One Stone, Chapter 50

The safehouse wasn’t clean per se, and it probably wouldn’t be until some royal functionary, with their proper permissions and appropriate bottles of royally-appointed bleach turned up to get the blood off the walls. There was a royally appointed cleaning product for such things – Aderyn had used some, for a school project, once. It wasn’t particularly effective – and certainly not when compared to setting evidence on fire. Still, the bodies were outside, in a pile, by the wall, and the guard had been notified about the ruckus. Soon, a cart would come, and the soldiers Calpurnia assigned the task would load the bodies onto the cart, which would inevitably take them away to be sorted out and dealt with as some other person’s problem, eventually reaching a morgue probably no worse the wear if not for the death problem. This was, after all, a good neighbourhood – dead people would probably not lose their teeth or boots on the way to a slab. Probably. Unless they were very nice boots. And maybe then, a Gorange would find Asca’s body and he could be interred appropriately in his family grave.

Nice and tidy!

“Any idea why Asca Gorange was even here, though?” Calpurnia asked.

Rather than standing inside, amidst the blood and unpleasantness, they’d taken to the garden out the front of the safehouse. It was flat and smooth, with a well-kept lawn that flattened distressingly under Calpurnia and Kivis’ large metal boots. It had a stone bench, which Calpurnia sat on, which was under an awning, as were Kivis and Queeny.

“Don’t rightly know,” Kivis shrugged. “But he was scared enough to hire thirty heavies with guns.” Another, equally apathetic shrug. “Shitty nobles doing shitty things.”

“You know I’m a thane of Hadrian and married to a thane of Lleywa, young lady.”

Kivis shrugged. “Good to know when Tiber runs out of nobles I’ll still be able to import them.”

Calpurnia’s hand whipped up, and she probably would have said something like listen, you-, if Aderyn hadn’t interrupted. “Actually, Queeny can probably field that one.”

“I can?” the pink-haired girl asked, pointing at herself. “I’m not in this, y’ken all just bein’-“

“Queeny, don’t talk like that. Nobody’s impressed.” Aderyn cleared her throat. “Just tell them what you told me about Asca Gorange.”

Queeny kicked at the grass and gave a lopsided pout. “This is real unprofessional.”

“Queeny,” Aderyn said, drawing in a long breath, which would convey irritation, if done right. “Can you name the three stages of a professional assassination? It was in the final exam, after all.”

She slumped. “Well, like…” Grit teeth, fold arms. “Well, fine. Like, I was hired to take out Asca Gorange.”

“By?” Calpurnia asked, leaning forward.

“Surely that’s unprofessional.” Queeny muttered defensively.

“Young lady-”

“Lady Quynn Wyndsyr, thanks,” Queeny shot back with a snort. “Christ, you people. Some bloke – semi-anonymous. Payment through a guild fiddy,”

“A fiduciary,” Aderyn offered. “Independent clients who move money between the guild and the clients to preserve anonymity.”

“Yeh. Anyway, contract for four names, I took Asca because he didn’t move around much. Come out this morning and he’s belting from the palace out here and holing up like he’s got the devil behind him so I figured he heard about the contract.”

Kivis tapped her boathook on the stone bench. “Excuse me, but you said Asca would be easy. Who were the other contracts?”

Queeny reached into her back pocket, fishing for a moment, pulling out a wadded pink piece of paper. “Hang on a moment,” she said, unfolding it and holding it spread.

“Aderyn,” Kivis said.

“Yeah, here we are. Asca Gorange, Tenner Chilver, Ulster Dulf and Ligier Rangst.” Queeny read off the paper. “Bit of info about where to find ‘em, and their prices.”

“Aderyn,” Kivis said again, reaching over the bench to nudge her arm.

“Ligier had the highest bid on him and all but I don’t think anyone took it. Hell, I don’t think anyone took any of these except me.” Queeny shrugged. “Weird though, I mean, maybe the class was just a bit- what?”

“Aderyn, the paper,” Kivis repeated.

Aderyn tilted her head and looked down at the piece of paper Queeny was holding. “It’s the same type of paper Rafe was looking at this morning?”

“Looks it to me,” Kivis said. “Think that’s common?”

At the gate, some commotion rattled, and a voice called over the rain. “General! There’s word to want you at the Palace of Westminster!”

Calpurnia gripped her sword reflexively as she stood up. “I bet there is. Alright, let me go sort this out.”

“Mind if we come with you?” Kivis asked, adjusting her belt and gesturing with her thumb over her shoulder, like the palace was only a block away.

