Water dripped from the gutter, tap tap tapping on the leather of her pauldron. With each breaking droplet, wetness splashed across her cheek. Cold seeped into her skin like a kiss cut short.
The adjacent building loomed over her position on the roof, keeping her out of the moonlight. Movement could draw unwanted attention.
Another droplet splashed. She gritted her teeth.
On the cobblestones below, people flitted about from building to building. In this part of the city, the homes were spread farther apart with gardens usually tended by a staff of gnomes. The cobblestones were pristine here, despite the amount of horse shit that came with so many people traveling. Someone was working very hard to maintain the impression of perfection. Gas lanterns burned bright, casting a hazy glow across the street, lengthening the shadows. More staff managed the horses and the wagons, leading them off to the stables and away from the front of the estate. The people on the street paid no attention to anything out of the light from the lamps.
Rose waited, watched. The sun had long since set, and her assignment had yet to make an appearance. By now, the ball was in full swing. Nobles found any excuse to rub shoulders and show off their wealth, and they came out in droves. Perhaps her assignment had already slipped inside, concealed by a crowd or entering through a side door. Maybe she’d missed her chance to do this clean.
She couldn’t allow that to happen.
Rose needed this to go smoothly, rebuild her reputation and the Guild’s trust in her abilities. Assassins weren’t supposed to have attachments, friends, families, lovers. It was easier to kill that way. Rose had made a mistake. She’d shown herself as weak. She had to prove she was still useful to the Guild.
The party guests continued to mill about. Carriages and horses continued to trundle up to the house. A few guests were beginning to leave. Occasionally she caught the notes of a string ensemble as doors were opened and shut.
That’s when she saw him, walking quietly with a group of finely dressed noble women towards the front door and the crowd that mingled around it.
The Wolf of the Empire.
No matter how unassuming the man tried to be, he didn’t belong there. His grizzled hair was graying, unkempt, and his broad shoulders stood out in a sea of nobles and dandies that had never worked a day in their lives. She couldn’t see a visible weapon on him, but people like him went nowhere without a blade. Not that he needed it. The man himself was a living a weapon.
Rose didn’t believe in coincidences and the Wolf didn’t make social calls.
If she lost her assignment to him, she’d be killed. Or worse.
She needed to act now. No time for second guessing. Rose had a bag stashed in her hiding spot with some emergency supplies. She quickly slipped out of her light leather armor, the night air cold on her exposed skin. The scrap of a dress she pulled on did little to help, but the blades strapped to her thighs made her feel warmer. As did the stilettos she used to twist up her hair.
When she finished, she looked just like any other noble parading down on the street. They were easy to blend in with. People saw what they expected to see.
She slipped down from her hiding place, scaling the brick and stone without making a sound. She stashed her armor under a sewer grate.
She pinched her cheeks and bit her lips, adding some color to them, then stepped out into the light of the street lamps.
The noise of the party was louder now, surrounding her. She smiled at everyone who turned to look at her. The dress was dark and blue, flowing silk swirling around her legs. But the slit was high in the front, allowing her ease of movement and causing a few scandalized whispers. Which was fine. People would remember her legs and not her face. Each step she took clacked loudly on the polished wood floor, emphasizing her approach.
If her assignment had managed to get into the party without her noticing, it was another screw up that could be marked against her. If the Wolf got to him first, she was useless.
Though there was a nominal guest list, no one questioned Rose as she walked inside, head held high. She gazed out at the party goers, looking for a face she had memorized, and also looking for the Wolf.
A man in a floral tunic and surcoat stepped forward, blocking her from continuing her hunt. The man was tall, and he used that height to lean over her small frame. She smiled.
“I haven’t seen you around before.” His breath reeked of alcohol, his face red.
“Oh, it’s my first night back in the city. Uncle Orien thought I should make an appearance after spending so long in the country.” Every good lie had a touch of truth. She caught sight of the Wolf across the room, still casually scanning the crowd. As if he wasn’t a killer.
Her new companion droned on. Rose could use this conversation to surreptitiously look for her target and watch the Wolf. She took a step to the left, where she had a better view.
“Is that Orien Salov, my dear? He’s your uncle?”
The Salovs were a large family, with more children than one could easily count. Even better, the factions had a reputation for not speaking to one another. And Orien was particularly senile. He’d never be able to name all of his own children, let alone the rest of his family members. With her pale complexion and red hair, Rose could pass as one of the family.
“Oh yes, the sweet man.” She furrowed her brow. Across the room, the Wolf watched two drunks stumble across the dance floor. “Though I’m afraid he’s having a rough time as of late. He barely remembers me.”
“Yes, I’d heard Orien wasn’t doing well. I’m sad to see that he wasn’t able to attend himself.” He leaned forward, crowding into her personal space. “But I am glad that we have you as a replacement.”
Rose held her ground. She giggled, hunched her shoulders, made herself seem smaller. “You flatter me.”
The Wolf was on the move. She needed to end this conversation.
