King of Assassins


By RJ Barker

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Twenty years ago, Girton began his journey to become the Tired Land's finest assassin and now he'll face his greatest challenge yet in the riveting conclusion to RJ Barker's debut epic fantasy trilogy.

Assassin Girton Club-Foot has lived in relative peace for many years, but now his king, Rufra ap Vthyr, eyes the vacant High-King's throne and will take his court to the capital. In a viper's nest of intrigue, the endgame of twenty years of politics and murder will be played out in the bid to become the King of all Kings.

Friends become enemies, enemies become friends, and the god of death stands closer than ever, casting his shadow over everyone Girton holds dear.

It's assassin versus assassin for the fate of a kingdom…

Praise for The Wounded Kingdom: 

"Dead gods, dread magic, and a lead that feels like a breath of fresh air. Great fun."―Peter Newman, author of The Vagrant

"Often poignant and always intriguing, Age of Assassins reveals its mysteries with the style of a magic show and the artful grace of a gifted storyteller."―Nicholas Eames, author of Kings of the Wild

"The most interesting treatment of the fantasy assassin trope in a while, and an involving narrative in its own right."―RT Book Reviews

The Wounded Kingdom
Age of Assassins
Blood of Assassins
King of Assassins

For more from RJ Barker, check out:

The Tide Child Trilogy
The Bone Ships
Call of the Bone Ships


A Killing

He had come in to Maniyadoc through the night soil drain. Filth coated his clothes and skin but it was worth it; no guard worth his salt would bother watching a night soil drain. From there he climbed into a shovelling room, a curious one, far taller than it was wide, and he could not understand why that would be. He did not think about it too much. He had seen many odd things among the blessed of the Tired Lands, many things that made no sense, things done simply because they could be, so he did not question it. From the shovelling room he passed through a door. A servant found him quickly enough, drawn by the stink of his filthy clothes. The man’s diligence was rewarded with a quick death and filthy clothes were exchanged for the servant’s clean ones.

He moved into the castle.

Down corridors where his footsteps were absorbed by thick carpet.

It was difficult for him not to stare. Not to wander wide-eyed and amazed at what he saw here, at what King Rufra had wrought. There were no slaves. There was no one who looked sick or underfed and the forgetting plague had barely touched this land. In places along the corridors water ran from the walls to collect in bowls and people drank from them, as if it were nothing—and he supposed it was nothing to them. The more he walked, and the further up the castle he went the more certain he felt that he must be heading in the wrong direction. When he had been given the contract he had given little thought to finding his target. But Maniyadoc was no longhouse or small keep; it was a true castle and large beyond his imagining. He stopped, thought, considered the target and where they were likely to be and knew what he should do. “Not up, Gadger,” he whispered to himself. “Of course not up.”


Down into the depths. Down into the dark places. Down into the hidden places. That was where he would find his target.

And so he headed down.

Steps, so many steps. More steps than he had ever imagined one building could have. The air became colder, the subtle weight of damp on his clothes grew and he became sure this was right. This was where his quarry would be.

He found himself in a gallery, a low-roofed and dark room held up by hundreds of columns, each one with cracked and chipped stone eyes staring at him. The end of the room hidden by a darkness the torches could not penetrate and he felt sure he had found the place. It simply felt right and when she had trained him, she had said, “Listen to what you feel and it will not often send you wrong.”

Knives sliding from sheaths.

He moved more quietly now, slipping off his shoes to aid his silence. Feeling the cold stone against his feet. He hugged the columns, finding darkness and sticking to it.

Did he see something? A flash of white in the corner of his eye?

What did she always say?

Be still, boy. Be still and listen before you act.

So he stilled and he listened.


He moved again. A shiver ran through him as cold and damp air wormed through his ill-fitting disguise.


Was it? Not certain. It sounded very far away, though it could have been someone very near laughing quietly. Or simply an echo from somewhere else in the castle? Surely it was an echo.

A flash of black and white. A skittering. A shuffle of soft shoes on hard stone.



A trick of the light. A confluence of shadows. Nothing else. No one knew he was here. No one had seen him. No one had followed him. He was good, the best of hers or she would not have sent him.

