One Stone, Chapter 16

Cameo Tully wasn’t, in his own mind, a bad man. Almost nobody who went to a school that taught you how to kill a man could be. There were certain mental gymnastics that required you to take on a different outlook. Tully’s father had trained at the Assassins for two years, after all, although the senior Tully had not ever completed the final exams. A little fee could often waive those tedious components of the education. In his own days, Tully had been a bully, no less, taking to the fencing classes and the knife use with a dignified pride, feeling the importance of his family station protecting him. Oh, Cameo – ‘Cammers’ – had never had to be the sort of boy who ran to hide behind his father’s name, no. Those were the little bullies, the ones who kicked and punched and shouted because they cried themselves to sleep at night.

No, Cameo Tully was better than everyone he met, and since he could lift other boys out of the swimming pool by their heads, and rode first class on the train and knew how to make another boy’s wrist squeak when he grabbed it, he felt there was no reason not to.

Men like Cameo Tully are rare indeed, he reflected. Even at the Assassins’ school there were a tiny number of people he had any respect for. A few of the teachers, the ones who had known better than to bother pushing him to try hard. One or two had used the odious word ‘prodigy,’ which just felt like it was gilding the lily. After all, he knew he was very, very good at everything the school really wanted him to do, why be gauche about it? It did mean, however, that he very rarely had anything interesting to do, and even more rarely could do business with his peers.

Walking through Praefoco’s estate was a perfect highlight of this. Praefoco was a decent businessman, and fairly tolerable as an associate went. In his school days, Tully imagined he knew boys like Praefoco, and regarded them as friends-ish. Even with his hands slid behind his back, immaculate white gloves and dark suit and his hair done as best he could, though, there was just something about the man that smacked of being a dreadful oik. Like he thought keeping a secret was all it took to be useful.

Not that that was all Praefoco had to him. He was utterly shameless, and he was common, which meant there was business he could do that no sensible noble would want anything to do with. Particularly this fuss with the Kettleweed. Of course it was disgusting, and of course any good-thinking person wanted nothing to do with things like that. Also, the man could keep a secret.

Overall, he was certainly worth the trade of a middle daughter. Not an exceptional man, and he’d be an irritating son-in-law, but probably wouldn’t need much of an inheritance, and it wasn’t like she was worth that much either.

“Ah, DuMaurier cigarettes,” Praefoco’s oily voice broke Tully’s quiet contemplation. Another of the man’s frailties – silences seemed to bother him. Couldn’t just stand and think, had to speak about nothing rather than just wait. “-and silky,” he concluded. Not a word between them had mattered.

“Yes, I’m familiar with the brand,” Tully said, reaching out to the offered cigar case, stroking one bare finger casually against the soft felt to the side of the cigarettes that didn’t quite fill the available space. He held the cigarette up and looked around the study while he waited for the thing to be lit.

It was really a pretty study. This estate was much better than he’d imagined when he heard it was being sold. The windows were pleasantly small, too, in this study; they were fixed closed, and just high enough at the shoulder that they could let in some light and show the sky, but not so broad that a wall could be dominated by a view of other houses just facing back inwards. Who wanted that? Bookshelves on three walls, nicely tended floorboards, fixed and firm so they didn’t creak, soft carpets and –

The cigarette was lit, and Tully raised it to his lips and took a long, smooth drag, revelling in that moment of the dusky flavours. Praefoco was a pedestrian little commoner aiming to be something more, but he did know where to buy the best of things in life. He tugged the cigarette from his lips, considering again what to say. The decisions were made, but he had no intention of telling Praefoco about the agreement until he’d learned everything Praefoco had to tell him. It served well to remind the younger man of his place.

“And now, about Christina,” Praefoco began.

“Kirsten,” Tully corrected him, slightly bored. “I must say, you –“

Tully caught the start in his throat, and another part of his childhood rushed back to him. Games of stealth in the schoolyard, where someone would spot something, and not be sure, so they’d continue on, while their mind wandered and the important thing was to be decisive.

