In the city of Dunage there is an assassin, a woman by the name of Dirge. Dirge has never been one for asking too many questions of her clients, she carries out her assignments with a skill and professionalism that has earned her a fearsome reputation. When a man enlists her services to take revenge on the man who killed his son, Dirge finds herself drawn into a web of deception that threatens to change the way she sees the world.


1. Chapter 1

   With darkness all around, he stood waiting. Cold chill air, still and quiet save for the sounds of the nocturnal city surrounded him and crept with long fingers under his shirt, pressing on down his back and making him nervous. He shivered, rolled his shoulders and shuffled from foot to foot. She’s not coming. He’d made a mistake picking this building; it was too ordinary, too pedestrian and most importantly too public. He should have followed his instincts, scheduled the meeting at the cliché abandoned factory, he could imagine her skulking in the corners like a mouse; a mouse with the power of a lion but devoid of courage. The thought made him want to smile. Idiot, this is not the time for smiles.
   A whisper of a cough reached his ears, soft as disturbed leaves; he turned his head to its source and froze. She stood behind him, in all his daydreaming and idleness he hadn’t heard her approach nor had he even got that tingling sinking feeling of being watched. He gulped. His heart pounded in his ears disrupting his thoughts. Get a grip, breath. He took a series of shallow breathes, gathering his courage, then glanced up. His eyes found her face, hidden as it was beneath a dark heavy hood and guarded by a half mask, he could only make out her eyes; fierce and sharp, the kind of eyes that make you pay attention. In the gloom it was hard to make out their colour but, if pressed, he would say brown. “Are you quite finished with your canine impression, dear? You invited me, did you think I wouldn’t be interested?” she asked, amused, her voice unnervingly soft almost gentle.
   “No,” his voice came out as a squeak, he coughed to clear it. “I mean, I would be disappointed in you if you hadn’t materialised out of thin air. You have a reputation to uphold now, don’t you?” Her eyes narrowed and she moved slightly, the scant light caught on something. Oh Gods, no. He noticed the pull and slight bumps of her heavy cloak for the first time, took in the gloves on her hands and the boots on her feet and the sword belt her hand brushed against; she had come prepared to fight her way out if she had to. Congratulations, genius, you’ve just insulted a walking armoury. All he’d thought to bring was a slim dagger concealed clumsily in the waistband of his trousers.
   “Clearly you’ve heard of me,” she said coldly. “But, I am, if nothing else, professional. What is your name?” She looked him up and down, keen eyes drinking in every detail, while waiting for his answer. Silence reigned for a long moment. “If you don’t tell me I’m calling you Camus.” She warned.
   His mind whirled, she had offered him the perfect excuse not to disclose his real name and it made him uneasy. It felt like she was playing with him, taunting him, trying to goad him into incriminating himself. “Camus is...fine.” he said deciding to let the insult slide. He had a job to do the same as her.
   She smiled, or he thought she did, he could hear something like it in her voice. “Charmed to meet you, Camus, you can call me Dirge.” She extended a hand for him to shake, as if they had merely met on the street or on a pleasant stroll and not in a dark building to talk of lawbreaking and murder. When he made no attempt to take it, she let her hand retreat into the safety of her cloak once more. “You’re cautious, I like that and that fear your feeling, I like that too. It tells me you value your life. Which leads me to wonder, from your clothes I would guess you’re an average sort of guy probably living in the East Quarter, you have a faint smell of jasmine about you; what do you need of me?”
   He shifted uneasily; the hours spent preparing for their appointment had been worth it after all. “I,” he took a breath to steady himself. Lie with conviction; lie with the truth woven through it so convincingly you can’t see the joins, your life depends on it. “I have a son, he was killed. I want revenge on the man responsible. It’s as simple as that.” Dirge listened, waited and then gave a slight nod of the head to continue. “Lord Dartford of Rockborough, I want you to...” he hesitated, what word could he use that would leave it open to interpretation, enough so that if she chose not to kill Lord Dartford it wouldn’t invalidate the contract.
   “Ruin him?” she suggested. He shook his head, no, that would be too obvious. “Destroy him?” she said, her voice increasing in volume slightly to fill the darkness and echo back at them, he found it deeply unnerving. He felt like he was standing at the cave of a great beast and one word from Dirge, or one misstep on his part and it would all be over, the beast would stir, stretch out its head and gobble him between one beat of his heart and the next.
