One Stone, Chapter 46

The busy streets were not a place you wanted to be, unless you were part of that aching, roiling swell of angry people, smashing into and against one another. It was a mass of limbs and shouting, of graceless rage. It was no place for anyone who didn’t already approach life full of resentment and spite, but Ligier Rangst fit in perfectly well.

“Move it you fucking peasants,” he bellowed, raising one huge arm, elbow out, pounding and punching his way through the press of people. Bright green jacket flared behind him with every wild swing. A thoughtful man might consider how punching and kicking and fighting everyone smaller than him was slowing him down, but Ligier wasn’t really a thoughtful man.

A thoughtful man might notice the two figures in the crowd moving behind him with stout boots tied up high, work pants rolled low and knives in their hands. The push and pull of the crowd, the swell and the slack, they pulled them further away from Ligier at some points and pushed them closer together.

You always got what you paid for in Timoritia. You hired an assassin and you had elegance, a dossier, you had controlled environments and precise timing. These were not assassins. Young men from the Dims with scars on their knuckles, they had a mark and a deed and a price and very little else. You could buy a discount murder in Timoritia, but it always risked being of poor make.

*

Brother Fratarelli very rarely came up onto the roof of the church. The little doorway in the back of the steeple that led out onto the rooftop had been painted shut, back before Rafe had come to live here and Aderyn had started using the door as an ingress. Common enough on rooftops across Timoritia, it opened to a pathway that led straight down the back of the church, a flat span maybe fifty cims wide and with a gutter along it, so the rain would sheet off. Once, he’d heard that chimney-sweeps could travel all the way across the city without ever touching a street – the sweep’s highway, it’d been called, romantically.

“Are you sure you’re going to need this?” the priest asked, nervously fingering the boathook’s splintered end. “I mean, it is awfully unpleasant-“

Kivis was looking out across the rooftops, Aderyn nearby. Brother Fratarelli couldn’t be sure that she was looking at Aderyn, but it seemed it. The shorter woman was adjusting her dress for the rain, lifting the bottom and tying the sides so she could run more freely. It was a rare moment for the brother – seeing Aderyn briefly conceding to the practicalities and limitations actual humans seemed to have. The girl was an eerie angel, sometimes, with that unflappable mood and practical mind. Kivis’ hand waving before his eyes dragged the Brother back.

“We’re dealing with the affairs of kings. This is going to need unpleasantness.”

“You should stay down in the church, Brother. There will no doubt be people coming who need someone who can mend a broken leg or stitch a cut, when the riots come this far.” Aderyn called over.

“They’re still over towards the palace,” Fratarelli blanched, turning to look past the steeple… and blanched again when he saw how wrong he was. The streets were full almost to the mouth of the street on which sat the church, almost at the edge of the river. Rioters rarely liked crowding the edges of the river – like the space itself encouraged some fundamental care.

“As I was saying,” Aderyn repeated firmly, “You should stay down in the church, brother.” Raising her hood and tucking her braid away, Aderyn pointed along the line of the houses. “I will take a careful route so that you can follow, Kivis.”

“I understand. Don’t think I can’t jump, Aderyn.”

“I only think that you cannot jump as far as me.” She said, before taking two steps, then a third, and suddenly she was in the air, arcing from the rooftop to the next – catching feet on angled roof-tiles, and darting up the slope to the peak of the neighbouring building.

“Francis? Do take care.” Kivis said, thumping her gauntleted hand into Fratarelli’s and taking the hook with the other. She turned, and huge stomping feet went crunch crunch on rooftiles, before Kivis launched herself across the same gap. Aderyn was right – she didn’t jump as far as the slighter girl, and Fratarelli felt his heart leap into his throat at the sight of her arcing through the air, knowing she’d fall

THNK

– Kivis swung her boathook out and caught the edge of the building, hauling with her own momentum to swing up, catch the edge of the rooftop and clamber up after. A moment more and she was up by Aderyn’s side, and the pair kept moving, off towards … whatever it was Aderyn had in mind.

Brother Fratarelli shivered in the rain. He’d fancied himself the person commanding this little conspiracy, once. It really felt more like they just did whatever they damn well pleased, really.

*

Ligier burst out of the line of the crowd well away from the Dims and the palace, unsure of just where he was beyond main details. Near the riverside, near some little church or other. Rangst estates were studded all around the city, piece by piece, all he had to do was find some cousin or other and bully his way indoors.

The press and swell of a riot was like a wave, and bursting free from it and tasting fresh air gave the man a dizzying sensation of freedom. No longer fighting for movement, no longer struggling. Ligier clenched his fists and turned around, watching the people thinning out and moving away from him, no doubt recognising their betters, or at least the expression of a man full of scorn and rage.

