One Stone, Chapter 38

Wardell could measure a day in cups of tea.

There was the first cup of the morning. Months ago, when this whole affair had begun, he was the only person in the kitchen in the morning, and the solace afforded him a little license. The owners of the home didn’t care about the state of the upstairs bedrooms or the curtains or the dust – they came here to meet, and they left afterwards. To the mind of someone who never had to buy milk or cheese, the idea of a larder that wasn’t decently stocked was strange, and Wardell had enjoyed cheese sandwiches cooked under a grill as breakfast alone.

The lack of oversight pleased him. It was one of the least challenging, and easiest positions Wardell had ever worked, though he wasn’t planning on staying a house-servant forever. And after all, most nobles didn’t really know how to run things. They just thought they did, but they had money.

Since Marko had joined with the conspirators, the soldier’s conscientiousness meant he always arrived early of a morning. That meant fewer snacks, but more conversation. Except, of course, when it rained.

“Another cup, Fiver?” Wardell asked, taking the kettle from the stovetop. “I don’t imagine the lords and lady are due for a little while yet.”

Marko had a book open in front of him, his brow furrowed. “Hm?”

“I said, do you want another cuppa, sir?”

“Ah, thank you.” Marko nodded, raising his chin, and folding over the paper on his book. Billfolds and birthrights – the soldier had clearly worked hard since joining the little excursion.

“Something on your mind?”

“Mm. The Qisar is almost here.” He said, turning the page, “And I don’t know if we’re ready.”

“Ready, sir? Isn’t he the rightful king?”

Marko looked up across the table at Wardell, with the look of a man used to higher ideas. “That’s… it’s not that simple. There needs to be a sense of legitimacy, a feeling it’s being done right.”

“Ah, a feeling. Well, I understand that’s tricky, sir.”

“Don’t you sass me,” Marko said, but he was smiling. “You know how nobles are. And Yull might be a bit rough for them. God,” he laughed. “Do you remember, ah, Emralt? He was younger then, but I think if he talked to the nobles like that, they’d die of shock.”

“Hear our thunder?” Wardell asked, tilting his head. “It’s a good line. People like rain.”

“There’s… loose ends,” Marko said, lowering his head and turning the page. “Asca says the books show that he’s a valid heir, but they also say he’s – what is it – not an only child? All that talk of the two lions, that speech he liked to give… if he’s got a brother who’s older, that’s a problem.”

“Why might you think him older, Fiver?”

“Well, Yull’s in his fifties, I don’t imagine he would… Still those are bloody fights. If he’s got a sister, that’ll probably sort itself out easily-“

“Oh?”

“Well… technically, a sister is as valid an heir as a brother, but they have a tradition of abdicating to a brother.”

Wardell tilted the kettle and filled the cups. “Strange sounds to me, sir. But who am I to say?”

Marko took the cup as Wardell added the sugar. “Either way. A younger brother wouldn’t be bad. Might make things more palatable, too, to the – ah, nobility. Yull might not rub them the right way, but a prince regent could be useful. I’ll have to talk to Yull about it.”

“If he knows about it.” Wardell said, picking up a teatowel and wiping the counter. “Could be, ahah, one of those long-lost brother things.”

Marko laughed. “I doubt that.” He shrugged. “But he’ll have the army’s backing, brother or not. If the nobles don’t like him… well, he’s an heir. He’s got the authority. I suppose he might be able to just make it happen.”

Wardell looked at Marko’s expression, with all of the worry in it. “It’s happening, I suppose then, sir. Today might be the last day Tiber lacks a king.”

“God, yes. You might be right.” Marko drew a breath. “It’s strange to be… in these places. I feel history turning around me, Wardell.”

There was a storm expected later in the day. That was useful to know.

*

Francis liked to fancy he was the first person awake in the little church, bustling back and forth in the kitchen to prepare breakfast, but that was because he had no idea what it took to don armour. The creak of leather straps that cinched down, one by one; double checking, loosening, re-tightening. When she was younger, it had taken longer; years of armouring herself, daily, had made the task easier, and quicker, but still not easy and still not quick. Armour was also prone to smelling, and Kivis had no desire to reek on a daily basis – so she bathed every morning, even though it was unfashionable.

