One Stone, Chapter 43

Human spirits were only meant to endure so much, in a city like Timoritia. People could be poor and they could be cranky and they could occasionally be bristlingly drunk, but they shouldn’t have to feel afraid, properly afraid, very often. This was the philosophy of the city that Patty, or Padraig to the right people, had internalised, long ago, and he was finding himself endlessly uncomfortable with the way he kept glancing over his shoulder. There were only so many minutes in a day and now he was spending a significant number of them looking for the tips of a very big shoe to drop.

It wasn’t honest work, this not like burglary or kicking some stranger in the forks and taking his wallet. The money was good, but it’d been good for weeks now and it had mostly been for doing nothing much at all. Patty knew that that had to be something suspect. Nothing much at all was a noble’s job, not a job for a Bottle Street boy. Let alone one who had come out atop of the scrapheap after the crossover with the Bottle Lane thugs. Very important stuff, this.

Still, he’d been paid by an old friend, and noble money was money. When Luke Cornell had died he’d seen a dozen fences and opportunities dry up because people were too busy taking swings at the top seat. Brokers and fixers suddenly fancied they could be as vicious as the king of the piss river had been, and since none of them had had a Nebrin to follow through on their threats. Decisive, that’s what Luke had been. Oh, and the mobile fortress probably helped a lot.

At least now there was work involved. Something like work. Sending messages around the city was decent enough, but it didn’t fill the hours. This? This stuff with the billfolds and the bank notes, and handing out papers to the streets? That was weird work to be making a pound a week on.

It was all making him very nervous.

Stack of faded pink paper under his arm, Patty pushed his shoulder through the crowd, leaving fluttering bits of paperwork behind him. Around the middle of the stack, he’d wrapped some greasepaper, which kept the bulk of the paper out of the torrenting rain that slicked his hair down, and made the discarded papers flutter around and stick to surfaces, thrown around by the wind. That was fine! Fine to let the papers go. They had to get out there, that was what he was paid for. With twine under his fingertips, Patty elbowed a bit further, listening to the murmurs behind him of people caught up in reading.

Patty wasn’t a big reader. He’d read, sure, he could read, that was fine. But things like Yull Bachthane Pledges National Stipend were words he wasn’t familiar with. The rest of the letters on the paper scrolled down, getting smaller, with diagrams of swords and knives on either side, with some sort of fancy shield and a crown on the page, as well?

Way Patty figured, he could be happier the less he knew about what was going on. The path wasn’t really a thoughtful one. Sometimes he’d duck into a building, trailing the papers, hang around for a few minutes, then head out again. A church? Churches were great, lots of space, people went there. Maybe he could leave a stack behind.

Patty swung a hand up, grabbing the top of the doorframe, and yanked the door outwards. The church was warm inside, which got him out of the damn rain.

“Why, hello Pratty,” said Lady Aderyn DuThane from the doorway of the church.

And just like that Pratty felt the shadow of a massive shoe about to drop just over his head.

*

“This is fishy as hell,” Rafe said, licking his finger and leafing through the enormous stack of pink paper. He was already peevish, having woken up on a pew instead of on his bed. Vince, as an invalid, had had the bed in the basement, in the pipe room.

“Why?” Aderyn asked, circling around the table, watching him riffling through papers like he held a grudge against them. She, unlike Rafe, looked as typically perfect as ever. Smooth braid, clean complexion, smelled like soap. Where did she find the damn time?

“It’s pink,” he said, digging into the centre of the stack, fishing around. A small stack pulled free into his hand, he started counting corners. There weren’t any bank notes hiding amongst the paper so far – that’d change how the stack sat.

“What’s your point?” called Gael, from her seat at the impromptu breakfast table.

“Okay, right,” Rafe said, perching on the table, leafing through every piece of paper, fingers flickering fast through the sheaf. “We used to do shit like this all the time. Running papers for the nobs is an afternoon job. You get a stack, you belt around and drop them off someplace. Usually they make you scatter them to a few spaces they have watchers so they know you didn’t just chuck them in the river and hope they’d sink.”

“So you’ve experience with this?” Aderyn, this time.

“Yeh, me and Pratty both,” he licked a fingertip, squinting. “And this ain’t the bog-roll paper they usually get us to throw out. This is really good paper. And it’s pink.”

