The hoofbeats weren’t stopping, not for Marko Fiver.
The riot had been cleansing, to be honest. To be surrounded by bodies, the press of violence, to hear people shouting and yelling over the rain, to hear anger and spite and rage, even if he couldn’t find the places where words began and ended, it was a relief. It was a relief to be fighting an actual battle.
He’d lost the knife somewhere. Probably in Yull, in the general, in his f- in the man he respected. No sword by his side when he’d fled the palace, no weapon, which it seemed, had been for the best. Nobody had died in his chaotic whorl throughout the city’s lowest places in his lowest moments. The feeling of rain on his cheeks had cut lines of emphasis for the tears that followed, and nobody seemed to want to fight him when they looked him in the eyes.
In the press of violence, with the swinging fists and the bloody knuckles, Marko Fiver staggered from the palace, past churches and stores. Up Long Street, through the Dims. Out the other side of the Dims, with mud and blood on his boots from those who weren’t so fortunate as to scrape on past. Over the hollow of the old, collapsed cathedral. Through Parcel Street, and out to the crest of the river, to one of the many other criss-crossing river bridges.
The booming of the Benjamin had slowed the riot; had worn out enthusiasm. People heard the clock, looked to the sunless sky, and slowly pulled away. Those who were in fights finished them. Those who were on the edges slid away more readily, and the mass of hands and fists and feet slowly unravelled, spilling down in on itself and turning to nothing, like sugar in the rain.
Marko stood on the edge of the bridge, his hand on the railing.
It had been a very bad day.
But better to fight the streets here, than meet the war still pounding in his memory. Over and over again. Hoofbeats. Cannons. The smell of hot horses and bloody sand. The ache of the sun in his mind, laying prone on a field. The weight of a medal pinned to his chest.
Marko clenched the rail, bent forwards, and threw up.
The river was so far away… so dark and inky. Without the sun to make it glisten, it shimmered below him like an abyssal womb. Even watching the ripples outwards from his own spit it seemed oddly hypnotic.
Gripping the rail, in that instant, there was nothing Marko wanted more in the world than to launch himself forwards and make the sound, the sound, the drumming in his head, of the rain, stop.
“Fiver! Sergeant!” The voice sounded like it was coming from underwater. Fists white-knuckled, Marko looked down, as if peering in the depths could show him what he’d heard.
“Fiver! Over here!” Louder, closer. Not from the water. From… from up.
Marko lifted his head, swallowing the foulness remaining in his throat, and looked about. Squinting at the crowd, looking for anything that didn’t make his head ache, his teeth twitch. That feeling. That sound. It was never this bad before. It was a bad thing, when it rained, but it was so much worse today.
He’d done something terrible and he couldn’t put his finger on why any more.
Wardell pushed out of the crowd moving across the bridge, calling once more. “Fiver! Fiver, are you – is that you?” he stopped short, trotting slower as he drew close to the hunched form of the old soldier. The war hero. The broken man.
“Good god, Fiver, are you alright?”
Slowly, Marko drew himself up, resting elbows on the rail. “I’m… I’m really not alright,” he said, swallowing slowly. “Wardell… Wardell, what did we do today… I’m… did we kill Yull?”
“… Sarge, where… where did you get that idea?” Wardell asked, reaching out, stepping close. One hand on Wardell’s shoulder, one hand holding his chest. “I… I mean, I don’t know… what did you… what did you think happened today?” And it was so reassuring. It was the voice of days past. It was the voice that brought the tea and it was warm and-
Marko felt his feet leave the earth and a fresh, fertile panic burst through his arms, as Wardell shoved him, shoulders first, over the railing. And the hand that still held the rail squeezed tight as Marko found his desire to die clashing against his own body’s desire to not, and it was all a rush of air and breath.
Wardell was bent forwards over the edge of the bridge, one hand pressed flat against his face, pushing downwards, his eyes rageful, his hand shaking with frustration. The good arm, the one that didn’t twinge in the cold. The one that he hadn’t injured in the war, with the sand and the blood and the–
Hanging by the bridge in one hand, Marko considered just how easily he could just let go…
“Oi! What the devil’s goin’ on, mate!?”
