One Stone, Chapter 7

Brother Fratarelli had only ministered to a few in Draftfane. Every time, though, he’d brought his chess set, a lovely collection of softwood pieces that had worn finger marks and damaged velvet; too fragile to use as anything but as a game set, something that never worried a warden. It served to occupy the hands, and focus the mind. Hard to keep secrets when you were looking at a game; harder to act innocent when you avoided a simple game to pass the time. Boredom set up his partners, and the game showed who they truly were.

“You’re not like many priests I’ve met,” Rafe said, running his fingertips over the pieces on the board, sliding one forwards just a space.

It was hard for Fratarelli to not look upon Rafe as The Boy. Maybe eighteen, seventeen years old – hard to tell with the industrial grime on his fingertips that suggested he might be stunted or worked young – and wiry. That face of his was young alright, lacking in scars and even a telltale crook in the nose suggesting a break at some point, common sights on boys that grew up on the streets. He had scars on his hands, on his forearms, on his shoulders – all exposed here in the prison, clad in a simple sack shirt and trousers to give him a modicum of presentability.

“I’d hope not. I’m alive.” The priest slid a piece in response, watching Rafe’s game. It was hard to dissect. Harder still to plan around. All those lost opportunities – all those times when he could have claimed great advantage, and chose not to. “Tell me what happened on the rooftop, Rafe.”

“I murdered a priest, slipped on the snow and sledded his body into prison.” Rafe said, tapping another piece in place, giving a dismissive shrug.

“Why are you lying to me?”

Rafe shrugged one shoulder, moving his knight with fingertips that fairly made the piece dance.

Another few moments, another set of moves. The boy looked at the board, kept his eyes on it. Normally, that made the Brother expect a novice, but Rafe had known the rules without any explanation. It made sense – chess was a fairly common thing to pick up in some prisons – and the boy clearly wasn’t stupid.

“What do you think of the city, o-o-of Timoritia, Rafe?” A different tack.

“I live here.” Another move.

“Do you really have an alternative?” An aggressive push.

“No.” And a piece came down, blocking the push, but not punishing it.

“That doesn’t make it much of an endorsement.”

“Know anyone who wants my endorsement, Brother?” Rafe asked, raising his head and looking the priest in his eyes. The boy seemed to be determined to live his life permanently scowling, and every expression was an attempt to hide it.

“About the murders you’re accused of,” Brother Fratarelli began.

“The murders I committed,” Rafe said, raising his eyes and looking the priest square-on, clear defiance in his eyes.

“Liar.” Brother Fratarelli shot back.

“Prove it.”

Brother Fratarelli shifted in his chair, resting his hand on the seat. To no surprise, seats in a prison like Draftfane weren’t particularly nice. When he came here, he’d wanted to prove something to be true and make a decision based on that information. Still… the Church did honour the value of faith.

Perhaps it was worth the risk.

“I’d like you to come with me.” The priest said, even as his back creaked in protest at having sat for so many hours.

“I’ve heard that from priests before.” Rafe shot back, eyes flaring with anger.

“I assure you, no such thing.” The Brother raised his hands, waving them reassuringly. “I wish to take you out of Draftfane. I’m a believer, you see, in the church as an engine for social good. When my congregation is joined, I look upon my flock and see who can help who. A bricklayer has lost his job? Well, a plasterer in my congregation may well be able to help him find work. A florist’s windows have been smashed? Why, I look to my flock’s glazier.” The round-faced little priest gave the boy with the tangled brown hair a smile.

“And me? What do you want a murderer for?”

“Murder, of course.”

*

When Brother Fratarelli returned with a guard, he was glad to see Rafe had managed to mask his glare to some extent. When they finished the paperwork, returning Rafe’s meagre possessions to him, and signed the orders releasing the boy into the care of the Church, that mask slipped, just a touch.

The guards were laughing at Rafe as an incompetent, part of what had made it easy to convince them that the church could care for him. He wasn’t dangerous – He was an idiot.

If looks could kill, Rafe would have been a sevenfold murderer before they left that building.

*

When Rafe’s toes hit cobbles, the transformation in his movement was startling and absolute – he was down. Instead of the sullen, resentful, slumping motion of a barely house-trained teenager, he had the decisive movement of an urban predator. Soft shoes deformed around his toes as all the power in his legs bunched up and practically threw him down the street.

Rafe had his head lowered and shoulders in, and loosed like a bullet from a gun, one arm hanging down lower than the other. At the t-junction next to Brother Fratarelli, instead of darting down the street away from him, into the construction work, he darted past the round man. One hand grabbed at Brother Fratarelli’s cabled belt and pulled as he ran – yanking the knot at the right angle to untether it, releasing the big man’s bigger pants into a mess of tangled fabric down at his ankles.

“Rafe! Stop!” yelled the priest, as Rafe put fifty ems between them, weaving between the people on the street. “You’ll hurt yourself!”

Rafe may have considered himself an expert in this kind of evasion, but the concern in the old man’s voice was so sincere and so utterly inappropriate, he almost let it flag his movement. Almost.

Stepping between two people like a cat through a fence, Rafe had the determined cast of a man who wasn’t going to stop moving at a run until his lungs started to burn. He swung one hand out to grab the edge of a cart and vault himself over it.