But the gentleman was still talking. “What were you doing in the country, my dear? That seems like a dreadful place for a delicate flower like you.”
“Oh, Uncle Orien thought the fresh air would be good for me.” She waved, looking across the room as if someone had called for her. “Oh, there’s Alveria. If you’ll excuse me, sir. It was lovely meeting you.”
She stepped away before he could question her further. He’d already cost her enough time. Maybe too much time.
She drifted through the crowd, scanning faces, looking for her assignment and the Wolf. There was no sign of either. How had she lost sight of him that quickly? He wasn’t a subtle man. And her assignment was supposed to be a skittish elf. That was one of the reasons he’d been given to Rose. People always underestimated her. If he saw the Wolf, he’d bolt.
There were too many people to watch, too much movement and noise and color. She was almost clear on the other side of the ballroom when she caught sight of the Wolf again. He stood by the kitchen doors, watching the staff carry trays of meats and fruits, sizing each of them up. His dark eyes narrowed as each new staff member trotted passed.
That was interesting. If her assignment had caught wind of the Wolf, maybe he was trying to find another way out.
Rose walked the periphery of the crowd, making her way towards the kitchen. She stopped when a new line of staff carried empty trays back to the kitchens. When the last waiter passed, she came face to face with the Wolf.
Rose froze. Then took a step back. A noble woman was likely to be afraid of him.
He grabbed her arm. “Let’s go somewhere private to catch up, darling.”
He steered the two of them towards a back entrance that lead to an expansive garden. Only the wealthiest people in the city could afford a place like this. It was large enough that she could almost imagine the buildings to either side didn’t exist, lost to shadows. A few other party-goers wandered through the garden, admiring the flowers, the fountains, the sculptures. The Wolf kept hold of her arm and lead her down a neatly manicured path, keeping them well out of earshot of anyone else.
They’d passed a lilac in full bloom before he started speaking. “I know your kind,” he said at last.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about, sir.”
He laughed. “Cut the bullshit. You’re good, I’ll give you that. But you cased the place three days ago. I saw you on the roof then, and I saw you on the roof tonight.”
Rose said nothing. Bit the inside of her cheek.
The bastard smirked. “I don’t know who gave you the contract, darling, but this one is marked for the Empire.”
“What does the Empire want with an elf like Jarend?”
“Crossed the wrong people, didn’t pay his debts, ran afoul of the law. What does the Guild want with him?”
“Crossed the wrong people, didn’t pay his debts, ran afoul of the law.”
“You’re cute. That’ll bite you in the ass one day.”
“I was here first.”
“Doesn’t matter if I get to him first.” He squeezed her arm just a little bit harder. “Why don’t you walk away?”
Rose started to shake her head, then stopped. She’d already given him too much information.
“That’s a real shame.” He stopped walking and turned to face her, examining her. Rose met his eyes, her face blank. He shook his head. “You’re young.”
“I’m older than I look.”
He nodded to an elderly couple that passed too close to them, waited for them to walk by. “Our man isn’t going to show tonight,” he said. “Something spooked him. It’s a fox hunt.” He looked at her. “And a race.” Slowly, he let go of her arm.
Her bicep throbbed where his fingers had dug into her skin. She ignored it. “Yes, I suppose it is.”
The Wolf had been right. Jarend was a tricky, secretive elf. The party had been the best lead to locate him.
If the Wolf was right about him getting wind of a contract, he’d go to ground. She’d have to either flush him out, or track him down. Worse still, if Jarend had drawn the attention of the Empire, he was better connected than she’d been lead to believe. The Guild hadn’t included that information.
She had to hope she was quicker than the Wolf.
Rose revisited Jarend’s safe houses, hoping to find something new. She strolled through the streets of the High Market, walking past vendors with fine silks, expensive jewelry, and exotic fruits. The first safe house was nestled between a seamstress and an apothecary. It had no other way out than the front door. She picked the lock and quietly slipped inside, blade drawn. It was a bust. Food rotted on the table, and the layer of dust that coated the surfaces was thick and undisturbed. Rose sighed and crossed it off her list.
The second safe house was in the outer part of the city in a place called the Narrows, closer to the wall, away from the noble neighborhoods and the high end merchant districts. Not many people ventured out this way if they didn’t have to.
Rose grabbed a dark red cloth from an unwatched vendor stand, left her cloak behind and draped the sheet over her shoulders, pulling the fabric up into a hood. Her features were masked in shadows. The tattered piece of fabric hung heavily off her shoulders. It would do. Then she snatched a small wooden bowl from another cart, dropped a few coins in it, and wandered slowly down the street. No one would look twice at a young beggar woman.
Fetid water pooled in the creases and cracks of the road, soaking the edges of her new cloak. Heaps of trash and debris narrowed the road, squeezed the pedestrians in closer. The place lived up to its name.
Jarend’s safe house was in the middle of a row of run down buildings, the lower windows boarded up. She had a clear line of sight to the stoop from most of the alley.
Rose circled the block several times, noting exits and entrances, possible escape routes or vectors of attack. The pedestrians changed with every pass.