Kivis ran her hand through her long, black hair, sitting on the edge of the bathtub. The bottom of it was a clear, sharp cut, but she’d made sure to do it with care, the most recent times. When she closed her eyes just a touch, she saw the range of contrast; hair, black, her fingernails, pale, her skin a shade between them. Fashion hadn’t really meant much to her in the past few years, had it? As she raised one arm, she reflected on the tone of the muscle in her forearm. When she clenched her fist, she could see, just around the edges of her elbow, the veins that tensed. Hands that once held reigns and parasols that now were hands that held… well, boathooks and bratty boys and at least once, an executioner’s axe.

That’d been when she bought the tattoo. The list of humans who had seen her out of the armour was a short one – a list she’d shortened personally – and the artist was one of a handful of people Kivis trusted. The letters were backwards, bold and clear. Her skin, olive as it was, contrasted with the clear, deep writing, curled on the inside of her forearm. They didn’t look right, if she wasn’t looking in the mirror. If she wanted to see them – if she wanted to read them – she had to stand before a mirror, and see herself. All of herself.

Swinging her feet over the edge of the bath, she padded on bare stone floors to her cupboard, opening it up. It had a mirror hung on the inside, a mirror she checked, every day.

It was easy, in the armour, to think of hands, and fists, and feet and laughter. It was easy to think of people as their worst moments, to think of everyone in individual moments. Years ago, she’d done that, and it had blinded her once. A father was not his sins, those were… somewhere else. They happened to other people. The man she’d met, the man who lived in her home, he was okay, she couldn’t believe he’d do things like that. If you treated a person as little incidents, and didn’t look at their whole, you could hide all sorts of things in those spaces you didn’t check.

Kivis stretched her arms above her head, and tensed. Without sun, she’d grown a little more pale.

Her new company pleased her, too. Normally, when she associated with people, there were questions people either asked or wanted to ask so badly they let the thoughts leak out around her. This little clique didn’t. Francis had known her before the armour, and after the armour, and not once had he ever asked. Years passed without a question asked. Of course, back then, he’d used different words to comfort her. Words like providence and faith.

Aderyn didn’t ask, and Kivis was reasonably certain that it was because she didn’t see anything odd about the armour. Most people would go on to say there was something odd about Aderyn. Kivis couldn’t really agree. Aderyn seemed to have a clearly defined area of what was her business, and didn’t seem to think much outside it. There was also the way she never seemed to correct herself twice.

Rafe didn’t ask, and it wasn’t just the boy’s naturally insular manner. She’d seen sulky boys before, selfish ones. Rafe spat when you poked him, but for the most part, he didn’t poke anyone else, or demand attention. And there was the way he just committed to things – wholeheartedly throwing himself into a task when it was put forwards. Most boys would balk at being handed a pair of satin panties – she’d figured it would dissuade him from a stupid plan. Rafe was a quiet boy who had something on a leash. She could understand that.

Plus, boy looked pretty cute in a dress.

People attributed huge meaning to decisions, sometimes. If she’d woken up one morning and decided to wear blue skirts all the time, there wouldn’t be a thought about it. Hell – if she was a man, people would probably deem her demeanour romantic.

Kivis stood before the mirror and spread her arms, reading the words as they appeared in the mirror. Down her right forearm, ending at the wrist ran the words HIC SUNT LEONES. From the elbow of her left forearm, the letters of HIC SUNT DRACONES ran up, stopping just over her heart on her collarbone. They vanished under the fabric as she raised her head, pulling her tunic shirt over her head.

Lions and dragons.

Nobles liked to take on animal symbols, to claim power and pride they’d never really understood. Symbols people used to mean the unknown.