      “Yes,” he said with a curt nod of the head. “I would like you to destroy Lord Dartford in whatever way you see fit.” He felt the tendrils of fear slacken their hold on his heart; he would have danced for joy right then and there if not for the fact it would kill him. Concentrate, idiot.
   Dirge’s eyes never left him as he spoke, calculating his actions and motives, at least she hadn’t just laughed in his face like the first man he’d approached. “You do know who you are talking about, right?” she said eyes narrowing sharply. “He’s not a fool and he takes his personal security very seriously these days, from what I hear, the result of some botched half-baked attempt on his life. I’m not saying I can’t do what you’re asking but I am asking you if you’re sure about this.” He nodded slowly, unable to trust his words. She leaned in towards him, so close he could smell the hints of a flowery perfume on her and said, “Are you sure, Camus?”
   “Yes, I’m sure.” He said. Gods have mercy. “I’m sure.” He took out a small folded scrap of parchment, dog eared and torn in places from the times he would pull it out just to reassure himself it continued to exist and held it up for Dirge to take. She took it carefully; as if afraid it would hurt her, unfolded it and studied its contents. Long seconds ambled by, matured into minutes and still she stood unmoving save for her eyes which he could see sliding over the pages in her hands. “You don’t have to memorise that you know, it’s yours to keep.” She looked up then and he thought he caught a flicker of confusion in her eyes. “Obviously you’ll be making your own notes, better notes no doubt but, I thought any information I could give you would be helpful.”
   Dirge refolded the paper, “It’s a start, not much of one though.” She said while slipping the notes into a pouch tied to her belt. “When do you want this done? I take a deposit of around five per cent; you don’t look like a complete fool so I assume you brought payment.” Camus quickly did the calculations in his head but before he could answer she spoke again. “The last person who wasted my time didn’t leave my company willingly, the hour grows late, answer my question.”
   He gulped, “I have the money, here.” he said turning over a small bag tied with what looked like golden sting. In reality it was Lock Weave string, a fairly modern innovation, capable of securing vast amounts with no fear of it moving; the perfect defence against thieves to date. She took the bag and turned it in her hand, inspecting it for identifying marks. He knew she would find none, he’d been as careful in that as everything else he had done.
   “Would you like the string back?” she asked studying his face intently. He gave a sharp jerk of his head, first to the left then to the right, indicating no. “You’re very strange Camus, you wear those clothes fine enough to look the part, heck you even sound the part but if you’re playing me false please know I won’t stand for it.”
   “I don’t think I understand what you’re getting at.” He replied, better to plead ignorance than to plead for your life. A flutter of panic stirred in his chest, he felt sure nothing he had said would indicate an ulterior motive.
   She moved her head slightly, the way a snake might before it struck, “You’re boots are very fine for the East Quarter, they would better suit a Lord. Not one as grand as you’re illustrious friend but a lord all the same, how did they enter your possession?” she said a sharp warning in her voice mirrored by the hostile look in her eyes.
   “They belonged to my Uncle, I inherited them.” he answered defensively. Her eyes closed and she sighed, a sound he interpreted to be one of relief, he smiled overjoyed at passing the test. Then he felt the cold brush of steel at his throat, he froze, she had drawn a throwing knife. She moves like a ghost, like lightning, so fast and sure that I can’t even see it coming. “Please, don’t kill me.” His voice came out strangled, the knife moving as he spoke.
   Dirge leant in towards him, put her face so close to his own he could hear her breathing steadily and whispered straight into his ear. “I told you before; if I planned to kill you then you would be dead by now.” She pulled back and lowered the blade. “You can go ahead and wet yourself now.” He looked at her with contempt, silently asking what she was playing at. “You can’t be too careful in my line of work but relax, I believe you’re genuine. Congratulations, Sir Camus, you hired yourself an assassin.”
   He wanted to yell at her, demand an answer; did she think this was a game? How could she talk of taking a life like it meant so little? Instead he schooled his features into a mask of relief, “I’ll be sure to allow myself a good drink then.” The Gods know I’ll need one. She nodded and made to leave. “I have one last question.” She paused. “How will I find you to deliver the rest of your payment?”
