One Stone, Chapter 44

“So, what do you expect to see at a coronation, anyway?” Rafe asked, shuffling with his hands in his pocket, through the crowds outside of Westminster. Crowds. Why the hell were there any crowds outside the palace? Who would gather for this anyway? Some guy gets a hat?

As far as Rafe knew, he’d never been in any city in the world but Timoritia, and he was keenly aware that his limited perspective probably accepted a host of things that didn’t have to be considered normal as normal. There were still things that stood out though. Right now, for example, people were flocked over both sides of the street despite the rain, the gloomy ash-coloured clouds heaving rain down upon rank upon rank of people huddled under hastily constructed tarpaulins and awnings for The Coronation. Some part of Rafe was sure that you went inside when it rained and you left the pathways clear for people who had Things To Do.

“I am not sure, truth be told.” Aderyn offered, stepping primly alongside him on the footpath, her steps steady, even, each one a predictable length apart, because he knew if she wanted to, she’d be able to turn any one of them into a run. It was a good trick. He’d seen her do it now. Blend in, hide you weird amongst the normal. “The last coronation was, after all, just over a century ago.”

“Oh? You didn’t… like… memorise all those details?”

“Why would I do that?” Aderyn asked, ducking slightly under the waving arm of a man who was offering his flag to the soggy wind a little too enthusiastically, which made it more of a wet-soaked towel being flicked indiscriminately towards anyone walking past.

“… I don’t know, maybe you wanted to, like, plan out how you’d assassinate the king.”

“… That’s a fascinating idea.” Aderyn said, suddenly bringing her hand to her mouth. “Just as a hypothetical scenario, such as whether I would be able to interrupt his public execution in a narrow window of time, give or take two to three minutes? Or how I would respond to the intrusion of the Hadrian if I was mid-way through assassinating him from some position of stealth. Or perhaps-”

“You’ve already thought about this, haven’t you.” Rafe shot back, sourly.

“No! This seems like a really interesting game though!”

Rafe shook his head, and looked over the fences at the palace, to hide his grin from her. It was weird, the things that excited Aderyn – but he knew what she cared about. “Y’thinking anything’s going to go wrong?”

“Well, you said the soldiers were concerned.”

“… You were there, Aderyn. You heard them.”

“Yes, well, I prefer to trust your judgement.”

“… Why?”

Aderyn peered through the bars, tilting her head, and pursing her lips. Leaning up against the fence in the thick of the crowd, Rafe looked at her, not at the building – so he could look around behind her. No point looking where she was looking.

“Something’s gone wrong,” she said, her voice low.

“What? How do you know?” he asked, tilting his head to look like he was looking at her, but sweeping his eyes through the crowd. There were dashes of pink all throughout. People had the fliers. People had been reading. There was something dreadful afoot. The crowd was loud and laughing, and he could see fried food being passed around but Rafe saw too many people with blue caps, too many Dims workers, too many people who had clearly come here to see the King as he announced everybody’s going to get paid.

“The balcony they’re using is still closed. They’d have people out giving speeches by now, if the times are right.”

“Could just be off schedule. They’re not practiced at this.”

“There’s a Palace staff who have had nothing else to do for a century but drill on mindless, pointless details of how to optimally operate a monarchic state, Rafe.”

“And you think that’s enough reason to be worried?”

“It’s enough reason to be curious.”

Rafe leant back, putting his elbows through the bars. “… Want to get in, get a little closer?”

“It’s the largest palace in the city with a hundred-em perimeter around it to walls of the palace. I can see four guards at that one gate and there are patrols within the fence as well. How quickly do you think you can get in there?”

“Hadn’t thought about it, but…” he looked along the crowd. “Bet I can get you in pretty quick.” Plow into a guard side-on and laugh at him as he tried to recover. Then it was just a short bit of keep-away to harass the guard away from the gate long enough for Aderyn to get past the line of the fence. Hell, the fence was low enough she could probably vault it with a small distraction – and the lines of trees were perfect for avoiding guards’ attentions. He’d seen little kids playing games that could get around patrols like that.

“Hm.” She responded, turning around and walking away from the fence, the pair falling back into the ground and into each other’s space. “Do we have any contract involved here yet?”

“Nah,” Rafe said, shaking his head. Why did she even ask that? It was silly, considering that she had been alongside him the whole of the way out to the Palace. Unless she was expecting Rafe to come up… with… something.

Huh.

There have to be rules, she said. But apparently, only for her? This whole affair felt a bit like Luke Cornell again. Something big was afoot, and all she needed was some excuse to take action. Rafe couldn’t help but wonder, in the weird friendship they had, that was his purpose. It could be worse. Excuse-Finder General was a role he could manage well enough.

“Then we’ll observe a little bit. I don’t imagine there’ll be any contract soon.” she said, “Unless you find a friend, I suppose?”

Something about that felt fundamentally judgmental, and Rafe wasn’t sure why.

Maybe he would find a friend. A friend with money. A friend who wanted the king dead, and oh good god, what a stupid line of thought that was.

