The church roof had become a favourite perch for Aderyn DuThane, lady of Lleywa and, currently, successful and active Assassin.
From the rooftop, she could watch schedules finishing. She could see peoples’ days, and their plans, culminating. It was an ending of things, but it came with signifiers. Lights came on, lights stayed on for a reasonable amount of time, then lights went off. Blinds were pulled, shutters were closed. The Benjamin would toll, and its loud bell would swallow the sound of all the smaller, nearer clocks as well. It was close to that moment.
While her career was not particularly active, she did have the start of a support network, a client who had led to some other business. There was not a lot of call for her services. Maybe she should advertise?
Aderyn turned slowly, because turning quickly bothered people, and she recognised the choral voice of Kivis. “Good evening, Lady Kivis.”
The knight walked along the path between the chimneys. That armour was very frustrating to Aderyn’s sense of professionalism. Normally, people went without wearing any – and it protected almost all of her vulnerable areas. If she ever had to take a target like Kivis, or, well, at least, one armoured like Kivis, she’d need to do something nonconventional to those weak points in the armour.
The best kills took one hit. Anything more than that, things could go wrong.
Still, even then, that was just dealing with a target like Kivis. Kivis herself was…
“Not Lady Aderyn?”
“I try not to remember that you’re noble,” the knight said, until she stood next to Aderyn’s seat.
“Oh. Is that wise?”
“I think so. I tend to have a bad reaction to nobility.”
“Like… an allergy?” Aderyn asked.
Kivis laughed, her voice a quiet boom inside her helmet. “Yes, something like that. It makes me break out in violence.”
Aderyn was confused. “Aren’t you a noblewoman, yourself? The Athene family-”
“Is a cul-de-sac.”
“Oh. You, um-”
Aderyn’s hesitation took longer than she wanted it to. People didn’t like long pauses in conversation; normally, a bit of patter would suffice. But try as she might, she couldn’t remember any other Athenes. There had to be others, beyond the dead ones, that weren’t appropriate for mention, because of the public humiliation, but how far back could a family tree spread? Mathematically, there had to be plenty of people related to Kivis.
It gave Kivis time to sit down, flat hands on the roof as hung her legs over the side of the pathway. Her hands rested in her lap, her head forwards, her helm tilted to the side. “It’s alright, Aderyn. I’m well aware of what my family is like.”
“Ah.” Aderyn nodded. “Well, I just didn’t want to mention.”
“You didn’t? That’s oddly sensitive, for you.”
“As sensitive as is appropriate for a young lady.”
“I have been wondering about that,” Kivis said. “You care about what it means to be a lady.”
“Do I?” Aderyn asked, tilting her head to the side, her eyes narrowing only imperceptably.
“… Well,” Kivis said, knee raised up, gauntlets clacking slightly as she adjusted the greave. “You say As is appropriate for a young lady often.”
“And that means I care about it?”
Aderyn liked Kivis. The woman had very clear body language, and no confusing facial expressions. When she wanted you to see what she was thinking, she made it eminently clear. Often by punching someone with a big, hard, metal fist, which was beautifully direct. She could understand the dynamic between Kivis and Rafe easily, and Kivis and Brother Fratarelli, and Kivis and herself.
And that stillness, Kivis was probably reconsidering what she had just said.
“Okay…” Kivis leant forwards, reaching up with her thumb. “It appears you care about the behaviour of a young lady?”
Aderyn tilted her head the other way, holding that expression as before. Stable expressions were important. Showing frustration made people change their expressions, and that made them even harder to understand.
“It is a set of rules,” she finally ventured. “And following them is convenient for communication?”
Kivis leant forwards again. Her helmet, with its birdlike design, was pointed at her face. Finally, after maybe thirty seconds, she sat back again, the knight laughing and gesturing down at the river. “There’s change coming, Aderyn. You worried about those rules?”
With concentration, Aderyn kept her brows from knotting up together. After all, frustration was bad for communication. “I…” Wait, what rules was she referring to?
