Trot past the guards, look like you belong there. Rafe unslung the book from his back and pulled it up underneath his armpit, throwing his hair back over his shoulder while he went. With an alarming efficiency, people moved out of his way – pushing open doors, stepping out of his path. Always the same basic conversation snippet.
“Ah, you’re sent by-
“And that’s the book-
“Ah, that way, then. Lord Gorange is waiting for you.”
And he was off. Once, twice, three times, from the outside pathways to an upstairs balcony, and then he was inside, and then, a door, gesturing him onwards. Servants, all of them, part of a carefully constructed machine that seemed to be entirely about minimising footsteps on their carpet.
Lord Gorange wasn’t exactly famous enough that Rafe knew the man, but he at least had reputation enough that Rafe knew he was about to step into a room with an old man he didn’t want to underestimate at the best of times, and… who knew what else.
Rafe opened the door, and found himself face to face with history.
Wardell hadn’t changed much since Bottle Street. A little bit taller than Rafe, a little bit wider at the shoulder, he’d always had enough muscle to do his own work when he needed to. Supposedly, he’d joined the military after he’d crawled out of the gutter, and done reasonably well there. Hadn’t become particularly important, which was a shame. Always had a talent for bossing people around – especially in that wheedly way that implied it was your idea all along. Raising his head to look up at the taller b- the other man, Rafe couldn’t help but look at those hard, birdlike eyes. He’d always had that smug, unsympathetic look. Like it was your fault he was stepping on your hand.
“Allo,” Rafe said raising his chin, turning the smile into a grin. “Got a book delivery?”
“Do I know you?” Wardell demanded, standing suspiciously close to the door. He reached down to the book tucked under Rafe’s arm, and as if on a pivot, Rafe felt himself turning back away from him, keeping the book out of his grasp. Nope. That was how it went. The other boy wanted it, and it didn’t matter why, all you knew was the push and the pull. You only knew you had to stop them having it. It was a tiny drop of power, the last shining bead of civility Rafe knew the room had. It was going to break down.
Wardell had never been the best thug. Military life probably gave him some more tricks, but soldiers fought with weapons. Rafe knew, if it came to blows, he had to be better than Wardell. He had to be. And it was going to come to blows. Sure, Brother Fratarelli might be a bit upset to hear it, but what he didn’t know didn’t matter. Whatever was going on in this room still stank of bullies to Rafe – just the sort that pushed around whole countries.
You always made the other boy swing first. That way you weren’t the prick starting fights. You just pushed them, pushed them as hard as you could. Make them swing. Then you could feel justified letting it out of its cage made of ribs.
“Maybe you do, Wazza,” Rafe mumbled. You only had moments, on days like these. You had to decide to act, then act. There wasn’t much time to plan. “Got the book, sirs,” Rafe said, raising his chin and, elbowing past Wardell. As he stepped, he turned to keep the book out of his Wardell’s reach, staggering his steps slightly to look like he was off-balance, rather than deliberately evasive. “And euh, uh, ma’ams. And others, too, come to think.” he stopped short on the soft carpet, looking down at the massive, spreading bloody spot. “Oh, bloody hell,” he asked, gesturing back and forth between Lord Gorange and Wardell. “This uh-”
“Bring the book here,” Lord Gorange said – a lean, whiplike man with years of silver on his shoulders, gesturing. “Do not let that man touch it.”
“That man?” Wardell drew himself up. “I am a royal heir,” he said with a seething grunt in the back of his voice. “And, Gorange, by the end of the day, I must remind you, I will be king.”
“Yeah?” Rafe said, looking down at the book, immediately recalculating his approach. Wardell Cherish, king? That prick? Considering everything that he’d seen in his time? A bottle street boy with royal blood in his veins was as likely as a sheep that could dance. Officially, Rafe had no idea who was responsible for the death of Yull. In his gut, though, he was already putting together a plan to take out Wardell… Maybe if he pissed him off enough to start a fight? “That’s what’s in May Sirch-fan aye Brayn-hin-oed-d?”
