By Gail Z. Martin
Roan Destwiler was a dead man, by order of the king. He just didn’t know it yet.
Joel Breckenridge, king’s assassin, bided his time and hoped his partner got into position to make the shot. If not, the evening would go badly very fast.
The stolen cloak that he had taken off the arms smuggler itched, and Ridge tried not to scratch. He hoped that lice would be the worst of the vermin in the clothes he had stripped off the man he waylaid a few streets over. Ridge did his best to look at ease, accompanying two guards who carried a heavy chest of contraband swords, knives, and war axes Ridge had delivered on an equally stolen wagon.
A third guard opened the doors to the deal maker’s opulent office. Destwiler sat behind a wide desk, resplendent in a wine-red brocade frock coat over a deep blue satin vest. He had a broad, plain face with an off-kilter nose, broken too often to ever set right, and a scar through one eyebrow.
“You’re late,” he snapped, barely favoring Ridge with a glance, which suited the assassin just fine. He kept the arms dealer’s stolen hat slouched low to obscure his face.
“Had to get around the king’s guards,” Ridge lied. “Couldn’t have them nosing around.” Once he and Rett had nabbed the arms smuggler, it had taken a while to move the weapons into a second chest with a false bottom and with a nasty surprise inside.
“Let’s see the cargo,” Destwiler said. “It better be what I paid for.” He gave a disquieting chuckle. “The buyer is impatient. Then again, now that I’ve got my ‘good luck charm,’ we shouldn’t have any delays getting the items where they need to go.” His gaze fell on the scrawny boy chained to one side of Destwiler’s desk, the kidnapped nobleman’s son Ridge and Rett had been assigned to rescue.
A small boy, perhaps eight years old, huddled against the desk, trying to make himself invisible. Manacles far too heavy for his spindly arms and legs clanked, practically pinning him in place by their weight. The jacket and knickers he wore were made of fine brocade, sullied and stained by his captivity. The boy’s hair hung lank, and his cheeks were hollow so that he looked more like an urchin than an aristocrat’s child.
“I promise you, it’s everything and more,” Ridge replied, opening the chest. As Destwiler’s attention went to the box of weapons, Ridge scanned the room. Two guards stood behind him. An iron key hung from a leather strap around Destwiler’s neck, and Ridge bet it fit the locks on the boy’s chains. Opening up his Sight, Ridge felt no surprise that Destwiler bore the touch of the Witch Lord, a psychic stain like festering rot.
Destwiler had been a worthy target for a long time, escaping punishment for as long as he had only because Burke, King Kristoph’s left hand and the commander of the king’s assassins, believed the man would eventually lead them to more important criminals.
Then Destwiler got greedy—or stupid—and took the son of a noble hostage to further his schemes, and forbearance ended.
Ridge restrained himself from glancing upward, toward the second-floor windows. Destwiler moved out from behind his desk, and into position.
Breaking glass and the crack of gunfire were Ridge’s signal to move, as Destwiler’s skull exploded from the matchlock’s shot, spattering the crate of weapons with blood and bone. The boy screamed in terror, a thin, shrill sound.
Ridge spun around, grabbing two throwing knives from the top of the stash in the box and had them hilt-deep in each guard’s ribs before their swords cleared their scabbards. He dropped the heavy crossbar to lock the door to the office, and dodged back to the box of weapons, reclaiming his own array of swords and knives before teasing out a long fuse from the bottom of the crate. Then he strode over to Destwiler’s corpse and pulled the key and its strap around what was left of the man’s head.
Ridge removed the warrant from inside his vest and read out the charges as required by law. “Roan Destwiler. By order of King Kristoph of Landria, you stand condemned of crimes against the kingdom and the throne too numerous to note, but most grievously the kidnapping of Kelvin, son of Thad, Lord of Wendover. You are sentenced to death, summary execution, without notice or reprieve.”
He rolled the warrant up and tucked it into Destwiler’s bloody vest, a formality. Ridge bent down to search Destwiler’s pockets, curling his lip at the still-warm blood that soaked the shoulders and sleeves of the man’s coat. He found a parchment note tucked beneath the vest and took it to read later, figuring that anything Destwiler found important enough to carry on his person bore looking at closely.
“Are you stealing from him?” Kelvin asked, still eying Ridge with a mixture of fear and awe.
Ridge replied without looking up. “I’m trying to find the keys to those manacles, because I sure as hell don’t want to have to carry you and them out of here, and we need to leave.” He took the iron key off the strap and then stood and crossed the distance to where Kelvin huddled against the wall.
He stared at Ridge in wide-eyed apprehension, unsure what to make of his terrifying rescuer. His wrists were badly bruised from the weight of the iron, and the mark on his cheek suggested Destwiler or his guard had backhanded the child at least once.