Cameo Tully whirled around with one hand still holding his cigarette, grabbed the letter opener on the table with the other hand, and swung wide behind him, grinning as he loosed the blade towards the door frame. It didn’t matter, because his throw had been high – that girl was moving towards him like a charging cat, shoulders low, her head hiding her body, looking him straight in the eyes, with a knife in her hand.

Tully’s mind moved like quicksilver. The girl was smaller than him, much smaller than him, and probably lacked for his powerful upper body. That meant she’d aim for his stomach, which is what junior assassins are told to try. Mostly, they’d try for the neck or the head, because that seems vulnerable, but the stomach is the route to an eventual death. To strike at the head successfully requires remarkable strength and precision – the stomach is a softer target and the rupture of it almost inevitably leads a man to bleed to death. What’s more, she’d have to avert her gaze soon, and when she looked away, he’d see where she looked, which would show him where to strike at next. Signals, it was all about signals.

He’d have to work out what the girl was playing at, though, what with this business. If he didn’t kill her fending her off, but well, what did he expect? She did start the fight, after all.

Tully’s body tensed like a spring in the instant as Aderyn closed in on him, staring her in the eyes, not blinking, refusing to be cowed, as he tried to know which way to turn. She was a slip of a girl, and she was young – there was no way she could bring herself to kill him while she looked him in the eyes.

No way at all.

No… way.

Tully blinked and stepped left.

Aderyn streaked past him, one of her hands grabbing his belt momentarily as she used him like a child used a street-pole to whip her momentum around, throwing herself further into the room…

Cameo Tully blinked a second time and wondered why his hands felt so numb. There was no more vigor to him, none of that… drive that he’d been nursing just a moment before. All the tension oozed out his feet, and he felt a dreadful weight on his head, pulling his gaze downwards. The immaculate white of his shirt contrasted with the black of his suit… and the drops of dark red down on the floor, between his feet. His hands reached up, to feel at his navel, his chest, and found no wound, none of the heat of blood… until he saw a dribble of dark red wet fall down, past his hands, and into the splash on the floor.

He tried to speak, but all he could taste was blood. So it went to the ages that the final words of one Cameo Tully were, “Mrhghhgh hgh hrrr.”

As Cameo Tully tumbled down to the ground like a puppet with its strings cut, the dagger stabbed up through his jawbone, into the roof of his mouth and further still, his last thoughts were of those bright eyes, staring up at his, unblinking and unafraid.

*

Praefoco was huddled up against the wall, under one of the windows as he gripped the walls, his jaw slack, his eyes wide, staring at Aderyn as she stood on the desk, hoisting herself upwards with the last of the momentum, the now-deceased Cameo Tully as her counterbalance. She stood with a very steady ease, smiling politely as she took Tully’s sash from his form and started to wipe the weapon clean, almost as if Praefoco wasn’t in the room.

“Wh-wh-what was thatI!?” The businessman blurted, his eyes all-but escaping his head.

“I told you. I’m an assassin.” Aderyn said, calmly.

“Yes, but I didn’t think you meant it!” Praefoco stammered. “W-was this about the Black King’s Crown!? I swear, I, I-“

A fist crashed through the window over his head. It was, Aderyn reflected, quite a good window for preventing assassination since it was so secure, but the metal rod that ran up the centre was not much of an impediment to someone willing to make noise, and it wasn’t like Rafe was a subtle boy. Rafe hauled with all his strength, dragging the man up and out of the window, smashing his face into the jagged glass of his window – before thrusting downwards to stab the sharp, broken spike, once a security feature and now a murder weapon – into the back of the man’s neck, punching it up and through his throat.

Praefoco died without so much as a scream. Rafe slithered past him in through the window and held himself high off the ground for a moment, before throwing himself into the room, landing on the desk next to Aderyn.

“Huh.” He managed. Which was something, at least.

