The houseboat rumbled on, dreadful and low, through the thick grey waters of the The River. On the forward flat deck, his hands on his hips, Luke Cornell looked down at the little bird he’d captured.
The Priest was not a small man. There was a decently large amount of Brother Fratarelli, all swelled out in a circle shape. But he was not a tall man, and his weight was not the kind that implied threat. The handful of men around him weren’t particularly threatening, in and of themselves, but Luke Cornell made the height difference between the two feel like he was looking up a mountainside. Swallowing, Brother Fratarelli folded his hands into his robe. “Ah, so, uh, Mister Cornell… you wanted confessional, yes? That is something we should… we should probably do somewhere private.”
“Ah, yes, Father Francis,” Luke said, planting his hand on Brother Fratarelli’s head, turning to gesture to the main houseboat. “Don’t worry, we’ll be having plenty of time for that.”
“A-ah, well, yes, for the betterment of the soul,” Brother Fratarelli said, clearing his throat. “It’s really best that you consult entirely in private.”
“Souls?” Luke Cornell said, nodding. “Makes sense to me. Nebrin!” he called, one hand up by his mouth.
A wet slopping sound by the sound of the boat seemed to come in response. A moment later around the corner came an enormous man in a heavy brown leather apron, spattered up and down in dark black stains. “Yeh, boss?”
“Come. We’re going down into the hold with the Brother. He’s going to hear my confessional.”
“Your confession. And ah, it really does need to be alone,” Brother Fratarelli almost squeaked, hoping against hope that whatever was coming would not, in fact, come.
“Oh, that needn’t be a bother. Nebrin here doesn’t have a soul at all.”
Brother Fratarelli had lived in a cold church, in thick robes, and for the first time in his life, he could consciously remember shivering.
Kivis had spoken to a lock-keeper on the river, who’d been helpful enough, with a few light punches and a few coins, to tell them where the locks were set today. That had limited where the houseboat could be, and as the rain abated and the evening fell, that had cut the search short. They couldn’t be sure the Brother was on the boat, but it was their best option to find him. When Rafe and Aderyn had found the boat, it was moored in a compound, one of many of those houses that had once been warehouses on the river, now refitted to be an expensive home with a dock.
Looked at from the outside, the houseboat was really just, well, a house. It was even nicely designed with a set of tiers to it – each storey had to be a bit smaller than the storey above it, so it was like climbing a wedding cake. Railings around each level, as well. Rafe stopped himself as he realised he was already thinking about how quickly he could fly up and down that houseboat’s outside and be gone, looking at it from the side. Speed wasn’t important here – haste would make waste.
Haste makes waste? Ugh, that wasn’t like him to think. That was some twee little aphorism like Aderyn would use. Except she hadn’t. She never did. Wait, that was pretty strange, now he thought about it. The girl was all patterns, but he’d never heard her say something like that. Just ‘As is appropriate for a young lady,’ and ‘that’s not what that means.’
Rafe shook himself out of that cul-de-sac of thought and crept along the dockside. Barrels, ropes, crates, they were all piled on the sides of the river walls. The scent of wet rope and burlap after the rain wasn’t really as offensive as the smell of the river itself. No wonder the people piled the boxes high.
The houseboat’s shape was a carnival of handholds, and those three decks were wonderfully open areas, but they were also lit by golden ponds of lamplight. The dark colours he wore blurred well with the various washed-out things dotted around the riverside through the half-light of night, but in the light he’d stand out like a priest’s d-
“Patrols,” Aderyn hissed next to him.
A clatter on the decks. One of the cones of light shifted, and turned. Peering through the dark, Rafe could make out the image of guards, holding lanterns as well as the fixed lights. Who had their houseboat patrolled at night? Why not just rest it in the middle of the river, away from anyone? It wasn’t like anyone who swam through the river would be in a fit state to do anything when they clambered over the edge of the boat. Guards meant that the problem changed every moment. Rafe had to try and deal with, well, people who might be having a good day or a bad one, who might investigate noises, or ignore noises, or – ugh.
“How y’want to handle this?” he asked.
“Taking out the guards one at a time would be thorough but time consuming. And they have a hostage. It’s best to be direct.”
“We can’t sink the boat, Aderyn-“
She gave him that look again.
“What? You said to be direct!”
Aderyn shook her head and put a hand on the ground. “The guards are probably blind to things outside the light. Stay in the dark, stay in the quiet, you should do fine.”
Rafe wanted to yell at her that he knew how to avoid a fucking guard, but she was already moving. God damn, the girl did not wait once she’d made a plan.