“Which,” Aderyn said, with just the faintest tone of irritation, “matters why?”

“Okay, right,” Rafe said, slapping another stack down. “You get white for cheap, yellow for cheaper. You can pay a bit extra for some colour,” he said, grabbing another sheaf of paper and flickering through it. “Pink, you gotta dye the paper as well.”

“Naturally. You’re not actually explaining things, Rafe.”

“Basically, you wouldn’t be pink accidentally. You’d be pink with a reason, and that reason has to warrant paying like, an extra three pennies a page.”

“And that’s why you’re licking them?” Vince asked. Rafe had been avoiding looking at the man ever since he woke up. Bed thieves deserved no mercy.

“Pratty, how many runners you got?” Rafe changed the topic, glancing at the taller man.

“Maybe six? Seven?”

“Seven?” Rafe looked at the stack in his hand, then looked at the sheaf. “That’s about a quire,” he said, holding up the pages. “Which probably makes that,” a larger stack thudded onto the table, “A ream, an’ that makes this,” he thumped his hand on the remaining stack, “Maybe… three thousand pages? You got many of these to distribute?”

“Two more, Rafe, mate,” Pratty said, nervously shifting back and forth. “I mean, back at the drop spot.”

“So that’s seven runner doing about ten thousand pages each expecting half of them to go nowhere because of wind and rain and you’re still looking at distributing thirty-five hundred pages right in the middle of the town the morning of a coronation with an edict from a king that,” he held up the piece of paper and squinted over it at Gael and Vince, “by and large, has no such fucking plan.”

“It… it doesn’t sound like something he’d do?” Vince murmured.

“Why not?” the brother asked. “Seems a good idea for me. Certainly could deal with the poor, if you know, they had money.”

“Yes, but uhm, where would, I mean, where would that money come from? It’s … I guess I don’t expect this to come from the General. He’s much more…”

“Shouty.” Gael said, putting an arm around Vince’s shoulder, re-dressing his grievous wound. “Trust me, I’ve brought stranger things to the general than making him king to his attention. You won’t get a crown on him, not without some deep magic and a letter from his wife.”

“Stranger things?” Vince asked, tilting forwards and holding his breath while the bandage tightened. “Hn. I mean.” A swallow. “How long have you been working for the general, anyway?”

“I started a soldier,” Gael, said, “And I was a very different soldier to who I am today.” Raising her chin, she gestured with her head to Rafe, who was still fiddling with paper. “How long’s it take to get a print done?”

“Four days. Bare minimum. Maybe two if you’re Lord Gorange or something. No way this – on this paper – gets done fast. Oi, Pratty, when’d you get hired?”

“What, me…?” he asked, patting himself slightly, like he could somehow pull a date out of his memory like it was in his pocket. “Um, well, I… uh. I’ve been on retainer, y’see-“

“Retainer? That sounds like something people with money do, y’posh bastard. How long’s that?”

“Three, uh… wait, no, six-“

“Six weeks? Who gets someone like you for six weeks of work divvying up papers?”

“Six months, Rafe.”

“… What the everliving hell? Who hires a Bottle street nobody for work for six days, let alone half a fucking year?” the boy leant forwards, kneeling on the table, peering into the taller man’s eyes. “Who was it?”

“What… you-“

“You said it was some Bottle Street boy what hired you. Come on. Fess up.”

“Aw, come on, Rafe, don’t be like that, mate,”

“Pratty, right now I and the priest are probably the least scary thing in this room for you, don’t try and snow me. Who?”

“Uh… you… you remember Wozza Cherish?”

Rafe looked like he’d swallowed something gross. “Wozza? That miserable oik? Worked for Mama Cass’ weed shop?”

“Yeah, mate. Turns up out of nowhere and puts me on retainer a few months ago. Wants someone who can run things around the city, that’s all.”

Rafe sat on the end of the table, looking at the paper, then at Pratty, then back at Aderyn. “You want we should let him go?”

“I say, I don’t know why you’re asking me, Rafe.”

“… You’re not in charge?”

Aderyn raised her hands and spread them. “I am in charge inasmuch as is appropriate for a young lady.”

Somewhere across the room, her hands holding a book, Kivis let loose a loud “Hah!”

“… Pratty? You probably want to make yourself scarce.” Rafe said, looking at the stack of paper, running his thumb over the corners. He’d been sure there’d be something hidden in the stack, some clever reason to distribute them all across the city. “… The affairs of kings are afoot.”

