One Stone, Chapter 48

Inside the church, four soldiers sat, wringing the rain out of their clothes and hair. Vince’s own hair was remarkably resistant to the rain, but poor Gael, with her long braid, she looked like she’d dived into the river. Brother Fratarelli’s seat at the head of the table was still, his hands folded, perhaps in prayer.

Leigh groused as the sound of broken glass tinkled from nearby. “Riots still going huh.”

“Where’d you think those bodies came from?” Stannisfeld asked, confused. “I mean, of course the riots are still going on.”

Leigh tapped her fingertips on the table, resting her elbow on the table and her chin on her hand. She was sitting on her bag, supplies forming a decent booster. “Can’t really do anything about them, can we?”

“It should wear itself out in time. Timoritians are very punctual people.” Stannisfeld said, waving a hand.

“Is that what you think of us?” Leigh poked his.

“What’s ‘us’? I was raised here.” Stannisfeld laughed, leaning away, towards Vince. “I mean, I grew up in this city, it’s just an accident that I was born Djansk.”

“Well, the riots I saw growing up sort of just… ended at some point.” Vince murmured, waving a hand, edging subtly closer to Stannisfeld. After all, it wouldn’t hurt to have a person to lean on, in case of the cold or the uh, the noise. Or something.

“As night follows day, Vince.” Leigh snickered.

“No, that’s a good point. People heard The Benjamin and realised they’d been rioting for an hour and came home.” Stannisfeld added. “It’s like they forgot they’d put the kettle on.”

Gael looked up to the high windows of the church, as if she could somehow see through them to a tower that was in the other direction across the city. “How long do you think…?”

“Me?” Vince said. “Four, maybe five. That’d put it at what, three hours?”

“God, holding out for hours…” Gael sighed. “It’s like the trenches all over again.”

“Ick.” Leigh grumbled.

“It isn’t like we can just force time to run faster, though.” Stannisfeld said. “Something like this comes out of nowhere, all you can really do is ride it out.”

Brother Fratarelli shifted from his position at the end of the table, steeling himself. Since they’d brought in the corpses from the street and covered them with sheets, he’d been sitting somewhat still and shaken, which was nothing Vince hadn’t seen before. Most people didn’t like seeing their first real dead body anyway. He knew he hadn’t.

The priest slowly gathered up the plates and places, shaking his head. “You think a riot like this happens out of nowhere? Of course not. Of course not. It’s been going on for months. Medical care for poor women. The criminals working the river. Nobles buying up property in anticipation of something.” Sadly, he shook his head, looking at the four soldiers. “You’re hearing a very real cry of pain out there. I don’t know what started it – but I think the people thought they were about to feel relief, and it was snatched away.”

“They wanted a king that much?”

The priest shook his head, finally picking up the bowl. “They want change that badly.”

It was hard to really listen to people like this. Vince didn’t even realise he’d been drifting in and out until Gael bumped his arm. “What’re you in, Vince?”

“Um. Well.”

“You okay? Wounds playing up?” she asked, testing his shoulder.

“No, no, I’m fine. Well, no, okay, that’s a little s-sore, thanks. Um, no, I’m just… you said we can’t force time to move faster?” Vince pointed upwards. “What, I mean, just I think… I think, that if you can get me into The Benjamin, I can.”

Leigh turned around on her bench seat and stared at Vince. “… You wanna mess with the Benjamin?”

“… Well, sure. It’s just a clock, after all.”

“It’s a clock ten ems across.”

Vince shrugged. “It had to be built. Someone had to set gears in spaces that could be interacted with. It has to be able to change the time. If… I mean, I’m pretty confident if I could just get into the tower I could change the time.”

Leigh looked back and forth between the three. “I… I mean, it is a tower. Guard’s probably trying to contain the riot right now, not defend a landmark.”

Stannisfeld had his bag on the table already, idly fishing out weapons, setting his pistol on the counter. “Well, I mean…” he idly unloaded it. “I don’t think I’ll need a gun to push through a riot…”

“Speak for yourself,” Leigh said, snatching up the bullets from the table. “There’s going to be doors that need opening.”

It took a few scant moments. Vince redressed his bandage. There wasn’t anyone in charge, there was just a mission. Gael checked her bag, set aside her sword. Stannisfeld did up his boots. Leigh swept the last of her bullets into her bag, and buckled it up, tying it to her belt and slinging it back.

“Father? Close the door after us.” Gael said.

“Um, it’s brother, actually.”

