One Stone, Chapter 40

Traditionally the importance of an event is directly proportionate to how many people notice it. Some of the most important discoveries in the history of humanity passed by unnoticed at first, and it’s the person who made a fuss about them afterwards that enjoys being remembered by all but the stickiest of nerds.

Just like bloody little struggles that didn’t matter to anyone.

“Alright, Vince, was it?” Marko asked, as they walked up the steps through Westminster.

“Sir, yes sir.” The soldier was looking all around himself with a fairly reasonable mix of awe and awareness. This kid was some kind of middle-classer, had enough money to recognise how important Westminster was.

“He’s not a soldier,” Yull laughed, undercutting that sir Vince had used. “Marko’s retired.”

“I’m sorry, I thought you were-“

“I was!” Marko said, turning back, slowing his pace slightly and grinning. “Years ago, though. Another story for another time. Either way. You know your dress parade rules?”

“Well-“ he said, hesitating. When had he been last on parade? Probably about a year ago. The front was months away and they’d been there for far too long.

“Vince?” Yull asked, adjusting his sword belt. “Just stand by the door and shut up. Don’t speak unless I explicitly give you permission.”

“Oh.” Vince nodded. “That I can do, sir.”

Yull laughed. “Been months since we were in ranks, Marko. Had to move fast.”

“Oh? Anything on the trip worth mentioning.”

“Lions, deserters, Djansk soldiers. Nothing particularly interesting.”

Marko stopped at the door and smiled, “Alright, then. Okay – we’ll talk more afterwards, sir. Or should I say, your majesty?” He grinned, pushing the door open.

“What the hell is that supposed to-“ Yull began, but Marko’s call cut him off. He stepped into the room, sharp and loud, boots clacking on the wood of the floor, stepping between rugs.

“Lords of the Noble Houses!” Marko called, loud and proud. “His Lordship and General Of The Tiberan Army, Lord Yull Bachthane Of Lleywa!” Marko stepped to the side of the door, standing sharp and formal, trying to hide his smile.

It was happening.

*

Westminster Palace was one of the few locations in Timoritia Vince had only visited to look at from the outside. His parents had made sure that the museums and galleries he’d visited, he’d spent time inside, you know, soaking up the culture, as they deemed appropriate, but Westminster Palace, when they visited, had just been a set of white buildings on the other side of a very large fence that was still not quite so large he couldn’t imagine getting his head stuck between the bars.

It had seemed far too large back then, and as a young boy, as a nascent engineer, Vince had tried to do the math behind how much space was involved in the palace. Given its spread and breadth, he’d concluded it must have hundreds of rooms, perhaps thousands of rooms, and that was assuming the rooms were unreasonably large.

The rooms, now he was inside, were not unreasonably large. Vince’s normal halfway measure of understatement didn’t have good tools for referring to this scope; they were definitely larger than unreasonably large, and some of them were even unreasonably unreasonably large? Were they? The language of the middle didn’t have a term for it.

Leigh would probably have just spat ‘huge’ and been done with it.

The room they walked into was about ten ems at its shortest side, and all of that was window. An enormous set of windows, with a central pillar, curtains rolled back on either side. They glittered slightly, with the dull brooding yellow of the sun pushing against the clouds that rolled in reflecting off the bright, shiny metal lines that ran through the glass as supports. The carpet didn’t run to the edges of the room, though – it sat on the top of polished wooden floors.

Vince had known a wealthy friend who had a room in his home like that; the carpet was left as a large rug, and rolled up and stored during the summer months. That’d been a demonstration of wealth, though, because you needed a good, clean room to store the carpet in that wouldn’t gather dust. For a room like this…? Vince had lived in buildings which were smaller than this carpet.

The walls were white, interspersed with dark, polished wooden furnishings, upon which sat pale white busts and vases. Artwork and emblems that stood out from the setting of the room behind them, but only really clearly shown by their shadows. It was a nice effect, though Vince couldn’t help but imagine it would need a lot of cleaning to keep from turning grey and losing the impact.

One long table sat in the room, closer to the window than to the door through which Vince and Yull and Marko had entered. It was probably some six ems long, maybe two ems across, and all in that same glossy, polished dark wood colour. There was a drape over it – thick white fabric that showed no sign of dust. Behind it sat four figures, each dressed as the nobles of the city, adorned with a strange formality.

Was this the Vox Coronate? Vince had thought the Vox was formed out of older statepeople from the families – these all looked a bit… young?

