Vince had seen the sea from the shores of Timoritia before, and it had always looked nothing as much as a continuation of the grey dullness that was the sky. When they’d rounded the Hemulkar cape, and passed Gibartar, he’d seen a shore of white cliffs, bright green grass, and a lovely bright blue sky overhead. When he saw that, he realised why as a young boy he’d read stories in cheap little novels and boys’ compendiums that spoke about going down to the seaside for a lovely holiday. The seaside in Timoritia was a grim grey-brown place with a dark grey-brown river vomiting into the ocean; the seaside at the gulf of Hemulkar, and here, on the far side of the Phoenecian Sea, was beautiful. The sand was yellow-white, the people were laughing and comfortable, and the sunshine no longer beat down on them like it was trying to do them violence. It just was. And somehow, after the freezing nights crossing deserts in a straight line, to feel a sea breeze on his skin was a welcoming reminder of home. Or rather, a welcoming reminder of what home would be, if it wasn’t so grimy and stank so much. A reminder of what home should be, really.
“Y’know, if you wave at the ocean, it might wave back, Princess.” Leigh snickered from her horse next to him.
“You’re going to look like a lobster by the end of this journey,” he responded, wrinkling his nose at her. It was quite a jab, but she had been getting on his nerves lately, and-
“Like a what?”
“He means you’ll look like my hair if you stay in the sun.” Gael called over from Vince’s other side. The woman had this amazing way of looking effortless despite having been sat in the saddle, the same way, for the past ten hours. Vince tried not to resent her for it, but he didn’t try very hard.
“Pfah, y’could all look a lot worse, me law,” called the huge-voiced Yull from behind them. Slouching from hip to hip as he rounded the horse, weaving ahead, “After all, I’m built for this.” He threw his head back and crowed. “Now then… we’re out of supply lines comin’ along here. Here, we’re just travellers. No army, no support. So,” he turned in the saddle, and gripped the reins. “Just try and act like y’got some sense in those heads, will y’?” he turned it to a mighty laugh.
“Hey, boss,” Leigh chipped in. “You know I’m clean,” she gestured with her head on either side of her. “Can’t speak for these city boys.”
Gael cleared her throat. “Or me.”
Leigh rolled her eyes. “Or Gael. I swear, you’re as big a princess as Vince here.”
Gael said nothing at that. “You got travelling money, Sir?” she asked, raising her chin to Yull.
“Bit of cash on me, nothing too local.” He said, fishing a pouch from his belt. “You’re all stuck on script, right?” He asked, referring to the military’s habit of issuing payments in paperwork that only could be used within the military, to minimise impact on local economies as they travelled. It was an offense to travel with actual money, let alone local money, and could be met with a reprimand.
“Of course,” Vince said, truthfully.
“No.” Leigh followed.
“Nope.” Gael shook her head.
“I don’t even have that, sir.” Stannisfeld said, sheepishly.
Vince turned his head very slowly, and tried to give the others a shocked, no, mortified look, a look that conveyed all his disapproval at his comardes’ blatant disregard for the military rules. None of them bothered to look at him. It made some sense that Stannisfeld use local money, since he was a messenger, and not technically part of the military. And that made sense for Gael, too, since she was a mercenary – chances are she didn’t have acquisition or the like, either, so maybe she wasn’t beholden to script. Thinking about it, it wasn’t like Leigh was going to respect any rule she didn’t have to either.
With these thoughts colliding up the back end of his look of disapproval, Vince tried to slowly return his expression to the General, and act like he hadn’t just tried to act like his mother. If on cue, everyone shifted a little, and, out of the corners of his eyes, Vince was sure they were all looking at him.
“Anyway,” Yull said, cantering forwards towards his soldiers, “Here’s some local coin. Not a lot, but we don’t need a lot. Try to get bargains if you need food or drink, and don’t get fancy. We’re not here to tour the isles, after all. We follow the coast roads, then we cut through Gallia. We should be back home to Timoritia in maybe a month or two. Assuming things are fine in Gallia.”
“Are things ever fine in Gallia?” Leigh groused.
“Yes, I’ve no idea how they get by, what with their food, culture, music, art, architecture, wine, and sex.” Gael jockeyed her horse into a canter, grinning.
“Does…” Vince looked over to Leigh. “Um, does she hate us or not?”
“I don’t know. I hate you, though.” Leigh offered.
