The Viper and the Urchin Sample


Rory congratulated herself on her timing. She and Jake had just reached the end of the lane, and peering around the corner, she could see the mark a few yards away. He was a trader with a belly that hung over his belt and a self-satisfied air. She could already tell how pleased with himself he would look when he stepped in to save the poor, scrawny urchin girl from a beating.


She counted down silently with her fingers. Three, two, one.

Rory launched herself into the trader’s path with a shriek. Startled, the man jumped back just as Jake burst into the street, his face contorted into a perfectly fearsome mask. He grabbed Rory with his paddle-sized hands, lifting her off the ground.

“Help!” she screamed, kicking her legs in the air, careful to miss Jake.

Jake drew back a meaty hand as though to strike her. She screeched again, waiting for the mark to react. Any moment now, he would step forward, his face a sneer, his rapier drawn, and he would tell Jake to ‘let the girl go.’

Jake snarled and raised his hand farther behind him. Rory cowered in his grasp.

“Please not again, please no, please…” she gabbled.

The target stood aside, gawking, as though seagulls had pecked out his brains.

“Teach you to try and run away,” Jake grunted.

Still nothing.


Rory had picked a dud.

Nothing for it, Jake was going to have to follow through and hit her or the game would be up.

Jake’s hand came down in a wide arc, just catching her cheek. Rory let her head snap to one side, howling to make it seem more painful than it was. Still the merchant stood watching. She cursed under her breath. If he was going to be cowardly, the least he could do was leave and be cowardly somewhere else so they could end this charade.

Jake raised his hand again.

“Not so fast now.”

At last, the melodious sound of a rapier being pulled out of its scabbard. The trader pointed his blade at Jake.

“Put the girl down.”

“Not your goddamned business,” Jake grunted.

“I’ve just made it my business. Put her down.”

Jake glowered ever so convincingly at the man, and he let Rory drop to the ground. She made a show of collapsing onto the cobblestones before scrambling up towards the trader.

“Now go.” The man raised his chin haughtily behind his rapier.

Jake grunted again and skulked off down the lane from which they had come, making it look all the more narrow as he squeezed his massive frame through it.

“Thank you, sir, oh thank you!” Rory grabbed the trader’s distended waistcoat as she pulled herself up. “I been trying to escape for months, sir, months!” She squeezed out a few tears for good measure and sniffled loudly.

“Now see here—” the trader began.

“I got no one, sir,” Rory interrupted, still clinging to him as though she was drowning, and he was the last plank of wood left in the world. “I’m an orphan and all alone, my family died.” At this, she began to wail loudly.

The trader extricated himself from her clutching fingers, his philanthropic aspirations rapidly vanishing. “There, there…I’m sorry but, er, I can’t do anything for you. I’m only passing through Damsport, you see.”

That was a lie—he was clearly a Damsian.

“Please, sir!” She wailed louder, clutching at him faster than he could remove her hands. Her fingers felt his purse, and she was delighted to find that it was as fat as he was.

“Now see here,” said the trader. “I have to leave… My ship… Will you just…get off!”

He gave her a shove, and she staggered back, the purse vanishing into one of her pockets. She gave the trader a forlorn look, cutting a pathetic figure in her rags, mess of rope-like hair, and snotty nose — the gods be thanked for her ability to sniffle on demand.

The trader hurried away without looking back.

When he had turned the corner, Rory spat once on the cobblestones.


Saving the girl always worked, but no one wanted to actually save the girl. They only wanted that brief moment of glory when they pointed their rapier at Jake. That was fine by Rory. They just had to pay the price of their purse for the privilege of feeling like a hero for a few minutes.

She hurried after Jake, grinning. He was waiting for her at the rendezvous point.

With an exaggerated flourish, she pulled out the purse she had lifted and dangled it next to her ear.

“It speaks to me… It says…half coins inside!”

Jake grinned. “Give it here.”

She threw it at him and he hefted it appreciatively as they walked. “That’s got a good few coin bits in it.” He felt the purse between his fingers. “I think I feel a couple of whole ’uns too.”

“Yeah, a good taking.”

“Aye. Plenty more than you need.”

Rory nodded and her stomach briefly knotted with excitement and nerves. It had been two years of scrimping and saving, and despite getting robbed twice by muggers in the rare moments she worked without Jake, she could finally meet Master Xian’s price with a little to spare.