A subtle movement: a breath of air from the wrong direction.

A laugh.

This time the shiver that ran through him was not from the cold. Not from the damp. Someone was here. He took a deep breath.

I have nothing to fear.

I am a sword.

Some servant or guard, that was all. He could deal with them. Even if it was the target, he was whole and hearty and young, more than a match for any cripple—no matter how storied he was. He moved again, avoiding the light and he was sure he felt a movement in return, as if some other timed their moves to his. Was it his imagination?

Darkness punctuated by columns of unseeing eyes. Anyone would be unsettled by this place.

A chill runs through it.

A chill runs through him.

A dash. A whispering echo. And a corpse. A walking corpse. Skeletal face; flashes of arm and leg bone as it limps forward. It holds blades and approaches with a strange, inhuman and exaggerated grace.



Not a corpse. A person.

A jester, that is all, a fool with knives in its hands and a fool who would have to die to ease his way. Death he could do. It was what he was for. It was what he did.

He attacked, blades drawn. A running thrust, a move to gut an unarmoured opponent.

But his opponent is not there. The jester has vanished and the air is filled with the strangest scent: of honey and herbs, at once beguiling and sickening, like corpse flowers in the thick woods of home.

A cut felt. Pain. The rattle of metal hitting stone as his knife falls from his hands. Blood fountains from where there had been fingers. He doesn’t scream, is too shocked to scream. The jester stands far across the room from him and he can see their blades are bloodied. But how?

“Where is the other half of your sorrowing?” The jester’s voice lacks any inflection; it speaks like a priest of the dead gods.

“What?” The pain building, searing, powerful. He will not cry.

“Who is he, Master?” This voice is not the jester’s. It comes from the darkness.

“Someone who wanted to hurt us, Feorwic.” The jester turns back to him. “Who did you come for?” Its voice is almost gentle now, beguiling.

“An assassin never gives up his secrets.” That had been drilled into him by her at training. The jester laughs.

“Everyone gives up their secrets eventually,” the jester said. And then the figure moves, a blur, a shadow across his vision, and arms are locked around his neck. He can smell the rancid smell of the panstick the jester wears to cover his face and it chokes him, like when he tries to eat rotten meat.

“Who are you here for?” is asked again, whispered into his ear and for the first time ever he thinks he understands evil. There is only darkness in that voice, no escape, no pity or mercy.

“An assassin never …”

And pain.

Pain like he has never known, the junctures of bone and joints being twisted in ways they were never meant to twist. The sharp edge of the blade digging through his skin and something else, something darker and older and more terrifying. Something that moves along the veins of his body and pours through his blood in a tide of razors. There was nothing like this in the school. It is nothing like the drownings, the brands, the beatings or the hunger. It is worse than anything he has ever imagined.

The voice again.

“Who were you here for?”

“No …”

A fire along his nerves. Like biting lizards chewing on the insides of his skin.

“It can only get worse for you, boy.” A voice like slime in his ears. “Who were you here for?”

And he cannot keep the words in. The pain is so large, so huge and overwhelming that the words have no room in his mind. They are forced out through the spittle and gasps that occupy his mouth.

“Merela Karn. I came for the traitor, Merela Karn.”

And the knife bites a little deeper and he relaxes, because the fear of death is not as powerful as the relief he feels at the sudden cessation of pain. As he fades away, life seeping into the ground, he hears voices speaking over him.

“You should not play with them, Master, it is cruel.”

“No, it is not, Feorwic.” The jester speaks gently, calmly, warmly. “They tell the truth more quickly when they are scared. It is a kindness really. And you are to call me Girton, not master. You know this.”

Out of the darkness steps a child, a young girl, dressed like a jester and with a dagger in her hand. She stares at him as his life leaves his body. “Yes, Master,” she says and the jester puts a hand on her shoulder. It is strange that a boy who has been raised in the harsh school of the Open Circle should immediately recognise that such a small movement is filled with love. There is a space then, a silence. He tries to imagine what it would have been like to feel another touch him for any reason other than to cause him pain. And as he dies, as all pain flees, he wonders who he is, this Girton, this jester whose voice seems full of care. His last sight is of her, the child, as the jester picks her up and they walk away.

