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14 years ago.

“This contract will be a bit different from the ones you are used to.” Dobber said, looking at Eli, Moose and Charles. “The target is a corrupt banker who recently escaped justice. The Internal Security Bureau knows he’s guilty of laundering money for both the Syndicate as well as the Silver Bell cartel, but the evidence failed to satisfy the courts. Which is where you come in. You are to infiltrate his mansion, take out the guard and the man himself. We would prefer it if you leave the civilians on the premise unharmed, but we don’t want any witnesses. Bancroft takes point, any questions?”

There were no questions. “Excellent, time is limited, so I suggest you get to it.” Dobber stood up and was about to leave the briefing room when he stopped. “One last thing, among your gear you will find masks, you are to wear them.” Moose nodded and Dobber left. The three students were looking at the map in front of them. “Well this is new.” Charles stated. “They’re finally taking the kids gloves off.” Moose said smiling. “This is something worth our time, instead of digging out holed up obsoletes.” Eli grunted.

“Why so gloomy?” Charles asked Eli, who shrugged. “I sort of liked where we were, the obsolete are guilty, their marks show it. With this banker, I don’t know, it feels off.” Moose snickered. “He’s a banker, guilty by default. If we’re not taking him down, nobody will.” She wasn’t wrong, the banker was probably guilty. The Bureau was very seldom wrong, there was no reason to assume they were this time. “Alright, let’s take him out. Where do you want me?”

Moose was looking at the schematics of the mansion. “I’m suggesting we do this textbook. A three men sweep, al wearing light armor, carrying subs and a side arm of choice. We take out the guard silently and then we find the bastard and dust him. Everybody on board?” Eli nodded, the plan was simple and clean, just the way he liked it. “What if there are more guards than intelligence suggests?” Moose shrugged. “Than we take those out as well, we should still have the element of surprise.” Charles nodded. “Sounds like a plan. I take it we hit the place just before dawn?” Moose nodded, still looking at the files. “Between four and five. Make sure you’re well rested.” Charles mockingly saluted and left the briefing room. Eli was about to leave when Moose stopped him.

“Something wrong?” He asked. “Take this before we go in, I want you as clear as possible.” She handed him a vial with blue powder. “How did you get this?” He hissed as he quickly took the vial and put it in his pocket. “I have my ways.” Moose smiled. “But that is the only one I have, so keep it until we go in, get it?” Eli nodded. “Yeah, thanks. I will pay you back.”

The three of them were looking at the mansion from a nearby hill. They had just finished changing into their gear, for the first time seeing the masks they were supposed to wear. “They certainly went for the intimidation factor with these ones.” Charles stated looking at the smooth expressionless masks. “They are cold as fuck and don’t fit for shit.” Moose complained. “We could just not wear them, as we’re not supposed to leave witnesses anyway.” Charles commented. “Let’s just do as we’re told, someone might be evaluating us.” Eli said, ending the discussion before it could start.

“Remember even after we take out the guard there might be more armed hostiles in the house. After we take the target out we will use the signal and retreat. We will regroup here, then take the car back home.” She pointed at the truck. “Last minute complaints, needs, worries?” Neither Eli nor Charles spoke up. “Alright everybody masks on.” Eli pulled the vial of breath from his pocket. He popped the lit off and snorted the powder inside, instantly the world around him became clearer. He put on the mask and the three of them ran down the hill.

It was cold, it would probably start snowing soon. This world was a lot colder, or maybe it was just Mercia. The guard that protected the target’s property was doing a very poor job of it. He was sitting inside a small house, warming his hands in front of the stove. He didn’t even hear Charles as the young man quietly slipped into the room and cut his throat.

We split up after that, entering the house from three separate entrance points. A lot could be said about the target, but he had good taste. Exquisite pieces of art were tastefully displayed, matching the room they were put in. The team didn’t have comms so after Eli cleared the rooms he was designated to search he went on upstairs.