Leftmost of the figures was a tall man, with thick black hair pushed back over his scalp, pressed down and tailing a little at his neck. It was a style fashionable amongst the nobles that some thought rakish. When a slender man wore his hair like that, it gave him a sting of the loose and wild about him. When this man, barrel-chested, wide-shouldered, and with thick black hair on the backs of his hands and forearms, wore his hair like that, it looked more like a tiger being pushed through a narrow fence.

Next to him sat a woman who was, in Vince’s mind, sort of handsome? Arresting? She was, well, passably pretty? Lovely red hair, rich and coppery, but more blonde than red. After spending time around Gael, whose hair was glorious and vivid, it looked just a little bit wan. It wasn’t helped by the woman’s outrageous mess of freckles, bright across her nose, her cheeks, her throat, and down to the backs of her hands. She was dressed in a more suit-like arrangement than most women typically wore in these events, and there was a rifle leaning against her chair. Beyond those most superficial of observations, though, she had a look that made Vince sweat – he felt like she was sizing up the distance between them. Despite the fact she was sitting next to the man with a tiger’s demeanour, she was the one Vince felt himself fearing.

Next to her was a short little man, barely up to her shoulder in his chair, who sat behind a pile of files and paperwork. Inverted names in hard script showed names that Vince could recognise. Leigh, Gael, himself – well, it stood to reason, with the importance of the palace that they’d be careful about who they let in. The man himself was so unremarkable as to be invisible. He had browny-grey hair, nervous little hands that fidgeted with a small stamp, and skin as pale as an onion. Even his eyes were a little watery, and he flinched whenever anyone raised their voice.

Finally on the end of the table, with the look that he chose that spot because it involved as little travel as possible was a large, rotund man with large, hanging jowls and a large, additional chin. He was wearing a suit that fit immaculately, and the shape of the waistcoat and collar made him look slimmer than he was, but there really was only so much fooling of the eye you could do. If the man at the far left of the table looked like a tiger, this one looked like a housecat – plump and round and perhaps a little too spoiled.

“Ah, General… Bachthane,” said the shorter man, without looking up. “I am Tenner Chilver. This,” he pointed to the woman, “is Ulster Dulf,” and he gestured onwards, to the tiger of a man. “Ligier Rangst, and that,” he said, pointing to the man next to him, “Is Asca Gorange. Please, do come to the table.” He raised his head, looking off to the side, and called. “Servant! A chair for the General.”

Vince stepped to the side, and stood by the door, and tried to work out why three of the four nobles were watching him, like they were expecting something. The side door opened and in a rush, a young person wearing a short skirt, but holding a chair in both hands, scuttled in. It was set down on the floor, before the table. Vince looked to Marko for a queue – even as Yull lumbered forwards.

The stitches in his side ached slightly, and Vince tried not to think about how much exertion he’d been putting himself through today.

“Wait, what,” Asca said, as Yull stepped forwards, moving to the front of the chair, not even introducing himself. Marko nodded politely, and gestured with his head to Vince – before moving to stand next to Yull’s right hand side. Well, that left his left, and that had a nice bit of symmetry to it. Vince stepped up, put his hands by his sides, and maintained as easy an attention as he could.

They were still all looking at him.

Weird.

Yull finally sank into the chair with a relaxed grunt, resting his hands on the arms of the chair, scratching one hand into his beard and looking between the four of them. Vince didn’t know what was going on behind the General’s temples, but his eyes weren’t bleeding respect.

“So what do you want?” he said, brusque, his voice low, and massive. And then there was a pointed moment of panic.

“Hang on, you’re Yull?” Ligier asked, leaning forwards, glaring at Yull. “You?”

Ulster was at least merely looking surprised. A little confused, sure, but just surprised.

“Tenner, you sure this isn’t a mistake?”

“Is what-whoaaaaah,” Tenner said, looking up from the papers in front of him.

Vince looked at the nobles, then at Yull. Then at the nobles, then at Yull.

What the hell was going on here?

“What the hell is going on here?”

“Well,” Marko said, clearing his throat. “These ladies and gentlemen represent the Black King’s Crown.”

“Yes, the Black King’s Crown, Tenner,” Ligier said, thumping his hand on the desk and glaring sideways at the smaller man. “You, General. Oi. I thought you said you were from Lleywa.”

“I am from Lleywa,” Yull growled, leaning forwards. Ligier’s aggression was strange, but Yull’s reaction was stranger. Still, Vince knew it wasn’t his place to speak. “What’s your question, son?” Yull asked, his eyes flashing.

“You know your place?” Ligier shot back.

“On the front lines of the army city pricks like you don’t have the stamina to join,” Yull snarled back, but stayed in his seat. “Marko, what are we doing here?”

“Ah, sir, the nobles want to talk to you about–” Marko began.