The voice didn’t come from miles away. That voice came from right overhead, and Wardell’s arm twitched as someone easily half his weight again grabbed his shoulder. All Marko could see, dangling from the bridge, was a blue cap and a huge hand – which lamped into the back of Wardell’s head hard enough that he swept forward, face-first into the metal railing. A clang like a bell rang through Marko’s fingers and he screamed, feeling his grip slip. A fall, a moment –
and that massive hand swung down to catch his forearm.
“You meddling arsehole– ” hollered Wardell, even as the bigger man elbowed against his face. Not enough distance to really make a hit, but enough to shove him a little. Hauling bodily, the man – some farmer, maybe? – Leant over the edge of the bridge, bracing himself with his other hand, and pulled, while Marko scrabbled to put his other hand on the rail.
Then Marko saw the knife.
The knife just like the knife Marko had given him last night.
The knife that he’d seen sink into Yull’s heart. It had been his heart, right? Right? He hadn’t… messed up and… he hadn’t…
Wardell lunged, knife in his hand, at the farmer. The farmer didn’t even see it – he just go of Marko’s arm for a moment and swept his arm out behind himself, in a mighty parabolic arc, swatting at the smaller man.
The weaker arm bent. The knife turned.
Wardell may have had a last word, but his own knife sank into his throat, and he tumbled back onto the bridge while the bigger man wasn’t even looking. Hand clamped around Marko’s, he lifted again, brought his other hand down, and with the strength of a ploughman, hauled Marko Fiver up over the rail. When Marko had his feet again, the farmer looked down – and gave a sudden blanch.
“Bloody hell, pardon my Gallian.”
Marko slid down to his knees, looking down at the broken form of Wardell, collapsed and crumpled on the roadside. They were good quality knives, Marko could appreciate that. And somewhere in the flailing and the screaming, the rain had stopped.
Looking up at the man, wet black hair in his eyes, Marko gave an apologetic grunt. “Sorry, sir… hn… my name’s Marko Fiver… I… Thank you.”
“Come on lad. You look like you’ve been through the wars. Let’s get you something warm. We’ll let the Barneys handle this rough piece of work.” The farmer kicked Wardell’s still foot. “Just call me Mister Bauer.”
When you dropped something off a height, it fell. Whether it was a vase, a book, or a priest. It tumbled down in the eddies of the air and struck the ground. Chunks flew this way and that. With the general inside, Rafe and Aderyn compared what they both saw, what they both knew. Aderyn showed him the diagrams of the four nobles in the conspiracy. Rafe told Aderyn of the man whose death was occasioned by falling priest.
Rafe’s brief annoyance spiked again when Aderyn asked a servant to lead them to the body of the general. After all, asking servants to do things, typical noble. Then the servant indicated they didn’t know where the body was, and Rafe’s annoyance spiked in a different direction. God damnit, he was a big bloke, wasn’t he, how hard could it be to find him? And then Aderyn asked where the general had fallen, and that, the servant could help with.
Some room. A bloodstain on the carpet. Some stuff that people could nick on the walls. A bust big enough to break someone if you hit them with it. Chairs, pushed out to the edge of the room. A spatter on the carpet that led to another spatter on the carpet, newer but still dry. Another.
Following the lines on the carpet, little dribbles of blood, wasn’t very hard. Noticing the point where they stopped, and the little greasy handprint on a doorhandle also wasn’t very hard. Finding the little scrabble of footprints through the dirt of an external garden wasn’t hard. None of it was hard, none of it was difficult. It was a line that a blind dog could follow, that led across a hallway, down some stairs, out to a garden path, down another set of stairs, and down further still. Always down, always sloppy steps, always as if someone was struggling with an immense weight.
Aderyn took off her hood as they stepped under the stone awning outside, stepping past lit torches onto the smooth, clean flagstones of a place that probably stored some ancient historical whatever. Rafe shuffled after her, grunting as he went, checking each step with a foot, making sure he wasn’t going to slip.
“Rafe, I’ve seen you run on a wall in the rain. How are you so meek here?”
“It’s been a long day, alright?”
