Kivis twirled the hook in her hand. Aderyn may have moved like a kingfisher, darting down to lampposts and gutters, but she was at least careful picking a route where Kivis could follow with a long, galloping, hook-assisted leap after her. They’d made their way half-way across the city, which was a useless measurement when the city had such a strange, wriggling border as Timoritia. There were points where the walls of the city folded inwards, points where they’d crossed the river by running along bridge towers’ parapets.
The house down on the ground level broke most of the rules of the homes in Timoritia. Rather than leaning against every other house, pressed into a tiny space, it had a space of around three ems around it on all sides, and a high metal fence protecting it. While the property ran up against a city wall, the wall stood far away from it, and had actual spikes jutting out from it to discourage even the birds.
“This the place?” Kivis asked, looking down to the ground level.
“Indeed. One of the Royal Safehouses.”
Kivis shrugged, putting her hand on the lip of the building to work her way down, climbing down a complex fasure. “You’re sure someone will be here?”
“It’s only for the use of royalty, their guests, and for visiting generals.” Aderyn murmured, lighting down on a windowsill next to her. Then a handhold to the windowframe, and Aderyn dropped further. The rain meant Kivis had to be careful, but the street wasn’t far – and with a thud, she landed fine and flat on the floor.
“Alright, how do we get in?”
“Well, traditionally,” Aderyn murmured, smoothing out her skirt, untying it from her hips, “we walk to the front door and knock.”
“That’s how these safehouses work?”
“I understand that’s how houses work.” Aderyn said, stepping across the road. The riot was far away, the rain was lighter, but still they skittered across the road quickly. Kivis didn’t like feeling water under her feet, not when a trip or fall could lead to serious damage to armour that already took plenty of time to maintain.
The gate opened to Aderyn’s hand, and it was only a few steps from there to the footpath. The drilling sound of rain on her helmet finally faded, and Kivis could relax from the beating feeling. Leaning against the doorframe, she adjusted her gauntlets.
“Trust gets you only so far, Aderyn. Who are we meeting here?”
“There’s a very good chance,” Aderyn said, holding her hand up, ready to knock, “that Lady Calpurnia Bachthane will be here, as that is her army outside the gates. If she isn’t here now, she will probably come here, and will want to talk to someone about the assassination of her husband.”
“… You want an in to the Palace? Why not use the soldiers?”
Aderyn raised her hand again, slightly irritated. “There is a certain professional standard and a cost-benefits structure. Rafe can afford low rates, but if I do that I run the risk of being-”
“Oh my god, you’re such a snob.” Kivis laughed in her helm. “You’re looking for someone who can pay Guild Rates?”
Aderyn raised her hand to the door, betraying only the tiniest irritation at the edges of that implacable expression. “I am a guilded assassin.”
“Yes, but it’s not like assassins do anything.”
“I do things.”
“You do assassinations.”
“Inasmuch as is appropriate for a young lady,” Aderyn said, then sharply rapped.
Kivis looked out to the street, expecting nothing from the door. The district was a higher calibre, with deliberately raised houses from the street level. Small gardens, with walls, with fences atop the walls. The occasional grotesque glared down from higher perches, and the sky was clearer here, with fewer rough black smears from chimneys designed for work rather than warming.
The door opened beside Kivis, and the click of a rifle followed. “You lot. Inside. Now.”
“Good morning,” Aderyn launched into her spiel as Kivis turned. “My name is Lady Aderyn DuThane, and-” Kivis watched as Aderyn, while speaking with that same perfectly-even tone, swung her hand out, underneath the gun, flipping the gun barrel upwards, pushing with what weight she had, stepping into the man’s space, stepping up, onto his knee, mashing the barrel of his own gun up under his chin and grabbing with her other hand the top of his head, holding herself there with her foot under the butt of the gun. Not once did she interrupt her speech, simply stating every word in the half-heartbeat it took her to ram the man’s gun into his own face, “- I’m an Assassin.”
Kivis waved off-handedly behind Aderyn. She seemed to have things in hand. The man wasn’t dressed military, though. It was the doughty brown work-pants, silver shoulder guards and a grilled face-plate that only came down over the face – and not, conspicuously under his chin – of a private guard.
“You mind if we come in for a chat? I think Aderyn would like to speak with Lady Calpurnia.”
The man leant back, one hand gripping the doorframe to address the shifting of his balance. Kivis saw her opportunity, and stepped forwards, shoving her boot against his knee, barging on past. “Aderyn, this isn’t a general’s guard.” She said. As the man fell backwards, Aderyn went upwards – grabbing the doorframe with one hand and pulling the gun up out of the falling man’s hand.