The moment of reflection – hah – passed, Kivis reached behind her back, and gripped the fabric of her shirt tight. Time to prepare for the day. There was a parade to attend, after all. Maybe there’d be someone who stepped out of line.

Now that was a tiny satisfying fantasy, to imagine someone stepping out of line. To imagine someone on the other side pushing their authority a little further than they should. To watch someone actually hit someone. To hear someone of station demand what they were not allowed. For someone to justify what she knew she could do.

Lady Kivis Athene had a very carefully defined set of rules in her mind to ensure that she wasn’t a vengeful woman; she made sure that she was a just one.

Parades were for commoners. They were for the people who didn’t sit on cushions.

Maybe something would happen today. There were low clouds on the horizon, after all.

*

Wardell’s second round of tea for the day was around what he’d consider his morning tea, but coincided with the first break in the meeting. They always needed it around midmorning, even if they didn’t ask for it. That’s when they were at the height of their anger – or did they call it dudgeon? Interrupting things before the tumultuous tempers of the nobles tore the little group apart and prompted someone storming home for a sulk kept the whole operation moving quietly towards its goal. These were the skills a house servant learned – managing nobles.

“Yes, I know the crime’s rising, but that’s not what I asked. We had a man on that, didn’t we? Keeping the crime together?” Ligier asked. The little table in the centre of the room still sat in a circle of light, which meant Wardell could fill the cups from the shadows by the door without disturbing anyone.

“Mnh, Cornell?” Ulster asked, sitting back in her chair, one leg folded over the other. She was worryingly calm most of the time. It seemed a bit noncommittal. If something went wrong, Wardell couldn’t help but worry that he was going to be the one standing by the side and capitalising on the change. Commitment was important.

“Well, yes, it was him, but it, uh, the situation grew complicated.” Asca murmured, rubbing fingertips against one of his chins. It was either nervous or imperious – but then, Asca only had those two modes.

“You’re going to use as many words as possible for this, aren’t you.” Ulster sneered.

“Oh, shut up.” Asca snapped.

“No, no, keep on. What’s going on with this? It’s your business, Asca, not mine.” Tenner shifted forwards, pulling his chair with him.

“Well, the poors have their own form of nobility – crime lords, you know?”

“Cornell’s daughter killed him at the Sheriff’s ball and blew up his boat.” Ulster interrupted.

“… Good god, seriously? His daughter?” Ligier couldn’t hide surprise with a paper sack.

“… Yes, his daughter,” Ulster asked, and suddenly, she wasn’t sitting back any more. Leaning forwards, her hand gripped into a fist on the table.

“I wouldn’t expect that.” Ligier said, stepping forwards into a verbal minefield – and that’s when Wardell pushed the cart into the light.

“Ah, lords and lady, just some tea.” He murmured, setting the cups out.

Wardell’s presence tempered the sudden rise of heat in the room. Ulster took her cup, and, slowly sat back – looking at Ligier carefully.

“You’re single, right, Ligier?” she asked, threatening in a way that nobody else could.

Tenner waved his hand. “Pshh. We had a man on the inside with Cornell, didn’t we? Silly named one. What, Nebrin Tulips? I know that I’ve been banking coin to that name.”

“Mmnh, some nobody. Some Bottle-Street no-name.” Asca concurred.

“Well, not quite a no-name. Bottle Street’s a little more picky than that.” Marko said from his seat, closing his book. “The Bottle Street Orphanage is there – that’s why there’s no shortage of kids running around. At least Tulips had a surname, even if it wasn’t a very good one.”

“How does that happen?” Ulster asked, turning her head and finally breaking her daggerlike stare from Ligier.

“Orphans beg to be adopted by some local business owner. Work rotten jobs and are given a surname that points them to the business. You see it all the time, kids with silly names like Jackrum Drum because they work for a butcher, or Polly Cherish because they handle comfort patches at the hospice.” Asca explained.

Ligier waved a hand in the middle of the table. “What’s a comfort patch?”

“I swear, have you ever MET a poor person? Wardell, do be a sport.” Marko asked, gesturing to the servant.