Jake threw her the purse, and she squirrelled it away in one of her many pockets, surprised at how nervous she was now that her lifelong ambition was about to become reality. She would leave with Master Xian, the most famed sword preceptor in Damsport and travel with him as his pupil and assistant. It was so close she could almost taste the salty spray that would spatter her face once they were out at sea.

“What time’s the steam galley again?” asked Jake.

“I’m to meet Master Xian at six at the Starry Inn.”

“Plenty of time. What say you to a celebratory pint?”

“Don’t think I could drink right now,” she said. “Stomach’s doing all sorts of flipping.”

“Suit yourself.”

They continued walking in a comfortable silence, punctuated only by the tinkle of the talismans that hung around Rory’s neck, a hangover from her days of begging at the temples.

“You sure you want to leave?” asked Jake. “We got a good thing going here.”

“Yeah, I’m sure.”

“You never told me what the big deal is with learning to fight with swords, you know.”

Rory shrugged with all the nonchalance she could muster. It had been ten years since she had met the Scarred Woman, and she had never breathed a word of it to anyone. Not even to Jake. The years had washed the woman’s features from her memory, but to this day Rory could still picture how her rapier had gleamed, how smooth and fast her movements had been, and how easily she had despatched that giant of a man. Rare was the night when Rory didn’t dream she was the Scarred Woman.

“Just something I’ve always wanted to do, that’s all.” She kicked a piece of unidentifiable rotten fruit out of the way.

The truth was that it consumed her. She thought of little else — all she wanted was to be a warrior, a hero, like the Scarred Woman. She was also well aware of how ridiculous that ambition was, coming from her. She had been sixteen for about two years now — not knowing exactly how old she was, she picked whatever age suited her — and although she knew her real age was probably around eighteen, she was still small enough to pass for fourteen. And a scrawny fourteen-year-old at that.

The reaction of the last sword preceptor she had approached before Master Xian was still as fresh as ever in her mind. The woman had laughed. A big belly laugh, as though Rory’s dreams were a joke. Rory clenched her fists at the memory. The sword preceptor had shooed her away like all the others, and her apprentice had given Rory a good kick up the arse that had sent her sprawling out the door and into the gutter.

“Gutter rats don’t wield rapiers,” the lad had said before slamming the door.

Master Xian hadn’t laughed. He had simply named an eye-watering price.

“You still gonna be a cobbler?” she asked Jake, to change the subject.

“I reckon so,” he replied. “My Da was a damned good cobbler, and I remember some.”

“Well, when I’m a famous hero, I’ll come to you and only you to fix my boots.”

Jake grinned. “Aye, and I’ll only rip you off by half.”

Rory punched him on the arm. “Yeah right. You’d rob me blind if I let you.”


They reached the chaotic warren of lanes that was the Rookery, and the air became thicker, full of the cloying stench of mould and decay. Banyan trees poked out randomly from streets and houses, their roots crawling through the cobblestones, their dead leaves and inedible fruits covered in guano, rotting on the ground. Shacks were built resting against their trunks, some turned into little stalls from which cobblers, minor-repair machinists, and other small tradesmen operated. Men, women, and children milled about the streets, calling, shouting, fighting, hawking wares, and arguing, their voices louder than the seagulls.

Rory and Jake walked past houses that sagged on rain-saturated wooden frames; only a few had been able to afford the conversion to steelwood beams. Some covered their beams with tar, and the rest made do with houses that sweated and rotted under the weight of the humidity.

Rory waved and called out greetings while Jake stayed silent, only pushing the low-hanging laundry lines out of his way. He had never been one for social niceties. Rory, on the other hand, understood the importance of having friends. The kind of friends who, if you asked after her, would say, ‘Rory? Never ’eard of her. Not seen anyone like that in these parts. You must be thinking of some other girl.’ Those kinds of friends were invaluable, especially when you were in the business of relieving people of their belongings.

Rory and Jake reached a deserted lane that was more rotten than the rest, and they made their way to a solitary house, its neighbours little more than a pile of rubble overtaken by banyan trees. One side of the house had caved in so that it looked lopsided, like an old man after a stroke. A banyan tree had sprouted on what was left of the roof, its web of roots stretching down what remained of the house’s front like a caul.