Turning back around again, a whorl of callow spite, Ligier adjusted his jacket, pulling it tight around himself, which meant his arms were tense and in the perfect spot get just lucky enough when a man wearing a bandanna and with a knife in his hand lunged out of the crowd to try and sink it into his ribs. Instead, the blade skidded into his elbow, and in between his arm and chest. Oh, sure, Ligier yelled – but his assailant was stuck off-balance, his arm extended, his arm in Ligier’s grip.

The Rangst looked down, at the knife, at the cuff in his arm, and swung around with all his weight, bringing a bare-knuckle fist square into his forehead with the force of a trip-hammer. Something made a moist, wet crack under his hand, just like that miserable oik of a butler Ligier had had when he was seventeen, and he felt the satisfying flow of blood that came with it. “What the hell,” Ligier demanded, gripping the man’s wrist and raining down blow upon blow, “Do you think” pound, pound fist growing momentarily raw, “you’re doing,” the numbness crept up the forearm, but it felt so good to be hurting that it was easy to ignore. Fumbling, a moment of loss and confusion, and Ligier’s hand clamped around the man’s throat.

“Oi, Help!” the assassin yelled, even as Ligier clenched his hand tight, thumb on windpipe. Some brown-haired, stubbly nobody, someone who thought he was central to his own life story. Just one more of life’s fucking extras.

Ten ems away, in the crowd, a Dims-born heavyboy, known mostly as Obrin, one of the rude and rough sorts who would slit a throat for the right price but who could never work out how to make a receipt, watched as someone who’d been hired to do his job, and who he’d had a few beers with down at the pub, was pulled to the ground by Ligier Rangst, the mark. In the middle of the street, Ligier held him down by his throat, while he kicked and flailed, and even as the man’s gurgling slowed, Ligier rained blows down on his face with his free hand.

Obrin watched his coworker’s feet slump. His struggles stop. The clatter of a knife hitting the cobblestones. The wet splt-beat-splt- beat-splt of a fist drawing back for more abuse on a dead form.

Obrin slipped his knife into the back of his pants and quietly turned around, heading into the crowd.

He wasn’t being paid enough for that.

*

Rafe grumbled as he pulled the church door closed behind him and stuffed his hands into his pockets. What the hell was Aderyn even up to this time. Nowhere in the rules-set that he’d understood underpinning her worldview had he seen piss off during a job opportunity come up, but here she was, gallivanting away and he had no idea why. Fists in his pockets, shoulders drawn up, he kept his head down to keep the rain out of his eyes. Rain sloshed in the gutters, washing away the filth and blood and-

Rafe looked up, just in time to walk into a green coated back, and then looked up further still. The man he struck whirled around like a rearing horse, his hands red-run with blood and his-

Crack

Rafe felt the blow hit the side of his head with enough force to throw him to the gutter, which cracked against his temple with another dizzying blow. Then down came the man’s boot, and Rafe barely had time to blurt out “The Hell!?”

*

Brother Fratarelli tucked his hands behind his back, looking out across the rooftops and to the thronging force of the enraged. People would riot so readily in this town… sometimes, he wondered if people from the Dims rioted out of boredom. With his hands hooked against the cord that bound his robes closed, Brother Fratarelli let his eye trace down the river, looking down from the high, rainy purchase. It was a strangely calm place, up on the roof of his little church. A place to reflect, and to observe the people as they went about unobserved.

Great changes are wrought in people in very narrow spaces of time. The choice to act, or not to act, to stay one’s hand or to indulge in one’s wants. People are so often an elaborate set of justifications and rules designed to stop from doing that one thing, and all it takes is the right reason to overcome them, and so much of what is left is unravelled, inexplicable reasoning that serves no purpose.

Brother Fratarelli looked down, and saw a man in a bright green cloak, holding a knife in his hand and with his foot on the side of the face of a prone young man, man crushed into the gutter, wearing a rain-and-blood spattered version of the priest’s own robes. Recognising Rafe a heartbeat later, Brother Fratarelli felt his heart leap into his throat even as he leapt into the air.

*

Rafe knew he’d be able to bounce back from this in a moment, if this asshole could just lay off for a second. Bullies were like that, though, they’d always give you a moment. They’d want to hear you whimper as they made you taste mud, they’d want to watch you squeal when they put in the boot. This guy? Well, the way he kept kicking Rafe in the middle and yelled at him, that said he was sure some kind of bully.

Burbling into the gutter water, Rafe struggled to put himself face up, under the man’s boot, even as another hit struck into his side. What was he yelling about?

“This Fiver’s plan, is it? Hm?” the monstrous man bellowed, raising his boot to crush down again on Rafe’s face. “Sending people after me once we’re done, so he can take the coin?!”

