A Week of Writing: 1/7/19 to 1/13/19

Another week of writing come and gone. Here’s how I did.

Words to Write By

This week’ quotes comes from Ernest Hemingway.

“The hard part about writing a novel is finishing it.”

– Ernest Hemingway

What I like about this quote is that finishing can mean different things to different writers. For example, I can finish a first draft no sweat. For me that’s a simple act of following the outline and putting one word after another. Same with the initial revision. I can take a pretty objective approach to my revisions, set a goal, and then get it done. My struggle is with the type of finishing that means someone else has to read the novel. That could be my critique partners or more recently, my agent. Because at that point, finishing means the work is going to be judged, and I will very likely have to make some hard decisions. I’m at the point now, and though I’ve done what I needed to do, letting go of the book was not easy.

The Novel

Late Risers is done-ish. What I mean is I revised the book to a place where it was ready for my agent to look at it. I spent last week finishing one more revisions, and then I sent the manuscript to my agent yesterday morning. As I alluded to in Word to Write By, this was not easy. In fact, it might be the most acute “submission anxiety” I’ve ever experienced. I expect to be making more revisions based on my agent’s feedback, but waiting to hear back from him is going to be a nerve-wracking in the extreme. So, what to do?

Instead of obsessing on a novel that’s no longer within my control, I’m going to work on another novel. It’s one I started last year and manged to get 30,000 words into it before I switched gears to the current novel. Now I’ll go back and finish the first draft, and it will be my next big project, and hopefully, the next manuscript my agent reads.

Short Stories

Got a few submissions out last week. Nothing earth-shattering, but still positive yardage.

  • Submissions Sent: 3
  • Rejections: 1
  • Acceptances: 0
  • Publications: 1
  • Shortlist: 0

All three submissions were to the same publisher, and the rejection came from a pro-market I’ve been trying to crack for years. One publication last week, which you can check out below.

The Blog

Just the one blog post last week.

1/7/19: A Week of Writing: 12/31/18 to 1/6/19

My weekly writing update.

Goals

With Late Risers as done as I can get it, I’ll move on to finishing the first draft of another novel. I also need to write/edit some short stories to get my submission rate up.

Story Spotlight

The story spotlight is “The Sitting Room,” a reprint published by Mystery Tribune last week. It’s definitely one of my darker pieces of flash, and it originally appeared in The Molotov Cocktail’s FlashFelon contest. You can read it by clicking the link below.

Read “The Sitting Room


How was your writing week?

2018 Review: Writing by the Numbers

Well, here we are with a brand new year, so I thought I’d look back at 2018 and talk a bit about how I did, writing-wise, in the last twelve months. This is gonna be one of those posts where I give you a whole bunch of numbers, so here we go!

Total Words Written: 153,842

This total ONLY includes projects I started and finished in 2018. This includes 1 novel, 1 novella, 1 Dungeons & Dragons adventure, and 17 short stories. Of the 17 short stories, I subbed 13, and 6 were accepted for publication. The novella will be published by Privateer Press this month. The novel, hopefully, will be published in 2019. The Dungeons & Dragons adventure was published by Goodman Games back in August.

Of course, I wrote a lot more than that. The number above doesn’t count stories I started in 2018 and haven’t finished yet or the stories (and novels) I started in 2017, worked on in 2018, and still haven’t finished. It also doesn’t count things like blog posts. If I had to guess what all that other writing would add up to, I’d guess it’d be another 100,000 words or so (96 blog posts is an easy 50k all by itself).

The Novel

I wrote a horror/urban fantasy novel called Late Risers in 2018, and I’ll turn over the “final” draft to my agent next week. I’ve been trying to get to that stage for months, revising and revising and revising, but now, finally, it’s almost ready. Anyway, here are the basic stats for the novel:

  • Word Count: 93,549
  • Time Spent Writing First Draft: 3.5 months
  • Time Spent Revising Draft(s): 6.5 months
  • Number of Revisions: 4

The word count might drop a little more once I finish this final round of revisions, but it’ll still be around 90,000 words. That’s a nice, comfortable 350ish-page novel. When I wrote the outline, that’s what I was aiming for, and I’m pleased that I pretty much nailed the length. It took me exactly 111 days to write the first draft. That wasn’t a continuous thing, though. I took about three weeks off to work on another project. The revision time includes about a month where my critique partners were reviewing the book.