“Oh, okay. Close the brother after us.” She said with a grin, patting Leigh on the shoulder. Then, like a tense spring, Leigh kicked open the church door, glaring at the press of people fighting and storming outside, swinging fist and elbows as she forced her way into a space that wasn’t there before, like a high-speed ball bearing shredding into a wedding cake.

“Move it, ya arseholes!”

*

“Get me the book.”

It’d been a snappy order from the future King. Straight from his mouth to Bottle Street ears. Zudd wasn’t a long-standing member of this crew, but he knew how to do what he was told. To think, they’d invited him onto the palace grounds, up to the king’s room, where Lord Gorange and all sorts of fancy folk was goings-on. He’d had to drag out a dead body, sure, but as he was leaving, he got an order from Wardell, who was going to be the king. That was pretty special, all things considered.

Zudd jammed his hands in his pockets and watched the street. There was a riot going on, and while he’d had his time moving through them in the past, it seemed a pain in the arse. Better to sweep around behind it. The trick was heading out one of the far exits of the palace and taking a long way around, through the quiet and calm spaces where the poor folk didn’t live.

Why’d they always riot near where they lived? Was a bit weird. Maybe the guards were better in the richer areas. Hard to say. Probably Wardell’s orders too, keep them away from anything the rich might want to keep intact.

Still, it wasn’t a far walk to make and he could keep under the awnings. Thick rain sheeted down, and Zudd barely noticed anyone on the streets. With so much happenings-on in other places, Zudd didn’t have to worry overmuch about guards, either – plenty of the Barneys were over somewhere else, dealing with a faceless mass, people he didn’t know about and didn’t have to know about.

Zudd stepped off the kerb, jammed his hands in his pockets and shambled on towards the Safehouse location he’d been given. Most of the drops from the boss had been in other locations – parcels left in spaces, the occasional bit of a hack-job to move things around. Most of the time he remembered dealing with Nebrin and shifting goods between Cornell and the nobility. This time, however, to retrieve ‘the book’ he had to head to the safehouse proper. The novelty was wasted though – after all, heading all the way out there and back to the palace was a detour away from where the rest of the Bottle Street boys were hanging, in the crowds, with the yelling and the crowing.

The safehouse proper. What a todo that was being. Nobles and their plans, and their discovering lost kings, all in quiet spaces. Who’d have thought the king had grown up in Bottle Street? Zudd wasn’t so sure what was going on, but he did have it pretty clear in his head that if Wardell got the book, he’d become the king, and if he became the king, then the Bottle Street boys would probably benefit from Wardell’s generosity. After all, he wasn’t so bad back in the day, was he?

Zudd shrugged under a fallen tarpaulin that gave the water a little more distance to sluice, and trotted down the street. With his hands in his pockets and his shoulders drawn up he was the very figure of a Bottle Street kid, someone who knew that the only way to handle the rain was to present as little of yourself to it as possible.

Zudd reached the safehouse, a nice little safe alleyway off from a larger street. The address worked, and he tested the key in his hand in the door. Nice place like this might have a few things worth nicking after all. Wasn’t like the king’d mind much about some trinkets in an old place. Hell, he’d probably set the place on fire when he was done, to hear what he was doing to the other folk Bottle Street had been called to know.

The door rattled a bit in his hand, and Zudd lanced down at the lock, only to notice a hand resting on the handle, keeping it closed.

“Christ!” he blurted, realising there was someone else in his personal space. “How the hell’d you do that?”

The boy up close to him – boy, yeah, probably boy – gave a sneer and shoved him away from the door with a surprisingly strong hand. After a moment of squinting Zudd peered forward, recognising something familiar about his manner, about his stance, even while his hands automatically bunched into fists. “Oi, I know you?”

The boy tilted his head and gestured at the door. “You’re Zuddy Thumpers, right?” he asked, thumbing over his shoulders, as if gesturing to some eternally-present building they all escaped. “One of the Bottle Street boys used to run with Wazza Cherish for a few pennies a week?”

Zudd grinned. “Hey! Yeah! You ah-”

“Rafe.” he said. “Think y’all were a bit older than me?” a shrug, leaning on the door. “Cha up to?”

“Eh, just doin’ what the boss wants, same old, same old.” Zudd grinned. “Don’t see many Bottle Street boys these days, what since…”

“Since we could leave?” Rafe grinned. Sure was something familiar about the kid. Not just the Bottle Street signs, not just knowing him. “What’s the boss after?”

Zudd laughed, and reached for the door handle. “Just a book, mate, nothing you need to worry ’bout.”

“Yeah, but,” Rafe said, gesturing again with his thumb. “Patty told me to swing by and pick it up so you didn’t have to bring it back. Split the fee with y’, half and half.”