Rafe managed to spit and burble, dragging his head up from under the rush of water filling the gutter, his hands gripping the stones, pushing back against the boot pressing against him. “You-What-“

Water in his eyes, in his ears, pain in his chest and hips, Rafe could only make out shapes and sounds dimly. Swinging his hand through the air, he looked for a loose rock, for a point of imbalance. Rafe could solve this. Rafe was sure of it. Every bully had a weakness, every bully acted out of a want for power and while Rafe had no idea why he’d been targeted, and this man was acting with the energy of panic. That wasn’t an unfamiliar space. Break into the wrong home and – words cut through the pain.

“Right. Now. Don’t you try anything smart, you little sh-

Rafe blinked water out of his eyes, propped up on his elbows, pushing back against the boot on his chest. Then suddenly, it was falling backwards, all the pressure gone. Rafe saw his assailant crumple downwards, then fall to the side, as over a hundred and sixty keegs of priest landed on him, elbows and fists. Neck went at the wrong angle, chest recoiled at the impact, and the man crumpled. He was a big man. Brother Fratarelli may have been rounder, but in all the ways that counted, he was the bigger man.

As far as last words went, ‘you little sh-‘ was pretty awful but like almost all the last words Rafe heard, they weren’t really planned.

*

Wardell paced back and forth across bloodstained carpets. Calpurnia had kicked Tenner’s body off the carpet and slouched into a chair, taking the knife in her hand from the man’s dead form. This was not good. This was an extra complication, and one he should have had researched. Who bothered to look into wives? For god’s sake, though, he needed to make sure she didn’t get her hands on that book or everything was screwed. Worse, she was probably not going to be swayed by a legal case that didn’t have Lord Gorange’s weight behind it… she had, after all, brought a siege weapon to the gates of Timoritia. It wouldn’t be the first time the city was invaded by its own army.

It could work, if he could get rid of her. The problem was, she was every bit as obdurate as Yull and he didn’t have anyone on hand to deal with her. Maybe Ligier and Ulster together would have had a shot, but he’d have had a hell of a time convincing those two to act on anything. The fools had been useless for dealing with Yull, after all.

“Wardell, do settle down. You’re looking positively anxious.” came that maddeningly calm voice from the seat by the throne.

“Ah, am I, Lord Gorange? I’m sorry. It’s just this… waiting is driving me-”

“Lord Gorange!” a call came from the door. “Mr Pushanti from the Old Ford is here to see you!”

“Ah, excellent.”

Ah yes. The Academic. A new piece as well. God damn that Gorange sense. Just because he almost certainly knew every lawyer in his family was bribed, here he was bringing in someone who no doubt was on a different take indeed. Still – everyone in the city wanted something of kings and nobles. Not to mention that Yull had been black, a detail that was always useful to use against the people in positions of power. If Wardell could just get Koel to confirm him, then he could follow up on any promises he had to. Stopping his paces, he looked to the doors, bracing to see some obnoxious fat tenured-

The man in the doorway was squarely at an average height, skinny in the shoulders. Wearing a dark blue jacket that looked a bit much like a class blazer, and charcoal grey pants, dull brown slip-on shoes jutted from under his cuffs, the man stood with his hands close together and his elbows tight against his sides, holding a folded-over clipboard and stack of paperwork. While the other clerks had walked into the room with a low, businesslike manner, looking for places to set up their desks, he stood, looking around at the high ceilings, at the artworks and the fittings, his mouth open wide. Blatantly awed. Wardell took in his uncertainty, his surprise… and his own heart sank.

Koel was dark as chocolate, with a fine, well-groomed beard, looked maybe twenty-five years old. Up on his head rather than loose hair, he was wearing a dark blue turban, unadorned, with a knot around the back, up near the base of his head – a knot that showed every time he whipped his head around and looked in surprise over his glasses at the latest Historically Significant thing the room hosted, murmuring just loud enough to be heard, “Gosh.”

Wardell sagged against the side of Calpurnia’s chair. Bugger.

*

Four forms splayed out on the street; two dead, two living. Rafe was the first to move, slowly peeling himself up out of the gutter. Nursing his chest with one hand, he checked himself for damage. The rain and the gutter water made it hard to tell bloodstains from rain, meaning he had to feel for the warmth of it. Bruises on his face, a tear by his ear – blood down his neck, but nothing lasting. Hurt, but hurt was fine. Rafe knew hurt.

Reaching down, he tested the priest’s body, seeking a pulse, hauling him up and over. “C’mon, Brother. You there?”

A low, miserable groan rolled out of Brother Fratarelli. Sitting up slowly, he looked down, at the green coated man underneath him. Seeing the man’s shiny face, in the rain, shifting from dazed consciousness to self-awareness to the morbid shock that came from sitting on a corpse

“Ohmygod Rafe, what have I done.”