The revision process went like this. After I finished the first draft, I immediately started the first revision. That revision was to fix all the huge, glaring issues I knew were there. When that was done, I sent the book to my critique partners. Once I had their notes in hand, I started the second revision, fixing the issue they called out. When I was done with that, I went back through again, fixing more issues that cropped up after some extensive rewrites. Now, in this fourth revision, I’m polishing the language as well as making minor continuity and character fixes. If this book goes anywhere, I have no doubt more revisions will be needed, but, hopefully, those will be suggestions from my publisher.

So, roughly a year of work on this novel, give or take a week or two, that will hopefully pay off in 2019.

Short Story Submissions

Okay, let’s get to the nitty-gritty here. Here are my stats for short story submissions in 2018.

  • Total Submissions: 120
  • Total Rejections: 100
  • Total Acceptances: 19

This is by far my best year for submissions, and I exceeded my yearly bests in submissions, rejections, and, most importantly, acceptances by a wide margin. I managed to crack some markets that had rejected me a bunch, and I got close with a few others.

Submission Details

  • Distinct Stories Submitted: 38
  • Flash Fiction Stories Submitted: 26
  • Short Stories Submitted: 12
  • Reprints Submitted: 7

I sent 38 distinct stories in 2018, 13 of which I wrote in the same year. I sent more than double the number of flash fiction stories over standard shorts, as I tend to write flash over shorts at about the same ratio. Finally, I sent seven reprints, two of which were accepted.

Market Details

  • Distinct Markets: 53
  • Pro Markets: 31
  • Semi-Pro: 19
  • Token/Free: 3

I sent stories to 56 distinct markets, most of them paying a pro rate. I also sent a fair number of submissions to semi-pro markets, but I limited my submissions to token and free markets in 2018. As usual, I used Duotrope’s definition of pro, semi-pro, and token/free pay scales.

Rejection Details

  • Standard Form Rejections: 67
  • Upper-Tier Form Rejections: 18
  • Personal Rejections: 15

I submitted to a lot of pro markets, hence the large number of standard form rejections. That said, I did receive a good number of upper-tier and personal rejections. Since 100 rejections in a single year is kind of a big deal for me, I’ll break that all down further in another blog post. This here is just the basic stats.

Acceptance Details

  • Pro Acceptances: 6
  • Semi-Pro Acceptances: 5
  • Token/Free Acceptances: 8

More than half of my acceptances were of the paying variety, and more than half of those were paid at a pro rate. That’s not too bad, and, of course, I’d like to increase the number of paying publications. That said, I’ll continue to submit to some of my favorite token/free markets.

Free to Read Publications

Okay, if you’re so inclined, here are all the stories I published this year that are available to read online for free. You’ll note the number of publications and the number of acceptances don’t jive, that’s simply because some of the stories accepted in 2018 have yet to be published and some are not free to read online.

“The Food Bank” published by The Arcanist

“Simulacra” published by EllipsisZine

“Two Legs” published by The Molotov Cocktail

“The Inside People” published by EllipsisZine

“Do Me a Favor” published by The Arcanist

“The Last Scar” published by Trembling with Fear

“What Kind of Hero” published by EllipsisZine

“Bear Necessity” published by The Molotov Cocktail

“When the Lights Go On” published by The Arcanist 


And that was my 2018. Tell me about your year in the comments and/or link to a blog post with all the details.

Submission Statement: November 2018

November is in the books, so let’s see how I did with submissions for the month.

November 2018 Report Card

  • Submissions Sent: 8
  • Rejections: 5
  • Acceptances: 3
  • Publications: 1

Eight submissions for November. Not too bad. That puts me at 115 submissions for the year. The rejections and acceptances put me at 94 and 19 respectively. Yes, if you’ve seen any of my recent Tweets about rejections, my numbers were off. I miscounted the number of rejections I had. Thought I was closer to one hundred. There’s a chance I won’t even hit 100 rejections for the year now, which, oddly, kind of bums me out.