Rory went in first. Inside, there was no first floor to speak of — only a few beams remained. She found the familiar footholds on the wall and began to climb towards the yawning hole in the roof.

When she reached the top, she walked carefully along an exposed beam until she reached a single black steelwood pillar that stuck out of the house’s side like a finger. A thick coil of rope was tied to it, and she threw it down to Jake.

Jake lifted himself up the rope easily, the muscles on his bare arms bulging under his brown skin. Rory left him to it, making her way over to their little shelter by the banyan tree. It had taken them a couple of years to build something that could withstand the summer storms, and while the current effort didn’t look like much, it kept out wind and water.

Rory walked past the shelter and lifted up a couple of tiles, uncovering a niche that held two fat purses. She took them out, checked their weight, and sat down cross-legged with the purses between her legs to keep them from rolling away. Jake heaved himself up, pulled the rope with him, and came to sit next to her. He picked up his purse, hefted it with one hand, and his normally ugly features broke into a delighted grin.

“That’s a good bit of coinage, that is.”

Rory began counting out the day’s takings. Some silver bits, a couple of half coppers and half silvers, five full coppers, and a single, beautifully whole and shiny silver. Rory held it up with an appreciative whistle. It was almost perfectly round, if you squinted and ignored where the edges had been shaved or clipped.

The process of sharing out the loot began. They each carefully weighed the coins, gradually creating two equal shares. So many currencies flowed through Damsport that Damsians had resorted to using coin weights for their currency, weighing copper, silver and gold, and cutting coins into smaller pieces when making change. Jake and Rory didn’t waste money on coin scales, instead estimating coin weights with their fingers. It worked well enough, since they both always checked every weight, never trusting each other. They argued over the splitting of the loot until they both agreed the weights of silver and copper felt equal.

“Coming to the Old Girl’s Arms, then?” Jake asked, carefully putting his coin pieces away.

“Nah, told you, don’t have the stomach for it. Gonna wait here until it’s time.”

“Come on, don’t be boring, come for a drink. My treat. Old time’s sake and all that.”

Rory hesitated. She knew it would be fun to go to the Old Girl’s Arms and chew the fat with Jake, but she couldn’t risk being late and missing the steam galley. With Jake it was never just the one drink.

“Not gonna risk it,” she replied. “You could wait with me, though. Escort me to the docks, make the most of my sparkling conversation while you can, and all that.” She winked.

“Your conversation would be a hell of a lot more sparkly if I could experience it with a pint of cider in my hand.” Jake stood up, pocketed the purse, and stretched, his back cracking like the knees of an old supplicant. “Gods’ breath, that feels good!”

“The purse or the stretch?”

“Both.” He grinned. “Come on —” He nudged Rory with his boot. “Come to the Old Girl’s Arms. Just one, and that’s a promise.”

Rory was tempted — if anything, it would steady her nerves before her adventures began.

“Well…alright. Maybe one.”

“Atta girl! Reckon you’ll see something real special, too. I feel a lucky streak coming on.”

“Hold on — you’re going gambling?”

“Just a little flutter. I got plenty to spare” — Jake patted the pocket containing the purse — “and I’m pretty sure today’s gonna be my day.”

“Seriously? Jake, how many times you got to lose everything for it to register in your thick head that nobody’s ever lucky with cards? Anyone would think you wanted to be poor for the rest of your life.”

A chill settled despite the sweltering midday heat. Jake didn’t reply, looking sulkily at the ground. Rory looked away, frustrated with his stubbornness and annoyed at herself for lecturing him when she was about to leave.

The silence stretched on, heavy and uncomfortable.

“Well, I guess that means you’re not coming,” Jake said at last, breaking the silence, “so I’ll see you when I see you.”

He patted her awkwardly on the shoulder and turned away. Rory’s stomach lurched. This wasn’t how she had wanted to part ways. She tried to think of something to say, but no words came to her. Jake disappeared down into the ruined house.

She stared at the space where he had been for a moment, a tight feeling in her chest. Of course she was still excited to leave and become an adventurer. Of course. But dammit if she wasn’t sad now, too.



