“Oi, you fat bastard,” Rafe grumbled, hunkering down the steps into the cellars. Mama Cass had given him her obligatory stink-eye, insisted he was racking up a bill, sneered at his peace offerings and threatend him with an axe. Pretty typical, to mildly good, really. “Aderyn here? Got something for her.”
Brother Fratarelli sat up too fast at the sound of the voice, and realised he’d jumped when he’d heard anything. “Oh goodness, Rafe,” he said, blustering up out of his seat to help the boy down the steps – help he didn’t need, and brushed off.
“Fuck’s sake, old man, what’s the problem?”
“Um. Um, you haven’t seen Aderyn today, have you?”
“… No. That’s kind of why I came here. It’s her turn to visit.”
“I – oh dear. Oh. Oh dear. She’s missing.”
Kivis called from across the room, with the voice of the interminably bored, speaking to the angsting and anxious. “She’s just late.”
Immediately Rafe whirled around to Brother Fratarelli. “Crap, seriously?”
“Please don’t swear,” the priest offered. “Y-yes, Kivis is right. She’s just late now.”
“How late, Kivis?”
The armoured woman put one fingertip to her forehead and conspicuously tapped it, miming an irritated scratch. “Forty-five minutes.”
“That’s way too long,” Brother Fratarelli said, swallowing.
“Yeah, for her that’s a day. What the shit are we-“
“Please, don’t swear,” Brother Fratarelli swallowed. “Oh dear. Oh dearie. Oh dear fiddlesticks.”
“She could just be buying some bread or whatever.” Kivis called.
“No.” Brother Fratarelli shook his head.
Kivis leant back in her nook, head against the wall. “I don’t know the girl the way you two know her, but right now you sound like a pair of idiots. Girl’s late for an appointment and you start to panic.”
“You remember we’re hiding in a cellar, right, Kivis?” Brotehr Fratarelli said, stomping forwards, as best he could. Somewhere inside him, some of the parts bruised by Luke Cornell’s boot twinged. “There is a reason to be paranoid if someone goes missing!”
“There’s reason to be paranoid if you or Rafe go missing.” Kivis shrugged. “You need support. You’re both very predictable, you know.” She slid down slightly, lying down fully.
Brother Fratarelli almost spoke, but Rafe’s hand grabbed his arm.
“Oh. Oh god. Oh fuck.” Rafe blurted. “S’the party thing. That estate party – Luke Cornell’s at it? She’s gone to get that book of yours.”
Kivis tilted her head, and the unblinking visage of her hawklike helm regarded the pair. “Alright, boys,” she said, her tone flinty. “Let’s think about this rationally for a moment. Lady Aderyn DuThane, your friend and colleague, is more likely to be striking out on her own to steal a book from a dangerous murderer during a gala event at the estate of a government police officer, than she is to run an hour late to a mundane appointment.”
Nobody spoke until Kivis appended. “Come to think of it, you’re probably right.”
Rafe threw his hands in the air and stormed to the back of the room. “Okay! Okay, we can do this, Fratarelli! We did this before.” Rafe said, raising his voice unduly. There was thirty cims of stone between the ceiling and the pavements of the street, or he’d fear being heard. Thank god, in hindsight, for criminal underclasses that wanted soundproofed spaces in which to do terrible things. “S’the estate of, the, uh, the Sheriff of The Benjamin Courts. Guy’s got a lock in his building, so that’d have like… drainage? And that means there’d be… uh, a ring of buildings. Think I’ve seen this place.”
“You’re going after her? Rafe – this is no small task! This is, this is as hard as an assassination, but worse, because you’ll have more witnesses! And – and you don’t know the area! You think?! Rafe, last time I sent you to an estate, I had floor plans-“
“Which I ignored.”
“-And a partner, who you most certainly did not.”
“And y’had two targets and this time I only have one. I just need to find her, right? Right?”
Brother Fratarelli ran his hand across his scalp. “Yes. This isn’t… I’m not paying for – look. This is about saving Aderyn. Not about saving me. Whatever plan she had, it’s not as important as- look, this sort of thing will get her killed.”
This was the sort of story Rafe knew all to well. Some posh kid had a run-in with the lower class, thought they could handle it, and something terrible happened. The sort of people who had fox hunts thought they knew what the world had to offer if you could be dropped in the cacky.Even now he was wondering what would happen to all her elegant dance with Cornell if there hadn’t been someone to take care of Nebrin.
Pushing those thoughts out of his mind – and the implication they brought with them, that Aderyn’s health and well-being were somehow his concern, Rafe grit his teeth. Make a plan, then make a decision. Right, it was a party. There’d be open spaces. Places where people could be a distraction, places where Aderyn would be standing. Places Rafe couldn’t stand, but a noblewoman could. Wait, a noblewoman- “Can’t we sent Kivis?”
“Kivis?” Brother Fratarelli asked, looking up, across the room, where the knightly woman was lounging. “Can we-“
“Do you want everyone at the party dead?”