“Hey, wait!” he called. Aderyn was dressed almost entirely in white. She’d be as visible as she could be if anyone looked in her direction. Grumbling, Rafe threw himself over the edge of the river walls. One hand hung onto the stone, pressed to it as he slid down, before he reached the level of the boat’s side – when he bunched his legs and sprung forwards. Wind spun past his ears as he caught the railing, using it for momentum to become a forward roll. He was out in the open for maybe a tenth of a heartbeat, landing behind a torch.
Peeking up over the edge of the crates piled on the fore part of the deck, Rafe started to map a path up and over the boat. The Father was inside it somewhere – and he had to find his way in, while avoiding attention. Stick to walls. Breathe even. Do not, do not, do not panic. Most people just aren’t paying attention, especially the ones who have been paying attention for the past few hours.
There were bells on each level, on each side – heavy bells, so the creep of the boat through the water didn’t just ring them all the time. But each bell stood out from the wall on a small, flat strut of brass. Bells were exactly what he’d avoid – guards near bells could easily sound the alarm, and surely they’d hang around near them. Then, while he looked around for the signs of moving lights around the back of the boat, he spotted Aderyn’s pale braid through the gloom of night.
She stood right next to one of the bells – and put her hand atop the metal strut that supported it. Then, without touching the bell itself, she swung her whole body up – standing on the fingers of one hand atop the strut; she hooked a leg over the railing of the next loor, then swept up and over, to the next bell strut – landing on it with her palm, pulling her weight onto it, then leaping up to the next. She was atop the top roof of the houseboat – and three storeys up, Rafe saw Aderyn’s pale hair disappear into trapdoor. And then Rafe felt his next heartbeat.
Good god, Aderyn was fast. Thank god those bells had been fixed in well, and she hadn’t slipped and hit one, and that she hadn’t brushed one as she swept up and what the hell was she even thinking trying stupid stuff like that. Rafe swallowed as he felt behind his back, gripping one of the two short knives. Kivis had offered them, and Aderyn had refused him, and he’d taken both, because free stuff. If she was searching from the top down, he’d search from the bottom up…
Past the crates, he looked left, right, and slid past a door. Keeping low and close to the wall, he brushed his forearm against the underside of the knob, testing its resistance to a push. Yep, locked. Which meant if he wanted in there… he’d have to find one of the guards with the keys. Or find another door. Or… well.
Rafe bit his top lip and kept his breathing steady. It was a big puzzle. But it was a puzzle with a solution. Keep moving, stay alert, and be bold. People didn’t look, because they didn’t expect to see. These guards weren’t here to notice things, they were here to notice the same thing that they always saw.
They also tended to patterns. The boat was designed like a loop, and that was perfect for Rafe. Every step he took, he pressed his hand flat down on the boards, testing them for creaks, and feeling for the movement through the boards of anyone nearby. Nothing, nothing, nothing – until he rounded the corner.
A guard was resting his hands on the rail, a cigarette between his fingers, his lantern on the ground next to him, pointing out at the water, where he’d pointlessly set it. Hanging from his hip was a boathook the length of his arm, and from the other hip, a ring of keys, hooked on a stout little notch on his belt. Silent, serious, and at least at the moment, he was trying to make forty-five cents of paper and tobacco last.
The keys were easy, and the way back easier. A door, a clasp, and Rafe was in.
“This is the most private room I have.” Luke said, pulling on thick gloves. His big voice boomed against the inside of the room. There were chains on the ceiling, hanging loose and low. The walls were metal. The floor was smooth and flat and tiled, and had a drain in the centre. Stacked up around the edges of the room were crates, ropes, and stacks of goods. Some part of the place made Brother Fratarelli think of a fishery’s cleaning room, but it still was being used just for storage.
Really, it was strange how much of this houseboat was… well, stuffed full of things? Luke Cornell lived his life like he was a king of the river. He bullied the Barneys and he swaggered with the nobles but for some reason, his actual home was… kind of a mess. “I do hope that you can forgive the wait, Father.”
“It’s… it’s entirely okay.” Brother Fratarelli said, shifting awkwardly on the little wooden bench. He’d been sitting there for hours, but thankfully, he was panicked, which meant that the hours had merely felt like an eternity. He was desperate to try and put a positive spin on this event. Plenty of time contemplating his own mortality and the line of cause and effect that had put him here.
Brother Fratarelli knew that justice moved strangely. The question he had to grapple with now was whether this was judgment for his actions, or a struggle for him to overcome to keep doing what he was doing.
Nebrin, behind Cornell, picked up a pair of pliers, and Brother Fratarelli tried very very hard to anticipate a struggle.