*

Everything about the palace was top class. Everything. The walls were top class, the ceilings were top class. The floor, the floor was amazing, and Tenner knew that because he still felt some of the impressions of the floor on his face. The leather chairs were a nice substitute afterwards, too, and he was quite proud of himself for crawling into one with only a minimal bit of help from a servant or two. Probably only one or two. He certainly hadn’t needed to be carried, though come to think of it, there was no gigantic blood stain on the floor like he’d imagined would be underneath Yull Bachthane when he fell, and just thinking that made him a little bit woozy.

Wardell was here. Good man, that Wardell. Always good with the tea. He’d take care of this stuff, now, what with his position of importance. They could rely on Wardell to handle all the tedious kingy things, and then they, the four families, would just have him do all the really important things they wanted to do, as soon as their families could agree on what that was. And arranged in front of Wardell were a handful of lawyers, good men and women too, all stout and robed, wearing their wigs and holding big, heavy books.

It was going well. Tenner was pretty sure it was going well. There was a little glass in his hand, a bit of brandy, maybe, to help calm his nerves, and it was helping him feel a bit better. Certainly better than he had been. And the lawyers were all nodding, looking back and forth between one another, and at the coin.

“Now then,” Wardell said, his tone taking on that smooth, easy tone he did when he needed Tenner to move his feet out of the way of the broom, or adjust his seat a little for the tea tray. “With everything in order, I’m sure we can move on to the coronation stage, despite this unpleasantness.”

“Oh, well, yes, of course, Wardell,” said one lawyer, waving his hand easily. “Well, we’ve spoken about-”

“Excuse me, am I interrupting?” asked a voice from the far side of the room. Tenner raised his head, muzzily wondering why it sounded so familiar. All the lawyers stopped short at the voice.

Wardell raised his head, and whipped around, flaring nostrils with all the demeanour of a king, pointing to the door. “This is royal business, and you will wait outside.”

The man in the doorway was maybe in his early seventies. He had a short, silver beard, and a tiny little ponytail around the back of his head, and wore otherwise, quite plain dark red and blue clothes. Leggings, flat shoes, a waistcoat, a high collar, and a cane. The man looked like some minor functionary or the like, what with the way his outfit resembled something like Royal Scribe or Keeper of the King’s Keys. Something like that.

“Oh, I was just about to, sir,” he said. “Just there’s Lord Gorange here to see you,” he said, gesturing at the door. “And I felt that as long as you were discussing things in here, it’d be best to, you know, get things nice and smart. If you don’t mind.”

Wardell stopped short at that, visibly irritated with the old man. “Fine. Fine. I- We will talk to the old man. He can witness the coronation, I suppose. Go fetch him.”

“As you will, sir. Not the fastest mover in the world, I’m sure you can appreciate.”

Wardell stood, with his arms folded, watching the old man shuffle out of the room, while Tenner tried to focus on the little glass of brandy. They at least had some nice chairs all around the room. There was the one Tenner was sitting in, which was nice, and a few grey and brown chairs, from other rooms, and there was that big, tall, golden chair, in the middle of the room, with the stairs leading up… to it…

Oh it was a throne room. That made the lovely thick carpet make sense. It was very nice of Wardell to move him here, too, considering. He couldn’t see the other members of the conspiracy around, not Asca or Ligier or Ulster or Marko. The tingling in his fingers around the glass was helpful, at least.

Finally, the old man reached the far door, and pulled the little compartment in it closed. The double doors sat undisturbed for a moment.

“God.” Wardell raised his head and turned to the lawyers. “The sooner I’m crowned, the sooner we can sort things out. Whatever legal problems there are, we can fix them. You all understand?”

“Oh yes, of course,” came the response. “Your majesty,” some wag appended.

The double doors swung open, in the middle this time, both sweeping free on a huge geometric arc that left the whole hallway behind them clear and open. There were Gorange guards, with their guns and their armour and their total lack of sense of humour. There were three scribes, holding books and writing desks, who also looked like they’d been tugged from some bookshelf somewhere to fulfill a purpose. And there, standing before the whole group, like the tip of a spear, was that same old man… wearing almost all the same clothes, holding the same cane, and with a brighter red cloak around his shoulder.

Oh.

Of course.

The current Keeper of the King’s Keys was the head of the Gorange family.

Tenner tried very hard not to faint again.

“Now, you’re the man claiming to be the heir of the throne,” said the old man, as around him, guards and scribes filled the room, taking up spaces around. One scribe had her table already propped out and set down, scribbling words across the page in swift shorthand. Ah, of course… Goranges did accountancy. “That’s quite a thing, and you’ve one of my… nephews, I think, involved.” Tap-tap-tap went the cane before the old man while he looked about the room.

“These your lawyers?”

“Ah, they’re the finest lawyers the city has-”

“Ah, so they’re Goranges.”

“Yes, sir, they are.”

The Lord looked at the array of his minor nephews and nieces. “Hm. Don’t think I trust any of them.”

“Why not, sir?” Wardell asked, stepping back a little defensively, towards the clouds of black robes.