The first village they met had a lovely boardwalk. It had once been to host boats, and the boats had grown bigger, and needed more depth. The people had built their dock out further, and used the rest of the dock to build places, like stores and cafes. Sailors disembarked, they sang, they drank, they sold a little, and then they went back onto their boats and made their way on to a serious trading port. Supplies were stored, people grew and lived, and the tiny little seaside village lived off the trade when it was good, and off the fishing when it wasn’t.
Despite it, though, they didn’t stay much more than half an hour in the town. Vince watched his cohorts trading and bartering, and very politely shook his head when he was asked if he wanted to buy things, in broken Tiberan by people who learned a bit of everything from the sailors. There were fruits and meats there that Vince hadn’t had in months – or ever. Bacon, fresh-cut bacon. Peaches. In one of the stores, there was a basket full of tropical fruits; rough-sided pineapples with their spiky leaves cut off, oranges the size of his fists, and bananas, green at the tops and yellow at the base. When he’d found them, Leigh and Gael were a step ahead of him – and Leigh was busy counting the fruit out onto the counter.
“These are great,” Leigh said, glancing up at Vince. “Oh, hi, Princess.” She sneered. “You ever had bananas before?”
“Oh, yes. My mother used to fry them in oil.”
“Ah, so she bought shitty ones.”
“I daresay my mother bought the best bananas she could buy.”
“Whatever. If they’re good and firm – like these! – you can have them just straight out of the wrapper.”
“The peel.” Gael corrected her, her tone slightly irritated.
“Aw, c’mon, don’t get shitty with me,” Leigh said. “Tell you what, I’ll even buy you one, Princess.” She said, nudging Vince in the ribs. “You want one, Gael?”
“No, thank you.”
“What, really? They’re a real treat.”
“I know, thank you.”
“Y’sure? I mean, they’re cheap here.”
“I am sure. Thank you.”
“Suit yourself.” Leigh wrinkled her nose, and turned to the shopkeeper. Vince watched Gael buy herself pineapples and oranges, and quietly kicked himself for being a good boy. If he’d kept a few pounds, he could be walking out of there with fresh fruit, and maybe a nice string basket he could give to his mother afterwards as a memento, and a way to lead into the story about this one time, on the way home, with the general? Leigh tucked a banana into his hand as they walked out of the store, and he stopped worrying about it quite so much.
They camped kayem up the road from the town. There were others, off the highway, but the sun had set between them, and the sides of the road were nice and green, the sticks easily grabbed, the campfire roaring and smelling of different woods than the ones they’d trekked through. Yull had his writing desk on his lap, his sword by his bedroll, and Stannisfeld looked happier and healthier than he had all trip. Opposite one another, across the fire, though, something crackled between Leigh and Gael.
“So then,” Leigh went on with her story, “Princess just moped around the store like a lost soul, rather than ask to borrow any money.”
“Would you have given me any?”
“No, because I hate you.” Leigh shrugged. “But maybe I’d have pitied you a little.”
“Didn’t your brothers harden you up or anything?” Leigh asked, wrinkling her nose.
“Y’know, law,” Yull said, shifting in his sitting position, pushing his back against the hard rock where he’d set himself, “I can’t help but notice you keep callin’ Vince there Princess.”
“Well-“ Leigh began, but Yull didn’t seem to notice.
“Since it seems y’re fit on the idea of having a Princess, way I see it, y’re going to treat Vince like a Princess. Y’re going to show some respect when Princess Vince talks, and you’ll be sure to pay fealty to your princess. Bow when you greet him.” Yull hunkered forwards, one elbow on his knee. “Or do you want t’tell me you were just making fun of him all this time for some stupid bloody reason?”
Leigh’s lips pursed into a tiny shape, then slid across her cheek a little. Thoughtful wasn’t a look that sat well on her – and when Stannsifeld burst out laughing, she did too. “Fuck it, fiiine,” she said, slouching back against her bedroll, which, underneath her, looked like bedding for a giant.
Yull gave a low rumble of a laugh. “Alright, law. I’m turning in. Do keep quiet if you’re going to talk.”
“Don’t worry, boss. Anyone tries to get at you while you sleep, we’ll mess ‘em up. We’re your men, right?” Leigh called happily to the General’s side.
“No.” Gael interrupted, her tone icy.
