Most cities are dangerous, but Armoede takes the danger to the next level. The king sits upon his gilded throne in Aumont, but the city was run in dim rooms and back alleys, by men with far more gold than morals. Those were the men whose gangs caused the city folk to bar their doors throughout the day and nobles to bring a contingent of guards with them every time they left Aumont.
The king ruled nothing more than the palace he hid in, leaving his subjects at the mercy of the gangs. Only one man—one man in tens of thousands—dared to walk the streets alone. The gangs called him Guardless. They said that he was eight feet tall, with bulging muscles and startling red eyes, that he was a demon summoned by the king to restore order.
They were wrong.
In truth, I was just over six feet, with lean muscles and muddy brown eyes. I wasn’t a demon, and I certainly wasn’t working for the king. He never would have sent me; he was more than content to sit on his royal ass while his people lived in fear.
No, I worked alone.
My target today was a butcher’s shop in the Market District—a front for Jakov’s gang. It was a small shop, but the amount of gang members I had observed coming and going suggested some rooms underground, like those I had found over in Toven’s Square.
I pushed my way through the front door into a low-ceilinged, dimly lit room, a counter at the far end. Behind the counter, a heavy, pockmarked butcher was wiping his bloody hands on his apron.
He looked up, obviously surprised to see me alone. I could see fear flitting behind his eyes. Could I be Guardless? But, of course, I wasn’t eight feet tall or breathing fire, so he disregarded me as a threat.
“How can I help you, my good sir,” he said, tapping his cleaver on the counter four times in quick succession. A signal. There was likely a group of cutthroats somewhere in the back, now making their way into the front room.
“I would like to speak with Jakov.” I stepped closer as I spoke, moving up to the counter.
The fear returned to his eyes. “Why would I know where Jakov is?” he asked. “I live my life trying to avoid the gangs. Everyone in the city does.”
The back door burst open, and two men ran in, swords out. One was thin and wiry, the other tall and bearded. They both had swords drawn.
“Looks like you haven’t done a very good job,” I said, and punched the butcher hard in the throat. He dropped to the gory floor, gasping for breath.
The two gang members charged me, and I met them with steel, ducking past the thin man’s blow and slashing my sword across his left hamstring. As he fell, I drew my second sword and caught the bearded cutthroat’s blade on it. I then flicked his sword to the side and drove my other blade through his heart.
My blades had been unsheathed for less than a minute, and already one of my enemies was dead and the others were incapacitated. I flicked my sword across the other cutthroat’s neck and killed the butcher in a similar fashion.
That was how I fought—ruthlessly and efficiently, leaving no survivors. The longer a fight lasted, the better the chances of one of my opponents landing a lucky blow or escaping. I never let an opponent escape; my reputation was part of what kept me alive.
I stepped into the back room, a cramped space filled with hanging meat, and found what I was looking for: an open trap-door in the far corner. I made the drop down the shaft and found myself in a dark hallway. At the end, a sliver of light shone from under a closed door.
I walked up to the door, not bothering to sneak, and kicked it. The timbers exploded inward and I came face to face with Jakov.
The gang leader was short, far smaller than I had expected, but had the distinctive scar that I had heard of—a crescent from his eye to his chin. The crime lord sat calmly at his desk, his hands folded in front of him. As I leveled my sword at him, he began to chuckle softly. “Thanks to you,” he said, “it seems we’re both guardless.”
“I would hardly call those men guards,” I said. “They barely offered me a moment’s distraction.”
“That’s the issue, isn’t it? It’s so hard to find good help. Nearly all of my men are base thugs.” He leaned across his desk. “Not like you.”
I lowered my sword, incredulous. “I’ve spent the last two years hunting the gangs of this city, and you are trying to recruit me?”
Jakov shrugged. “You could still hunt gangs,” he said. “I would send you against my enemies, the other gangs in the city. It isn’t any one gang that destroys Armoede, but the competition between us. You could be the man ends these gang wars.”
“I came to kill you, not to make a deal.”
“When I take control of the city, you will be the second most powerful man in Armoede.”
I lashed out with my sword, opening another cut on his cheek. “Were you really so confident in your offer that you would put yourself in this kind of danger?”
He smiled. “My master was relatively sure that you would accept.”
His master…? I growled in frustration and stabbed the man through the chest. The reason that he had seemed too short to be Jakov was because he was too short to be Jakov.
I pushed his body off the desk and began searching the room. There had to be something that could help me.
Jakov leaped with surprise as I stepped in front of him and pressed the tip of my sword to his jaw.
“All that trouble you went through—hiring a double, leaving a token guard at the butcher shop—and you let your double keep a list of your safe houses on his person.”
Jakov grimaced. “That bastard was supposed to be more careful.”
“It is hard to find good help.” Sweeping my sword through the air, I separated his head from his shoulders. I wiped the bloody blade on his tunic and left him there on his own drawing room floor.
It would add to my reputation. Guardless, the one man in Armoede with nothing to fear.