“Ah, well, we were the letter of the Vox Coronate that sent for you,” Asca Gorange said, clearing his throat as he sat. “It was a discussion of the proper value of, oh, of, a-“

“How do you feel about being made General Imperator?” Ulster said, cutting through the air.

Yull stopped, but didn’t break his glare at Ligier. It was an obvious start, and his eyebrows knit. “General Imperator’s an old role, isn’t it? Lead general of the armies?”

“Ah, yes, that it is,” said Tenner, frantically sifting through the paperwork, looking over at Ulster, surprised suddenly. “Um! Well, yes, you see, the General Imperator position does require, um, does require the appointment of a king-”

“Yes, a King,” Marko said, trying to work out where to look. He was clearly expecting something that wasn’t happening. Outside, the thunder rolled through the crowds, windows darkening.

Tenner was frantic, trying to find something in his paperwork. “And here, of course, the badge of the General Imperator, with its motto, ‘Discernat Ferrum‘ – ahh, yes, ‘in the iron is-‘”

“Let the Sword Decide,” Yull rumbled.

“Oh, I didn’t know you knew Latin.” Tenner offered, looking up in surprise.

“I didn’t know you didn’t, you square-eyed little prick.” Why was Yull being so confrontational? Vince was completely lost.

Silence descended on the room like a fog. That was not how it was meant to go.

Yull planted his hand on the arm of his chair, pushing himself up into standing. Dark brown eyes flashed, his nostrils flared, and he gripped the chair’s arm while he stood, “A soldier picks up a few things on a few battlefields. You’ll talk about anything with anyone, when the cannons are going and you’re on your knees in a ditch. And so I learned a little Latin an’ I learned a little about Windmills and I’ve learned a bit about how to grow rosebushes, because I’ve heard a hundred terrified law talkin’ and I’ve sat and listened and we’ve waited for the mud to run less red.” He scratched his chest with one hand and finally released the chair with the other. “Dazzle some other idiot with your fancy symbols. You called me half way across the world to arse around with a fancy title and parades? Call me back when you’ve used all those hands to find your own arse.” He turned, he gestured to Vince to fall in line behind him, and stalked out of the room.

Thus passed the Qisar, dusty footprints on expensive carpet, seeking a servant who could direct him down to the kitchens and maybe the privy. Vince turned and scuttled after him at speed, pulling the door closed behind him.

Well that could probably have gone a lot better, couldn’t it?

*

As first impressions went, Marko reasoned, it really could have not gone worse. He knew the General well – and that brutal, wondrous bluster of the Black Thane seemed to do nothing to the room but ice it over.

“Was that him?” Finally, hissed Tenner.

Asca had spent the whole time groping for words; he had that distinct, fishy face of a man struggling for air or for the edges of idea. But when Yull left the room, the words burst free: “You never said he was fucking black!

“Asca, some decorum, please.” Ulster sneered.

Ligier was looking back and forth between Marko and the others. “Is this a joke? Is that what this is? You said he’s from Lleywa!” His accusatory finger levelled at Marko, fairly vibrating.

“… Yes?”

Did you see the man?!”

“I served under the man! What the hell are you idiots getting at?”

“Someone forgets his place,” Ulster said, standing up slowly from her chair. Reaching down to take up a parasol, she shook her head, clucking her tongue. “I’m not here to be bellowed at by the help. I’ll see you gentlemen tomorrow morning. Tenner, that idea about the General Imperator wasn’t free. You owe me for that lifeline.”

Asca pushed himself out of his chair next, smoothing down his tunic. “This has been disastrous. And this is the man we have to crown?”

“We don’t have to-“ Tenner began. “I mean, we didn’t tell him that, did we?”

“Shut up,” Ligier shouted. “Shut up, shut up!” His tone rose, the panicked yell of someone who knew something was going very, very wrong, very quickly.

“Oh Ligier,” Asca said, turning to look up at the man. “You didn’t.”

“I… well after the first fliers went so well, I-“

“You didn’t.”

Tenner coughed. “Ligier, what did you do.”

“Well, there should be a coronation, right…? I…”

Marko was only dimly aware of the hollering. This was wrong. This was very wrong. Yull was the rightful king, and now all these nobles were acting like he couldn’t be the rightful king. He rubbed his hands through his hair and tried to gather his thoughts through sound of drumming feet on the sand outside.

Marko looked up, suddenly realising how strange a thought that was – there was no desert outside. It was just the rain. Just the rain. Growling to himself as he stood, Marko made some token goodbye and stormed out the door. They weren’t even paying attention. Something about fliers, and a coronation event, and… eugh. His stomach was watery, his brain was on fire.

Where the hell was Wardell? He needed to talk to the man.

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