Rejections

Just five rejections for October.

  • Standard Form Rejections: 3
  • Upper-Tier Form Rejections: 2
  • Personal Rejections: 0

Nothing too exciting here. Three standards and a couple of upper-tier rejections.

Spotlight Rejection

The spotlight rejection for November comes from one of my favorite markets, one that is now back in action after a long hiatus.

Dear Aeryn, 

Thank you for submitting [story title]. We appreciate your interest in [publisher]. 

Unfortunately, it is not quite right for us. Best of luck placing it elsewhere. 

This is a very standard form rejection, so there’s not much to talk about here. I’m just thrilled I can send submissions to these folks again.

Acceptances

Three acceptances is a good number, and all were special in their own way. The first was for a story I really like that has gotten close a number of times, but has never found a home, until now. It ended up with a newer publisher, but one that pays a pro rate. The second acceptance is for a story that was actually accepted earlier in the year, and then the publisher closed before it was published. It was nice to find that one a spot again. Finally, the third story is a reprint that will gain new life with a new publisher (one of my favorites).

Publications

One publication in November, which is free to read online.

“The Last Scar”

Published by Trembling With Fear (free to read)


And that was my November. Tell me about yours.

My Three-Part Flash Fiction Formula

I write a lot of flash fiction, and I’ve been lucky enough to publish a fair amount of it. What follows is my basic formula for writing stories under 1,000 words. It is not, of course, the only way to write flash fiction or even the best way to write flash fiction. It’s just my way. Okay, with that disclaimer up, let’s dive in.

Before I get to my formula, let’s establish a few things that flash fiction needs no matter how you go about writing it. It needs to have a plot and it needs to be a complete story with a beginning, a middle, and an end. My formula doesn’t ensure these things will happen (trust me), but when I follow my self-imposed rules, I find they’re a little easier to pull off.

Here are the three guidelines I generally follow when I write flash.

  1. Start near the end. What I mean is begin your story as close to the inciting action or event as you can. With 1,000 words or less, you simply don’t have the space for a lot of setup, you gotta get to the meat right away. I notice in a lot of my flash, at least the ones I’ve managed to publish, the inciting event, whatever it is, generally happens in the first few paragraphs, leaving me a lot of space to resolve the conflict I’ve set up.
  2. Keep your character count low. I like a lot of dialog in my stories, and in flash that means I have to watch how many characters are taking up my precious word count with all that talking. As such, I often don’t have more than two characters in my flash fiction (speaking characters, anyway). That way, they can have lots of dialog, which is how I generally prefer to tell a story, and I don’t eat up too much space with it. Having only a few characters also lets me spend some time developing them, again, usually through dialog. Of course, you can have more than two characters in a flash story, and I’ve managed to pull that off a few times, but I probably would still limit speaking parts to two or three.
  3. Limited locations. Same idea as keeping the cast of characters small. I tend to limit the locations of my flash fiction to one or maybe two spots. That way, I don’t have to worry about transitions from one place to another, and I don’t need to spend a lot of time describing new locations. If you read any of my flash, you’ll probably notice a lot of it takes place in a single spot, usually somewhere small and cozy like a bar, a bedroom, a house, a church, and so on.

So, that’s my basic formula, and, again, it is not the end-all-be-all of writing flash fiction. It does work for me, though, and I’ve been fairly successful with it. I’ve also found if I follow two of the rules above, I sometimes have room to ignore one. For example, if I start near the end, and I have only two characters, then I can probably fit in a couple of locations. Or, if I keep my character count low and I limit my locations, then I might be able to start a little further from the end and get in a bit more backstory and setup.

To further illustrate my little formula, here are some flash fiction pieces I’ve recently published where you can see those three guidelines in effect (more or less).

This one is pretty much the poster child for my flash fiction formula. It ticks all the boxes. One small location (a bar), few characters (two), starts pretty much at the end.

So, this is one my stories with more than two characters. I think I have three speaking parts in this one, and a whole town full of people are present. That said, I do start near the end, and I restrict my location to one spot (a church). This is an example of where I follow two guidelines so I have more room to mess around with the third.

