Out in the courtyard, Yull swung right, down one of the paths the guards lined, but hadn’t decorated for the parade. Gesturing to the fence, he waved with one hand – and like the soldiers they were, Gael, Stannisfeld and Leigh broke away from the crowds and moved along the fence. It was only a few short moments of walking, crunching gravel under their feet, before guards were opening a side gate before Yull and Vince, and the giant man swept through it in dudgeon.
“Sir,” Vince began, as they drew back into a single unit. The thronging people filling the streets were melting out of the path as they realised nothing else was going to happen today, but the people were still mostly gathered on the other side of the palace.
“Quiet, law,” Yull grunted. The four fell into step, a few brisk steps past the gates, out of earshot of the guards, before he spoke again. “Alright, law, we’re back on the clock,” he growled, stomping down the street.
“Special assignment?” Gael asked, visibly shifting in her stance. Vince had seen her throw herself over a trench-top and drag chain through cannon stations, and the same iron was in her shoulders as she walked. “The Vox Coronate need something done?”
“My arse,” the giant man grunted. “That’s not the Vox Coronate. Maybe they could get the Vox to send a letter, but that’s a pack of bored nobodies.” he shook his head, seething, as they walked down the narrow side streets of Timoritia. “We’re in the cacky now, law, and the number one order now is never split up.”
Vince stopped trying to catch Stannisfeld’s eyes and swallowed his pride, looking up at the general’s back. “Why, sir?”
“There’s a conspiracy afoot. If those useless shites are trying to pull around politics, they’re little fish and there’s a shark in this water. They’ve got Marko involved in this shit!” he spat, stopping at the corner, checking only for a moment. “If I know anything about this, law, I-”
Sometimes something pulled the attention of a whole group at once. In this case, it was one of the big bald walls behind a brickwork building, with a tarp set up as a makeshift awning. Underneath it, wearing a blue cap and coveralls, was a dutiful day worker, brushing glue along the wall with a broom despite the rain. Under the thundering sound of the heavens emptying on the tarpaulin, he just pumped his arms, and slapped up the posters he’d been given. Posters that now sat in a grid on the wall, out of an enormous stack sitting in a wooden crate by his foot. The soldiers barely noticed him, though – because they were staring at the posters.
MARCH 15, BEHOLD THE CORONATION
AS KING BACHTHANE ASCENDS TO THE THRONE
“Oh, hell,” Gael spat, looking up and down the street. “That’s what I think it is, isn’t it, sir?”
“Aye, law,” the general said, rolling his shoulder, gesturing for them to follow. “Alright.”
Vince had seen Yull compose a plan on the battlefield in a moment. He’d also seen him stuff his sword through two men in one swing, then literally throw the two bodies into a ditch to land on a grenadier. Vince knew decision when he saw it.
“Alright! Rules. Always have an exit strategy, law. You saw the files on the desk, Vince? They know your names. Me, I’m important enough they’re not about to kill me over something like this. But I’m nae going back in there unless I have a sword in my hand and a back-up in yours.”
“They wouldn’t just randomly kill us, would they?” Leigh asked, trotting faster to keep up, even as she unholstered a spare gun from behind her back, testing the chamber while she walked. “We’re just soldiers. Boss us around and send us out, right?”
“Law, these are nobles. I dun’ fancy they’d kill you outright, but I do fancy that there’s someone in that room with a plan for if things go wrong, and I want you all to have a plan as well. Jame, Leigh, you two can move fast, aye?”
“Sir, yes sir!” Leigh shot, snapping to attention. Water flicked off her shoulders as she looked up, wearing a sternness that didn’t suit. At least here in a city with a sheeting torrent of water blasting down onto her, she didn’t look as miserable as she had out in the desert.
“Alright. You two need to find your families in th’city.” He stood seriously, gesturing around the circle. “What we’re lookin’ at here is fishy. I trust Marko but I don’t trust the rest of them, an’ chances are he’s been thorough. Boy’s a commander, he knows what he’s doing.”
“Um, my parents are up in Brighaven.”
“Probably far enough they’ll not care. Still, I need a message sent north soon.”
“We can head to the telegraph station, if you can write it down, sir?” Jame offered. No. Nope, nope, nope. He was Stannisfeld. Jame may have been his name, but he was Stannisfeld in Vince’s mind, and Jame just seemed weird. “I still have military credentials. Can prioritise cables if they’re within the country.”
