Westminster Palace was one of three Palaces set around the city, and the one closest to the seat of power. It was the one that sat closest to the Old City and claimed its foundations had been built from those very walls. With that age came importance, as any Chilver would happily tell you. Age was important, age was how habits became traditions. It was also where the throne had been vacated – and had been maintained and cared for for over a century as a symbol of the inevitable return of the monarchy. It had been designed some time ago but slowly refined over that time – shells of building slowly forming around each layer, with more land purchased and flattened in the centre of the city to give the palace space. It was very important, after all, being a King’s palace.
The palace’s expansion stopped when the King died; that meant it was locked in a century-old fashion and so, most buildings around it, even newer ones, strove to emulate it. White facing walls, painted and carefully marked. All about these white panels was black edging and curved-inward shapes marking the edges. Windows were huge – smooth, flat glass panes of high quality cut as big as walls, and reinforced with delicate iron lines. Lead was for poors.
They’d hustled on over with Marko’s order, and nobody was too keen to talk about how a soldier and bodyguard had bossed them into action. Then it’d been past the main areas, where some official bureaucratic actions still transpired, and headed up to a room they’d set aside for the negotiation a few weeks ago. And there, they were waiting, and watching, and planning the inevitable arrival of the king, exaltation onto the throne, and then, of course, all that power and such.
Ligier had been the one to order in the Binoculars. They were marvellous little inventions – normally this set was used for attending the horse races or watching river boats racers. Those must have been the days. The binoculars sat pertly on little arms, with elaborate and clever designs to keep them ratcheted in place when adjusted into space. It was how Ligier, that towering buffoon, could stand next to Asca sitting, and they both could look out through a set of binoculars that stood next to one another. The binoculars were how the conspirators – or as Tenner Chilver had named them The Black King’s Crown – were looking at the coming ‘parade’ of six people.
Tenner wasn’t at the binoculars; he was at the table. It was round and polished, decorated only with a red runner that ran down the centre. The whole palace had been maintained as it was since the execution of the Chilver King, perpetually in the state he’d left it. Well, almost. Some of the prison rooms had been repurposed from what they had become. That was rather unpleasant, after all.
Upon the runner was a drape, so as to not dust the King’s runner, and upon the drape sat the files that Marko had made for the group over the past few months. Each one was in a familiar dark-grey folder, made out of pressed old cardboard, thick and hard-cut at the edges. Typical of the soldier to use something like that. They looked ugly and their faces wore hard letters written in a large hand.
“Not sure we want all six of them to come in, do we?”
“Well, we have to have Marko and Yull. What’s four more?”
Ligier rumbled, peering through the binoculars. “You seen them, Tenner?”
“No,” of course not, you crook-pated mattock-faced buffon, Tenner pointedly didn’t add. “I’m handling the paperwork that Marko wanted. The genealogy. And the files on his soldiers.”
“They’re all soldiers?” Asca asked, pushing his binocular closer to the window, as if that would help.
“Well, one’s wearing a grey-brown coat. Long sleeves, white trim…?”
“Ah, that’s the courier.” Tenner murmured, fishing through the pile. The binoculars didn’t feel comfortable on his nose because of his wide-set eyes, and the whole experience made him feel a bit sick, like he was at the bottom of a fishbowl. Again. “Ah, here’s the name. Jame Stannisfeld.”
“Well, we can’t allow him in.”
“Oh, definitely not. He’s a courier, not a soldier. And he’s Djansk.” Tenner flipped through the notes.
“What? We let those deliver our mail?” Asca sputtered.
“Well, I mean, how would you know if someone was Djansk? It’s not exactly obvious to look at them.” Ulster murmured. “They’re basically just like Gallians.”
“Calais is Tiberan.” Tenner groused.
“Oh don’t start that up.”
“Oh, I’d know if my mailman was Djansk,” Ligier growled, drawing a breath, his mighty shoulders bunching up. “I’d know.”
“Who’s the short one?” Ulster asked, cutting across Ligier’s seethe.
“Short, short – ah, yes, there’s a note here. Corporal ah, Leigh Taisheer. Artillery.”
Ulster tapped her chin, looking speculatively out the window across the river. It was hard to read a person through their gestures behind binoculars like that.
“Can’t really let her in. Not with the big one – they’d look ridiculous side by side. And really, I don’t know why we let the short ones join. She ruins the look of a parade.” Asca reached across his chair to fumble with the binocular’s post, trying to adjust himself back into a more comfortable, luxurious sit.
