One Stone, Chapter 25

“Well, this is just all happening today, isn’t it?” Kivis growled in harmony with herself.

The houseboat was something like a drifting palace. Some houseboats were squat, low and tight, turning a room the size of a large closet into a living space, but not this one. This one towered high and had to be careful under bridges, with monstrous engines that belched smoke and turned paddle wheels behind it, crawling through the river’s thick waters like some particularly large sea-beast that strayed from the ocean up and into the largest city in the world. There was no way that the Sinner’s Steamer could reach up and down the river proper, with all its little curling sub-rivery bits. It was too deep, too broad. It circled, instead, on its little route through the river – and that was the territory that Luke Cornell owned.

The territory included Brother Fratarelli’s church, and Kivis now realised why he the priest was comfortable ‘fixing’ the Cameo Tully problem, but so uncomfortable striking out against Luke Cornell.

“Why, Brother Francis!”

Kivis didn’t need any signal as to who that was. The man stood on the second storey of the houseboat, on an open deck with a rail around it, level with the stone walls that flanked the river. The man wore brown breeches without a pattern, but with telltale creases at the back of the knees, and weight that sat in the front of them. The man wore braces, and a labourer’s button-up shirt with the sleeves rolled up and tight. On his hands he wore short black gloves that barely reached the wrist, shiny and black. If you looked at his clothes, Luke Cornell was a respectable man with respectable clothes and probably worked at a respectable business. If you looked to the rest of him, and saw the coiling serpents painted up and down his arms in a dozen different bright colours from a host of different tattoo parlours, you’d know better.

Kivis knew better without seeing any of those things. She could look straight at Cornell’s eyes and see it in him. His eyes were a peculiar pale blue, like somewhere something that made Luke a human had slowly bleached away and left behind something that didn’t quite think and feel right.

“That is the name, yes? Francis Fratarelli?”

Kivis turned her helm only subtly to indicate she was listening to Fratarelli. Another reason to love her helm; she could use its body language to mislead. A cant of her head made it look left while her eyes stayed fixed through the eyes to watch every move of that river-shark that had taken on human form.

“I really do prefer just Fratarelli.”

“Good to know, Francis! Well now, I’ve been feeling quite sinful lately and I was wondering if I might invite you aboard for some confessions!”

Cornell spoke with the voice of a noble. It was that swaggering arrogance, that aggressive certainty. Luke spoke like he knew he was in charge, and if you yelled back, he’d just start stabbing things.

“You could come into the church?” Fratarelli said, trying to not sweat too visibly.

“No can do, Brother Francis!” called back Luke, and his grin didn’t waver. “I can’t leave my daughter unattended for so long!” Gesturing down at the deck, he called to the gathering number of river vermin that called themselves dockhands. “Lads and lady – do be precious and invite the Brother on board, will you?”

Some of the men moved slower than the others. They’d already seen what happened when they approached Kivis. But there was an open room around her now, there were more of them. Steeled with the courage of crowds, hands holding boathooks gripped tight and hauled. Feet hit the walls and thugs and crooks that knew what a coin was worth pulled up over the edge of the wall and started the familiar fan-out circle that spoke of a coming boot party. There were seven in front of her. Three more over there. The space behind her probably had room for five, with a circle that wide. Fifteen grown men.

“Kivis, we have to get out of here.” Fratarelli pulled at her arm, drawing up against her back. Well, he would complicate matters, wouldn’t he?

She lowered her helm and gripped her fists tightly in their metal cases. “We do?”

“You can’t fight all of them.”

“Want to bet?”

Some signal – probably Cornell’s growing impatience – and a sudden burst. Someone lunged forwards.

*

Standing on the Dunbredge Pier, Aderyn couldn’t help but wonder just why they’d bothered to call it a pier. It wasn’t a pier – it was a wharf. Wharfs were built into the sides of buildings – in this case, the building was a wall, which had build up as the city had, away from the river. The river went up, the river went down, and sometimes the wharf they stood on simply wasn’t there, lurking under water like that.