Zudd grumbled. That did sound Patty’s style of fussing. “What, he want me out with the leaflets?” a guffaw. Of course he did, this scrawny kid wouldn’t be any good in a ruck. “Okay, squirt. S’just this big fancy book in there, all written about on Lleywan. You know how to read that?”

“What, me? You think I know how to read?” Rafe laughed.

“Hah! Yeh, uh, it should be in there on the desk, um, up in the main room. Don’t read it, just, y’know, grab it and take it back to the boss.” he shook his head, patting his pockets. Where was that key. “Ah, ‘ere.”

Metal token passed from hand to hand, and Zudd rolled his shoulders. “Don’t waste time tho’. Don’t want either of us to get in the cacky.” He grunted, turning on his heel and running up the alleyway.

Thank god he’d get to do something interesting today. He wondered, as he hitched up his belt and braced into the wind while he ran, if there was anything fun going down in the Dims already.

*

When the riots hit the Dims, they picked up speed. Personal vendettas could only amplify what was already a bellow of rage. The instigators in the crowd could only do something to start things, directing it after they’d done their jobs was entirely a different beast.

Aina huddled under the counter. Mama’s Obliteratum was a business with stout doors and a fearsome reputation, and Mama had felt shuttering the windows and weathering the storm would do. But that didn’t mean there weren’t going to be broken windows, or maybe even damaged shutters. Surely nobody would be fool enough to come through the doors…

Aina took her cap off and bit it. Screaming wouldn’t do any good, but upstairs, in her room, she could hear every tell and scream. Down here, under the counter, it was at least dark. It was at least a little quieter.

Then the door rattled on its hinges.

… plenty of money in here…” someone grunted.

“Here, let me.”

Mama Cass had invested in good shutters, because a thrown brick could go wild and the Dims was known for That Sort Of Roughness. The door, on the other hand, had a stout lock and a bar and that was it. Mama Cass had an expectation of the people of the Dims, and so far, it’d been fulfilled, throughout the years.

The outer door burst open, letting the roar of the street bellow in. Aina huddled down deeper, trying to squeeze herself into a low space designed to hold shoeboxes. Down below the edges of the bar, she saw feet, saw the shapes of rough and ready men. Holding her breath, she pulled the cap over her face.

There were customers who’d been inside when the riots broke out. Mostly, they were unconscious – curled up asleep upon benches or halfway there on clouds of green smoke.

“They got wallets?”

“Nah, don’t bother,” said one voice. “Just get the cashbox behind the counter.”

Aina rolled over, biting her cap and clenching it in both hands at once. Breath held, she listened past the footsteps of the opportunists, around the clamour of them shuffling past people and making their way to the counter, for the sound of salvation. It was a low, grumbling sound, the dull scrape of an axe on stone. It wasn’t the scrape of a whetstone on a battleaxe, a tangible demonstration, a preparation for war. What it was was the scratchy, tooth-itching sound of a well-used tool being drawn from its keeping place for just another job.

Mama Cass really wasn’t the best kind of person. She short-changed her patrons, she was rude to the serving girls she saw as beneath her, and she’d given Curly the sack for getting pregnant when it was no business of hers beyond being annoyed the girl had had some fun in her life that she herself hadn’t had in years. She wasn’t a good woman, not a hero. She wasn’t a bad woman, either, not a villain. Mean, perhaps? No matter what you called her, though, this was her place of business, these were her customers, and that made it part of her territory. And she came out of nowhere, the side door swinging out with the same force that brought the axe down.

The axe swung down through an arm without fanfare, guided downwards by the natural folding the elbow did as she broke his arm with the weight, then lopped off the forelimb when the axe-blade crashed down through sinew and gristle. Assassins knew how hard it was to actually remove bits of people, since people are probably attached to their own peopleness more than they are to anything else. The way the limb twitched and flexed as it was liberated from its former owner spoke volumes for the madness that drove Mama Cass as she swept the axe around, a single justified arc of blood moving with it into the face of the second invader. Every sense was dulled by the first man’s screaming, which was no doubt waking other guests.

They outnumbered her, which was very comforting for them, but comfort was all it could be as the axe-head turned half-way in its arc and broke into the side of a face, carried with the kind of fearsome momentum with which a madman drives his fingers through a plank. Spit and teeth and blood filled the air and spattered onto the wall above and behind her, while she shifted the axe methodically in her hands and started in her steps towards the third man. Her dark little eyes glaring and beady, her curls bouncing along with the rest of her rotund self, Mama Cass didn’t yell or threaten or say anything. Why would she? They already knew what she’d say, if she spoke:

GET. OUT.