The first door he opened on the second floor led to an empty vanity room. He quietly closed the door and went on to the next one. After clearing both a guest bedroom and a bathroom he was starting to get annoyed. How many rooms did this house have? Just a bit louder than he wanted to he closed the bathroom door. He turned around, only to come face to face with a little girl holding a stuffed bunny.

“Go back to bed.” He said softly, his voice as unthreatening as possible. “I’m here to keep you safe from the monsters.” The girl rubbed her eyes sleepily. Softly Eli guided her back into her room. “Now you stay in your room, no matter what you hear, okay?” He whispered. The little girl had already gone back to sleep. Softly he slipped outside, just as Charles came around the corner. Eli gave the all clear sign and Charles waved him over. A burst of shots broke the silence, followed by a shrill whistle. “It seems Moose found the target, time to go.” Charles said.

“You came across the target’s wife?” Eli asked. “She was out of it, whatever she’s taking it makes her sleep like the dead.” Charles responded. “You didn’t take her out?” Charles shook his head. “I’m not some fucking savage, like Jiro or one of his asshole friends. She isn’t a witness.” They quickly exited the mansion, joining Moose at the regroup point.

“Trouble on your end?” Moose asked. Charles and Eli shook their heads, making Moose grimace. “The target wasn’t alone, there was a girl with him, I took her out as well.” They got into the car and drove off quickly. Moose was silent the entire drive back. Eli didn’t tell them about the little girl, but she didn’t leave his mind.

Now.

Jesse’s hand is trembling, the gun is shaking with it. Not that it matters at this distance, if she shoots now she won’t miss. I’m not worried however. “You can put the pistol down, you’re not going to kill me.” I say, calmly. “You don’t know what I will do. Agents don’t waver when their cover is blown, they follow protocol.” It sounds more like she’s trying to convince herself than me. “Come on, we’ve worked together for five years. We can work something out.” I say smiling.

Slowly she lowers the pistol, just as slow I stand up and take it from her. For a second, I see her eyes widen in fear as my hand closes around the weapon. In that second she is right to be afraid. Years of training and instinct kick in and the world slows down. The cold steel in my hand, Jesse’s ragged breath, my rapid beating heart, in that single moment the decision is mine.

The second passes, I click the safety on and throw the gun in the corner. “I think I killed someone today.” There is a tremble in her voice. “I never killed anyone before.” I recall the shootout in the apartment. The man she shot when she saved me probably didn’t survive. “You were just defending yourself, you did nothing wrong.” I say. “I will fix this and afterwards everything will return back to normal.” We sit down, and I hand her one of the cups of tea she poured earlier.

“When I was assigned to you I knew it was going to be dangerous, but all this time went by and nothing happened, and I thought…” She doesn’t finish her sentence. “You thought nothing ever was going to happen.” She nods. “You know what I do, situations like this, although rare, sometimes occur. The people that did this were very thorough, it takes a lot of effort and resources to find a specific assassin.” It doesn’t take me long to figure out who is behind this attack. Only Thomas Aksokov has the money, manpower and balls to do something like this in the first district. Also, the dead sister commentary was a big hint in the right direction.

“What are we going to do?” Jesse asks. “As I see it I have two options. Either I take Aksokov out, after which the entire gang might come after me for revenge. Or I manage to convince him that the blame for the contract lies with the one who sets it, not the one who carried it out. The latter one will probably get me into trouble with the Syndicate. Regardless I’m fucked.” I sigh, fucking East, without his bullshit contract I wouldn’t be in this shit. “I will figure it out, I’ve been in worse situations.” I’m silent for a while.

“You haven’t answered my question.” I state after an awkward silence. “Who assigned you to watch me?” I have my suspicions, but I wonder whether she trusts me enough to tell me. I see her hesitate, considering what it will mean if she tells me. “The Bureau.” She finally says. “Why?” Jesse shrugs. “They didn’t say, and it wasn’t my place to ask. They never recalled me, so I stayed.” The tremor from earlier is gone. “I wonder why they haven’t. Why does the ISB think it is worthwhile to keep watching me?”

