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he assassin sat in a chair well illuminated by the amber-burning lamp, yet Penthero Iss still found it hard to behold her. He thought at first that the light had perhaps dimmed due to impurities in the fuel, yet he could detect no increase or darkening of smoke. Finally, after several minutes of study, he was forced to conclude that Magdalena Crouch was the sort of woman whom it was difficult to see.

Magdalena Crouch, or the Crouching Maiden as she was known to the very few people in the Northern Territories who could afford to deal death at the rate of one hundred golds a head, waited for Penthero Iss to speak. She was perhaps twenty, no thirty, no forty years of age, with hair that may have been either brown, red or golden depending on the vagaries of light. Her eyes he had given up hope on. Looking straight into them when he had opened the door, he had seen nothing but his own reflection staring back. She was slim, but somehow fleshy, small, but with the limb length and bearing of someone much taller. Or was she simply tall?

She was not attractive, yet Iss found himself attracted to her. She was not repulsive, yet he found himself repulsed.

"Did you have a good journey from..." Iss let the question trail away as he realized he did not know where she had journeyed from. Rumor had it that she lived within the city. But all rumors surrounding the Crouching Maiden were invariably false.

The maiden did not blink as she said, "Any journey, no matter how brief or prolonged can tire one at this time of year."

The voice was one thing she possessed that could be pinned down and classified; that beautiful, honey-poured voice. Iss smiled both in acknowledgement of an answer well given and in satisfaction that he finally had something on her.

He had dealt with the Crouching Maiden before, of course, but only by proxy. Caydis Zerbina - who, with his network of liquid-eyed brothers, priests, underscribes, personal servants, bath boys, errand boys and musicians knew most things about most people who lived in or passed through Spire Vanis - had always taken care of the details. Meeting the assassin in places of her choosing, Caydis gave her Iss' instructions and paid her fees in gold, always gold.

This time Iss had chosen to summon her himself. It had not been an easy task, for the Crouching Maiden ill-liked to be summoned by any man and valued her celebrated anonymity highly. Yet she had come. One week following the original summons, she had come.

Why? Iss could only speculate. Beforehand, he had assumed she had come because he was the Surlord of Spire Vanis and one never refused a direct request from a man such as he. Yet now, standing in the switching, blue smoke shadows of her presence, he knew that not to be so. The Crouching Maiden came only because she chose to.

"Would you care for some wine...a liqueur perhaps, a cup of rosewater spiked with cloves?"

"No." The word was spoken easily enough, yet the Crouching Maiden rippled her muscles like a tundra cat displaying to a rival as she spoke it.

She was a woman of business then. Iss respected that. He found it quite delicious. "I have a problem, Magdalena," he said, fingers closing around a piece of killhound bone as he spoke. "There are people, a family, who I would like to see...removed, yet I don't know the exact location of the village in which they live. I have, thanks to one of my informants, a good idea of the whereabouts of the village, the general area should we say."

Iss paused, expecting to hear some small murmur of encouragement from the maiden. None came, and he was forced to continue speaking. "The family lives in a farmhouse situated a day and a half's ride northeast from Ille Glaive. My informant named three villages which he thinks are most likely to contain them." Iss gave the names. "What I need is someone to move about through these villages and discreetly, very discreetly, discover where the family lives, and do what is necessary to slay them."

A pause followed. Iss, who was not used to being left hanging by anyone, began to feel the first stirrings of anger in his chest. True the Crouching Maiden was the greatest assassin in the north, her name spoken in whispered awe by those who had used, and continued to use, her services. Yet he was Surlord of Spire Vanis. Just as Iss' jaw moved to rebuke her, she spoke.

"Ille Glaive is nine days to the north. It will cost more."

Iss felt a measure of relief, but did not show it. "Of course."

"And the family? How many are there?"

"I'm not sure. The mother, one daughter that I'm certain of, perhaps a few more."

"Uncertainty costs more."

Iss had expected it would. "I will pay whatever it costs."

The Crouching Maiden made a small movement with her mouth, flashing teeth that were dry of saliva. Iss resisted the temptation to step back. Her presence was beginning to wear on him. It took too much effort to look at her. It was like staring at a landscape through a distorted piece of glass.

Most held that the maiden's success lay in her appearance. She looked like everyone's maid. When glimpsed sideways as she made her escape from assassinations in granges, guildhouses, palaces and private homes, all who saw her assumed she was a maid, a messenger, an ash girl, an old washer woman, a nanny, a wet nurse or a scullion. Unlike the handful of other female assassins who could be hired in the Northern Territories for a handful of golds or a ruby the size of a housefly, the Crouching Maiden did not look like a whore. She never seduced men; never slipped in her blade as the man slipped in his manhood, never used guile or beauty to gain access to forbidden places, or hid her knife beneath a froth of lace-bound cleavage. She had no need for feminine traps. Her appearance was such that people who looked at her saw what they expected to see: someone who belonged in their setting.

And of course she was as subtle as a fox.

The night Sarga Veys had sent word that he had the location of the Lok farm pinpointed down to a handful of villages, Iss' first thought was: I must send for the maiden. Sarga Veys would be no good for the job. No one would willingly pour information down the Halfman's throat, and even if they did, he had no belly for blood. The Knife had the belly, but not the guile. He would break bones for information, scare the entire population of each village he visited, and alert the very people he had come to kill.

Iss returned the piece of killhound to his desk. Besides, the Knife and the Halfman had other business to tend to. They must bring Asarhia home from Ganmiddich. She must not be lost again.

"Tell me the details," said the Crouching Maiden in her silken ribbon of a voice.

Iss thought of Angus Lok, thought of the Phage, of old hates and old worries that had prayed on his mind for sixteen years. He gave the details. The meeting lasted scant minutes after that.

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