“Aren’t you Kivis Athene?” Queeny asked.

“… So what?”

“Wouldn’t letting you into a royal palace where there are nobles to duel be some kinda war crime?”

Aderyn wished momentarily she was good with words. Kivis smiled, but she did it in a way that did not fit well in just those two words.

“You, girl, the Lleywan. You can come with me to the palace. You? No. And you, get that pink out of your hair. You look ridiculous.” Calpurnia grunted dispassionately as she stomped towards the gate.

Kivis looked across at Queeny’s note, down at the paper still in her hands. “Think we’ll get this back to the church and check.”

“I doubt you’ll need to,” Aderyn began – as the Benjamin bellowed out over the sky. Six powerful, echoing notes, hard and loud enough to break the sky.

“… Nice.” Kivis grunted. Clapping her hand onto Queeny’s shoulder, she gestured with her head. “Come on, you. We’re going to church.”

“Do I have to?” Queeny asked, her voice sliding into a familiar whine.

Aderyn trotted over the side of the woman who Would Be King. Killing her would have been quite unfortunate – there were not many people who could command a unit like the Hammerjaw Legion, not to mention losing two generals in the same day would be dreadful form. It was a relief that she had been reasonable.

The cobblestones crunched beneath Calpurnia’s feet. Aderyn fell into step beside her, pulling up the hood on her coat, tucking her hands into her pockets. Knife handles rested under her grip, and the city started to flow past them.

“Why’d you even come here, girl?” Calpurnia finally asked. Again, that wonderful directness. “You weren’t here for the Gorange boy.”

Crunch, crunch, crunch. If she answered quickly, it would seem too planned. Kivis and Rafe made people wait for answers. “Because you have an army at the gates of Timoritia. Even if you did not win the city, you would still hurt it trying. If you were unreasonable, it would probably have been wiser to assassinate you.”

A nod. No fear. “… And why’d you bring Kivis?”

“Because she has a strong sense of justice, but she also has money.”

“… What’s money got to do with anything?”

“If I had needed to assassinate you, I would have needed a client, and it would be reasonable for me to offer Kivis an incentivised rate.”

The general shouldered under her cloak, laughing low. “Well, you’ve met me, now. Think you could have taken me?”

“No, General.” Aderyn lied.

*

Rafe reached the bottom of the Westminster palace steps. Guards didn’t stop him – nobody was really looking for him or at him at all. Strange feeling, to be in one of the poshest parts of the city, and feel like nobody was about to throw him out. It wasn’t like there was a chance anyone had told anyone else about him. Wardell hadn’t known he was coming. They’d sent out Zuddy, runners had flit from the palace to lady Calpurnia, there were clerks packing up books and desks, and there was even a carriage with the Gorange family crest on it, smug and proud, sitting in one of the carriageways well in from the gate. For a palace to no king, for a place that was, most of the year, completely silent, there was such a bustle of activity that…

Rafe clapped his fist into his hand. Of course.

There was nothing strange about him being there. The strangeness had been entering. If you were inside the palace walls, you clearly belonged, no matter how strange that looked, no matter how grubby or dirty or girly you were. There was enough strangeness going around with the would-be king and the academic and the… well, the murder of a general, that Rafe didn’t even stand out.

Maybe this was what it was like being posh. You only had to get over the wall, then whatever it was you did was eccentric, not filthy criminal behaviour.

The willowy boy stopped by a row of eerily uniform trees, and looked at his spoils. A book of Lleywan stuff, and a coin. Somehow, he imagined, they’d be important, to someone else. Still…

It was like a strange opportunity. If he left he’d probably never see this side of the fence again. All wrought iron and white brick, a barrier that was maybe as thick as his forearm at its widest point… but never, seemingly, worth the crossing. Just today, with it pounding rain and its strange, sad spatters of blood.

Rafe turned around, looking up at the palace, and started to slowly circle the building. Maybe a little loop around it, to remember how it looked, up close. After all, with one exception, there probably wasn’t a Bottle Street lad who could ever say they were so close to the place.

And he was an arsehole, so hell with him.

*

Gates rolled open, as they would, before the General and the Assassin. Soldiers fell in file behind them, and the crunch of cobblestones turned to a finer sound, higher, with boots and shoes meeting ornamental stone, scoria chosen to be finer. Scoria like that was a nice easy red flag for leaving behind a false trail – people spotting it at a scene would assume that you’d travelled through the palace, rather than stolen a little handful of dirt months earlier.