Luke Cornell hunkered slightly in front of the bench. Those mad, empty eyes fixed on Brother Fratarelli’s, and his hand came up under his chin. “Now then, Brother Fratarelli. I think, based on some of my dealings with Cameo Tully, that you may be having something I want.”
“Oh yes indeed. You know about Cameo Tully, yes?” Luke’s hands were on his knee, and he looked Brother Fratarelli in the eyes like he was sitting on a bench, but there was nothing supporting him. Somehow, the stance was more strange than anything else. Brother Fratarelli swallowed and realised he’d stopped listening.
“Um, yes. About Cameo Tully. He was ass-murdered, right?”
“Killed,” Nebrin grunted behind his boss.
Luke barely looked over his shoulder for a moment, his nose wrinkling as he focused back on the Brother.
“Alright, then, Francis.” Luke said, his voice lowering, dropping some of that affect. “Praefoco had a set of silver candlesticks, and he was murdered in the same incident where Cameo Tully was. The candlesticks are missing from Praefoco’s estate, which means, I cannot buy them, which I very much would like to do.” The emphasis, the punch on the words he was using built up. His nostrils flared. “While I tried to find records of their sale in Praefoco’s estate, I found no such thing. I did however, find a book, which mentioned any changes in Cameo Tully’s day-to-day schedule. Now, then.” He drew a long breath, and the timing seemed to reset. “You were mentioned. Cameo Tully confessed to you, at the Cathedral of Connaught. His silver candlesticks are missing.”
Suddenly, Luke’s hand was on Brother Fratarelli’s throat but he wasn’t breathing anyway.
“What in the world did Cameo Tully pay you for?”
The top of the houseboat had barely seemed much like a boat at all. The windows were square and fitted with latches like windows of a house. The floor was carpeted and the staircase Aderyn had found that led downwards had a little box next to it where people could put their shoes. It even had a warning, printed on a brass plaque above the box, You are not allowed here.
Well, she wasn’t, but that didn’t seem something the plaque could enforce, which left Aderyn unimpressed. Aderyn slipped on like a ghost, holding her breath between steps and exhaling after her foot came down, moving in a slow rhythm that kept her footfalls quiet.
There was an umbrella stand on the third floor. A houseboat with an umbrella stand didn’t seem as far as Aderyn knew, wrong or anything like that, but it sat by a door to the outside railing with a certain jauntiness that felt strange. It was made out of an elephant’s foot, too, which seemed awfully tacky. That had always confounded her: Umbrellas and elephants had almost nothing to do with one another beyond large scores in scrabble games, and the idea of tearing off one’s foot for that sort of purpose seemed to lack all sort of conceptual elegance. They weren’t even particularly waterproof, elephants. Why, they could swim. That wasn’t very much like an umbrella at all.
Aderyn stopped at the door of a young lady. She knew it was the door of a young lady, because someone had put a little wooden plaque in the shape of a heart, painted pink and studded with little shell beads to say ‘Princess,’ which Aderyn was reasonably certain was unlikely to be on the door of a young man. Listening at the door, she hadn’t heard anything – and a quick keyhole check had shown a room dark, so dark that it couldn’t have any windows. That much made her uncomfortable, but it was silent. Wherever Brother Fratarelli was he was likely not going to be silent.
Just outside the door, there was a little half-moon table, recessed tastefully into a wall and probably quite expensive, upon which sat a little silver dish with some coins in it, and an opened invitation. It smelled of perfume, another thing Aderyn knew was expected but also didn’t understand. None of her friends, upon receiving their invitations, had ever sat around smelling them, but still, money and effort was spent. It was an invitation to an estate ball – a birthday party of sorts, for young ladies who had turned eighteen years of age.
There was less than zero mystery about the room. Aderyn allowed herself a momentary huff of irritation, and she went back to her hunt. This was a home, not a workplace, and Luke Cornell was almost certainly going to work on the Brother.
“You know, boss,” Nebrin said, idly shifting tools on his tray. They were clean, still. “I don’t think you’re quite gettin’ through to him.”
Brother Fratarelli was, basically, a bundle of sweat in robes. His feet were clammy in their sandals and he felt like the metal walls of the room were slanted inwards, the roof slowly coming downwards. Maybe it was just riversickness, or nausea or the suspicious way Nebrin was sorting metal implements that were quite clearly designed to tear metal.
“Shh, Nebrin. I know what I’m doing here.” Cornell shook his head. “Forgive Nebrin. He’s a bit of the old guard of criminal. Doesn’t trust what he can’t beat out of a man.” Nebrin, listening to that, shrugged, and nodded.
