One Stone, Chapter 52

When the great wheels of The Benjamin were set right again, few people talked about it. There was just that one strange day, where three hours vanished in one, and one hour stretched out to make up the difference. To most of the people of Timoritia, that’s all they’d remember, of the day that they almost had a king. Some would remember their parts in the riots, which were over taxes, or over the nobles abusing people, or over the farming collective in Parcel Street, or some such business. They’d remember throwing punches and laughing with the people they hit, two months later. They’d remember breaking business windows in the Dims, but it was all in sport.

For the most part, Timoritia did exactly what The Benjamin itself did: It took its little deviation from the norm, and went back to its cycles. Gentle, steady, repetitive cycles, working into the future a minute at a time, without some great and dreadful lurch into the past.

Yull Bachthane, the dread general of the southern expanse, had to take two months to recover, coupled with the six months he’d been away from the front. Eight months without a push, and the expansion in the Holy Land had had to flag, to stop, to pull back. The city that was known as Bartholomew was renamed – again – to Medina Al-Bab. The people there that had lived there before it was Bartholomew went about their days; the people who lived there when it had become Bartholomew complained about the bloody immigrants, but quietly, because they knew in their hearts they were being pretty silly.

The General himself had been given two months, and thanks to the company of his wife, he actually took it. Two months, however, was enough time for people who had been fighting all their lives to realise how little fighting they needed to do any more. The Hammerjaw legion returned to Hadrian, to patrol and protect against invaders, but Calpurnia didn’t go with it. The Eastern front, across desert sands, drew back, ever so subtly, and the great machine of Timoritian conquest was slowed. When General Calpurnia left for Hadrian, it was with her husband, to try and find some job he could do where nobody would stab him.

For a while, at least.

Four soldiers, which is to say, three soldiers and a mercenary, which is to say, two soldiers and a messenger and a mercenary, which is to say one and a half soldiers and a mercenary and a messenger climbed The Benjamin and came down with their pockets full of stolen hours and a hell of a story. The story, unfortunately, did not do much to pay the fine they incurred for their crime. The fine was, to say the least, steeper than a soldier’s salary would pay, but Gael had a plan to deal with that. A mercenary company of four left the city, moving not for the armies, but in their wake – finding the people who should have been guarded by the strength of the Empire, and who weren’t. Bandits’ spoils were coin as much as anyone else’s, after all.

Koel had a happy life, during which he was kind to people, studied inheritance law, and more than once was called upon to consult by courts on very strange edge cases of the law. Yet he still always had that one story about how strangely the crown had flown far, far away from a man who was almost king, a woman who was almost king, and a man who was almost dead.

As for Marko Fiver, the hero of Heltskruet, the fields of northern Kernowek were sunnier than the city. He wasn’t much of a farmer, not really – but it was work that used his hands and filled his belly, that kept him far from the movements of nobles and further still from the ambitions of unscrupulous men. Script on a shingle by his door was an oath, Be Wary Of Men Who Seek Kings, and whenever Mr Bauer came up from the city to meet with the collective, he checked in with his friend. Sometimes, at the pub, they’d laugh and tell the strange story of the day someone tried to shove Marko off a bridge and was killed in passing.

It was a nicer place to be.

Rain on hills didn’t sound like hoofbeats, and a roof of thatch didn’t hammer like a roof of shingles did.

Lady Ulster Dulf was caught between spaces. The conspiracy wasn’t, officially, a crime. That would have required something extra to it. It was just a research group, a study circle set to find people, that happened to find out about a strange quirk of inheritance, the legitimate line of royalty that ran from the Black Thane, and tried to act on that, albeit in a mistaken way. An error of judgement. A mistake. On the other hand, she had given Lord Gorange a big, unpleasant and boring day to deal with and he was not a man without pettiness. Thanks to the strange black mark on her record, her unreliability and her propensity for shooting people, and the fear of Lord Gorange inflicting some eventual revenge marked her as ultimately unmarryable.

But a month after the whole fracas, there was still one last little space to know. Off along the river, towards the edges of the Dims, there stood a church, in which four people sat down to dinner. A priest, a knight, a failed murderer, and an Assassin. Bread rolls and a beefy stew, while outside, the colder days of Timoritia’s winter slowly crept against the windowsills, leaving long, white fingerprints.

“What are you planning next year, anyway?” Rafe asked, dipping bread into bowl and letting it sit there, watching the gravy soak up into the whiteness.

“Hm, me?” Kivis asked.

“No, not you. Aderyn. I figured you were going to stay here and keep an eye on the nobility. You know, in case anyone else does something stupid.”

“It’s not a bad plan. And Brother Fratarelli does always need a spare pair of hands.”

The priest gave a laugh. “Well, yes, quite. And uhm, I can’t exactly … I mean, I wasn’t planning on hiring either of you for many more things. Really, it was … it was something of a special year.”

Aderyn very primly took a spoonful of soup and made it disappear without any slurping sounds, which Rafe was sure took some form of magic to do.

“Well, for myself, I was planning on returning to Lleywa just for a little while to return that book of peerage.”

“Oh, yes, that?”

“Mm, yes,” Aderyn said. “I have not yet had a chance to read it, but it seems as good a reason as any to visit my parents, and it is around Yearturn, too.”

Rafe gave a little laugh, glancing over at the priest. “You going to turf me out on the street, then?”

“You could try going with her?” Fratarelli suggested. “I mean, there’s a little coin in the coffers and I’ll not begrudge you some fun after the year we’ve had.”

Rafe glanced over at Aderyn, raising an eyebrow. “Lleywa nice?”

“It’s wet and it’s cold.” She put on her smile, but it was very easy. “I am quite fond of it.”

The rejoinder was interrupted by a knock on the door. Rafe glanced over at Aderyn, who lifted her bowl and sipped from the edge, eyes closed, rather than stand up to get it. The standoff was only a moment longer, before Kivis, sighing and shaking her head, hoisted around the bench, metal shoes creaking on the stone, and opened the door.

Behind the door, with subtle snowflakes drifting down, stood a curvy young woman with hair in two colours, bright pink and blonde. “Um, is Aderyn here?”

“Hey, Aderyn, it’s that Queen friend of yours.”

The blonde girl slipped from her chair and trotted over to the door, still wearing her best smile. “Hello, Queeny. What’s on your mind?”

“I’m just wondering,” Queeny asked, scratching her fingers through her pink hair. “If, um, if someone’s parents, lets say, hypothetically, wanted them to lay real low, and uh, you only really had one friend in the city, and the boarding house rates at the Assassins Guild weren’t being paid because of uhm, an expulsion… would it… be okay… for her to help out?”

Rafe leant to the side and tried to peer out the door, past the two women in the way.

“They learned you cheated on your exams.” Aderyn answered.

“Um, Yeah.”

“… Come in, Queeny. I’m sure we can find something for you to do.” Aderyn stepped to the side, permitting her entry. “Maybe even study!”

“Ah, szat is…” a voice called from outside, anew, and the footsteps of someone scurrying to catch the door before it closed followed. “Ah, anon?” Xenops called.

Brother Fratarelli looked to Rafe. “… Maybe a larger trip to Lleywa than I’d have expected?”

*

In Lleywa’s fields, sheep watched another season turn, and knew no better nor worse for it. For the sheep, it had just been another cycle of days and nights, some warmer, some colder. A book, a name, and a coin held a secret that nobody had bothered to unravel, or if they had, they had not told anyone at all.

Because really, it didn’t matter all that much.

Certainly not to the sheep.

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