“Hm. Good law, that.” Yull said, resting his hand on his sword. “Gael, your family…?”
“Not an issue, sir.” she said, curtly. He nodded, just once, and that was that.
“While they take care of the messages, though, what about us, General?” Gael asked, gesturing at herself, and Vince.
“Vince, you able to run?”
“I can try, sir.”
“Not good enough. Alright, Gael, you keep Vince safe,” and Vince tried to keep his expression from disappointment. “while y’head to the seventeenth district church.”
“Safehouse?” Gael asked. “You don’t seem the sort to have those, sir.”
“Not a safehouse.” Thumbing the pommel on his blade, Yull stepped into an awning. “But there’s a chance the noble houses are up to something illegal, and if that’s happening, law, that’s where you want t’be. If something goes wrong and it comes to blood, I trust Lady Kivis Athene to start killing nobles until there’s none left. She’ll want to come to the coronation for that, at least.”
“How… how bad do you expect things to get, sir?” Vince asked, watching the man pulling paper from his pocket and lean against the doorframe to write.
“Vince, this is about kings.” he drew a long breath. “The die’s already been cast – and we have to make sure we are not under it when it falls. Now go.” he said, putting the tip of his pencil to the paper, scrawling out the first words of a letter.
As they went, Vince couldn’t help but wonder if the man was writing a will.
“Wardell!” Marko yelled, feeling the rain sluice down his neck. The door wasn’t locked.
“Wardell!” the lights were out. Slamming the door behind him stopped the rain, which eased his mind a little.
“Wardell!” he shouted again – god, how loud had he been shouting? It was just to drown out the hoofbeats.
The rain. To drown out the rain.
“Sir…?” came Wardell’s voice from the kitchen.
Stomping and shaking his head, shaking the rain off himself as best he could, Marko slumped at the kitchen table, and took a deep breath while he slid his elbows on the table. Deep breaths. Very deep breaths. “I… What are you doing?”
Wardell had a cup of tea, and a folded yellow piece of paper, not to mention a worried expression. Not dressed like a servant for once, he had his vest open, showing a long looped chain around his neck, from which hung… a coin? Not a medal, not like the medal Marko had earned at Heltskruet. No, just a little decorative coin, nothing to do with blood on the sand.
“I’m… I’m nothing, sir.” Wardell said, folding the paper. “What happened? You look like everything went a bit… wrong?” Concern radiated off the manservant.
“They… hated him. No, no, more than that. Worse than that. They didn’t even mention it. They tried to tell him he’d be the General Imperator – not the king. I mean, don’t-”
“Uhm. Oh dear. Oh- oh no. Do you think…”
“Do I think what?”
Wardell pursed his lips, and leant forwards, whispering. “Is… is this because the general is black?”
Marko’s eyes widened. “What? No. No, they- what? What would that have to do with anything? Besides, he’s the Black Thane, isn’t he? Isn’t that, I – I mean.”
He shook his head, rubbing his forehead with both hands, trying to shut out the last sounds of the rain with his hands on his ear. Marko’s voice was just a wahnhnahnwahn, from outside those hands. But then he leant down, waving the letter in front of Marko’s face.
“I… I mean, if… I think you probably want to see this, sir.”
Reaching out with one cautious hand, Marko took the note, and started to unfold it. “Where did you get this, Wardell?”
“Um, well, you remember how I sent the note through the Vox Coronate for the King, sir?”
“… yes…?” Marko said, smoothing out the paper and surveying the thick writing, dark penmarks that spoke of a large man’s hands, with the clear signature at the bottom – BACHTHANE.
“There’s some sorting of military mail that comes with that. It seems they felt we should check up on… on this.”
The words were a smear across the page. Wardell saw the edges of them, snatches, but some of the words leapt out at him.
…prepare yourself for another season of war…
…to return to those Djansk colonies, to Heltskruet…
…if I had but the authority…
“Oh god,” Marko said, licking his lips nervously, looking at Wardell. “Oh god, what the hell. Is… does he want…”
“Old soldiers,” Wardell said, leaning forwards. “Often can’t stop living out their worst fights…”
“Oh god.” Marko wanted to vomit. “He wants to take us back to -”
“I’m… I’m afraid so, sir. And if he does it,” he shook his head. “We’ll… probably lose the empire. You know better than I what that nation does… it’s a rock to smash things against.”
