Nine years later.
18 September, in the Year of Our Lord, 1465
Just outside Exeter, England.
The men keeping watch over Lord Betrand’s residence had indulged far too much beer over the course of the night. I watched from the shadows, seeing them progress from jolly to raucous and smirking when they made the final turn into incoherent. With one dagger, I picked the dirt from my fingernails, a tune I’d heard sung in the tavern hours ago still running through my head. Another dagger remained impaled through a squirrel that had come too close, threatening to disclose my location. I found it ironic how many other creatures had followed a similar fate at my hand, for less benign reasons.
Had I been a praying man, I might have petitioned Lord Betrand’s guards be the next to follow.
Instead, I remained perched in the tree, one leg bent and the other extended, with no fear of my hands clasping in some recognition of the divine. If my adult years had taught me anything, it was that God had no time for anyone without a bag full of coins or a parcel of land to his boast. It was as much the way of Earth as it seemed the way of Heaven, and at least a few pieces of gold went much further in the hand of a whore than it did a priest’s coffer. The day the churches boasted prostitutes would be the day I found religion again.
The irony of my name was far from lost to me at that moment.
With a grin, I lowered the dagger and wiped the blade across the fabric of my pants. Sliding it back into its sheath, I adjusted the folds of my cloak, fingering the hilt of my sword while watching one of the guards slump against his comrade. When the other shoved his friend aside, I tsked under my breath, rising to the balls of my feet and crouching low. “Now don’t be too quick to turn away such ready advances,” I whispered to no one but the night. “You might find yourself enjoying it.”
I grasped hold of the branch with one hand and used it to swing to a soundless landing on the ground below. The years had been kind to me in more manners than one, gifting me with a lithe, light frame and nimble fingers all too willing to do the Devil’s work. My knees buckled and the leaves collecting on the ground crunched softly when I took my first step, but the guards were none-the-wiser to my presence. Reaching for the dagger protruding from the squirrel, I yanked it free and wiped it off while glancing toward another patch of trees further ahead.
When the guards erupted into another fit of laughter, I dashed into the shadows, disappearing from sight.
One of them turned away, hearing the rustle my movements created and squinting into the area where I had taken refuge. I huffed with derision, steam rising from my breath and mingling with the air before anyone else could take notice. Still, the man glanced toward his friends again and cocked a thumb in the direction where I was crouched. I tightened my hold on my dagger. “Rabbits’re running all over the place again,” he managed, though the actual words came out sounding much more slurred.
The guard who had been slumped righted himself and spat on the ground. “So? Killit an’ make us somethin’ to eat,” he said.
“Do I look like a bloody cook?”
“Ain’t gonna say what you look like.”
The third and last man burst into cacophonous laughter, his friend readily joining in. The one who had taken notice of me bristled, his gaze returning to my direction while my hand slid from hilt of my dagger to its sharp edge. A slow grin crept across my face when he took his first step forward. This was about to work precisely as I had planned.
He hesitated, pushing back the folds of his cloak. A blade by his side, he failed to reach for it, which only underscored what I had heard of this particular set of guards. I held my breath, allowing the night to still as had become ritual for me. The last moment of silence before the storm was always the sweetest.
When he took another step forward, I sprang into action. The dagger I clutched sailed between us and plunged into the guard’s neck, killing him instantly. Dashing from the shadows, I slid my sword from its sheath and swung as the two other guards charged to engage me. The leaning guard came first, taking a slash across the chest and falling backward. His compatriot balked, lifting his sword a moment too late and watching in horror as I knocked it to the ground and thrust mine forward. The blade ran through his chest with little effort. When I had dislodged him, I delivered a final, killing blow through the chest of the man on the ground.
I paused first to catch my breath. Then, I whistled toward the edge of Lord Betrand’s property.
A horse whinnied in the distance. The sound of hooves pounding into the dirt followed and a small patch of moonlight shone upon a cloaked rider as he steered the horse over to where I stood. I collected my dagger from the felled guard’s throat and produced a dark piece of cloth from a pouch on my belt. Without looking up at him, I addressed the rider with a smirk. “I told you they were here just for show.”
He laughed as he alighted from his horse.
We made eye contact once my blade was cleaned and I was able to slip it back into its sheath. If scoundrels could be said to have best friends, he was that to me, and more. My partner in crime, I always called him, but Paulo Bellini di Verona is how he would have introduced himself, with a smarmy grin and a dramatic bow, especially if you were a lady. He stood three inches shorter and weighed at least one stone more than I, with dark, wavy locks of hair and a perpetual beard he kept trimmed as close to his face as possible.
Both of us wore the same dark clothes, with the same leather armor and a matching sword. The emblem on his cloak mirrored mine, which was more important than any other facet of our attire; a thorny black rose, embroidered so that it would hover over one’s heart if they had the fabric gathered close to their chest.
He took a deep breath inward and exhaled it with a loud sigh. “Che bella sera!” he said, extending his arms, palms facing toward the heavens. He regarded me with a broad smile as his hands settled to his sides again. His accent was thick, even when he switched to English. “Three dead guards and an empty house. I love nights like this.”
I chuckled, glancing around. “Be careful how loud you say that. I’m sure the peasants know better than to step in the middle, but Roland said discretion was the key.”
Paulo waved his hand, walking alongside me as I wiped the blood from my blade’s edge. “I like having the easy pay.” I sighed at the dismissive gesture, carefully sliding my weapon back into its rightful place and heading for the front of the house. Paulo followed close behind.
He waited for us to disappear inside before continuing. “So, what am I looking for?” he asked.
“You are looking for a locked box in a library, which contains some vital correspondence,” I said, stepping fully into the main room and appraising it from the entryway. A pensive frown tugged at my lips. “I, on the other hand, am making sure nobody stops us from snatching it.”
My companion nodded. “Keep watch, then. I’ll be right back.” I jumped when I felt his lips touch my cheek and raised an eyebrow at the smirk on his face as he walked past and disappeared into a hallway. Rolling my eyes, I shut the front door for the benefit of anyone that might see fit to play the hero. Once the pitch black of a dark room surrounded me, I lowered the hood from my cloak and tousled my hair. Paulo would be swift about his work, but still, I had my own investigation to conduct.
Pacing closer to the fireplace, I ran my fingertips along the mantle, disrupting a thin layer of dust in the effort to appear nonchalant. The hearth had been cold for some time, further proof that Roland’s client knew what he was talking about. Lord Betrand was away in London, undoubtedly to help maintain the affairs of House Lancaster while his cousins and second cousins were up to their eyeballs in a vie for the throne. I cared very little for the affairs of nobles, truth be told.
Except when it concerned my project.