A few hours later, the five-o’clock cacophony began with the clatter of bells, as usual. It was quickly followed by a swelling of drums, steam trumpets, gongs, water chimes, and whatever other instruments the temples used to mark the hour. Timekeeping was as fluid a notion in Damsport as Rory’s age: each of the myriad of temples had its own concept of time so that every hour the o’clock was sounded for a good fifteen minutes.

When silence returned, indicating that it was some time after five, Rory got up and stretched. Time to go. The Starry Inn wasn’t far, but she wouldn’t take any chances. She kissed a couple of her talismans at random, not caring who she prayed to as long as they listened and brought her luck.

She gathered her meagre possessions: a silk line and grappling hook, which she wrapped around her waist, and a Talegian steel dagger. The dagger was unusual, fashioned out of a single piece of steel, the handle curved to look like a peacock’s head, the blade itself like the sweep of tail feathers. It was small, the blade thin, but it was as sharp as a razor, and Rory loved it more than anything in the world.

She was about to take her purse when she heard the whistle that meant Jake was outside. Grinning, she hurried over to lower the rope.

“Well, I’m flattered that you’ve interrupted your drinking to come say goodbye,” she called as she went back to pocket the purse, carefully making sure the bulge wasn’t visible through her tunic. She tucked as much of her threadbare trousers as she could into her boots, a token effort at looking respectable. “Or is it that you’ve come to escort me to the docks? I think an escort would be fitting for the — stone the gulls, what happened to your face?”

Jake hauled himself onto the roof with a grunt. His lip and nose were bleeding, as was a nasty gash on his eyebrow. An angry swelling shut his eye, and another bruise bloomed on his jaw like an ugly flower. He moved gingerly, in obvious pain.

“I’m sorry, Rory. I’m sorry.”

“What happened?”

Her stomach relocated to her boots when a second head poked out from the hole in the roof.

“Jake, who is that?”

Jake shook his head, not meeting her eye. The man came and stood next to him, and it was like a boulder settling into place. Jake and the man were as tall as each other, but the newcomer was even beefier, with no neck to speak of, so that his head seemed to be skewered directly onto his shoulders. Rory took a step back.

“I’m sorry, Rory, I really am,” Jake said. “I just need a little. Maybe half. You’ll still have plenty to go on with. I’ll pay you back, I promise.”

Rory shook her head. “You ain’t getting nothing from me. I can’t pay for the steamer if you take half, and you know it. This is your shit, you deal with it.”

As she spoke, another man climbed up to the roof, and then a third. They looked like copies of the first: neckless wonders with scowling faces.

“Alright,” said the first. “I didn’t come here to listen to a domestic with your girlfriend. She got the money?”

When Jake didn’t answer, the man swung a fist into his kidneys, and he groaned in pain.

“I don’t like silences,” said the man. “She got the money?”

Jake nodded miserably.

“You boys stay away from me, alright,” said Rory. “I ain’t got nothing to do with this. This ain’t my man, and this ain’t my business.” She stepped farther back, all too aware that she was cornered. There was nowhere for her to climb from where she was. She pulled out her dagger.

“Well, well, seems we have ourselves a kitten with a claw,” said the second.

“Rory, don’t make things worse than they are,” Jake pleaded. “I’ll make it up to you one way or another, I promise. Just give them what they want so they’ll leave.”

Two of the men advanced on Rory, the third standing menacingly next to Jake. When they were close enough to her, Rory lashed out at the first thug with her dagger. He dodged easily, moving his bulk with surprising speed. The other grabbed hold of her, pinning her arms to her sides. She squirmed and kicked uselessly.

“Get off me, you fish-brained cretin!”

The first thug patted her down, found the purse, and took it.

“Hey,” protested Jake, “you only need half of that.”

“Half of the purse is to pay my employer, the other half is my fee for inconveniencing me. Time’s a precious commodity, and I don’t like mine wasted.”

The thug released Rory with a shove, sending her staggering dangerously close to the edge. 

“There now,” he said with a grin full of broken teeth, “that wasn’t so hard, was it?”

The two men turned back towards Jake, the third already making his exit. Rory felt a blinding flash of hot rage, and before she could consider what she was doing, she ran after them with her dagger at the ready. The man nearest to her didn’t even flinch. He turned just as she reached him, his backhand catching her jaw, sending her flying back. She rolled once heels over head on the sloping tiles, dropping her knife, and pitched over the side.