He thudded into the floor as Kivis planted her boot on his chest, leaning into it dramatically and looking down at him. “Alright, you. Who’s here?”
Three more rifle clicks filled the hallway. Kivis looked up.
The front room inside the safehouse was amazingly designed. The walls were painted a soft yellow, without the adornment or glory that Kivis associated with royal designs. Four pillars sat nested in the very corner of the room, without room to hide behind. The square room had a balcony above it, on three sides, from which guards were pointing rifles down. If Kivis had wanted to design an entryway hard to assault, this would have been it.
“Scuse us, mate, but I rather think it’s time you leave.”
“Lady.” Kivis shot back, standing up. Behind her, she heard Aderyn land and step into the room, looking up with an unconcerned air.
“Hello!” Aderyn said. “My name is Lady Aderyn DuThane and-”
“Get the boss, will ya, Durry?” called one of the men on the balcony. “There’s a guest.”
The prone guard pulled himself up – and after gathering his gun again, glared through his grilled helm at both the women.
“Well then, Aderyn,” Kivis asked, looking up at the guns. Armour wasn’t going to save her against three guns at once. The best defence to those things was not being hit. “Did you have a plan for this?”
“Well, yes,” Aderyn offered, gesturing at the man leaving. “Are you concerned?”
“Three men with guns waiting for us to do something. You’re not?”
Aderyn looked up, around the room, at the three guns, then turned back to Kivis. “No.”
It was only a few minutes when the guards led them into the main room of the safehouse, guns lowered, swords at their hips. Kivis’ count ran past five. Five was usually a good number of guards to handle, if they had guns. Guns levelled the playing field in an annoying way, but you could usually use the chaos and the space to pull people in the path of others’ guns.
After the entryway, Aderyn and Kivis were led through a linear path; the building had a very sensible design, where every room had exactly one entrance and one exit, spiralling into the building, up one wide staircase that led to the second storey, layering defences around. Each room had cupboards and closets, but they had no doors on them – linens and crockery were visible. The building was designed by a bygone era, when princesses and princes needed a fortress within the confines of the city itself.
“Oh, that’s the mirror path, isn’t it?” Aderyn asked, pointing up at the ceiling. A jutting, square-edged shape protruded from the otherwise smooth surface – low enough that Kivis could grab it with her hands.
“The what?” asked a guard, in response.
“The central room has windows that show the outside – because they use mirrors to reflect from the outside walls. That’s one of the paths the mirrors reflect down. You can open them up to clean them, I believe!”
“… What?” the guard responded.
“Never mind,” Aderyn offered, tucking her hands behind herself.
The final room had a pair of doors that opened outwards. A bed in one corner; a desk in the other; a weapons locker. A small alcove with a tea tray. It was Spartan, by royal standards – Kivis found herself appreciating it. Maybe at some point, royalty hadn’t been totally useless.
Sitting by the desk, on a short divan with a pen in his hand, was a round, white man who was maybe in his mid twenties but who looked like stress had pushed him well beyond that. There was nothing about him that was in any way empirically wrong, but he held himself like he was ashamed of everything, his hands resting on his knees and fretting back and forth.
“Why does he still have his sword?” the man said, gesturing over at Aderyn and Kivis, shifting back on the divan. “What am I paying you people for?”
Kivis made a show of turning her helm left and right, holding her open palm wide. “Who’s the he?” she asked.
The portly man blinked and squirmed visibly in the spot. “A-ah. You would be Lady Kivis Athene, then?”
“None other.” The helm also hid grins. Which was good. It wouldn’t do to let people know she loved those moments. “And you?”
“Ah, Asca Gorange. I’m just here in, ah, defensive posture against the riots, you see.” He said, shifting back and forth on the seat a little. Defensive was right – Kivis hadn’t said a thing.
“You say?” she asked. “We were here to meet with the General,” Kivis reiterated, adjusting her gauntlets.
“Well, you’re not going to meet with anyone while you have that sword. It’s against the rules.”
“We’re not allowed to display weapons?” Aderyn asked.
“No, and your lady will hand over her sword, thank you.” Asca growled.
“I don’t imagine you could make her-“ Aderyn began.
“It is one of the laws of the house. Nobles don’t bear weapons inside Royal safehouses.” Kivis noted, sourly, lifting the sword off her hip and handing it over. When had she last even drawn it? Swords had all sorts of rules associated with them. Formal structures she didn’t want to bother with right now. They took her sword, while she stood there, tapping her boathook in her free hand against her thigh.