“That’s pronounced Mae Cyrchfan y Brenhinoedd,you-” Wardell began.
“Oh!” Rafe asked, grinning cheekily as he held the book out to Lord Gorange. “You, uh – you speak Lleywan, sir?”
Lord Gorange looked at the book in his hand, at the cover’s florid script, and rested his elbow on the chair’s arm, chin on his hand. “Koel?”
“Me? Gosh. Um. No, sir, no, I’m afraid I don’t. I mean, I can do some translation work but it’s of much more archaic-”
“Right.” He raised a hand, snapping his fingers. “One of you useless pen-holsters, go fetch me a Lleywan translator. You, stay here.”
“Me, sir?” Rafe asked, stepping to the side.
“Yes. Fewer moving parts flying around out there the better. Go stand in a corner or something.”
Rafe briefly wondered just how much trouble he could make out of killing one of the four major royal houses while also assassinating the probably-sort-of-king, if things went properly pear-shaped. Especially on a day Brother Fratarelli had asked him not to kill anyone at all. That might be a bit of a lift to get out of Draftfane. Shrugging and tucking the book under his arm, Rafe turned to grin at Wardell, as he slid over to the corner.
“Lord Gorange, if I may-” began one lawyer, moving towards the man’s chair, somewhere behind Rafe. The writing desks were clattering as people took notes, moving to the least obviously obnoxious part of the room. The place reeked of something he didn’t want to deal with, and the windows were pretty large. It wouldn’t be hard to dive out of here if he really wanted –
then Rafe saw Wardell glaring at him and Rafe knew he didn’t want to go anywhere as long as he was making that jumped-up prick that mad.
Pulling up a little plain wooden chair, Rafe sat next to the writing desk at which the young man Lord Gorange had called Koel sat.
“You been here long?” Rafe asked, shrugging and folding his arms across his chest. Koel was a fairly normal looking fellow with a more refined beard than Rafe was used to seeing. Folk in the Dims tended to shave just so opponents would have fewer handholds in a scrap. Skinny and timid, Koel looked like a slightly nervous bird that nonetheless did not want to fly away for anything in the world.
“Oh, no, no, gosh. I just got here.” he smiled, gesturing with a little glass jar. Tiny green beads sat in it, pale and bright. “Mint?”
“Oh, um.” Rafe shook his head. “Nah mate, thanks.” he glanced around the room. “You mind filling me in…?”
“Oh, well…” Koel spread out the paperwork in front of him, gesturing down at the set of lines sweeping in a paintbrush hand across the page. “There’s the lineage of the Bachthane family, which is the Black Thanes, you see? I mean, that’s a priori, it’s – I mean, I don’t have the full genealogy yet.”
Rafe waggled the book in his hand. “… Can’t read Lleywan, eh?”
“Can you?” Koel asked, eyes brightening, big smile forming.
“No.” he shrugged.
Koel’s smile faltered a little but hung around out of politeness. “Right, so that’s… that’s a bit of a barrier until the translator gets here.”
“Oh, okay.” Rafe looked at the page. “And…?”
“Oh, yes! Well, you see here, this is Yull Bachthane,” Koel tapped his fingertip with his nose, then the name in florid script, Yull on the page. “And then there’s his half-brother, Wardell. When the senior lord Bachthane found he had sired a son out of um, wedlock, he was overcome with grief and attempted to kill his son, to extinguish his sin? Very unpleasant, there. A retainer of his family, a good-hearted man, fled the family home with the baby and hid him here, in a Timoritian orphanage.”
“Bit of a tale, isn’t it?” Rafe asked.
“Oh yes – but he has a coin, you see, that he’d been left with as a child at the orphanage?” Koel turned the paper, gesturing at a diagram on the paper that made Rafe’s hand’s clench. “It’s the one he wears around his throat there – very classic tale, you know?”
