The river’s name, at its head, was Beagnaoth, a deference to the bloody battles fought for its source by old tribes, where a length of iron the breadth of a man’s wrist, forged in ashen fires, could constitute a weapon of mass destruction. Towards the mouth where it kissed the Strait between Gallia and Tiber, it was known as The Scramasax, a reference to that window of time when boats were crafted on the river to be loosed onto the Gallian shore like arrows from a bow. Along the way, there had been attempts to name it by the nearest landmark, from back when those landmarks were new ideas, so there were straits of its wending way known as the Ironwall Heft, the Tower Strait, the Benjamin, and most bafflingly, The Deep Wet. None of the names had stuck except amongst the people who considered themselves elite for knowing something nobody else knew. To the million names and faces that lived walking distance from it, the River was simply The River. It had become such a common thing that modern maps often just labelled that wriggly expanse as The.
At its deepest, you could house one of those enormous storage ships called hulks, harboured temporarily and scudded in the narrow throat, to unload, or load up. At its shallowest, you could run across it, provided it was a warm day and the scum on the surface didn’t break. It glowed in the sunset, mostly thanks to the floating surface chemicals, and it sheened in the mornings when the tanners waded out in reinforced rubbers to scoop strange, coagulated lumps off the top in the name of further research into what horrible things tanners could monetise.
The Assassins’ Guild was situated quite a way away from those parts of The River, and instead was near the wider parts, where you could take a barge across, or one of the many tilting bridges that opened and closed. Those tall towers were almost always used as first-year exam practice by young students, and very rarely did anyone die from it, thanks to the generations of climbing hands making sure all the handholds and footholds were stout and strong. Aderyn remembered her first year test, when she’d been told to use climbing in a form of assassination. Most students favoured a high location so they could drop down on a passerby, or, more often these days, crossbow them with a clear line of sight. Of course, they weren’t really targets, but effigies of straw, moved amongst the traffic of a day. If your task hit the wrong person, you were docked quite a few marks, which was only small compensation for the occasionally accidentally-shot poor person.
Aderyn had dropped a liter clay pot of oil down onto her target, followed by carefully carved pieces of flint, which thanks to their shape were guaranteed to hit the rocks of the bridge at an angle to give off a spark. She’d underestimated the value of the wind, but there had been a hay-cart crossing the bridge at the time, which had served to at least prove the theory of her work sound.
It was under that same bridge that Aderyn stood next to Rafe, a scarf tucked up around her throat, hiding her mouth and expression as she looked out across the river from a much lower level than she was used to.
The city was strangely compressed, she reflected. At the very tops of its towers, where she had stood in her studies, she could see to the horizon, and even fancied at times she’d seen the winking lights of the Gallian shore. Rafe wasn’t that kind of thing, he didn’t soar above the skyline and leap from rooftop to rooftop unless he was scared. Even when he did take to the skies, it was with such a sullen refusal to forget where his feet came from. Yet, when you stood this close to the edge of the water, those towers seemed so strangely close. Looking up, over the hard stone protections, her hands folded underneath her coat, warded against the inevitable rain, she wondered if that was why Rafe was so grubby.
“Y’sure this is where th’boat comes?”
Aderyn rolled her eyes. He was so delightfully predictable. “Rafe, we’ve been waiting for less than eighty seconds.”
“S’pose so, but –“
Rafe’s mannerisms stayed away from his head and neck, which was strange. Those hands stayed by his side, opening and closing back into fists, again and again.
“I don’t suppose you thought we’d wait until Luke Cornell’s riverboat just drifted on past us, for the first time ever, we’d leap aboard and just deal with him?”
Rafe looked into the water, thankful it was too murky to show his expression in reflection.
“It’s that sort of planning, really that got you caught for those three murders you didn’t commit.”
Aderyn didn’t need to see his reflection to know the look on his face.
“Now then,” Aderyn looked up the river. “It seems the timing is a little off.”
Rafe had this way of starting a sentence that made it sound like he was hissing it, as if the words were being leaked out of a kettle on the boil. “It is a crime boss’ head quarters.”
“You’ve mentioned. I don’t find crime bosses do well if they aren’t punctual, though.”
“Where’d you get that idea from?”
“Rafe, you’ve heard of the Goranges, haven’t you?”
Rafe finally turned, and looked at her with a very knit expression. Like he didn’t want to open up his face much or something might burst out of it, possibly his skull. “I’ve heard of them,” he ventured.
Aderyn finally realised what was going on.