He would have liked to have been loved the way she so clearly is.

He would have liked that.

Chapter 1

“Why do you paint your face and wear a silly hood?”

“Because I am Death’s Jester, child.”

“No, you are Girton.”

“I am Death’s Jester and Girton,” I said, taking down the hood.

Anareth screwed up her nose in confusion and I watched her gather up all the importance that a seven-year-old daughter of the king possessed.

“I think you are greedy. You should be either Girton or Death’s Jester. What if other people run out of people to be?”

“Well …”

“You should think on it, Girton Death’s Jester, before I have to make a royal command.”

With that she turned on her heel and stomped away, her blonde hair swinging like a pendulum while I tried not to laugh. Anareth was Rufra’s second child, named for his wife who had died soon after giving birth to her. She was a golden child, sweet-natured and clever, and her father doted on her—as all did in his court. Not only because she was clever and funny, but because we saw her mother in the girl, and her mother was missed by all.

We had camped in a clearing by a pool, and as I turned to follow her I caught sight of the reflection of the man I had become in the water. Not much to look at, not really. Short for a man of the Tired Lands as they fed me badly in the slave pens when I was a child. My body leaned subtly to the right, caused by years of favouring my club foot, which still pained me. I was not well-built either, like the Riders and the soldiers whom I was constantly among. Though this was not to say I was not strong but my strength was the acrobat’s strength, thin and wiry. “You are built for speed, like a lady’s racing dog.” That is how Aydor described me. I did not like dogs, but Aydor often forgot that.

Of course, I could not let anyone see my body, no matter how finely muscled it may be. The scars of the Landsman’s Leash covered it and it marked me for what I was, magic user; pariah. Even to show it among friends would see me taken to the Landsmen and bled into the ground. The Tired Lands had little pity for sorcerers and I had hoped, once, that my friend Rufra, on becoming king, may soften toward magic. But his hatred was as strong as any other’s, and so my secret remained just that, secret, and another stone went into the barrier that had gradually grown between us.

The reflection of my clothes, Death’s Jester’s black motley, created a hole in the water before me. I raised an arm, seeing the white material beneath the black, meant to give the illusion of bone. The bell on my hood rang gently as I pushed it back. My hair, long, brown and worn in a plait that reached to my waist, looked like a serpent moving lazily across my chest. A skull stared out of the water and back at me, bone-white face, black around the orbit of my eyes, around the jaw, under my cheekbones and over my neck and ears. I was more familiar with this face than I was my own, I only ever glimpsed that in the mornings in poor-quality mirrors and bad light while I put on the mask of Death’s Jester.

Voniss, Rufra’s new wife, said that everything about me—despite my shortness, which she loved to point out—spoke of confidence. That was why I was trusted and liked by Rufra’s soldiers, despite my strangeness and that they called me the King’s Cripple behind my back. Such words stung still, though I knew they were meant with a degree of affection. I could not see the confidence she spoke of in the figure in the water. I only saw the reflection of my master, Merela Karn, the greatest assassin I had ever known. I would only ever be her apprentice, never her replacement or equal. But I had found a place in life, and though it may not be what I had expected, or wanted, it was home and I was comfortable—or as comfortable as I was ever likely to be.

A scream filled the wooded clearing and I turned, hand going to the blade at my hip and immediately I felt foolish. The scream was only Anareth being taunted by her brother. He had taken her doll and was dancing it about just out of her reach. Doyl, the nurseman, stood by, wanting to help the little girl but wary of crossing the heir to Maniyadoc and I could not blame him, sometimes I thought Dark Ungar was in the boy.

“Vinwulf!” I shouted. “You are fifteen and should be above teasing children.” He stared at me, full of adolescent rebellion, then dropped the doll and walked away.

Vinwulf was Rufra’s son, named for the memory of the man who had raised, and in the end given his life for, the king. Sadly, there was nothing of Nywulf—a man I had respected if not loved—in the boy, no matter how much Rufra may have hoped the name may have brought some of the old man’s qualities with it.

