The city Timoritia hosted dozens of churches, from the great and old Cathedrals that studded the walls of the Old City, down to the tiny halls where the Sandmen washed one another’s feet. There were large churches and small churches, and rich churches and poor churches, and it was really just coincidence and the providence of God that meant most of the poor churches tended to be small, and also in areas where a walk home too late after evensong might result in an impromptu withdrawl from the Bank of Your Wallet and a deposit in the Bump On The Back Of Your Head account. The rich churches just coincidentally were in on the wide open streets by the wealthy portions of town, with lamps that rarely went unlit and where guards just happened to like patrolling more. Maybe guards liked churches. Maybe that was it.
The richer churches just happened to belong to the factions of the church that espoused ideas like social order, the way God rewarded the worthy, the importance of destiny, and of God’s plan for people’s lives. The poorer churches spoke some of things like charity and peacefulness and again, God’s plan, but with a little more hopelessness when they said it.
Rafe had been in many kind of churches. Churches were a good place to get out of the rain, and since this was Timoritia, it rained more nights than it didn’t. He’d stood in cheap little Colwen churches where the dirt-poor people in their dyed-black clothing that still stank of coalminer piss consoled themselves by asserting how much they liked being poor and grubby and hated, because that indicated they were right. He’d run across rafters like a squirrel in the St Benedict’s High Royal Cathedral, and listened to a sermon that told the fat, rich assholes sitting in the pews that really, if the poors were more righteous, they wouldn’t even be poor any more.
Rafe had not, hitherto, been at any churches where planning a murder was typical.
“His name is Elian Praefoco,” said Brother Fratarelli, and his words bounced off the ceiling and floor, even half-whispered as they were.
The church was a small one; barely room for seven rows of pews, ranked two to the room. The windows were narrow and high, with candles perched halfway between each one. The windows were white, pasted over and barred on the outside. From the outside, even the belltower hunkered down amongst the industrial buildings – it could have been, once upon a time, a warehouse resection. The only sign that Brother Fratarelli’s domain was anything but another space to store spuds or coal or some other fancy dickhead’s surplus stuff was also its most brilliant feature – a bright, beautiful stained glass design in the door. Shards of red, green, blue and yellow, arrayed in the guise of a man, clad in a white robe, with a red sash across his chest, walking on a green hill, with bright yellow arcs of light streaming about his head. It was beautiful, but also hard to steal, and sat behind a stout metal grille when the church was closed for the evening.
Perhaps respect kept the window safe, through the night. Perhaps retribution from an armour-plated lunatic who had all the conversational grace of a thrown axe was to credit. Either way, Rafe was only half paying attention to the priest, while he tried to look at every angle and exit the church had. Of course, he couldn’t look at that too closely while he was reasonably sure that Kivis, with her hawklike helmet and unseen eyes, was looking at him.
“What’d he do?” Rafe said, interjecting in something the Brother was saying.
“I’m sorry, what?” the young lady asked, turning from her seat on the pew to look up at Rafe.
They were seated at the front of the church, near a low wooden counter that the priest had set up. Sitting on it in a circle of metal rings was a communion tray – over two dozen little shotglasses, filled with dashes of wine, which the priest was quietly emptying while he arranged the papers in a pile next to them.
The girl – Aderyn Duthane, Rafe had been told – was agonisingly pretty and immensely boring. The girl seemed to have an outline to her that made her look drawn, like the impression from some bright children’s book. White hair, or, well, blonde, but really, close enough to white hair, all nicely done up, with a braid and everything. Rafe had tried a braid once. It’d been cut off.
“Wot?” he shot back, trying to still the sneer. Be nice. It wasn’t her choice to be born right. She was probably only a bit younger than him, but without time on the street, she couldn’t possibly know what life was really like.
“Well, I am here on an agreement to kill this gentleman – and I understand you came from Draftfane prison on the same expectation. You particularly care about the personal behaviour of a target?”
“Well, yeh.” Rafe said, shrugging. “You don’t?”
“Well, it hardly seems an appropriate question for a young lady to ask.”
Rafe stopped holding the sneer back.