“… Yeah,” Rafe said, leaning to the side to look over at the would-be king, narrowing his eyes and checking for details. A coin, huh.
He pointed his paintbrush across the room. “That much seems relatively straightforward, really. But,” he then pointed to the dotted line off Yull’s side. “Yull’s wife Calpurnia. Lady Calpurnia Bachthane, General of the Hammerjaw Brigade and Siegebreakers at Ranthelm.”
“Oh, that’s the problem?” Rafe asked, shifting forwards and looking down at the page.
“Sort of, yes!” he said, smiling brightly, visibly happy to be talking to someone in the room who wasn’t glaring at him. “You see, there, that man – Wardell – he claims that he’s the royal heir, and Calpurnia claims she’s the heir. Also, Yull wasn’t crowned, which complicates matters as well.”
“Alright, so the crown – the crown is a little bit like a bird. It’s a bird that always flies to its best possible nest. You can be a bad nest if you’re Athlan, for example.”
“Right, and if you’re dead?”
“Right! Or even if you’re not dead dead, just legally dead.”
Rafe blinked. Hang on. “Oh, legally dead, yeah, I know this one. That’s if you commit treason or serve in another army?”
“Yes!” Koel smiled brightly. “Yes, that’s perfect. Now the problem is, the spouse of an heir is just as good a nest as a child of an heir. Normally they solve this through either abdication – the heir passes their crown on and chooses where it goes – or the earlier heir indicating the legitimacy of one or the other.”
“You… ask your dad?”
“Well, I mean it’s not quite that silly, gosh.” Koel swallowed, adjusting his beard nervously. “Though yes, it’s pretty silly.”
“… Okay, right…” Rafe leant forward, gesturing at the paper. “You’re… okay, you tell me if I’m totally wrong here?”
Koel smiled. “It’s very silly and complicated, trust me, it’s okay if you have a question.”
“Okay, so…” Rafe pointed at the page. “This guy, the Lord Bachthane, attempted to kill his son.”
“… Doesn’t that make him legally dead?”
Koel folded his fingers and leant forwards, elbows on the paper as he squinted down at the page. “… Well. Yes. And that means that neither Yull… or… uh. Oh. Oh dear. Gosh.” Koel looked up and called across the room. “Um, Lord Gorange, we may have a problem.”
When they’d entered the central room, Kivis gestured around her at the room with its bloody smears and its collapsed forms, her boathook in hand.
“This business yours?” Calpurnia asked.
“It’s more theirs. Mostly theirs. Some of theirs is out in the hall.” Kivis looked around at the prone bodies, the staining carpet. “I feel I should probably help cleaning up.”
“Well, it would be polite.” Aderyn put on a smile. Sidestepping Kivis’ path, she followed Calpurnia. The general walked to a chair, flipping it back up onto its feet with her booted foot, and sat after a moment’s investigation to ensure the thing wouldn’t collapse. Aderyn looked across the room at the chair’s cushion, and sighed. An arm was resting across it. No doubt replacing it on the chair would be awkward by now.
“Alright, out with it.”
Calpurnia had a wonderfully intense manner. Aderyn appreciated the way she disregarded things. Most people would be concerned about all the blood but she seemed completely focused on what Aderyn had to say.
Aderyn also appreciated the way she moved. Calpurnia kept her arms by her side as she walked, her sword barely swaying. Her armour was mostly unadorned, too, and the handle of her sword showed recent rebinding. All very good signs for a woman to take seriously. If Kivis had left the city to patrol the coastline against pirate incursions, she might well have looked something like General Calpurnia.
“About what in particular.”
“You said attempt to assassinate.”
“Well, it is at this point an unconfirmed assassination, by guild rules. There’s no receipt.”
“… Girl, what the hell do you mean? My husband was stabbed to death by some nobles. Thought he was going to become king and seize too much power, and now they’re panicking and trying to put his half-brother in place.”