“Um,” she began, hesitating with careful practice, in case this was like the uterus talk she begun that time. “Well, the Goranges own three of the largest banks in Timoritia. They have been mostly in the business of stealing, in one way or another, other people’s money and using it for their own personal interests since before, well, before the Cathedral at Connaught was built.”
“How do you know?”
“Because the Cathedral at Connaught was built to destroy several hundred thousand pounds of bad debts.”
Rafe stopped short. “Hang on, the Cathedral at Connaught? The great big one with the cockerel in the window?”
“Yes!” Aderyn said, suddenly lighting up in a way Rafe hadn’t been prepared for. “You’ve been there?”
“Uh… well, I have, after a fashion.”
“I love that up close, each red pane of the cockerel is – hang on, you sound guilty. When?”
“You know that murder I didn’t commit?” There was a scorpion in Rafe’s voice.
“That’s where I didn’t commit it. Slid off the roof with the guy.”
“… Oh.” Aderyn blinked. The lowest roof off the Cathedral at Connaught was three storeys tall, well, two if you considered that the tower at the side was a spiralling staircase and deliberately left space in the middle. That was a lot of distance to fall, and suddenly something clicked into place.
“Oh, Rafe.” She said, leaning forwards. “Is… is that what this has been about? Did you and the Father have an argument, then he slipped, and fell, and you went to prison because you felt guilty about it?”
Rafe turned to look back out at the river, raising his shoulders and heaving a sigh. “… Yeah, Aderyn. That’s what it was.”
Aderyn shook her head. “That’s very sad.”
Rafe turned to walk up the stairs, his hands stuffing into his pockets. “Kinda tricky to explain all the stab wounds he got, too.”
A few moments later, Aderyn trotted after him, inexplicably steamed. “Rafe, we’re waiting for a boat.”
Rafe stopped at the top of the stairs. “Yeh. And it’s not coming this morning. I know enough about men like Cornell that if he’s late, there’s a reason, and it’s probably not nice.” Gesturing over his shoulder at the water. “Man like him makes people wait and does a lotta business with folk who only know Benjamin’s hours. C’mon. You got any money?”
Aderyn trotted up the steps to stand much closer to Rafe when she answered. “I have a little bit of money on my person, yes, and I would appreciate it if you do not make an issue of it, Rafe. There are muggers in these parts.”
Rafe blinked at her like she’d sprouted wings. “You’re fucking serious, aren’t you.”
“There are roughly five incidents of street crime an hour in this district of Timoritia, even this close to the Guildhall.”
“Yeh, because the kids going to the Guild actually have some shit worth nicking. C’mon. I’m hungry and I haven’t been this close to Mama’s for five weeks. C’mon,” he said, emphasising the word again and gesturing with his head. “Just across the bridge, one block that ways, and we’ll have some hot food and I’ll be able to let her know I’m out of prison.”
“Your mother?” Aderyn asked, as they made their way across the bridge. Even out from under its shadow, it was still bitterly cold, and those towering posts gave shelter to loitering hands and their knives. Aderyn briefly shivered from the cold, and stepped closer to Rafe. “And she hasn’t heard from you in four weeks?”
“Prolly closer to nine? And nah, she ain’t my mam. Well, nah, I don’t think so.” Rafe hestitated, noticing Aderyn drawing closer. “Hang on, what’s-“
“’Scuse us, mister,” the voice said from the side of the cart. “You two wouldn’t mind stepping over here for a minute, would ya?”
Rafe didn’t even turn his head, ignoring the source of the voice, which was probably a foot above his head. “Piss off.”
“See, it’d be a dreadful shame to get blood all over the young lady’s-“
It was probably only a minute later, but Rafe had to admit, it was a very eventful minute.
“So you’re saying you didn’t recognise me, Praddy?”
“I didn’t! I didn’t Rafe! You know me, hah, it’s – I mean, you remember back with the Cherish lads and the scrap on Bottle Lane, and-“
“Yeah, yeah, I reckon.” Rafe mused, keeping his tone of voice very even. “Y’heard much about Mama?”
“Oh, yes, yer Mama? She’s been real good, right proper fine,” he swallowed gingerly. “Don’t much bother with the wallet, really. And I don’t really know that guy either.”
“You said,” Rafe flicked through the billfold, ruminating on how it really was quite nice leather. Decent amount of cash in it, too, some of those really nice leafed-in bank notes. Man had to be turning some regular coin to get bank notes like that. “And so, guess I should introduce, this here’s a bloke I used to run with back when we were kids, names’… what was it again, Praddy?”
“Praddy! Praddy!” the bigger man yelped, blowing his long, straggly hair out of his face as best he could without moving his head too much. “Y’always called me Praddy because, because of that split lip, and saying Patty was ‘ard!”
