One Stone, Chapter 45

Timoritia’s working class as a culture tended towards a very fair view of the world, a sort of all-purpose good intention. Unfortunately in any outbreak of public violence, that intention takes on an ugly, unthinking form. The first rocks thrown hit fancy houses, but high metal fences and good brickwork meant the heave of the crowd had to find some other place to release its stress.

A hole in the rain, the cold and the discontent, gave people some focus. The gates of Westminster were high as cliffs to the raging and bellowing crowd, crashed against them moment to moment, empty yells at a crownless kingdom.

There wasn’t even a chant, no great rhyme, no reason for it. It’d started like that, at first – sure, there was something about getting paid, or a stipend, or a king? – but eventually it became about that guy who had looked at me funny and the whole brawling mass of scuffling, outraged people ramming against the limitations the city put around them.

The city could look, from the top down, like a series of pipes. Down through those channels flowed the people of Timoritia, unsure, angry, and loud. Where no general’s voice called out, they bellowed and swung and fought – an undirected mass of slow-motion violence, unsure of what even it fought for.

*

“Well, your Lordship,” Wardell started, again.

“Just a moment, boy,” the old man responded, yet again.

“This shouldn’t take much time if you but listen-“

“Oh, I know.” Lord Gorange said, adjusting his seat, fiddling with his sleeves, watching around the room as clerks and lawyers set up their folding tables and pens and paperwork. “It should be nice and quick, if all the paperwork is in order.” He tilted his head, slightly off-kilter, and briefly Tenner wondered if he’d fallen asleep. Then he blinked and leant back in the chair. “But that’s the important thing. The paperwork in order. As I understand it, there was almost something very rushed… something some Rangst boy paid for, too. Now we wouldn’t want this to be improper-“

“Well, sir,” Wardell said, fishing the coin – ah yes, of course, the coin, the coin was trumps! – from his robes. Robes? When did Wardell put on that cloak with the ermine trim? It… it stood to reason the palace would have the garb of a king in it, but it was still a strange thing to see. Maybe he was trying to assert himself over the Lord Gorange.

Tenner shifted a little in his low chair, feeling the soft cushion squeak underneath him. Hunkering forwards, he put his hand into his hands, holding his forehead. Behind him, he could feel the push on the waistband of his trousers by that dagger, pressing against the wooden back of the chair.

Far away, maybe two or three steps, he heard Wardell trying again. “Well, your Lordship-“

“Boy, what is your hurry?” he asked.

“Well, there are the riots outside, and a king might-”

“Why…” Lord Gorange sat forward. “Yes. Yes, there are riots going on outside, which had just started when we proceeded through those gates.”

“… Ah, yes, well-“ Wardell said, drawing himself up. “We do need to stabilise things outside, do we not?”

Lord Gorange sat back, tapping his lower lip with a curled finger. “Yes. But we need not act in haste. A few poors broken windows won’t do the damage a misplaced crown might. Who are you, again?”

“Ah, yes, that – Sir? I am Wardell Bachthane, the long-lost Bachthane heir, and half-brother of Yull Bachthane.”

“Half-brother?” Gorange asked, raising an eyebrow. “Tuxpin Bachthane had a bastard?”

“…Ah, sir, I do, I mean, do bear in mind that there are some ladies present.”

Gorange leant to the side and looked at the gaggle of lawyers, squinting. “They’re lawyers, boy. You think they haven’t heard the legal term for a child born out of wedlock before?” he laughed. “Besides, if I don’t miss my eye, they’re all Gorange stock, aren’t they?”

A moment of discussion amongst the cloaks, before one nodded, standing tall as she could, her hand folded slightly at the edge of her black robe.

“Yes, Lord Gorange. I myself am-“

“I don’t care,” the old man waved his hand. “Fact is, you’re looking at a pack of bastard sons and daughters of bastard sons and daughters. What are they doing here, anyway?”

“Well, sir, we were here to ratify the-“

“New king? My my my.” He clapped his hands together and raised his chin to Wardell. “Bribed them all, right?”

“What? Sir, no, why, the honour of a Gorange is unimpeachable,”

“Don’t blow sunshine up my stockings, boy. If there’s a drop of my blood anywhere near any of them they’re snakes to a man and then they became lawyers.” The lord sat up straight, resting his hands on his knees.

Tenner felt a bit like a fly on a bull. Somehow, all that movement, all that motion, had passed, and it looked, at least from here, like everything was going to be fine. Everything, except… except the king knew he hadn’t done anything during the assassination of Yull. Oh dear. Oh dear. Sitting in his own fluids and stewing, Tenner licked his lips and tried to squeeze as far back in his chair as he could.