“You spend much time t the Palace, young lady?” Calpurnia asked, looking up at the looming building. Crunch, crunch, crunch.

“Not much time, no,” Aderyn confided, her hands tucked behind her back. “It isn’t really a place worth visiting.”

Calpurnia sighed as she went. “… Not really, no.” Then she did something strange with her voice. Aderyn would have to ask Rafe about it later. “I thought I’d come here to meet Yull… gather our forces. My army, his law… I haven’t even met them. Then I thought I’d take the crown, put down the riot, and find whoever had killed my husband, execute them and … and take Yull home to his parents. Now… Now I’m afraid I’m about to walk into a room and watch his half-brother try some legal bullshit that ends with my sword through his head.”

“You think so…?” Aderyn asked, looking up at balcony where the King would be announced. At the darkness behind the doors. “If you’d like I…”

“Hey, Aderyn.” Rafe said.

Rafe did not, typically, look like that. Well, he still looked like Rafe, but he very much looked Rafe-like, cocky and angry and with that pecuilar narrowness that never seemed happy with itself. Right now, though, with the rain sheeting down around them, he looked something like a puppy that had fallen in a puddle. Bruises on his cheeks and hands, and looking around and past in a way he didn’t normally. He had just walked around a corner, emerging from the elaborate gardenwork that stayed close to the sides of the palace.

“… Who’s this drowned streak?” Calpurnia grunted, hand on her hip, stopping short on the pathway. Aderyn could see him about to spit something in response, then… sagged.

“Hello, miss. M’name’s Rafe. Friend of Aderyn’s.”

“Really.”

“No, he really is,” Aderyn said, putting on as bright a smile as she could. “Rafe, what are you doing outside? Is everything okay? Did you – you didn’t kill anyone you weren’t paid to, did you?”

“What?” Rafe blinked and leant back, and that was all back to normal. “You are weird, you know? I didn’t kill anyone.”

“Oh. Um, well, I’m sure you tried your b–”

“Oh, shut up.” He groused. Rafe rubbed his forehead with his temple. This was good! This was more familiar than the strange way he’d looked before. If he could change to this mode easily, whatever it was probably wasn’t very lasting. “I’m just…” he waved with one hand. “You’re…?”

“General Bachthane, young man.”

“The living one, right?”

“What’s that meant to mean?!” Calpurnia flared.

And then, Rafe told them. He told them about the room with the four robes, about the tea trays and the kitchen. He told them about places you could unseal a wax seal over a stove and reseal it, unobserved. He told them about a conspiracy that clearly was designed to thrill and appeal to foolish people who felt unimportant, despite their privilege.He told them under the balcony that would announce a king, about the Bottle Street boys who were running around, obeying an old veteran. He told them about the veteran, about ‘Wazza,’ about a book that gave authority and a coin that gave more authority, and of watching a technicality in a tale throw both Bachthanes out of the running for the throne.

The rain slowed, and Aderyn watched Calpurnia’s shoulders sag. A woman as strong as that was made for wars and bloodshed. The morning’s tide, she’d been ready to invade the wealthiest city in the world to protect her husband, then to avenge her husband, and now, she seemed so very sad.

Aderyn looked up at the building, turning away from Rafe and Calpurnia for a moment. It was so strange to have done things this way. Asca Gorange wasn’t particularly good at anything in the time she’d seen him. What had he leant to a conspiracy?

When she turned back, Aderyn had to take a long moment to double check what she was seeing.

Calpurnia and Rafe were embracing, but very awkwardly. He had his arms around her chest, and she had one arm around his shoulder. It highlighted the height difference between them – Rafe’s face against her shoulder, even while she was leaning forwards. One of her gauntleted hands was up against her face, and just for a moment, her shoulders shuddered. Really, if Rafe could arrange more people to be in positions like that, assassinations could be amazingly easy. Still, he had his head down and his hands were empty, pressed flat on her back.

How odd.

It was barely a moment, and she put her hand atop Rafe’s head, pushing him back, and he unfolded easily, looking off to the side, not directly at her. “Yes, well,” Calpurnia said, and her voice did that thing again. “It has been quite a day.” She drew herself up, sharp intake of breath, and did a fairly good loom over both of them. “You, young man – you know a lot of what’s going on around here. I’m due to talk to Lord Gorange about this puddle of shite, but while I’m doing that, I want you two to do me a favour and find me something.”

“I know where you can get some peppermits.” Rafe muttered.

“No. No, boy – Where’s Yull’s body?

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