   “I’ll find you.” she said walking away, melting into the dark as easily as he would open a door. He shivered, the realisation of what he’d done sinking in. I’ll find you; she said it like a promise, a promise and a treat. He drew the dagger and studied it. With its simple pummel and grip it looked unassuming, the blade simple but sharp. He had used it in defensive of his life before, so long before everything went wrong, the thought never crossed his mind he would need it again. That person is gone, I’m buried them long ago. He shook his head and returned it to its place. He still had one call to make before the night was done. Now it’s my turn to play the coward.

   “The Master is expecting you,” the Butler said. “Though he wasn’t expecting you to be quiet so late.” He added leading Camus through the empty hallway. Camus shrugged, ignored the Butler who had never approved of him and instead observed his surroundings. The walls were immaculate dressed in fine patterned paper and hung with vibrant, energetic paintings all housed in finely polished frames. The dark wooden floors, so shiny he could see his reflection, looked simply plain in comparison. I had forgotten how empty a place like this can feel.
   “I heard you had a break in last week.” Camus said into the uneasy silence that walked beside them as a third companion. The Butler waved his hand dismissively, something about the action conveyed deep irritation and while Camus knew it was petty he couldn’t help the small smile that crept onto his lips. Dressed in a fine black suit and crisp white clothes, with his hair meticulously combed and styled the Butler was a source of unending loathing for Camus.
   “The Master will see you now.” The Butler said after first looking into the room behind the large double doors. They had reached their destination far too quickly for Camus; he would rather have had a day to prepare for this meeting. The Butler, stood holding the door open, coughed once very softly.
   “Thank you.” Camus forced himself to say while steeping over the threshold. The Butler let go of the door, before it had slid fully into place Camus caught one last unpleasant look the man shot his way before strolling of down the hall. Charming. “Thank you for receiving me so late and please accept my apologies.” Camus said politely into the darkened room. His eyes took a moment to adjust but after a few blinks of the eye his surrounding came into clearer focus.
   Camus stood in a beautifully furnished study; he could make out the squat form of a desk burdened with stacks of paper, books and parchment sitting in the middle of the room. The only light came from a series of candles scattered about as if tossed by an unhappy child, the walls flickered with a soft glow but besides the fact that they were of a soft hue he could discern very little. “It’s no matter, take a seat.” A voice answered from behind the desk. Camus crossed the room carefully and when a simple chair came into view he sat. “I hope Mr. Lake wasn’t too hard on you.”
   “I’m rather afraid my person offends his delicate sensibilities, sir and while it could be that my attire is to blame I doubt it is so. He hated me well enough before.” Camus said in a hushed voice, it felt wrong to talk too loud in a room so still and quiet and dangerous. Do not let it get to you; everything here is designed to unnerve you.
   The person behind the desk moved, leant forwards, letting the light touch them and Camus saw them properly for the first time that night; sat opposite him was a man. A man with a handsome face and a strong jaw line, a mop of finely curled hair of dark brown spilled from his head and came to rest above piercing eyes. The man waved a hand dismissively, “Yes, well, on to business. You live so I take it everything went as planned?”
   “Yes sir, everything went fine.” Camus said. If you count having a blade held to your throat as fine.
   “I’m more accustomed to those who carry out my orders telling me a full account of their endeavours; perhaps you’ll humour me and elaborate.” The man said with a soft laugh, despite how politely the request was phrased Camus knew it to be an order, one he should not refuse.
   “Of course sir,” Camus smiled faking delight at the prospect. “We met at the time and place arranged, she walks silently and I’m ashamed to admit she stood beside me before I perceived her presence.”
   “The feeling of shame would be a familiar friend to you by now I would imagine, continue.” The man said, cruelty tingeing his voice.
   Camus did his best to ignore it and after a cough continued with his account. “She was armed, probably expecting an attack. I convinced her that the job was genuine, she accepted. The transaction went off without a hitch.” Camus said. “She’ll find me to collect the final payment when it’s done.”
   “That’s all good,” the man said sounding suspiciously bored now. I risked my neck, the least you could do is pay attention. “What name did you give her? What impression did she make on you?”