“Yes, Rafe?”

He looked down at the crumpled Tully. The bigger target, the harder target. Rafe had imagined he could have maybe managed the same, with a bit more tussling, but it wouldn’t have positioned Praefoco so perfectly. “… How’d you do that?”

Aderyn smoothed her knife, then her hair and tucked the former away. “I am sure he just underestimated me, due to my being a slight person compared to him.”

Rafe narrowed his gaze. A moment of watching Aderyn’s sweet, bright eyes, and he looked away, stepping off the desk. “Broken glass’ll bring maids or someone soon. Sorry couldn’t be quieter.”

“It couldn’t be helped. It was an excellent opportunity to prevent a scream.”

Rafe looked at Aderyn again, and drew a long breath. “… Okay. Anyway, we should move.” He gestured with his thumb at the window.

“Would you be so kind as to move the body, first?” Aderyn asked. “It would make life easier.

Grumbling, Rafe walked over to the pinned-to-the-sill Praefoco, and shook his head. “Don’t see what’s so important with this weed anyway.”

“Oh dear. Um, Rafe, you are aware of where babies come from.” Aderyn said. She didn’t ask, which was strange, because every word in the sentence sounded like it formed a question.

Turning from his grim task, Rafe spared Aderyn his look of burning scorn, dried up slightly, to become withering scorn.

“Alright, good, quite good, well, you are aware then that young ladies have differently structured… plumbing?” Aderyn gestured somewhat mutely to her midsection.

“Why, no, Miss Aderyn, why don’t you describe it, in detail.”

“Oh, well,” Aderyn said, raising one finger. “The outer parts of a young woman’s sex organs are-“

“Okay, okay, yes, I know what you’re talking about. Different plumbing.” Rafe snorted, working Praefoco up off the spike.

“Very well, then. Well, Kettleweed, when it’s brewed into a tea, and consumed about once a week, will stop a young lady’s plumbing from… leaking.”

Rafe almost dropped the burden. “What do you m – oh god, ew, oh god.”

“… I must say, Rafe, it’s a little hypocritical of you to be squeamish about a little blood at a time like this.” Aderyn said, that raised finger pointing at Rafe, whose forearms and navel were quite, quite red.

Rafe gave a flustered gesture. “This, this isn’t a little blood! This is lots and lots of blood and I know why it’s out there and it’s all over my boots! What you’re talking about is mysterious and weird.”

Somewhere, that great scale that balanced Rafe’s virtues and failings added another weight, and he could feel it. Aderyn adjusted her outfit primly, and looked at the window. “Hm. Just a moment. I need to leave my feather.”

“Your what?”

“My feather – a signature. That’s how the guild knows this wasn’t done by an amateur or a copycat.”

Aderyn circled the table, looking for a place that in her mind, would properly represent the murder being done by the owner of the feather, and not try to take credit for both of them.

“… It’s a raven’s feather, isn’t it.”

“Ugh, no. Everyone picks a raven’s feather in first year. Duh. The teacher tends to let them, then everyone gets graded based on the worst-performing person still using the raven feather.”

“And you’re…?”

“A kingfisher.” She said, setting down the glossy, green feather, which looked like it had most definitely not been hidden somewhere on a young lady’s person. Rafe briefly wondered about the amount of care Aderyn would have had to take to keep that feather looking so lovely.

The window. The sill. A gymnastic leap to a gaslamp’s arm, pulled up arm-over-arm. Rafe catching her hand to make it easier for her. The opposite side of the street, watching the Barneys roaming up and down the road quietly.

As they flit along the rooftops, away from windows and ledges, Rafe mused aloud. “You like kingfishers?”

“Oh, yes. They’re very pretty birds. And they’re very smart.”

“They are?”

“Well, yes – brown kingfishers know how to steal beer.”

Rafe shrugged, feeling a tile flick under his foot as he leapt a gulf between two houses. That was as good a proof as any.

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