The words echoed and bounced off stone and mingled with the crackling of torches that had to have been lit recently enough. The roar of the rain had dulled, slowly wending into silence. The whispering of the river it made in the gutters murmured low and steady to the stone. It whirred above, the sound slowly rising higher, higher still, as Aderyn led Rafe down the stairs.
A short pathway. A line of lights. An empty crypt. And there, lying on a slab, was the enormous frame of a man, prone on a stone slab. Rafe’d never seen a man so big, so still. But no sooner did Aderyn enter the room, then another sound echoed off the stone: The click of a revolver being cocked.
“Stop right there.” Came a woman’s voice from the dark at the end of the crypt.
“Why is nobody ever happy to see us?” Rafe grumbled.
“We’re Assassins, Rafe.” Aderyn responded, tone prim and polite. “Hello! We’re here to ah, retrieve the corpse of the general, if you’d be so kind as to lower the gun?”
“Two of you?” called the voice back. “Well, I’ve got one bullet loaded. Stay where you are and you won’t have to decide gets hit.”
“Oh, definitely Rafe,” Aderyn said, clearing her throat. “I’m afraid we don’t have any, ah, ‘beef’ with you, madam!”
The gloom of the tomb was a close one. Rafe could see the end of the barrel of the gun, hanging in the air, steady as a rock. He looked at Aderyn, who was staring at it like she could intimidate the gun by not blinking. In his head, he could see this countdown getting very messy, very fast. He needed-
“Hey, is he still breathing?” Rafe asked, blinking in the dark.
“Long as I’m here. So why don’t you two piss off back to Wardell and tell him you didn’t find anything and you don’t have to learn how many times I miss on purpose.”
Aderyn cleared her throat. “Ah! I see, a misunderstanding!” she raised her hands, shaking them in the air like she was trying to be… charming? “We’re not assassins sent to kill anyone-“
“Yes, we’re the nice kind of assassins.” Rafe grumbled. “Hey, you got a name over there?”
“… You don’t even know who I am, do you?”
“Well, at a guess I would hazard that you are Lady Ulster Dulf, actually.” Aderyn offered. “And that this man here is Yull Bachthane who isn’t… apparently… dead?”
Rafe laughed short. “Wardell really is having an awful day.”
The barrel wavered. It raised, ever so slightly, and the voice in the dark took on a tired edge. “… He’s not the only one. You’re not here to finish the job, then?”
“No, not at all,” Aderyn said, bright and cheerful. “We’ve been asked to find the General by his wife, Lady Calpurnia Bachthane, who-”
“The Hammerjaw Legion commander?” The gun barrel pointed at the pair again. “Good fucking Christ, I’m dead.”
“Uh…” Rafe cleared his throat. “You mind if I… uh… look at the general?”
“… Sure. I did what I could.” A low laugh. “Just give me some time to escape, alright…?”
“Don’t think you’ll need time to escape if the general’s alive…” Rafe said, grumbling as he wiggled past Aderyn and walked by the slab. The huge man lay still, but with a slow, rhythmic motion to his chest. Rafe leant close, looking at the unconscious form closely, slowly, gingerly pulling at his clothes.
“… Who the hell did this?”
“What do you mean? It was all of us…” Ulster said, from her seat in the darkness. “I mean, we all killed him.”
“With what, one knife? He’s only got one cut on this side of him…”
“Um. Um, Wardell stabbed him in the back, and… Well, I did trip up Ligier…”
Aderyn took the barrel of the gun out of the air, pulling on it sharply; the rifle swept wide, the hilt arcing over the general’s chest, and released the gun at the zenith of its arc – throwing the whole rifle out of the chamber. Her other hand grabbed a torch from the wall, and she spun back around, stepping into the dark, with a simple: “Do tell.”
Ulster Dulf looked like Rafe felt. Her eyes were weary like she’d been… well, sitting in a crypt for hours waiting for the knives to come. And now she had Aderyn to deal with, and Rafe as well. There really was no justice in a world like this.