“You know what I mean.” Leigh said, waving her hand. It’d been on the boil for most of the journey, but the energy crackling between the redhead and the blonde had grown so thick that Vince wanted to hide under his blanket and wait until it was gone.
“I know what you mean. You mean that soldiers are all men. But I’m a woman. I will be a hand and a sword and a soldier, but I’m not a man.”
Behind Gael, Leigh wrinkled her nose and made a mimicking gesture with her hand. Vince almost laughed, but Gael was looking at him – and whipped her head around to look at the shorter soldier with eyes like ice.
Slowly, Leigh sank underneath her bedroll, and didn’t make any more noise until the morning.
In Timoritia, Marko Fiver was listening to the careful machinations of people who fancied themselves the masters of the city.
“I don’t see why we should-“
“Because you don’t respect paperwork, you addle-headed buffoon.”
“It’s Lleywa paperwork, do they – do they even have paper there?”
“It’s peerage. Most of the nobility they even have are from Tiber, aren’t they?”
“If that was the case, we wouldn’t even want Yull!” Ulster spat, drumming her fingers on the tabletop as if she was firing a gun. Repeatedly. Would that the wish had given her strength.
Tenner stopped short, his expression confused, as if a thought had only just occurred to him. “Hang on, isn’t Yull Tiber stock? I thought the Black Thane was Tiberan, just…”
“Just what?” Ulster asked, turning sharply to the smaller man next to her.
“Well, I…” Attention focused on him, Tenner just naturally shrunk. Not a lot of leadership in that boy.
“Come on now. Did you seriously think that the Lleywan Thane that crushed the Timoritian armies and conquered the city, and declared himself king, was already Tiberan and just led an army of Lleywans for fun?” The barrel-chested Ligier slapped both his hands on the table, which served to jostle Tenner further.
“W-well, I mean, surely it just makes sense.”
“Sense.” Ligier asked, his words prowling around Tenner.
“Sense! I mean, think… think about it, when you hear these stories, it is always a Tiberan who, you know, fixes things, makes things work. We’re natural leaders, you know.”
The audacity in the phrase coming from a man who still wore the shirts he’d been bought in high school seemed to take a moment to settle in.
“Bravely spoken for a man with no chin.” Asca grunted.
“Up your bottom, Asca, at least I don’t have four.”
Marko sat back at the table, nursing his temple. When he’d first forced his way into this group, he’d expected something with some animosity, some dark purpose that he needed to steer. Mostly, these ineffectual nobles spent their time bickering, and it was about the stupidest things.
They’d made some changes in these parts, since he’d arrived. The masks were gone – as were the robes. Maybe those ideas had had some purpose originally, perhaps to lend some anonymity to the proceedings, but since the circles of Timoritian society were so interlocked and small, they’d all been able to recognise one another from their voices, and the whole thing had fallen apart. Then the robes and masks had just seemed like some sort of Boys Own Club affair – Ulster notwithstanding. They’d lit the room up properly, they’d brought in a table, so they could look at paperwork and discuss things, and have somewhere Wardell could put the tea.
Still, Marko could see there was something here. There was a meaning to their task. To be King of Timoritia was the most powerful seat in the world. A legitimate heir – such as there was – was a great boon to the nation, and Yull? Yull would be a brilliant king. A king who could lead the army to taking more territory, a king who would see to it that soldiers who did their service were paid for their work – a king who could break Djansk and maybe even expand across to Hemulk.
If he could just make these ninnies work.
“Alright.” Marko said, clearing his throat. Unlike the others, he never pounded the table. He didn’t have to. No matter how Ligier threatened, and despite Ulster’s repeated winging of paramours, everyone in the room knew who, exactly, had killed people.
“Yes, Marko?” Tenner asked, relieved to shift the attention.
“This is much simpler than you fear it is. You’re all of noble birth – your families keep peerage records, yes?”
“Of course.” Ligier said, and he had the tone of voice of that boy in class who wanted to not be seen as ignorant, but lacked conviction to simply state what he was thinking.
“If we’re trying to find a legitimate King, this isn’t hard. We go to Middengarth and bring back a copy of the peerage records there.”
“We?” Tenner asked, touching his collar.
“Well, of course. Would you want to trust this to a servant? Wouldn’t that make people ask questions?”
“Well, I can’t go this week,” Ulster said. “My family’s arranging a soiree.”
“What about next week?” Tenner asked.
“Can’t do it,” Ligier said.”The hunting season begins.”