Jesse doesn’t have the answers to my questions, if I want those I will have to go pay a visit to the Internal Security Bureau. It however isn’t a priority, I hardly need another enemy. I decide to let the whole thing rest for a while, there are other matters that need handling. I stand up and walk towards Jesse’s phone. “You don’t mind if use this?” Jesse shakes her head and I ring a number.

“Anton?” I ask as the other end of the line remains silent, even when I hear someone breathing. “Can you check if Birdie is in?” Anton grunts. The bartender lacks a tongue, which makes him a challenging conversation partner at the best of times. A few seconds later Birdie picks up the phone. “How are tricks sweetie?” The old woman croaks. “Not so good dear. Have you heard about my place?” Birdie shouts something about peeking at cards at her usual group of degenerate gamblers before responding to my question. “All shot to hell, as I hear it. The police are looking for you, there are some bloodstains you will need to explain.”

I let out another sigh. “I will handle them later. For now, I would ask a favor of you.” I can almost hear the gleam in Birdies’ eyes right now. “What you need toots?” Birdie knows everybody that matters and many more who don’t. She’s very straightforward regarding her business, which is why I respect her. “I need you to get me and Thomas Aksokov in a room without guns or goons, can you make it happen?” Birdie is quick, and it doesn’t take her long to reply. “That’s big favor dearie, but for you I certainly can. Come to the club tomorrow and everything will be set up for you.” I smile. “You’re a national treasure Birdie.” I say before hanging up.

“You figured out our next step?” Jesse asks, hugging her knees. “I’m going to convince Aksokov not to kill us and then we’re going on a vacation.” Someone else might be mad upon discovering their secretary is a spy, but I don’t really care. Apart from Moose and maybe Birdie she’s the only friend I have. She’s just doing her duty, she didn’t chose to be a spy, much like I didn’t chose to be an assassin. I sit beside her on the coach and she lays her head on my shoulder. For a while we’re just normal people, doing a normal thing.

A phone rings in an office in the third district. It is reconnected to a residence occupied by a single man. Smoking a big cigar Thomas Aksokov grins as the person on the other end of the line starts speaking. “And he is confident I won’t kill him on sight?” He asks after a while. The person on the other end of the line informs him that any hostile action will result in his immediate demise.

“Tell me mystery caller, why would agree to this meeting? I’ve got him on the run, either I kill him, or he will have to flee the city leaving everything he built behind. In both cases I win.” There is a chuckle on the other end of the line. “But mister Aksokov, if that happens you will never find out who ordered the hit on your sister and why.” The mob boss considers the answer, taking a long drag from his cigar. “How late does he want to meet?”

I’m sitting in one of the private meeting rooms in the club, waiting for the man who tried to kill me yesterday. I don’t have to wait long, apparently he is a punctual man. Thomas Aksokov struts inside like he owns the place, a big smile on his face. “You’ve got balls, I give you that.” He says as he takes a seat.

Aksokov is a thug, he likes money, power and women. The last time I saw him it was through the scope of a rifle, when I killed his sister. “I have something you want.” I say. “I think we can come to an arrangement.” Thomas lips curl into a smug smile. “Do you now, Eli, I can call you Eli right?” I nod. “I’m the only one who can tell you who put the contract on your sister’s head.” Thomas shrugs. “What keeps me from picking you up somewhere and torturing the information out of you?”

I raise my eyebrows. “You think you can capture me alive?” The smile stays fixed in place. “I can always find your girlfriend and trade her life for yours.” I give him a smug smile of my own. “Considering my occupation do you think I would value another’s life over my own?” Had the person in front of me known me better he might have called my bluff, but Thomas has already made his mind up about me. He thinks that the only difference between us is the level of wealth and power. He can’t imagine sacrificing his life for another, which makes him doubt I would.

The mob boss leans forward, clearly interested. “I’m sure you prepared these arguments ahead of time, which means you have a different proposal for me, yes?” I nod. “Let’s hear it.” He leans back again, but the smug smile is gone. “A blood contract, I give you the name of the one who set the contract and you refrain from taking any action against me or my property. Also, I will not take any contracts that harm you and yours ever again.” Aksokov strokes his chin, considering the offer. “And what would happen if I were to break this blood contract?” There is an unhealthy gleam in his eyes.