Wardell raised his hand, stepping forwards, holding a pose almost saintlike as he spoke, his tone deliberate, measured. “Please, forgive me this, my Lord. Forgive my rudeness, for I am a noble born, but lost amidst the city’s gutters. As best I’ve been able to reconstruct, as the books of Lleywan nobility show, I am the long-lost son of Tuxpin Bachthane. The records show that when I was born, my father, Lord Tuxpin was overwhelmed with grief at his infidelity to his wife, and attempted to kill me. It was the mercy of a retainer, who stole me away, along with one of the Bachthane family coins to mark my legacy, and fled here, to Timoritia, where I was raised, lost and hidden, as but a common orphan. I did not know my royal blood until last night!”

Lord Gorange narrowed his eyes as Wardell spoke. Then a little further, then a little further. By the time Wardell spoke the name of the city, he jerked up straight, as if awoken from a slumber, and waved his hand. “I seem to have mentioned to you, young man, to wait.”

*

“Aderyn!” Rafe yelled through the rain. It was lighter, but not gone. “Hey, Aderyn!”

“What is it?” she asked, skidding to a stop, gripping a chimney as the roof slid under her feet. The woman still moved like art across the rooftops. Rafe would work out how she did it one day, and until then, he’d just be jealous.

“Over there.” He said, pointing across the expanse of the city. “That big, uh. Thing.”

Aderyn stood and peered. Looking across the rooftops of Timoritia was like looking through a wood, where even the horizon was hidden by more buildings, more chimneys and smoke. The hills of the surrounding countryside were so low that it was easy to stand on a rooftop and see nothing but Benjamin and the sea, and not consider the million souls between it and you. A thing had to be large to be seen over the walls.

A very large set of things – such as a towering war machine, constructed of black and red wood, decorated with a white and red flag, and a banner upon which in gold was written Quia ego sic dico. It looked like a mighty wheeled wagon, upon which gunners stood, but more worryingly was pulled at the front by tyrants. Each Tyrant was about two ems tall, with a head much like a horse’s, but wider and longer. Each beast’s jaw hung slightly open, showing that unlike a horse, their heads were almost entirely a massive set of jaws, in which teeth like knives jutted. Upon the back of each Tyrant’s head were feathers, dyed paint-black and red to match the wagon. They wore braces around their shoulders, harnesses designed to pull as a dray – without limiting their ability to lunge and snap. Tiny little arms tucked up against their bodies, they were massive, walking maws on legs – each easily eight to ten ems long.

Quia ego sic dico, is Gallian for we’re fucked, isn’t it?”

“Latin. And it means because I said so.”

“Wait, really?”

“… Yes. That’s the battle standard of the Hammerjaw Legion.”

“Don’t know them,” Rafe said, as he started to move again, heading towards the church.

“Oh? They’re quite famous for patrolling Hadrian against pirate incursions. Led by a Lleywan general, even!”

“Never really been up on my generals. Or my huge fucking bird monsters.”

“They’re called land tyrants.” Aderyn chimed as she leapt from chimneypot to chimneypot. You could run a highway across these building tops.

“Oh yeah? And who bosses those tryants around?”

“Ah, that would be Lady Calpurnia Bachthane.” Aderyn said, turning to take in as much of the Hammerjaw legion as she could. This… complicated things.

*

“Sir, the riots-“ Wardell was good at persistence. Tenner liked that about him. Definitely good for a King to have, that persistence thing.

“The riots will-“

“What the bloody hell do you people think you’re doing in here?” bellowed a woman’s voice, so hard and proud it shook the windows, rattling metal and glass together.

Tenner turned in his chair and blinked, eyes wide open. What more surprises could this rainy afternoon hold?

She wasn’t a tall woman, but she moved like a cannonball through people. Two guards made some effort to stop her, then withered in her gaze, before she stormed on through the rest. Wearing burnished copper armour, with inky-black hair pulled into a braid at the top of her neck, the woman stomped like a cavalryman, like a prince – and Tenner felt his stomach do flips.

Of course Bachthane had some ally or other in the army-

“Gorange,” she said, nodding just once to the Lord. “I shouldn’t be here long. Where’s my husband?”

“Ah, Calpurnia,” the senior family head said, then gestured to Wardell. “Just talking with his brother. It seems there’s been… an unpleasantness.”

Calpurnia Bachthane stood in front of Tenner, ignoring him like the chair he was in. Her hand on her hip, her helmet tucked under her arm, he could only half-make out what she was saying through the churning feeling of his stomach flipping back and forth. Oh god. Oh god, she’d come and she’d probably, probably brought the army with her, and she was going to invade, and now it wasn’t Wardell’s nice, tidy plan that put him on the throne, it was… it was something else.

Tenner looked up at Calpurnia’s back. She was angry. Something about her husband being killed, something about the assassination, about the story. Raising one gauntleted fist, she waved it threateningly at Wardell – and lowered it again when Lord Gorange spoke again.