Rufra and Areth’s first child had died young, victim to assassins, and when Vinwulf came along he had been coddled and spoilt in a way I had never agreed with. Though King Rufra was a good man, a great man in many ways, he remained blind to the faults of his children and would hear no criticism of them, no matter how much he was meant to trust who it came from.

Rufra and I had argued over today; where we were, what we travelled to do. The high kingship had become vacant after the forgetting plague had ravished the land and destroyed the family of High King Darsese. Rufra travelled to the capital of the Tired Lands to make his bid for the high kingship and bring his new ways to everyone. Maniyadoc was the largest province of the Tired Lands, but was not even a fifth of the area the high king ruled over—though I struggled to understand why Rufra could not be happy with what he had. The capital, Ceadoc, was a dangerous place for an adult, never mind a child, but he would not leave his children behind.


I turned. It was still strange to hear myself called master, despite that Feorwic had been with me for nearly two years now. She was small, like I had been, and of an age with Anareth. Her hair was almost pure white—though she had the rounded face and darker skin of the mountain people.

“Yes, Feorwic?”

“The Merela wants you.”

“Then I will go to her. You guard Anareth.” Feorwic nodded solemnly. “Maybe you and she could practise your skipping, eh?” She nodded again, trying to stay serious, and then ran off after her friend, shouting her name at the top of her voice while I went to find my master.

She sat under a tree, her crutches laid by her side and her legs sticking straight out. Her hair, which had once been jet-black, was now more grey than any other colour, though her dark skin did not seem to wrinkle the way skin did on most her age.

“Girton,” she said, pointing to a patch of grass by her. She knew that, even after all these years, I would not sit without her permission.

“Yes, Master?” I lowered myself to the ground, then jumped up with a yelp. A stick, with sharp thorns facing up, had been placed exactly where I sat.

“Long years in Maniyadoc have made you soft where you should be sharp.”

“Arses are meant to be soft, Master,” I said, rubbing my wounded backside. “You could have just told me.”

She shrugged.

“It is better to teach by example.” There was a twinkle of amusement in her eye as she picked up the thorny branch and tossed it away. “Ceadoc is not Maniyadoc. It will be rife with assassins, or those that call themselves such.”

“Which is why you should have stayed back at the castle, Master.” When I had been young, I had believed assassins were everywhere, though the truth had been that we were a dying breed. There was my master and I, and maybe three or four other sorrowings at most. But my fame, the assassin who became Heartblade to a king, had in turn led to a resurgence of the Open Circle and the art of the assassin. These new assassins were a cruder thing than I had been—a blunt instrument instead of a surgical knife—but, as I well knew, a warhammer kills as well as a blade.

“You should have stayed, Girton. If you had stayed Rufra would have left his children behind and you could have looked after them.” Before I could snap at her she raised a hand to still my temper. “I do not mean you are no use but as a nurseman, before you say that.”

“I was not going to say that, Master.”

I was.

“Only that the business at Ceadoc will be all politicking—bloody politicking, aye, but still nothing you wish to be involved with. Rufra is a fool to take his children there.”

“I told him that. He does not listen.”

“Neither do you.”

“He cannot be without me.”

“He has Aydor and Celot, not to mention Dinay. Sometimes protecting a king is about protecting him from himself, and those children are his weakness.”

“I am here to protect—”

“They are your weakness also.”

“I can protect them. Anareth is never out of Feorwic’s sight.”

“It is Feorwic I want to speak to you of.” Something cold settled on me.

“Feorwic is—”

“Delightful, Girton, in many ways, and has been since you found her wandering, but she will never make an assassin.”

I could feel the anger within, a dark tide as intricately tied up with the magic in my veins as the scars on my body were with my skin. I had learnt to control it, slowly and with my master’s help. Nine years ago we had finally stopped cutting the Landsman’s Leash into my flesh but the magic still fought to be free. Sometimes it was almost overwhelming.

“Her family were acrobats before they were killed, I am sure of it. She tumbles as well as I ever did, Master.” Dry words. My master nodded, staring at the floor.

“And she is filled with the same joy in life you were,” when my master looked up there was the echo of tears in her eyes. “I speak badly, Girton. I only think about you as a child and what our profession has put you through as an adult. Maybe I should not say she will never be an assassin. You care deeply for her, maybe I should ask you whether she should ever be one?”