“Now then. You’ve explained the exchange, which was, as you say, quite nice.” Luke Cornell counted off his fingers. “You mentioned that such things are regular when a priest is dead, yes. But you don’t explain why Praefoco thought fit to name you in his books, and not the other two priests who filled in.”
Brother Fratarelli swallowed. So far in his answers, he had tried to impress that he definitely, definitely knew nothing about silver candlesticks, which were the last thing he had expected to hear about today. Murder, and his part in it, were apparently far less important to Luke Cornell than a pair of silver candlesticks. What’s more, he was paying attention to these things in the strangest way. It wasn’t odd that Praefoco and Cameo Tully had died at the same time, but it was odd that Praefoco had written down Brother Fratarelli’s name?
“Well,” Luke said, hunkering close again, putting his hand on top of the Brother’s head. “Let’s just remove all doubt, shall we? Why don’t you tell me, Brother, just what Cameo Tully confessed that day?”
Brother Fratarelli was not, in his opinion, a particularly ardent churchman. The laws of his childhood had become the rules of his seminary years and those had become the guidelines of his life spent administering to the poor and the underprivileged. Confession was only a tradition, after all, not even an official church sacrament, here in Tiber.
“You can’t?” Luke asked, his tone surprisingly light. “You can’t. You can’t tell me because…?”
“Because it would be wrong.” Why would it be wrong, Francis? Because, no matter how he wanted to pretend otherwise, some things in church mattered. Cameo Tully was a bad man, who had confessed bad things. He had told them to Kivis, and she had kept his secret, but… but… this was different. This was being demanded, by force of arms, to render up something that he had promised not to do.
Luke nodded. Then he swung his arm back and struck Brother Fratarelli across the face so hard that the heat of the blow felt like blood. Brother Fratarelli fell off the stool, hit the ground shoulder-first, and the pain that ran across his shoulders, and the doughy uselessness of his own flesh around him reverberated as Luke’s boot swung into his midsection.
The priest did what he’d learned to do when he was very young, the last time he’d suffered this. He curled into a ball, and prayed. And as he curled, his eyes fell on the flit in the shadows – the image of a young man, with brown hair and priests’ robes.
Rafe was a weak form of salvation, but here, as Luke Cornell’s blows rained upon his head, any dream would do.
Rafe knew these moments. He’d been here before. You saw your mate in the cacky, hunkering on the ground, hands over his head, and you looked at your mate, and you looked at the bully, and you sat still. You couldn’t fix it. Luke Cornell wasn’t some Bottle Street thug with a few inches of height and a roll of pennies in his fist. Luke Cornell was Luke the Sinner, a crime lord who owned straits of land right through the city’s guts. The man wasn’t a target, not some cringing wickedness, he was a force unto himself – a mountain of inhumane cruelty that was, at this moment, crashing down on someone who half an hour ago, Rafe had complained was blackmailing him. Cornell’s savagery would be satisfied soon, Rafe just had to ride it out, and then he’d have a chance to rescue him.
Aderyn slithered out of the shadows next to him and looked through the coiled ropes and wooden crates. They had a little letterbox view of the fat priest whimpering as he was beaten, which she peered out into with those dazzling eyes. The door he’d unlocked, he’d left unlatched – and thanks to Nebrin’s focus on the tools and Luke Cornell’s focus on his intense rage, they’d not even noticed the door open twice.
Okay, Rafe knew what was coming. Aderyn was going to turn to him, and ask why he wasn’t helping. Then he’d hiss at her you don’t jump in the cacky and she’d give him that look like he was stupid and she’d demand an explanation and he’d hush her then she’d put her hand on the crate, and he’d grab her wrist and-
Thoughts were very, very quick, but Rafe was surprised indeed to see Aderyn vaulting over the crates without so much as looking at him.
Luke Cornell was a big man, and Aderyn wasn’t a big woman, and while Rafe had lived a bareknuckle life on the streets firmly believing that size wasn’t everything, he typically gave that sort of thing a wide berth when it came to people who were twice someone’s size. Size wasn’t everything in a fight, but it was enough.
It wasn’t enough for Aderyn.
She arched over the top of Luke Cornell’s head, long white sleeves fluttering, with her hand on the top of him. Grip twisted, reversed, she went from supporting her weight on his head like a fulcrum to grabbing his head- a thumb hooked into the orbit of his eye-socket. Her feet hit the roof, and she kicked off it, landing on the floor, pulling the man’s weight with her – and flipping him head over feet, throwing him face-first into a wall.