“Rory!” Jake rushed over.

Rory had caught a stray banyan root, and she dangled, her legs swinging beneath her, but all she could think of was her dagger. Had it fallen over the side, too? She craned her head to try and catch sight of it. Jake grabbed her arms and hauled her back up. 

“Rory, you alright?” he asked in a shaky voice.

The thugs had gone, and so had her purse, but her dagger was there, resting on the tiles. She snatched it up, weak with relief, running her finger along it. Even though it was only a simple piece of steel, it was her first blade, and she couldn’t bear to be parted from it.

“Rory?” Jake touched her shoulder and she threw a punch, knuckles cracking against his already bruised jaw. She sucked in air between her teeth, shaking her hand against the pain.

“Stay away from me,” she spat.

“Look I’ll find a way —”

“I want nothing from you.”

“I know I messed up, I know. But I’ll make —”

“You’ll do nothing!” she yelled.

Jake stopped, startled.

“You’ll do nothing,” she whispered. “We’re done.”

She sheathed her blade and slipped it through her belt. Without another word or look at Jake, she left.

* * *

Rory sped through the streets, the wind streaming in her face. She wiped her cheeks angrily. Tears were pointless if there was no one to take advantage of. As she ran, her hand kept returning to the hilt of her dagger to make sure it was still tucked into her belt. Losing it on the roof earlier, even temporarily, had been an atrocious feeling.

She made for Six, the thoroughfare that led straight to Tinsbury Dock.

Six was busy as always, a steady flow of bodies, horses, and carts heading from the enclosed docks to the Great Bazaar. One of those new-fangled steam trolleys rolled past, ferrying traders and merchants. A boy banged the bell at its front to signal for people to get out of the way. Rory watched the trolley glide past, eyeing its passengers.

This wasn’t a suicidal affair like the traversal steam coaches that clattered by so fast it made your teeth rattle. No, the steam trolleys on Six and Twelve moved slowly, safely, with a kind of stuck-up, stately importance. She felt an overwhelming urge to jump aboard and hold them all at knifepoint for their money. They would have what she needed and then some. But she knew that Six crawled with guards, and any sort of hit here would mean a guaranteed trip to the galleys.

Rory continued down Six. The traffic was still oozing slow as mud, and even for one as tiny as her, it was slow going weaving through the throng. Cursing, she turned off into a side street. The lanes twisted and turned back on themselves so that there was no straight way anywhere, but here at least she was free to run. And right now she needed to feel like she was moving.

She ran faster and faster, until her legs felt like they were pumping independently from her, and her lungs burned. She almost careened straight into a cart as she reached Tinsbury Dock.

“Watch where you’re going!” the driver shouted.

An enormous four-masted galleon was disgorging its cargo, its crew swarming around it, crawling through the rigging like an efficient colony of ants. Next to it, hard and gleaming in the afternoon sun, a steam galley made its final preparations. The steam galley that she should be getting ready to board. Its articulated steam-powered oars hovered just above the water, bent midway so that they looked like the legs of an enormous metal insect.

She pushed her way through the crowd on the wharf, towards the Starry Inn. It was one of the nicer inns that fronted the docks: mouth-watering smells wafted from it, rather than the piss, rancid wine, and vomit that were the norm for dockside establishments.

She ran through the main room and bounded up the stairs at the back.

“Hey! Where d’you think you’re going?” shouted the innkeep.

“To see Master Xian,” she yelled back over her shoulder as she took the steps two at a time.

She ran to his room. The door was open, and he was slowly, methodically, folding up a tunic.

“No need to rush,” he said with his smooth, level voice. “We have plenty of time.”

“I ain’t… I ain’t got the money,” she panted.

“Ah. Then we have a problem.”

“It weren’t my fault, my partner screwed me over and —”

“That great lumbering idiot you were dragging around last time?”

“Yes — Jake.”

“Can’t say I’m surprised.”

“Look, I know we had an arrangement and all that. But I can earn my way, right. I can work for free for however long you need. I’ll do anything. Anything. If you take me with you.”

Master Xian looked at her with a frown.

“Rory, do I look like a nurse? Or like one of the good sisters of the Exalted Consciousness? Hmm?”