“So you’re both valid heirs?” Lord Gorange said, as Tenner reached behind himself.

This was good. This was his opportunity. Nobody else to mess it up. Nobody else to rely on. And here, he could make good on it. Maybe Wardell could take care of Lord Gorange then.

Tenner Chilver, future right hand of the king, stood up slowly at first, reaching behind himself to grab the dagger by its handle. Sweaty hand gripped tight, and he lunged upwards.

It took a lot of work to kill a person. Tenner had seen it first hand – the kicking and the stabbing, the sprawling fall of Yull Bachthane. His wife surely wouldn’t take that much.

Tenner’s blade skidded against armour plates; it ripped the edges of a cape.

And then Calpurnia turned around, gun in hand, and that was the last Tenner Chilver thought of anything at all, ever again.

*

Lord Gorange looked at the collapsed form of the smaller man, and the truly hideous bloody spray all over the carpet, mixed in with other… moistness. “Good fucking Christ, woman, what the hell was that?!”

Calpurnia kicked the dagger from Tenner’s fallen hand, watching it bounce across the floor. “… By the sound of things, it’s a very unhealthy day to be a Bachthane.” Raising her pistol in her hand, she popped out a round, glancing between the other two men. “Yull sent a wire north, so I came as soon as I could.” Loading the next round, she fixed Gorange with a serious look. “And I brought the Hammerjaws, since Yull felt something was up.”

“Well, I-” Wardell began. This, this he hadn’t planned for. This, he wasn’t prepared for. What the hell should he do now? Tenner was out of the picture, which at least meant he had fewer pieces to control for, but… wait. “I was there when this man – along with a coalition of other noble family members – assassinated your husband. It,” he shook his head, sadly. “It was very sad – we’d only just established my relationship to my, to my late brother,” he said, biting his lower lip. “I … I knew that Tenner attacked Yull, but I- as I was trying to tell you, Lord Gorange-“ he turned, holding out his hand, “we must resolve this quickly.”

Calpurnia holstered her gun and nodded. “Right, then. Come on, who does the coronating thing then?”

“You’re… um, you’re alright with this…?” Wardell asked, leaning back from the woman with bits of brain on her breastplate.

“No, I’m not happy by a long shot, but I’ve scrapped it out in worse places than this. Come on, crown me and we’ll sort this mess out so I can go home and bury my husband.”

“Crown you!?” Wardell yelled.

“… She is the Queen, isn’t she?” Lord Gorange asked.

“… Well, no, I mean, she would be, if Yull was the king, and he could abdicate to her – that’s how that works, I’m sure of it. Ah, I’m sure the lawyers would be able to-”

Snap.

Lord Gorange sat back in his chair, holding up two fingers. “Ahah. I see. Well.” The old man looked down at the palm of his hand, and, after a moment, seemed to decide. “Send a runner. I want Koel Pushanti from the Old Ford.”

“I don’t know that lawyer, sir,” Wardell said, attempting a wheedling protest.

“You shouldn’t. Koel’s not a lawyer. He’s better than a lawyer. We’re getting an academic.” He smiled, and sat back in his chair. “Remarkably hard to bribe, academics. They tend to like working out correct answers for their own sake.”

*

Aderyn was awfully glad Rafe had been able to explain things to the soldiers. It seemed such a simple thing to say but they’d all hung on his words, even with all the swearing. Then they’d started swearing.

There had been two soldiers when Aderyn and Rafe had left of the morning. There were four now. Gael, the tall redhead, Vince, the injured engineer, and a boy named Jame and a girl named Leigh, who was quite small. None of them made particularly compelling targets. They sat around the table with Kivis and Brother Fratarelli, a meal of stew sitting in the middle of the group but untouched. They’d been waiting for Rafe and Aderyn to come back – and the news had apparently hurt some appetites.

“… You sure he’s dead?”

Rafe shrugged. “Didn’t get inside. Can’t rightly say. But something’s gone really wrong. And there’s an army at the gates and there’s rioting in the streets.”

“Is there anything we can do…?” Jame asked.

“Give sanctuary to those that need it, tend to your friend, and wait on the providence of the lord,” Brother Fratarelli offered, his voice trailing off, sighing exasperately. The last few words seemed to have escaped more than they were stated.

“… I wanna know who pays for this.” Leigh said, resting her chin on the tabletop.

“… We don’t really know who did anything, you know-“ Rafe said, holding up his hands.

“Can we kill all the nobles?”

Aderyn looked over to Kivis. She took a moment, then shook her head, holding up her gauntleted hands. “Hey. I don’t appreciate the insinuation.”

“I just figured-”

Kivis put her elbow on the table. “You want someone in that palace dealt with, kids, you want to hire an assassin.”

