One Stone, Chapter 23

Far from the The River – well, far as could be considered for a man like Brother Fratarelli who could get puffed out walking upstairs – in the cold little dining room, the Brother and the Knight sat, looking at a spread of papers between them. The paper was uniform little white stacks, pinned together at the corners with a needle, then the needles tied together delicately with twine.

“Even details of the conversation. The types of cigarettes they were smoking – and look here, she’s even provided a description of the Black King’s Crown. Why would you even bother with that? I mean, if it meant something, I’m sure I could have looked it up.”

“It’s an old wives’ tale.”

Sometimes, Brother Fratarelli wished Kivis wouldn’t wear the helmet indoors. The cathedral was already an old building, with a large, wide open space, hard walls, and this room had basically nothing to muffle or block the echo of her words. With her helmet on, the echo had an echo, and it gave her an eerie choral quality, as if she was not one, but two women, speaking in near-perfect time. Almost but not quite perfect.

“I’m fairly sure you can say the same thing of the parting of the Red Sea, doesn’t mean people don’t do things because of the story.”

Kivis’ gauntleted hands slid between the pages with a mechanical precision. “She wrote this?”

The priest nodded, shoving his bowl aside. “Yes. It’s like she was plastering the walls or something.” He shrugged a shoulder. “It’s actually a bit reassuring. Interested in details like that, she’d surely find anything else important.”

“You mean any greater sins, don’t you?”

The Brother hunkered forwards slightly, his entire manner embarrassed. His fingers curled around the small bowl again, bringing it back before him like a shield, and he turned it back and forth to peer at it, not at her.

Kivis sat back on the bench. Her armour creaked. When the priest had first started associating with her, he’d always expected her armour to clink or possibly to make no noise at all. Armour was too alien a thing here in the cities. You’d see a hauberk or two, maybe a cuirass, but never someone who wore full armour all the time like Kivis.

Silence didn’t necessarily bother Brother Fratarelli. Well, some silences did, but the silence here wasn’t nearly so bad as the silence inside a confessional booth, where you knew someone was sitting only a few cims away and they’d done something dreadful, and as much as you wanted to encourage them to talk you had to just wait for it to come naturally. That sort of silence was almost always lighter than it looked, er, felt, because most of the time, nobody wanted to confess anything that was actually bad. Thank goodness though, they came to him, rather than let that little twist of guilt blossom into something dreadful. The really nasty ones, they were the ones who confessed out of habit, and didn’t think anything good or ill of what they’d said. The ones who knew that confession was a secret and just didn’t care.

Why did the armour creak, anyway? It was something about the leather underneath it. Did that mean Kivis was always walking around dressed in leather? That seemed incredibly awkward. Not that the Brother had the same reaction to that that he imagined say, Rafe would. But then, that was part of why Kivis did what she did, wasn’t it? It was a sad kind of cage, really, where she hid everything about herself to prevent other people from perceiving her as weak, or projecting onto her things that weren’t true.

The silence really was a long one.

Probably didn’t want to push it any further. Kivis would be getting uncomfortable, which would be his fault, and that was rude. Turning the bowl over and pushing it aside, in a different direction – you know, so as to not be repetitive – he finally reached across the table for Aderyn’s report on the assassionation. “It’s the research that surprised me.”

“Mmmhm.” Kivis responded, and there was so much disdain in that little sound for the change in conversation.

Brother Fratarelli looked across at Kivis. His friend, he knew, even though she wasn’t the kind of woman to use that kind of word. The prickly knight would be more likely to use the word ‘colleague’ which was as nice as she could manage considering she’d called a fiancée ‘a target’ and her father ‘the guilty party, your honour.’ Turning the paper over in his hand, he remembered that day – the stony faced young woman with blood still on her dress, unblinking and unflinching as she ended her own family with a blade and the force of law. Being an orphan was pretty common in books and even more common in the streets, but finding your best friend was a self-made orphan was much rarer. He swallowed, parting his dry lips –

“I think you’re doing the right thing,” Kivis said, setting the stack of papers aside.

“You do?” Fratarelli started, leaning back. “You… I mean, I would have assumed.”

Kivis rested her elbows on the table, folding her hands together. The helmet meant he couldn’t see her expression, just the owl-like glare of the metal hood. “Brother, I’m not the one who swore an oath to a church and a god. I have no problem killing nobles.”

It wasn’t a big threat; it was just a little one. A little threat that said if you continue down this line of conversation, I can make you feel worse than you can make me. It was one of those little lines between friends, a warning shot. And Brother Fratarelli turned back to the paper, reading aloud, as if Kivis wasn’t already intimately familiar with the text.