“Content now, Asca?”
“Well, Miss Athene, that ah, hook-“
“It’s not a weapon. It’s a tool. And it’s Lady Athene.”
“Really, compared to me, you are a Miss.”
“Compared to you I’m a hammerjaw with cannons mounted on, Asca.” Kivis spat back.
“Lady Athene,” he said, drawing himself up as much as he could on his divan. “I’d like you to recognise that you are in a Royal Home, and as a Noblewoman, you are not permitted to cover your head without permission from the monarch.”
Kivis looked left, and right, at all the guards with their helmets, and their weapons and tilted her head as she turned back.
“Yes,” Asca said to the unasked question, “But they are commoners. You are a noblewoman and should be expected to set an example.”
Kivis clucked her tongue. “We’re doing this? Formal rules and all?”
“Can you think of a better way?”
Kivis reached up with her left hand, her right hand holding the boathook at her side. “Fine,” a buckle undone, a clasp clacked open, and she hauled off the helm. People who thought the helm was an advantage weren’t worth worrying about anyway. “Aderyn, do you need him for anything?”
“Oh, I am absolutely sure I couldn’t think of anything.” Aderyn said.
“Then if we’re getting formal, Asca Gorange, I challenge you to a duel.”
“Wh-why, whatever for?”
Kivis looked around the room, gesturing wide with her arms. “Oh, let’s say using the King’s safehouse without permission.”
“You don’t know I don’t have permission!” Asca shot back.
“And I don’t have to in order to feel insulted.” She tossed the helm up in her hand. “You going to refuse the duel?”
“Well, if I do refuse-” Asca began, and trailed off. Kivis drew a deep breath and wore as unimpressed an expression she could. Several guards seemed surprised, more than a few blatantly staring. Black hair done up in a braided whorl around the back of her head, she waited for the inevitable comment.
“I’m sorry, um, Lady Athene, I just… wasn’t … expecting… um.”
Kivis grit her teeth. “If you refuse, Asca, I invoke Jus Vindactum and half your family’s property becomes mine.”Cracking her knuckles she lowered the helmet and tucked it under her arm. “You know, that law designed to stop major families from bullying smaller families.”
Asca looked around the room like he’d realised that whatever reason he’d had to put himself in this room, he hadn’t been prepared for people to come in. He pulled himself up in his chair. “Well then, um. I don’t think I have the right to sign over half of all the Gorange estates.”
“You do, in this context,” Kivis noted. “You’ll just have to answer to your family as to why you are alive and they have to surrender half of all their properties.”
“… Well, I suppose then,” Asca drew himself up again, trying to gather some pride, looking all around the room for an exit, “I accept. And my second will be…” he looked around the room. “… All of them.”
Kivis looked around. “What, all ten-“
“There are thirty of them.” Aderyn said from the back of the room.
“Thirty, huh?” Kivis said, bringing her hand up to her jaw to rub against it. Considering. Thirty. Hrm. “… Fine.”
“Well, if you two, and um, you thirty, have some business,” Aderyn said, smoothly adjusting her blouse. “I do hope it isn’t too rude for me to step outside? I think I spotted a friend and I’d appreciate an opportunity to check up on her.”
Asca shifted in his seat, and leant forward, his grip on the arm of his chair. Nostrils flaring, he drew in a loud breath. “Quite frankly, Lady DuThane, I’ve had quite enough of Lleywan nobility for a lifetime. You are excused.”
“Weapon of choice?” asked the first guard, stepping forwards towards Kivis, as around him, his cohorts formed ranks and stood between Kivis and Asca. “We can give y’ back y’ sword if you want to die standing,” he said, spitting a nasty laugh.
Kivis lifted her boathook. “No, I’m good.”
Aderyn bobbed on her heels, smiling at the guards as she went, stepping down the steps to the entrance room. Once out the front door, she pulled it closed behind her, and turned to the bushes by the front gate.
“Queeny, you can come out now.”
“Aw, cripes, seriously?”
The bush surrendered the Wyndsyr girl reluctantly. Rather than her normal array of riotous colours, she wore an understated tunic of green, bound at the elbows into hard, arm-guarding pads of leather and metal. Atop her head she wore a dark green cloth, wrapped tight around her head, probably to hide her deliberately ridiculous hair. Still, wisps of bright pink hair showed at the edges of her ears, the little details in the bushes that had caught Aderyn’s eye on the way in.
