Climbing buildings was so calming. Not that Aderyn was particularly bothered at the moment – after all, she had the book, her obligation was fulfilled, and she had stolen a few tasty snacks from the party when they were setting up. It had really been quite an easy, good night, though the planning stages had perhaps taken too long.
Cornell had a strangely false impression to the world. While his vessel was clearly heavily secured, it wasn’t impossible to enter and scout around. His office had been somewhat risky, when he was around; the man barely spent more than two minutes away from it at a time, or with someone posted in the room to do some task or another. While Nebrin and Cornell were the two main people who spent their time in that top storey, there was still some foot traffic.
Why not just wait for the party? It wasn’t really any difficulty, after all. Then she could sweep in, deal with any guard while she knew it wasn’t going to be found quickly, and take the book.
A window slipped past her side. The door was closed, so no look into a hallway. Still, if she had timed it right –
The door swung open for a moment. Rafe looked in, his expression frustrated, and slammed just as quickly. Well, she was on the right track, at least.
Returning to her climb, Aderyn rested her heels atop the windowframe. Bushes and arches and elaborate structures – the entire inside courtyard was designed for an aesthetic, rather than for security. Oh, there were metal crowns on the inside walls – but what were they going to do to stop someone like her? They’d discourage… what, athletic children? But here she was, clambering up the side of the building.
Somewhere in Aderyn’s coolly analytical mind, she was sure that there was an explanation for why a city with a school for assassins seemed to be so ambivalent to the existence of assassins. Perhaps there was an economy for them. Perhaps assassinations were expected? None of her schoolwork had featured statistics on just how much money one could expect to earn as an assassin – there was just the price sheet, which had been taught in one class as a historical curio.
The rooftop under her fingertips, Aderyn curled a leg underneath her and unfolded smoothly. A guard was walking down the path, away from her. A few steps past and she was in the lee of the building, hiding in a shadow while she counted segments on the roof. Drifting between the movements of the patrolling guards like a ghost, Aderyn did some swift math.
Rafe was reasonably efficient and quick; he was panicky, but when panicking he was rarely stupid. And if she had the read of the house right, he’d be coming up through the attic exit any… moment…
… Oh dear.
When Rafe swung the door open, it was with a loud bang. Loud enough that the guard patrolling the other side of the door whirled around to get his attention – and that’s when she watched Rafe act. He leapt on the man, knee hitting him squarely in the solarplexus, all of his weight plunging down on the man through Rafe’s hand on his throat. Pinned to the floor, Rafe kneeling on his chest, the brown-haired boy leant down and in, on his elbow, until the man underneath him wasn’t struggling any more…
… but not long enough to kill him.
“Hello, Rafe,” Aderyn greeted him, as was proper. Stepping out of the shadows, Aderyn gestured down to the boat. “Did you consider that you might be better off heading back down into the party?”
Rafe was flush pink in the cheeks, his hair a tousled mess. Still, despite it, he’d managed to keep that dress in impeccable shape, really – it was fulgent and well-set, and even had been measured properly to his waist. Had Rafe always been that androgynous about the hips? Aderyn normally noticed that kind of detail, but Rafe’s clothing had always bunched up around his middle. That monk robe in particular – maybe he was a bit shy about being built that way?
Or maybe he was just cold?
Most people were pleasantly open with everything, even if they didn’t realise it. Rafe was annoyingly not. It was quite bothersome.
All those thoughts took just about as much time as Rafe did to catch up with her very reasonable suggestion – and the word, “Uhhh-”
“Yes, I didn’t think so.” breathe, don’t say everything all at once. “Shall we climb down, now?”
“STOP. RIGHT. THERE.”
Through the same door Rafe had used, the one-eyed man named ‘Nebrin’ – formerly of Bottle Street, thirty eight years old, several major injuries in his lifetime, and over twenty-seven years working for Luke Cornell – stormed, waving a four-barrelled, wooden-housed doorbuster rifle. “Alright, you two. Hey! You! Jackass! Go get Luke Cornell!” he hollered, looking over his shoulder, bellowing to a guard.
Not a threat. Then, gun still trained on the pair, he called over at the next patrol of guard. “Hey! You! Go downstairs, fetch Luke Cornell! The Sinner, yeah!”
Rafe was still, and leaving him behind would mean coming up the side of the building would be a waste of time. Oh well. This man wasn’t a particularly meaningful threat.
There was some… positioning. Some jockeying. He moved forwards; Rafe moved back. He pointed the gun at Aderyn, pointing the butt low at her midsection, then stepped back and to the side. They couldn’t make it to the door without going through him, which probably meant he felt he had power.