The target referred in a panic to ‘The Black King’s Crown,’ a tale of Lleywan nobility. The tale runs that during the 1100s, a Lleywan Thane, known as ‘The Black Thane’ successfully conquered Timoritia and declared himself king. The King sired an heir before returning to Lleywa. His son supposedly married into the Timoritian nobility and continued the royal line. This idea is popular in Lleywa as it implies a form of dominance over the more wealthy and politically powerful Tiberan state than it currently enjoys.

“The Lleywan position of subservience is said to be seen in everything from primary produce (sheep) to its national dish (cheese on toast) to- It just keeps going on like this. It’s like she did a book report for a murder.”

“This is evidence.” Kivis said. It wasn’t a hushed sentiment, a fearful whisper. It just was. Aderyn DuThane, the Assassin, had handed to people she had no particular reason to trust, proof that she had murdered another noble of the city for forty-five pounds, give or take expenses. It demonstrated remarkable trust in the two.

The priest shook his head, rubbing the side of his temple. “Then I need to put these in the care of someone I can trust utterly to not break confidence.” Shaking his head, he pulled the papers into a pile, and pushed them across the table. “Please. If you’d be so kind.”

*

The tea was just the way Marko liked it, and if he’d learned one thing walking a trench it was that comfort was to be feared. The chats with Wardell were nice, but it was still a strange slice of his day to come around here, wait in the kitchen for an hour or two, and leave to go back to work again. There were times when the masked figures called him in, but they rarely had anything to ask; strange inquiries about old campaigns, about campaign forces. Marko was sure they were testing his memory and his patience. He’d been to job interviews before.

Every day so far, though, Wardell had needed a reminder about the tea. It was reasonable. Marko wasn’t that important, in the order of the house. Four masters in the other room, and Wardell never made a mistake as to their tea orders. He hadn’t even asked, obviously distracted, as he slid the cup across the table – not drawing close – and made his way with that little hobble into the next room, like a good servant.

Six sugars, milk, and the milk went in last, just enough to blend in smoothly and take the dark off it. The swirl of milk was a stylised eye of accusation, peering from the table to Marko. When Wardell came back, Marko pushed the cup away slightly.

“What’s going on?”

Wardell looked like he’d been bitten. “Wh-whatcha mean, Fiver?” he asked, turning his head, raising an eyebrow, uncertain.

“Wardell, don’t try to sand this one over. We’ve both hidden things from brass before. What’s on your mind?”

“What do you mean, Fiver?”

“You’ve been cagey this morning. Moreso than normal.” Not really true, but one signal was all Marko needed. Being indecisive when you were given a signal was a good way to wind up dead.

“I, um, I don’t know what you could mean,” Wardell said, shuffling back around the back of the kitchen, keeping the length of the table between them. “It’s not really my place to rightly say.” He hedged, the sound of a unit clerk who really, really didn’t want the person dropped in the cack to be him.

Marko stood up. There was still some of the old Sergeant in him. It was a doughy weight, a weight with implied threat. Generals and lieutenants barked orders knowing that they could punish. Sergeants didn’t have that luxury – they instead just had to make someone’s life very difficult. “Wardell.”

“They’re just discussing… I mean, you know how it is Sir-“ Ahah. “They’ve been talking about things lately, and I know it’s not my place to listen, but a man does hear things.”

Marko knew he should feel a pang of guilt for exploiting an authority structure he’d left behind years ago, but there was something afoot, and he was tired of it. “That’s it.” He said, gripping the hilt of his blade at his hip, storming to the door and ramming it open with the force of a storm.

“Sarge!” yelled Wardell after him as Marko plunged into the dark.

The faces shrouded in darkness and wearing masks were much less intimidating when they were sat around a short table with their masks propped up atop their heads. They were also far less inscrutable. Names flashed across his mind – because one could not work as a protector for the fearful and moneyed in Timoritia without meeting the other fearful and moneyed – as quick as an arrow. Asca Gorange, the fat-jowled complainer with a rat-trap sense of timing. Ulster Dulf, the too-ginger, too-freckled gunner who’d shot two fiancées before her family got the idea. Ligier Rangst, a man who looked like a tiger wearing a human suit and had all the same social grace. And nestled amongst them was the nervously shaking form of Tenner Chilver, a man whose greatest accomplishment had been being born after an incredibly boorish lout that made him look better by comparison.

“Oh.” He managed.

It was hard to hold onto that spark of rage that’d pushed him through the door. Even grasping as tight as he could, the way Tenner’s hand shook while he sipped his tea, and the ridiculous way the masks sat atop heads, and suddenly he felt a lot less like he’d rooted out a conspiracy and more that someone was very extensively taking the piss.

“Oh, Marko,” said Ulster, with a voice that Marko was already in hindsight regretting not recognising. The woman had a voice like a low growl. People were hasty to say ‘unmistakeably feminine’ but they were all lying. “We were just talking about you-“

“What’s this about?” Marko asked, stepping towards the table. No lighting effects. No strangeness. Just four silly nobles sipping tea wearing things that were really very silly hats. “What’s going on?”