“While we’re at it, two women? That’s a bit excessive, isn’t it? Not to mention that the redhead’s not in uniform-“ Ligier added.
Tenner rifled through the paperwork. There was a note about this somewhere. “Ah, she, she doesn’t have a uniform. Gael Morris. She’s a mercenary, and… there aren’t any records of her childhood in the folder.”
“We have mercenaries in our army!?”
Ulster lowered her binoculars, and just stared at him.
Somehow, Asca knew, and he leant back in his chair, away from the binoculars.
“Well… I mean, I know Dulfs hire armies-“ He began, petering out slowly in the face of that freckled glare.
“Hello.” Ulster said. “Ulster Dulf. I’m sure we’ve met.”
Tenner coughed, and shifted the paperwork around. “Either way, she’s got no records as a child, she’s not a soldier, and she’s a mercenary. That’s very suspicious. We certainly shouldn’t be letting her into Westminster.” Asca was a big, fat man and Tenner was legitimately frightened that if Ulster stared at him too long, he might melt.
“Very suspicious.” Ligier added, obliviously peering through the binoculars.
Ulster stopped tormenting Asca as she turned to her binoculars, but there was still something in that tight line of her lips. Tenner made a note to send servants to talk to her tonight. It probably wouldn’t go well in person.
“What about the ah…” Asca began, then quietly floundered. Understandable, Ulster had just dragged him around the room with a look. Just how many boyfriends had she shot, exactly?
“The ah…” Ligier gestured. “Big one.”
“Yes, he’s…” Asca fumbled around something.
“Well,” Ulster cleared her throat. “I suppose we could speak with the General alone…”
“You want to invite our king in here without some retinue?” Tenner called over from the table.
“Well, the big monkey, what’s his name?”
He shoved aside the three files they’d opened already, below which sat the thick folder labelled YULL BACHTHANE, and grabbed the other. Without opening it, he read off the front. “Vincent Swanhill… that’s a very local name.”
“That’s very local.” Asca muttered. “I think… didn’t a Swanhill work on the Tower Bridge, or something like that, recently?”
“And, he is with the General.”Tenner added, looking over at the window as if the bright white sheenining in from above would help him understand what was going on better. What weren’t they mentioning?
Tenner slid the files around, grumbling to himself. “None of them are… really… appropriate for this… but… it does make a better story if he has, you know… one of his soldiers from the front.” He pushed the files around. “Okay. I’ll send a note to the guards at the gate. Neither of the women. I mean, they’re women. And Swanhill is local to the area, no matter how big he is. So… let him in with the General.”
“Just, um, keep a servant to keep an eye on him.” Asca offered, thoughtfully.
“Make sure he doesn’t steal the silverware.” Ligier added.
“I’m still not sure why the Parade, Marko,” Yull laughed, hand on his sword hilt. Beneath them, the road slid past, under the steady rhythm of what Vince had come to know as the procession. Not too fast, because that took too much energy, but not too slow, because that was inefficient.
“Statement of purpose!” Marko said. “It’s important that the people of the city recognise you, sir.”
“Is that so?”
“You know me,” Marko laughed. “We don’t respect our leaders enough as it is.”
“Respect?” Stannisfeld asked. “Who… uh, who even runs the city, sir?”
“Well, it’s a council of – well, you know, the nobility?” Marko said, clearing his throat as they walked. “But it holds together well because of our principles.”
“And what principles are those?” Yull asked, leaning slightly, looming over Marko from the side.
“Well, there’s honesty, tenacity, pride,” The man faltered momentarily as if remembering something on his cereal packet that morning, “Courage.”
“Oh, like us!” Leigh crowed. “I mean, Gael’s tenacity, and I’m honesty.”
“You sure of that?” Gael asked.
“You calling me a liar?”
“And that would make you pride, mmmm, Vince?” Gael nudged the boy with her arm from behind. “After all, never seen you risk anything.”
“Is that what courage is in Timoritia?” Stannisfeld asked, his steps easy and smooth behind Vince. It wasn’t really much of a parade, really, but Vince was comforted to hear his, uh. To hear Stannisfeld behind him.
Marko turned only slightly to say, speaking over his shoulder. “Yes – it’s why we walk when we do these things. There’s no need to rush that which is decided. It’s a sign of our charge, the courage to act, but not just that. It’s the way that we commit to an action; when we resolve to act, the deed is done. It’s just a matter of time.”