There were seventeen steps down to the ground which was a prime number, and Aderyn had amused herself by skipping the second, fourth, sixth, eighth, and tenth steps, which let her hop one-two-three down the stairs. Unfortunately to jump from the seventh stair to the seventeenth would have been too obvious and might draw attention to her step being slightly unladylike.

The wharf was a little out of the way of the rain that fell, and had been falling since halfway out of the Dims. Inasmuch as she could say such things, Aderyn did think she liked the rain. It had an echo to it, a choral quality, and people who moved about in the rain kept to themselves. Nobody thought it odd for her to hunker down in a coat and press through the crowd with her arms tucked in against herself. Thankfully, her coat did have a hood on it.

Rafe had ceded to the rain too. He’d reached into the sleeves of the monk’s robe, and slipped his arms in them to lift it up and pull it up onto himself, pulling the front closed and tying it just once – instead of all down the front, where the little wooden toggles were. Then he’d pulled the hood over his head. It was quite amusing, him all charcoal grey and her in a pale bone-like white, like birds on the edge of the wharf, her hands huddled in close.

“Well?”

Rafe had spoken. That was odd. Normally Rafe didn’t start conversations.

“Well, what?” Aderyn asked. Be coy, be polite. When possible, let someone else determine the rules and standards of the conversation. It makes it easier to play by their rules.

“… You weren’t talking.”

“Oh, I am sorry, Rafe,” she said, biting her lip and turning to him. “Did you want to talk about something in particular?”

“… Y’said,” Rafe came for the subject like a stray dog circling a drunk. “… Y’said that I’m the first person y’know who doesn’t talk about himself.”

“I said themself,” Aderyn offered, primly. Why were other people so bad at remembering simple details like that?

“Whatever, just… y’know I’ve never heard you talkin’ much about you either.”

Aderyn looked up at the underside of the bridge. Oh. Someone had noticed.

“Well, what would you like to know?”

Rafe drew himself up and shrugged under the charcoal grey of the outfit. “… Where y’from, what y’family’s like, why y’re an assassin, what y’re doing this for, what y’like, if y’have any other friends, what kinda…” he petered out. “Stuff like that.”

“Well, to answer those questions in reverse order, that’s not a question, I have a roommate by the name of Quynn who I have not spoken to since graduation day, and I think Kivis is quite interesting, I like a large variety of things in a short alphabetical list including acrobatics, bottoms, chess, ducks, elks, finches, green tea, handcuffs, intelligence, jelly, kingfishers, Lleywa, masonry, neoteny, ointments, penguins, questions, ropes, snibs, terraced roofs, understanding, vexation, weathervanes, xylophones, yew, and zeniths – just the word, mind you, it has a pleasant shape to it, I am an Assassin because it was the school my parents chose for me and I saw no reason to protest, my father and mother are noble landowners of Lleywa who oversee a valley, populated by roughly six hundred people, and I’m from the DuThane valley in Lleywa, coincidentally the same place as my parents.”

Rafe stared at her for a good long while. It was like she’d just smacked him in the face with more words than he knew existed. “… Y’re really just nae on the same path as th’rest of us, are y’?”

“If I understand what you mean, Rafe, I believe it’s philosophically considered that most people are on their own path alone.”

“That’s a cheery fuckin’ thought.” He shrugged. “Man, to hell with this.” He shook his head and ducked under the hood deeper. “Don’t think Cornell’s coming today.”

“It’s a houseboat, Rafe, it will probably come by here eventually.”

“Yeh, but chances are ‘e’s got it moored somewhere he’s doing the business.”

“That does sound a little rude, when you say it like that.”

“… What’s neoteny?”

“Alright, then.” Aderyn said, shaking herself. It had been a nice bit of an excursion, she could see that, at least. “Let’s head back to the church and try again tomorrow.”

*

Kivis threw the body onto the deck of the boat, onto the pile.

“And fifteen.” She raised her head and glared at Cornell. “Who’s next?”

The big man looked past her, up at the church behind them, at its freshly-cleaned windows, only barely grimed with the smoke from the stacks. “Alright, Brother Francis. I see you’re not in a confessional mood,” he drawled, lazily. “But I daresay we can meet something of a compromise-“

“Get stuffed.” Kivis called, throwing a broken boathook at him. Cornell, to his credit, at least swatted it aside with a speed she hadn’t expected.