The door swung on its hinges as the three bolted through it into the street, trying to gather their wits.

Be wary of Mama Cass.

Aina slid out from under the counter as quickly as she could, reaching for a hammer. They’d need to nail the door shut until this was all over now.

*

Rafe turned the key over and over in his palm while he unlocked the door and stepped inside. He stepped over the mat, pulled the door almost closed, but let the latch hang open, putting the key away.

There were dozens of houses like this. Rafe’d been in a few. Small, dark hallways with narrow windows, big facing windows in large, lower-storey rooms. Homes of the middle class – they’d have been shop-fronts if the people owning it needed to make money. The carpet that ran to skirting, flush and warm, the way the floor didn’t creak despite the moisture outside.

First door on the left was a kitchen. Single wooden table in the centre of a room, a stove in the corner, an icebox, cupboards all around the room. A larder, stocked, with food in tins and in big blocks, wrapped in greaseproof paper. Fruits that lasted sat in bowls, and a tray of potatoes that rolled back and forth on a nice metal runner, in a deep wooden box. The breadbox was full, only a few days out.

Down the hall, to the right, a single large room. Once, it’d probably been a divided room, with maybe a shopfront on one side. Instead? One large room, with a switch by the door for the light. Rafe circled around a room with a circular wooden table, a single book sitting in the centre of it. The lights pointed down at it, a metal cone around them – with the light on, it’d be impossible to see anything outside that circle. Creepy. Circling around the room, he stepped past a tea trolley, over to a door in the side of the room. Inside, a stack of white masks and robes, and Rafe felt a chill down his spine.

Praefoco had had those. In that creepy little room with the book, full of notes, he’d had a cloak and a mask, white clothing that… Rafe looked over his shoulder at the table. It probably stood out pretty well – if you were sitting at the table, someone in the white robes could stand outside the circle of light and still be ‘seen’ – if in a really creepy way.

Stuffing the fabric back into the cupboard, he darted over to the table and scooped up the book. Across the front the letters Mae Cyrchfan y Brenhinoedd stood crisp and clear, outlined in gold leaf.

Rafe flipped the book open, flicking through the pages with a single thumb – watching as elaborate diagrams of beautiful heraldry and painstakingly hand-written lines of text showed in a language he couldn’t read things he didn’t understand. Maybe Aderyn could read it. Hell – she was probably in this book somewhere.

Folding the paper over the book, Rafe briefly wondered if Zuddy would be okay. Most of the Bottle Street boys were like him, these days – low-end crooks. Folk that the Barneys would drag into a cell when they needed a victim, kids who hadn’t managed to step into a job. You had to have real ambition, some real spark of cruelty in you to take the lead from Bottle Street and make something of yourself.

They liked to call it drive, or winning personality, or maybe a drop of nobility, something Rafe had never believed. The people from Bottle Street he’d seen go anywhere with their lives had been vicious little bastards. The most successful name out of Bottle Street he remembered was Wazza. Wazza’d gotten a job with an apothecary selling cherish patches when Rafe was about six, and used his pocket money earned through that job to hire bigger boys on Bottle Street to push people around.

It was always about bullies. It was always about the bigger boys with the bigger boots. Maybe it was a year of age on you, when you were young. You needed a mad violence to push yourself through the pain. It either broke something inside you, or something grew.

Rafe knew something had grown inside him. It wasn’t a nice feeling, to kill someone, but Rafe knew what dying felt like and he figured he’d trade one for the other gladly. It’d been a mess, gory and tragic, but oddly serene. Nothing really felt until everything was done… and at the end of it all he was standing there in a gutter, again, in the rain, covered in blood, with a dead body in front of him. Familiar patterns, weirdly. Since then he’d heard of men crow of their first kills, always with knives and swords and the like. Nobody ever beat someone to death the first time. That was… strange.

But then, Rafe figured a lot about himself was strange. First kill stories weren’t the sort of thing he’d found himself swapping anyway. Aderyn probably had some truly morbid tale of a nanny who pissed her off, Kivis almost certainly could trump everyone with a guillotine and the Priest…

The Priest would be fine. Chances are it’d be a thing that happened once, and never again. With god on his side and all that. Give him a few months and he’d rationalise it all away, they always did. Most people who only ever killed once would do that, they’d build a structure.

Rain sluiced down Rafe’s collar as he ducked out, into the street, pulling the door closed behind him and locking it. Cloaks and masks, secret identities and conspiracies. There was always someone in back in the day. Someone who knew the secret, and that always meant they had power. Seems that people didn’t grow up out of that schoolyard bullshit.