“Because they’re Goranges and not one of them told me what was going on in here. Which says to me that they’re all on to something. So then,” Lord Gorange said, walking past Wardell, past the procession of lawyers, his cane tap-tap-tapping with each step, with an air that Ligier would have killed to claim. The old man took only one step up the dais – just enough to reach up, and place his cane down on the throne, where it rested across the armrests. Then, seemingly satisfied with that, Lord Gorange stepped back down again, and took the small, plain, wooden seat at the base of the steps, and sat down, very deliberately. “Why don’t you sit down and we’ll have ourselves a chat.”

*

The Benjamin was an old, esteemed, stately timekeeping device. It had rung out throughout invasions, it had run out through fires, it had rung out through two famines, and it had even rung out while it was, itself, completely covered in thousands upon thousands of dead pigeons courtesy of some extremely toxic paint. Ringing out over riots was nothing new. It was at the point where people could see a riot coming, and they’d try to orchestrate them around the bells. The bells were the heartbeat of the city, and it was a city where even the poor and the cranky had personal investment in making sure everyone got home on time.

Ten minutes late for the coronation and the announcement of free money, that was acceptable. Half an hour, that was a bit rich. An hour? An hour of waiting in the rain, with no king to show, with no order of free money, and with the whispers throughout the crowd, the murmur and growl of the crowd turned from impatience to danger.

“I hear…” Rafe almost stopped in his tracks when he heard the telltale whine of a lie wending its way through ears to lips without ever doing much residence in brains. “That someone just killed the king.”

“You wot, mate?” came the incredulous response, some barrel of a woman with fists like hammers. “Says who?”

“Oi, you know old Cheever’s boy? Works the gates? Says a fight broke out and now the King’s dead.”

The king. They didn’t know who he was yesterday, but now they were talking about him like his death really mattered to them. One day, Rafe would work out what weird magic was worked through heraldry and monarchy, but it sure as hell wasn’t today. “You what?” Rafe asked, calling over, his fingertip brushing the back of Aderyn’s elbow. Don’t grab her elbow – Rafe knew what happened when you grabbed Aderyn without permission.

Unpleasant, unpleasant things.

“Yeah, one of the boys that works the coal chutes. Says that the King turned up and a buncha nobles wanted to stop him and now he’s dead and they’re trying to find his long-lost brother and shit.”

Rafe wasn’t a person who thought much about how he thought, but in that instant he could feel two thoughts careen into prominence behind his eyes with such speed and intensity that he was dizzied.

That’s such a stupid story and That story is totally going to work.

Aderyn’s hand touched his wrist, a tiny signal, and she was already moving. Not running, but proceeding with that knife-edge seriousness that flowed from her when she was going places. There wasn’t even any push through the crowd; she was just always stepping forwards, moving in the spaces between people when they weren’t watching. Like she was some kind of ghost. It was amazing what you could accomplish in a crowd when you were willing to completely disregard other peoples’ typical social rules.

Rafe followed as best he could.Lose her, catch her, keep up, and when he saw that pale braid dart down an alleyway, he slid up behind her as quickly as he could, without touching her. “Y’heard?”

“I did. If the General is dead, then the soldiers will want to know.”

Rafe nodded, looking over his shoulder. “We want off the streets.”

“Why?”

“The Benjamin’s about to ring,” he said, jamming his hands in his pockets and hunkering forwards, bracing his body against the rain like a little grey-brown wedge. “And when people realise they’ve been waiting an hour…”

“Ah. Yes. A riot, yes? Like the Lewton riots last year.”

“… And the Chenneridge riots before that, and the Djansk Retainer riots few years before that and-” Rafe stopped, looking over his shoulder. “We riot an awful lot, don’t we.”

“One might wonder if there’s some root cause to that.” Aderyn was moving quickly, pulling a fold of fabric from her stout dress up, out of the neckline and loosening it so she could curl it up over her head and keep off the rain. Tugging her gloves into place, they had this little moment to prepare – because when they stepped onto the main streets, there was no telling what was going to be throwing back and forth.

“You might.” he tried to keep his default sneer from showing. “You ready? We don’t wanna have to cross Broad Street if we can.”

“There’s a route that goes through Parcel Street that’s probably less travelled in the rain. There are carts in the street, I don’t imagine people will riot through them easily.”

“Dunno, Bottle street, when we went for the walls, we’d roll right over carts.”

“Oh dear. Then we had best be quick.”

“As quick as is appropriate for a young lady?” Rafe asked.

“Inasmuch, yes.”

Behind him, across the river, and loud enough that all the people, gathered in the squares could hear it, the clock struck two. Closer to Rafe but still behind him, a rock hit a window. And somewhere closer still, patriotic cheers mixed with the pouring rain to become the start of a squalling, raging bellow of ten thousand confused and unhappy souls.

The worst murderer and best assassin of Timoritia picked up the pace and ran down the side streets back to the church. Everything was about to go to shit, and Rafe knew the people that were crushed in days like these.

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