“Let me try a bit more of an incentive scheme here. Brother, you come aboard and hear my confession, and I won’t have to come on back in an hour with twice as many men and burn your church-house down.”

Kivis bit back the anger in her throat. She’d do it, quite happily, but the church wasn’t hers to burn. She turned to Fratarelli, who was white as a sheet – the entire fracas had unfolded around him like a sort of elaborate magical trick, and he was standing wringing his hands, wondering just what he was going to do next. “W-well.” He stammered.

It was unfair, in Kivis’ mind, that she so often found herself bound by things that let other people change the battlefield. Last time, it’d been the law, the time before that it’d been family obligation. Now she was being shackled to Brother Fratarelli’s silly attachment to a specific building. But it would be inconvenient to rebuild it, she supposed. What did churches even cost? Ugh. Turning her head, she lowered her chin and leant close to the Brother. “If you go, I’ll go with you.”

“Now now, there, lady. This is between me and the priest. And just between me and the priest.”

Kivis grit her teeth. Bullies. Always bullies. As she drew back, Fratarelli’s hand caught her wrist, and he whispered low:

“Get Rafe.”

“Rafe? Why him? Why not Aderyn-“

“Because I’m going to need a burglar.”

Kivis stepped back and clenched her fists, looking at Luke Cornell, Luke the Sinner, and the back of her friend as he made his way down the stairs. Closing her fists and punching them together, she gritted her teeth. Theft was not her strong suit. Fine. Fine. “Hey Cornell,” she called over.

“Yes, m’lady?” he asked, tipping his hand by his ear, as if to hear her.

“You ever get off that boat near me and I’ll tear your arms off and beat you to death with them.”

“Hahah, a pretty threat!” he said, opening the cabin door. “Don’t worry, m’lady. I never get off this boat.” He stepped inside, and the engines took up.

Stand still. Wait. Don’t be seen to move fast. She knew she couldn’t chase the boat down, after all. And if she was seen running, it’d look like panic.

As the rain sheeted down, the boat turned from a presence to a shape behind curtains of water. When she was sure she wasn’t being glared at through the mist, Kivis turned, walked into the archway of the church, pulled it closed… then ran like hell for the back door.

*

When the rain steepened, Rafe pulled under an awning, and it was only after a few moments standing there in silence with him that Aderyn realised she wasn’t sure what they were doing there. It was a slow walk in the rain – the streets locked up and people in hard raincoats moving goods under tarps or in barrels moved more carefully, not wanting to be the person who lost a dray of goods for a dram of impatience.

Still. Standing in an awning watching rain sheet down while standing next to someone she knew and never spoke to was pleasantly reminiscent of home. It would have made a nice way to fill an afternoon, watching people go past, until the heavily armoured figure of Kivis emerged from the rain, whipped her head around as it saw them, then closed in quickly, her fists balled up in determination.

The owl shape loomed into their dry little space, and her fist thudded into the wood of the wall behind Rafe, by his ear.

“You. Rafe. Brother Fratarelli needs you. Now.”

“Rafe?” Aderyn asked in surprise. “Whatever for?”

“Fratarelli wants a burglar. Luke Cornell has him-”

“Oh what the fuck?” Rafe threw his hands down at his side. “We were waiting for his boat all day, and he went to you? This is bullshit.”

“… What’s his problem?” Kivis asked, glancing over at Aderyn.

“I do not know. Maybe he is not comfortable with the word ‘neoteny?'”

“Oh for fuck’s sake.” Rafe rubbed his forehead. “Why’s he need me? Aderyn’s b… just as good as I am at…” he gestured. “Wait, this is about pay, isn’t it?”

“No – I …” Kivis shook her head and grabbed Rafe by his ear, dragging him out of the awning, her metal visage nose to nose with him. “My friend is in the clutches of a vicious gangster who wants to burn down a church. I’m not inclined to his particular methods, young man, but Brother Fratarelli has pulled you out of prison and I think you owe him at least a thank you.”

“He’s blackmailing meeeoowowowowow!” Rafe yelped in pain as he began a long, slow agreement.

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