Steve sleeps in the darkest of places by day and roams the streets at night, a victim of cutting edge science. His unwanted reality crashes down around him after he receives a cryptic message from another who shares his fate. “They hunt, brother.” Steve must dodge betrayal, clandestine organizations, and others with abilities like his to learn why, after thirty years, someone finally cares.

The Assassin and the Potionist

Today, of all days of the week, the Potionist Barberro would rather not open his shop. The local thugs want their protection money, and this time, their demands have grown. But when an assassin walks in and asks him to brew an obscure poison for her, he asks for a prohibitive sum so that he can close his shop and escape.

She has other ideas.

 

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Barberro dreaded Sainday more than just about any other day of the week. He would wake in a cold sweat almost every Sainday morning, fumble his eggs and his bread to the polished wood floor he spent each Ottenday cleaning, and find the pearl buttons on his vest impossible to manipulate with his nervous, twitching fingers. Every Sainday. Collection day.

He prayed to Tiona, the most benevolent goddess, that Corinno and his thugs would walk on past, or would forget about him, but nothing ever came of his prayers.

The day always ended the same. Coin out of his purse, draughts borrowed from his shelves—never to return—and him huddled in the corner after they left.

Until a woman entered his shop one Sainday and changed everything.

* * *

She wore a cloak with the cowl over her head, ornately detailed in swirls of purple and darker purple, as she pushed her way past the door. Underneath the cloak, seen only as the cloak flared while she pushed the solid mahogany door open with a hand gloved in black, she wore a body-hugging suit that exposed her shape as if she wore nothing at all.Barberro, already behind the counter that kept his customers in their place, moved to his stool, the one with the splinters that kept him upright when he knew something bad was about to happen—the one he used when Corinno entered his shop.

The door slammed shut behind her, the crack of it echoing off the bottles and vials that lined the cherrywood shelves.

She moved through his shop with a catlike grace, every step intentionally placed, every part of her body controlled. She slipped between the tightly spaced shelves holding hundreds of his concoctions, never brushing a one even with the flaps of her cloak. Her footsteps were so soft and light, the boards underneath her did not creak. With every step she took, Barberro’s tongue grew drier, the shaking of his hands grew stronger.

And as she approached the counter, her shadowed eyes clearly on him, it was all Barberro could do to stay on the stool that had served him so well with Corinno.

She put her hands on his counter, fingers splayed, and spoke in a quiet voice, low enough that he had to work to hear. “You are Barberro?”

He could barely make himself nod. It was strange. Death had entered his shop, and she smelled faintly of thornberries.

Barberro opened his mouth to speak, but his tongue felt thick between his teeth, and he couldn’t convince it to cooperate. After a moment, he gave up and nodded his head.

“You are the potionist Barberro? The one who is said to be able to concoct a draught from even the most difficult of recipes?”

He nodded again, and forced his tongue to work just long enough to add, “If… if the necessary ingredients are supplied.”

Death reached inside her cloak, into a pocket or pouch hidden there, and withdrew a folded, weathered parchment. She spread it out on the counter top.

Barberro forced himself to lean forward, closer to her, to examine the recipe. As he did so, the sweat that had been forming under his arms collected and dripped down the inside of his tunic, cold and clammy against his side. He wanted to adjust his tunic to wick the sweat away, but he dared not, thinking she might take it wrongly.

The parchment, yellowed and wrinkled, bore a recipe, but he didn’t recognize the recipe, nor did the parchment explain what it was for. He looked through the ingredient list; most were already in his shop. He scanned through the mixing instructions, and it did not look terribly difficult. In fact, it was all fairly standard, except for the last glyph on the page. A heart and dagger. Deathsblood.

“Do you know what this is?” he asked, his potionist professionalism overtaking his fear.

She nodded, the design in her cowl seeming to come alive with each movement. “It makes a poison.”

“What poison?”

“It does not matter. Will you make it?”

Barberro pondered it. He knew why she had come to him. No other potionist within a thousand miles had worked with Deathsblood, nor would they risk it. He would never have risked it either, were the choice left to him. But the choice had not been left to him, and he had risked it, and had survived.

He knew he could do it again. But the price…

“It will cost, and you will need to acquire the more esoteric ingredients yourself.”

“What will be the cost?”

Barberro calculated quick sums in his head, the cost of the materials he would supply, which were not insignificant, the cost of his time, and a substantial amount just for the hazard to himself. All told, he figured forty-five thousand gold crowns, but decided that seemed too low, and rounded up to an even fifty thousand. That should be more than enough to pack his shop and move out of reach of Corinno.

His mahogany door banged open, smashed against the wall and rebounded to be caught by the hand that had flung it open in the first place. A hand baring the cold gold circlet of Roberto Corinno.

* * *

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