Was this a rooftops thing? What did she remember of reading about rooftops? Conversations on rooftops were important – often they were confessions of love, or admissions of dreadful sin. Though maybe that wasn’t rooftops as much as it was very high places. High places were dangerous, though – that may serve as dramatic structure for the events that unfolded. She had had a conversation that meant quite a great deal to her with Rafe on a rooftop – was she having another one here, with Kivis? Well, Kivis did have a pleasantly explicable manner but Aderyn wasn’t sure if she wanted to commit to a romantic arc with her without some more information. Perhaps a confession of love, then an admission of a sin, then absolving herself by throwing herself off the great height? Most of those seemed unlikely for Kivis, but as high places went, the church roof was perfect.
Wait. Aderyn remembered to blink.
“I am not sure.”
Kivis nodded, slowly, and turned to look away from Aderyn. Aderyn put on her smile, and sighed. “But I think I like this roof.”
Kivis laughed. “Yep.” Then, she put her fist against Aderyn’s arm, and nudged. It wasn’t a punch. That was very good, because a punch would need defensive measures. It was just a push, with her knuckles. Confusing. “And I like you, Aderyn.”
Well, that made things more confusing.
“What do you me-” Aderyn began, and the bells began to boom out, across the city.
Vince had been taught, as a young man, not to stare at people, since it was rude. It was the kind of injunction he remembered but only followed if he felt he could justify it. Since the man he was staring at was blind, it didn’t seem to be much of a sin.
With the others in better health and spirits than Vince, they’d offered their hands and arms around the ship, with Yull talking mostly with the captain. It was an arrangement Vince appreciated – in that he never fancied himself one for pulling ropes or turning large wheels – but also left him dissolute. The decks were a boring place, where the quiet folk remaining served to highlight the lack of purpose they had. Particularly today, there was only one person on the dock besides him – sitting, shirtless, near the railing with a low bench connected to it, by the … front? of the boat? Was that the prow? Vince would have to look that up.
What made it hardest to not stare, though, was the man’s back. Strung across it, from shoulder-blade to shoulder-blade, was a tattoo; a diagram in circles, strangely familiar as if Vince had seen something like it once before. Down the centre line of the circle was the body of a bird, short-tailed and short-necked; but while the circle sat in the middle of his back, its wings spread out wide, across his shoulders, feathers detailed oh-so-delicately, each one painted exquisitely. It was a work of remarkable art, with circles traced at the joints of the bird’s wings. The thing looked a strange diagram, an artwork of astounding quality, the bird itself, and the mechanical designing around the edges.
“Someone starin’ back there?” the man said, his voice a rasp.
“Oh, I’m sorry,” Vince said, shuffling forwards along the deck, moving down a little further. “I’m… hn… a little slow on my feet right now.”
“Oh, aye, son.” But he didn’t turn his head to look at Vince – and when he shuffled a little further ahead, sinking down slowly to one knee, he saw why.
“Call me Arty,” said the man, looping rope end over end in his hands, feeling the net sliding under his grip. Vince was reminded of his childhood reading, of thick albums with bound spines that came out every year, full of interesting stories about men of adventure and the women they rescued. Every year, the stories had someone blind in them, someone given great and valuable insight through the loss of their eyes. With his white beard and his worn, weathered features, this man looked like he had walked off the page, and sat down on the edge of the boat, working a net, finding holes and tears in the structure.
“Ah, Vince.” he offered, resting his rear on the edge of the railing.
“Not movin’ very easy there, are ye? But y’sound a bit young to be too badly injured. You a story to share, youngun?”
Vince laughed a little, holding his hand against his side as he settled in. “Mnh… I was shot a few days ago.”
“Ahh, bad business, that.”
“Did you shoot back?”
Vince shook his head. “Oh, no… no. I’m an engineer.”
Thick fingers found a gap in the net. Fingers wound errant strands together, pulling carefully, pieces of line slowly. “Engineer? Ah, with the trains…?”
“No, no,” Vince said with a laugh. “No, I’m a military engineer.”
“Ah…” fingers hit the end of a row, and moved down a level. “I’ve heard of those. The lads that make the wheel-guns turn, yeah? Fix the cannons. Power those engines that set the mines, mmm?”
