When Rafe had told her they were meeting his mother – or rather, Mama – it had given Aderyn some expectations. Rafe was after all, an urchin of some variety – she’d actually thought him an orphan at first, given the way he’d fallen easily to crime of such brutal stripes at such a young age. Orphans were very dramatic, after all, and Rafe had all the makings about him of a usefully dramatic young man. Perhaps he’d lead her to a quiet corner of the city, where a narrow doorway led up stairs to a tiny little home in which she’d find poor but honest people, clenching their fists to keep warm. That seemed most appropriate, given Rafe. He had that streak of honesty about him, the sign of some humble beginning. Perhaps the tables would be soaped down, but the children wouldn’t be.
Aderyn was not expecting Mama’s.
It wasn’t that Aderyn had been ignorant of the city in general. It was just that all of her travel throughout the city had very pointedly taken her away from this area, the Dims, where you couldn’t see Benjamin through the windows, either because they faced another building, or they were caked with grime. The Dims, which weren’t the criminal underworld known as the Shades, or the cutthroat piratical bay tavern area known as The Shallows, because both of those locations were too proactive. Life wasn’t cheap here, because nobody was going to bother paying for it. Why, in the Dims, you could get killed for free if you stopped under the right gas lamp wearing the wrong colours.
It was the home of the boot party, of rough and ready workers who lived in the mills and plants, who rode the trains every morning with their heads and bones aching, and who drank from bags in paper bottles bought at the company store on the way home, where they’d drink a little more. Wrong place, wrong time, wrong word, and you’d find yourself the outlet for these sullen, slumping, walking towers of justified resentment.
When the folk of the Dims didn’t have a target, though, they had a strange sense of justice amongst one another. A man like Mister Bauer could walk this street unmolested, because he was hard-working, working class, and he earned his coin.
Aderyn’s eyes sparkled, looking up at the sign. Mama’s Obliteratum.
“I must say, Rafe, this looks quite exciting.”
Rafe shook his head and shouldered the door, leaning down on the door handle, testing to see if it was barred. “Yeah, Mama’s been running it for a while now.”
“She’s not very well-educated, is she?” Aderyn asked, her hands tucked behind her back.
“Why y’say that?” Rafe asked, leaning forwards, into the little cubbyhole entryway, gesturing with his hand for her to follow. This was a narrow doorway alright, but it was a side entrance into a massive two-storey construction that seemed a house made of equal parts green and flop. The windows in front glowed from within with restful yellows, and the panes above seemed to be frosted on the inside as well as out.
“Well, Obliteratum means ‘erased,’ and I don’t necessarily know if that’s what she means.”
Rafe stopped in the second doorway, gesturing with a thumb at the door. The panels around them were a light brown, worked once with varnish, and never any more. His head cocked to the side, Rafe pressed his hand to the door. “You want to get this out of y’r system before I go in? Or do you wanna wait out here?”
“Well, Obliteratum is the past tense erased, and I don’t know if-“
“Okay, that’s enough.” Rafe said, pushing the door open. Even as he did it, though, he reached behind him, his fingers curling around Aderyn’s wrist but not touching her. Fingers curled to look like a hold, but not. And then they were across the doorframe, into a grimy, warm smoke that Aderyn could taste, but not quite smell.
Outside, Mama’s looked like an inn and a greenhouse. Inside, the golden lights and the dimness made much more sense, with the piles of pillows all across the floor. At one point, the place had been an inn, but wasn’t any more. The bar remained, lurching out from one wall sullenly, but there weren’t any stools outside it, just more space for pillows and cushions. It looked almost childish, like a playgroup den, until you saw the forms curled up and half-asleep in the cushions.
“Oh.” Aderyn said, holding her wrist iron steady, leaving Rafe to walk on without her. This was new.
Behind the bar sat – no, sprawled a woman of girth Aderyn was unused to seeing. The working class women she had dealt with over a certain age, in the great Parcel street market, had something of the crone about them, narrow and thin, even when they smiled. This was not such a woman – she sat on her stool all hips and curves and extravagant shape that Aderyn thought might make someone quite self-conscious. Her outfit had fishnet gloves, pearls dotting the wrists and hands, and purple and peach colours winked at the edges of her inky-black dress. The dress had been designed for a smaller woman, and had panels cut in it – panels that showed more fishnets.
