Fedor pressed into the shadows and checked his ravenglass dagger again, its handle icy against his palm. Light played around its edges, the midnight black seeming to bend the world around its form.
Fallen leaves, turned to mulch by weeks of rain, squelched under his boots. The smells of damp and rot tickled his nostrils as rainwater dripped a rhythm from rooftops, joining the clatter of cartwheels on cobblestones.
Fedor gestured to a three-storey house across the street, just visible through the mist. “That’s the place.”
Fedor slid his dagger back into its sheath. “Definitely.”
“Hmm. Let’s see.” Lev pulled a ragged scrap of paper from an inside coat pocket, checked the address again, and stared at the house. “Alright. You’d think a bloke like that would have a bigger place.” He nodded to himself and stuffed the note back into his coat. “So, how we doing this?”
Fedor sighed. “We’ve already been through this.”
“And you’ve been off your game lately. I need to be—”
“Fine. I still think we’re going about this all wrong. We should go to the Dvoraks. Get cash for the lead.”
“Nah, mate. We’ve gone through this.” Lev removed his cap, shook away the collected raindrops from its peak, and flipped it back onto his head. “How many bloody times?”
“I just think we’re opening ourselves to more risk this way.”
“What’s it I keep telling you about risk?”
“Risk nothing, you risk it all…I know. It’s just—”
“I’ve told you.” Lev raised a forefinger. “There’s more cash in keeping a secret than blabbing about one. This is basic, basic stuff.”
Fedor rolled his eyes. “And how would you know?”
“Trust me, mate. I know.” Lev turned his attention back to the house. “So, what’s it to be?”
“We knock on the front door, he lets us in, and we tell him we know, and that if he doesn’t pay up, we’ll tell the Dvoraks, or Magistrates, or whoever will listen.”
“Nah, mate. We’ll do it my way.”
Fedor growled out a sigh. “So, why ask?”
“Just checking we’re on the same boat.” He tapped the side of his head. “You see, I know what we’re doing here. We need to make a proper impression.”
“I still don’t get why we need to break in.”
Lev shrugged. “Why not? We sneak up on him, scare him a bit, and scarper with a shit-load of cash. Simple.”
Fedor signalled along the street to a pair of patrolling constables, their forms soft and shadowy through the fog.
Lev gave a dismissive wave. “We’ll be fine.”
“Don’t you think it looks a bit dodgy?”
“It’s all dodgy, mate. Trust me, this is how we need to play it. We’ll go round the back and I’ll use my magic to get us inside.”
“You might have your blade, but I’m a wizard when it comes to locks.”
“I wouldn’t call that magic.”
“Depends who you ask, mate.”
“Right. Then what?”
“We find him, tell him what’s what, and get him to pay up.” He studied Fedor for a moment. “Maybe leave the talking to me. You just keep your hood up and try to look menacing.”
Fedor smirked. “Menacing?”
“Sure. Why not? Just look all mysterious and brooding.”
“You really think I can pull off menacing?” He shook his head. “And I don’t even know what brooding means.”
“Just think of Soren.”
Fedor held his eyes shut at the thought of the master assassin who he had killed a week earlier. The image of Soren’s flesh and muscle burning away, leaving his bones a cage of black, haunted his dreams. He shuddered. “I’d rather not think of him if I can help it.”
“I’m with you, mate.” Lev met his gaze and offered him a half-smile. “Well, just flash that dagger of yours if he gets lippy, and we’ll be good.”
“Fine.” The blade’s whispers danced around Fedor’s mind, sending shivers along his arms and back. Since he’d killed Soren, the dagger whispered at the edges of his thoughts, tempting him to kill again. But was it something in the blade’s magic, or a voice in his own mind? Perhaps a darker self had awakened.
The constables moved on, disappearing into the ghostly haze.
Fedor took in a breath. The scent of damp cobbles mingled with the rotten leaves. “Shit.”
“What is it now?”
Fedor wiped his clammy palms down his legs. “I hate doing jobs like this without a lookout.”
Lev checked the street and nodded. “We’ll be fine, mate.”
“I just hope Onwyth comes around.”