“Then no, you can’t send me.”
“Who else do you know, Brother?”
“Nobody.” Fratarelli said, hunkering down.
“You want my opinion?” Kivis called from across the room.
Rafe turned to look over his shoulder, while the wheels in his mind were still turning. “Yeah?”
“Are you serious,” Brother Fratarelli sputtered, which spared Rafe yelping it.
“I absolutely am. You’re talking about Lady Aderyn DuThane,” Kivis said, sitting up from her repose, resting her forearms on her knees, metal plates touching one another with a soft low tang sound. “So far I’ve never seen that girl do anything she doesn’t know she can do.”
Rafe was already trying to find a way to tell Kivis she was wrong, she was stupid, and do so without making it very, very clear he was panicking a little. “What if-“
“What if?” she asked, shrugging. “The girl getting paid for half of your work isn’t in your hair any more. You can do what she does, right? Just throw on a dress and maybe Brother Fratarelli will give you her payment.”
Rafe raised a hand to say something –
– Hang on.
“… Okay. Hey, Brother Fratarelli. How close can you get a punt to the Sheriff’s place?”
“Probably across the way, if Kivis is not averse to rowing.”
The knight heaved a sigh that echoed twice back. “I’ll haul the punt over.” Shaking her head, she raised a hand, and waved a metal finger menacingly. “But I warn you, if I come in there, I’m not leaving until I’ve duelled every single corrupt asshole with a title that crosses my path.”
“… Yeh, so?” Rafe asked, in time to get a hit in the head from Brother Fratarelli.
The cellar door had taken some breaking. Luke Cornell was not a small man, but the room had once been designed to store and drain meat while the boat was in motion, and people were well-acquainted with leaving it alone when they heard howls and screams behind it. By the time the morning had arrived, and one of his grunts had started to work on the outside of the now thoroughly-broken door, Nebrin had come to into near-consciousness and burbled out oaths of revenge.
That… had been one of the more unpleasant mornings of Luke Cornell’s life. It was in the past, now; two weeks gone. Nebrin was recovered, as best he could be, and now he had that dapper eye patch to go with his elegant, piratical style. It suited him. Maybe medical attention could have saved his eye, but Luke still felt the whole affair had been Nebrin’s fault, and withholding something while the man was unconscious would serve as a lasting reminder.
These were the memories stirred in his mind as he turned over and over in his hand, a glossy kingfisher feather, gathered from the Praefoco estate. A pair of silver candlesticks were all he’d wanted – was that so wrong? – but now he was dealing with birds. Well, see how birds liked dealing with a shark. Turning with the feather in his hand, he looked back along the deck; down at his men, down at the barrel-shaped frame of Nebrin, and at the half-dozen rough and ready criminals with their boathooks and bad attitudes.
“Well, men.” Luke crushed his fist around the feather, casting it behind him. “It seems we have a bird problem.”
The faces of his followers – most men, some women – were turned to him, waiting for him to finish that thought.
“They have broached my boat, they have violated my private spaces, and they stole my priest, during confession. There were two of them. A white bird; a black bird. Well, we know what happens when two such birds draw too close, don’t we, lads?”
“A penguin, boss?” called one.
“Wh-what? No. No, I-”
“Oh, two penguins, of course.” Offered another boathand.
“No. No. Are you even paying attention to me, I’m saying-”
“OH! One big fat pigeon. Right?” The third dockhand volunteered.
Luke put one hand to his forehead while his other squeezed a throat. He was fairly sure it was the throat of one of the men who’d been talking. He couldn’t really be bothered to keep track at this point, pushing the smaller man up against the railing of his houseboat, clenching his fist. “I’m sorry, gentlemen, I clearly am dealing with clever people. And clever people are not in for Mister Cock-up, you hear me?”
The man struggling under his fist thumped at Luke’s arm. He was quite blue. Luke briefly reflected on how, back when he was younger, he’d need both hands to get that effect. Eventually, behind him somewhere, he heard Nebrin grumble. “I’ll keep an… I’ll be looking for them, boss.”
“Yes.” Luke turned, relaxing his grip, stepping away from the railing, the kneeling, collapsing figure that had bothered him. “Yes, you keep an eye out for them, Nebrin.”
“Right,” Nebrin didn’t quite flinch. “And if we see ‘em, we’ll drag them down to the metal room for a work-over.”
“No. Just kill them. You’ve had two weeks. Tonight, at the party, you will not fail me, you understand?”
Asking to hide bodies in Mama Cass’ cellar hadn’t been much of a lift. The kind of heat that Luke Cornell could bring down was limited to the parts of the city he owned, and the Dims was too cheap, too grubby to own. The only really interesting part of this tale from Mama Cass’ seat had been that the bodies were alive and willing. On the other hand, asking her for money was guaranteed to not work.