“Gunna enjoy when the boss gives the word on you,” he said, hoisting the gun against his hip, resting it there. It was a heavy weapon – obviously. It’d torn a wall out of the houseboat, after all. While running, he might have been able to reload it with new cylinders, if he was deft and knew the location reasonably well.
Aderyn was very confident neither were true. Nebrin had the look about him of a wall of muscle, a man who had never had to learn care as long as he’d had power. Someone else was the deft direction for his mass.
“You two got a lot of nerve,” he said, talking,talking, always talking. Why did people bother? It never seemed to do anything, just expose all sorts of weaknesses. “Don’t know who you’re protecting for a pair of silver candlesticks, but the boss isn’t the kind of man who’s kind about bein’ denied.”
“Candlesticks.” Rafe said.
“Yeah. The candlesticks from Tully’s place. The ones the priest had.”
Rafe put his hands on his forehead, and drew in a long sigh. That meant tangible exasperation, but also that Rafe wanted to tell you that. Rafe had tells. Briefly, Aderyn felt a surge of pride at that. After all, Rafe felt nobody understood him, which meant understanding him was a little secret. Still, there was a man with a gun and that probably meant something to Rafe.
“Just… two silver candlesticks, and… Fratarelli had them?”
“The priest at Connaught had ’em.” Nebrin narowed his eyes, glaring at Rafe closely. Ripple in his throat. He didn’t even really notice Aderyn. There was something about Rafe that was bothering him, but he couldn’t work out what it was.
“Hang on,” Rafe cleared his throat, adjusting his dress, and waving a finger at Nebrin. “This is about a pair of silver candlesticks? From Connaught?”
“I just said,” Nebrin’s gun swung at Rafe, in part because he seemed to actually care about it. The boy in pink leaned back, which was silly, since if it went off, it’d kill him even if he was leaning backwards. The trick would be to prevent Nebrin from firing it, which was very easy.
Rafe on the other hand, was confrontational, even with the muzzle of a box-like brown wall-wrecker waved at him. “They’re on the fucking roof. Where I left them. When I killed the goddamn priest.”
“You did kill the priest?” Aderyn asked, interrupting Nebrin’s response. That didn’t make sense. Brother Fratarelli had been quite adamant that Rafe was lying about the murders, and Rafe was quite competent at killing people. Three incompetent murders seemed unreasonable.
“Yes!” Rafe said, throwing his hands up in exasperation. “I killed the priest! Why does nobody believe me except a judge?!”
“Well, it’s just not how that sort of story goes, you know.” Aderyn offered, in his idiom. “You know. About the cute boy with a heart of gold who’s just misunderstood.”
“Heart of gold?” Nebrin laughed hard enough to shake the gun.
“Cute boy?!” Rafe shouted.
“Wait, boy?!” Nebrin’s awareness snapped back. “Hang on, you’re a fa-”
“I’m a what?” Rafe sneered, closing his fists.
“You’re a – you’re a fuckin’ guy, in that dress?” Nebrin said, swinging the gun up high and bellowing as the fireworks burst overhead. “You two are – I’m- fuck it,” he growled. “You’re going to stay right here until the boss gets here.”
Rafe tilted his head, trying to make eye contact with Aderyn. She was going to have to talk to him about using his peripherals. For all that he had quite a bit of natural talent, nobody seemed to have taught him to hide information from his opponents.
“Oi, Aderyn,” Rafe said.
“That, uh, that’s Luke Cornell coming?”
“Yes. He just mentioned. Your point?”
“I found us a client?”
“Oh. Well, that does change things. What’s the rate?”
“Wait, you don’t care who?”
“Right now, I don’t imagine you should care either.”
“HEY!” Nebrin bellowed, waved his gun between them. “Am I boring you?”
“Yes,” Aderyn said, putting her hand on the gun barrel and pointing it upwards. “How much?”
“Does that matter?”
“Of course it matters. It matters because there need to be rules. I’m an assassin, not a murderer.”
Shock swung the gun without ressitance, because Nebrin wasn’t expecting anyone to react to the firearm like that. Why would he? Nebrin was the kind of person who didn’t ever bring his own power to bear. Someone – almost certainly Cornell – had broken the bully.
“Hey!” Nebrin bellowed, thumping his hand into the stock of his gun. “Gun here.”
“Yes, but you’re not going to fire it.”
“… you wanna bet?”
And then, Rafe sneered. “Don’t try her. Not you. You’re not the guy who tries her.”