“Afoot, eh?” Pratty said, nervously laughing as he stepped back. “You talkin’ above your station again, Rafe?”

“… Fuck off, Pratty.” Rafe said, hoisting off the table.

As the Bottle street thug scuttled out the door, Rafe rested his hand on the stack of paper, and looked around over his shoulder. “Well?”

“Well what?” Aderyn responded.

“Well, uh, what we gunna do?”

“I don’t… think we need to do anything today, do we?”

“Oh, come on. There’s like… you know. Stuff going on. Aren’t we going to go out and…?”

“I wasn’t planning on anything,” Brother Fratarelli said, shifting nervously, as he set a teatowel on the table. Unwrapping it, and rolling hard-boiled eggs out for breakfast, he bobbed his head and gestured at the food. “I mean, it’s not something I feel confident really acting on…”

“What are you all talking about?” Vince asked, clearing his throat. “I… did the General send us here because you’re…” he lowered his voice. “Are you his secret service?”

Aderyn looked like she might almost laugh at that. “What? No.”

“Oh.” Vince swallowed, looking around, over at Kivis’ back. “I… I mean, I just don’t-“

Rafe tapped his knuckles on the tabletop. “Yeah,” he said, picking up an egg, “If y’re wondering, yes, you were sent here just because Kivis is that scary.” He glanced over at the brother. “You don’t feel confident, eh? Well… y’know, Aderyn and I could go check it out. Head to the coronation, have a look at what’s going on.”

“… Rafe, are you looking to make some money? I can’t –“

“What? Nah. Nah, just…”

The priest gave him a stern look, holding it for a long moment. “I… dare say, Rafe… that if we were going to do anything at this point, it’s best that we not act rashly. If you and Aderyn can find the time after breakfast… why not go and uh, see what’s going on at the coronation?”

Rafe glanced over at Aderyn. She put on a smile, and he noticed. Good as he was going to earn today.

*

The morning.

The sun didn’t rise, through the rain. The clouds just changed slightly in their colour and character.

The rain.

It sheeted down, a vertical river. Standing on the balcony at Westminster felt alright. He could watch the rain, and it felt more real.

The hoofbeats.

They felt real. When he turned back to the building, stepped inside, it turned from the rain to that.

The general.

He met Marko at the barracks. He followed. He fell in step behind him. They talked, a little. Distracted. Scattered. Said something about becoming king.

The knife.

Marko gripped the blade tucked into the back of his belt, and tried to clear his thoughts.

The pounding.

It didn’t work.

*

“Suppose this is how it has to be, eh, chaps,” Tenner said, squirming a little in his seat.

“Shut up,” Growled Ligier next to him. The lineup couldn’t look much more lopsided. On one side of the room, Ligier stood, tugging on the heels of his gloves. Next to him, without a rifle or pistol – that Tenner could see – was Ulster, facing out to the window, her expression cryptically unreadable. Tenner stood next to her, and next to him sat Asca, still wearing bluster on his features from when he’d elbowed his way in from the rain, and barged past servants.

“We’ve got very little time,” Wardell murmured, pacing over by the door. “Yull enters over there. The lawyers come in through here. There’s… maybe five, ten minutes.” He looked like a picture study in fretting, wringing his hands against one another. Tenner was glad to see someone was more worried than he was – at least outwardly. Well, perhaps he was more worried. Asca might be terrified, but he wasn’t showing it, except in sweating more, which he’d been passing off as rain. Tenner could tell. Asca was going to screw this right up.

“So… what’s the signal?” Asca asked.

“The signal?” Ligier asked, sneering. “You’ll know when I grab him by his black nose and take his head off.”

“U-uh, okay,” Tenner said, swallowing, “Is… is everyone else okay with that? Wardell, what… what about Marko?”

“He’s bringing the general in.” Wardell said, adjusting his shirt. “And then…”

“Then…?”

“We’ve… maybe four minutes before the lawyers arrive to, ah… crown him?”

“Great.” Ligier growled.

What do you do to fill that sort of time? Tenner had, as a young boy on the train, made a habit of watching the tree-line, and imagined a monkey running along the tops of trees. Making high, elaborate jumps to crest over things in the foreground, or ducking down as the window shade crept down in response to the sun. It’d been a fairly innocent little game, and one he deeply, deeply wished could distract him from the feeling of a knife in his hand.