“Get yours!” she barked at Rafe, in a word very much unlike her norm – with a white scarf pulled across her face. When had she done that?! That was a good idea –
Nebrin’s fist crashed against Rafe’s face like a brick, and he fell back into crates with an almighty thud.
“Who the fuck do you fink you are, mate?” bellowed the – equally huge – Nebrin, as he reached down into the broken wood to grab at Rafe.
Rafe rolled sideways, and lunged fowards, throwing his weight onto one end of the bench as Nebrin bent over, thudding the wood into his chest. Size mattered. Size mattered a lot. Size meant the other guy when he got his chance was going to do everything to crush you. Rafe had grown up in the poorest parts of the city. He knew what it meant when a Bigger Boy had you. You got hit. You went down. And then they started kicking you – and kept kicking.
The only real solution was to make sure that he was so badly hurt that he didn’t want to fight you.
…or you killed him.
That hadn’t been an easy option, back then.
These were the thoughts that drifted through Rafe’s head like clouds, as a fist pounded helplessly against his back, trying to take a good angle at his kidneys. A hand that sought to grab at his hips in some way, the struggle slowing, striving. The precise details were a little lost on him. All he really knew is that he was making sure that this big guy, Nebrin was hurt so badly. He had a leg around the bigger guy’s neck. He was on the ground, he – yeah, he could remember the ground, because he smashed the back of his head against it. Hadn’t grabbed his knife, not sure why. Had grabbed an ear. But it was a hand on his shoulder that really pulled his attention.
“Rafe… Rafe, my boy. Please. Let’s… let’s get out of here.”
Rafe looked across the room, where Aderyn, still masked, was dancing with Cornell. The man was big, and mad, and vicious, and she kept running him into things. There was nothing between them that she didn’t control.
Why wasn’t Aderyn just killing him?
Looking down at his bloody hands, Rafe pushed off Nebrin’s chest and stood. The man gurgled. He was a big man. Big men didn’t often make sounds like that.
“Door,” Rafe said, stumbling towards it, realising he wasn’t really feeling his hands or his feet. They were there, on the ends of his arms and legs, but they were freezing cold and they were numb. He hadn’t felt like that in months. Not even Praefoco had felt like that. “C’mon.”
Aderyn dropped face-first onto the floor, and swung both her legs out into Cornell’s knee, smacking it an unpleasant angle with an unreasonable force, and by the time he righted himself from the fall, she was across the room. One hand on Brother Fratarelli’s back, she shoved them out the door – pulling the door closed behind them.
“Key!” she hissed at Rafe, who, after some fumbling, handed it over. On the other side of the door, Luke Cornell was trying to brute-force the handle which she held. Brother Fratarelli had to take the key from him, lock the door. He turned, running up the stairs, and Aderyn with him –
But Rafe stopped, and dropped his elbow onto the key in the lock, snapping it off in the mechanism.
Up. Out. Over the railing, onto the moor, past guards who had no idea, and figured the loud, angry bellowing from down in the hold was exactly as expected. The Priest took some shuffling, but the second they hit cobblestones, the three stopped running, and started to walk.
Two blocks away, Rafe could feel his fingers again. He could feel his fingernails. It wasn’t a good thing to feel, considering the state of them.
“You know,” Brother Fratarelli said, swallowing, “I daresay there will be… consequences.”
“You got somewhere you can hide for a week or two?” Rafe was already thinking defensively, dazed.
“I could head back to Lleywa,” Aderyn ventured.
“Y’know, I wasn’t really worried about you.”
Brother Fratarelli rubbed his aching side with one hand, shuffling along. “Kivis and I… I can’t leave the church unattended for much time. It would be a problem for the – I mean, my congregation, you realise.”
A half block. “Can’t leave them?”
“Maybe… maybe for a week or two?”
Aderyn slid her arm underneath the priest’s shoulder to give him some support, guiding him onwards. “Well, then. I rather think Mr Cornell is not likely to forget about you quickly, so how about we find some place that’s nice and quiet for you to hide in the mean time?”
“I suppose… I suppose I have to.”
“What did you want us to steal, anyway?” Aderyn asked.
“… Kivis didn’t tell you? It was a book…” the priest drew a heavy breath. “It was a book from Praefoco’s estate. He’d recorded… well, business in it. It apparently incriminates me.”
Aderyn stopped short. “I… see.”
“You…” Rafe mimicked the pause. “…See?”
“I see.” she repeated, clearing her throat. “Well.”
The moon slipped behind clouds again. The sky rumbled. Once again, as almost ever always, it rained in Timoritia. Sheeting water poured down over the hoods of the bruised, the beaten, and the bothered equally.