Brother Fratarelli cleared his throat, rapping his knuckles on the metal tray. “Ah, ah, well. The issue with Elian is his business arrangements, and the power he’s consolidating.”
The two assassins sat, silently, looking at the priest. Brother Fratarelli at least looked like he was sweating nervously. “How familiar are you with the medical properties of Wifeless Nettle, Rafe?”
“Alright, then.” Brother Fratarelli rubbed his throat, wiping it with his handkerchief. “Well, it’s a very important thing for the poor ladies of Timoritia, and Elian has been making business cutting off access to it. There used to be several businesses that sold and distributed Wifeless Nettle – it was very easy to acquire. Very cheap…”
“… Riiiiight?” Rafe tried to resist the boredom that swelled above his eyes, threatening to crush downwards.
“And now, Elian has been working with Lord Cameo Tully – who controls many Gorange dockland interests. If that business alliance works – it seems likely that Wifeless Nettle will become a luxury commodity, controlled by only one pair of men who have their own reasons to stop its use.”
“Seriously? This is…” Rafe squinted. “Why the hell – I mean… this is it? This is why you?”
“Perhaps a simpler explanation, Mister Rafe, is that you are being paid?”
“I’m being paid?”
“Ah, well,” Brother Fratarelli said, adjusting his robe. “You’ll be quartered and dressed, and uh…”
“Paid?” Rafe asked, one eyebrow raising. “I mean, you’re giving me money to hurt people?”
“No.” Brother Fratarelli stood, suddenly, his belly bouncing the edge of the counter, the glasses all a-rattle. “No, no, no. This is very important Rafe.” Leaning forwards, he slammed both his hands into the counter, the sleeves billowing around them while that round white face flashed red with indignation. “You have been chosen, I feel, through prayer and fasting, to enact an act of righteous violence in the name of our City and God.”
“… Seriously.” Rafe managed. Squinting at Brother Fratarelli, he shifted along the pew, even as he crawled up onto the back of it. “You seriously want me to think this is something good?”
Aderyn had, throughout the exchange, reached out to the desk, plucking up a roll of almost transparent paper and turned it over, looking at both sides, her fine white eyebrows knitting together as she surveyed the map of an estate she would definitely claim she’d never visited. “Brother, forgive my temerity, but ah, I cannot help but think Rafe has a point. There’s something in the Books about murder. Also lying.”
“Mmhm,” Brother said, still quivering with rage, unrolling the larger paper, so thin the light shone through it brightly. His fingers stopped along its edges, feeling the little divots in the paper at the edges that spoke of being once bound to a glass desk, pinned down under an architect’s hands. “And coveting, which underpins trade, and adultery is important to the games nobility play.”
“Yes, but we – the nobility – are dreadful degenerates.” Aderyn said, smoothing down her absolutely impeccable blouse. “Full of our own self-importance and often in need of the redemptive hand of the church.”
“Is that how you always talk about your mum and dad?” Rafe spat.
“Inasmuch as is appropriate for a young lady.”
Brother Fratarelli rumbled in the depths of his throat and lifted the papers again, trying to keep his eyes focused on the drawings rather than on the two people who could be considered at a bare minimum, quite dangerous. “Let me tell you then, the story of a Judge. His name was Ehud, and when he Judged the Chosen People, they were oppressed by the Moabites. Rafe, stop rolling your eyes.”
“I wasn’t,” Rafe said, with the defensive tone of someone who was, and really resented being considered predictable.
“Weapons were banned from the Chosen People by the Moabites. The Books say that we should follow the law of the land, that we should not kill, should not lie, should not use our left hands for things, and that we should not touch or interact with, ah, feces. Ehud, who was the Judge, and moral guard for the Chosen People, saved them by strapping a long sword to his inner right thigh, which he wielded with his left hand and, after luring the king of the Moabites into a private meeting, stabbed him in the stomach so deep that his, ah… filth… flooded out, around the blade and Ehud’s hand.”
“Well, that seems a rather vile little story.” Aderyn responded. “You wanted me to consider it, why?”