“I’m here to take you back to your father,” Ridge said quietly, approaching Kelvin as he would a spooked horse. “I’m not going to hurt you.”
“Are you a Shadow Killer?” Kelvin’s tone shifted, still frightened but clearly intrigued.
Ridge had always hated that term—he argued that it made it sound like they killed shadows—but it remained what most people outside the palace called the king’s elite assassins. “Yes. That’s how I managed to get them before they got you—or me,” he replied with a tense smile. He’d had very little experience with children since he had left the orphanage, and nothing in his training covered handling jittery child hostages.
“You want out of here? I need to reach the locks.” Ridge dangled the heavy iron key from his fingers. “Before someone else comes and makes this a lot harder.”
That seemed to decide Kelvin, who thrust his skinny arms and legs toward Ridge. Ridge frowned as he lifted the boy’s wrists, wondering how Kelvin managed to move at all, considering the chains probably weighed as much as he did. The fact that cuffs came in a size small enough for Kelvin’s thin wrists and ankles made his stomach turn.
The key released the manacles, and the cuffs fell away, banging against the floor. Ridge eyed Kelvin, noting more bruises. He wondered if anyone bothered to feed the boy since Destwiler obviously never intended to give him back. “Can you walk?”
Kelvin nodded. “I think so.” His voice still sounded hoarse from screaming, and the attempt at bravado impressed Ridge. Kelvin did his best to haul himself up, leaning on the wall, but his knees buckled, and he would have fallen if Ridge had not darted in to grab him.
“Looks like you skipped a few meals,” Ridge said, supporting the boy’s weight. “We need to be gone from here, and we need to move fast. So I’m going to carry you, and you’re not going to complain about it.”
Garrett Kennard stuck his head in the broken window. “Hurry it up!” Rett ordered and dropped a rope down. Ridge gave the rope a good tug, then turned to Kelvin.
“Climb on my back. Now.”
Ridge crouched, and Kelvin scrambled on, wrapping his slight arms around Ridge’s neck and thin legs around his waist. “You’d better have tied this off to something solid,” Ridge muttered at Rett as he started to climb hand-over-hand up the rope.
“Just don’t let go. And don’t look down,” Ridge warned Kelvin.
Rett’s anchor held, and he appeared at the top to drag Ridge and Kelvin over the window frame and onto the roof. He gathered up the rope and coiled it over his shoulder.
“Do it,” Ridge said to Rett, angling Kelvin so he wouldn’t see as Rett used a flicker of forbidden magic to light the fuse beneath the crate.
“Run!” Rett warned, and together they sprinted across the flat roof, came to the edge, and jumped across the gap, landing solidly on the next building. Kelvin gave a soft oof at the impact and tightened his arms and legs to hold on.
An explosion tore through Destwiler’s office as the fuse ignited the gunpowder hidden in the bottom of the crate. If any of the other guards had succeeded in entering the room, the shrapnel of broken pottery and iron pellets packed with the gunpowder made the threat of pursuit unlikely. A fireball billowed from the first-story windows as glass shattered into the street.
Ridge grinned and sped up to close ranks with Rett. He kept one hand tight on Kelvin’s wrists, and had a knife in the other, just in case. The wind that raked through Ridge’s black hair was crisp with the promise of autumn. Just enough of the waning moon peeked through the clouds to enable him to follow the path they had laid out earlier across the rooftops, abetted by the smoky lamplight of the questionable lodging houses and pubs below.
Ridge’s soft boots let him move silently and sure-footed. Six years of experience made him graceful and fleet. The buildings crowded close together, making it easy for him to jump from rooftop to rooftop. Ridge had long ago lost any sense of vertigo, since he had been doing this kind of work since he was eighteen. If he had ever been afraid of falling, he no longer remembered it.
“He’d damn well better be there,” Ridge muttered.
“He’ll be there.”
They wove a crooked course over the rooftops until they were several blocks north and a couple of streets west of Destwiler’s building. Ridge chanced a look over his shoulder and saw the glow from the fire in the distance. With the amount of gunpowder Rett had packed into the crate, the whole building would burn like a pyre.
“Here,” Rett said, coming to a stop at the edge of a building with a stout, solidly built chimney. He secured the rope and held it out to Ridge, who grabbed hold, turned, and stepped off into the night.
Kelvin stifled a cry as Ridge rappelled down the side of the building. At the bottom, he stepped away and whistled, Rett’s signal to descend. Ridge spun and faced an empty street.
“He’s not here,” Ridge grated.
“He’ll be here,” Rett replied, unperturbed.
Racing hoof beats thundered in the night, and a black carriage turned the corner so fast it rose up on two wheels. The wild-eyed black stallion bore down like it meant to trample the three of them, reined in at the last moment by the short, balding, pudgy driver.