“Ew.” Ulster wrinkled her nose.
“Wait, Ew?” Ligier asked, turning to look her full in the face, twisting his head in disbelief. “You shoot people.”
“I shoot people. They at least have the moral sense to be worth shooting.”
Asca and Tenner shifted away from Ulster.
Marko rubbed his temple. “I’m going to anticipate you all have obligations keeping you in the city indefinitely.”
Nobody wanted to make eye contact. Marko sighed heavily. “Alright, then. One of you will have to send a note to Zigg Gorange, telling him where I’ve gone? It shouldn’t be a big problem – Asca, you’re in the family, yes?”
“Shouldn’t be a problem.” He shook his head, and it stopped moving a moment later.
“A few pounds for a horse and some food – I’ll stop by Wardell to sort the cash out. It’s not a week to Lleywa. I can be back in a few days.”
“Oh, how dashing.” Tenner said, clasping his hands.
“… You know he’s just going to follow the highway until he finds the wettest place on the Isle, right?” Ligier scoffed. Marko had his riding cape on. The notion of heading to a part of the world where it always rained made something inside him clench, but it probably wasn’t going to be that bad. It wasn’t as if any of his ‘co-conspirators’ were going to help, anyway.
Another fireplace. Another camp. Another week of travel. The languages and accents shifted as they crept up the side of the sea, but the people were the same, mostly. They didn’t like the uniforms, but they did like the laughter and they didn’t mind Vince as long as he stayed close to Yull. Some places weren’t interested in trading with Leigh or Gael, and that had been awkward, and some places weren’t interested in trading at all, but that was fine, because they needed to save their money. It was why they camped out at night, too.
“Sir,” Stannisfeld asked, as the flames crackled, and that little writing desk was produced once more. “Who are you writing to?”
“Hm?” Yull asked, licking the tip of his pencil. “Ah, my wife. Nothing too interesting, I’m afraid. I saw enough lads and lasses take the time to write – I figured it wise to do it too.”
“Ever send them, sir?” Stannsifeld shifted a little. “I mean, I carried a lot of mail runs – maybe I delivered to your wife some time.” He offered a bright smile, a little social contact.
“Hah, no. No, I hand them over to her when we meet up. Which tends to be mid-wars.”
“Ah… I’m sorry.”
“Don’t be, law. The woman writes letters to me the same way. Writes like she’s prophesying the damn future. Dates the letters when she figures I’ll read them, too. Just a little thing. Family thing, really.” He scratched his beard, giant hand rubbing the hair, before he raised his chin and looked to the rest. “Y’have much family, me law?”
“Well… I have my parents.” Stannisfeld said. “I think if they’d had more children they’d have stayed in Djansk.”
“Ah, of course. Harder to get them on the boat.” Leigh offered.
“Er, I don’t think that’s what he meant.”
“Shut up, Princess.”
Yull cleared his throat.
“I’m… sorry,” Leigh managed, haltingly. “Thank you for your contribution…”
“Your highness,” Yull added, meaningfully.
“What about you, law?” Yull said, waving his pencil in Vince’s direction. “Are you an only child too?”
“Oh goodness, no. I have four older brothers.”
“Four?” Gael asked, raising her eyebrows. “I thought my three were excessive.”
“Ah, let me guess,” Vince said. “Your mother and father kept trying until they had a g-“
“A Gael, yes.” Gael cut him off, and Vince recoiled from the sentence. “Just… leave it at that.”
Leigh sat up sharply, looking over at the redhead, and narrowed her eyes. Hunkering forwards, her hands on her shoes, she tried to not glare, but it’d been getting worse.
“What?” Gael asked, returning the stare.
“You’re just… weird.”
“And you’re short.” Gael grit her teeth.
“What about you, General?” Leigh asked, pulling her legs up to her chest, holding her ankles awkwardly.
“What, me, law?” The huge man shook his head. “No. Well…” he laughed. “Y’heard th’rumours, aye? That Great Yull was born one of two lions, and of them, courage was th’lesser?”
Stannisfeld leant forwards, his eyes sparkling, his lips in a broad smile. “Oh – do you have a long-lost brother, or something?”
“… What? No? I don’t think so. I just thought the line about two lions was nice.” The General looked down at his page. “Now, hush.” He slid his pencil under the envelope’s flap, and tugged through a wax seal, producing a letter that even now, still smelled of the wood-smoke in Lleywa.
