Tenner had never dealt with the military before he’d met Marko. He’d read a few adventure books, though, and travelled on the train to visit Hadrian where he’d seen craters in the ground from grenades. In his mind, he felt he held a good image of what it looked like when a grenade was thrown in the midst of a group of people.
That’s how the letter sat, in the middle of the table. They’d all read it, and set it down again like they didn’t want it on their fingers.
Ten minutes of awkward silence, silence spent waiting for the tea, for small talk, for anything at all that wasn’t talking about the bomb in their midst. Someone had to speak. Any minute now. Someone, someone who wasn’t Tenner.
“What about the brother?” Ulster mused, sitting back in her chair, arm over the back.
“What about the brother?” Asca grumbled.
“Well, look, this thing has been a screw-up since Praefoco died. Right now, I want to know that if Lord Gorange gets wheeled in through a doorway we’ve got an out. Someone we can point him at. Someone who isn’t two meters tall and full of war. This is our fault, gentlemen.”
“Get the books.” Ligier snarled. Gesturing over at Wardell, he snapped his fingers, elbows on the table. The man’s temper had taken a sharp turn for the worse with the letter before him.
A few moments later, Wardell returned from the side room, with the book from Lleywa, the book that Marko had ridden to claim. It hit the table before Tenner, and he flipped it tentatively, flicking back and forth through the pages. He knew he needed to find something, anything. What if there was something in here that connected these Lleywans to the Chilvers? Maybe then he could point that out and run to Lady Chilver, who might be willing to shelter him from Lord Gorange.
“Tenner?” Ulster asked, piercing through the sound of Tenner nervously flipping pages.
“Tenner, can you read Lleywa?”
“Oh! Um. Um, no.”
“Right, then.” Ligier reached across the table, grabbing the book, and sliding it out of his grip. “Anyone here speak it…?” he asked, picking it up and turning it around on all sides, like he could shake the words out of it.
Marko looked to his side, into the shadows. “Wardell. Come on. You know Lleywa, don’t you?”
“Ah, yes, sir, I -” the servant said. The late-night meeting had caught him, clearly – he wasn’t dressed for his normal serving duties. A loose shirt, a vest, and an apron over the top. No tie at all. Quite shameful. He was even wearing jewellery, which he probably did wear under his uniform, but still. Really.
“Come on then.” he slid the book over. “Find us a prince.”
“Well, um…” Wardell, said, pulling up his chair to the table. Running one hand across his forehead, he gestured to the table. “Does, um, does anyone have a pencil?” And after he had one, he turned to the paper, tapping it in places. “Here in the Bachthane… history, there’s… Ah. See, there’s this idea of family coins.”
“I’ve heard of those.” Ulster said, raising her chin.
“I’ve not.” Asca sourly interjected.
“It’s an old idea, we use it with the nobles of other nations. We give them a certain currency that’s meant to show how important they are to the Throne. Since the king’s death, we haven’t been giving them out, or taking them back – which means most nobles only have a few of these coins, stamped with a symbol to the family…” he turned the page, another indecipherable pile of gibberish, showing a shield with birds on it, and next to them, a coin’s design.
The design was a dull bronze-gold colour. Outlined in the centre was a bright, golden set of lines that formed a pointed crown – and that shape was filled in with hard black.
“It seems… twenty-seven years ago, one of these coins went missing. The family records indicate it was just stolen, and the culprit never found… but it was stolen at a night when the Lady,” beat “Bachthane was … with episode?” he said, gesturing around the word. “It’s a sheep-rearer’s term.”
“So, uhm, one of these coins disappeared, the lady was, uh, occupied…” he turned the page, checking. “That’s the root of it…” he said, knitting his brows, as he dipped forwards, that medallion in his shirt swaying out while he moved in his chair. “So that started the theory of the Other Lion – a Bachthane who-”
“Where did you get that?”
“The thing around your neck.”
“Um, this?” he said, sitting up, and looking down at the golden-bronze disc that hung around his throat. “I… uh. I would rather not say, sir.”
Ligier stood up, fists flat on the table.