“Exactly. I’ve not been put on this earth to look after little girls. I don’t do charity. You want to come with me, fine. But you can’t get on a steam galley without paying and they’re expensive. You can’t hit the road without supplies, and for supplies you need money. So, if you don’t have money, you can’t leave Damsport. It’s very straightforward. Not only that, but you gave me that speech about wanting to be a warrior, about wanting to see the world. I was impressed by your ambition, and now look at what you’ve shown me. I gave you a simple task two years ago, when I was last at Damsport. I told you to beg, borrow, or steal the money to pay for your way. That’s it. That was all you had to do in exchange for my expertise and training. If you can’t even do that, then what exactly makes you think you’re ready for a life on the road, hmm? Better you find yourself a sword preceptor here in Damsport.”

“I tried, no one else will take me on account of me being a street urchin and all.”

“Stop your whining. What are you, a child? If they won’t take you of their own will, then make them! Gods, Rory, I have no time for this snivelling. I set you a challenge and you bring me excuses. You want to be a fighter, then fight! Don’t come to me crying about your problems. Now get out, I have to finish packing, and then I have a galley to catch. You can look out for me when I’m next back, which should be in two or three years. Price will stay the same, but if you’re still crying over people not taking you seriously, then don’t bother.”

He turned his back on her and went back to meticulously packing his bag.

Rory stared at his back for a while, and then without a word, she turned and walked away.



Longinus smiled in anticipation as he skirted the warehouses that fronted Tinsbury Dock. It was always a pleasure to kill, and never more so than when death was brought about elegantly.

The dockworkers, as expected, paid him no attention. Dressed head to toe in black, his brow hidden under the wide brim of a hat, his chin and mouth covered with a black silk handkerchief, he blended perfectly with the night’s shadows.

Blissful are the dim-witted. If only they knew how close they are to Damsport's deadliest assassin.

All the same, he wished they had at least enough sense to shiver with quiet dread as he passed.

Is it really too much to ask that the common dockworker experience a faint malaise in my presence? Obviously.

Tinsbury Dock was full of activity despite the late hour. Shouts and curses echoed across the still water, steam hissed, and metal grated against metal as great steel arms swung overhead, unloading cargo from waiting ships. Vapour lamps, hanging from poles along the quay, bathed the enclosed dock in an otherworldly orange glow, creating shadows in the hollows of the dockworkers’ faces so that they looked like animated skulls. Beyond, the night bristled with the naked masts of a hundred ships, stretching to the moon like skeletal fingers.

As Longinus reached the end of the dock, he cast a wistful glance over his shoulder. It would provide such a delightfully macabre backdrop to his art — a shame tonight’s job was to take place in the neighbouring marina. Smaller boats docked in Smallport Marina, and it would be quiet at this time. That would, of course, make the job easier, but as Damsport's most elegant assassin, Longinus didn’t care about ease; the art of assassination was all about theatrics. Killing someone on a dark and empty dock was as banal as rain in summer. Luckily, he had just finished creating a poison that had such panache it should offset the mundanity of the night’s work.

The noise from Tinsbury Dock faded away as he entered the marina, the silence now only broken by the creaking of ships as they swayed on their moorings. Longinus lowered his handkerchief. The air was cooler and fresher here with only a hint of brackish water and salt. It was bearable, even to his delicate nose.

Longinus’ target for the night — a sailor — sat at the other end of the marina. No one else was there. Longinus smiled wolfishly.

The stone walkway along the marina was narrow but lined with shaggy banyan trees, their aerial roots dangling towards the ground. Longinus walked behind them, hidden in their shadows, keeping a careful eye on the target.

The sailor threw his head back, his mouth clamped on a bottle’s neck, attempting to coax out its last remaining drops. Longinus recognised the bottle as Smithy’s Gold, a cheap, nasty rum. Sailors were so predictably devoid of class. And taste.

He crept closer, until he was level with the sailor, and he stopped behind a banyan tree, peering around its trunk. The sailor had made himself at home, with a second stool in front of him on which he had set out a bowl, a spoon, and a flatbread. He put down the bottle and tore off a piece of bread.

A noise sounding suspiciously like a boot against cobblestones startled Longinus. The sailor heard it too, and he looked about him, but thankfully away from Longinus.