Nebrin’s one eye narrowed, and he glared at the princess-dressed boy, lunging forwards, ramming the gun against his chest. And there it was. Rafe didn’t lean back. Rafe knew what Aderyn knew the second she’d first seen Nebrin. “Listen to me, you fa-”
And then Rafe slapped him. Resting one elbow on the gun, he turned to Aderyn. “Five pounds for Luke Cornell. Client’s confidential.”
“Five pounds?” Aderyn considered it for a long moment, tilting her head back while she thought, in the same manner Rafe liked. Communicating to him his mental image of ‘thought.’ It was a very low rate. On the other hand, he was a danger to an existing client. And her window of time was very small.
The door handle behind Nebrin turned, and the door swung open. Luke Cornell stepped forwards, into the glimmering light of the firework display. One hand held up, he was half-way through clearing his throat. Mouth open, he prepared to bellow-
“Deal,” Aderyn said.
– and Luke Cornell slumped down, tumbling backwards into the building again. Rafe looked at her with wide eyes, his mouth slack. That made sense. Aderyn had taken the knife from him that she’d loaned him only a few minutes beforehand – tucked into the back of his dress. Nebrin looked shocked, too, because he thought he had all that power in his gun. And of course, it stood to reason that Luke Cornell would look shocked, before the door swung close again, because he had the handle of a knife jutting out of his mouth. A single straight line, over that kind of distance? Very easy. Everyone was surprised, but that was sensible and coherent, and Aderyn turned back to Rafe.
“You already have the payment, right?”
“…You, I- did you just-I-” Rafe managed.
“Yes. Now, do you have the payment?”
Rafe adapted remarkably quickly. “Yeah, in my uh, bustle?”
“That’s around the back and you’re not wearing one.”
“Um, around the back, in the uh,”
And then the gun discharged, and Rafe was ducking one way while Aderyn ducked backwards.
“You FUCKERS!” Nebrin hollered, swinging his gun around, a chamber rotating to bring the next huge charge of shot to bear. “You- you- I- You FUCKERS!”
Aderyn reflected that she had just killed the man that had half-blinded Nebrin. Shouldn’t he be behaving gratefully? Oh well. People so often behaved unreasonably. He swung the gun around towards Rafe again as he dived to a chimney. The explosion struck the brickwork, and in a shower of white and brown, Rafe disappeared. Nebrin swung the gun back around, and, close as she was to the edge, Aderyn had to make a decision.
If she lunged forwards, she could attack Nebrin. After all, he had started something. If she lunged backwards, she could escape down the building… if. If. If she was willing to dive into the river.
Stepping back, Aderyn slid her arms up behind her head, gripping the book in both hands. As she arced through the air, she turned, looking down for the right location to drop the evidence – and spotted the punt.
It was one long, beautiful, smooth arc through the sky.
The book arced down, spine-first. Aderyn could watch it, as she turned and dived through the air. A monstrous explosion followed her, well high of where she was – because a man with one eye could not judge distances properly – and the book went down before her. When it hit the punt, she almost imagined she heard it – a crisp, loud, thwack –
– which only proceeded the churning slosh of water closing around her by a moment. A moment enough, though – Fratarelli and Kivis were watching her dive, her perfect swallow form from three storeys up, as she slid into the water, fingertips first.
As the priest and the knight leant over the edge of the punt, the teeming black water seemed for too long a moment to have won. Nobody went into the water. Nobody dared. Brother Fratarelli hesitated, his hands not quite breaking the surface. Kivis was much less hesitant – sweeping her hand down into the water, feeling around by the bottom of the punt, groping in the darkness for the woman she’d saw disappear.
Then Aderyn burst free from the water on the opposite side. Momentarily graceful, her arm flailed out and caught the side of the punt – behind her – before turning into a white-knuckle death-grip. Pulling with the force that had propelled her up clocktowers and palisades, her white garb streaked black with the thick, viscous fluid, her other hand caught the punt as well. Kivis had her hand before she was half-turned.
It was the tiniest of moments, as Aderyn saw the hand coming towards her, the hands of Kivis – and then, the moment was passed, and she grabbed them in turn. Not a threat. The two women strained for only a moment, and Aderyn hauled over the edge of the boat, slumping onto her hands and knees on the floor of the punt. With her braid drawn black and brown thanks to the muddy wash of the water, she put her hands on her cheeks, and dragged at the glob of fluid there, splattering it down on the floor. Then, and only then, with her nose and mouth clear, did she gasp for breath, a loud, wet sound as she pushed her hair back from her face and struggled to breathe.