Aderyn was trying to put her finger on why this was so strange. It wasn’t how she was formed – well not just – but how she sat! Spread legged on a sofa, tucked behind the bar in barely enough space, up on a platform that surely had to be built there, it had the trapping of some sort of throne. Wait, that was it. Mama did not sit like a Lady. She sat like a gentleman – the sort who owned horses and cannons and assumed you were interested in whatever they had to say.
With ink-black hair slicked down over one side of her face, her dark eye glittered looking at Aderyn, and then the young girl realised she’d been staring, and that was Not Appropriate For A Young Lady. Blushing and looking down, Aderyn still took notice of the woman’s eyeshadow – a streak of bright blue from above the eye, a flare of violent red from beneath.
“Hey, Mama-“ Rafe began.
“Shut up, Rafe.” The woman leant forwards on her sofa, bits of her wobbling subtly. “And who might you be, young lady?”
“Shut up. Your name, girl?”
The window was a relative weak point, and there were no people between her and it to present a problem. The woman herself was probably no direct threat, but chances were good a gun was easy within her reach. This woman was territorial, in a very old way, in a way that the Guild of Assassins didn’t really know how to describe, because it had been that way since well before the Guild was the Guild.
Very few things could make Aderyn feel, but between the smoke and the stare, right now she was creeping up on discomfort.
“My name is Aderyn DuThane, and I’m an Assassin,” Aderyn said, with the smallest of curtseys.
“And I’m Mama Cass,” said the woman, reaching underneath the bar. Up came the hand and in it was grasped a plain, unvarnished woodcutting axe. No sigils, no insignia. Simple leather handle. She rested it on the bar and slouched back in her sofa. “Why’d you bring Rafe back, girl?”
Somewhere on the periphery of her vision, Rafe was doing that indignant look he usually did when someone was treating him with the respect he probably deserved.
“Rafe wanted to tell you that he’s not dead.”
The woman slouched to the side of the sofa, then turned, swinging her legs up and over the arm of it, waving one hand over her head. “The boy knew that I didn’t want a hitter. He can rot in the streets for all I care. I run a clean business here, you hear?”
“I was not planning on returning Rafe to your possession, madam,” Aderyn said, the hard d interspersing itself in a word like a subtly clenched fist.
“… Well good. You’re an Assassin, you say?”
“What’s the rate?”
“I’m afraid I’m under contract at the moment.”
“So what’s their rate?”
“Forty-five pounds a kill.”
“WHAT-” Rafe’s voice was a loudness.
Mama Cass stroked her chin, leaning back and making the sofa squeak. “… Well, well, well. A young lady could get by quite happily for forty-five pounds a month. And you’ve done…?”
“Two under this contract.”
“Aderyn, why are you telling her this-“
“Ninety pounds, quite nice, quite nice. And how much are you paying it?” she asked, wagging the axe-handle at Rafe with one hand.
That made the older woman’s eyebrows raise. “He’s doing something for free now?” she shook her head, sighing and slouching to the other arm of her sofa, an expression more for the flounce than the comfort. “Rafe, boy, I thought I raised you far better than that. If you’re good at something never do it for free.”
Rafe opened his mouth to respond –
“Shut up.” Mama Cass went on. “Now then, young lady… be careful what you accept for free. Men don’t know how to be loyal without some incentive to their lives.”
“Why do you say that?”
“Because, young lady, I have run this place now for going on seventeen years and let me tell you, there’s never been a man I’ve been able to rely on to do what’s smart, only what satisfies.” She gestured around the room, pointing at the prone, curled, cushion-bound forms.
“No,” Aderyn repeated. “Why would you give me that advice?”
The woman threw her head back and laughed. It was quite confusing. Aderyn wasn’t sure why she would much care about what she had to say about ‘men’ or indeed why that sort of advice was even useful. The smoke did make it uncomfortable to think. Aderyn turned to look at Rafe, who wasn’t even paying attention to Mama Cass. He was off to the side, hunkering down on his knees, talking to someone over by the stairs that led upstairs.
