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.


2. Chapter 2

   Dirge picked her way through the bustling street, walking in a faltering manner and clinging to the buildings lining either side. “Make way!” A loud commanding voice called. Dirge looked up to see people scrambling hastily out of the path of a large and exquisite carriage pulled by two beautiful horses currently hurtling down the street. She stared at it with what she hoped was an expression of amazement, a youthful but sad looking man sat inside looking out in an unseeing way; he caught her with his eyes and looked puzzled for a moment and then he was gone, swept away by the strong horses. You would think he was used to be watched by poor folk, riding around in a carriage like that is guaranteed to get attention.
   She shuffled farther down the street, past the well dressed ladies and gentlemen who pretended she wasn’t there some even going so far as to avert their eyes. Those hours spent applying dirt as meticulously as make-up weren’t wasted after all then. She had been up since the first light filtered in through the window to create patterns upon the floor, spending the next hours preparing and dressing in scuffed, battered boots over which she pulled a pair of too large trousers with a hole in one knee and a tunic many sizes too big. A frayed and patched coat of faded brown offered her protection from the elements; the overall effect gave her the look of a thin and frightened orphan. She was truly quiet proud of her disguise.
   A lady had laid out a cloth of bright purple and placed on it finely carved wooden figurines. The lady herself had straight white hair tied neatly behind her head and a face lightly dusted with age lines. She looked approachable; Dirge set her mind and walked over. “E-Excuse me?” Dirge said in a faltering voice.
   “Hello there,” the lady replied looking up to regard her with kind eyes. “I look a little fearsome I know but please, do sit down and we can talk properly.” Dirge did as asked, sitting down gingerly with her legs folded under her, the lady smiled. “Sit however you feel comfortable.” The lady added sensing her unease.
   “The people are staring though...” Dirge said casting a furtive glance out over the street. She smiled inwardly when she discovered a couple staring unashamedly in her direction.
   “Pay them no mind, they would stare at a sheep if it called to them; they’d be convinced it possessed some wisdom meant only for them.” the lady said with a small chuckle. Dirge gave a small smile tinged with wariness then repositioned herself so she sat cross-legged. “Now, how can I help you? Are you lost, I know my way around this town having lived here all my life, can I help you find anything?” she asked Dirge kindly.
   “No thank you, ma’am,” Dirge replied politely. “I’m not lost, at least I am not in need of directions and I only wondered if you knew who owned that fine carriage that raced past just then?” Dirge replied choosing her words with care. Don’t use overcomplicated words, you’re a plain speaking girl born far out of the city and remember to be polite. She looked curiously at the lady who was dressed in a blue cloak under which a smart and old fashioned dress of soft grey could be seen.
   “I am neglecting my manors, my name is Flavina but most people simply call me Grandma Vina, you’re welcome to use either name.” The lady explained extending a hand.
   “Zarthar, that’s my name, it’s nice to meet you.” Dirge replied taking her hand and giving the name of a stream she had crossed once. It had been many a year since she had been near its banks but the memory of listening to its tinkling waters remained. She had promised to go back there one day.
   “You posses a beautiful name,” Said Grandma Vina. “Now, as for the man in the carriage, his name is Lord Fairmeadow. The Lord is a good man, kind and companionate, if not always the most sensible of fellows; he was once known to be forever trusting strangers with sums of money, lending to all and any without question.”
   “He looked very sad.” Dirge said softly. A deep sorrow lived in his green eyes, chased away only by that brief look of puzzlement. “Grandma Vina, do you not worry someone will steal from you if you’re not watching your stall intently?” She asked noting that Grandma Vina appeared to have let its presence slip her mind completely.
   “No dear Zarthar, no one would even think about stealing from me.” Grandma Vina said and smiled sweetly. “Lord Fairmeadow is indeed rather sad, he lost his dearest love a few years back but his friend Lord Dartford keeps him in good company and does his best to improve his fortune.”
   “It is good to have friends.” Dirge observed. I’ve yet to meet a person with so low an opinion of Lord Dartford as to wish him ill let alone dead, Camus must be fully consumed by grief to contemplate it. Yet, she still felt it hard to believe, doubt and misgivings gnawed at her mind, she pushed the thought away. I do believe Grandma Vina is more than she seems, it is rare to find a beggar regard with respect enough that the thought of stealing from them is beyond contemplation.