   “She dresses in black, wears a mask under her hood and finds it amusing to instil terror in her employers.” Camus explained. “I think she is perhaps quiet unstable but she is intelligent, cautious and in her own strange way I believe she will honour the contract unfailingly.”
   The man seemed surprised to hear this, “Well, it’s nice to hear your getting along amicably with our mutual friend. Just don’t get too attached to her like the last one.” He said with a laugh. Camus let a frown cross his face, the comment, however much in jest still stung. “Now, now, don’t look so glum. We are all friends here, are we not?” Camus nodded unwilling to trust his voice to be civil. “Did you give her a false name?” the man said, repeating his first question.
   Camus sighed, “She decided to call me Camus, sir.” At this the man erupted in a bubble of amused chuckling.
   “Did she really,” the man laughed. “I wonder if she knows how close to the mark she came. Camus really is a fitting name for one such as you.” Camus winced slightly, the movement involuntary; he quickly turned it into a grimace of a smile. The man didn’t seem to notice, he kept on chuckling to himself. “I know you are unhappy about the situation Camus, I feel sorry for you truly I do but you understand what I’m trying to achieve. You understand it is necessary. You wouldn’t want to see our fair city fall, would you?”
   “No sir, I would not.” Camus said flatly. Though I would much rather see Dunage fall to ruin than remade in your image. “I don’t like it though, sir.” The name for what they were doing, what Camus wanted nothing to do with; a word he knew if voiced aloud would send him to only one place. Jail or a grave neither one offers much not much of a future.
   “I’m not asking you to like it,” The man said suddenly, voice sharp and angry. “I am simply telling you to play your part.” He’s dangerous when he gets like this. Camus knew the truth of his thoughts, he had seen the man opposite him in a rage firsthand and sometimes the memory haunted his nightmares. Unwelcome visitors in his sleep.
   “I understand sir.” Camus said politely, raining in the urge to argue. Not so long ago no one would have dared speak like that to him, no one at all. And how happy were you then, not very at all. Of course that wasn’t strictly true; he had been content in a bored, safe sort of way but not enormously happy.
   “Then get out, my patients is through.” The man growled, Camus hastily stood and withdrew from the room. He shut the door gently, walked swiftly back through the halls and out into the night. My life is ruled by the will of others, I won’t ever be free if I don’t make a stand. He inhaled deeply; the time had come to find another way.

   Far across the sleeping city of Dunage, a slice of shadow shifted in position on a rooftop. Still dressed in the same clothes and hidden beneath her heavy hood the assassin known as Dirge sat folded into an alcove. Above the noise, the smell and the injustice you could almost imagine this city peaceful. Shame it’s not. Dirge stretched her arms lazily, wiggling her fingers in the moonlight. Who am I kidding; if things were different around here I’d be bored out of my mind. She smiled and arched her back in a cat like fashion, the long minutes spent unmoving in the wind had tensed her mussels, the movement a distraction to keep her mind from dwelling on the past.
   Dirge stood slowly, moving carefully out of her crouch and gazed out over the streets taking her time, she didn’t expect anyone to see her. Her keen eyes took in the winding, sprawling ordered chaos that was Dunage, from her vantage point she could see all the way to the Southern Quarter with its high buildings clawing at the sky like angry fingers and beyond to the River Glithar. She followed it with a turn of the head, marking its progress through the land, till she gazed at the point the Glithar meet the River Snodar to form the powerful River Snithlar. The two rivers met at a wide angle in which Dunage sat as a jewel in the crown. It will be a long year before those great tall ships return. Dirge shook her head and pushed away the unwelcome memory of a long, warm summer spent lounging on soft wooden floors and the sensation of the river swaying gently beneath. She turned her attention to the Eastern Quarter.
   Thoughts she had tried to shake arose again, a nagging feeling that said something about the nights events felt wrong. A good assassin does not question, we exist as tools, a means to an end, nothing more. The words she had listened to for immeasurable days and repeated almost as often fluttered into her head accompanied by a stern voice, the same voice so few hear and live to remember. Dirge shivered. It’s a job like any other, do it, forget it, move on, it’s as simple as that. The sound of raucous voices reached her ears; she silently slipped from the rooftop using the old bricks for support and walked casually down the street. I will not go looking for trouble, not again. She promised herself silently.

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