“Well,” Tenner said, adjusting his cup and setting it down. “Well, we … well. Well, you see, it’s like this. We’re trying to find the Black Thane’s heir.”

Asca gave a grumbling sound at that. “Well, we’re trying to find if there is a Black Thane’s heir.”

Marko was glad he hadn’t drawn his sword, or he’d feel pretty ridiculous right now. “This is… this is some sort of genealogy club?”

“WELL,” Ligier said, barging his words across the table like a brick into a pie. “We’re trying to find a king and heir for our country, you know. The wealthiest empire in the goddamn WORLD, after all, if you’re not too PICKY about things like that.”

“And so, I’m here because…”

Ulster sat back, putting her tea to the side, and folding her arms. “Marko Fiver, we have reasons to believe that you have personally served at the right hand of the current and appropriate King of Timoritia. Now, you’re a man renowned for seeing patterns. Do you remember what you had to tell us about General Yull Bach-Thane?”

*

The Cathedral doors were large and robust, and bound with iron, which is why they only opened on Sundays when the people were coming to file in, and closed when there were three or four people to help Brother Fratarelli with it. That meant normally, when a door had to be opened, it was opened with slowness, and the sound of it was a mighty creak that shook the walls of the church.

Brother Fratarelli had never heard the sound from the small room by the building, because he was always one of the hands opening the doors. It sounded like someone had taken a gunshot and spread it out long and slow, like jam on bread.

Kivis was standing and looking at the door. “That’s not right,” she said, picking up that same small wooden bowl and heading to the small door that led to the main hall. “Brother?”

“Yes?”

“Stay here.”

Staying was a flexible word, and Brother Fratarelli leant up against the door, peering through the keyhole with his heart in his throat.

There were seven men ranging in age from perhaps twenty to maybe forty years at the oldest, wearing dockers’ clothes. One was holding a boat-hook over his shoulders, and they were all wearing suspenders like they were some sort of uniform. “Excuse us, mate,” said one, as Kivis stepped into the light of the room. “Just here to pick up the priest. He’s got some business, down by the river.”

There were no pews set up in the main hall. They were all pushed to the walls, stacked up and over one another, which meant the main hall was just one large, empty space with a stone-tiled floor and a rug on it. “You’ve not been here before,” Kivis said, that twofold voice echoing off the walls.

“No, this ain’t one of your typical shakedowns,” said the man with a boathook, grinning broadly. “Boss’ got a few words for the guy – don’t worry your head ‘bout it.” He said, sweeping the hook around to rest it on the ground like a spear. “You’re not about to give us some trouble, is ya?”

Kivis tilted her head one way, then the other, rolling her neck under her armour. Both fists up, clenched, she punched one into the other, testing her shoulders, the weight of her arms. “It’s not wise to try anything in this church,” she said.

“Yeah, God works wonders for the poor,” said the leader, bringing the hook up. “Never been one for faith.”

The bowl whizzed past his face by cims, and he lunged backwards to avoid the impact of it on his nose. In that tiny fraction of compressed time, he felt enormously clever, and made to turn his head back to Kivis, with a short, sharp quip on his lips, ready to launch. It maybe travelled to the edge of his lip before the words hit Kivis’ massive metal fist crashing into him.

The boathook hit the ground, but he didn’t let go of it, which she felt was quite convenient of him; she stamped on the midsection, snapping it, and swept up the half he still held to smack him in the face with the splintered end. Fist around his throat, she swung the man – easily a hundred keegs if he was any weight at all – around like a rag-doll and threw him like a child’s toy into the arms of the youngest of the group, who collapsed at the blow.

Then the rest of the crowd managed to blink.

Well?” the knight asked, standing, her arms spread.

Five men considered just how badly they wanted to fight a woman in full armour holding a metal hook, and began a nervous shuffle back and out of the building. When she was sure they were gone, she walked to the doors, and, straining the weight under her steel, pulled the doors closed again. The two forms lay in quite a bit of pain, but not unconscious – because Kivis knew what it took to make someone unconscious, and she hadn’t bothered to do any of it.

The younger man had a look of dazed embarrassment on his face underneath the older man. The way the tide of things had been shifted so easily had surprised him, and then he’d laid there reconsidering just how devoted he was to the cause of getting the shit kicked out of me. Good. Boys like that lasted longer. Hunkering down on her knees, Kivis hooked the boathook into the shirt of the older of the two, and flipped him over without directly biting into his flesh.

All the thug saw, looming over him, was the owl-like visage of the church’s knight, holding his weapon in her hands, and light shining behind her head.

“Works of god be damned,” Kivis’ words echoed around the man’s head. “This place is guarded by me.”

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