   “Yes and good friends are hard to come by; Lord Dartford is a good friend to Lord Fairmeadow and indeed the people.” Grandma Vina said, Dirge noted the joy dancing in her eyes when she spoke of the pair. “It is thanks to Lord Dartford the store owners on this street don’t chase me away on sight, he even bought a figurine from me six or seven years back. He was only a little thing of fourteen but he had a good kind heart even then.”
   “Why, he sounds as charming as a Prince.” Dirge said cheerfully, she had meet a Prince once, well she had threatened one a long, long time ago. He wasn’t charming at all. He had squealed and cowered and then tried to set his dogs on her. He was lucky I only needed his clothes. The memory brought a smile to her face.
   “He is indeed Zarthar,” Grandma Vina returned the smile. Her eyes sparkled with a keen intensity and her brows rose high on her head creating valleys of wrinkles in her face. “He has his faults like any man, believe me. I should warn you, dear; this city is home to many young women and many not so old who have broke their hearts over Lord Dartford. However much he may admire a woman with spirit he is bound by the expectations of his station, when he comes to marry it will be to a Lady.”
   “The thought couldn’t be farther from my mind, Grandma Vina.” Dirge answered politely. She praises the boy as highly as a saint then warns me away, clearly she has her own ideas as to whom he should marry. “Thank you for answering my question, I hope I haven’t taken up too much of your time.” Dirge said uncrossing her legs and getting to her feet.
   “Not at all, Zarthar, you’ve been good company.” Grandma Vina said kindly as she too found her feet, she stood straight and tall opposite Dirge, then inclined her head slightly in a minute movement, “I trust we will see each other again.” A broad smile spread across her face. “Don’t get lost chasing dreams of Princes, dear.”
   The comment caught Dirge of guard, wrong footing her so much that an unbidden laugh burst from her lips in a short but jubilant burst. “With you to remind me Grandma Vina I hardly think that will be an issue.” You’re only playing a part; don’t get distracted by kind words. You can’t see her again or be her friend if you want her to live. “I really best be off now.”
   “I understand,” Grandma Vina grinned though something about the action felt sad. “May the sun and moon keep you in their watchful gaze and guide you through life.” Dirge gave a slight nod of the head then turned and shuffled her way back up the still bustling street. That seals it then, Grandma Vina is almost quiet certainly a Wielder or a scholar.
   Dirge ducked into a dark dank alley so narrow between the houses on either side of it only the very thin would fit. She straightened up, rolling her shoulders to remove the aches that sitting on the ground had caused. Everything she’d learnt that morning confirmed what she already knew, Dartford is a good man and the real reason behind Camus’s motives remained a mystery. You know his motives, they matter little in the end, and anyway, it’s your job to honour the contract. Why are you dawdling over this, do you want to attract unnecessary attention? She shook her head and pushed a hand through her hair.
   The rancid smell from the alley seeped into her nose, clearing the arguing voices in her head. She had to concentrate, learning as much about Lord Dartford was the priority. And Grandma Vina might prove useful in dealing with him. She told herself firmly as she scaled the walls of the alley and reached the slanting roof. Keeping low she made her way across, working slowly she eventually reached a good vantage point and huddled down until all someone standing in front would only see the top of her head. Dunage, the only city where walking on roves is as acceptable as traversing the streets even at night, if anywhere another existed that’s where I would run to. With keen eyes Dirge found the white head of Grandma Vina seated once more at her makeshift stall. You can’t run this city is all the freedom you will ever know. With a sigh Dirge pulled her patched coat around her and watched the street below.

   Camus trudged through the busy street feeling miserable. At least it’s not raining. He sighed deeply emptying his lungs in hope it would empty the sadness forming within him. People walking beside him turned to look then turned away once they realised who walked in their midst. The best shops have to be on the most cursed street in Dunage. A beggar trust a dinted can at him from the shadows of a tall imposing building, Camus turned to look him in the eye and slipped a few loose coins into the cup, the beggar nodded in thanks. Camus hurried on, he had somewhere to be.
   He broke into a smile, feeling the warmth of happiness spread through him chasing off the cloud when he saw her sitting in her spot. The familiar pair of kind blue eyes watched him approach, for as long as he could remember she’d worn her long white hair tied back and he felt sure her blue cloak was older than him by a few centuries. She returned his smile when he drew up beside her. “Sit yourself down, please, you know how it hurts my neck to look up at you.” she said in a voice full of mischief.