“Right on time!” Henri, the driver, exulted. Ridge glowered but said nothing as Rett threw open the door of the carriage, and they climbed inside, Kelvin between them. The carriage started up at a gallop before they had taken their seats, throwing them against the sides.
“Hang on,” Ridge advised Kelvin. “The driver is a madman.”
Cobblestones at high speed made for a rough and painful trip, and Ridge felt sure the jostling had left him bruised and jarred a few teeth from his head. Kelvin had the glassy-eyed look of a rabbit in thrall, torn between terror and excitement. Rett laughed, bracing himself with one hand on either side of the carriage to keep from being thrown around.
“Nice shot,” Ridge said, as the rough ride made his voice hitch.
“Had to make it count, since the matchlock takes so bloody long to reload,” Rett replied with a shrug.
Henri slowed the carriage to a more respectable pace. Ridge’s heart still hammered in his chest from the fight, the climb, and the escape, and the wild ride did not help. Rett’s chestnut hair was wind-rustled, but excitement glinted in his whiskey-brown eyes. “You look like you’re having entirely too much fun,” Ridge grumbled.
Cobblestones gave way to smooth pavers. The carriage slowed and stopped, as Henri spoke to the palace guards. Then the horse started off again at a stately trot until minutes later the carriage came to rest at the back entrance to the palace.
“Here’s where you go find your father,” Ridge said, nudging Kelvin’s shoulder to get the boy to let go of his death grip on the seat cushion. He climbed out of the carriage and helped Kelvin down, giving a glance and nod as Burke, the officer in charge of the king’s assassins, descended from the doorway to take the young man inside.
“Destwiler?” Burke asked.
“And the fire that’s been reported in that area?”
Ridge shrugged. “Had to make sure we weren’t followed.”
Burke fixed him with a glare. “Assassins are supposed to be stealthy, Breckenridge. You keep forgetting.”
“Hard to argue with results,” Ridge said with a grin, giving Kelvin’s shoulder a reassuring squeeze before he climbed back into the carriage. Burke’s withering gaze followed them.
“He knew about the fire already?” Rett asked.
“Guards could probably see it from the tower. Good job with the gunpowder, by the way.”
Rett grinned, managing to look younger than his twenty-two years. “I’ll have to experiment when we have time. Might be a way to blow things up without taking out the building.”
“Where’s the fun in that?” Ridge asked, giddy with the adrenaline of the fight and the rush of relief that came with surviving another mission.
Before long, the carriage stopped outside the building where they rented the upper floor. Ridge and Rett got out. Henri gave them a nod. “I’ll be right there, as soon as I return the carriage to where I stole it.” With that, he headed off at a reasonable pace through the darkened streets of Caralocia.
“He does know that when we’ve got a warrant from the king, it’s not really stealing as long as we give it back, right?” Ridge asked as they made their way up the narrow stairs.
“Don’t spoil it for him,” Rett returned. “I think he enjoys breaking the rules, every once in a while.”
The banked fire on the hearth gave them enough light to see as they lit the lanterns, sending a warm glow across the sitting area. Their rooms above an unremarkable pub were hardly luxurious, though they were warm and tidy. Ridge and Rett could afford better, but the part of the capital city of Caralocia they had chosen let them hide among the crowds of shopkeepers and laborers, and lacked the pretentiousness of anything closer to the palace. The king paid his assassins quite well, recognizing the danger and the fact that his elite defenders were unlikely to reach old age. Few made it past thirty, and only a handful made it to forty. Ridge and Rett had plenty of scars to attest to the hazards of their work.
The two friends usually hunted together, a rarity among assassins, who tended to prefer working solo. Their uncanny synchronicity had won over the Shadow Master, and their success record quashed any other objections. They’d been watching each other’s backs since the orphanage, close as brothers since Ridge was ten and Rett was eight.
Ridge stood half a head taller and packed a bit more muscle, with crow-black hair, piercing blue eyes, a sharp jawline, and high cheekbones. Rett’s brown eyes held flecks of gold in candlelight, as did his chestnut hair, framing delicate features. He might be a bit shorter and less bulky than his partner, but his lean build was whipcord strong, nimble as an acrobat.
“Could you Sight him?” Rett asked as he grabbed a bottle of whiskey from the shelf and Ridge took down three cups.
Ridge nodded. “Destwiler had the Witch Lord’s touch on him. He’d definitely given himself over. The others were just regular scum.”
The door opened, and both men tensed, then relaxed as Henri stepped inside. The wind made him red-cheeked and mussed what little of his fine blond hair remained. His vest strained over a slightly pudgy middle. “I left coin enough at the livery to compensate the carriage owner since we might have cracked an axle on a turn. Paid the night groom to see that the horse was taken care of.” He grinned smugly. “After all, no telling when I’ll need to steal him again.”