The priest was next to her, offering some consolation by rubbing her back, trying to hold her hair back, which was nice, if, somewhat unhelpful. The old man wailed soppily as he rubbed her back, sounding on the verge of tears. “Aderyn! Oh Aderyn, you’re okay, oh, goodness, I’m so- my prodigal daughter, who was lost, is found!”
Aderyn coughed up black sludge as she hunkered forwards on the wooden planks of the boat. “That’s… not what… prodigal means.”
“Rafe’s fine?” Kivis asked, looking up at the outlines on the top of the building.
Aderyn straightened up. Control was important. When the mask was knocked aside, it was important to put it back in place as soon as possible. Just like riding a pony, back home. Straight and tall, she turned and followed Kivis’ gaze, at the bell of pink lace and silk that drifted and swirled around the rooftop.
The fastest route down the side of the building – well, the fastest one after the one that Aderyn had taken – was to dive headlong along one awning, catch the post over the third arch, swing on that to lose momentum, hit the wall of the larger arch outside, and skid downwards. That route was not an option for anyone in high heels, and as best she could guess, Rafe knew it.
If he was smart he’d drop down, through that awning and let the bushes catch the dress, absorb most of the fall, and roll with it. Sure, he’d have to sprint across the quad in his underpants, but –
Kivis laughed next to her. Rafe jumped, showing a mass of white petticoats and – well, that sort of faithfulness to a disguise wasn’t strictly necessary, was it? But maybe Rafe had his reasons. No reason to be judgmental.
He wasn’t leaping towards the bushes, though – he had one arm oustretched, catching the tether that strung across the quad. Why the devil was he trying for that? It was only going to arc him down onto the top of the boat and-
The fireworks tied to the line burst, and Rafe was soaring, buoyed only a tiny bit by the skirts. It looked very impressive, for the moment it lasted, but then he vanished behind the smokestack atop it. Well, he’d be running across that in just a moment, rolling with the impact, and…
“He’s not moving.” Kivis said. “Fratarelli!”
“Aum!” The priest managed, helpfully, as he swung the punt around. “Um, um – where’s his coat?”
“What?” Kivis asked, grabbing the oars and pulling hard through the muck. “Hngh, it’s like tar.”
“His coat! He came in wearing a robe over him! If he’s hurt, wrap him up in it so he doesn’t have to move!”
“If I get on that boat,” Kivis threatened.
Aderyn looked at the pair, then took the cloth on the ground. She wasn’t being paid for this. But Rafe was… something. He wasn’t nothing. There was that poem that she wanted to understand. And he had been very helpful with Praefoco, not to mention the silver candlesticks.
There was still a pain in her chest when she slung the cloak over herself. Hitting the water, even as narrowly as she had, put enormous pressure on her fast. In that moment of darkness, she’d been almost to the bottom, eyes closed tight to try and preserve them. Breathing in she still took in that scent of trees grown kayem and kayem away. Smearing Rafe with muck wouldn’t likely help if he was seriously hurt, though. The stout wool of the cloak – more of the monk’s robes. “Point at the boat.” Cool, simple orders. Let people know someone was in control.
“What?” Brother Fratarelli said, turning and looking over his shoulder. “We need to approach the si-”
People were far too easily surprised. When he turned to look at her, her moment was there. Bounding forwards, she bunched her arms up under her chest. One step. Two steps. Three steps, off the prow of the little boat, foot came down for the next step into mid-air, and her arms shot out to catch the lip of the boat. Momentum brought up her feet, and four steps.
The boat was moving. That was a bit of a surprise. Hadn’t Rafe choked everyone on this boat?
No time to check. No time to think about it. Leaving black footprints, Aderyn raced up the side of the boat. Bells clanged in her wake, while the boat’s wake started to foam. Somewhere behind her, she could hear yelling – Brother Fratarelli was trying to pull the punt out of the boat’s path. Made some sense, after all, the boat would probably crush the punt against the wall, certainly with the momentum it was gathering.
Behind the stack, Rafe was on the floor, which was also the roof. Curled up in a ball, with the dress billowing out around his hips. Not still, but quiet – only when she drew close did she hear the chittering grunt of pain, the laboured breath. He wasn’t swearing, though, which was strange. Rafe liked to swear. Well, Rafe swore quite readily. Maybe he had to? Well, he did things that didn’t make much sense, sometimes. “Rafe?”
“Hngh,” he answered. “The f… you…?” he slowly started to sit up – then faltered.