Brother Fratarelli lowered his head and rested his hands on the sides of his empty bowl. “Kivis-“

“What? Think about it. These days, an Assassin isn’t a hired killer. It’s a certain kind of professional with a set of skills for investigation and the like. Yes?”

Aderyn nodded. “I do believe that officially, most Assassins commit very few assassinations.”

“Right! So that’s what you need. Hire one of them.” Kivis said, slightly pleased with herself.

Everyone was watching Aderyn. Except Rafe, but he never looked directly at what he was interested in. “… an Assassin like… me?” Aderyn suggested.

“You’re an Assassin?” Leigh asked. Rafe laughed, but Aderyn wasn’t sure why. The young lady was a little short, making it hard for her to see much over the table, but it wasn’t as if that was inherently funny. “… How much for the bastards that killed the general?”

“Ah, I’m afraid, not,” Aderyn shook her head, stepping back from the table. “But my friend Rafe is looking at breaking into the professional side of the business.”

“I’m fucking what?!“ Rafe began. Then he stopped, looking at the soldiers. Aderyn counted at least twenty seconds of silence before he continued, with those four soldiers all looking at him directly throughout. How strange. “… Look, I’ll… I’ll go have a look and see if I can find what happened to the general, okay? Aderyn, you-”

“Oh no. I’m afraid I may have to meet with another potential client.”

“…A what?”

“I am a professional, Rafe,” Aderyn said, adjusting her soggy blouse. “I don’t suppose it should take me very long.”

Rafe stopped short. Drew a breath. Tensed his hand, knuckles flaring white for a moment. Drew his breath again, as if he could fill himself up with even more air. And then, he let it all go, tilting his head with a deliberate, almost mechanical ratchet. “Right! Right, yes. Fine.” Stuffing his hands into his pocket, he turned and moved to the door. “Anything else?”

“Um, Rafe?”

“Yes?”

“You may want to consider collecting payment before you go out to do things.”

Rafe sagged at the door, hand on the doorhandle. “Are you kidding me.” He seethed. “Hey, you guys-“

“I’m not a guy.” Gael said, leaning forward on the table, elbows on the wood.

“Hey, you folks!” Rafe amended, waving his hands over his head, exasperated. “You got any money to hire an assassination? You know who you want dead? Got anything for me?”

The soldiers looked amongst one another, an awkward shuffling, and grumbling. “Well,” Jame said.

“Yes?” Hands on hips, Rafe leant forwards, waiting for the inevitable embarrassment.

“I have two crowns. I mean, I don’t imagine that’s… much.”

“It’s more than anyone else has been paying me.” Rafe grumbled. “Fine! Two crowns for… like, whatever I find. No point giving it to me until I know what I’ve done. Okay?”

He made to push the door open and step out – only to find a hand on his elbow. Leigh, the shortest soldier, leant up, gesturing for his ear. Slowly, he hunkered down, resting one hand on his knee, so she could speak, clearly.

“If anyone’s hurt the general, kill the fuckers.”

A hand mashed a fistful of coins into his, and then the white-haired girl shoved Rafe out the door, whirling around and looking at the group. “… What? What?! I was wishing him luck! Just- Shut up! Shut up, alla you!” she scowled as she stomped over to the table. “I want some soup.”

“I didn’t figure you the sort to get a crush on a boy like that,” Gael said, sotto voce, as she picked up a bowl to ladel full of soup.

“I’ll crush on you!” Leigh spat back, waving a finger at Gael.

“Are you sure you mean-“ Vince asked, as he tore a bread roll in half.

“Shut up, Princess!”

Aderyn tapped on Kivis’ shoulder, while the bowls were being filled. “Ah, lady Athene, are you busy?”

“Why?”

“Well, I was wondering if you might want to go meet with this client with me. At least, if I haven’t read the situation wrong, I think you’ll want to talk to her.”

“… Who’s the client, Aderyn?”

“I think the client will be calling herself Queen Bachthane.”

Kivis shoved back from the bench and stood up. “… Where are we going?”

“Are you confident on the rooftops?”

“… No, but I can get by.”

“Alright, then.” Aderyn put on a smile and looked over Kivis’ shoulder at Brother Fratarelli. “Well, we’re just going to go for a little walk, Brother Fratarelli!” she called, before turning and starting a trot up to the stairs that led to the roof.

“Wait, where are you going?” The priest asked as he shoved out of his chair to head after them. “Kivis, you sure you want to-”

Kivis stopped on the stairs, looking up at Aderyn, then down to the priest. “Aderyn, be honest with me… you need me to come along in case things go badly?”

“That… is a possibility.”

She stopped, tapping her chin. “Francis?”

“… Yes, Kivis?”

“Go fetch me my boathook.”

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