“Hiii Addy.” Queeny said, scuffing one foot disconsolately. “You doin’ this job, then?”
Aderyn turned to look at the safehouse, then at Quynn. Alright. There was something she hadn’t been aware of. “This job?”
“That’s not why y’here?”
“No.” Aderyn imagined she should pinch her nose, to signal frustration, but doing so would provide information she didn’t need to. “I was here to meet with the general.”
“General?” Queeny fished around in her pocket. “He’s a fucking general?”
“… Um, no. Queeny,” Aderyn said, stepping off the path, into the garden. “How about you explain to me just what’s going on?”
“Well, some cobber’s come to th’guild lookin’ for a handful of jobs, real nobs an’ I figured well, if I’m goin’ up North after m’done here for th’year might s’well try out th’training before I go-”
Aderyn blinked very, very slowly. “Ah. You thought you’d perform an assassination on a lark.”
Aderyn nodded. Well, that made as much sense as any other way to fill the time for the wealthy. “And the contract here?”
Queeny shrugged, wrinkling her nose. “I dunno if ‘m s’pos’t-“
“Queeny, we are professionals. You can trust me.” Well, it was half true.
“Asca Gorange? Some fat bastard who’s apparently been playin’ with the wrong crowd.”
Aderyn nodded, looking up at the building. “You know, Queeny, I dare say that your contract might be void shortly.”
“Really? ‘E’s got like twenty-five guards in there.”
Queeny rolled her eyes and leant back against the bush. “I was just waiting for the night, s’all.”
“After a fashion, so am I.” Aderyn noted, looking to the windows.
The door didn’t really burst off its hinges – whoever designed it had made the door swing inwards rather than out. Nonetheless, when it opened, it opened with a gale of air fierce enough to whip Queeny’s cap right off her head, sending her hot-pink-and-blonde hair in a whorl around her.
Kivis stood in the doorway, bloody from the boots down, holding her boathook in one hand, red on her gauntlets. Dark blood on her cheeks, seeming somehow darker thanks to her skin. The shimmering steel of her armour cut a V in the dark blood on her armour, and the boathook was bloody on both ends.
“Aderyn,” Kivis said, stepping forwards, gripping her fists tightly. “What was that all in aid of?”
“I’m afraid I do not understand.” Aderyn responded, putting on a smile.
“Did you know that asshole was going to be in here?”
“I did not,” Aderyn noted, then pointed to Queeny. “This is my roommate, Lady Quynn Lyzbyth Wyndsr, the-”
Kivis pointed the boathook at her. “She done anything shitty?”
“What?” Aderyn blinked, as Queeny put her hands up.
“I cheated on my exams! Oh god! Please-”
“… Meh. I can let that pass.” Kivis shook her head, then grunted, looking back to the safehouse door, which, hanging open as it did, with the smear of blood on the carpet behind it, looked a little more foreboding than safe. “My helmet broke.”
“Oh. On what?”
“Back of Asca’s head.” She shook his head. “He tried to run. I figured throwing the helmet wouldn’t kill him.”
“Oh, um. Did it?”
Kivis shrugged. “That, or the fall afterwards. When he hit the carpet he bounced.”
“Oh.” Aderyn would have to make note of that for the future. Staircases would obviously be more dangerous to very heavy people. “Queeny, you can put your hands down. I don’t think Kivis is going to hurt you.”
Kivis shook her head, and patted her hip. “… Oh, damnit, I left my sword in there, too…”
“What the bloody bloody bloody hell is going on here?!”
The three women looked up at the new voice. Standing at the gate, clad in bronzed armour, was Calpurnia Bachthane – flanked on both sides by two soldiers, wearing formal uniforms. Aderyn considered sighing, to show relief, but General Calpurnia probably wouldn’t read it correctly. Stepping forwards, Aderyn made for a small bow. “My name is Aderyn DuThane, and I’m an-”
“What are you doing here?” Calpurnia interrupted, moving up the path, her retainers moving in a sweep with her.
Then, Aderyn felt it appropriate to sigh.
“Well, General, I’d like to talk to you about the possibility of dealing with the people who attempted to assassinate your husband.” Maybe, Aderyn thought, if she said it all in a rush, she wouldn’t. Be. Interrupted. This time.
The bronze-armoured woman looked between them… at the pink-haired assassin, the eerily calm Aderyn, and at Kivis, covered in blood, and the doorframe similarly stained.
“… Law, weapons ready. I think we’re going to have to step inside for a bit of a chat.”