“Well, I’m not sure if that’s how events played out,” Aderyn said. Dusting off her blouse, she held her breath. This was very important. She had to make sure that she said these things the right way, or maybe she would seem like she wasn’t very normal, and that would be suspicious.
“… Humour me, Ms DuThane.”
“It’s Lady DuThane.”
“For now.” Calpurnia hunkered forwards, elbows on her knees. “I’ll be Queen soon.”
“I’m rather afraid you won’t,” Aderyn responded. “For three reasons.”
“… I’m listening, girl. But this is a day for bloodshed, and I’m not a patient woman.”
Aderyn let the breath go. Putting a tremble in her first sentence, to sound anxious and fearful, she ran through the words. “First of all, you’re a Hadrian-born noble, which means political will works against you. In Hadrian being a woman is not considered the same way, but here in Timoritia, a woman will always be considered a second option after a man who can be chosen for the same task. It would take some sort of bomb explosion to propel you to a political position like that.”
Calpurnia barely blinked at that, her nostrils flaring momentarily. It was a worthless argument. Calpurnia wouldn’t let what men thought of her slow her down. She came here with Tyrants, if she thought she deserved the throne, she’d just take it, and probably have anyone opposing her thrown to beasts with teeth like swords. But arguments were like sword-fights. You had to put people under pressure.
“Second, you’re here with the Hammerjaw legion which means if you did ascend to the throne it would be perceived as a military action. The conquest of Timoritia, even by a friendly army would send ripples through the local area. I am fairly certain Emralt would rebel, and Djansk wheat tastes as good as Tiberan wheat.”
Angling for her attitude as a general was pointless, too. If nothing else, her husband had quelled Ermalt before and she’d do well given she wasn’t a Timoritian.
“Third, and most importantly, you can’t be Queen because Yull Bachthane isn’t a legitimate heir of the Black Thane in the first place.”
Kivis stopped. The soldiers stopped. The whole room stopped.
“What?” Calpurnia asked, through grit teeth.
Well, Aderyn reflected, that ‘dramatic’ reveal had worked out quite well. She’d have to thank Rafe for the trick.
The next two minutes were a blur. Rafe watched as Koel, with that deliberately polite manner, moved over to Lord Gorange’s chair. He saw the polite man with the tidy beard and the blue turban talk in a low voice. At the very end, he seemed to run out of steam, pointing at paperwork and books, finishing up with, “… well, gosh.”
Then Gorange had rubbed his forehead, finger and thumb to forehead, and yelled. He’d yelled for the lawyers, he’d yelled for a courier to go fetch Calpurnia. He’d yelled, he’d yelled, and he’d yelled, and he’d yelled at the lawyers and he’d yelled at Wardell and he’d yelled at the ceiling with his cane in his fist. And Wardell had stood there on the carpet, in his royal robes, paling as Lord Gorange’s voice shook the rafters. At first he’d been defiant. Then he’d been angry. Then he’d looked at Rafe with venom fit to kill a horse, and then… as that cane-tip waved at his chest, he’d swallowed.
Rafe knew that moment. Any second now, Wardell was going to take a swing – he’d been pushed far enough. Bullies didn’t change.
Then Wardell sagged in his elaborate cloak, and turned, and ran out of the room, dropping shoulders and letting the cloak fall to the floor. He elbowed past a guard, shoved out into a side hall and then there was nothing but the footsteps.
Koel came back to his chair looking embarrassed, and sat next to Rafe quietly and folded his paperwork up, packing up bit by bit.
“What, that’s it?” Rafe asked. “Ain’t there… a duel? Or something?”
“What? Oh gosh no.” Koel shook his head, giving a bright smile, teeth contrasting with his beard. “No, that’s all there is. I’m an expert consult, my expertise has been called, and the lawyers can’t find a way out of it.” He shrugged, offering his hand to Rafe. “You saved us a lot of work with that.”
