One Stone, Chapter 2

Beautiful young women were in style in Timoritia these days, continuing a trend of some six hundred years. Oh, beautiful had always moved around a little. Some years, beautiful meant tall and thin and gaunt, and coincidentally, when the plague struck, those traits were seen as very much not beautiful any more. Beautiful these days typically meant possessing skin that was smooth and uniform in its colour and texture, ideally a paler colour (not that there was anything wrong with those people with dark skin, per se, no, we just don’t like them quite so much around here, and it’ll be better for everyone if they keep to themselves, let me tell you,) with some form of long hair that was elaborate enough to serve as a canvas for clear effort, but not a sign of too much effort. After all, a young woman who spent too much time on her hair clearly thought a bit too much of herself, and we can’t be having that.

Aderyn was therefore, almost perfectly positioned in time to stand on the cusp of being an adult just as her particular look was about to become fashionable. Again. Just like it had been for most of the century. There was something about heart-shaped faces, bowlike lips, wide, expressive, blue eyes and fair platinum-blonde hair that makes the typical bard slick back his – or her – hair and assume this particular sonnet’s going to be an easy one.

“Eryn! G’mawning to you!”

“Good morning, Mister Bauer,” she responded, her voice like a silvery charm, pronouncing every letter clearly.

“Never forget a name, do y’, lassy?” called the barn-wide man, pushing back his battered blue cap with one huge callused hand. His stall was mostly grains, small sacks and stacks designed to be purchased by inner-city businesses that did not need much. The main value at Mr Bauer’s stall was the ledger underneath the counter, where he took account of the givings and takings of every farmer between the walls of Timoritia and the North Sea, easily a hundred fifty kayem span of land.

“I do seek to be polite, Mr Bauer!” She laughed, turning slightly as she went, bounce in her step while she skirted around his stall. “As befits a young lady, yes?”

Mr Bauer’s powerful yell-laugh-snort combination faded into the loud hawkings of the Parcel Street Market. Like a great living beast, the market’s voice swelled and roared around her while she walked, her hands tucked behind her back politely, her hair in a braid that just reached between her shoulder blades. When she passed a stall keeper she recognised, she smiled, and nodded her head – and she recognised everyone. Each step was carefully before the next, while she laughed and nodded and did not let any polite banter, any call for her attention from one of the stall keepers slow her walk.

Parcel Street was one of the many snarling, naturally grown parkways that connected and bordered parts of the great city. Rather than a line from one point to another, it was more of a bulging, bowing near-circle, cobbled in the middle but rarely saw either horse or cart, because it was too commonly full of people.

Beautiful young ladies were definitely in fashion, though that was really the only concession towards fashion that Aderyn had bothered to make. While other Young Ladies favoured skirts that reached the floor as a sign of status, she never felt it wise to leave her quarters like that. Smooth brown suede pants hugged her legs, contrasting in colour with a sensible pair of grey, flat boots. She wore a blouse of apron style, with a small skirt from the front and back, a wide belt, but wore the neck high, the sleeves snug down to her elbows, leaving her forearms free. It was not particularly high fashion, but it was practical for a lovely walk, fresh and clean of a morning.

“Final exams today, isn’t it?”asked Mrs Sepper, who hadn’t been turning much profit this week, but she didn’t really need much money from her sales of bottles and jars, thanks to her four sons who had all established businesses and were quite happy to do some work to take care of their mam, and one of them was still single, if Aderyn wanted to meet him, he was a real dusky beauty compared to her, took after his father, don’t you know. She raised one of her glasses, glinting with what wasn’t likely apple juice this time of the morning, and cast a smile Aderyn’s way while she gave that half-turn without slowing.

“Oh yes!” Aderyn said, smiling in turn, a veritable beam. Hands clasped behind herself, she raised her shoulders. “Just a little bit of study this afternoon and then it’s off to the Examination Hall!”

“Well good luck, young lady!” cawed the old woman. “I’ll be sayin’ a little prayer for you!”

“Thank you!” called Aderyn. Smoothed down her blouse, stepped out of Parcel street, her purchases of fresh bread and butter tucked under one arm, and turned sharply back towards the boarding house. It was a busy, busy day, after all – there was still plenty of study to be done for her theory topics at the Guild of Assassins.

When wise men sit down to steal the notes of the wise women who did all the research, they speak of the universal forces that bind everything together. The smallest objects are bound by their own force, then another force binds them together in another way and onwards and onwards upwards to gravity, which gets to do all sorts of fun stuff like pull drifting packets of gas in the cosmos together into single locations, pile them up together until the piling itself generates heat, which generates light and all sorts of fun things happen.

The knowing of it, that gathering things together brings about side effects, informs the eye when it looks at the world.

Consider the city of Timotiria. Everywhere has a city like it, eventually. A city of two million people, or more, depending on one’s view of the poor. Pile enough people in one place and some things naturally occur, as side effects. People devise ways to solve the problems that come about from too many people. They create sewage systems (though not as quickly as you’d hope), they create roads, they create buildings and eventually, eventually, they get around to creating writing and taxation. What follows swift upon that is money.

Money’s a mysterious thing. It has a gravity all of its own. When you gather enough money together in one space, it starts to warp even people’s perceptions of value, of time, and then, most strangely, money itself.

While gravity is what allows fun things to happen, time is what those fun things happen in. Time is the currency that a mushroom spends to drive its soft, spongy nothingness up through a concrete slab. Time is how a species of monkeys tumble out of trees and wind up at chartered accountancy without ever having their brains quite adjust to the difference.

Consider the word Assassin.

Once upon a time, a political movement needed people willing to do anything, commit any act, and the best solution to this they could conjure was the use of a type of drug called hashish. Hashish was used to induce a stupor, and then the consumers were carried covertly to a secret place and told fascinating lies and fantasies they, in their altered state, about what would happen to them when they achieved their ends. These people, these hashish-im became feared because of their willingness to die, their willingness to commit any act.

Then the tales travel to the northern places, away from the people who owned it, to the lands of people who already would do any horrible act in the name of a far more mundane thing, like God or Royalty or Territory, and they didn’t need any drugs to put them on that path. They were also sloppy at pronouncing words, so the hashishim of this place became known as the assassins.

In time, laws got involved, and the task of assassination became, rather than committing atrocities while completely high off your face on hallucinatory drugs, the task of killing another human being for political and not personal aims. Then, it slowly turned and the smooth bits wore off it and it became killing another person for professional reasons, because lawyers could make much mileage out of that. And as with the candle makers and butchers and bakers and wyre-drawers and saltier, a coalition of people with this particular trade took it upon themselves to handle the business at a professional level. Professional killers, after all, needed to be as professional as possible.

Therefore, an Assassin was to be a Professional in the most pure sense of that term. Just as the Thieves’ Guild created a smaller, more publically acceptable guild – Accountancy – the Assassins’ Guild grew up from the places known as the Black Books. Nobles began to send their sons there, to learn the ways of the knife, which also meant they became better at avoiding knives. More and more young men – and yes, women – came to join the Guild, because even if you never intended to stab anyone, being a Professional Professional was a great opportunity, not to mention the networking potential that it presented.

That’s how the term Assassin came to mean Intimidating and Cool Person of Noble Birth. It barely ever involved any killing at all, these days.

Barely ever.