   “It’s lovely to see you too, Flavina.” Camus replied taking his customary position beside her on the floor. The world seemed to melt away, the sounds dulled and for a moment sat beside her again he could imagine nothing had changed. That they were sitting in the gardens or the park talking of old legends and debating what to wear to the anniversary party. Then the sound of people yelling would snake its way into his ears and shatter the illusion beyond repair.
   Flavina waved his comment aside with her hand, “You know I’m always pleased to see you, dear boy, but I like my jokes too,” She chuckled softly. “So, what’s the news? Have you come to tell me you’ve finally decided to settle down and offer me an invitation to the wedding because if you have, I don’t have a suitable dress so I’ll have to decline your very generous offer?”
   “Flavina, I wouldn’t make a suitable match when I was desirable, do you really think now I’ve become as welcome as a pale of rotten stew I’d decide to settle down?” Camus asked incredulously. I’m less welcome than Death these days.
   “You needn’t be irritable with me, what’s happened to get you so riled up?” Flavina asked concern flashing in her eyes. Camus shook his head and looked at the street, determined not to answer. I can’t tell you the truth but I won’t start lying to you. “Still bottling up your emotions, I see. Well, never mind, never mind I’ll hear about it eventually I expect and no doubt it won’t be as bad as you fear.”
   Camus sighed, “I...I absolutely hate seeing you like this Vina, you should be living in comfort not sitting out here in all weathers getting such degrading glances  from passersby. It’s an injustice.” He felt the dull twinge behind his eyes that signalled a downpour, Flavina’s plight never failed to move him to tears. I should talk to someone, Tirrano maybe, get him to offer Flavina a room. He sighed again, softly this time and rubbed a hand over his eyes.
   Flavina remained silent for a long minute, watching him with concern, “I’m doing fine and I’ve got a bed at a new inn now. It’s not very big, the window is tiny but there’s room for a desk, a small bed, my trunk full of clothes and a whole wall of bookshelves. No one bothers me and for the first time in many years I feel safe.”
   “You have a lock on your door, don’t you?” Camus asked the slightest hint of a laugh in his voice. Flavina smiled broadly confirming his suspicions. At least I know your safe, Flavina. “As long as your happy but remember you only need ask and you can stay with me.”
   “And have you sleep on the floor in your own home, I wouldn’t dream of it dear one.” Flavina replied with a short chuckle. “I meet a young girl today; she looked like an orphan from out west, covered in mud and wearing clothes far too big for her. She said her name was Zarthar.”
   “You’re not going to get too involved in her life, are you?” Camus asked, he remembered the last person Flavina had decided to help, a young man called Jerno who ended up eloping with a Lady widowed before her marriage day. Poor Jerno, she was only using him as a means to flee the city.
   “I don’t know what you mean,” Flavina huffed fiddling with the fastening on her cloak. “She seems so lost, abandoned and alone. I can’t help but empathise with her, you should understand that. She just needs someone to look out for her like Flaeth did.”
   Camus understood, after her husband’s arrest at their 18th wedding anniversary, when Flavina had been forced from her home, humiliated, she had been alone ever since. Scraping by, sometimes barely clinging to life, lost in despair. 8 years had passed since that day, the day everything seemed to go wrong but it felt like yesterday to Camus. My life was simpler then, less confusing and not as chocked with lies. “Flaeth hasn’t spoken to me in over a year.” He said simply stating the fact.
   “Well, that can’t go on, fix whatever broke between you.” Flavina said sternly turning the suggestion into an order. Fix it when his last words to me where, I hate you, I hope the next time someone mentions your name to me it’s to announce your death. Yes, that sounds like the sort of thing you can mend easily. “Family is important, dear boy, at least try to talk. I’ll let you get back to your busy life now and see you again tomorrow.” Flavina said effectively dismissing him from her presence.
   “You never change Vina,” Camus laughed and got to his feet. “I’ll see you soon.” Flavina just nodded as if to say, of course you will, and smiled softly. Camus felt her eyes on him as he walked away lost in his troubled thoughts. My own family, the tattered remains of it, hate me. Flaeth just got a head start on the rest of them. Not for the last time Camus sighed and wished he could reverse time, go back and erase his mistakes.

   Slinking through the dark, back in her comfortable black clothes, Dirge followed the man in the streets. She leapt over rooftops, jumping low and swift to keep him in sight. Seeing him in the street earlier talking to Grandma Vina she’d resolved to follow him, demand he answer her questions and now after spending the remained of the day tailing him he stood alone. She had followed him through dark alleys, around corners and past many odd sights before at last he drew to a stop at the banks of the River Snodar.
