Authors: Oliver Bowden
Tags: #Fiction, #Media Tie-In, #Action & Adventure, #Historical
The Assassin Ethan Frye was leaning on a crate in
the shadows of Covent Garden Market, almost hidden by the tradesmen’s carts. His arms were
folded across his chest, chin supported in one hand, the soft, voluminous cowl of his robes
covering his head. And as the afternoon dwindled into evening he stood, silent and still.
Watching. And waiting.
It was rare for an Assassin to rest his chin on
his leading hand like that. Especially if he was wearing his hidden blade, which Ethan was, the
point of it less than an inch from the exposed flesh of his throat. Closer to his elbow was a
light but very powerful spring mechanism designed to deploy the razor-sharp steel; the correct
flick of his wrist and it would activate. In a very real sense, Ethan was holding himself at
And why would he do this? After all, even
Assassins were not immune to accidents or equipment malfunction. For safety’s sake the men
and women of the Brotherhood tended to keep their blade hands clear of the face. Better that
than risk ignominy or worse.
Ethan, however, was different. Not only was he
practised in the art of counter-intelligence – and resting his chin on his strongest arm
was an act of deception designed to fool a potential enemy – but he also took a dark
delight in courting danger.
And so he sat, with his chin
in his hand, watching, and waiting.
, he thought,
what is this
He straightened and shook the rest from his muscles as he peered through the crates into the
market. Traders were packing up. And something else was happening too. The game was afoot.
In an alleyway not far from Ethan lurked a fellow
by the name of Boot. He wore a tattered shooting jacket and a broken hat, and he was studying a
pocket watch lifted from a gentleman not moments ago.
What Boot didn’t know about his new
acquisition was that its erstwhile owner had intended to take it to the menders that very day,
for reasons that were shortly to have a profound effect on the lives of Ethan Frye, Boot, a
young man who called himself The Ghost and others involved in the eternal struggle between the
Templar Order and the Assassin Brotherhood. What Boot didn’t know was that the pocket
watch was almost exactly an hour slow.
Oblivious to that fact, Boot snapped it shut,
thinking himself quite the dandy. Next he eased himself out of the alleyway, looked left and
right and then made his way into the dying day of the market. As he walked, his shoulders
hunched and his hands in his pockets, he glanced over his shoulder to check he wasn’t
being followed and, satisfied, continued forward, leaving Covent Garden behind and entering the
St Giles Rookery slum.
The change in the air was almost immediate. Where
before his boot heels had rung on the cobbles, now they sank into the ordure of the street,
disturbing a stink of
rotting vegetable and human waste. The pavements were
thick with it, the air reeking. Boot pulled his scarf over his mouth and nose to keep out the
worst of it.
A wolfish-looking dog trotted at his heel for a
few paces, ribs visible at its shrunken belly. It appealed to him with hungry, red-rimmed eyes
but he kicked it away and it skittered then shrank off. Not far away, a woman sat in a doorway
wearing the remnants of clothes tied together with string, a baby held to her breast as she
watched him with glazed dead eyes, rookery eyes. She might be the mother of a prostitute,
waiting for her daughter to come home with the proceeds and woe betide the girl if she returned
empty-handed. Or she might command a team of thieves and blaggers, soon to appear with the
day’s takings. Or perhaps she ran night lodgings. Here in the rookery the once-grand
houses had been converted to flats and tenements, and by night they provided refuge for those in
need of shelter: fugitives and families, whores, traders and labourers – anyone who paid
their footing in return for space on a floor and who got a bed if they were lucky and had the
money, but most likely had to make do with straw or wood shavings for a mattress. Not that they
were likely to sleep very soundly anyway: every inch of floor space was taken, and the cries of
babies tore through the night.
And while many of these people were unfit or
unwilling to work, many more had occupations. They were dog-breakers and bird dealers. They sold
watercress, onions, sprat or herring. They were costermongers, street sweepers, coffee dealers,
bill stickers and placard carriers. Their wares came into the lodgings with them, adding to the
to the stench. At night the houses would be closed, broken
windows stuffed with rags or newspaper, sealed against the noxious atmosphere of the night, when
the city coughed smoke into the air. The night air had been known to suffocate entire families.
Or so was the rumour. And one thing that spread about the slums more quickly than disease was
rumour. So as far as the slum dwellers were concerned, Florence Nightingale could preach as much
as she liked. They were going to sleep with the windows sealed.
You could hardly blame them, thought Boot. If you
lived in the slum your chances of dying were great. Disease and violence were rife here.
Children risked being suffocated when adults rolled over in their sleep. Cause of death:
overlaying. It was more common at weekends when the last of the gin had been drunk and the
public houses emptied, and Mother and Father felt their way home in the soupy fog, up the slick
stone steps, through the door and into the warm, stinking room where they at last laid down
their heads to rest …
And in the morning, with the sun up but the smog
yet to clear, the rookery would ring to the screams of the bereaved.
Deeper into the slum went Boot, where tall
buildings crowded out even the meagre light of the moon, and fog-bound lanterns glowed
malevolently in the dark. He could hear raucous singing from a public house a few streets along.
Every now and then the singing would grow louder as the door was thrown open to eject drunkards
on to the street.
There were no pubs on this street, though. Just
doors and windows wadded with newspaper, washing hanging
from lines overhead,
sheets of it like the sails of a ship, and, apart from the distant singing, just the sound of
running water and his own breathing. Just him … alone.
Or so he thought.
And now even the distant singing stopped. The
only sound was dripping water.
A scuttling sound made him jump.
‘Who’s that?’ he demanded, but knew immediately it was a rat, and it was a
pretty thing when you were so scared you were jumping at the sound of a rat. A pretty thing
But then it came again. He whirled and thick air
danced and eddied around him, and it seemed to part like curtains and for a moment he thought he
saw something. A suggestion of something. A figure in the mist.
Next he thought he heard breathing. His own was
short and shallow, gasping almost, but this was loud and steady and coming from – where?
One second it seemed to be ahead of him, the next from behind. The scuttling came again. A bang
startled him, but it came from one of the tenements above. A couple began arguing – he had
come home drunk again. No,
had come home drunk again. Boot allowed himself a little
smile, found himself relaxing a bit. Here he was, jumping at ghosts, scared of a few rats and a
pair of old birds quarrelling. Whatever next?
He turned to go. In the same moment the mist
ahead of him billowed and striding out of it came a figure in robes, who before he could react
had grabbed him and pulled his fist back as though to punch him, only instead of striking out,
his assailant flicked his wrist and with a soft snick a blade shot from within his sleeve.
Boot had squeezed his eyes
shut. When he opened them it was to see the man in robes behind the blade that was held steady
an inch from his eyeball.
Boot wet himself.