“Oh.” Rafe pulled up to stand. “Well, was nice to meet you.” Did I just kill someone with a technicality?
“You’ll want to go talk to Lord Gorange now. He doesn’t like to be kept waiting.” Koel said, sliding his brushes into their little wooden case and undoing the desk’s supports.
The room was slowly emptying; Lord Gorange’s clerks and guards were packing up, and the old man shifted on his chair as if he was slowly unstacking himself for later.
“So you’re the Assassin of Kings, then?” Lord Gorange said, resting his fingers by his upper lip, narrowing his gaze as if he could crush Rafe with his eyelids.
“I mean, I didn’t-” Rafe began.
“Boy, while you’ve been sitting there talking with Koel, I’ve had three guards and a lawyer come in to identify you. You’re from Draftfane, yes? The shitty murderer. And here you are, just coincidentally here when a king wasn’t assassinated.”
“… Guess so, sir.”
“… that judge might be right. You might just be the worst murderer in the city.”
Rafe laughed at that.
“You got a weapon on you, boy?”
Rafe shrugged. “Are you asking if I came here to kill Wardell Cherish?”
“… You know his surname?”
“I know what we called him back in Bottle Street.”
“Ah hah. There’s a loose end on the run now, young man. I don’t know the kind of man you are, but I can tell the kind of man he was. An artful little shit who spent years crawling across the board – and who I have no doubt will try crawling across again. So if you plan on following him and doing with a knife what Koel did with a pen, you’ll not find any of my guards stopping you.”
What would Aderyn do, Rafe mused to himself. “I ain’t just gunna kill the guy. M’ a professional.” The word tried to strangle him as he said it.
“Alright, then. What’ll it cost?” Lord Gorange asked.
“Got a penny?”
“I am not a man prone to carrying small change.” He sunk back in the chair, bringing the cane to his chin.
“Shame,” Rafe said, turning, his hands in his pockets. With a sway in his step, Rafe walked out of the room, his back to one of the most important living people in Timoritia.
“It’s simply a matter of names,” Aderyn said. “Everyone in this city seems to think that the Lleywan name Bachthane means ‘Black Thane.’”
“It doesn’t?” Calpurnia leant back. “I’ve never bothered to learn the language. It’s more useful to know Cornish or Iber when you’re riding the northern borders.” She paused for a moment. “Well, that, or one of the Norsk languages, but they’re hard.”
“Ahem.” Aderyn adjusted her sleeves and resettled in her own seat at having been interrupted.
“Oh, right, of course. You were saying, about the name. Uh, and how it doesn’t mean Black Thane, right?”
“No, that’s not what that means,” Aderyn said, feeling an odd trill at that.
“… And it does mean…?” Calpurnia gestured for her to continue.
Another odd little trill. “Bachthane is a family whose name comes from fealty to the Black Thane. Bach Thane means Servant of the Thane. In Lleywan names, there’s not a lot of reason to change, and they are quite literal – so it’s almost guaranteed that General Yull’s family was knighted by the Black Thane.”
Kivis was outside, dumping bodies in a trench. Soldiers stood about the room, pointedly not commenting on, or being involved in their general’s doings and dealings. Riots still raged on in the city, far from the safehouse, and rain sheeted down outside, fit to drown all the blood and the bruises. It was a loud, chaotic, and unpleasant day, but it was all working normally. This business – with Lleywan nobility and names and kings – it all spoke to Aderyn of a plan. For months, Aderyn had been seeing signs of people trying to very, very slowly tie up part of her city, and she had found, finally, one of the knots. Untying it would be hard.
And that’s why she’d come to someone who carried a sword.
After a long, groaning moment, Calpurnia leant forward in her chair, elbows on knees, hands clapsed together in a way that made her gauntlets crack loudly. She rubbed her forehead and spoke slowly. “Are you telling me that someone tried to convince a kingdom on the basis of an assumption about a name?”
