Leaf pushed hard against the pavement, lifting their chest and throbbing head. They turned to take stock.

One of the cutters was still here, advancing on Leaf with a shortsword bared—one with a wide quillion, the sort favored by lowlives skilled enough to hide them and enjoy the close-in utility they offer.

Leaf was still assessing, but their course of action was already coming into focus. They pulled their knees forward under their chest, swiftly and smoothly.

One cutter here… which meant two were gone. Where?

Leaf’s head ached. They eyed the cutter, who eyed back from under a greasy mop of brown hair. Leaf sprang.

The cutter was a quick, able defender, perfectly capable of handling a little rudimentary aggression. He chucked his lamp into dingy corner of the alley and gave the right amount of ground, and he was ready to receive and parry a thrust of Leaf’s hidden backup blade.

He replied with a deceptive underhand hack at Leaf’s legs, but Leaf leapt back and to the left, tendons intact.

Leaf advanced once more, and the cutter parried once more, giving ground, sliding further into the shadows.

The cutter drew and threw a knife and pressed behind it, thrusting for Leaf’s heart with the quillioned shortsword as his throwing knife sailed past and clanked off of a wooden sign. Leaf, once more, slipped to the side, and once more, thrust forward.

The cutter fell back on what had worked before: gaving ground in defense. A cruicial mistake. Leaf bulled forward into him, allowing the cutter to sweep their blade aside, and with both arms drew themsleves forward into a clinch with the man. The cutter jerked his arm, trying to maneuver the shortsword into position, but it was far too late for that. Leaf stomped hard on the man’s foot with a nasty crunch, beat the wind out of him with two savage knee strikes to his abdomen, used the opening to transition the hold slightly, and crashed a knee into the man’s head.

Lights out.

Leaf left the man in the recovery position and fled the alleyway, hurrying down a set of nearby stairs to take the low street adjacent to the canal. There wasn’t much visibility, but at the moment any was better than none, so it would have to do until Leaf could reach a main thoroughfare.

Their head ached. One cutter down. Two more. Where?

Chael! Leaf and Chael had met to take this job, a smash-and-grab on a Billhook joint. Their intel must have been faulty and they’d been met out front by three cutters. And that’s when Chael had given Leaf a sucker punch straight to the temple. Leaf had gone down, and the two cutters must have gone chasing after Chael, leaving the one to watch over the incapacitated Leaf. Only Leaf hadn’t been so incapacitated and had been more than a match for the junior thug.

Had it been a setup? Leaf considered this. Probably not. There was little motive to premeditate something like that—it seemed far more likely that Chael hadn’t liked the three-on-two odds on the Billhook’s own turf and had figured that he only needed to run faster than Leaf did to make it to safety. A fair guess.

But Leaf wouldn’t soon forget.

The High Spirits Inn was busy. The mood-lifting substances purveyed here always seemed to fill the little, richly-appointed den with more energy than most watering holes in the city, but this night there seemed to be just a few more people than normal.

Leaf sat at a table on the side, back to the wall. Their tea was still piping hot, but Leaf was glad for its company anyway.

A man sat down opposite them. He was richly appointed, like the inn. He spoke in an easy, confident flow, like a warrior through a kata.

“You know who always sits with their back the wall in a place like this? Wallflowers. And Sharks. Mind if I ask which?”

Leaf thought about that for a second.

“You may.”

The man smiled. “Then…?”

“I am no shark. I should not presume this to be a range and myself its apex predator.”

The man seemed to consider this, too, for just a beat. His smile did not waver.

“I see. You are a professional, though. There’s no mistaking that.”


“And word is someone by your description—tall, dark, hooded—escaped a Billhook hunt gang on the east end of the district and really gave three of their heavies the business on the way out.”

“Many people fit that description.”

“Sure. Are you open to opportunities?”


“I’m a headhunter representing an outfit looking for some muscle. The work is respectable and the pay is good. They have the contacts, the backing, the scheduling, the cover, and the buyers all sorted out. They just need some help making sure it goes smoothly—you know how things are.”

Leaf thought for a moment. “Will there be fighting?”

The man gave a casual shrug. “Probably.”


The man extended his hand. “Do we have an agreement in principle? Terms pending, of course.”


They shook.

“I’ll introduce you to the outfit tomorrow. Name’s Flake. What’s yours?”

“I don’t have a name, but you may call me Leaf.”

“A curious way of putting it.”

“I understand people see it that way. But the name is theirs, not mine. Leaf is theirs to know and to know me by. What I know of myself I know without name. Formless and nameless like an eddy of water within a greater current.”

“Hmm. This an Iruvian thing? Very unusual to me, I’ll admit.”

“I learned much of what I practice from an Iruvian, but I don’t see it as an Iruvian thing, no. Rather, I consider myself a student of an ancient art.”


“Touché. But, yes, violence is an art as well as its own teacher; an art that demands careful introspection in its study and a teacher that punishes indolence severely. I take the learning seriously.”

“Hope that means you’re good.”

“It does.”