She stood, leaning back, with Aderyn’s hand on her shoulder. Nobody had a weapon, but the pose was clear. If the DuThane girl wanted to kill her, she could have… and Aderyn had no idea how to not be threatening, when people were already seeing past her mask.
“… Lookin’ at him,” Rafe murmured, “… Probably going to be fine. I mean… bloke’s got what feels like some broken ribs… probably fainted in shock. Lost a bit of blood too, but…” Rafe trailed off, his hands testing the exposed parts of the General’s skin. “… Seems to me, Lady Dulf, you get to give General Calpurnia some really good news.”
The laugh seemed all the more hollow in the little crypt. “I do, do I? I was part of the conspiracy that killed him. We all had to do it, you know. It had to be all of us, or it’d just be murder.”
“What I can see,” Rafe grunted. “… It wasn’t even that.”
Ulster swallowed and leant back further out of Aderyn’s grip, pushing herself to the corner of the room. “So that’s that, is it…? Sort of pathetic, really. All of us… all four of us were just in that silly little club because we had to be somewhere. Because our families told us we should be contributing something. Ligier was too vicious. Tenner was incompetent at what his brothers were good at. Asca was lazy. Do you know why my parents sent me there? Do you know what my crime was?” she laughed again and it sounded like a sob. “I didn’t want to marry a man. Any man. I thought I’d come to a useful compromise, honestly. I meet the boys, I find a reason they can’t marry me. Usually a bullet wound.”
Aderyn stepped back, sharp as a knife, and stepped over to the doorway. “I think that moving the general is best left to a medic from the Hammerjaws.”
“And… hey, Lady Ulster?” Rafe offered a little smile. “You don’t seem to be one of the bad guys t’day.”
“This morning, I was.” She sighed, rubbing her forehead. “… Come on, then. Let’s bring the Qisar back from the dead.”
Lord Gorange didn’t like days like this.
It had been, for a start, busy. His was a role that had worked best when it emphasised minimal effort. The intricate work of nobility was a vast and careful clockwork that worked best when it was well-kept, and he much preferred oiling its works to replacing whole parts.
Still, there had been high points. Nothing of his was smashed in particular, out in the streets. The whole guild’s worth of lawyers that populated his family had watched him emerge from the depths of his business and tear Wardell apart, which did the reputation some good. And he’d met with Calpurnia, a fairly important general who basically never came to the city, and now, could attribute him with not being someone she wanted to invade. That was something of a win, too.
The last desks were packed up. The palace was going to be unoccupied shortly. He rotated in his chair to look over his shoulder, up at the throne. The academic, blue turban and white smile, was standing next to it, pointing down at his cane. He’d been fidgeting around and not leaving because every time someone needed a hand with something, he’d offered his.
“Do you need this, sir?”
“Oh, yes, Koel. Good man that.” He raised a hand and gestured for it.
Trotting down the stairs, cane in hand, Koel gave the tip a visible check, seeing if that little tarnished patch was something that could be wiped away. “Thank you very much for the opportunity today, sir. I never would have seen Westminster Palace if not for today, I don’t expect.”
“Probably would have, lad. You’re a researcher, someone would have let you in eventually.” Lord Gorange pushed himself to standing and took the cane, leaning on it. “What do you think of all this business today, hm? A king out of nowhere, all these riots and mess and the clock running fast, hm?”
“Well…” Koel looked thoughtful for a moment. “It’s a bit like the city itself, really.”
“… Elaborate, boy, do come on now.”
“Well, it was a lot of movement, from a few small sources. Little wheels turning bigger wheels, you know? We tke the concentrated and combined efforts of many people and focus it through devices designed to minimise differences, to take care of the automatic components of any process – it’s industrialisation. They say ours is the first great industrial city, with the first industrialised manufacturing and that we waged the first industrialised war. It all starts somewhere, though, doesn’t it? Us and ours, and someone with a dark little want, who can connect to that interconnected industrialised system.”
“Rotten to the core, huh?”
“Hm?” Koel blinked in complete surprise. A rumination on the concept of the immortal engines of the city itself, boiled down to five words – and wrong. If he’d been ever inclined to demonstrate irritation, that would have made a perfect opportunity for it. “Gosh, no.”