A ship’s hull groaned as the wood contracted in the cooler temperature. Nothing stirred.

The sailor relaxed and sat back down, but Longinus continued scanning the darkened marina. Was someone else out there? Still nothing moved.

Longinus glanced back at the sailor to find that he was spooning a dark mixture from the bowl and into his mouth. He ate messily, and a little had dripped on his chin and tunic. Whatever it was, it gleamed as black as blood in moonlight. At the thought, Longinus paled and staggered back.

It isn’t blood, it isn’t blood.

He took a deep, ragged breath, waiting for the rising nausea to pass. He focused on his newest poison instead. Alchemy had always been a great source of comfort.

There was a flare of light, and Longinus peered once more around the trunk. The sailor had stuffed tobacco in a long-stemmed pipe, and he puffed away, letting out flat plumes of smoke from the side of his mouth.

Longinus rubbed his hands. The target’s night vision would be destroyed. Now was the perfect time to strike.

He pulled on thin leather gloves, overlaid with a fine but watertight mesh made from mineral fibres. One could never be too careful when dealing with poison, especially this newest one, and besides, they looked devilishly stylish in the moonlight.

He then produced an oblong box inlaid with the same mesh, inside which was a Talegian steel stylus and a tiny glass vial. He screwed the vial into the base of the stylus and slipped out from behind the banyan tree, his stylus at the ready. He only needed to write a period on the man’s skin to paralyse him. A little more, such as a comma, would bring about death — thus providing punctuation with the fearsome respect it so deserved.

The stylus is mightier than the sword

Longinus drew out the moment, savouring the anticipation as he slowly crept towards the sailor. The unsuspecting mark blew smoke rings at the star-punctured night.

Longinus struck.

With his free hand, he grabbed the sailor’s collar and yanked him to the ground, knocking his head in the process. His right hand brought the stylus to the man’s temple, resting its pointy tip on the skin.

“Don’t move,” he hissed.

The sailor froze, feeling the cold touch of sharp steel so close to his eye. A fatal hesitation. People always assumed that blades were the most fearsome weapon. Fools! As if any assassin worth his kills would allow a job to be marred by something so crude as a blade piercing skin.

The sailor’s hesitation allowed just enough time for the poison to travel along the stylus’ nib, and it dropped onto the skin, creating a perfect circle, a period, at the corner of his eye. Paralysis immediately began its inevitable course. The sailor made a garbled noise and jerked his head convulsively. His legs twitched, as though a puppeteer was pulling the strings attached to them. He tried to move his arms, but they were no longer his to command, and his face twisted with panic.

Longinus released the man and cocked his head, admiring his work and debating whether to turn the period into a semicolon. He went with a period but couldn’t resist adding a touch of his natural flamboyance. With a flourish, he signed ‘The Viper’ on the sailor’s forehead. That done, he stepped back to examine his work.


A vague gurgling marked the sailor’s last breath.

Longinus returned the stylus and vial to the box and pulled out a card, which he carefully pinned onto the body’s shirt. It looked like an ordinary playing card, but where an ace of spades would have been, a black viper was coiled, ready to strike. Tiny knives were drawn at each corner, with gleaming silver blades. Longinus took great pride in his cards, designing them himself. He had tried to use cards with vials of poisons at the corners, but he had been mistaken for an exotic perfumer. This was, of course, unacceptable, and he had been forced to put knives instead, to drive the meaning home.

Crude, inelegant weapons. They lack all the refinement of poison.

It was tiresome to have to lower his standards, but it was necessary — he couldn’t have his artistry go unnoticed, or worse, misunderstood. He blew at the card to make sure the wind couldn’t dislodge it. It wouldn’t do for some (lesser) assassin to try and take credit for his work, either. Like any artist, Longinus signed each and every one of his masterpieces, and this was one he was particularly proud of.

A small sound, like a light cough, broke the silence. Longinus froze. He scanned the marina.

The water lapped gently against the floating docks. His mind playing tricks on him, perhaps? And yet the sailor had heard something too, earlier.

When still nothing had stirred, Longinus prepared to leave. He glanced at the body, and his stomach contracted at the sight. He had stayed too long. The eyes had turned a pale, milky blue, and the veins on the man’s face stood out, dark and inflamed, fanning out from the writing on the forehead.