The corners of Lev’s mouth twitched. “Me too.” He rested a hand on Fedor’s shoulder. “But how long’s that going to be?”
Fedor sighed. “We should say yes to Dienerin.”
“Screw that scaly bitch.”
“Why not? She’s on our side.”
Lev sniffed. “Mate, she’s on your side. How many times does she have to go on about you being the master? The rest of us don’t mean shit to her.”
“We took an oath in blood, remember? We’ve got each other’s backs. We need to trust each other.”
“It’s not you I don’t trust. She blanks me and Lita if we ask her to do anything.”
Fedor shifted his weight, his gaze fixing on the target’s house. “Maybe I could order her to listen to you.”
“Yeah, right. She only does shit for you.”
“So? Surely, we can work with that.”
“You’d have a lookout. But no one else would.”
Fedor glanced down the street again, expecting constables to emerge from the fog to arrest them both. “It’d be better than nothing.”
“Maybe. But Lita’s been working on getting a replacement for—”
“We can’t replace him,” Fedor snapped.
“You know what I mean.” Lev raised a finger to his lips. “And if you’re not careful, everyone on this bloody street’s going to clock we’re here.”
Fedor sighed and looked at the house again. “Are we doing this, or what?”
“Yeah.” Lev stepped from the alleyway and crossed the street towards the house. Glancing over a shoulder, he gave a quick hand signal to follow and hopped over the garden wall.
Following, Fedor vaulted the wall and trudged across sodden ground, weaving past puddles as he trailed Lev to the back door.
Lev rooted inside his pocket and retrieved a pair of lock-picks. He glanced towards the street. “How we looking?”
Crouching to one knee, Lev concentrated on the lock.
The tumbler clicked.
“We’re in.” He rose to his feet and grinned.
Fedor retrieved the oil can from his longcoat and squirted around the handle. He splashed more onto the hinges when Lev opened the door.
Fedor’s stomach rumbled at the aromas of savoury roasted pork and boiled turnips wafting from inside.
Lev yanked a black neckerchief up to cover his mouth and nose and lowered his cap’s peak before entering.
Taking a breath, Fedor stepped into the kitchen on tiptoes, his eyes adjusting to the gloom. Copper pans glinted in the low light as heat radiated from a stove.
Lev marched over to the far door and opened it to reveal a hallway with oak-panelled walls and a thick maroon carpet framed by a polished floor.
A male voice called from the front of the house.
“Remember, let me do the talking.” Lev drew a club from his belt and dragged it along the wall, its scraping interrupted by thuds as it bounced across doorframes.
“Who’s there? Elsie? Is that you?” A bloated man wearing only his nightshirt and slippers waddled into the hallway. A cup fell from his hand, shattering at his feet, steaming tea seeping into the carpet. He gaped at Lev and Fedor. “What is the meaning—”
Lev slapped his club down on his open palm. “You Jedrick?”
The man stiffened and licked his lips, his hands shaking, his eyes bulging.
Lev pulled the scrap of paper from his pocket and made a show of studying the note. “Jedrick Bollea?” He tilted his head to one side, studying the man. “Merchant? Owner of the Bollea Trading Company?”
“Yes. Yes.” Jedrick stepped back, his voice quivering. “What is this?” His gaze darted between Lev and Fedor. “Who are you?”
Lev smiled and stuffed the note back into his coat pocket. “I think we need to have a little chat, don’t you?” He pointed his club at the sitting room door. “Go and take a seat.”
Jedrick gave a quick nod and stared down at the broken cup. “May I—”
“You can bloody deal with that later.”
“But the carpet is—”
Lev struck the wall with his club, making Jedrick start. “We’re not going to have any trouble here, are we?”
“Of course not. Are you planning to”—his throat bobbed—“to hurt me?”
“I don’t fancy hurting anyone if I’m being perfectly honest, but my friend over here—” He sucked in a breath and gestured vaguely to Fedor. “Let’s just say, pissing us around won’t end well for you.”
On cue, Fedor drew his dagger and gripped its handle, allowing Jedrick to take in the play of darkness before he slipped it back into its sheath.
“And if I’m being completely honest, it won’t end well for me either, because I’m the one who has to live with what I see.” He tapped the side of his head. “Trust me, mate. You really don’t want to know what my friend likes to do with that blade of his. It’s not a pretty sight.”
