One Stone, Chapter 9

Terry stood out by the windy corner of the Cathedral, idly turning a water-butt and examining it as if for cracks. The still surface of the water gave him a mirror to watch the rooftops closest to the Guild, and his position on the ground, checking around him from time to time, gave him a clear view of the other route from the school. Finding the student was never hard – they didn’t have to hide on the way to the area, and because students were students, they didn’t. Instead they’d put in no effort on the way into the zone, then infinite effort once they were there.

A cat landed behind him. He didn’t turn his head. Noticing a cat was suspicious, and reacting to a sound when you were ‘working’ was also suspicious. Instead he lowered his head, looking into his barrel, checking behind him under the lee of his arm. Nobody he could spot – cat probably moved back into the alleyway, into the darkness. It was a blind alleyway – the cat would come out eventually.

A few moments later, he spotted her, coming down the street parallel to him. Aderyn was easy to pick out. She’d at least avoided dressing like a black hatpin, which was good – most of the other students had to do their entire job on the rooftops, because nothing stood out in the crowd like a nervous student wearing nothing but black silk. Worse were the ones who’d tried to make a fashion of it. Still, that bright shock of white-blonde hair stood out, bright and bold and he’d picked it out easily. Then, her sweater – a striped pattern? That didn’t blend either.

Technically, it wasn’t her job to avoid the invigilator. The job was to find the target based on hidden clues, then reach them and take them out, and the invigilator was to see if they made mistakes. The Guild’s only option when the invigilator lost track of a student was to assume they could at least avoid one excellent observer, which would have to count as a pass mark, if the target wound up ‘dead.’

Aderyn moved from point to point in the crowd, but with a very patient manner. Most students were nervous; he’d seen that plenty of times. They tried to pick out the invigilator in a crowd, then sought to impress them, which rarely worked. This girl – and he did think of her as a girl, not a young lady – moved from group to group, from stall to stall, making her way down the street slowly, like she was idle. Not a bad strategy, really. Of course, finding all the clues to the target would be difficult at that pace – some were time-sensitive, after all.

His jacket flapped around him as he left the alleyway, moving on to the next water-butt, a good excuse working well a second time, keeping his peripheral vision on Aderyn. Timing his steps alongside her, he turned just a moment to look down into the barrel, checking the skyline for anything unexpected, and then glanced back up.

The white hair was lost as it passed into the crowd, but that sweater was unmistakeable, moving along beside the crowd. It’d lost that patience, which made sense – she’d know the clues were time-sensitive, too. His hands turned the barrel while he turned himself, miming as a man trying to find something lost. The sweater picked up – then stepped down the alleyway opposite him, on the far side of the road.

He crossed quickly, pulling his coat around him as he went, protecting him from the wind while he melted into the crowd again, watching down the blind alleyway, looking up at the walls for a climbing young woman. There wasn’t any other way out of it, after all.

A prickle of something ran through his shoulders and into his scalp, like the cold wind had found its way down the back of his collar. A moment of itchiness passed, and Terry only reacted to it by scratching his moustache with one hand, running his fingers across the top of his head and then rubbing his bare hair-

Hang on.

Terry turned around sharply, looking behind him, the sudden realisation that something had slipped his mind breaking years of training.

*

Aderyn’s bare shoulders flexed while she climbed the church tower. The wind whipped around her at a dreadful pace, but thankfully, that heavy cap kept her hair under control. Why targets had to be hidden in high towers seemed foolish to her. Towers were a place people were cornered. A more meanspirited thought than normal crossed her mind that these parts of the test were designed to simply keep people below a minimal level of athleticism from succeeding, but couldn’t that be done with a footrace, as well? After all, pursuing a target could be dreadfully tiring, if they were actually mobile, and maybe in a cart, rather than simply sitting in a tower, imagining they were safe because they couldn’t think of any way into that same tower.

Underneath her sweater, she’d worn wrist guards with simple hooks on them, to aid in climbing, and a narrow-shouldered top that gave her arms plenty of freedom. Closing fingers in tight clamps on the irregularities of the church tower, she made progress one foot, one hand, at a time. From up this high, she probably blended in decently enough with the darker tiles of the tower – allowing her to focus on her task.

Reminding herself she’d need to head back and find that sweater, Aderyn pulled her weight up onto the sill, and slipped into the relatively small room, with its sleeping occupant. Not an atypical garrett – the kind of places stories began. A church bell hung nearby overhead, and a locked and barred door on the floor showed the expected and obvious way up that wouldn’t work.