When a person is moving at a dead run, the brain doesn’t really pay attention to everything around it. There’s a certain freedom that comes from dropping responsibility and fleeing. Adrenalin floods the system, and wide-eyed and heart-pounding moments melt all but the most important of details away. Things that take moments of time seem to stretch out like soft dough, drawn thinner and thinner until that crucial moment when everything snaps, and reality reasserts itself.

A steel-clad fist arced over the side of the cart, and suddenly, Rafe wasn’t flinging his body over an obstacle, he was using his upper body strength to crash his face into the unyielding metal wall of a fist that was having none of this nonsense.

That tightly-wound spring of muscle and bone collapsed in an undignified heap, the back of Rafe’s head thudding off the cobblestones, his whole body bouncing with the impact. Barely a moment of scrabbling put him up on his knees while his hands nursed his face, trying to feel if he’d been given a permanent dent. His nose, miraculously unbroken, still sat in the same place as it always had, but he felt like the rest of his face had been relocated.

Then a pair of metal-shod feet pounded into the cobblestones next to Rafe, fairly hard enough to make him imagine the stones cracking and breaking, while he swept his head to look up and down the figure that had just replaced his plan with pain. Those heavy boots showed a feather pattern around the edges, up to metal-plated thighs and a heavy, side-slung belt. Hanging from that belt was a longsword with a hilt similarly designed to show feathers of a polished brass style. Then a breastplate, shoulderguards with a brown cape behind it, and a helmet that looked nothing less than a bird attempting to be covert in a filigree factory. The figure looked down at him, adjusting its gauntleted fist, and raised one, commanding finger, wagging it back and forth, before turning to the cart owner. Coins changed hands.

“Ah, um, yes, Rafe!” Brother Fratarelli said, stumbling up behind the scene. “I’m so glad you’re not too badly hurt!” putting one hand on Rafe’s shoulder, the portly priest strained, leaning back like a counterweight, to help him up to his feet, even as Rafe tried to deal with the dizzying swirl of stars that encased his head. It was further complicated by the priest having one hand stuck at his belly, holding his pants up through his outer robe. “This would be Lady Kivis Athene, your … bodyguard, I suppose? Or parole officer. I’m not sure what she would prefer.”

Rafe nursed his face and blinked frantically, trying to turn the mess of crystal confusion before him into normal vision, trying to make the three images of the knight before him stop wobbling side-to-side and focus into one person. The slits in her helm were deep and angled inwards, giving her metal ‘face’ a predatory, implacable air. Someone in there was watching him, but Rafe couldn’t tell a damn thing about her. That made him uncomfortable. The worst combination he could hope for at this point was to find she was humourless and principled.

“It’s very strange!” Brother Fratarelli said, looking up at the woman. She didn’t loom, being barely taller than Rafe even with her armour and boots, but there was this strange air of preparedness about her. As if she was waiting for the right opportunity before towering over a terrified party. A sort of loom-in-potentia. “Like you said, he ran left, instead of right – right past me! How did you know that?”

Rafe opened his mouth to answer, then shut it straight away. Don’t interrupt people making assumptions.

“He thinks he’s clever.” The knight said. The helmet hid her features, but it couldn’t hide the voice; perhaps in the middle of the night, drunk, or when she was yelling, one could mistake her voice for a man’s. In the armour, which had a breastplate that was designed to be more plate than breast, she could probably be mistaken as totally androgynous, otherwise. “Clever people like doing clever things.”

Brother Fratarelli looked up at Rafe, giving him a shiny smile, sweat sheening him thanks to the exertion of chasing down the boy. “Ah, yes, well, um, well, he is pretty clever! That trick with my belt-“

Kivis swung one hand down and smacked Brother Fratarelli’s hand, prompting his pants to fall down again, before turning to press one finger against Rafe’s chest, like she was nailing him down. No words, she just stood, staring at him from those pitiless slits in the helm.

Brother Fratarelli managed to get his pants back in order, before clearing his throat and continuing. “You remember how you said that nobody gave a whit about you living or dying? Well, good news! Lady Kivis here is obligated by law to give a whit!”

“Two whits,” her voice just barely scraped away from being an outright snarl. Clamped metal fist tilted, and she extended her left hand, palm raised. “To whom?” she asked, an opportunity to introduce himself.

“Rafe, you’re glaring.” Brother Fratarelli said, reaching out to take his hand, guiding it into an awkward shaking position with Kivis. “Kivis! This is Rafe, the boy I told you about. He’s the worst murderer in all of Timoritia!”

“… Charmed.” Kivis said, gesturing with her right hand as Rafe shook her left. “The coins?”

Rafe tilted his head back. God damnit, she was a thief-taker. Holding out his right hand, he dropped the coins she’d given the cart-holder into her hand. A momentary lapse of attention, when she turned to check if the cart was still near, and she turned back to see the coins in her hand, in a neat stack.

Rafe didn’t need to see her eyes to know she was narrowing them.

“Ah, Lady Athene?” Brother Fratarelli cleared his throat. “Can you release Rafe’s throat? I think he needs that.”

Slowly, metal fingers uncurled from Rafe’s throat and he gave her a winning smile in return. Really, more of a pyrrhic victory of a smile, considered. “Well,” he croaked, rubbing his throat and looking down to the priest. “Where now? Chance of a meal and some warm clothes?” he asked, pushing his luck already. “Or we on business ‘ready?”

“Oh! Just one last piece of business before we return to the church!” Brother Fratarelli said, smiling and patting Rafe’s arm. “We’re just going to hire an assassin!”

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