“Um! Um, well, uh. I was… um. Well, you see, I was an orphan? I was dropped off at the orphanage, with uh, with this coin?” he said, swallowing, holding it up.
A black crown winked back at the room… and a mighty groan rose up from Ulster’s throat. “Are you kidding me?”
“I knew it!” Tenner said, slapping his hands to the table. “I told you! Royalty will out! It all makes sense! Wardell’s been here since the beginning, and look, here he is now!”
“Exactly!” Ligier said, holding out his hand, his eyes glittering excitedly. “Give me the coin.” The atmosphere iced over suddenly, as Ulster and Marko slid in their chairs towards Wardell, Asca and Tenner tried to sit still, and Ligier, like the demanding beast he was, held out his hand. “With that, we can pick whoever we like and make them king.”
“But…” Tenner murmured.
“Um, but, but – isn’t… isn’t the coin a show that Wardell is king, after Yull…?”
“So what?” Ligier asked, whirling around like a storm, and suddenly, Tenner realised just how large the man was. “So… what? We’re here for a reason, Tenner. We’re here to choose a king.”
“Sit down.” Marko’s voice came from the far side of Ligier, and Tenner couldn’t have been more grateful to hear it. “Sit down, Ligier, or I swear to christ almighty, there’ll be blood.”
“You think you can take me, soldier? You forget your place.” Ligier whirled around again, stalking around the table. He had head and shoulders over Marko, his grasping fists hard and bunched up, raising his arm, ready to dispense a beating. It didn’t land, though – because Ligier stopped dead in his tracks, the room being filled with a suspiciously loud click.
Marko had swung himself from his chair to standing, a gun tucked up underneath Ligier’s chin held in one hand, and in the other?
“Ligier Rangst,” Marko said, walking forwards, nostrils flaring, black hair like a mane. “You are used to yelling at people and shooting animals.” As he stepped forwards, Ligier moved with him, pushed back by fear. “I’m a soldier.” he drew his breath, thumb on the hammer, finger on the trigger. “And right now we are discussing potentially removing a war from the future.”
Scarred and tense, Marko glared into Ligier’s eyes.
“You touch that coin, Rangst, and I’ll add you to a list of bloody little struggles that do not matter.”
Tenner had never felt more sick than in the moment it took for Ligier to, sullenly, turn and slouch into his chair.
“Alright.” The bigger man slumped into his chair, hands together, cracking his knuckles. “… Fine. Wardell gets to be king,” he said with the tone of a boy assenting about who could play centre at rugby.
“I… I what, sirs?” Wardell asked, sitting back in his chair, holding the coin in both hands, and looking down at it with a stunned silence.
“… You’re going to be king, Wardell. Start practicing now. You’re going to have to be a good one.”
“Um, this is… this is good, yes, but…” Tenner said, squirming in his chair.
“But what?” Ligier demanded, glaring off at the corner behind Marko, like he didn’t even want to look the man in the face.
“… We… we do have to… to uh… remove Yull, don’t we?”
“Hang on, why isn’t he black?” Asca wondered aloud, as if he was just catching up.
“Why isn’t… why isn’t who black?” Marko asked, trying to not sigh with his voice, and failing. Tenner knew what an exasperated older brother sounded like.
“…Um, why isn’t Wardell black, if Yull is his brother?”
Wardell swallowed, and leant forwards. “I don’t know, truth be told. But the tomes suggest… that Yull is… something of a half brother of mine.”
Everyone drew a breath. Half-brothers made for messy succession fights.
“You sure this is going to work?” Tenner asked, playing with his fingertips, hoping he didn’t have to look up any more.
“It has to work. He’s just a man.” Ligier grunted.
“Yes, but he’s a man who’s, uh, he’s done quite some things in his time.”
“He’s just a man.” Ligier repeated.
“He’s a bigger man than me.”
“Everyone’s a bigger man than you, Tenner.”
“Can we even do that? Isn’t he bulletproof?” Asca growled.
“He’s a man. He bleeds.” Ligier squinted, as if the idea that Yull was a man to be feared was an attack on his already-tender ego.