“Suffice to say that the bounty on your head would be substantial enough to put every assassin in the country on your trail.” Thomas whistles. “Quite a hefty sum, who would pay for something like that?” I smile. “A secret reserved for the practitioners of my profession.” Aksokov grins. “I like the idea, but this way I would be denying my sister her revenge.” It is one of the arguments I prepared for on my way over to the club and I have my answer ready. “And then, after you’ve killed me, will you kill my gun as well?” Thomas bristles. “They are not the same.” I frown. “They are, a man, a gun, a piece of string, they are all the same. When you order your men to kill someone, it is you who is doing the killing, not them. You sign the contract and you will learn who the weapon that killed your sister belonged to.”

I see the gears in his mind turn, see him reach the conclusion I predicted he would. “I will sign the contract.” The smug smile returns. “On one condition, you will kill the man that set the contract. Call it poetic justice, using the weapon he used against my family to destroy him.” I repress the urge to message my temple where a headache is growing and nod. “We have a deal.”

The signing of a blood contract is a formal affair, both parties need a witness to be present and the whole thing has to be administered by both a priest and a bureaucrat. There are always bureaucrats around if you pay the right price and the club has a priest on retainer. The word of God is just another thing for sale after all. I cut my hand open with a ceremonial knife, Thomas mirroring my movements on the other end of the table. “You know, the more time I spend up here, the more respect I gain for the traditions of our magnificent city. Maybe we should implement some of them on the lower levels. Abridged versions, of course, they have to mirror modern times. But a blood oath just feels weightier than a regular one.”

I want him to shut up, his attempts at intimidation fall short in the assembled company. My witness, Moose, has taken out worse scum than him. The preacher is high, trying very hard to conceal it, but failing. The bureaucrat doesn’t give two shits about anything that is happening in this room and even less about what is going down in the lower levels. She just wants to get payed and get the hell out of here.

I hold my hand above the contract and drip blood over my name. I then shove the paper to Aksokov, who does the same. “The contract is sealed, both gentlemen are aware of the consequences of breaking this agreement?” The bureaucrat asks. Thomas and I both nod. “Excellent, I will take this document and put it under lock and key with the other blood contracts. A good day.” Both the priest and the bureaucrat leave as quickly as they can manage.

“I expect results Eli, I’m not a very patient man. Find this East and kill him. Make it your priority, or I will.” The door closes behind him and I’m left alone with Moose, who’s looking at me with a pitying gaze. “How did you even get yourself into this situation?” I frown at her. “Because you found a contract which was straight up my alley, remember?” The bickering that follows puts my mind at ease, reminding me of old times.

“The King of the West is missing.” The Queen of the East says, more than a little annoyed. “We will start without him.” The King of the North responds. He plucks his glass eye out of his left socket, scratching the hole. It is making the Queen of East highly uncomfortable, which is why he enjoys doing it so much.

“The plan is entering its more dynamic stage. The only pieces unaccounted for are the prince and Aksokov.” The Queen of the South says, officially opening the meeting. “Aksokov has been ramping up the violence like my champion predicted, he will be the first to fall once the riots start.” The Queen of the East purrs. “As for the prince, I have send my champion to the capital to take care of that little problem.” The King of the North frowns. “The capital isn’t in your jurisdiction, it’s in mine. You have no right to have your champion operate there.”

The Queen of the East gives him a condescending smile. “I can if I think you are woefully incompetent, which I do think.” The King of the North just glares at her. “I will send my own champion then, we shall see who the incompetent one is.” At the sound of the challenge the Queen of the South’s eyes light up. “What shall we bet on this game?” The King in the North smiles. “Knowledge. If her champion fails to assassinate the prince she will reveal what exactly she has planned for Victoria. However, if her champion succeeds I will reveal my source of intelligence.” The Queen of the East smirks. “An easy win, I will take the bet.” The King of the North stands up and leaves the room, his lips curled into a sardonic smile. There is a call he must make.

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