“Huh.” Stannisfeld said. Vince was sure Stannisfeld was nodding, beneath that mop of pale blonde hair. It’s grown a little since they’d ridden all the way across the world – when he’d shown up in the trenches that first time, he’d had hair barely past his ears, shaved close around the base of his scalp. But the months of travel had let it creep down his head and now it ducktailed cutely by the base of his neck. It was a cute hair style, sort of halfway between short and long, really, but-
Someone – someone, pfft, of course it would be Stannisfeld – tapped Vince on the shoulder as they walked. Did he have something to say? Vince turned – only to find Stannisfeld’s hand on his shoulder, turning him fully around while the parade yet moved; for one span of two ems, there were no people on either side of them, but there was a convenient wall, and suddenly Stannisfeld’s chest was up against his, his hand was in Vince’s hair and he was –
“Hey Vince,” Stannisfeld asked, smiling, walking him backwards, one finger hooked under his coat lapel. “Mind if I kiss you?”
“N-nnnoo?” Vince managed, and under the shadow of the alleyway, Stannisfeld kissed Vince, one arm swept around him, squeezing him in a hug. All the details around Vince were clear, but muted – Leigh grumbling, Yull walking alongside Marko Fiver before them on the road, Gael’s whoop of… something. But they weren’t as important as feeling Stannisfeld’s lips against his; suddenly, Vince was profoundly self-conscious about the stubble he thought he might have missed this morning, especially since Stannisfeld’s skin was, well, uh, so soft… and then, the messenger broke the hold and grinned at him.
“Courage, right?” Stannisfeld said, without missing a step. They were still standing right next to Gael and Leigh, and right behind Yull and Marko. And very gently, Stannisfeld turned him around, and Vince was just back in the parade, feeling his cheeks on fire. He couldn’t find his breath, and stammered for a moment, waving one hand as if to try and recover the thread of conversation.
“Cat got yer tongue?” Leigh snickered.
“Or someone else?” Gael added.
Rafe had come along to the parade with the air of a truculent dog being pulled along on a lead. As the weather was turning, he’d returned to the thick woollen coat and pants made out a friar’s robe, and Aderyn wore thicker leggings under her skirt than she had earlier in the year. The thicker leggings weren’t much of an extravagance – they didn’t limit her movement nearly as much as, for example as that ridiculous dress Rafe had worn.
“Why we all the way out here if we’re going to the parade?” Rafe asked, with his hands jammed into his pocket, looking across the river. Flickering eyes, though! That was useful to notice about Rafe. Even though he always looked at the world like a little boy, he was noticing plenty of detail. Even if he didn’t apply it properly, or even realise he was doing it. Maybe that was why he’d leapt upwards when he’d jumped out of a window?
“Because we’ll just walk on up to the bottleneck and make our way to the front.” Kivis said. “You’d be surprised how few people want to get in my way right by Westminster.”
The wrought iron fence on their left was a lovely structure, designed to protect the palace as a sort of ceremonial thing. Long, thin fenceposts. She could probably have slipped through them, a year earlier – but her head had grown slightly since then. The palace itself was boring – big white panes and so many cornices and hooks that she could have danced along its surfaces. And huge windows that opened. What kept people from assassinating kings any time they wanted?
“Okay, why we going to the parade?” Rafe asked, a curl in his lip.
“Because they’re telling us the king’s coming. I want to see the king.” Kivis said.
“You like kings, Kivis?” Rafe asked.
“Not at all,” she said, as the crowd drew around them – and parted in front of her. “But you should always recognise the king.”
“Yeah?” asked the teen. “Why’s that?”
“Because,” said a voice like chocolate and honey, right by Aderyn’s side, “When you meet a Tyrant, kill him.”
“… Uh.” Rafe looked between the two, and cleared his throat. “Well, Aderyn? This is Xenops Cornell.” Even as he said it, though, he was looking for Kivis – stopping when he saw the back of the knight, who had stopped to peer down the street, right by the chalk lines on the floor, pushing away some meat-pie salesman who was trying to have her attention.
“Hello again, Xenops,” Aderyn said.
“You’ve met-“ Rafe yelped, then took a moment to calm himself. “When did you-“
“Rafe, the party was weeks ago.” Aderyn said.
“Didn’t I tell you the client was-“
Aderyn shook her head, and sighed, curtseying slightly to Xenops. “Confidential, yes. But there were a limited number of possible people who could have spoken to you, and I investigated.”