Rose noticed him on her second time around, a tall thin man with a hood drawn up over his face, just like she had done with hers. His eyes were in shadow, but she could make out an angular chin and white blond hair sticking out of the folds of fabric. He was there again on her third pass, watching the building as she slowed to watch him. His eyes never once moved towards her, completely passing over the slight woman in the grubby clothing.
People saw what they expected to see.
The street was crowded, and it was easy to sink into the flow of bodies, to drift up and down the street without drawing attention. She kept the elf in her periphery, waiting. Rose was good at waiting. It wouldn’t do to spook him and scare him off before she had her moment. Eventually, he’d make a move. Go into the safe house or leave. It’d be easier to get this done in private.
A commotion from the other end of the street drew her attention, a quiet murmuring broke up the usual noises of the narrows. Rose’s hand drifted toward the stiletto tucked into her belt. She hopped up onto a wooden apple crate, looking out over the heads of people starting to drift closer towards her.
He came from the opposite end of the street, the crowds parting around him as much as they could in the narrow space. While he’d tried to blend in at the party, he made no such efforts now. His official armor gleamed in the sunlight, almost blinding. The engraved wolves seemed to run, a trick of the light across the metal. His executioner’s sword was already unsheathed.
Jarend saw the Wolf a moment after she did. He took off running, squeezing down a side alley.
So much for easy and clean and private.
She jumped off the box and ran after the elf.
The Wolf took off after the two of them. The people on the street started to panic, trying to get out of the way of the knight in armor and the man he was chasing. Most pedestrians didn’t even notice Rose, stepping into her way and blocking her path. She darted around them.
While all that gleaming armor looked flashy and made an entrance, it slowed the Wolf down. Rose had no such issues. She lept over abandoned carts, dove around people, pirouetted through the crowds. She just had to catch up to the elf. His cloak billowed behind him, hood thrown back, his hair tangling. He glanced back over his shoulder, eyes scanning for the Wolf, then took another alley.
Rose scaled the wall of a brothel, hanging off the loose brick and swinging around to a shaky balcony. Someone down on the street screamed.
But she was around the corner and leaping to the next balcony, dropping back into the alley before anyone else called out. She hoped this gamble paid off.
The elf came pivoting around the corner, stumbling over a pile of rotten garbage. He hadn’t yet seen Rose pressed up against the cool brick wall, concealed in shadows. Farther away, she could hear the clinking of the Wolf’s armor.
Jarend looked back over his shoulder, still jogging away from his pursuer. Rose pulled the stilleto from its sheath.
She stepped into the alley, blade in hand. Jarend skidded to a halt at the sight of her. He frowned. Took a step back. The Wolf entered the other end of the alley.
Jarend looked around the alley, eyes wide. Rose gripped her knife tighter. Widened her stance.
He ran right towards her.
Behind him, the Wolf started to charge. He was faster than he’d looked, despite the armor. She breathed in through her nose, out through her mouth. She twisted her fingers on the leather grip of her blade. Watched Jarend run. Threw the stiletto.
The blade sunk deep into his eye socket. Jarend stumbled. Reached towards the knife with shaking hands. Blood began to trickle down his cheek and he slipped to the ground. He twitched once. Twice.
Rose walked slowly to the corpse. The Wolf made it there first. He pulled the stilleto from the dead man’s skull.
He whistled, low and slow. “Nice work, darling. I didn’t even see you until the idiot ran.”
She nodded, her eyes narrowed. She let her hand fall towards her other blade, almost touching. If he decided to claim the contract for himself, there’d be nothing she could do about it. “What happens now?”
He shrugged. Smiled a little. “What is it you think I’d do?”
“You’re the Empire’s attack dog. I think you’d do whatever you wanted. Like take credit for my kill.”
He laughed, a full bellied sound that shook his shoulders. “You’re brave, girl. No one has talked to me like that in years. ”
“I’ve met worse.”
“I’m sure you have.” He looked back down at the body. Blood had started to seep into the cobblestones. He squared his shoulders and turned back to her. “Well, go ahead and finish it.”
She took a step back from him. Reached into her bag and pulled out a piece of parchment tied with a black velvet ribbon. The receipt of assassination. She’d signed the paper days ago, when she’d first been given the contract, in case she needed to leave in a hurry. That seemed an odd thought now the Wolf scrutinized her every move. She left the parchment on the elf’s still chest. Her eyes never left the Wolf.
He nodded when she stood back up. “Congratulations, assassin. You’ve got your man. You’ve earned it.” He handed her stiletto back to her. “Witnessed by a servant of the Empress, if anyone should question it. I’ll send someone to take care of the mess.”
“The elf is dead. Seems like there’s nothing for me to do.” He nodded one more time and stalked around the corner, the armor clinking with every step.
Rose didn’t know what to think. But it didn’t matter in the end. She completed the contract. This was the first step to winning back the Guild’s approval. She’d worry about the Wolf of the Empire another day, if she had to.
At least she’d live to see it.