“And this was enough to kill my husband…? To… we…” fists clenched in metal guards. “They killed him to dupe an empire?”
“Not really,” Aderyn said. “They don’t need to convince an empire. They just need to convince a handful of people, who are willing to say with confidence what they know to be true.”
“… Provided those people are important enough.”
Aderyn nodded. “Nobility are very easy to manipulate when they are assured that someone above them and someone below them are doing what they are meant to do.” Aderyn held her breath again. It was important to make this look like she was surprised by the revelation, and hadn’t come here knowing it. “The person you want to find, at the root of all of this, is someone in a position to do things that nobles want done, but don’t want to look at. You want their assassin, or their personal guard, or, perhaps, the person who makes their tea.”
Heading down to the streets would put him in the path of the riot. The Wardell Rafe knew would have kicked and punched and bullied – and really, paid other bigger kids to punch and kick and bully for him – through that crowd, but the Wardell Rafe knew wouldn’t have run away from a legal technicality.
Nah, Wardell fancied himself an alpha dog. He stood over people, he put himself up on the soap box. So…
The rain pounded against the rooftop of Westminster palace, while Rafe slowly sauntered to the figure standing at the edge. Glowing lights from the crowd below, burning stalls and hollering people, with the figure of a man standing on the edge.
Rafe walked through the sheeting water, his hair slicked down to his head. Hands tucked behind his back. When his wet footprints drew close enough, Wardell turned… and sneered at him.
“You.” Wardell spat. “I don’t remember hiring you. One of your arsehole friends bring you in when you got out of jail?”
“Friends?” Rafe asked, walking to stand next to him, looking down at the riot. “… Wazza, you thought I had friends?”
“They liked you more than they liked me.” He shrugged. “Even though you yelled like a girl.”
Rafe shook his head. “Holy shit, Cherish, are you seriously mad about that shit? It was… what, twelve years ago?”
Wardell turned and glared at him. “You were a little kid, Rafe. You were happy to run around in the gutters and sell shit for pennies. I had some ambition. I wanted to be someone.” A hand shoved against Rafe’s chest, and suddenly, Rafe was nine again. “So I worked and I saved and I hired help to protect myself and what did you little shits think of me then? I joined the military. I’ve worked for lords.” He drew himself up, spreading his arms wide. “Look at me, Rafe! Look at where I am! You’re only here because I came here first!”
“… Standin’ on the edge of a slippery rooftop?” Rafe asked, rubbing his thumb against his breastbone.
“You little ponce.” Wardell growled. “Why you up here. Come to have a look around before you have to go back down there? I’m still a war hero. I’m still connected. I can still find another four useless fucking nobles and do this all over again if I have to.” Shouting over the rain, he leant forwards, forehead pressed against Rafe’s. “So take a look, Rafe. Look at what ‘Wazza Cherish’ has fucking done with himself.’”
Some sensations people didn’t really expect. Wardell clearly felt the snap of fabric around his throat, of a leather knot being yanked hard enough to tear open and fall free in the wet air. His eyes went wide, like he’d expected blood, a blow, as if they were both back to being kids in the gutter… and Rafe held up his closed fist, trailing leather straps. “This is mine.” Rafe spat, shoving with his weight.
“… Fine. It’s worthless now anyway, what with that stupid stunt downstairs.” Wardell turned, storming away. “Have your stupid fucking token.” He made it ten steps away, before he called over at Rafe. “You’re still worthless, you fa-”
Wardell’s words died in Benjamin’s bell, and both men turned to look at the tower.
“… The clock’s fast…?” Rafe asked.
“… What… the…” Wardell gripped at his chest, then looked down at the riot, looking for something, looking for some signal. “Shit!” Rafe watched him rush past, towards the stairs, haring down and away, off to the street.
The coin in his fist felt cold and clammy in the rain. He slipped it into the pocket of his robe, and turned to run after Wardell.