“… You what?” Rafe asked.
“Well, Rafe, you see, when you were wearing that dress-“
That was odd.
“I am sorry,” Aderyn said. “I was expecting you to interrupt me.”
“Why?” Rafe looked confused. She knew that look, now. He narrowed his eyes, and scrunched up his nose. These days there was something else to it, though – the corners of his mouth tugged up a little.
“We’re talking about you wearing a dress in front of a pretty girl.” Maybe elaboration was helpful.
“I’m right here.” Xenops added, leaning into Rafe’s personal space, which didn’t seem to bother him which was strange, and come to think of it what she said was strange, because, yes, of course she was. Why did people mention that.
“And she saw me wearing it. I … what’s yer point?”
“Oh.” Something was strange. Aderyn was sure that Rafe would object to having his masculinity questioned like that. The subverted expectation was a bother, a tiny bother, but a bother. “Well-”
“So it was you in sze dress?” Xenops asked, tilting her head to Rafe. “Ah, such a shame! You made such a beautiful princess. But at least your friend ‘ere would look just as magnificent!”
Aderyn felt momentarily out of her depth. “Rafe, I do not think your friends and I have been introduced.”
“You just said her name,” Rafe growled. “You know who Xenops is-‘
“Ah, oui, Princess Assassin, but I do not know who she is!” Then the woman with the mottled skin put her finger to her pink lips and tapped them. “Come to szink of it, I do not know who you are. By name, at least.”
“Rafe,” he said, gesturing at himself with his thumb, then gestured at Aderyn with his other. “Aderyn.”
“Lady Aderyn DuThane,” she clarified.
“Mou!” Xenops said with a laugh, putting her hand to her lips. “Now I know your names – am I a witness to a crime?”
“What,” Kivis asked, turning and looking back at them. “Getting Rafe out of that dress, now that was a crime.”
And Rafe didn’t react to that, either. This was very strange. Aderyn couldn’t think much more about it with the information to hand, and so, remembering to shrug to indicate that she was thinking about something but not much, she turned to Xenops. “I do apologise, but-”
“Oo, wait-” Xenops said, pushing to stand next to Kivis. “Sze king approaches!”
The gates of Westminster palace were broad but open, and staffed by guards wearing traditional red tunics, black trousers and shoes, gold buttons, and most oddly, black furry hats made out of bear fur. Well, Vince had been told it was bear fur. There was a conversation transpiring, between Marko, Yull and the guards, but Vince couldn’t stop looking at the silky fur. Were bears so long-furred? Why wear so much of the fur at once, even? These were mysteries that he’d never bothered to probe before, as a child.
“Excuse us, sir.” The Guard said, turning to gesture betwen Yull and the others. “Just the orders I have from the Palace.”
“What’s that, law?” laughed the giant of a man. “You don’t look like soldiers to me-“
“They call everyone sir, Sir,” Marko said, but he was smiling. Vince had not seen this before. Yull treated him, and the other soldiers like grandchildren, but Marko, Marko he looked at like a younger brother. Marko – with that scar on his face and that glorious mane of black hair, he looked like the sort of man Vince would have looked up to, quite a bit, when he was younger. And while he probably had a raging, flinty heart, he wasn’t as cute as Stannisfeld.
Vince stopped his mind wandering to hear the instruction.
“Seems they cannae let us all in the ponce-fest,” Yull said, turning slightly, adjusting his sword belt. “Vince? You’re in. Jame, Gael, Leigh – you stay out here, me law.”
Gael smiled when she was called by name – and Vince could see the tangible sheen of pride in Leigh when she wasn’t addressed as just law. It was their moment. A reminder of the people that their General, their commander, knew them to be.
“Wait, who’s Jame?” Vince asked, and he realised who it was just as Marko took his arm and led him past the wrought iron fences. Gael had her hand over her mouth, Leigh had her mouth open, and Stannisfeld was shocked.
Every single detail of the red-gravel path and the flanking flowering bushes was immediately very important to Vincent.
“Law,” Yull said, as they walked up the path, “When w’get back out, you’re going to give that boy an apology.” Crunch, crunch, crunch went the giant man’s boots. Marko looked uncomfortable, but didn’t comment, and Vince noticed his boots hadn’t been polished in quite some time. “Don’t go trying to explain. You just fucked up.”
Above, the stormclouds rolled, as the doors to Westminster Palace opened before Yull Bachthane, and Vince and Marko followed him in.