Another three for three here. Just two characters? Check. One location? Check. Start near the end? Check(ish). This one has a tad bit more setup than usual for my flash, but following my other two rules allowed me a little more space for it.

This is an example of flash stripped right down to the frame. It definitely follows my three guidelines in that it has one character, one location, and it’s, uh, the end of pretty much everything. Of course, you don’t have to go to this extreme to write good flash, but sometimes a story only needs a bare-bones treatment to work.


So that’s how I write flash fiction. How do you do it? Tell me about it in the comments.

One-Hour Flash – The God in the Lake

Time to share another bit of flash fiction that didn’t quite make the grade. I haven’t done one of these in a while, so just as a reminder, this is a story that I wrote in one hour as part of a flash fiction writing exercise. I’ve done a lot of those over the years, and many of the stories have gone on to publication. Many others have, uh, not. This is one of those. This is basically the story I wrote in an hour back in April of 2014, and though I’ve tinkered a bit here and there, it’s still pretty first draft-y.

Anyway, here’s “The God in the Lake.”


The God in the Lake

“There lies the death of gods.” Alexios drew his sword and pointed the short length of honed bronze at the lake. His blue eyes gleamed cold.

“Don’t do this, Alexios,” Hesiod said. “It won’t bring her back.” He had counselled his friend for days since they discovered the lake and that what lay within it was more than the fevered obsession of a broken man.

Alexios lowered his sword but did not return it to its scabbard. Hesiod saw the old hurt crash into him, the grief that had torn his world apart. But grief had not killed Alexios. It had done worse; it had eaten his soul and breathed hatred into the space left behind.

“I know,” Alexios said. “I’ve accepted that.”

“Then why are we here?” Hesiod gestured at the crystalline surface of the water, looming, white-capped Olympus behind it. The lake had taken ten years to find, and Hesiod had thought it no more than a myth, a place that could not exist. He’d kept the dream of the lake alive in Alexios because it was better than watching him drink himself to death or spend his life and blood on another senseless war. Now they stood before it, the doom it held a terrifying reality.

Alexios’ eyes burned with something equal parts joy and rage. “I want them to feel what I feel. I want the mighty gods of Olympus to suffer as I have suffered, and that!”—he turned and stabbed his blade at the lake — “is the only thing that can hurt them.”

He took the horn from his belt. Finding it had been as difficult as finding the lake. It was carved from something black that was not antler, wood, or stone. The symbols etched onto its surface were a tangle of angles and spikes. They were not writing–something far older than that.

“You followed me for so long, my friend,” Alexios said, his mouth trembling. There were tears in his eyes. “Will you not stand beside me while I blow this horn? Will you not join me in bringing justice to Althea?”

Althea had been Alexios’ wife, but Hesiod had loved her as well. Watching her die, wasting away, the physicians helpless to ease her pain, had been as torturous for him as it had to Alexios. He, too, had prayed to Hera, to Zeus, to any god that would listen, begging them to heal Althea or let her die swiftly. They had done neither. “There is no justice in this,” he said.

“Vengeance then,” Alexios replied.

“You may gain vengeance, but all the world will suffer for it.”

She was the world to me.” His eyes flashed, and his face twisted into something nearly as monstrous as the creature he sought to wake. “I will take the world from them.”

Alexios’ wasn’t paying close attention to him now. Hesiod could take two steps, draw his own sword, and drive the blade into his friend’s back. He could save the world from this madness. But for what? Althea would still be gone. For ten years he had been a surrogate to Alexios’ pain, nurturing it while his friend focused on reaching the lake. That pain had grown to maturity now, and it replaced everything Hesiod had been or could be. If he killed Alexios, he would be alone. He would be nothing.

Hesiod sank to the sand before his friend. “Then do it. Wake Cottus. Maybe the death of the world will suck the venom from your soul.” And the emptiness from mine.

Alexios raised the horn to his lips, drew in a deep breath, and blew. A sound like the dying screams of a thousand men rushed out in a low, blatting roar. It shook Hesiod’s teeth and raised the hairs on his arms and the back of his neck. He heard the knell of doom.