Jedrick’s mouth gaped. “Who…who sent you?”
“I won’t fucking ask you again.” Lev pointed to the door. “Sit the fuck down, or my friend will slice you from arse to tit.”
Jedrick raised his hands and waddled into the sitting room with Lev jabbing the club’s tip against the small of his back.
Fedor followed and clicked the door shut behind them.
Gold and crimson drapes covered a bay window, blocking out the encroaching night. Oil paintings in gilded frames hung on the walls, all of them showing tall-masted ships out at sea. A coal fire burnt in the grate, its mantle dotted with ships in bottles.
Fedor lingered in the corner, keeping his face obscured with shadows as Jedrick sank into a plush green-leather armchair.
Lev plucked a bottle from the mantle between a thumb and forefinger, allowing it to dangle and sway in a loose grip.
“Be careful with that,” Jedrick said.
“What? This?” Lev flipped the bottle in the air and caught it. He held it up and studied the model ship for several seconds before speaking. “You know, I’ve always wondered how they get these boats inside.” He inclined his head and met Jedrick’s gaze. “You reckon they use magic?”
“Please…” Jedrick gripped the arms of the chair, his fleshy knuckles turning pale. “What do you want from me?”
Lev shook his head. “You see, I’ve never really understood the appeal of these things. I mean, you see ships all the time around the docks. Real ones, mind. Not little kids’ toys shoved in bottles.” He shook his head. “These are just shit.” The bottle slipped from his hand.
Jedrick gasped as the bottle bounced on a patterned rug and spun to a stop.
He breathed out with relief, his hand shooting to his chest.
“Seems today’s your lucky day, mate.” Lev picked up the bottle and placed it back above the fireplace.
“Please. What do you want? Who are you working for?” Jedrick narrowed his eyes. “Are you with the Dvorak Company?”
Lev cocked an eyebrow. “Dvorak, eh?”
“What of it?”
“It’s just interesting you’d mention that name.”
“Disreputable dogs, the lot of you.”
“I wouldn’t let you hear my friend mouthing off about dogs.”
Jedrick frowned, his brow wrinkling. “Excuse me?”
“Dogs.” He jerked a thumb at Fedor. “My friend here loves dogs. Not too fond of people, but when it comes to dogs, he gets very protective.” He sucked in a breath and winced. “Maybe a little too protective, if you catch my meaning.”
“What are they paying you? I can—”
“I take it you’re familiar with a bloke called Antoni Dvorak?” Lev examined his fingernails. “Or, at least, you were.” He met Jedrick’s gaze and cocked an eyebrow.
“I…I…erm…” Jedrick cleared his throat and shuffled in his seat. “I am familiar with the name.”
Lev stepped forward and pointed his club at Jedrick’s face, its tip mere inches from his nose. “We know you’re familiar with that name. Very familiar.”
“How much did you pay?” Lev began to pace and tapped his chin. “Oh, yeah.” He raised a forefinger and smiled. “I remember.”
“Thirty grand, wasn’t it?”
Jedrick’s mouth dropped open. He shuddered and raised his chin. “I’m afraid I’m going to have to ask you to leave.”
“You’re afraid? You should be afraid, mate. We’re not going anywhere.” Lev lowered his voice. “We know.”
“What do you know?” Jedrick spat.
“We know you paid a certain assassin thirty grand to have him knocked off.”
“We know.” Lev tapped his temple. “We know.”
Jedrick’s gaze scoured the room. “There must be…there must be something I can…” His hand drifted towards a fire poker.
“I wouldn’t do that,” Fedor said.
“Yes. Sorry.” Jedrick’s hands snapped back to his lap. “What do you want from me?”
“The same as you, really,” Lev said. “We want this to stay a secret as much as you do. You see, it’s not good when stuff like this gets out.”
Jedrick clapped his hands together and sighed. “Thank Creation.”
“Of course. It’s going to cost you, though.”
Jedrick looked up. “Cost me? Cost me what?”
Lev pushed out his bottom lip. “Oh, I don’t know. I’d say about ten grand should cover you.”
