One Stone, Chapter 14

Why had she mentioned that the man was a father?

That thought nagged at Rafe in a very non-specific way. Since she’d thrown herself off a rooftop and popped a window with more care than he would have, he’d been re-evaluating what he thought of the gi-the young la-the woman.

The building had that lovely tudor outside, with its white spaces and black lines, and its inside was all wooden panelling, polished and kept well. Up here on the top storey, rather than run gas pipes through the floor, they’d run them up to the high ceiling, and created a little space of shadow above the gas-lit lamps, a space where an enterprising person of flexible stance and quiet grace could compress themselves and move with relative ease.

Rafe loved these old houses. If every house had space like this he could have treated the secured homes of the four noble houses as a goddamn highway. The snaking gas pipe that ran from one corner of the house rested on a wooden panel that hung from the ceiling on stout metal braces, but also had a thin patina of dust on it. Rafe could imagine servants stuffing a feather duster up through the narrow gap between the centre and the sides – a gap a little wider than one of his feet – until it hit the ceiling above, and wiggle it around until the thing came back dusty. Actually coming up here to clean would be hazardous and irritating and servants, even the most conscientious of servants, were rarely in their job because they loved removing dust from homes so large their owners would never notice if they did it or not. When the panels met a light fitting, they spread wider – and that gave Rafe the room to climb up, even if it did leave the light fixture swaying gently.

The gentle bob of the light fitting, the faint groan of the wood as Rafe tested his weight against it wouldn’t have caught most guards anyway. Certainly not this retirement-bound dullard. The soft carpets down on the floor, a floor that barely ever creaked, gave a familiar pwad-pwad-pwad that fairly announced the guard’s location like he was ringing a bell. He talked to himself, too, and Rafe listened for a few moments.

Rafe was not Aderyn; he had no classic education in fiction, no appreciation for the assumption that a man left to his own devices and speaking unobserved was meant to speak at length and usefully about the task any listener was doing. That wasn’t what he expected. Rafe was listening for something else. As it happened, the guard was doing what most sane individuals reserved for private walks and the shower: He was winning an argument against someone who had stopped talking to him a few hours ago.

“Don’t see why the girl shouldn’t know how to use a sword,” and such phrases. No confessions of drunken stumblings home. “She’s my daughter too,” No mention of a particular favourite meal of the lord’s, or convenient locations of keys, “Don’t see what she’ll learn stitching that she doesn’t already know,” just disjointed complaining at someone who wasn’t there to listen to it.

Rafe’s bare fingers slid along the wood while he moved above the guard. The guard moved in a little puddle of noise, a safe little place. In his time he’d learned one of the fastest ways to move around was in the shadow of a bigger boy.

A corner in the hallway pulled the guard along. Rafe could see him through the narrow slit in the ceiling. If the guard had looked up, he’d have seen nothing, too; not even Rafe’s pale face and hands were evident compared to the bright light.

Rafe didn’t remember when he learned that trick – when he learned how people who held lights were blind. It was just something the gutters knew and he knew it too. When a guardsman was running around waving a hooded lantern, it showed you nice and clear the only place that the guard was even bothering to look. This one had a wide, well lit corridor to patrol around, up and down, up and down, around the corner, and around the other corner, maybe stop and look at that statue of a Pegasus, move on again. The man had the lazy legs of a career guard, ambling along.

When Rafe found a fork in the ceiling’s chamber, away from the guard, he didn’t hesitate before taking it. The Praefoco estate had a courtyard in the middle, a space some ten meters by ten meters, enormous in a city so tightly packed. You could play a decent game of football there, or cricket, or some other traditional game. Rafe wasn’t familiar with traditional games, really – the only one he remembered was ‘kick the shit out of the posh kid,’ or, failing that, ‘the kid that can read.’

The rooms were a different tale to the hallway. Some were glorified closets, he expected a library, maybe a smoking room – things that men of noble birth wanted to do up on stilts away from the cobblestones that had commoners sometimes upon them.