Aderyn slipped from the framing light of the window and moved, catlike, towards the edge of the bed. Reaching to her belt, she unsheathed the one knife she’d brought with her, and drew to the form.

Amateurs stabbed through the blanket. That had been in the exam notes. It made it look like a crime of passion, or fear, where the killer couldn’t bear to see the target honestly. Aderyn slid back the blanket, and looked down at… well, the body.

It was an exquisitely crafted body, shaped like a young man in the later parts of his youth. Perhaps a little fey and pretty by her reckoning, not that that was bad at all, and possessing an attractive pair of collar bones. His – its – skin had been tempered together with a mix of wax and unguents to betray fingers that touched it, but also with a small clockwork set to the chest, which made the figure’s chest softly rise, softly fall.

Aderyn counted, drew a large breath, then plunged her knife upwards, stabbing up under the ribcage, trying to strike at the heart but knowing she wanted to tear the stomach as much she could, to ensure trauma and bleeding. One, single stab – and the engine stopped. She counted, drawing back – then looked down at her knife, decorated with red paint. She stabbed it back in again, then yanked the blade out, wiping it clean on a rag from her belt, and slipped it into its sheathe, where it sat unevenly.

Aderyn huffed, pouting and blowing her cheeks out, crossing her arms across her belly, squeezing herself momentarily. Then, she looked down at the door, and the window. Crawling up over the windowsill, Aderyn took a markedly slower pace, breathing slowly and steadily. Over the windowsill, onto the tower wall – and she was on her way back to school.

*

Terry stood in the garret, his hands on his hips, looking at the examiner. “Not a word of a lie. Basic trick, but it worked. Girl made me figure she was a student.” He shrugged. “Ditched her sweater onto someone else, didn’t even notice it’d happened.”

The Examiner was barely listening to him. Instead, she held the device from the fake body’s chest in her hands, fishing away at its leathery surface with a pair of tweezers.

“Not sure how she found this place – none of the clues were disturbed. ‘Course, possible she bought answers ahead of time.” Terry went on, as he dismantled the trap that had been set underneath the door, but now rested on a bench, gingerly moving sharp blades aside.

Tink.

“Ah,” the Examiner said, as she lifted with her hands. Between the tweezer’s tines was a single snared, triangular piece of metal. Terry turned at that sound. That was a rare sound, the sound of relieved satisfaction from an examiner. “Broken knife,” she said, setting down the blade. “Lack of confidence – probably stabbed twice. Probably wasn’t expecting it to all look so real.” She said, taking down notes, her voice like a paper list pinned to the air.

Terry peered down at the flat-based triangle, the tiny blades on both sides. “Makes sense. Girl’s not cut out for the killing part of this, even if she does move like smoke.” he said, looking up at her. “Say we lock this place up, and get home early?”

The Examiner looked at Terry, down at his jacket, then at his pants, at the cap on his head, narrowing her eyes momentarily. When he’d left her office, there’d been a peeking triangle of white at one pocket. And now…“As for how she knew the way here, without the clues… Terry, do you still have the paper with this location in your pocket?”

*

Aderyn loosed out her braid as she walked back through the foyer. Smiling sweetly at the priest, she adjusted the sleeveless shirt she wore. “Hello,” she began. “I’m Lady Aderyn DuThane, and I understand you wanted to meet with me?”

Brother Fratarelli smiled, and nudged Athene as he dropped off his seat to stand up. “See? It was only a few hours of waiting. Why, hello, young lady! I’d like to hire you as an Assassin, if I could.”

The secretary looked up from his desk, his expression confused. “Wait, her?” he asked, clearly not caring that he was invading a conversation.

“Why, of course!” Brother Fratarelli said, clasping his hands together. “She’s the best Assassin for the job in the guild, after all!”

Aderyn blushed, looking over at the secretary, “Um, I don’t mean to be unladylike, but I do think I- uh, I don’t think this conversation should be had here.”

“Oh, of course, of course,” Brother Fratarelli said, turning to Rafe. “Rafe, come help the lady with her bags. We’ll talk more at the church.”

“I don’t have any bags, I’m afraid.” Aderyn apologised.

“Well, help her with something.”

Rafe grumbled and stopped perching on his chair. Three hours waiting in one spot with no conversation and nowhere to go. It was like prison all over again.

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