“Saved my life, by my eye…” Rafe said, reaching down to help the priest into standing, against his will. Shifting with the unhelpful weight on slippery cobblestones, Rafe braced his legs to stop from meeting the ground again.

“I… I – did I-”

“Yep. You uh, never killed anyone before, huh, father?”

“Brother. Brother. Oh god, oh god. Oh god, this is how you feel all the time? Oh, god, Rafe, I am sure, someone, someone out there can forgive us-“ the priest said, his voice cracking in the rain. “I’m…”

“Someone? Aren’t you a priest?” Rafe asked, setting Fratarelli down at the gutter, feet on the road, his rear on the path. “Thought you had someone taking care of that.”

“I- god, you don’t know about that. I-“ the priest rubbed his hands atop his head, gathering himself and raised a hand, pointing to Rafe, redirecting all that anguish. “I don’t think you appreciate the gravity of this situation!”

“Neither did he.”

RAFE THIS IS NOT THE TIME.”

“… Sorry, Brother.” Rafe sighed, patting his hand. Reassurance wasn’t his strong suit. The rain crept down the back of Rafe’s neck, his hands clammy. Resting them on the brother’s shoulders seemed the extent of what he could possibly do, really.

“Is- is it always like that?” Fratarelli asked, while the rain pattered about them.

“It gets easier after the first one.”

“I hope it doesn’t.” Fratarelli put his elbows on his knees, his forehead in his hands and shuddered.

Rafe put his hand atop the priest’s head. “You really weren’t prepared for this, huh.” The riots were still wracking, out closer towards the palace. There were two dead bodies right there, and he couldn’t leave the priest to deal with them. “Alright, look, brother – you know when you picked me up, down in Draftfane?”

“Yes?” His voice was choked with that subtle, almost-weeping Rafe knew well.

“Right, and you wanted to know why I lied about killin’ people?”

“Y-yes.”

Rafe hunkered forwards. “I didn’t. You understand me? I didn’t lie. Can you trust me on that one?”

Fratarelli’s shoulders slumped, and he looked up at Rafe in the rain. “Rafe, stop this. Stop trying. I know you didn’t kill Jandal Wendy’s husband and you definitely didn’t kill Harry Fint.”

How come you’re so sure!?

“Because that Sunday I heard Jandal Wendy confess to stabbing her husband, and then I heard Harry Fint’s confessing to associating with criminals.”

The rain filled the silence, while Rafe hunkered down. “Yeah?”

“So forgive me if I don’t buy your hard-as-a-nail attitude, Rafe. I know you lied about those murders.”

“I lied about those two.” Rafe patted the Brother’s leg. “Right. But I was already nicked. I knew about Wendy’s husband. I knew about Fint trying to disappear from the barneys and from the Kingsways.” He shook his head. “And I was nicked for killing a priest and sledding down a rooftop with him.”

Brother Fratarelli blinked, swallowing. “So you’re saying, father Reighland, you-“

“Yeah. I did. Really.” Rafe patted his hand on his thigh, trying to keep him from going into numb shock. “I’m telling you this ‘cos you need to stop thinkin’ everything in the world happens tidily. It’s not all your fault and it’s not all God’s plan.”

“Oh, don’t you think I know that,” Fratarelli snapped, then shuddered all over. “Sorry, Rafe. I… I’m just… I’m I don’t…”

“Alright, look! Look, – look, listen to me. This is how it goes on the street, Brother. Someone goes too far and you gotta go out and meet them there or someone that matters gets hurt too bad.” He squeezed his hand. “It’s how the Jandals went, it’s how Fint got out of the city, and it’s why Father Reighland wound up in a snow-bank with a knife in him.”

Brother Fratarelli looked to the street, then to the strangely earnest, incredibly grubby boy in front of him, smeared with rain and blood and the mud of the streets. “… I should… I should get the soldiers to help clean these bodies up.”

“Chuck ‘em in the river. They might break the surface. Either way, they’ll be off the road.”

Brother Fratarelli swallowed loudly, and clutched Rafe’s arm. “Rafe, at the palace –”

Rafe shrank from the hand slightly, knowing where this kind of thing went. “No, look, no, Brother. People are going to die, Brother. People have already died. There’s some bloody business afoot and it’s going to take somethin’ terrible to set right.”

“Just… just not today, okay? Not by your hand.” The rain-slicked grip of the priest pulled the fabric of Rafe’s robe into a tight little bunch. “Please, don’t kill anyone. Please.” And the boundaries and rules the priest had in his mind tried to circle around, tried to make this day’s murder into an acceptable sin.

With water sheening off his bald head, looking up into Rafe’s eyes, Brother Fratarelli looked every one of his years twice over, less Rafe’s peer and more likely his father. “… This is crazy, Brother.”

“If it is crazy, Rafe, it is the kind of crazy that is trying very hard to be normal.”

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