I could not reply to that. Suddenly I was a small boy again, holding a blade for the first time, scared of the shining edge and the damage I thought it would do to me.

“Maybe you are right.”

My master put out her arm for me to help her up. When she walked half her weight was held on the crutches she tucked under her shoulders. A girl called Neliu had cut the hamstring in her right leg and, I thought then, stolen everything she was from her. But my master had never given up and, though she would never be the fighter she had been, she was still dangerous in her own way.

“When do we meet the queen, Girton?”

“She is due today.” A darkness spread across my master’s face at the thought of Rufra’s new wife.

“You would think that a man who was raised in fear of his life from Queen Adran would recognise another like her when he saw her.” She said it under her breath.

“She is from Festival. It was about alliance, not love. He is not blind to her.” I did not share my master’s opinion of Rufra’s queen, Voniss. She was ambitious, yes, but not cruel, and she delighted in her stepdaughter Anareth’s company. I could see nothing in her of Adran, the cold and cruel woman who had ruled Maniyadoc and would have burned Rufra alive for her own crimes had my master not outsmarted her. But they had known each other—and better than she would admit—well before I ever laid eyes on Adran or my master. Maybe this gave her some insight I was lacking but I found the threat hard to see, and my master’s past was not something she would ever speak of.

“There are other women in Festival, Girton, they could have sealed an alliance. Now Voniss is bearing his child her grip on Rufra will be stronger than ever.” She lifted a crutch and let herself fall toward me, catching her weight at the last minute and throwing herself forward in the lurching walk she used when she wanted to move quickly. Sometimes she used one crutch, sometimes two, and I had never worked out why. It seemed to change with her mood. “And the danger to Vinwulf and Anareth may not just be from the outside, Girton.”

“Age is making you paranoid, Master.” Did she look disappointed in me? Maybe. “Voniss would never harm Rufra’s children. She is ambitious, not stupid.” In truth I liked Voniss, she was no Areth but she was sharp-witted and—though I do not think she loved him—she was loyal to Festival and so to Rufra.

“There’ll be plenty at Ceadoc ready to harm Rufra’s
children. Maybe Voniss would not move directly, but she would not stand in front of an arrow for them either.”

“I would hope not, Master, or I would be out of a job.” The crutch flashed out and hit me in the shin. “Ow.”

“Flippancy is not attractive, boy.” She gave me a grin. “We should find Rufra, I am sure he will find something to darken your mood.” But I did not have to meet the king for that, just thinking of him was enough.

The years had changed Rufra. There were still flashes of the boy I had known, and none could argue that the changes he had wrought in Maniyadoc had not been for the best, but it had been hard on him. The wounds he had taken to his side at the second battle of Goldenson Copse had never truly healed, and though we were of a similar age, both having seen over thirty-five yearsbirth storms, he looked far older. He had grown into a serious, worried man. If my master could not understand his attraction to Voniss I could, she was a brightness and, together with the jester Gusteffa, was one of the few things that still amused him.

Note that I am no longer among them.

I found him seated beneath an apple tree, leaning to one side to ease the pain in his side. He was big in a way he had never been before. Not that I would ever have described him as lithe, but he had been strong and fit as a youth, now time and pain had taken their toll. The more he hurt the less he exercised, often choosing a royal cart over his mount. It showed, he had thickened around the waist and grown a beard to hide his jowls. I had never thought of him as vain, but he was touchy about his looks, had been known to send Riders away to the furthest reaches of his kingdom if they mentioned his size.

More and more often when we spoke he ended up sending me away too, as if I were nothing but a servant.

“Death’s Jester,” he said.

“My king.” I bowed low, touching the floor with one hand, and Gusteffa cackled as she chewed on an apple with her one remaining tooth. I don’t know when I had stopped using his name. It was one of those changes that had happened slowly and subtly—this move from friendship to something other.

“Aydor comes from Festival with my wife. I would like you to ride to meet them.”

“But my place is here, by your side, guarding you and your family.”

“Voniss is family too, lest you forget. And I have plenty of guards.”