“Oh… well, yes.” Vince admitted. He’d only worked with crab-mines recently; they were a relatively new development. A little cart and trolley you wheeled across the sand, with three wide wheels. It left some white paint behind as it planted a round mine under the shallow sand. It was a nasty little thing, with its metal pot belly – and you had to work fast to seed the earth. Take too long, the wind shifted, you’d lose the paint, and have to make your way back over a field you’d just crafted. Worse, you were still pushing a cart full of highly explosive devices. If they’d been loaded properly, by a good engineer, then they wouldn’t pose any threat until they were planted.
Vince hated relying on other people’s ifs.
“Seems you give as good as you get,” Arty nodded. “Mines are a rough show in the battlefield.”
“… I guess I hadn’t thought of it. I mean, I didn’t make the mines.”
“Most soldiers don’t make their own guns, either, or their bullets.” he shrugged. “I didn’t make this net, I suppose.”
Vince leant against the edge of the boat, feeling the cool spray of the water on the back of his neck. “I mostly maintained cannons and trenches.”
“Ah… trench wars?” the man nodded. “Big flat planes of wood, little castles in the ground, hm?”
“Mm,” Vince nodded. It was nicer to think of the walls he’d built than the legs he’d removed, remotely, randomly, indiscriminately. Oh goodness, what if one of Yull’s soldiers had stepped on one of his mines.
“Oh, I mean yes. I nodded.”
“You’ll have to forgive a blind old man his failures.”
Vince looked out on the waves. “Sorry,” he murmured. He had ridden trains as a child. Conversations came and went, there; you spoke for a bit; you talked of the idea, and the idea that that idea had; you dredged your memory, but eventually, you ran out of things to say, and you watched out the window. In the quiet, maybe another idea could arise.
“And you’ve been blind for…?”
“Probably longer than you’ve been alive, Vince,” Arty said, finding the next thread, tying together the patch.
“How do you know about crab-mines?”
Arty shrugged his shoulders. “Mn… I don’t see things. I just… reflect on things. See in my imagination, such as it is… seems that what I see, time to time, is true – or true enough.” He looked out over at the waves.
“Let me see… you’re with the general, yah?” The net whispered as it was dragged hand over hand, and he wrinkled his nose as the sun bore down against eyes that barely noticed it. “Great big man, big beard… walks with a sword on his hip?”
“Ah… yes. You, um-”
“Best not to ask too many questions,” Arty shrugged. “I long since stopped askin’ questions about how I see the things I see.”
“… What else have you seen…?” It was a creepy feeling. Vince couldn’t help but think of the many, many ways he could be being fooled. Maybe this man was wearing some sort of paste on his eyes. Or… or maybe he had been blinded very recently. Wait, no, that would show some scars. Maybe he wasn’t blind at all? Then surely he would blink a bit more often. None of the explanations were satisfactory, immediately, though.
“I’ve seen the general die saving you, though he didn’t.” the knot fell. “I’ve seen him raise his sword, and-”
The huge man on his back, six knives in his chest, shuddering as he bled out, his whole body a mighty straining gasp. He had so much blood, but who knew what a task it had been to kill him?
Vince shuddered. “Wh-what was that?”
The man shrugged, and looked out on the water. “Don’t believe much in magic, do you, lad?”
“Not really, no. I’m… I’m an engineer.”
A man, lying in the trenches; the wood placed there by Vince’s hands, blown into shards stabbed into his chest, thanks to a mine planted too close to the edge. Red chunks around him, another man’s leg on his lap, and the rest of the man nowhere to be seen.
“I’ve seen that boy… the Djansk one. The one whose smile makes you giggle today. You used to think he was… what, a bit silly…? Bit of a schoolboy? Yeah… ”
Vince shifted uncomfortably. “… Yeah.”
A nod, a raised chin. “The boy’s escaped a fate.”
The tyrant fell to its side, massive and bloody, terrible and raging. Not some placid river-walker this, it was a proud beast that knew humans as meat. But it was too late, it had moved too fast, and even as Yull plunged his sword into the beast’s neck, there was a shudder through it, and Stannisfeld’s arm held out underneath it, gripping at the mud. It was still, too still; he was gone.