“Oi!” Mama Cass barked. “You don’t get influencing, you hear me?”
Nothing about the girl fit properly. Her shirt was shorter than it should be, because it was originally a short cardigan. Instead of a dress, she was wearing workman’s pants, with stout pockets sewn on the sides, and tied at the waist with white cord, stolen from the docks. Atop her head, she wore … well, Aderyn had to assume it was originally a tea cosy of some variety, knitted into a sort of beanie-like arrangement, into which she’d tucked all of the mass of brown tangled hair she had. She was looking up at Aderyn from over in the stairwell, with an oddly innocent smile on her face for a prepubescent girl hanging around in a place that could only courteously be called an opium den, but maybe that was all an act. Aderyn was used to acts.
Rafe turned and looked over at Aderyn, still crouched down to the girl’s eye height. She was maybe nine years old, and could not look less like Rafe. In her hands, she held a potted plant, green leaves bobbing loosely.
“Her name is Aina,” Cass said, somewhere behind Aderyn’s head, far away bout loud. “She works the greenhouse upstairs. “Like I said, I run a nice, legal business here, young lady.” The axe lifted and dropped again. “Legal product, legal distribution, legal customers. Anyone dies in here, they’re legally dead.”
“That’s not what that means,” Aderyn said, stepping closer to Rafe and the little girl.
“What does it mean?” Aina asked, looking up at Aderyn.
Aderyn hunkered down on her knees next to Rafe, mimicking the stance, and put on her best smile. The moment of confusion – nobody ever asked that question – juddered quickly past, as she cleared her throat, folding her arms in and resting her elbows on her knees.
“Well, legally dead is a term used in inheritances of the crown,” she said, watching as close as she could for signs the girl understood her. “You see, if a person has done something that makes them unable to become the king, they are considered legally dead.”
Rafe was making that face again, off out of Aderyn’s peripheral vision.
It was quite a list, come to think of it. “Worshipping the wrong God, for one. Lutherans are legally dead. Having served in the military of another nation – unless you conquer Timoritia, then it’s alright. Oh! And treason against an older heir, or attempting to kill them. So,” she said with a smile, and a practiced wink, “If you try and kill a royal heir, make sure you finish the job.”
Aina leant back at the wink – but giggled at the advice. Rafe’s hand came into Aderyn’s vision, rubbing the top of that beanie. He stood up, and cleared his throat. “Thanks, Miss Wary,” he said, very formally to the girl – who looked up at him and returned the nod.
Mama Cass watched them as they made their way back to the door, but didn’t leave her sofa while she waited for them to leave. When Aina moved to the bar with the potted plant in her hands, the woman’s manner melted, completely shifting from its draconian, flinty expression to a bright smile and a cheek pinch. Aderyn’s last sight of the fearsome Mama Cass was the woman leaning down to Aina and ignoring Rafe and Aderyn’s exit.
A few minutes later and they were out on the street, and Aderyn wasn’t quite sure what the purpose had been.
“That’s an opium den?” she asked, as they made their way back along the street.
“Marijuana,” he said, his hands stuffed in his pockets.
“Oh, like they have in Djansk.”
“Yeah, pretty much exactly like they have in Djansk.”
A few ems down the road, Aderyn tried again. “Mama is quite attractive.”
Rafe glanced at her sidelong, but looked back to the road, shoulders drawing up and in. “Don’t really notice, myself.”
“Did she raise you?”
“Why do you ask all these questions?” Rafe shot back. “The cathedral, Mama, the -” he stopped in the street, and turned to glare at her. “You’re a fucking assassin, you’re noble, you have like, like, a knife arm that’s – I mean, with your tests, you’re-”
His frustration flagged in the face of her expression.
The silence settled between them, an uncomfortable blanket, while Aderyn kept watching Rafe’s expression, for longer than he felt comfortable. Eventually – as always – he broke and looked aside. “I just don’t get why y’re interested.”
Aderyn turned sharply in the opposite direction, and started to walk once more. “I don’t understand you very well, Rafe. But you’re the first person I know who doesn’t like talking all about themself, and I think that I’d like to understand why.”
Rafe shook his head, picking up the pace to catch up. “… Think Luke the Sinner’s houseboat is in yet?”