“Did Nebrin shoot you?” Aderyn asked, feeling her freshly-browned hair bobbing while she bent down to lift him.
“Missed me. Hit the fn… hit the chimney. Lungful of the dust though.” And a headful, too – the boy’s hair was white as a sheet, covered entirely with thick, chalky dust. “Don’t worry ’bout… hn. Him.”
“Oh, you killed him?”
Rafe winced as he reached up for her hand. “Help me up.”
“No,” Aderyn said, bending forwards. Putting her head forwards, she ducked under his hand, and slid her arms underneath his legs and back. Lifting easily, she was struck by how little of Rafe there was. Under the spit and anger, the swear words and the classist resentment, Rafe wasn’t nearly as big as he seemed to be.
“Come on.” And while he protested with his face, his arms slid around her neck and held there while she ran the length of the roof. The temporarily-blonde temporary princess’ temporary dress billowed as she leapt-
The boat was moving but she didn’t see anyone near the wheel when she flit by its window, which suggested that whoever had moved the boat had done so without any intention of steering it. The library wasn’t a very big one, even though it was quite nice, and maybe a large sack could carry most of what it contained, if you were willing to let all of Luke Cornell’s financial records go.
The chambers inside the boat were full of air, with the doors closed, but when the boat hit the hard wall it did so with enough speed to shake everything. Doors thrown open, engine room suddenly awash with heat and ignition, and sudden pathways for furnaces full of heat to blast free.
Somewhere behind her, Aderyn accepted that the boat’s movement had stopped, that it had struck the opposite wall of the river, broken moorings and all, that the fireworks Rafe had pulled down were burning wood up above, and the world behind her was in one single instant probably nothing but a wall of incandescent flames, but it was a moment she could not spare to look. To her, it was just a warm push behind her.
and landed on the punt.
“Dashing.” Kivis said, dryly, as she hauled her arms. “We staying?”
“No.” Aderyn said, setting down Rafe as gingerly as he could. “I’ll speak with my client later.”
The punt scudded along the surface as swiftly as a shadow, away from the burning wake of every last thing that had meant anything to the King of the River.
The church seemed more welcoming, somehow, to Rafe. Brother Fratarelli was through the door straight away, off to the kitchen to prepare tea. Something about bread rolls, too. The room was dusty, after only a few weeks left alone, but the pews were still piled up by the sides of the room, little nooks to sit in. When Rafe shuffled onwards, to the corner of the room, he noticed something hanging on the door to the dining room.
“What’s that?” Rafe asked, squinting at the little tool, metal and wood, as he tugged off his high heels and felt his toes slowly relax in the air.
“A boathook.” Kivis said plainly.
“Why do you have a boathook?”
“What… what the hell is a boathook emergency?”
Kivis adjusted her gauntlets as she watched the boy sag on a pew. “What do you have?”
“I daresay, if it’s alright by everyone else, I’d rather like to have a long bath.” Aderyn murmured, walking in behind them. With the last of the pine tar from the river running through her hair, she looked like a particularly inverted style of hair; dark at the tips, brunette at the tops. With his own hair still white, Rafe wondered if a bath might do him some good, too.
Maybe once his ribs weren’t hurting so damn much.
Kivis took her seat next to him on the pew, and without a word of warning, started to feel his wrists and his shoulders, listening for his reactions. Which mostly were profane and loud.
“Quiet, you’re in a church.” Kivis grumbled.
“Christ, stop, uh, wow, ugh-”
“These are probably broken, you know-”
“Hngh. Probably… christ, just – gimme a minute.”
“A minute? It’ll take longer than that for them to heal.”
“I mean…” Rafe drew a long breath, his head back against the pew. “I need to get out of this dress. And these shoes. And the… uh… other things.”
“If you need a hand with those other things, Rafe-”
“I think I am fine.” he held up a hand.
“You wore them because I convinced you. It was, in a little bit my fault.”
“I don’t care.” he growled.
“You act like you don’t care, but you do.” her voice misted against the inside of her helmet. Couldn’t see her eyes. That always unnerved Rafe. He didn’t know if he was being watched. And worse, he didn’t know if she meant care about the clothes or something more.
“And you act like you care, but you don’t,” he spat back, just as pain arced up his leg and into the well of his hip. Those shoes. “Fu-”
“Wrong.” Kivis said, yanking on the corset ties to pull them undone. The muscles of his back squealed in Rafe’s head in protest.
“Well why the fuck should you care about a stranger?”
“I’m afraid I don’t understand the question.” Kivis said, as she continued freeing him – delicately – from his pink prison.