The lake’s surface boiled and writhed, and a great black shadow appeared beneath the churning foam. Alexios stumbled backward, his sword falling to the sand, and sat next to Hesiod.

“We will watch their doom,” Alexios said, his lips drawn in a mad smile. “We will die knowing she is avenged.”

The hecatoncheir broke the surface of the lake, a roiling mass of hands and heads. It blotted out the sun, the sky, and the towering mountain behind it, a monster not even the titans of old could overthrow. It would destroy the gods, but the destruction would not end there.

Hesiod heard Alexios speaking beside him. He thought his friend was praying, but Alexios simply spoke to the gods. He told them he had unleashed their doom.

The shadow of Cottus engulfed them, and Hesiod closed his eyes and covered his ears. He saw Althea’s face, her long black hair, and her soft brown eyes. He had loved her, even though she had chosen Alexios. He held on to that love and hoped it would follow him into Hades.


I rarely have a clear concept in mind when I write these one-hour flash stories. Generally, I see the prompt, and I go with the first thing that pops into my head. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t. With this one, I had a very clear idea. I wanted to write a story that mixed Greek mythology with Lovecraftian cosmic horror. The hecatoncheires are certainly fitting for that kind of treatment (even if I did take some liberties with their myth), but the story just never came together. The backstory of Hesiod and Alexios needs more fleshing out as does their quest to find Cottus, and that’s a tale that needs more than a 1,000 words to tell. Still, I dig the concept, and like most of these failed experiments, there might be something worth returning to at some point.

Check out the previous installments in the One-Hour Flash series.

A Week of Writing: 10/15/18 to 10/21/18

Happy Monday, all. Here’s anther week of writing that was.

Words to Write By

This week’s quote comes from fantasy author Scott Lynch.

“I think it’s fairly common for writers to be afflicted with two simultaneous yet contradictory delusions; the burning certainty that we’re unique geniuses and the constant fear that we are witless frauds speeding towards epic failure.”

—Scott Lynch

It’s rare a quote sums up my state of mind the way this one does, especially lately. As I power through revisions on the novel, I go back and forth between thinking “I’ve really got something here” and “I’ve really written a terrible, unpublishable mess.” Like Scott Lynch says, both of these statements are delusional, which leads me to believe the truth is somewhere in the middle. That truth might look something like this” “I might have something here if I can rescue this novel from its current state as an unpublishable mess.” I think that’s pretty close to where I’m at and what I’m working toward. We’ll see in a couple of weeks. 🙂

The Novel

I’m exactly one-third of the way through the current revisions of Late Risers. Here are the big issues I addressed last week.

  1. Added new chapters to the beginning of the book that clarify the stakes in the first act and add some depth to certain character relationships.
  2. I had a few characters that were pretty samey and doing basically the same jobs, so on the advice of my critique partners I’ve ditched one and combined two others into a single character. This helps the pacing in the first act, as I lose some unneeded scenes around the excised characters.
  3. Fixed a slew of small continuity issues caught by my critique partners. These were easy to fix, but they’re the kind of thing that can pull a reader right out of the story.

This week I’ll continue through the manuscript working off the notes provided by my critique partners. The big goal is to cut or streamline more scenes from the first act that are slowing the pacing. These scenes are largely redundant and exist because I didn’t trust the reader to “get it.” I’ll also continue to fix the small continuity and voice issues throughout the manuscript. I still think I can make my deadline of the end of the month, but if I don’t, that’s okay too. I want to do this right, not just do it quickly.

Short Stories

I finished one new short story, a flash piece I’ll likely start sending out this week. I also have a couple of longer stories I started last week that I might work on when I need a break from novel revisions. As for submissions, here’s how I did.

  • Submissions Sent: 3
  • Rejections: 3
  • Acceptances: 0
  • Publications: 1
  • Shortlist: 0

The three submission last week put me at 105 for the year. Two of the rejections were fairly run-of-the-mill, but the third was from Cemetery Dance, and they had held it long enough I allowed myself to hope, just a little. Oh, well, that’s how it goes, and I’ll definitely send them something else when they open for submissions again. As for the publication, more about that in a bit.

The Blog

Two blog posts last week.