“But none are—”

“They are all perfectly capable, Jester.”

“They are not—”

“Didn’t you tell me the true assassins are almost gone?” I bit on the inside of my mouth. It annoyed me that he was so careless about what I was, and he knew it.

“Almost gone is not completely gone.”

“And as king I choose to risk sending you away to keep my wife and unborn child safe.” He let out a sigh, bowed his head and the hard figure before me wavered. “Please, Girton, we head to Ceadoc where I will vie for the crown of the high king. Voniss rides with Aydor and a phalanx of my best Riders, but I don’t doubt it has crossed the mind of someone that to take her hostage may give them some advantage. I trust them to be safe with you like I trust no one else.”

And in a moment my denials, readied and loaded like crossbow quarrels, died on my lips. I saw the boy within, the worried, desperate boy who had been through so much, and I saw the man who had watched his land prosper while it seemed a curse had fallen upon him. I nodded.

“Of course, Rufra. I will go to them.”

“Good,” he said. A smile brushed his lips. “You will meet them near the castle of Dannic ap Survin.”

“Is that wise? He does not support your bid for the crown and has no great love for you.”

“No,” said Rufra. He did not look at me. Instead he stared at Gusteffa as she rolled her apple core along her arms, over her shoulders and down into her other hand and then back again, her movements hypnotic, the smile painted on her face a rictus. “His son would support me though. And he is of an age to vote.”

I waited for something more. Some actual confirmation of what he meant by that, but it did not come. Would not. He was King Rufra, the Tired Lands’ most honourable king, the one whom they called “the Just.” Such a man would never order an assassination.

But he could always benefit from one.


  • "For fans of action and political intrigue in the vein of Brent Weeks and Robin Hobb."—B&N Sci-Fi and Fantasy Blog
  • "Blood of Assassins is a brilliant and often beautiful piece of literature from one the most talented writers out there."—Fantasy Faction
  • "Outstanding. Beautifully written, perfectly paced and assured. Kept me reading well into the early hours of the morning. A wonderful first book -- a wonderful book, period -- that should be at the very top of your to-read list."—James Islington, author of The Shadow of What Was Lost on Age of Assassins
  • "Dead gods, dread magic, and a lead that feels like a breath of fresh air. Great fun."—Peter Newman, author of The Vagrant on Age of Assassins
  • "Often poignant and always intriguing, Age of Assassins reveals its mysteries with the style of a magic show and the artful grace of a gifted storyteller."—Nicholas Eames, author of Kings of the Wyld on Age of Assassins
  • "Simply unputdownable ... the perfect mix of fantasy and mystery."—Fantasy Book Review on Age of Assassins
  • "With an original, immersive world that wouldn't let me go and a pair of assassins worth rooting for, Age of Assassins is a pleasure to read. I can't wait for more!"—Melissa Caruso, author of The Tethered Mage on Age of Assassins
  • "A dark-humored game of cat and mouse between assassins with traitors on all sides."—David Dalglish, author of the Shadowdance series on Age of Assassins
  • "Age of Assassins builds a compelling fantasy world and peoples it with characters you can care about. Riddled with intrigue and dangerous magic, this is a hugely enjoyable debut."—Jen Williams, author of The Copper Promise on Age of Assassins
  • "Age of Assassins is a beguiling story of action and intrigue combined with a poignancy and humor that are as sharp as any blade."—Jon Skovron, author of Hope and Red on Age of Assassins
  • "Barker undercuts the standard fantasy cliche of the badass lone assassin ... The most interesting treatment of the fantasy assassin trope in a while, and an involving narrative in its own right."—RT Book Reviews on Age of Assassins
  • "This is one readers will find hard to put down."—Booklist on Age of Assassins
  • "Age of Assassins is one of the greatest debuts of the year, and RJ Barker is an author to look out for."—Book Nest on Age of Assassins

On Sale
Aug 7, 2018
Page Count
560 pages

RJ Barker

About the Author

RJ Barker is a softly-spoken Yorkshireman with flowing locks. He lives in the frozen north with his wife and son, and divides his time between writing and looking after his son.

Learn more about this author