“Ah, a comfort patch is a little folded heart made of thin fabric that you fill with, ah, greenleaf to brew, to relieve pain.”

“Oh. Is that effective?”

“Some might say, sir. It’s a cheap little thing,”

“Yes, for cheap little people. Do these people not own pipes?” Tenner sneered.

“It, ah, as I understand it, sir, costs less to re-use the leaves.”

“How disgusting.”

“Whatever! the point is, you’ll get a name, and that’s better than no name.” Asca asserted. “It’s the step the poors can take away from the gutter.”

“… I can’t begin to tell you how unutterably bored I am with this.” Ulster sneered.

“Unutterably. That’s an adverb. That shows a little bit how.”

“… You are the worst kind of prating spod, you know that?”

“Oh, Fiver –“ Wardell cleared his throat. “Just so you know, the tide’s on the way in, I’m told.”

“Oh!” Marko pushed himself up to standing. “I should go meet with…” he drew a breath. “Our Future King.”

“Be careful out there,” Ligier said. “They’re lining up for a parade.”

“… I thought this would be slightly more private than that.” Marko said, suddenly worried. “I mean, can’t we meet with him in private, first…?”

Ligier curled his finger on the top of his lip. “… Ah. I thought the…”

“You thought, did you?” Marko asked, leaning forward, hand on the table. “Where’s the parade lead, Ligier?”

Wardell held his breath. Ligier. Not Sir Rangst. Ligier, like LIgier’s father would say. “Ah… the, uh. The Palace of Westminster.”

“Wardell?” Marko asked, as he walked, almost storming.

“Yes sir?”

“Go grab the books and meet me at Westminster. The rest of you, head there now. Now. God, what did you think you were going to have to do today?!”

Wardell swallowed. Marko was angry, and not the way he was normally. Frustrated with the nobles, that was easy to manage. But Ligier had acted out of turn and committed them to a task, without thinking it through.

“Sir, yes sir!” Wardell called behind him, as he pushed the cart along. Nobody in the room corrected Wardell about who was actually in charge.

*

“No, no, I can stand on my own.” Vince insisted. He had to insist, because if he didn’t Stannisfeld was going to carry him and as charming as that was, this wasn’t some private embarrassment heading up the gangplank on a little Hemulkar dock. This was a much more public affair, and uniforms weren’t designed for that sort of thing.

“If you’re sure,” the courier said behind him.

“Fucking hell,” Leigh grumbled, looking out at the dock.

The crowd was a surprise, at least.

“What?” Gael asked, looking out at the crowd, her eyes narrowed as if Leigh had just pointed out a snake amongst the thronging faces at the side of the river.

“I don’t… I mean Christ, how many people are there in this city?”

“A few million.” Gael said, matter-of-factly, looking down to Leigh at her side. “Not used to this, huh? Thought they did basic training near here.”

Leigh shook her head. “We had a range up in Brighaven… it’s why I joined artillery.”

And because you’re short, Vince didn’t say. That would be mean, and just because Leigh had been mean to him didn’t mean he had to return the favour out loud. Strange to see Gael’s reaction, though – she was looking out for them.

“Just… lotta folk and they’re looking at us. Not used to that.” Vince felt a pang of sympathy there. The first time he’d ridden the train and seen how big the world was, all the way up to Hadrian, he’d realised everything he knew about the scope of the world was wrong. Poor Leigh was a girl from Brighaven, a town composed mostly of canals and pub violence, and now she was standing on a dock watching a crowd thronging to the edges of the riverside, in the shadow of the greatest living General of a military that had been her family for what, two years?

“They’re more scared of you than you are of them,” Stannisfeld said, from behind, as he adjusted his belt.

“That’s bears.” Leigh grunted, visibly tense.

“No, I’m pretty sure that’s not.” Vince offered. “I’ve seen a bear, it didn’t seem very scared of anything.”

Gael shrugged. “Bears are scared of me.”