Longinus staggered back, knocking over the stool. He fancied he could smell it, all that blood encased in a thin sack of skin. So easily spilled.

He clamped a hand over his mouth against the nausea rising in his throat and ran away on shaky legs, his black cloak flapping behind him.

* * *

Longinus sat at a corner table in the Hand and Tankard, surveying the room. He had swapped the black silks he wore as the Viper for simple leathers, the better to blend in with the crowd. He found it best to tone down his natural elegance when mixing with common folk. That said, he was unable to compromise on the cut of his clothes, and he had had his leathers tailored to within an inch of their lives. A shame that he was sitting down, really; they showed off his figure so exquisitely he should have stood at the bar, the better to be admired. 

He listened to the talk around him, waiting for the gossip on the Viper’s exploits. He had spent the rest of the previous night writing pamphlets about his most recent kill, and he had left them at the docks first thing that morning for a lucky few to find and read. He liked to think that his prose did more than inform the wider public of the Viper’s actions — it elevated their minds, too.

Which was why he was growing rapidly annoyed with the direction the conversations were taking: the weather, the upcoming Revels, and speculation as to whether the Old Girl, the Marchioness of Damsport, was going to pass the torch to her daughter. All of it without interest. It was incredible what mundane banalities the small-minded could find interesting.

Unfortunately, he had to rely on them to spread his reputation about town. His reputation was improving, but it was nowhere near what it ought to be. Notoriety helped him get commissions, but most importantly, one could only be a true artist if one was spoken of. There was nothing worse for an assassin than obscurity.

At last, a woman he knew by sight on account of her starched white apron arrived. Mistress White Apron sat down and regarded the others around her table with the kind of smugness particular to a woman about to unveil a fresh piece of gossip.

“Have you heard the latest on the Smallport Marina killing?”

At last! Longinus smiled. Mistress White Apron could always be counted on. Maybe he should find out where she lived and distribute his pamphlets directly to her door.

“Yeah, I hear it were that Viper character again,” said a sailor.

“Everyone knows that,” said the woman with contempt. “He leaves a card behind. But have you heard the particulars? Hmm?” She looked at the faces of her audience, so puffed up with self-satisfaction she almost seemed to be expanding. Longinus beamed. The saintly woman was about to unveil his new poison.

Mistress White Apron leaned forward. “I have it on good authority that he skinned his victim. Slipped the skin right off, like you do with a rabbit.”

Longinus almost fell off his stool. Skinned? Skinned? Had that idiot even read his pamphlet?

What is the point of me writing them if these simpletons blithely ignore them?

“Oh really? I heard it were poison,” said another woman.

“Not this time,” said Mistress White Apron. “I heard it from my cousin’s sister-in-law’s nephew. He works with the guards.” She lowered her voice. “I hear the Viper even drinks the blood of his victims, like a vampire.”

Longinus felt himself go green at the thought.

Ridiculous, this is ridiculous…

But there was nothing ridiculous about the image that was now firmly imprinted in his mind.

“You’re making it up,” said the sailor, obviously disgusted.

“I am not,” sniffed Mistress White Apron. “Just because you can’t handle —”

“If I might interrupt,” said a small pinched man at a table next to them. “I saw the body myself and…”

Longinus couldn’t listen to any more. The butchery of his art was almost as unbearable as the thought of the Viper drinking blood. He fumbled into his purse and produced two coins, which he threw on the counter before hurrying out.

“Hey, I haven’t weighed them,” shouted the barkeep.

Longinus ignored him, pushing the door open with trembling hands. Once out, he leaned against the wall, taking deep gulps of air. The barkeep hadn’t run out after him, and he guessed that his coins had been heavy enough for his meal and drink. Not that it was a surprise: Longinus’ fingers were unrivalled in their ability to estimate a coin’s weight.

When he felt steadier, he peeled himself from the wall. He needed to get home to rest before the night’s job, and tomorrow he would address this gross misunderstanding of his art. He couldn’t have all these ridiculous rumours circulating about the Viper. He would simply have to increase the volume of pamphlets and distribute them more widely, firmly establishing his reputation as Damsport’s best poisoner.

The common man’s mind propensity to turn to the violent and bloody really was intolerable.


Find out what happens next!

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