Vince felt little; loss at a comrade.
That was all.
Vince didn’t even realise he was vomiting over the side until a moment after the sensation passed. “Hnh… wh-what was that?”
The old man’s fingers tugged on the net again. “Something that didn’t happen.”
Vince felt ill in a violent way. The disorientation was momentary – of feeling he was somewhere else, some when else so suddenly – but what was truly churning was the feeling of being someone else who was also, at the same time, himself.
Vince had a crush on Stannisfeld. He’d held his hand. He’d hugged him – just once – as he was getting out of bed, and the injury was his excuse. But that Vince he wasn’t, but that Arty had just showed him… that Vince had not even liked Stannisfeld. He was just someone.
It was a strange, hollowing feeling, to have a little thing like that taken away.
“I’m… are you…” Vince shifted away slightly.
“I’m sorry, young man,” Arty said, holding the net high, running his hand down through it, looking for more tears, more damage. “These are just the things I see… with blind eyes.”
Vince squirmed a little in the sun. “Can you… um. Can you stop that?”
“I mean, uhm, with the… the things you see.”
The old man shook his head. “I cannot.”
“Is it… is it okay if I, uh…?”
“Go?” he nodded. “I would. But they’re wherever I am. Young man?”
The old man shifted forwards, looking up. “Heading to Timoritia, yes? It’s… about… March, yeh?”
“Mm-hm.” Vince said, shuffling along the rail, putting distance between him and the albatross, and the man underneath it.
“Well, rains a lot then. Beware the skies of March.” And then he lowered his head, turned the net hand over hand, while Vince shuffled away from the disturbing man, with the disturbing visions.
“What do you mean visions?” Leigh sneered.
“I’m telling you, he, like, showed me visions.”
“The guy with the bird tattoo on his back?” She waved her hand freely, only for the biscuit she’d been holding to tumble out of her grip and fall down to the ground.
The room in the boat they shared had a table, nailed to the centre of the room. Bunks on three sides of the room were just close enough that the table wasn’t very comfortable to sit at, but the hardtack, cheese, onions and ham they had were enough reason to ignore the discomfort. Plus, there was some feeling of closeness.
“What’s strange about that?” Gael asked.
“Well, it was awfully magical,” Vince said, waving his fingertips in the air, wriggling them back and forth.
“Vince, if you want, we can ride south to Cordoba and I can show you people who can turn you into a snake with alchemy.”
“What I want to know,” Leigh repeated, thumping her hand on the table as she fished underneath it for the discarded biscuit, “is why there were Djansk soldiers.”
“There were?” Stannisfeld asked, his arms folded, head down on the table. In one hand, he turned a little ball over and over, a little rose preserved inside it. Some pointless trinket. “I was, um, a bit busy.”
“You were fine,” Gael said.
Gael shook her head, her braid falling over her shoulder. “Look, kid, you’re a messenger, not a soldier. Nobody expects you to do well in those situations. And you handled yourself fairly well.”
The messenger ran his hand through his hair, and lowered his head again. “I fell in a ditch.”
She shrugged. “You weren’t in my way.”
Stannisfeld shuddered visibly. “Yes, I … I saw what happened to people who were in your way.”
Gael shrugged. “I’m paid for efficiency.”
“Paid better than me.” Leigh grumbled.
“Paid better than all of you. Probably put together.” Gael laughed.
“Well, um, I can’t complain,” Stannisfeld mumbled. “I mean, I’ve seen-”
“Shh,” Gael said. “You don’t wanna think about that too much.”
The boat lurched for a moment, and the biscuits slid on the tabletop.
“What’s that?” Vince asked, panic seizing his heart. “Is that a storm?”
Gael looked up, listening to the rattling of the roof above them. “No, probably just rain. We’re tacking about.”
Leigh emerged from under the table with a triumphant biscuit in her hand. “That mean we’re almost home?”
“Surely.” the redhead offered, raising her chin. “We’ll be in Timoritia by morning.”