“Well, guess this is it,” Ligier said. “White king takes black knight, hmm?” he laughed, and there was something gross to it. Something piggish and cruel. Tenner had heard that tone of voice before, mostly with his head in a toilet and an older brother’s foot on his head.

“Think it’s a game?” Ulster asked, looking down at her knuckles.

“All politics is a game, Ulster. Some of us are born winning, that’s all.”

The door swung open, and in stepped the Quisar, the general of an army, a veteran of wars, a hero. Yull looked… well. He was wet, because he’d come in through the rain. Marko was also wet, and had that hollow, worried look he’d been wearing since the letter from Lord Gorange. But despite that, he was a tower, all tall face and western-walnut coloured skin, with his big black beard groomed down, his hair pulled in against the back of his head, in a short little ponytail. That uniform, with its thick coat, god cutting through a coat would be awful hard.

Tenner felt his grip on the knife tucked in behind his shirt go just a bit… too… slack.

“Alright, law,” Yull said, looming over the room, “Seems w’ve got a little window of time to talk before all the pears hit the windmill,” and that’s all he had to say before Asca yelled.

“Now!”

The next few moments were chaotic in a way Tenner couldn’t accord at first. It was a handful of moments. It was details, all splayed out in a great big mess. Little details stood out to him. The way that Asca pushed back in his chair, literally skidding away from Yull when he bellowed.

The bump-bump-scree sound of the big brass buttons on Ligier’s coat. That strange rattling sound that didn’t follow with the man’s momentum. Except it did, because rather than leaping against Yull, knife in hand, Ligier was face-forward on the floor, splayed legs behind him, one hand tucked underneath him, struggling to push himself up into standing while his other hand, outstretched over his head, let go of the knife, which spiralled across the floor.

The shudder that ran up Wardell’s leg when he stepped up to act. Of course, he was a veteran, wasn’t he? Oh god, it was a cruel thing really, for him to have to try this. The man was injured, and he’d served under Yull. But he was also a soldier, he knew what he was doing – and he swept his blade down into Yull’s back as the man turned. The great man threw his shoulders back, casting Wardell off him like an old coat, one hand clutching at his chest, and stood, putting himself between Marko and his assailants.

“Law,” he began, his arms spread wide. But he didn’t have but a heartbeat before Marko, wild-eyed and soaking wet, stamped forwards, planting one foot on the floor, knife held between both hands, and lunged wholeheartedly up into Yull’s chest.

The blade punched through the man’s coat. A wash of hot, red colour blossomed in the front of his cloak. The general, arms wide for the wrong reason, wasn’t fast enough to protect himself from the blade… before he gagged, shuddered, and shook.

“… You two, law…?” the general asked, as he thudded to the ground, monstrous frame sending a wave of air out while he collapsed, down to the ground… then fell flat, face-first on the floor.

Ligier pulled himself into standing, a howl of rage in his voice, as he whirled around the room, looking between the group. At Asca, panicking in his chair. At Tenner, who felt himself shrink back under the gaze. At Marko and Wardell, at the prone form… and then glaring at Ulster with rage that seemed fit to leap out of his throat.

“What the hell was that about?”

“LIgier, behind you.” Ulster’s voice was cool, but her eyes were around his side, peering at the two men that stood over Yull’s body.

“What?!” he whipped around, looking at Wardell and Marko. The brute tempered for a moment, as he looked at the two veterans. The two men who had done the deed. “I…” a deep breath.

“You… you… you bastards!” screamed Wardell, waving a blood-soaked blade at the pair. Beside him, Marko was looking at himself, at his hands, at the body beneath him. The dagger fell from his hand, clattered to the floor, and without a word, Marko Fiver, the hero of Heltskruet bolted out of the room.

Wardell glared at them, the four nobles, his bloody dagger in his hand, heaving shoulders betraying ragged breaths. “You… you shiftless bastards! Were… were you just going to stand there, you useless…” He drew himself up, putting his hand to his forehead. “I. Am going. For some fresh air.”

The last detail that stuck in Tenner’s mind, though, was the shape and colour of the floor, as it swung up into his face, going all grey at the edges, and the pleasant warmth that came during an outright faint.

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