The room was spinning. His hands were tense. Looking up, Marko swallowed tightly. “… Contact the nobles. I think… I think we need to meet one more time. It’s… we need to do something about this. Something very, very dire.”
“So you say, sir.”
“Sanctuary!” Gael yelled, pushing at the door of the church with one hand. “I think that’s’ what this is. Sanctuary!” she called again, holding Vince’s hand in her other. “Just stick close,” she added, lowering her voice. “We’re near the Dims here, and I don’t need anyone stealing you to sell your feet to the glue factory.”
“What?!” Vince blurted, believing her for too many seconds.
“Oh god, you really are a posh kid,” Gael said, laughing, as the door swung open before them.
The main hall of the church was set up with two tables, one of which was covered in paperwork, with a portly priest sitting at one end. He had a round, jolly face, and a sweet demeanour to him, a look that reminded Vince of his father, even though the priest was probably closer to Vince’s age.
On the other table, with a small book open in front of her was a young lady, with long pale-white hair, in a braid that fell down her back, wearing sensible, restrained clothes, turning the pages with a very definite crispness. Across from her, sitting with his arms on the table, along with his chest, was a brown-haired, incredibly bored looking… probably boy. A bit thin and fey, younger than Vince, but with eyes that boiled with barely-contained rage, he looked up at the pair, then over next to the door.
Then Vince saw the metal form of a knight, armour decorated with feathers and owls, hand on the doorframe that served to keep Vince and Gael out. A woman’s voice, echoing but still low, came with a tilt of that metal hair. “Yes?”
“We’re here with a message for Lady Kivis Athene?” Gael said, looking down at the arm barring her path.
“I’m not sure I should be telling anyone but her. But General Yull Bachthane sent me.”
“Us,” Vince added.
The knight drew up her shoulders, and looked over at the priest. “You okay with this, Fratarelli?”
“Good god’s sake, Kivis, it’s a church.” the priest said, shifting paper around on the table. “If they want to come in and help me organise these bills, they’re welcome to.”
For a moment, the woman – clearly Kivis – seemed to scrutinise them with steel eyes. But then she stepped aside. As Vince and Gael filed into the room, she reached behind the door, picking up what looked a lot like a broken boathook, walking behind them as she sat at the table.
Vince trailed along behind Gael, in part because he really didn’t want to try exerting himself, with the injury still in his side. When she sat – across from the knight, on the opposite table to the teenagers – he sat next to her, and tried to sit up straight.
“Well?” Kivis asked, her arms folded on the table.
“I don’t have any names,” she said, sitting forwards. “But General Bachthane thinks that someone’s been sending illegal letters under the heading of the Vox Coronate.”
“… To what end?”
“Not sure. He thinks there’s a conspiracy to put him in place as king.”
“Saw those posters,” called the boy from the other table. “Thought that was his idea.”
“It’s… it’s definitely not,” Vince added.
The young woman slowly turned around with a deliberate movement, her eyes quite clearly fixed on Vince. “Excuse me?”
“It really isn’t!” Vince said. “I mean, when it came up, the first thing he did was send us here-”
“Came up?” she echoed.
“Yes, this afternoon.”
“This… afternoon.” She repeated very, very cautiously.
“Yes…?” Vince tried to not draw the word out too long, but the woman had a very unsettling gaze.
“The General wants Vince somewhere safe,” Gael interrupted, nudging Vince’s good side. “And he wanted to make sure you – Lady Kivis – was informed about what might happen.”
“… Is the general a friend of yours, Kivis?” the young woman asked.
“Is anyone a friend of yours?” the boy volunteered.
“No, and probably not,”‘ Kivis said, putting metal fingers to her chin. “I don’t think I’ve ever met the general, myself. But I suppose I do have a reputation to maintain.”
“Well, there is the coat of arms,” the priest said, turning the paper. “Doesn’t it mean something really rude? And you do make a point of living here, what with the, ah, asceticism?”
Kivis tapped her chin with her fingertips. “Alright, then.” she said, pushing her bench back as she stood. “Alright. Alright!” Pointing behind herself with her thumb, she gestured at the girl, “Aderyn,” and then at the boy. “Rafe. Rafe’s a terrible murderer, and-”
“What, he’s a serial killer or something?” Vince asked, feeling his feet sweat.