10/15/18: A Week of Writing: 10/8/18 to 10/14/18

The usual weekly writing report.

10/19/18: Replying to a Rejection: Dos and (mostly) Don’ts

Returning to a popular subject among writers, I break down the reasons you might (but mostly shouldn’t) reply to a rejection letter.

Goals

Oh, you know, the usual broken record. Keep revising the novel, keep submitting and  working on short stories.

Story Spotlight

This week’s story spotlight is my story “When the Lights Go On” which recently took second place in The Arcanist’s ghost story contest. I don’t say this often, but I’m a little proud of this one. It’s one of the rare times when the idea and the story came together easily and completely. Anyway, you can check it out by clicking the title or the photo below.

“When the Lights Go On”


That was my week. How was yours?

Iron Kingdoms Fiction – Old Friends, New Blood

Hey, Iron Kingdoms readers, got something special for you today. In the past, I’ve put up stories that were published in the pages of No Quarter magazine or part of organized play for Privateer Press, but not today. Today, I present a completely new and unpublished Iron Kingdoms short-short story that has never been read by anyone outside of the Privateer Press editorial staff. That same editorial staff has given me the go-ahead to share it with you. (Thanks, Mike. Thanks, Doug.)

So let’s head to war-torn Llael for “Old Friends, New Blood.”


Old Friends, New Blood

By Aeryn Rudel

 

“Your weapons,” the guard said and pointed to a low table beside the door. He was little more than a boy, and the casual, almost bored tone of his request rankled Fyodor Goska.

“Do you think I mean to put a knife in Kovnik Ivachev?” Fyodor stepped close. “Do you think you could stop me?”

The guard stiffened, and his hand fell to the haft of his axe. For a brief moment, Fyodor toyed with letting him pull it off his belt. Then he placed one broad hand on the boy’s shoulder, laughed and unbuckled the broad belt that held his knives. “You are too serious, soldier.”

The guard relaxed. “Thank you, sir.” Fyodor heard respect now, and, he noted, the appropriate amount of fear.

He put his weapons on the table, and the guard opened the door to the kovnik’s office. Fyodor found Ivachev behind his desk, head down over some document. The room was sparsely appointed, but the few pieces of furniture looked expensive. Gregor Ivachev was the same age as Fyodor and nearly as big. He loomed behind his desk, a gray-haired warlord out of place in these clerical surroundings. “Fyodor,” he said and stood. “Good to see you, old friend.”

Fyodor nodded. “It has been a long time since we met face to face.”

“Too true, but there are certain protocols that must be followed.” Ivachev gestured to one of the chairs in front of his desk.

Fyodor moved closer but did not sit; instead, he gripped the back of the offered chair and leaned forward. The pose made the big muscles in his arms and shoulder bulge. “Protocols you have now violated.”

Ivachev frowned. “I am aware. I did so because you are my friend.”

“Is that what I am?” Fyodor said. “Maybe, once, on the streets of Korsk, when we were young.”

“I do not regret leaving the bratya,” Ivachev said. “Just as you do not regret staying. We chose different paths, but here we are, together.”

“Very well,” Fyodor said. “Speak on, friend.”

“You have done good work for us in Llael,” Ivachev began. “I am pleased with your many successes—“

“Before your office reeks of horse shit, get to the point,” Fyodor said.

The kovnik smiled. “I have spent too long among dignitaries and aristocrats.” He cleared his throat. “The incident at the docks has given some in the High Kommand reason to doubt the effectiveness of your men.”.

Fyodor laughed, short and sharp. “You mean the incident where the Khadoran military failed to inform me the insurgents were led by a warcaster? The incident where I lost eight men and my son lost a leg?”

Ivachev drew in a deep breath. “I know what happened could not be avoided, Fyodor. But some in Merywyn do not approve of the use of the bratyas to enforce our rule. They seek any excuse.”

“And I am that excuse, eh?” Fyodor said and spat. “My men and I have served you well, Gregor. You know this.”

“I do, and you must not forget we have both profited by our agreement.” Ivachev pointed one thick finger at Fyodor.

“Then how do we maintain our agreement in light of my failure?”