“Because, young lady, the Books say a lot of things and you can’t treat any one of them as the right thing all the time.”
“Dangerous words for a priest,” Rafe grinned. “I like it.”
“You also quite like hurting people who have money, and let me assure you that Praefoco and Tully are both quite wealthy.” Aderyn murmured, turning the paperwork over in her hands another time and setting it down.
Rafe sat silently. It was hard to properly respond to that. What bothered him more than the way his heart did quietly leap at that opportunity was the way Aderyn so perfectly predicted him.
The brother shuffled around behind his low wooden counter, smilingly rearranging the glasses on their little metal tray. “Now then, do you have any other questions?”
Rafe still hadn’t lowered himself from his near spider-like position, perched atop a pew, distrust writ on his furrowed brow. He parted his lips, and made a sound that sounded perhaps like the start of a word, but was followed by nothing else. Another, better, smarter, cleverer question ran up behind it, taking the momentum away from it. Raising a finger, he finally managed, “Why us?”
Fratarelli took one of the small cups of wine and sipped it, nodding seriously. “A good question,” he said. “In your case, your crimes and lies speak of a strangeness of character.”
“You calling me a liar again?” Rafe asked, gripping the back of the pew and leaning forwards, his whole body like to launch at the priest as an arrow.
“I am,” Brother Fratarelli said, quite boldly. “And I am reasonably certain that whatever punishment escape attempts bring, Lady Athene would revel in an opportunity to show you what will happen if you attack me.”
Aderyn shifted a little along the pew, away from Rafe.
“… Right.” Rafe said, flaring nostrils and tense shoulders showing how hard it was to not respond to that threat with an action. “A strangeness of character, eh.”
“A strangeness of your moral character. It’s a strange thing to find a young man – a boy even – who’ll send himself to prison for crimes he didn’t commit. Stranger still for him to be like you.”
“… ‘Like me?’” Rafe said, and the words were like drawing a knife.
Brother Fratarelli wasn’t even looking at Rafe as he spoke, shambling around to pull his chair closer to the counter. “Like you. You’re quite physically fit for a young man who doesn’t have reguar meals. You’re quite strong for someone so small. You’re obviously confrontational, too, and that’s an attitude that I imagine would earn a young f-fellow like yourself an utter pasting if you tried it in the wrong part of the city.”
Aderyn visibly leant away from Rafe, but it wasn’t a gesture as if he smelled bad. It was the gesture as if he was about to burst into flame.
“With three murders on your record and my word making you a free man, then, Rafe, you don’t have much choice.” The portly priest turned and dropped himself into his chair, his hands folding across his belly. “You’ve very little opportunity in this city. The right word to the wrong guard and you’re back in Draftfane, or worse – and anything that you do under the order of this little operation is probably falling on your head next.”
Rafe’s jaw dropped. The priest had spent every conversation being so earnestly positive and effusively kind that it was a genuine shock to find himself standing over nothing but air. “You brought me on as your fall?”
“Oh no, not at all. Well, it was something of a contingency.”
“You miserable fat-“ Rafe’s fingers tensed, white on the pew.
“Ah-ah,” Brother Fratarelli said, sipping from his wine glass. “Try to show some courtesy. I have faith in your abilities, young man. Don’t you dare try to tell me you’d have respected any limits I set you that weren’t boundaried by chain.”
Rafe’s mouth snapped shut again. His jaw set. “Fine.”
“When are they near one another?” Aderyn asked.
“You mention Tully and Praefoco,” Aderyn outlined, looking up at the Brother. “There are two of them, they are both a problem, and there are two of us. I have to assume then that you have some ulterior motive? Or is there to be some form of competition…?”
“Ah…” the Brother nodded. “You’ve seen to the heart of the plan. In two nights’ time, the pair will meet for a dinner – at a ball at Praefoco’s. There, there will be a noble who is willing to sell his daughter, and a man who wants to monopolise the health of women across the city to pay for it.” Slugging down one more of the wine glasses, Brother Fratarelli turned his glass carefully, and looked through the bottom at Aderyn. “Two assassins, two targets, one opportunity.”