Rafe slowly relaxed his grip on the knife. Praefoco was just a target. While he had to die for the sake of Rafe’s freedom, and he was going to die because Rafe was good at his job, Praefoco was not some jumped-up mid-street jackass with soap behind his ears and a sneer over his folded arms, having hired bigger bullies to do his fighting for him. He wasn’t the wealthy man with a cane who knew the constables and was vicious enough to come back to give orphans a thrashing. Praefoco was just another nobleman, he wasn’t some kind of symbol –

Rafe looked down at the room underneath him and his eyes widened. Nobody in that room – and the fixture sat in the centre of the room nice and clear, giving him the room to slither down onto the ground, to look around the room, to look down at the open book before him. Momentarily paranoid, he darted away, like the book could bite him, to the room’s door, and leant down to check the door. A little nudge of his wrist against the doorknob – it was locked. He was secure.

It was not the book that had caught his eye. It was the stand next to it, taller than him and hosting a white robe with a hood that looked like the priest’s. While owning a white hooded robe was in no way a remarkable thing, the mask hanging from the thing and the prominence it had, in this half-lit room was quite astounding.

Rafe didn’t murmur to himself, ‘what the fuck.’ And let the word trail off into nothing. That was amateur burglar shit. The first time you found yourself in a churchman’s basement where a leather saddle was hooked to the ceiling underneath some elaborate contraption on chains, you had to lose that instinct because there was nothing that people with money didn’t eventually find interesting.

A white robe like a priest’s, and a mask, featureless and almost perfectly shaped. It was creepy – the only word Rafe had for it. The book, sat next to it, was opened wide, which immediately made Rafe figure it as unimportant. He’d found a way into this room without even trying, and the book wasn’t locked – despite having a padlock. A quick look at the page yielded row after row of numbers and other odd symbols, margins in red ink, where math that didn’t make sense to him spilled downwards.

What did make sense to him was down the bottom – the smear of black text:

Ulster doesn’t want the Wifeless supply cut off – v imp. Check w/Nebrn

Rafe shrugged his shoulders, and looked up at the not-quite ghost of fabric. Normally when he saw a weird thing in a noble’s house, it made some sense. The room full of mirrors, the enormous playpen, the leather stuff and the saddles and the buckles? That all made sense. Somehow he could look at a noble and figure, well I know what that’s for.

This?

This just gave him the willies.

Rafe looked at the walls, picked his space, and ran up into the ceiling, heading further inwards. A book full of bad mathematics, a phantomlike outfit, and a locked door that wouldn’t block anyone who thought in curves was odd. It wasn’t a distraction. But maybe it meant Praefoco had something to say – or think – about people in robes with hoods.

Rafe hung over the gas pipe and listened carefully for sounds of the guard. Couldn’t hear them – man was probably scoring himself a cigarette on the balcony. Good. Guy deserved it, and it meant he wasn’t in the path of danger. Rafe didn’t-quite-smile as he made his way forwards, inwards. A corner , another corner – signs he was at the inside ring of the house. Next light fitting, he peeked down, and swung into the room.

The internal walls still had that tudor style, but the black wooden barriers around formed a square frame into open space, with folding shutters and thick woollen curtains, pulled back. The room, well-lit, only served to glimmer up above and provide a warm atmosphere for the green downstairs, where metal ovens, decorated tastefully, sat on wrought-iron legs on the grass, so they could provide warmth to the laughing, giggling nobles.

These arseholes would even insulate themselves against the good honest wind. Rafe’s sneer wasn’t even conscious. Putting his hands on the sill, he peered downwards, looking for a figure – where was she. She should have been able to make her way down to the ground level and blend in – unless something had gone wrong.

Ah.

There she was – Aderyn, sliding through the crowd…

Wait, nobody was even looking at her?!

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