Tenner shuddered. “Yes, but men bleed an awful lot. Father cut his hand on a sword once, and that was awful.”
“I swear to christ, am I going to have to do it myself?”
“You’re…” Ulster’s voice came as if from far away, her fingertip tapping on the tabletop. “… I don’t think we can do this. I… I mean, we kill him.. I – do we have to kill him? Can we just throw this to the Goranges and let them handle it?”
“Asca, they’re your family. Is this a serious letter? I mean, do you see this sort of thing often?” Marko asked.
“I… I’ve never seen this.” Asca shuddered.
“Lord Gorange’s… quite old, isn’t he?”
“Ah, well, I don’t imagine he’s-”
“You don’t even know what I was going to -”
“He is.” Asca swallowed, visibly sweating. “I wouldn’t. Not even in my best days. Not ever.”
“Yes, but your best days are when nobody notices the butter’s missing.” Ligier sneered.
“Fuck you, Ligier!” Asca hammered his hands on the tabletop, all of his weight pounding on the tabletop. “You ever heard of the Cork Water Massacre? The Bedlington Terror? Those were Gorange homes, and they burned.”
Ligier narrowed his gaze, leaning forwards. “… You’re a mess.”
Not of Gorange, Tenner thought, But you are scared of Marko.
“If you’re doing this, sirs and ladies…” Wardell said, pulling in the tea-trolley from the darkness, “Everyone needs a knife. Everyone needs to act. Because if any one of you does it, it’s murder. But if everyone does it… if everyone is responsible, then…” He lifted up from the trolley a tray, on which rested a handful of daggers – dark and threatening.
“None of us are.” Tenner said, swallowing with dry lips. Nothing about the knife looked natural in his eyes. It looked larger than his hand, but tiny in Ligier’s as the brute picked it up and tested it. The blade was a dull grey, rather than bright and shiny, and both sides seemed sharp, too sharp for Tenner to bring himself to touch and know.
“… All of us, Wardell.” Ulster said, pushing the tray back to the servant.
“What, me, Lady Dulf?” Wardell asked, suddenly surprised.
“Yes, you.” she said, standing up, tucking the knife into the back of her belt. “You’ve been here since this started. You’re friends with Marko. You’re going to be king. You’re in this, Wardell. And you’re going to be part of this at the end, you hear me?”
“… Ah, yes, lady.” Wardell said, swallowing, as he took a knife from the tray. “May… may be a bit of a poor sport with this.” He shook his head. “It’s been years since I killed a man.”
“As many as Marko’s? Tenner’s never done it,” she said. “You’ll be there tomorrow. Before the coronation.”
“… You’re serious? We can just rely on people believing that the coin just showed up? That’s a bit fucking contrived! Is anyone going to believe this?” Asca blurted. “I mean, won’t there be, uh, lawyers?”
“I… I may know a few Gorange family lawyers,” Wardell said, clearing his throat. “I mean, professionally. We may be able to, um, get some of them to smooth things over.” He swallowed. “And I would be, of course, as uh, helpful as I could be to… to whatever it was you wanted.”
“You’d fucking better.” Ligier added, as he pushed himself up to standing. Grabbing a knife, he tucked it away, and walked to the door. “This bullshit was better when it was masks and robes. Before I had to know you people.”
A moment later, the front door of the townhouse slammed.
“Well, um. Well, I think I should… I should probably get home,” Asca said, picking up another knife. “We’ll see each other again before the… before the coronation.”
“Probably not.” Marko said, setting the gun on the table, and sliding it across to Ulster’s hand, who took it quite calmly.
“Fiver, while I’m in favour of you putting Ligier in his place, do it with your own gun next time.”
“Forgive me, my lady.”
Tenner watched the pair for a moment more, then looked at Wardell. Wardell, the man who brought the tea. Wardell, the man who sorted the mail and spoke the language, and who had been so handy.
Who could ever have expected this? He certainly didn’t expect to be jogging home in the rain, with a knife tucked into his belt. Was this flutter in his chest the feeling of history about to settle?