his awkward form. The client had wanted to make a statement; Rhis had certainly done her job.
Heavy footsteps in the corridor made Rhis’s chest constrict. Darting for a window, she threw it open, slipped out onto the narrow ledge, and pulled it closed behind her. She jammed on her spiked gloves, then crawled down the face of the building like an insect. A muffled yell came from above and she jumped the rest of the way down, ducking behind the shrubs.
Another shout rang out across the grounds, and a guard ran by. Rhis held her breath as he passed, then she darted through the gardens toward the outer wall. Taking cover behind the citrus trees, she listened, but the sounds of the search were still near the main building. After making sure her gear was secure, she climbed up the face of the wall and hurried down the other side.
More noise drifted from inside the grounds while Rhis lowered her cowl and veil. Donning her cloak, she pulled up the hood and stepped out into the street. Her heartbeat had already returned to normal and the tingle of adrenaline faded as she walked quickly up the road, taking a roundabout route toward the harbor. The stars twinkled in the clear sky, and the chaos of her mark’s estate drifted from her mind as she made her way up a small hill toward her villa.
Excited for more? April 12th!