Rafe remembered the feeling of a fist against the back of his neck. Remembered boys like Zuddy, holding him face-first against cobblestones, punching him in the back of the head over his hair or how skinny he was or because he was in the wrong place at the wrong time or because any of it and Rafe realised his hands were clenched into fists against the book’s surface, behind his back.

Deep breath.

The book would get him into the Palace, then he could look around and work out what was actually going on at the heart of this. Right now he felt like he was sliding down a rooftop covered in snow, without a body to break his fall.

*

Once they’d escaped the rolling swell of the riot, they’d only had to make it a few blocks before they had the streets to themselves, heading straight towards The Benajmin. The building loomed overhead, with a bailey around it, with red-and-black clad guards standing to each gate. Two to a gate, that was plenty to keep people away considering it didn’t have anything up in the tower except an inordinately large set of gears. The building loomed on high at the end of the street.

“Is this, um, illegal?” Vince asked, leaning against Stannisfeld.

“What, visiting The Benjamin? Never.” Gael asked.

“They going to have guards?” Stannisfeld ventured, slowing to a stop a block away from the tower. Tools, he had tools in his bag.

“During a riot? They’ll just pull up the gates and stop anyone getting in.” Leigh yelled. “Guards’ll probably be inside hiding.”

The Benjamin was part of one of the great bridges that spanned The The river. Once, it’d been part of a palace, one of the many the mad monarchs had dotted around the city. When a fire claimed the palace, the tower had somehow stood – and been repaired, and slowly grown into the infrastructure of the city.

Really, Vince was proud of the thing, as if he had a right to be. It was a work of craft, something that had been damaged and resisted. It was like the city itself, in a way – something that hadn’t been made to last and be important, but now was part of the landscape.

“Yeah, I’m not seeing any guards.” Gael said. “We got a breach kit?”

“Sort of.” Leigh laughed, patting her bag.

“Hey, boys – “ Gael said, putting one hand on Vince’s head. “You two need to get up that tower fast. We’ll cover your back and stop guards from getting to you, okay?”

“Alright, but-” Vince gestured at his side. “Running’s, ah… uhm. Yes.”

Stannisfeld closed a hand over Vince’s shoulder. “I’ll take care of it, okay, Vince?”

Vince wasn’t sure what he’d been expecting when they breached the doors. Breach. That was a really polite way to refer to throwing Leigh at it. As an engineer, Vince knew that breaching was, technically, one of his jobs, or rather was one of the jobs the soldiers had sappers to do. He’d sit there with a small explosive and pack it into the dorolock, then detonate it to free the door from the lock, with a little bit of wire, and it fell to the, to the, uh.

Vince realised he had no idea what to call the soldier that kicked the door in and led the charge. The doorfighter? That sounded familiar but somehow wrong.

It had a protocol and rules and Vince liked those.

Rather than following the rules, though, Leigh produced a wide-barrelled gun, one of the crowd-clearers they used to smash planks in barricades, from her bag. It was about the same size as her. Vince hated using them in combat – they were awful for penetrating through armour, and they took forever to reload. Stepping up to the secured double doors of the bailey, she crowed just once –

Oi!

And then pulled the trigger.

The gun shuddered and blew a mighty gout of hot smoke and burning metal in a wide hole into the wood. That close it didn’t burst into flame but scorchmarks showed around the muzzle and massive cracks erupted in the wood up and out from the point of impact.

“Gael, you –“

“On it.” The redhead called, stepping back just once and slamming her shoulder into the door. A second slam, a third, and something holding metal and wood together in the door’s fixture burst.

When the door blew inwards under Gael’s assault, they went with a loud thud of bodies behind it. The doors opened enough as Gael forced her way in, yelling –

“Hello, law! We’re here for the time!” –

followed quickly by Leigh and Stannisfeld. The shift from the gloom of outside to the gloom of inside left him momentarily dazed. When he adjusted, he saw a tableau of goodnatured violence, with Leigh swinging her gun in both hands by the barrel, smacking the handle against guards’ knees and into their guts, while Gael whirled around, bare-knuckle pounding against faces and chins, throats and chests.

The last time he’d seen Gael work like that she’d been head down over a trench moving towards a cannon at a side angle, with a chain trailing behind her.

“You two, up.” Gael said, picking up the batons the guards carried. “Leigh and I’ll keep the door barricaded.”

“Scuse us!” Stannisfeld yelled – and in a sweep, Vince was off his feet, being princess-carried as Vince put a foot to the stairs and started to run.

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