“That is why I called you here,” Ivachev said. “I have convinced those with doubts in the High Kommand to give you another chance, let you prove your worth. I wanted to tell you personally.”

“I have been underboss for twenty years,” Fyodor said, shaking his head. “I took that position and maintained it by proving myself, again and again, to my men, to rival bratyas, and to you, Gregor. What more must I prove?”

“To me? Nothing,” Ivachev said. “To those who doubt, you must kill someone.”

Fyodor shrugged. “The blades of my bratya are red and wet.”

“What of your own blades?”

For a moment, Fyodor could not speak. The question struck him like a hammer blow. His vision swam with images of closing his fingers around Ivachev’s throat and squeezing the life from him. “You dare . . .” was all he could manage, but his glare would have loosened the bowels of most men.

Ivachev was not most men, and he held Fyodor’s murderous gaze, unflinching, and slid a folder across his desk. “Kill this man. By your own hand. No one will doubt you again.”

Fyodor sucked in a great gulp of air and took a tight rein on his anger—it would not serve him here. He picked up the folder but did not look at its contents. “It will be done,” he said, his voice flat and measured.

Ivachev nodded. “I am sorry it has come to this. I wish it were otherwise.”

“I am sorry too, old friend.”

***

It had been some time since he stalked a target on his own. It felt good to worry about nothing but himself and his quarry.

The man he would kill this night thought himself invulnerable in his grand house along the river, his station shielding him from harm like a suit of Man-O-War armor. Fyodor would prove him wrong.

Only one guard patrolled the grounds, making a slow circuit around the outer wall. Fyodor watched him from the shadows, waiting for the right moment. It came soon enough. The guard stopped, set his rifle against the wall, and unbuckled his pants. The splash of urine against the stone covered Fyodor’s approach. He clamped one hand around the man’s mouth, wrenched his head back, and slashed his throat. The blood emptied in steaming gouts, and Fyodor pushed the body into the shadows at the base of the wall. Then he leaped, grasped the top of the ten-foot barrier with one hand, and pulled himself up and over. He dropped to the cobblestones on the other side in a tight, controlled roll, then crossed the courtyard to the house.

Fyodor made his way to the rear of the building and found a servant’s entrance. Unguarded. Beyond lay a short hallway, leading to an antechamber and a broad stairway.

He climbed the stairs, both long knives in hand. At the top stretched another hallway, this one with many doors to the left and right. He ignored them. The door at the end of the hall was his destination. Warm yellow light spilled from beneath it, and he heard voices beyond.

He flipped one of his blades over into a throwing grip and kicked open the door. His hand flashed down, the knife spinning from it on a lethal arc. The weapon struck one target with a dull thud as he stepped into the room and he surged  toward the other.

Ivachev stared in horror, his mouth a round O of surprise. The boy who had stood guard outside his office the other morning lay on the floor before the kovnik, Fyodor’s knife buried to the hilt in his chest. The boy’s eyes were wide, terrified, and he tried in vain to pull the knife from his heart.

Ivachev had a pistol at his belt, but he’d been too long away from the streets of Korsk, and the lessons it taught, one of which was a knife is always quicker than a gun in close quarters. The gun came up, too slow, and Fyodor smashed it aside. He lashed out with a heavy boot, and kicked Ivachev’s feet out from under him. The kovnik crashed to the floor, and Fyodor followed him down, planting a knee in Ivachev’s chest, pinning him. He put a knife at the kovnik’s throat.

The boy had stopped moving and lay still in a wide pool of scarlet.

“Why?” Ivachev said.

“More than a leg,” Fyodor whispered. “But we pay our blood debts in full and then some, do we not? It was your information that cost me so dear.” He leaned down, pushing his face inches from Ivachev’s. “Your information that caused some to lose faith in you.”

Ivachev opened his mouth to say something, but Fyodor had finished talking. He opened his old friend’s throat with a quick sawing cut, then held him down while he bled out.

When it was over, Fyodor retrieved his blade from the body of young Marcus Ivachev, then returned to the corpse of his father and wiped his blades clean on Ivachev’s uniform. “You were right about one thing, Kovnik. I did have to kill a man.”