   She slipped off the rooftop to land silently in the shadows and approached. The scant light cast by the thin moon shimmered through his dark brown hair, not as dark as her own that tended to black when the mood took it but dark enough to vanish into the night. His shoulders had a sad slant to them giving him the look of an abandoned dog, left dejected with no reason or explanation of what he’d done wrong. Why do you care if he’s sad? You hardly know him and once the job is done you won’t see him again. She tugged on her hood confirming it hid her features and gave a soft cough.
   He jumped visibly and looked from side to side for the source of the noise. “Who’s there?” he said, voice quavering. “If you’ve come to rob me I have no money.” Dirge crept up behind him, a smile spreading across her face and tapped him lightly on the shoulder. He shrieked and whirled to face her. “Who are you?” he demanded sharply before recognition fluttered into his eyes. “D-Dirge?”
   “This is a funny place for a stroll Camus, what are you doing here?” Dirge asked raising her eyebrows slightly. Camus just glared at her. “You’ll have to work on your menacing glare, its lacks gravitas and commitment.” She said unimpressed.
   “Why did you follow me?” Camus asked taking a half step back, putting a little distance between them. “Do you know how foolish it is to be talking like this out in the open?” Fool, I’m the fool now am I? Maybe a dagger to the shoulder would change his mind about that and teach him some respect. She frowned about to answer when he spoke again. “Sorry, that was rude.” He sighed.
   “You’re quite lucky I don’t take offence at your tone, you know.” Dirge said casually. “There are plenty who would.” She knew of at least three assassins with a fondness for putting arrows through the eyes of those who showed a lack of respect and another two who cut the throats of those who spoke without leave in their presence.
   “You’re lucky the first person I went to said no, I nearly commissioned Blood Thorne instead of you.” Camus grumbled glaring at her angrily again.
   “Blood Thorne kills the target and then the client most of the time, you do know that don’t you?” Dirge asked faintly amused. Camus went pail, the colour draining from his face slowly. Whoever educated him in the names of the cities assassins clearly felt no need to divulge their reputations. An unpleasant memory rose in her mind, the feel of velvet and the smell of roses, she breathed out through her nose and pushed the memory aside.
   “But the contract,” Camus stammered visibly shocked. “That’s not common practice for your sort is it? You aren’t going to harm me are you?” he asked in a hushed voice. Dirge debated toying with him, tricking him into thinking she might do him harm as he put it but she couldn’t.
   “No, it is not common practice, I won’t hurt you.” she said the corners of her mouth lifting in a quick smile. “Blood Thorne is impulsive, unpredictable and most importantly answerable to no one.” Have a care how you speak, you are still answerable to Blood Thorne yourself.
   Camus looked at her a long time before answering, “It sounds like you know Blood Thorne very well.” He turned to look out over the river once more. “I trust your progressing well with your task?” he said sounding bored. Dirge took a step to stand beside him, the sound of running water increasing in volume.
   “Yes, all is going as expected.” She lied easily. Camus nodded absently. Dirge took the opportunity the lull in conversation provided and glanced around. Walking towards them from out of the dark was a tall figure cloaked in black. He inclined his head at them then turned and walked down an alley to the left. Dirge frowned. Strange, I could have sworn he was a messenger. As soon as the thought entered her head she heard a dull thunk in the ground behind them.
   “What was that?” Camus asked but she ignored him. She turned her eyes to the arrow sticking straight out of the ground, the head submerged beneath the earth. Of course he was a messenger, just not the one delivering the message. She reached forward and retrieved the arrow. Attached to its shaft was a thin roll of parchment. “Why is someone shooting at us?”
   Dirge groaned, “They aren’t shooting at us, it’s a summons.” Tuchana, seriously why can’t he bother someone else, anyone else with this? “You’ve been seen with me, Camus I’m sorry but you’ll have to come with me now if you want to live.” Dirge said simply.
   “Whatever are you talking about, I don’t know anyone who shoots arrows at people to communicate, seriously talk about uncivilised. You’re more than welcome to go meet the eccentric individual yourself.” Camus said in disbelief and made to walk away.
   Dirge grabbed him before he could take a step. “I’m serious Camus, please; you have to come with me.” If I show up alone we’re both dead. He shrugged and waved a hand as if to say lead on then. Dirge looked at him for a moment then released him and the pair walked down the river bank. Why did we go and mention the name Blood Thorne, nothing good comes from doing so. I should know that by now.

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