Rafe slipped up out of the cellar, and, rather than use the stairs, left the building and slithered up the outside rear wall. When his fingertips touched the lead outlines of the glasshouse atop it, he stopped his ascent, and shimmied sideways until he found a familiar wooden set of slats. Holding his weight on one hand and both his feet together on a small metal knob about three cims wide, he hooked a finger in behind the slats, and flicked up a catch. The window swung, and he swung after it, before the spring-loaded windowframe clacked it shut after him.
Downstairs, with her sofas and her clients and her dull disdain for everyone, Mama Cass ruled. Here, in the garrett connected to the greenhouses, Aina had made herself a little pocket of wonder, month after month.
It was technically a shed, for the maintenance of the greenhouse. The greenhouse only really worked in this city because it was up high enough no buildings shadowed its flat, glass ceiling – and that much glass had been expensive to buy. Rafe remembered helping build the place, years ago. They wanted people who could climb, and didn’t mind risking a two-storey fall to their deaths, possibly surrounded by jagged shards of sharpness. It also paid a shilling a day, which was the kind of money Rafe had only dreamt of when he’d been twelve.
And when Mama Cass had grown sick of growing and managing the green leaf, like a little magical sprite, Aina had materialised. The shed was a small space, but she was a small girl. A few boards had turned one room into two. In the room with the trick window, Aina had put her books and her mobile; she had painted the ceiling dark blue, had dotted it about with little shiny bits of tin and daubs of yellow paint. It didn’t look particularly good – but it was hers.
“Aina?” Rafe called. In the next room, he knew there was a bed, and under that bed was a pan, and if that window had swung for anyone but him, he was pretty sure that pan would be in Aina’s hands, ready to swing at midriff height, through the mottled green curtain that hung between the two rooms. “S’me.”
A silence, but only for a moment. Then, a giggle. “Hey, Rafe. You wanna come in?”
“Yeah, you can.” She said, sheepishly pulling back, the presence behind the door fading back a little.
Rafe slipped into the next room, ducking under the slope of the roof. This was Aina’s space. A little misshapen, a little strange, perched up high, in a place everyone said was too dangerous. All that really mattered to her was making flowers grow. After a fashion. “H’lo, Aina…” he murmured, bending down slightly. “Should I-“
“Sit on the bed,” Aina said, from her own seat across from the bed. “It’s real nice to see you.” She said, beaming at him. “But-“
“But I only use the window in an emergency.” He said.
She bit her lower lip and huddled in on her little stool. “Okay. Okay. I get it.” She nodded, then nodded again, as if listening to someone he didn’t hear. “What is it?”
Rafe steeled himself, his hand gripping his navel under his robes. Here he was, in the garb of a priest, about to ask her for a favour. It didn’t look good, and it felt even worse. “You remember what I used to tell you?”
“No favours.” The bright-eyed girl smiled, a constellation in her eyes.
“Uh, well.” His other hand rubbed the top of his head. Few things felt worse than asking for a favour. Even as that thought arrived, he couldn’t escape how stupid it was. He’d had someone break a bottle on his neck once. Another time a bigger boy had stomped on his face until some of his teeth had come out. Thankfully, he’d been working on a spare. He’d been stabbed. Why was it just asking for help was twisting him inside like a blade?
“Whatcha need?” she asked, pulling her legs up onto the stool underneath her. The knitted cap she wore slid down over her eyes, and she pushed it back up with the heel of her hand. “You can just say.”
Deep breath. Clinch the grip. “I need some money.” And –
– “How much?”
Somehow, that vast silence had been no time at all. Aina was still sitting in front of him, still so cute and so tough. The girl was like a pearl – somehow shaped by the irritations and accretions of this strange, wet place on the riverside, protected by a barbed, hard shell and owning a pale purity. “… Maybe five pounds?”
Aina gave a low whistle, a long sliding note that carried disapproval but wasn’t a no. “That’s a lot of no favours.”
“I know,” Rafe rubbed the back of his head, anxious. “I need it fast, though – there’s a girl’s life at stake.”
Aina shifted forwards on her little stool, both hands reaching for Rafe’s cheeks. She held him there, looking him in the eyes, and shook her head with a little sigh. Eventually, she pulled with her hands, and hugged the boy around the neck – even though he had to bend down to do it. Eventually, her cheek by his, she spoke.
“It’s Mama Cass’ money. It’ll be counted at the end of the month.”
She squeezed him. “You need to do something to heal, you know.”
“Huh?” He asked, sitting back slightly, resting on his toes, looking the young girl in her eyes. “I’m fine, the big ox barely touched m-“
“I mean here.” She said, smiling at him, pressing her hand to his heart.
Asking favours of a ten year old was painful. This was so much worse. “… Thanks, Aina. Sorry I never got you that party.”
“It’s okay.” She said, leaning forward and pecking his forehead. “Maybe one day.”
“Yes…?” Aina asked, tilting her head.
“Do you still have that old makeup kit from Mama Cass?”
Aina nodded, then leant forwards. “Whyyy?”
“Um.” Rafe adjusted his robes. “I… I’ll need your help putting some on. But first I have to go grab something from the shops, alright?”