My Dearest Yull
Another day, another tiresome piece of news about the Vox Coronate. I still don’t believe it wise to trust anything that comes from an official branch of government whose very name admits its authority is borrowed…
The same little kitchen, but a different late hour. Marko was soaked to the bones, thanks to the rain that had poured down as he made his way into the city. By the time he’d reached the townhouse, though, the rain had stopped – thank god. The black-haired war hero wanted to drop off his delivery, then head home to get some sleep.
The lights were still on. Marko let himself in, using his key. Who was still here? It wasn’t like Ulster or Asca to stay here when meal times rolled around. It was definitely not like Tenner to be anywhere alone with Ligier. And Ligier had hunting he wanted to do, didn’t he…?
Then Marko heard the shuffling step in the kitchen, and it made sense. Pulling hs cloak back and hanging it in the hall, he stepped in through to the kitchen, an enormous package, wrapped in canvas, under his arm. Setting it on the table, Marko sat down, giving the closest thing he could give to a smile in the wet and the noise. “Wardell.”
“Oh, hullo, Fiver.” The sink was full of soapy water, the benchtops were wiped clean. “Anything happen?”
“It was Lleywa. Nothing ever happens. It rained. That’s basically nothing happening, too.”
“Here, let me put the kettle on,”
“Please.” Marko unwrapped the book slowly. “I’m going to leave this here – the place is secure, of course?”
“Of course. Mostly because nobody knows what this place is even for.” Wardell said, shuffling over to the stove. Lighting it with a match, he set the kettle on its heat, offering Marko a smile that spoke of a long day of weariness. “Nobody’s been doing anything without you, Fiver. Seems to me that they respect your command.”
Marko nodded, but he wasn’t listening. The canvas parted, and there, under his fingers, traced the outlines of the word uchelwyr. Underneath it, on a piece of paper pinned to the cover, the notes from the advisor at the library who had helped him – Of Lleywan Nobility.
“Did you check?” Wardell asked, setting up cups, freshly rinsed from the sudsy water.
“What, check Yull’s parentage in here? I wouldn’t know where to start. You know how to read these charts? Or, for that matter, Lleywa?”
“You don’t know how to read Lleywa?”
“It’s a language without vowels.”
“Oh, that’s not true. Pan fyddwch yn clywed carnau, peidiwch ag edrych am dynfarch, after all.”
“Wardell, what the hell was that?”
“Ah, it’s an old saying. ‘When you hear hoofbeats, don’t look for a centaur.’ It’s about being practical, Fiver.”
“They left me with this,” Marko fished into his shirt and produced a letter, folded and bossed with a wax seal. “I’m told this verifies Yull’s lineage – and it’s written in a sensible language.”
Wardell nodded again. “Just relax, Fiver. I’ll have your tea done in a minute.”
Kivis was used to spending a lot of time in one of only two rooms. The safehouse wasn’t really all that bad by her estimation. As a young girl, she’d been limited to a dining room and a bedroom where the largest and most noteworthy feature had been a virginal – a type of musical instrument, she always had to explain.
Kivis needed time to bathe and remove her armour, maybe get a little fresh air at night? But she could cope. A bath would be nice, but she’d gone longer without one. Being confined underneath a criminal’s workplace, which always smelled faintly of smoke, and had only two rooms, was a much worse experience for Brother Fratarelli.
The priest was like an ant in an old jam jar. He kept pacing, fit to lose some of that weight he normally hauled around. When Rafe or Aderyn came by of an evening to talk to them, the brother drank in the news. News of the city, news of the criminal underclass, news of the congregation, news of the church.
The church that was still standing.
A few nights ago, Rafe had mentioned someone trying to burn the place. A night before that, Aderyn had news of people surveying it from the outside.
Luke the Sinner was still after them.
“Is Aderyn late?” Brother Fratarelli asked.
“It is her day,” Kivis responded, turning the page on her book. It was a book full of information about the proper use and participation in weed smoking. Remarkably well-written, very thorough, really. Boring, but better than nothing – and it was something she’d read only three other times.
“Yes, but that’s… it’s not very like her to be late, you know?”
“Kivis, you’re being very calm.”
“You’re being very agitated.”
Brother Fratarelli drew a breath. Of course. Nothing was wrong. Nothing would be wrong.
He just had to wait a little while longer.