“No. No, he’s terrible at it.”
“Hey!” Rafe yelped behind her. “Can I get any respect here?”
“Statistically, no,” Aderyn said. “And my name is Lady Aderyn DuThane.” she smiled, in a strangely artificial way that made Vince remember teachers trying to be polite.
“They’re going to be coming and-”
“Er,” the priest piped up from the end of the table.
“Oh, and Brother Fratarelli. This is his church. And these are his wards. Wards? Is that the term?”
“It is as good a term as any,” Aderyn said, nodding politely.
“Isn’t that a little, uh.”
“A little what?” the priest asked, looking all smiles.
“Well, I mean, look, I wasn’t in prison long, but ward sounds a bit… like, Fratarelli’s an okay guy but he’s not exactly protecting me from anything.”
“Well, not my business, really,” Gael said, as she held out her hand. “Gael Morris. And this is Vincent. We’re soldiers working for the general. I’m a mercenary, and he’s in trouble with his boyfriend.”
“I’m what!?” Vince sputtered angrily.
“Oh, come on, forgetting an anniversary is bad, but forgetting a first name?”
“Boyfriend?” Rafe asked, sitting up more, with his arms folded on the table.
“Yes, Rafe, it’s a term for a romantic partner who’s a boy.” Aderyn chimed in, clear, little bowlike smile as she bobbed her head. It was like she’d just scored a point at some subtle game?
The brunette sighed and put his face in his hands. “Oh, I had no idea,” he shook his head, grumbling. “What ever do you mean?”
“Oh! Well, Rafe, you see, it’s an issue of sexual orientation and compatibility. Men have a sex organ known as a penis-”
“Not all men,” interrupted Gael.
Aderyn blinked at that, looked between Gael and Rafe, and nodded. “Oh! Well, many men have a sex organ-”
“I’m sorry I even opened my mouth,” Rafe said, putting his face on the desk. “I know what being gay is, good grief.”
Vince had opened his mouth to say something but the blush filling his features from the nose down seemed to hold his mouth paralysed.
“Well,” the priest interrupted. “Kivis, do you think you need to investigate this?”
“The General said he wanted you at the coronation.”
Kivis tapped her chin with a fingertip, and glanced over at the priest. “Fratarelli…?”
The priest pushed himself up into standing. “Yes, yes. I should probably get to work on some more food, if we’ll have guests. Rafe? Aderyn? Do please come along to the kitchen.”
When the three left the room, Vince looked between Gael and Kivis, nervously shifting. “Um. Um, I don’t mean to be a bother…”
“But?” Kivis asked.
“I may… um. Should we just sit here until tomorrow…?”
Kivis laughed then, voice echoing against the inside of her helm. “Alright. Let’s see about getting you some place to rest.”
There were quite a few Goranges in the city who could call themselves Lord Gorange. Roughly half the people who bothered to wear the surname Gorange did, in fact. That many Goranges meant that these men (and one or two women) had to clarify themselves with a specific name under their title. For example, Lord Asca Gorange.
There were very, very few men in the city who would be content to call themselves Lord Gorange and have everyone know the exact one they meant.
The senior statement of the Gorange household rarely left his house. He mostly made do with letters, delivered with his personal seal and signature. Such communiqué were not commonly sent to people outside of the upper tiers of those very same families, but still, as possibly the richest man in the city, Lord Gorange did occasionally send a personal note to someone considered a little person.
The letter was sitting on the kitchen table at night, not in the morning when normal mail would arrive. The letter was open – clearly, one of the others in the conspiracy had arrived in the night and opened the letter. Someone had read it. That someone wasn’t Marko, though, shuffling around in the half-light. He’d grabbed a bottle of water from the icebox and slouched into the spare room to try and sleep while he waited for the rain to pass and for the nobles to arrive, so he could fix this.
The letter was not a very long one.
The Vox Coronate cannot convene without my personal presence. I know I did not convene such a meeting.
You, in this house, are doing something. I know. You know I know. I know you know I know. We know the Dulfs, Rangsts, Chilvers and the rest of the Goranges know, and they know we know it. We’re a knowledgeable group.
Just so you know.
You have two days to clean up this mess.