“This is blackmail, this is—”
“You’re damn right it’s blackmail.” Lev shrugged a shoulder. “But what you going to do? Tell the Magistrates someone’s found out about you hiring an assassin?”
“I did no such thing.”
“Bull-fucking-shit,” Lev said. “We know everything, mate. We know what you did. We know who you hired. We know when you did it and how much you paid. And, what’s more, we know the contract was completed.” He stood back with his arms folded, letting the accusation hang. “Of course, we can hand that over to the Magistrates, but we don’t want that, do we?”
Jedrick slumped on his chair, his shoulders sagging. “Was it that wyvern?” He spoke through gritted teeth. “I knew not to trust a wyvern.”
“No. The simple fact is, you were careless. And, let’s be honest, we’re bloody good at what we do.”
Jedrick’s eyes narrowed. “And what do you do?”
Lev shrugged. “You tell us, mate. We’ve not really come up with a name for it yet. Let’s just say we keep the secrets of people with blood on their hands.”
Blinking at the ceiling, Jedrick shook his head. “But ten thousand krones?”
Lev nodded. “That’s the price.”
Jedrick licked his lips and turned to Lev. “And if I pay, how do I…how do I know you won’t come back?”
“You don’t, but I give you my word as—”
“As a thief?” He sat up, his eyes wild. “As a scoundrel? As a blackmailing rogue?”
Lev smirked. “Whatever works for you, mate.”
“I am not your mate, you disreputable, no good—”
“I take it you’d prefer it if we weren’t?” Lev turned to Fedor. “He doesn’t think we’re mates.”
Fedor took a half-step towards Jedrick and drew his blade. Perhaps he could pull off the brooding menace after all.
“Of course. Of course.” Jedrick raised his hands, his voice growing frantic. “We’re mates. We’re mates. Please. Just…please.”
For a moment, it seemed Jedrick might cry, but he sat up straight and inhaled. “Please. I don’t want any more trouble.”
“See, that wasn’t too hard, was it, mate?”
Jedrick studied Lev and pursed his lips. “Swear it.”
“Swear it in the eyes of Creation.” He pointed to the ceiling. “Swear to Creation you will keep my secret, that…that this, this extortion will be the only payment.”
Lev turned to Fedor. “See, didn’t I say he’d see sense?”
“Swear it.” Jedrick folded his arms. “Or, no deal.”
“Fine. I swear in the eyes of Creation that when you pay up the ten grand, we’ll keep your secret.”
“And this will be the only payment.”
“Fine. Fine.” Lev rolled his eyes. “If you pay us the ten grand, you’ll never hear from us again. That’s a promise.”
“For fuck’s sake—we’re supposed to be the ones shaking you down.”
“I need you to swear it.”
“Fine. I swear it in the eyes of Creation that when you cough up the cash, you’ll never hear from us again.”
“And your accomplice?”
“He doesn’t speak.”
Jedrick frowned. “I heard him.”
“I speak for both of us. Now, are we doing this, or what?”
Silence hung between them for several seconds before Jedrick nodded and hauled himself to his feet. “Wait here.”
“Where do you think you’re going?”
“To get your ten thousand krones, of course. Isn’t that what you want?”
Jedrick raised a finger. “But this is the only payment I will make.”
“That’s what we agreed.” Lev sat on the nearest sofa and kicked his feet up over the arm. “We’ll just make ourselves at home.”
Jedrick narrowed his eyes and raised his chin.
“Oh, and don’t try to run away.” Lev gazed up at the ceiling. “We’ve found you once. We’ll find you again. And we’re not so friendly on a second visit.”
“I…I understand. I’ll just get your money.”
Fedor opened the door, allowing Jedrick through before shutting it behind him.
Lev jumped up from the sofa and smiled. “It bloody worked! I can’t believe it bloody worked!” He gazed up at the paintings and cracked his knuckles. “Ten grand. Who knew this blackmail gig would be so lucrative?”
The front door banged shut.
“Shit,” Fedor said. “I think he’s gone.”
“Yeah. To get our cash.”
“Maybe one of us should have gone with him.”
“Oh.” Lev’s smile dropped. “Yeah, maybe.”
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