“Law, y’all done bickering back there?” Yull grunted, turning his head only slightly. Looking behind him would break the line of the group, who were stood in what counted as a kind of formation while the boat slid along the river. Vince redoubled his attention, hands by his side, trying to stand straight enough that his collarbones tried to escape upwards out of his shoulders. Somewhere near his hip, muscles that weren’t really all that healed grunted in protest – but he had insisted.

He’d insisted, because last night, when Yull mentioned dress uniforms, it was with the leery voice of a man describing a visit to a vulgar relative. And now they were on the boat, standing together. If Vince had not taken position beside his general, it would have been Yull and Leigh alone in their uniforms, the dark blue-grey woollen coats of the Tiberan military, and they’d have looked like a comedy act. Leigh wasn’t quite half Yull’s height, but she was easily a third of his size. Vince felt his own frame provided a balancing point of contrast.

These were the thoughts Vince had, that he took very seriously.

Gael wasn’t to stand with them; near, but apart. She was a mercenary, not a member of the military. Her own clothes, her own wear – and she wore a green cloak pulled up high to her chin. Her red hair, normally bound in a tight knot at the top of her neck, was braided and fell between her shoulderblades. Sword on one hip, gun on the other, Vince wondered if she looked, in her own way, like a sort of pirate, or a privateer, on the boat. He’d have to look up the difference between the two.

Stannisfeld was also not a soldier, so he had to stand back, behind them, next to Gael. He wore a uniform, too, but it was the same uniform he’d been wearing when they’d started riding together. Somewhere on that uniform – brushed clean, not washed – there was dust from the trenches that Vince had dug, months earlier.

Vince couldn’t help but think ick.

The boat slowed to a stop, and Yull adjusted his coat, his sword. “Alright, then, law. Not sure what’s going on – thought we were meeting with, ah…”

“Ah?”

“There.” Yull said, raising his chin – his beard pointed down at the docks, at the figure in the middle of the dock. No crowd around him, curtailed by the lines of chalk drawn on the stone. Vince was honestly a little surprised that people would obey a chalk line in a city, especially this one.

The man was quite handsome; clad in partial armour, the look of a bodyguard; a cuirass and shoulderguard. Nice shoulders, dark hair, and a very arresting scar across his cheek. “Your friend…?” Vince asked. “Not to presume, sir, but, he seems to have brought some friends.”

“… Quite a few friends.”

“Half the city.” Leigh grumbled, and Vince nudged her.

“Alright, law. Let’s see what this is about.”

Vince had never heard sounds like he heard as they moved down the gangway. First, there had been some caution; as if the crowd held their breath together. But then, perhaps as he was halfway down the plank, a roar rippled through the crowd, an immense bellow of… joy? Surprise? Something?

The city of Timoritia had become a long sluglike beast of thousands of faces and it was yelling at Vince, and he wasn’t particularly keen on it. But the crowd’s yelling didn’t stop. They were waving flags. They were cheering something.

“Stannisfeld,” Vince asked, as he put his feet gingerly on the dock. “Is… uh… do you remember what that note to the General was all about?”

“It said come back, far as I know, Vince…” Stannisfeld said, having to raise his voice to be heard.

Yull’s huge hand clapped into the hand of the soldier in the streets, and he bellowed out his hello – because nobody out-yelled the General.

“Marko! Haven’t seen you in years! What the bloody bloody hell is going on here?”

“Ahaha!” Marko said, clapping his hand into the general’s, dipping his head. “Ah, General – please, come with me! We’ve a meeting for you, up in Westminster.”

“Westminster?” Yull laughed, stomping forwards. He gestured over his shoulders. “Come on, law. In step, now. Let’s be proper about this. And tain’t a thing in Westminster to talk about unless we’ve got paperwork or a tour to do.”

“Want to see the throne while we’re there?” Marko asked, raising his voice.

Yull’s laugh echoed off the windows around, rattling lead and wood.

Leigh drew in, between Gael and Vince. “This is creepy.”

Gael patted her shoulder, as they fell in line behind the general. “Nationalism usually is.”

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