Rafe stepped back from the edge of the bridge, folding the wallet closed. “Yeah, and this is my friend,” he drew himself up with what he felt was a little pardonable swagger, “Lady Aderyn DuThane. ‘Ey, Aderyn?”
“Yes, Rafe?” Aderyn asked, her tone so smooth you could roll rocks on it.
“You can probably let him down now.”
With the care of a surgeon – which, in Timoritia, is to say ‘enough to make you scared of what the hacksaw is for’ – Aderyn pulled the blade out of the railing by the man known as Padraig’s head and let go of the back of his neck. No longer confined by the blade pressing against the back of his ear and menacing further damage, he unfolded and stood up straight, but not too straight, because Aderyn’s foot was still planted firmly on his hand against the wrought iron fretwork under the wooden rail. As she lowered her foot, he gingerly brought the hand that wasn’t bleeding up to the side of his face that was also not bleeding, and pushed his hair back out of his eyes. “Uhm, uh-“ he managed. “Uh, DuThane, then. That’s, uh, that’s Emralt, right?” he lamely tried, swallowing slowly.
“Lleyma,” she responded, clipped.
“Yeh,” Rafe said, leaning from around her side. “Means ‘Of Thane.’”
“That doesn’t mean that,” Aderyn said, as Rafe spoke over the top of her head.
“So anyway, uh, Praddy-“
“Excuse me, Rafe,” Aderyn said, leaning back and looking up at Praddy. “I think I know the customary thing to do here.”
Praddy looked very, very nervous, as Aderyn took his wallet off Rafe, and snapped it closed. Raising her hand, she flung it down the bridge, off back the way they came. “Now piss off.” She appended. Praddy didn’t need two hints – he was bolting away at pace, leaving behind the prone form of his cohort.
Rafe looked down at the second body, and jutted his chin as he considered. “Probably can sell the boots, but getting rid of bodies is a bit of a bugger. Could throw him over the rail I suppose-“
Then the man groaned.
“Oh, Christ,” Rafe said, hunkering down. “Guess you messed up, Aderyn. Didn’t kill the guy?”
The look she shot Rafe was surprisingly hurt. “Rafe, I am a professional.”
“Wait, what?” he asked, distracted even as he rolled the hurt man onto his back. “What’re y’saying.”
“I’m not going to go around killing people without being paid for it.”
“What, like Luke Cornell?” Rafe asked, his head tilted to the side. “C’mon, mate, up you get. She barely touched you. Most of this blood’s Praddy’s I – oh, no, wait, guess she really did touch you. Christ, if you’re going to try hittin’ girls, you should at least make sure y’can take the hit back…” Rafe tut-tutted. “Y’mum able to sew?”
The accomplice, burbling through bloody lips, hunkered away from the implicit threat.
“I didn’t mean that!” Rafe shook his head, tousling the hurt man’s hair. “Just sayin’, if she doesn’t stitch up y’cheek, it’s gunna heal funny. She can’t? Okay, burble once for yes, twice for no.” Beat. “Okay, so she can’t sew. Alright, then.” Rafe said, bending down, and hoisting with one arm. “C’mon. We’ll get you some attention.”
The man burbled again, and Aderyn tilted her head the opposite way, as the man unsteadily wobbled on his feet. “Where?” It wasn’t like she knew Rafe to be particularly medically minded.
“Gunna ask if Mama can take care of him.” Rafe said, and suddenly he wasn’t helping anyone stand at all. Praddy’s accomplice had bolted away from him, given mad strength by fear, and Rafe almost fell over with the suddenness of it.
“Christ, what a waste of time,” he said, shaking his head. “Guess he doesn’t like paying for needlework,” he said, stuffing his hands into his pockets again and stepping back towards the walkway on the bridge.
Aderyn smoothed her scarf back in place and cleared her throat. “I must say, I think it’s jolly nice of you to be so kind to introduce me to your old friends.” A pause. “And it’s even nicer of you to introduce me as your friend.”
“Why’s that so nice?” he said, confused.
“Because, well, I rather thought that you thought I was a horrible noblewoman abusing your knowledge of window snibs to advance her own plans.”
Rafe drew his chin out long, lips finally parting with a thoughtful pop. “Well, guess so. Are y’?”
“I do not believe that there is much room in my life for horribleness.”
“Just killing people professionally.”
“I did say much.”
“Exactly as much as is appropriate for a young lady.”
Aderyn wasn’t sure why Rafe laughed at that. She’d work out what made him laugh, eventually.